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  • Writer's pictureAbigail Holcombe

MEtrology: Conor Murphy on Measuring Against the Self

Conor Murphy creates work that explores and challenges systems of measurement, asking viewers to reconsider and reorient themselves towards their environment. In an ever-changing world, the systems set up in the work call into question the stability of systematic ideas that enforce standards of measurement such as length, mass and time. Conor received his BFA from Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri and has recently completed his MFA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Abigail Holcombe: One of the things that draws me into the work immediately is the sound of the metronome embedded in your Cond piece. I begin thinking about the repeating sound as a possible way of measuring time as well. Have you worked with sound in any of your past works?

Conor Murphy: The repeating sound of the MEtronome is not necessarily a new way to measure time but rather a new tempo in which we can experience time. The tempo of a Cond is slightly slower than a traditional second. This doesn’t mean there is more time in the day, it just means the pace of our day is slowed down to a more reasonable beat. I am interested in how our days feel faster and more consumed than ever, all while the threat of human extinction looms over us. I picture a dark cloud of reality pointing down and laughing at us as we try to reply to emails, binge a tv show, apply to jobs, shop for groceries and do the laundry all at the same time, all from our couch. Controlling time is a futile effort but maybe a slower pace could be useful in allowing us a clearer perspective on what the hell we are doing.

I worked with sound in another work of mine from 2019 titled Drift Major. Drift Major is a performance video piece in which I perform as a drum major character who floats around space dancing, leading and failing at both, until finally ending up in the driftless region of southwest Wisconsin. Just like the Cond definition, Drift Major uses Blondie’s Heart of Glass as its musical arrangement. As my go-to karaoke song, this song is very special to me. I have performed it many times in a variety of venues.

I am interested in the modern parallels between the on-the-spot performance of making art and singing karaoke and the successes and failures that come with both. I am not an artist but a drum major, contending with what it means to be a performer and leader at the same time. Much like the MEtrology project, it's an investigation into what the role of the individual is and how we account for subjectivity in a universe of public systems.

AH: I’m interested in the accordion-like or serrated edge that appears on top of the forms. The surface creates almost a repeated pattern and feels visually related to sound waves as well. How does this repeated form connect to the way you are thinking about measurement?

CM: I’ve had a few people tell me the ‘accordion-like’ surface or ‘pleats’, as I like to call them, remind them of sound waves or repeated beats. I like that! I’ve worked with the pleated structure in a previous project of mine titled The Collector Series in which I created oil paintings that look like home furnace filters. It is a simple joke really: oil paintings that are meant to collect dust rather than avoid it. The pleats, both in The Collector Series and the MEtrology project, are meant to increase surface area in order to collect atmospheric detritus. This collected detritus is symbolic for the passing of time and excessive accumulation, which are both themes in the MEtrology project.

Emmaly Crimmel: The pedestal's textured top securing the artifacts also makes me think about a roughness or lived experience required for information to stick. What sticks in your mind, and how? Was there an origin moment for MEtrology?

CM: The initial inspiration for the project or ‘origin moment’ came while reading my partner’s dad's copy of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”. That is when I first learned that the official definition of the meter was based on a singular precious metal bar locked away in the basement of a fancy laboratory in Paris. I was shocked to learn that such an object existed. The pleats are absolutely meant to increase surface area in order to collect more stuff. The ‘stuff’ I was thinking about was the atmospheric detritus that surrounds the sculptures, but I also like the idea that they can collect information. Maybe there is information embedded in atmospheric detritus. Some things stick, some don’t. I am not exactly sure what sticks in my mind. Things are always sticking and unsticking. With the MEtrology project in particular, hidden systems and the power of objects were stuck in my head. I am always trying to figure out how and why things are the way that they are, but I also try to avoid a succinct answer. I love dwelling over unanswerable questions about life.

Sydney Vize: How are you hoping that people will move through your installation? Do you have specific paths in mind? The specificity of how viewers are asked to see or reimagine space seems to apply to the spaces between your works too.

CM: I did not have specific paths in mind. I wanted the museum space to kind of dissolve into the background. It was not necessarily important exactly how people move through the space as long as the work is guiding them, rather than the structure of the museum. I wanted the sculptures to float in the space, almost like they are orbiting around each other. The sculptures themselves were so symmetrical, I looked for any moment to disrupt their systemic harmony. This disruption can also be seen in how the bolts on the pedestals are organized.

