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Aaron Beebe is an artist, historian, and curator. His interest in obsolete or marginalized cultural objects is the main driver of his eclectic creative path: He has been an archivist, a conservator, the director of the Coney Island Museum, a co-founder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, the creator of the Congress for Curious Peoples, and a close collaborator with artistically inclined robots, among other projects.

His artwork ranges from small hand-drawn maps of psychogeographic terrain to large-scale installations – each with an eye for the poetics of historical writing and the ways in which objects change in different cultural/temporal milieux.

Aaron Beebe
is In Wild Air


Culture

Hand-drawn


In most of my work, lines are fundamental objects. I’m interested in their simplicity and power. They don’t usually mean anything by themselves, but it’s amazing to me that a line on a page or canvas can evoke gestures, bodies, or even feelings. It can define the empty space on a page, creating a virtual object where none actually exists. In addition, when a line is hand-drawn, it connotes a physical motion and thus has a temporal relationship with the action that created it, regardless of where or when it is viewed. Drawing by hand is a meditative act for me. The act of drawing with a pencil or pen is akin to writing by hand - it takes a completely different frame of mind than typing. (I'm suddenly aware that I just wrote “the act of drawing…”, as if wielding a pencil were a thing to be preserved or noted - as if drawing should be a noun and not a verb). Drawing's meditative pleasure happens because using a pen on paper is a learned, but generally unconscious action that takes some kind of physical gesture - a swing of the arms or snap of the wrist - which releases my mind from thought. [A quick sidebar about “the act of drawing” above: some languages, like Mandarin (I’m told), many Native American languages, and I think ancient Sanskrit, are far more reliant on verbs in their grammar than English is. It’s even possible to have sentences without nouns at all. I’d love to be able to talk about drawing by hand in exclusively action-oriented terms – maybe by just by adding “hand” to a verb form (as in "these robots are hand-drawing"). Also, a verb-biased language seems like it would be much less hospitable to the acquisition of things and much more likely to produce meditative gestures instead, but I could be wrong].

People

Piri Reis


In 1513, an Ottoman sailor named Ahmed Muhiddin Piri used his considerable drawing skills to produce a world map for Sultan Selim I, who was busy turning the Turkish empire into a world power. Piri had been a privateer, not an explorer, and he gathered a huge array of existing maps from a discreet network of spies, including a map drawn by Christopher Columbus just a few years earlier. At this time, maps were rare objects of extreme significance and huge political value, so the acquisition of this kind of knowledge directly increased Ottoman power globally.Piri’s map, now the oldest existing world map to show the Americas, is a wonderful example of a Portolan, a beautiful Medieval charting style that used compass directions to move from port-to-port Portolans are surprisingly accurate maps, I’m told, but I think their remarkable images, painterly gestures, and inexact drawing style gives them a sense of the humanity of navigation – it’s relation to human bodies - that I don't find in later maps.With all the recent talk of new “caliphates” in the Middle East, Neo-Ottoman thinking is having something of a comeback, with the Ottoman Empire representing an almost-alternative-history that's newly influential in world politics. For me, the Piri Reis map has been a powerful magnet, pulling me into whole worlds of alternative paths-not-taken, both historically and stylistically. It helped make the Ottoman Empire a world power, with Istanbul at its center, and it’s still on display there as part of an Orientalist cabinet of curiosities full of the spoils of Ottoman imperial plunder and piracy, alongside relics of Mohammed, royal vestments, and other holy relics of dubious provenance from throughout the middle east.

Places

Indo-Greek Kingdoms


Contrary to what I learned from my public school education, globalism is not a contemporary phenomenon. In the ancient world, near-global interactions were much more widespread than I knew. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire in the 320’s BCE, his Greek armies crossed the Ravi River into what is now India before returning home. They left a huge number of new cities and towns in Bactria (now Afghanistan and Pakistan) as well as leaving trusted generals there to rule them. The empire collapsed fairly quickly, but Greek leaders administered the kingdoms that were left behind. For hundreds of years, they were in constant contact with Greece, they spoke Greek, and they used Greek systems. And they introduced Greek Philosophy to the region.I can’t stop wondering what those conquering armies thought about the people they were meeting. And then, how the future residents of those kingdoms saw themselves during the many many generations of Greek rule. I always find that entering a new place is a transformative experience, and my own trips to India have made me a completely different person, but I’m always aware of having the mind of a visitor. Were Alexander's soldiers humble visitors on some level? Were they transformed by the experience? Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren must have seen themselves as something else of course: did they consider themselves Greeks? And what about their philosophical culture? Buddhism, which only predated the early Greek philosophers by a generation and Alexander by a hundred years or so, had a profound effect on the culture of the Indo-Greek kingdoms, but what about mainland Greece. It seems very likely that Greek thinkers and Buddhist thinkers were having heated discussions with one another in the 200’s BCE.I’ve been doing a lot of reading for a project about an English architectural historian who was born 2,000 years later, but who was engaged in a similar project. When India was a part of the British Empire, James Fergusson and his contemporaries founded the earliest museums in Asia, and Fergusson produced the first English maps of ancient ruins in South Asia. The history of India is full of stories of people like Fergusson imposing their cultural outlook on the region to terrible effect, trying to make sense of the regional history by imposing their own understanding on it. But I wonder how it changed him. There doesn’t seem to be any record of that influence, although it must have been profound.

