Indispensible: Jon Bernson

"Indispensable" is a monthly series that asks the de Young’s Artists in Residence to explain a tool that’s essential to their work.

A tool is anything that a human uses to accomplish a task; a hammer to build a house, or wrench to tune an engine. But some tasks—transmitting a belief or shaping a reality—require a more abstract kind of tool. For this kind of job, a story is Jon Bernson’s implement of choice. 

Antiprism, Bernson’s current project at the de Young, explores a series of unexplained international broadcasts. Purportedly sent from a spacecraft at the outer reaches of our galaxy, these transmissions interrupted the programming of numerous television stations between 1986 and 2009. Evidence on view includes maps of Vessel XII’s journey, physical re-creations of the spacecraft and the antiprism itself, and videotaped interviews with eyewitnesses. The project asks questions about the legitimacy of scientific inquiry, the tension between conflicting ideas about what’s real, and how much humans can ever really know.

These are big ideas, and it’s a tough job to hold them all together. “Things like emotion, truth, and perspective are wild animals, and they tend to be chaotic or formless,” says Bernson. “But a story is a great tool to focus reality and create something that can be shared with others.” 

Like a cowboy uses a lasso to organize lonely cows into a productive herd of cattle, Bernson uses a story to tie his ideas together into something useful. His task is to communicate a certain view of reality, and his tool is a story that asks us to believe.

Visit the Kimball Education Gallery during Friday Nights at the de Young on April 17, April 24, and May 1 to see interdisciplinary performances celebrating the wildly conflicting theories surrounding Vessel XII.

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