Gift Shop

The Forbidden Zone

by Damon Zucconi, Charles Broskoski, and Laurel Schwulst
Damon Zucconi presents Carl Sagan’s “Diagram of All Space and Time” (1985) for the Are.na Gift Shop (2023). [A white long sleeve T-shirt with a diagram drawn in red and blank pen ink.]

Charles Broskoski: Where does your impulse to organize come from?

Damon Zucconi: It’s less an impulse to organize and more an impulse to locate productive structures that I could work within. I’ve always had this sense that if you build a container for something, you will make things to fill it. What I frequently do is try to figure out different containers. A website is a container. For the most part, the reason I make artwork is to put it on a website [laughs].

https://www.damonzucconi.com [A mostly white website with a grid of images.]

A container is like a frame of reference. It provides me the opportunity to look for a particular kind of thing, which is useful. Initially, I built a blog that kept track of found text, like a highlighter. It’s still online. It’s called Strata. The same thing happened with images, which is also online. It’s called Atlas.

Laurel Schwulst: What’s the benefit to making these containers of found materials public?

Damon: Mostly, it will contextualize the artwork I’m making, if other people have an interest. I think it’s generous and useful. I like to see that anything created is part of a larger conversation. And if someone “wears their references on their sleeve,” it becomes easy to find points of entry into that conversation.

Cab: When did you start collecting as a practice?

Damon: Always. Since high school, I’ve had an atlas similar to Gerhard Richter’s Atlas. That is, I had physical folders of various things, or materials that spoke to me. But collecting online started around probably 2004 or 2005, which coincided with my discovery of content management systems.

Gerhard Richter: Atlas by Helmut Friedel (Hardcover, 2007). [Front cover, back cover, and spine shots of a thick book, mostly white with a grid of images.]

Cab: Did that research happen before you were starting to make art?

Damon: I don’t remember a time in which I didn’t make art. Since my earliest memories, it was very clear to me that I was an artist.

Before I had a computer, I went online at the library, where I was able to make my own website. For a while, I didn’t know how to make images. That was a problem. How do I get images on my website? I needed to find things and save them.

I remember going to the library with my friends. We’d look for cool things and then work on our Angelfire webpages. We were like 11 years old.

Cab: What kind of things did you collect then?

Damon: Sick .gifs, like an animated fire divider. But that was more in the construction of some sort of identity. I wasn’t trying to make art out of what I was collecting. It was akin to having a profile on MySpace or something. It was about identity construction based on things you consume.

I’ve always had a website. What am I going to put on it? I want to make art to put on it. Eventually I realized the webpage can be art itself. At the time, though, you have to realize that the idea of personal homepages was a much more creative expression of one’s identity than it is today. Back then, it didn’t seem like a weird thing. It was in the air.

Cab: Yeah, I was trying to explain this to someone recently that back then, probably every single website was created by a single person. Even a company’s website, like the Pizza Hut website, was likely made by a single person, which is so hard to imagine now.

Damon: There was way less of a division of labor between the website design, the development, and the maintenance. Back then, you were a webmaster, doing it all.

Initializer (2022) by Damon Zucconi. [A webpage that shows a field of silver within a field of green beside a field of yellow with text laid over it that reads “a field of silver within a field of green beside a field of yellow.”]

Cab: Were other people at the time exploring “a website can also be art?”

Damon: Sure, at the time I was more aware of the Flash-centric generative art scene. I had been getting into Flash and came across Joshua Davis’ open source presence on praystation.com. Through that I was introduced to a broader scene via his dreamless.org community. There was an overlap with commercial graphic and web designers trying to push the boundaries of this new medium that is maybe a little less prominent now. I helped contribute to an online community called Now Go Create, founded by my friend Mike Tucker. It was comprised of basically teenage web artists. A lot of whom, still to this day, are making art predominantly online, which is kind of incredible. Now Go Create was essentially an online magazine. But the magazine was like a Trojan horse for some sort of artistic community.

My collecting took a more formal basis once I figured out content management systems, or figuring out ways to structure my collecting on the web. It seemed natural for it to be online. And public, because it’s online. Before that, it was just folders of things. No structure, no thought. I would put things that resonated with me somewhere, thinking to myself, “This may or may not be useful.”

https://atlas.damonzucconi.com & https://strata.damonzucconi.com [Two webpages side-by-side. The one on the right shows a grid of images and the one on the left shows lines of text.]

Cab: You’re very prolific in terms of making work and also collecting references. How much time do you spend doing this stuff? Is it ambient?

