Never actually having been to San Jose, I've always ignorantly assumed no interest in visiting. The name "Silicon Valley" conjures an unsettling image a grid of sprawling office complexes for people working on lasers and radars and a few too many Office Depots. Lowland lit up like a circuit board.
It's hard to believe that some 60 years ago this high-tech town used to be known to poets and farmers as the Valley of Heart's Delight, a fertile area of Northern California once home to fruit and nut trees blossoming on hundreds of thousands of acres.
With the help of Detroit's own Jim Pallas, a group called YLEM: Artists Using Science and Technology is looking to bridge old and new worlds with an exhibit at San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation. Who better than Pallas an anti-art punk who "bought out of the American Dream" and an electronic art pioneer given props in Fran Popper's seminal Art of the Electronic Age to set the story straight?
His current art for YLEM (named after the matter that came before the Big Bang) began a few decades ago as a freewheeling field experiment involving cutouts of people made from sunlight and plywood. With the help of the Internet, a GPS tracking system and some adventurous strangers, his "hitchhikers project" has been reinvented, with artworks now traveling around the country on their way to Silicon Valley.
As a Wayne State art student in the '60s, Pallas had gone against the grain. When professors were all about purity of natural materials, he'd put a coat of paint on wood and play around with rubber and plastic to make performative sculptures. But it was later, at University of Michigan, in the basement of the physics department, that he first gazed with awe at a computer. He began working with electronics to make his art more interactive.
"As I first started doing work with electronics, people would ask me, 'Why are you confusing technology with art?' I was flabbergasted. What do you think it is when someone grinds rock and paints with animal blood? That was technology."
For weeks at a time in the 1970s and '80s, Jim Pallas and his wife Janet took their kids to their beautiful Michigan land, four miles from the small town of Lake Odessa. The artist had a primitive studio there, away from his tools and machines, where he'd toy around with materials and the environment. In the summer of 1981, he began tracing shadows of people and cutting them out of plywood. In the back of his mind, he was thinking about submitting something for an upcoming show of mail art at Detroit's nonprofit Focus Gallery.
"I had blown through mail art already," Pallas says, referring to the scene ascendant in the '70s, in which artists collaborated via post. "I wanted to do something for the show. I wasn't interested in paper in envelopes, so I made a silhouette out of wood of me sitting cross-legged in the lotus position, and spray-painted it to roughly look like me."
Pallas wanted to use an alternative delivery service to get the sculpture to the gallery in the city. Recalling the days when he'd hitchhike to class or across state, he hung a "Detroit" sign around the neck of his doppelganger and attached a note to the back:
Get me to a party at 743 Beaubien Street at 7:30 p.m. June 10. You can come, too. Until then I don't much care. Take me as far as you are going and set me by the side of the road. Please, don't put me on the expressway.
Without even so much as a signature, he abandoned his other self roadside. Three days later, some guy showed up at the gallery with that thing, asking director Gere Baskin what it was all about. "I didn't make the opening," Pallas says, "but when he told me, I thought, wow it worked."
For the next decade or so, he traced and carved likenesses of friends and professional acquaintances: local celebrity Sonny Eliot, Senator Carl Levin, journalist Joy Colby, artists Charles McGee and Maurice Greenia, and Denise Szykula, the only subject to pose with her back turned. (Leave it to a dancer.) Pallas would hand off the sculpture with one condition: Within a year, jot a note and ditch your wooden twin. He viewed the project as an opportunity to collaborate with strangers. But for others, especially artists, the request was not easy to fulfill.
New York-based artist Ray Johnson, who was the subject of the film How to Draw a Bunny, had a tough time letting go. When Pallas checked in after a year had passed, Johnson, a Detroit native considered the father of mail art, said he hadn't followed through. He admitted making a necklace for it, putting his name on it as his own work and debuting it in a show in Long Island.
"I don't mind that he claimed it as his own," Pallas says, "but you gotta abandon it. He had grown too attached. I wasn't mad, but I also didn't want to let him off the hook. He was going to have to suggest a way out that was honorable." Later, Pallas read Johnson had died. "The papers said he had slipped off a bridge, but most regarded it as a suicide."
The hitchhikers confused and concerned friends and family. Pallas' father-in-law tried to get his cutout to his brother Hollie in Mt. Vernon, Ill. It was picked up within a day, but some time later Hollie received a post card from his wayward "brother" in Wildwood, Fla. A man named Art Edlin explained he'd "picked up your hitchhiking brother Jim and took him to Florida." Unaware of the project, Hollie was concerned about his brother's well-being and was relieved to hear the truth.
Pallas laid the hitchhikers project to rest till he heard about YLEM's current show, in conjunction with San Jose's ZeroOne Electronic Arts Festival. With the help of a team of YLEM members, his concept found a multimedia format as "Pioneers Hitchiking in the Valley of the Heart's Delight."
A new cast of hitchhikers, including tech pioneers William Hewlett and David Packard (traveling as a twosome), Lee de Forest, William Shockley, Fred Terman and Robert Noyce, are touring the valley, equipped with GPS tracking systems that monitor the whereabouts of the sculptures at all times and map the results online. Thanks to coordinator Julie Newdoll, extensive travelogues and photos, submitted by strangers giving the guys a lift, are available online.
Pallas says, "It's completely changed the paradigm of what the project is about." Back in the '80s, he documented the project in a loose-leaf notebook filled with mylar sheets, original Polaroids, news stories and letters. Often, he'd lose contact with a hitchhiker after a few days. "With these five hitchhikers, not only are they getting to where they're supposed to be going, people are e-mailing in stories and photos."
With one exception: Robert Noyce's sculpture is missing. Newdoll says, " It's sort of sad. We weren't getting a signal from him. We thought it was because he was on a pig farm in Iowa. He went to a state fair, but we haven't heard from him since."
Hewlett and Packard, on the other hand, had a good time. They were picked up by former employees and others who heard about the project who had warm feelings for the founders (Pallas hypothesizes it's because the Hewlett foundation is a big funder for NPR). But commercial operations, such as the office supply store where the buddies began their trip, weren't having any part of it. Attempting some irony, Newdoll tried leaving Hewlett and Packard in the printer cartridge aisle. But employees gave them the boot. And when they got to their final destination HP corporate headquarters, of course administrators seemed frightened. The security guard wouldn't even let them in the lobby. Still, Pallas attributes their success to a plan called "Shares" that his wife Janet, a psychologist, made up, in which carriers split ownership of the hitchhikers should someone show interest in purchasing the work.
San Jose citizens are getting into it, taking the day off work to hang with a couple of "stiffs." Photos submitted via e-mail show Hewlett and Packard visiting an observatory, working a telescope and posing out on a rail with a huge vista behind them, taking a load off at a local bar. The possibility of a small percentage of the profits doesn't account for that. That's why he doesn't buy it when he hears technology's to blame for today's supposedly isolating culture.
"I find motors, computers and telephones stimulating. I'm not putting it down, but to me, oil painting is an anachronism. I took my grandkids to Florence recently. What a stifling environment to be surrounded by all that great old stuff. How do you get out from under that?"
Pallas' studio has always been an active part of the household. The door is open, the phone and doorbell ring incessantly and people walk in and out freely. When speaking on the phone from his home on a beach, seven miles north of Lexington, interruptions are necessary to keep life in motion. Voices in the background are seeking his guidance for a project. "Hang on a minute," he says. "Something's going on here."
Visit ylem.org to track the "Pioneers Hitchhiking in the Valley of Heart's Delight."
Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]