Ephemeral, Unchanging

I received a few texts and Facebook messages from DK Pan last summer, each inviting me along to a weekend of driving and camping and artmaking that he was planning. I never got my shit together in time to accompany him and, knowing the expansive ideas and intellectual-spiritual realm that he usually occupies, I knew I was missing out. This fall, as part of the Genius exhibition at the Frye Art Museum, the conceptual multimedia artist revealed what he’d been working on: A film shot at 38 different tide stations along the West Coast, from San Diego to Neah Bay, entitled Tsunami Capable Tide Stations > West Coast. What appears on the surface as a landscape film—in each vignette, footage of rolling waves was shot at twilight, paired with realtime audio from the environment—is in fact a meditation on cycles so large and so small as to be imperceptible to human senses, except, perhaps, by intuition, or human-made technology. I spoke with Pan about the origins and intentions behind the work, which is on view at the Frye through Jan. 10. 

I didn’t know what to expect at all from your meanderings this summer. You said you were out on the coast camping for an art project. I didn’t know what was going to come of that, but it was really cool to see a finished product.

There was a fair amount of premeditation and research. Coordinating with NOAA [National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration] trying to figure out what time tides were gonna come up and how to document it.

I was wondering about the thematic elements of this, if that was something premeditated or that came out through the process.

I wanted to do a survey of the coastline starting with the West Coast—in some ways as a commentary on climate change, but also focusing on place and memory. There are costal sites that are in peril or in the process of change—how [could I] pay homage to those locations and, in a poetic way, document the coastline? Then when I started ruminating on the idea, I explored different frameworks that were already established and started talking with NOAA. They’ve established these tide stations along the coast. I wanted to incorporate some of that aspect, because a lot of the discussion around climate change is based on data. Going to these locations, finding interesting viewpoints in proximity to observe, to be a meditation on what it means—how the coastline is an interstitial space, what that means. Our proximity to it, why people gravitate to it.

The mystery of it.

Something about what the ocean actually represents—it is the collection of all our memories, geologically, and this is where we evolutionarily come from. It holds the memory of creative history. Interestingly, NOAA describes the tide stations as “tsunami-capable tide stations.” The idea of what a tsunami is, is: Here’s an event that happens as a reaction to another event like an earthquake, and the memory of it carries through the wave and then has some resolution.


I wouldn’t necessarily say destructive. There’s a force and it’s altering.

I’ve been trying to meditate on the idea of equanimity, like, open to religious things, spiritual things, and what that means to how you view phenomena.

How do you mean?

Equanimity, balance. The root is equa and animus, even or balance plus mind. Spiritual traditions talk about it in the sense of how you think about absolute reality. There’s an emotional body, there’s a physical reality. The idea of here’s reality and it’s greater than what our mind can perceive.

Something superhuman. Maybe supra-human, beyond humanity. Though some would argue there’s no reality beyond our perception of it.

Buddhism talks about equanimity being one of the four main precepts. I think their view of it, it requires time and meditation, but it’s the idea of being more even in how we view things. You know you have love and loss, failure and success, but stay within the strong center of it. The stuff that I read, there’s passion, but it’s extra passion that allows you in Buddhism to really engage. You’re not so wrapped up in the drama you can really experience it.

What about your actual communication with NOAA?

They’re this huge government organization. It’s basically like NASA, but of the coast and ocean. The program I was working with was the Tides and Currents Program, but they’re all DC-based. The people I was talking with are public-affairs people. They have these tide stations that monitor the sea level, currents. The oldest on the West Coast is in the Presidio in San Francisco. It used to be an actual walk-in tide station—somebody would have to go in, see where the levels are and then report it. It was built in 1854—that’s the longest continuous operation in the U.S. Now it’s all digital and satellites. Every six minutes there’s data coming in. They have 38 on the West Coast. I’m trying to leverage an artist residency program, like establish one with NOAA and do the East Coast. There’s 70 along the East Coast. There’s like 40 or 50 in the Gulf area, typically because it’s eroding so quickly. And then Hawaii and Alaska has a bunch in their Southwest corner.

How’d you find out about that?

