Beth Campbell, Spontaneous future(s), Possible past (Drawing)

Beth Campbell, Spontaneous future(s), Possible past, 2019. Pencil on paper, 55 3/16 x 75 ½ inches. Commission, Landmarks, The University of Texas at Austin, 2019. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

Press play to listen to the audioguide.

Press play to watch the artist video.

audio transcript

Hi, I'm Tim Morton and I'm going to be walking you through Beth Campbell's Spontaneous future(s), Possible past, a work commissioned by Landmarks, the public art program of The University of Texas at Austin. 

Let's start with the drawing. Or is it a drawing? It's a drawing but it's also writing and one of the profound questions I feel that Campbells' work opens up is what really is the difference between a written mark and a drawing mark. If you think about a letter, it's really made of squiggles and if you start erasing parts of the letter that you've drawn with pencil it soon turns into squiggles. So where is the dividing line between a squiggle and a letter? What's the special invisible mark that actually tells you that you are looking at language at all? 

Another interesting thing about this drawing is that it has a lot of first person singular sentences. You notice the "I" looks a little bit like a cursor. It's like you can identify with what you are reading and you can't. Look at the little things that happen on the decision tree. There is something towards the bottom that says "the glasses broke and the lenses popped out" and you look a little bit higher and there is a phrase "I just start crying" or is it "I just pause and think" and the several steps later you see "I never make it home" or "I end up directing a feature length film" or "people just make fun of me." And, of course, this is suggesting how open this future is. 

As you turn around, you see the mobile. It is a sort of a 3-D, wriggly, moving version of the same thing but without the words; just forks in the road which look as delicate as strands of hair or as loose as sort of slightly bent coat hangers. We all have those. 

One thing I really like about Beth Campbell's work is how she uses the ordinary to suggest the uncanny or extraordinary. And actually that's a common feeling, that quality of déjà vu, for example – where it's as if you've had the same experience before – is something we often have possibly every day. So you see the way in which the diagram itself is part of the interestingness of that drawing. You see the way in which the sort of moving dynamic is occurring where at every point there is a kind of wriggle room. I think that's perhaps the most important thing about Beth Campbell's work as an artist. She's holding open a space for a future that can't be predicted by all the amazing predictive, algorithmic technology that we have nowadays. She’s doing her job. She's messing with cause and effect; a simple decision to take a pencil and write a phrase on a piece of paper is a cause and effect chain and that, of course, is what this work of art is about. It's not simply representation of something. It is that something. It's helping you to realize that despite how much data we have about ourselves the future always remains fresh and open and unpredictable. 

activity guides

Curated Musical Playlist

Beth Campbell, Spontaneous future(s), Possible past, 2019.

American, born 1971

Delicately charting the human condition with all the gravity and humor of real life, Beth Campbell’s drawing and mobile for the Dell Medical School reveals the interconnectedness of shared experience. The site-specific commission Spontaneous future(s), Possible past is rooted in Campbell’s ongoing drawing series begun in 1999—My Potential Future Based on Present Circumstances. The series draws upon the artist’s interest in rhizomatic structures, circuit boards, and early virtual worlds in order to map imagined futures or parallel lives. Her text-based drawing for Landmarks, My Potential Future Based on Present Circumstances (1/13/19), is the first that Campbell has made in this series in a decade. It draws parallels to spontaneous future cognition, a newly developing branch of cognitive psychology that explores the random and involuntary thoughts that individuals have about their future.

Campbell begins each work by considering a seemingly mundane or relatable moment from her everyday life—i.e. “I just sat on my brand-new glasses while getting into the car” or “I need to buy a new pillow.” She then uses gestural lines to diagram a flowchart of possible outcomes unfolding from the event, ranging from fantastic to tragic. Like neural networks, the drawings branch out in linear fashion, accumulating narrative tentacular strands that chronicle various possibilities resulting from choice or chance. The result simultaneously exposes parallel states of mind while questioning our relationship to the future.   

Also on view at Dell Medical School and a companion to the drawing, Campbell’s mobile extends this drawing into three-dimensional space, expanding her thought process and hypothetical considerations into repeated forms that mirror one another like speculative visualizations of possibility. Referred to by the artist as a “[drawing] in space,” the mobiles are made by forging steel wires by hand. They mimic the twists and turns of complex structures such as the human nervous system, an arboreal root system, or social networks.

Beth Campbell, Spontaneous future(s), Possible past, 2019. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.
Beth Campbell, Spontaneous future(s), Possible past, 2019. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

Location: Health Transformation Building (HTB)

GPS: 30.277514, -97.735184