Damon: All of these are intended to be ambient. Partially because I have a full time job. The way in which I work is inherently fragmentary. I need to be able to interact with these things only in passing.

Like many other artists, I collect ideas. And every morning at 10am, I get a random text message containing an idea that I’ve saved in the past. Ambiently, it surfaces itself into my life every morning, usually while I’m working out. It’s something to think about.

I also have a “new tab” page, Diptychs, which pulls two images out of my archive randomly, and places them side-by-side. So when I am about to switch contexts, I’m presented with a problem, which is a nice thing to have.

In all my collections, I have a random button. So if I’m looking for something to do, or something to think about, I can just hit “random” multiple times until I find something. 

In creating these systems, I make it very easy for myself to always capture. The speed at which I can capture something is really important. All of these systems need to be as fast and unobtrusive as possible to work well.

When I’m figuring out an exhibition or working on a piece, I’ll go through my collections, page by page. I’ll often pull things that could fit into my current trains of thought.

Cab: How do you decide whether something goes on your Are.na or Atlas / Strata?

Damon: On Are.na, I know someone’s looking at it. Maybe it’s a little performative. Whereas Atlas/ Strata are a little more personal and less structured. With Are.na, you can create much more specific boxes to put things in. I also consider Atlas / Strata as things I want to help contextualize me in a general sense. They’re both linked from my website. They help me, but they might also help you look at the artwork you’re currently looking at on my website.

https://atlas.damonzucconi.com/studio [A website that’s mostly white, with a grid of blocks containing images, sound recordings, and videos.]

Laurel: I also noticed you have a Studio page on Atlas. How would you describe the relationship between Studio and Atlas?

Damon: Studio is literally “atlas slash studio.” It’s often screenshots of things I’m working on at the time. The only way I can fully understand something I’m working on is to put it on a webpage to see it in relation to other things.

I also post to Studio so I don’t forget. I’ll frequently work on stuff randomly and then forget I was even working on it. So whenever I encounter a nice moment, or I realize something I’m working on is going in an okay direction, I’ll take a screenshot or save some output. It’s like a history state I can refer back to.

Studio is built on the same system as Atlas. With Atlas, I realized I had this useful presentation tool. So it made sense to use it for other things.

Cab: The way you separate Atlas from Studio makes me believe there’s actually a fine distinction between the research and the stuff that you're making. Is that right?

Damon: Yeah, I guess. I just think these are productive containers. I don’t really mix them because I don’t find that useful.

Laurel: How do you know when a container is productive? Have you ever made a container that wasn’t productive? How did you know?

Damon: Yeah, I definitely have. If you find yourself not not using the container, it may not be productive.

Cab: I was looking at my Are.na channels recently and realizing that I have so many channels with only three or so things inside them. Looking back, for whatever reason, sometimes a container or channel just doesn’t stick in your mind.

Damon: Sometimes you need to figure out a way in which it will fit into your life in terms of it surfacing itself. For that reason, I’m interested in formats that are ambient.

At first with the new tab idea, I tried it with saved texts. But I realized it doesn’t work because opening a new tab is too fast of a moment. You don’t want to read texts in that context, so you wind up ignoring them. That’s why images work there — because they’re easy to understand quickly.

I like thinking about different transitional moments, like when you walk through a door. Eventually, I’d like to set up an ideas marquee ticker tape above my door.

Carl Sagan, “Diagram of All Space and Time” (1985) via https://www.loc.gov/item/cosmos000086 [A close-up of the diagram on the T-shirt. In black ink is a x and y axis measuring distance and time. A red square sits inside of the graph, dissected diagonally by a red line, over which reads Realm of Special Relativity. On the left of the line is the Realm of Quantum Physics and on the right of the line is Off Limits (Forbidden Zone).]

Laurel: I’m curious. What do you like about the “Diagram of All Space and Time” by Carl Sagan that you’ve chosen to print on a white long-sleeved T-shirt for us?

Damon: I grew up watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and love it. There’s not really much to say other than I appreciate his attitude and approach to thinking about the world. I’m also interested in the idea of worldmaking — an idea that comes from Nelson Goodman. The idea that there isn’t a singular version of the world, and that you can bring something into existence by putting a frame around it.

It’s fascinating how a diagram of all space and time tells you something about your experience of the world. There’s the line in the diagram that delineates what is causal and non causal, or our light cone. Everything outside our light cone is what we can never observe or interact with. It’s there on the diagram, and it occupies half of it. It’s both a terrifying and beautiful idea. And to be able to draw that is an incredible, beautiful thing.

