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Electric Dreams 

by Marty Demarest

In the galleries at the MAC where artist Jack Dollhausen's work is on display, a girl about 10 years old, in shorts and a T-shirt, stops in front of one of the pieces. Her feet are planted in the circle of light being cast from the ceiling encompassing only her and the abstract artwork hanging on the wall. Tilting her head quizzically, her long, straight brown hair brushes over her right shoulder. The artwork, a large dome of black glass surrounded by wires and circuit boards, blinks green lights back at her. Then the girl starts jumping up and down. For about 15 seconds she continues, her hair flying around her head, her heels slapping against the soles of her sandals. Finally, stopping, she says, "Neat," and moves to another piece.

All around the exhibit, which is entitled "A 30-Year Start," similar things are happening. A young man stands staring intently at a grid of LED lights, holding his hand up between himself and the piece, snapping his fingers as symmetrical patterns flow across the framework of lights. An older couple leans toward a bank of multi-colored wires and suspended lights, making cat sounds and repeating the word "hello." And all of this activity seems to delight the artist, whose tall frame and broad moustache suggest an old-world cowboy more than an internationally respected visual artist.

Jack Dollhausen lives in the Palouse and teaches at WSU. He lists his 1969 FCC First-Class Radio-Telephone Operator's License right next to his membership with the local steelworker's union on his artist's profile. (He is a journeyman sheetmetal mechanic.) It all matches his voice, which is soft and steady as he politely nods his head. "I think of myself as a kind of a gleaner, in a way," he says smiling. "Following this big huge truck of machinery and technology, and picking up things that fall off the truck and making stuff out of it."

Despite the humble exterior, however, Dollhausen is someone firmly rooted in technology's present moment, building the latest flash microchips into his works of art. He creates elaborate, visually intricate machines that respond subtly to radiation in the environment. And he has a love of technology -- every wire and resistor that makes it happen -- that leads him to keep the machinery of his machines on full view. At a distance, what appear on one piece to be spindly scribbles, on closer viewing become dozens of loops and whorls of wire.

"A computer to me is a bunch of bits," he states. "And I don't have any preconceptions about it, except that it's flipping switches and electricity is running through it. I start from there, and I put them together. Even though they use electronic technology, I put my machines together very much like a painter puts paint together. It's an opportunistic, digressive activity, and that's why I do it -- because of the process of doing it. I don't think that the method is much different than picking up clay."

With electronic circuitry as an essential part of his chosen artistic medium, however, Dollhausen makes something much more compelling than a merely functional device. "Electronic circuitry can count really well," he explains. "It's designed to do that. But if you know the difference between counting and dancing, well, I want to make it dance."

Dollhausen says that when he first started building his machines, he had to put them in boxes to protect viewers from the lethal voltages he was using. But after figuring out how to make safer machines, he became interested in revealing not only the underlying electronics of the pieces, but in using the opportunity to illustrate what it looks like to mentally conceive of one of his pieces.

"I think of it as switches flipping and electrons moving around, and I think my work looks like my pictures of those things happening. In other words, the work looks like the idea that develops as I build it."

Looking at one of Dollhausen's works, watching the electricity flow through the machine, illuminating lights and almost palpably coursing through wires, you're drawn in even closer. Although the pieces make sense as machines, it's almost irresistible to see the rat's nest of wiring as abstract art. And like many pieces of good abstract art, the works give the viewer a space on which to project their own imagination.

"I'm always surprised at what the viewer brings to it," Dollhausen chuckles. "Because even though they're abstract forms, they're functioning machines. And all the wires function. But they're also my line -- the line in the machine like the line in a drawing. And that drawing happens as I'm working on it. It doesn't come from a conception of it -- a clear vision that I have at first. It comes out of how something works."

With one of the pieces, as you lean in even more to see how it works, you can hear it make sounds: just a random smattering of clipped syllables and electronic guttural noises. Get close enough and the piece organizes itself quickly, stating, "You are too close!" It's very clear that Dollhausen's pieces interact with the viewer.

Every work of art changes when it's viewed. Even if the basic materials -- the paint, the metal, or the sounds -- don't change at all, two different viewers, when asked to describe the same work of art, will give different answers. Visitors bring their own history, emotional state, and particular location in space and time to the encounter, and the art adapts accordingly -- transforming differently for everyone. And it's that event -- the interaction between the work of art and the viewer -- that Jack Dollhausen shapes as much as the wires and resistors themselves. Without someone there to perceive it, the entire work of art doesn't happen.

"The idea of a tree falling in the wilderness," Dollhausen says, smiling. "Does it make a sound? No, it doesn't. It makes an acoustical vibration, but if there's no ear, there's no sound."

And so Dollhausen has designed his machines so that they turn themselves off if nobody is around to witness them. But when people are there, they change according to the viewer's movements, sounds and temperature. It's a phenomenon that MAC Curator of Art Jochen Wierich will enhance when he brings in a pair of local poets and a jazz ensemble to perform around the pieces on May 28.

"I don't even think a piece is finished without a viewer," Dollhausen adds.

As if to illustrate that point, one of his pieces, Dancer 4, responds with active light displays and sounds when viewers stand near it. But if one moves away to see some of the other pieces in the galleries, the lights grow to full intensity, and the sounds become a wail that only gradually fade away. The piece, it seems to be saying, needs the viewer. Many viewers walk back.

Dollhausen says that he only builds with the bits of technology that he has gleaned. But watching the movements and listening to the sounds from the museum visitors, it's clear that his machines are only one part of the art that he's making. Because every person in the room is dancing.

Publication date: 04/17/03

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