Things

The Indian Museum


My favorite museum in the world is in Kolkata. It’s the oldest museum in Asia, and houses a ridiculous collection of amazing objects. But what makes it special to me is that it's a palimpsest of the history of museums. Each part of the museum is frozen in a different state of disrepair, depending on when the last renovations occurred. So one part of the museum is a stunning example of an intact 19th century display strategy – a cabinet of curiosities organized with taxonomic efficiency. Other parts are stuck in the 1940’s, full of state-sponsored racial stereotypes. A room of 1970’s wood paneling and fiberglass models shows an attempt to entertain audiences while educating them. And behind the crumbling plaster walls of one wing is a state of the art conservation lab, doggedly trying to preserve the museum’s holdings, against the odds.The Indian Museum is a British import, built by British scholars and politicians. James Fergusson and his colleague Alexander Cunningham were instrumental in filling its rooms and setting its mission. But after Indian independence, it became a purely Indian concern and it’s now a fantastic example of a uniquely Indian form of bureaucracy. My last visit there was a Kafka-esque adventure filled with carbon paper, official seals, and the slow transfer of paperwork.

Thoughts

Consciousness Explained


When I read Daniel Dennet’s Consciousness Explained, it marked a pivotal moment in my own history. Dennet summed up the current state of philosophical and neurological thinking and posited what was then a radical new way of understanding our selves – instead of a Cartesian notion of our “self” being located in some ancient, isolated portion of our brain - a kind of little homunculus living inside our heads, directing our bodies and thinking - he asks us to think of our conscious “self" as something that doesn’t actually exist. Your consciousness, he claimed, is just the side effect of a lot of parallel physical processes working together. Like having a “center of gravity”, “it” isn’t there. Instead, it feels like a thing we have, and it’s helpful to imagine it that way, but our “self” is really just something implied and suggested by all of the processes swirling around it. Like poetry or drawing, those processes create the sensation of something where there is actually nothing.Dennet’s book was written in 1991, and many neurologists have confirmed and verified the ideas since, but it is incredibly hard for us to reimagine our selves this way. Like 18th century philosophers writing about the absence of God – just knowing about that absence doesn’t make it easy to make it a part of your worldview. So we still imagine our selves as little computers – CPU’s in charge of a variety of hardware. Or as the processing part of our brain – as if we could locate the part of that material that is “us”. We still have conversations about what it would be like to be a brain in a jar, even as we try to understand how the bacteria in our guts can have an effect on our personality.Sometimes I think the difficulty we have conceiving of consciousness as an illusion is the result of our noun-focused language. If it’s not a thing, what is it? Can I really imagine my self as the result of pure action? I blame the Greeks, whose language was definitely more noun-heavy than the ancient Buddhists they encountered in the generations after Plato and Aristotle.

Wildism

How to Map Liminal Space


I’m always struggling with how to talk around my curiosities and interests. Every project I undertake, whether it’s a recreation of a 19th century spectacular attraction or a complexly layered painting/drawing, is an attempt to address my ideas in the context of something that has immediate significance for a viewer. But when I write text for a museum show, I can’t avoid mixing the themes that are swirling around in my head into the writing.I often feel like I’m inscribing my interests into the world by writing around them. I’m working on a science fiction novel right now - and I’m struggling to describe a future that exists in the uncharted space between Kafka's technical writing, Tamil Pulp Fiction, the Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and the idea of Vladimir Putin as a new Tsar and Recep Erdoğan as a new Sultan. With some corporate feudalism and radical Bulgarian seers thrown in the mix, how can that all possibly make a coherent thing?And how can we make something that means anything when we're not even real selves?