Research. There’re a few frameworks I was exploring and was inspired by. Jennifer Monson’s Bird Brain project, where she would study the migratory patterns of birds and go to communities where the birds fly over and then recruit local dancers to do performances based on her research. Here’s a different approach to how you think about public art, site specific art, how you embody a place, how you interact with a place.

In some ways what I’m doing is very limited in scope. I’m basically taking a portrait—a kind of landscape observation—and translating it as a variation of land art. It’s basically trying to find a rigorous framing with intention. They’re all filmed within sunset time and have some consistency. And follow an established structure.

What kind of feedback did you get from NOAA?

They were really enthusiastic about it. And they were helpful. A fair amount of stations are in ports, so it helped to have a letter of correspondence supporting the project. Basically I would show up and be like, “I’m working with NOAA.” I had to get a TWIC card through Homeland Security. The only areas where I couldn’t gain access were refineries. So NOAA subcontracts with ports, coast guards station and oil refineries to host the tide stations.

Interesting that NOAA has been so accommodating. Is there a precedent in their world?

I probably talked to like 10 different people who supported it, who were well aware of the project, who were kind of giving me suggestions on how to do things or asking how can they be more supportive. They arranged for interviews with scientists and provided details of how certain processes work. The scientists explained the history of the program, how it developed, what they measure, how they measure it. Because the organization is so science-heavy, it’s really esoteric for the general public of what they do, so they like an art component that can be interpretive of what they do and make something more accessible. The woman that was managing the site at Presidio, she also ran the Ocean Film Festival and she was like, “We have to have you show.” So I’m in the process of doing all the follow-up stuff

Laurie Anderson once did an artist residency at NASA.

In the ’80s?

I think it was more recent than that, in the ’90s. [Editor’s note: Anderson’s residency started in 2002.] She worked to establish that and then was the first artist-in-residence. I think there is a framework of artists initiating residence programs within the bureaucratic world. You talk about change, you have to be dramatic. We have to alter our lifestyles in different capacities. Those people who live on that edge, their reality is going to be affected dramatically. Your engagement with that edge is is always changing. 

What was the term you used before, inter—…?

Interstitial. Between land and sea. It’s a mystery. It’s so grandiose in so many ways. We’re just at the mercy of all this stuff, the tide, the ocean, the moon.

Did you make it all the way down to San Diego? How many stops, stations?

Thirty-eight. When I started there were 39 and then they actually added three and decommissioned one while I was on the road. I had already gone past the places where the new ones were installed, so I decided to omit them.

Even the data points are shifting.

That’s the thing I liked about this. In the conditions I was creating, I tried to have enough framework to redo it. Like in five years I can do this again. I GPS’ed all those coordinates where the camera was based.

What other standards for consistency did you set?

Within proximity to the tide station, somewhere very close. I could’ve been more poetic about choosing areas that were accessible, but I think the tide stations provided the rigor. In the practical sense, this is the result of locations which weren’t just arbitrarily chosen. They have a purpose: to capture and present video/audio representations of places where data monitoring sites are located.

The poetic license I gave myself was in the framing. The two-thirds, one-third ratio, trying not to include people. There were some industrial areas where you couldn’t frame out the boats or whatever. But then the further along I got in the process I was realizing the variance makes it interesting. So it’s experientially unique.

After the Frye where does this go?

I was gonna try to submit to maybe a couple film festivals, even though it’s kind of an odd thing. It’s not a documentary. I have enough interviews that I’ve done—the director of Friday Harbor Laboratory, the scientist at NOAA, random people on the street, hanging out at the coast, talking to them about climate change and stuff. The idea was that another approach to this could be create a documentary. Though I’m more and more interested in it being an extended view…more like a portrait of the ocean.

The viewer gets to arrive at their own conclusion rather than being told what to think.

And twilight is the interstitial space between day and night and this idea that where we are in civilization, like this in-between time. Ten, 20 years ago climate change was coming. Now we understand that it’s here.


TSUNAMI CAPABLE TIDE STATIONS > WEST COAST (4-minute excerpt of 39-minute film) from DK Pan on Vimeo.