SV: Do you have other measurements that you edited out of the group that’s now installed in KAM? If so, were these kind of the big three, or was there something about their relationship to one another that helped to cement them as what would end up in the museum?

CM: A real Metrologist might prove this logic wrong, but the definitions for time, length and mass are kind of the big three. There are a total of seven units in the SI system (International System of Units) but all of them rely on time, length and mass in one way or another to be defined. For example, the retired definition of a mole used to be defined as 12 grams of Carbon 12. Time, length and mass, at one time, acted as the root to all other scientific measurement definitions. Also, these three are important for their reliance on some sort of physical entity to be defined at some point in history. Time needed the sun, earth and sometimes a pendulum to be defined, mass needed a cylinder of metal and length needed a bar of metal. The measurement’s reliance on objects was most important.

EC: If your measurements are a stable form placed over a shifting world, have external 'unstable' world conditions in the past year (I'm thinking COVID-19, online-learning, etc.) affected your measurements' logic and the specifics of this installation at the Krannert?

CM: The MEtrology measurement prototypes merely pretend to be stable. I purposefully left room for them to change over time. The material (steel) that the prototypes are made out of will change physical states. The sign located in Savoy might move or get destroyed. My head’s weight will change. The whole system is teeming with potential change and instability. The pandemic, and pandemic related happenings, are not the sole reason for their instability but they are inherently engrained in the measurement objects.

AH: I’m curious about your choice of color for the wooden structures, what were you thinking about when selecting the paint colors for these sculptures and, given the Conometer measurements, do they relate to you or your body in some way?

CM: Choosing colors for the pedestals proved to be one of the most difficult decisions to make in the entire project. I knew that I wanted to avoid institutional white but wasn’t sure how to keep the color choice connected to the broader intentions of the project. After some research into basic color theory I ended up choosing the primary colors for the subtractive color system which happened to be cyan, magenta and yellow. I was interested in this color system for its connection to the physical workings of the human eye and how it experiences color. I liked how the final color you see in the subtractive primaries is achieved by starting with white light (which contains all colors) and then subtracting away certain colors, leaving others to be reflected back.

The MEtrology project is about how we create measurement systems to understand the universe so I thought it would be fitting to utilize a color system that our eyes use to make sense of pigmented color.

EC: One of the plaques in your installation reads: "This particular redefinition of measurement standards puts the artist at the center of the universe and asks how their individual perspective compares and contrasts to that of the viewer."

Distance or the space of imagination seems to be centralized in this work, with the distance or contrast between the artist and audience as well as the imaginary range of your measurements. Was there an intentional way you tried to visualize distance or imagination through your material or color strategies?

CM: MEtrology is all about the distance between individuals and the community systems individuals are a part of. As art making is expected to be more poignant and proactive than ever, I wonder how the individual artist weighs self expression against acts of selflessness. In the sculptures themselves, there is nothing but imagined space and believability. People can try to imagine what five thousand Conometers look like in order to fully fathom the definition but that is impossible. Your imagination can only imagine so far before it doesn’t care to calculate anymore, forcing you to make a decision on whether you believe or disbelieve the information the artist or system has provided for you. What other information, besides the sculptural objects, can you analyze to figure out whether the artist is telling the truth or not? The colors? The materials? The textual information? I am interested in the similarities of participating in public systems and viewing art made by an artist. The way the MEtrology project is installed is meant to mimic how we read and analyze art. Is the artist telling the truth or not? Is this a genuine act of selflessness or ego? MEtrology exists in that liminal space of truth and lies, self and selflessness.

SV: What’s next? Are you wanting to develop more ways to measure? Or is everything accounted for?

CM: I have considered revisiting the other four units in the International System of Units (Si) which are the mole, ampere, kelvin and candela to complete a redefinition of the entire system. I also just came across the term Mycology which is the scientific study of fungi which may be a fun system to explore and make my own. Either way, I will continue to investigate other illusive systems that hold power over, around and under us.

This interview was formatted and edited by Abigail Holcombe, Sydney Vize and Emmaly Crimmel who are all graduate students working towards an MFA degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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