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A Cabinet of Curiosities: Exploring 'Palaver II' by Will Wharton

Understanding speculative design and the imagined world through the work of Minnesota-based new media visionary, Will Wharton.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Aug 06, 2021

Many new media artists I speak to mention that they are gravitating to this rather open-ended body of practice for want of a multidisciplinary and free-flowing approach to art. Will Wharton, who hails from Minnesota, USA, is no exception. “I love the process of exploring new mediums and technology and trying to unlock their artistic potential. Once I get good enough at a medium, I can begin to fuse it with other mediums and do a strange sort of media art alchemy, resulting in the creation of new, unique styles,” he says. Wharton’s magnum opus is Palaver II, a “Cabinet of Curiosities” of surreal artefacts that he crafted in augmented reality, and then proceeded to 3D print. His installation is supported by animation work from Hugo Shiboski, fabrication by Mahnoor Euceph, and sound design by Erik Shiboski. Palaver II involves the usage of a variety of digital and physical media in order to facilitate the moulding and presentation of artefacts and organisms from an imagined world, similar to ours, yet different enough that they at once fascinate and alienate the viewer. The artist agrees with this assessment, and focusing on the imagined aspect of the world he is treating us to glimpses of, says, “to comment on the proposed worlds, I am very influenced by the Dada artist, Alfred Jarry, and his concept of ‘pataphysics’, which is often referred to as ‘the science of imaginary solutions’. I love this concept of creating solutions to problems and scenarios that would never occur in the world we exist in.”

Work in progress from Palaver II | Will Wharton | STIRworld
Work in progress from Palaver II Image: Christian J Williams, Kristen Jan Wong

Wharton describes his practice of speculative design as the concept of creating objects or things that would result from a proposed or imagined world, and utilise constructed system of logic. He says, “We live in such a rational world, there aren’t enough irrational thinkers,” and connects this to the lamentable reality of how new technologies are often used in the most unimaginative ways in order to generate revenue and nothing more. To Wharton, the application of technology seems to bring with it an opportunity to stimulate the imagination more than anything else, and this stems from the time he spent right out of UCLA’s DESMA (Design | Media Arts) programme doing client work. He mentions how he would often feel like he was the only one in the room who cared about the concept behind what was being made as opposed to simply creating for the sake of providing visually captivating media to his clients.

01 min watch A process video for the project | Will Wharton | STIRworld
A process video for the project Video: Christian J Williams, Kristen Jan Wong

Returning to Palaver II, the artist explains, “The historical definition of palaver refers to ‘an improvised conference between two groups, typically those without a shared language or culture’. This concept is central to Palaver II, the idea of stumbling into a completely foreign space and having to learn how to interface with it and make sense of it on the fly. That process of trying to understand what is going on, trying to make sense of this space is one of the key aspects of Palaver II.” The artist further elaborates on his conception of the project, telling STIR that it was a response to spending too much time on his computer, most of which concerned animation work. He felt as though he was losing touch with the physical world, and wished to work on something more tangible and tactile. He continues, “There is always this barrier between the viewer and what I create because it is mediated by a screen or surface. I wanted to pull my worlds out into our physical world; to create a more intimate interaction with what I make. I find that I am often drawn to surreal works or things that are just recognisable enough that they worm their way into your subconscious and you find yourself returning to them later. Like some sort of mental chewing gum.” In many ways, Wharton’s Palaver II feels like Luigi Serafini meets Misha Kahn; two artists that he himself references in our interview. Serafini was an Italian artist and architect famous for creating the Codex Seraphinianus, an illustrated encyclopaedia filled with speculated flora and fauna, that is believed to be written in a language constructed by the author. Kahn is an American sculptor who works with maximalist assemblage, and many of whose creations reflect the almost stream-of-consciousness quality that Wharton’s artefacts possess.

Some of Wharton’s non-functional jewelry | Will Wharton | STIRworld
Some of Wharton’s non-functional jewelry Image: Christian J Williams, Kristen Jan Wong

One of the most captivating portions of Palaver II is Wharton’s non-functional jewellery. Like much else from the project, these jewellery pieces are meant to be recognisable as such, but to also confuse the viewer with regards to how or where on the body they might be worn. He explains, “I partially imagined them as little organisms that had been fossilized somehow, or that this ‘jewellery state’ was part of their strange symbiotic life cycle. I tried to keep their forms primitive and simple.” He doesn’t really view the world Palaver II is imagining as truly alien in an extra-terrestrial sense, but rather as a surreal or tangential one. Like the practice of wearing jewellery, the denizens of this world certainly take ideas and cues from our own, but abstract them enough that it becomes a departure of sorts.

Untitled | Will Wharton | STIRworld
An Untitled work by Will Wharton Image: Christian J Williams, Kristen Jan Wong

Wharton mentions that he is currently embarking on a new project, wherein he will be leading a team of designers and friends in the pursuit of creating a fully immersive architectural space for media arts practices, and, continuing with Wharton’s apparent sense of whimsy, this space will be combined with a bicycle shop. He aims to blend these realms through large scale kinetic sculptures and surreal works. Apart from the aforementioned undertaking, the artist has this to say about his near and foreseeable professional future: “This is a question I often have trouble with because at any moment I usually feel a bit paralysed with the number of directions I could head in. My gut instinct says I would be interested in creating an immersive art and performance experience like Sleep No More in New York City, with more of a new media art incoherence. Overall, I am interested in architecture, mixed media performance art, film and music. Thus far I have done a little bit of everything, so maybe I’ll continue to bridge these worlds and see what new practices my friends and I can create.”

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