Thinking in Public

For artist Donald Fels, the network is the medium. His work explores the routes that connect people with commodities, institutions with their environments, places with the ideas that have defined them.

Fels builds art out of research, developing what he learns by delving deeply into narratives that spread out and back into the network from which they have come.

For over three decades the work Fels has shown in galleries, museums and written about has focused on commodities: ubiquitous materials, like rubber, tin, fish, alum, plywood, pigments and steel- the stuff out of which everyday life is constructed, yet whose complex articulations over time and space are largely invisible.

The identities of commodities are difficult to see because they’re embodied in movement: in actions that are generated, things produced, people and places that are changed through large-scale, increasingly global, production. Their very utility makes one forget that they are sites of significant articulation. The rubber tree (the subject of years of research in South-east Asia and an exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum), like the research hospital (the place of a 2004 residency), or a water-treatment plant (a 2010 collaboration resulting in a working sculpture) is a great nexus of relationships. Through collaborations centered on the widely varied elements involved, Fels uncoils the lines and trajectories that lead into and out from the matters at hand and communicates the distinct cultures that are created therein.

To create a narrative, finding ways to tell stories, is to create connections between the past and present of a place, between what lies buried within and what is visible on the outside. In some cases, the conversations that Fels facilitates are both research and primary product; performances of a sort, staged between people sitting down to talk, which he guides into events where people end up thinking over things they hadn’t before ever considered. The conversations generate a map of the inherent characteristics of a place or institution, introducing new directions for thought and action.

Projects have also resulted in works of non-fiction, sculpture, series of paintings, a play, installations, detailed proposals for future endeavors, and collaborations with performers and poets, scientists, visual artists, and other institutions. Currently, he co-leads a team composed of an archeologist, geologist, and geographer, mapping the natural shoreline of Seattle; they are mapping the city’s past as a way of drawing up an idea of its present. Another project has him in Bombay investigating the world’s source of phthalo blue and in Eastern Washington looking at its effect on the Spokane River. He’s spent 2015-16 as resident artist at Google/Seattle, building a project that travels to India, Italy and France.

Fels views seeing as the primary role of the artist, using that vision to make the complex clear by breaking it down into communicable forms. In order for a pattern to be legible the relationship between component parts must become evident– at a certain point, a line must intersect another, a shape must be echoed in the form of a distant curve.

Fels searches out and puts concentrated energy into such points of intersection. The value he creates in his art practice lies in the connections he brokers. The process is structural- he builds framework for his art through a steady growth of connective tissue. Often done while working collaboratively, the process is risky, ungainly and almost always surprising. This inherently unpredictable element has become essential to the dynamics and success of his work.