Carl Sagan, “Diagram of All Space and Time.” [A close crop of the part of the graph where Off Limits (Forbidden Zone) is scrawled in red ink.]

Cab: Yeah, it’s so funny. My eye always goes straight to the Forbidden Zone: “Now that’s the place I’m interested in.“

Damon: It doesn’t matter that you’re interested in it. You can think about it, and it does not matter.

Cab: It actually makes me think about the relationship between you and all these things that you come across ambiently that you’re saving. They may or may not work themselves into being useful in terms of making art or thinking about the world. There’s all this other stuff that you’ll never come into contact with. It also doesn’t matter, but it’s also daunting at the same time. You know what I mean?

Damon: So many of the things that have been important to me in my life have been so randomly encountered. In a strange sense, I don’t think they matter that much. I would have encountered something else, and it would have done a similar thing, perhaps.

I think there are “thing-shaped holes” in each person. Other things might have just as equally as filled those holes. There’s an abundance, or nearly an infinite amount of things, which is great.

It’s this idea of your “luck surface” or “serendipity stat” or something. One of the things Are.na is good at is being a place that you will encounter things that might fill various holes you have and change trajectories.

We all have tendencies, or habitual ways of looking at the world that we lean on. Those are the holes. It’s useful to identify those tendencies and then setting up ways to increase your luck surface for them.

Cab: How often do you go outside of the internet to find things?

Damon: When I lived in Providence, I would go to the Brown University library to look for things. It was the most serendipitous and beautiful place. The things that you might come across were really, really incredible. You’d find a book and be amazed by the books around it. Now I don’t have a good library nearby, which is kind of depressing.

Litany for the Blind (2016) by Damon Zucconi. [A black webpage with swirls of densely packed white type repeating a litany “Santa Lucia, pray for us. Odie, pray for us...” etc.]

Cab: We keep circling back to the distinction between the reference material and the work. Where does the work begin?

Damon: Sometimes something moves you so much that you need to re-stage or re-perform it. It’s the idea of embodying a copy.

The misspelled books I’ve made, for instance, could be thought about in those terms somewhat. These were the books I wanted to own. David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order, William Gibson’s Neuromancer. And The Bible eventually, but specifically The New Testament, and not The Old Testament.

The New Tsmanetet (2016). [A page of John Chapter 1 in the New Testament with all of the words misspelled.]

Cab: The idea of ownership is funny. I’m thinking about things I’ve saved on Are.na. Like, “That’s my shit.” I didn’t have any hand in making it, but somehow I feel this.

Damon: Yeah. When I’ve used or referenced something so often, I think, “I guess it’s mine now.”

When You're Here, You're Familiar, JTT, New York, installation view. [A white cube gallery with a row of images on the wall.]
cioeh_fna__gr__ll__ae__ns__d, 2023 and potahojafhgefeu_eoa_sl__nr_ui__it_sn__z___a__i____n____g___, 2023 by Damon Zucconi. [Two rasterized portraits side-by-side.]

Laurel: What was the process of creating your current exhibition? Did you begin by assembling some kind of curation of your collections that resonated with you?

Damon: It was weird with this show. For some reason, the thing I had first was the title, When You’re Here, You’re Familiar. I was trying to wrap my head around that phrase. I began by making an Are.na channel for it. Eventually I had three channels that were almost the same. I was trying to figure out ways in which these three channels were different. But I couldn't. It became very confusing to me.

Cab: What were the channels?

Damon: The channels were “When You’re Here, You’re Familiar,” “Identity & State,” and “Likeness.”

The show was a single body of work, literally on the face of things, which was a particularly difficult problem for me. I found it difficult to dig up things to bolster it with, like contextual material, which is what I usually do. It was almost as if I had a blind spot, and I was working within the blind spot.

Charles: The Forbidden Zone.

Laurel: Where did the exhibition’s title come from?

Damon: I have no idea. It just came to me. Obviously, it’s from “When you’re here, you’re family,” which is the Olive Garden’s motto. I don’t think I pulled my show’s title from anywhere because I kept trying to search for it online and came up with nothing. Did it just come out from the void? In the same way, I believe that’s where all thoughts come from. The title was a particular turn of phrase that sounded at once poetic and kind of stupid. Which is the best kind of language, it could go either way.

Damon's shirt "Diagram of All Space and Time" is now available on the Are.na Gift Shop.

Damon Zucconi is an artist, programmer, and webmaster of damonzucconi.com.

Laurel Schwulst is imagining & developing the Are.na Gift Shop.

Charles Broskoski is one of the many co-founders of Are.na.