You can usually find Flounder Lee, an assistant

professor of photography at IUPUI's Herron School of Art and Design, somewhere

around town, either in a classroom or the gallery he co-founded, SpaceCamp


. But Lee periodically takes trips far afield — from Alaska

to Northern Europe and beyond — to explore the borders that divide

nations and peoples from one another.

Lee's latest excursion to the Juneau Ice

Field in Alaska, from Oct. 14-24 — which he thoroughly documented with

video and photography — will form a new body of work yet to be

completed. (The trip was supported by a research support funds grant from

the office of the vice chancellor for research at IUPUI.)

Like other glacier systems around the world, the

glaciers of the Juneau Ice Field are retreating because of the current warming

trend in atmospheric temperatures. Lee wants to use his art to reflect this trend.

"It's similar to what I've been doing in the previous four years," he says,

"but this is pushing it in an environmental direction."

During their 10-day-long trip Lee, along with

his assistant and Herron grad student Michael Hoefle, explored glaciers in the

Juneau Ice Field, which is surrounded by mountains and, in the lower

elevations, a temperate rain forest. The weather was overcast and drizzly

and they were lucky to see the sun peak out of the clouds once or twice during

their trip.

"The first day we were there we just drove out;

seeing Mendenhall Glacier for the first time was amazing," Lee recalls. "It was

so big and loomed over the valley. The next day we went back to that same

glacier and hiked out the West Glacier Trail."

They followed the trail up onto the massive


"It was terrifying at first," Lee says. "But

we'd been told that during this part of the year the danger is the least and we

had ice cleats on, thankfully."

Later in the trip, they approached Mendenhall

Glacier both by kayaking to the base of the glacier and by helicopter, and they

documented this journey with video and digital photography. They borrowed

the kayaks from the University of Alaska South, where Lee had the opportunity

to lecture on his work to faculty and students.

"He was received really well," Hoefle

says. "There were a few students there who definitely understood what was

going on with the work. A lot of his earlier work that he showed happened to

deal with Native American treaties. It's kind of a hot issue in the Alaska


During the trip, Lee and

Hoefle explored the ramparts of three glaciers in total. Sometimes the

weather got in the way of their itinerary, however, especially when traveling

by helicopter.

"On the trip to the second glacier we just

circled around and that's where it felt like we were getting way too close to

the mountainside," Lee says. "We could see the sheep out there and they

were like, 'you guys are crazy.' I'm glad we didn't land, because it was hairy. ...

The winds were coming off the top of the glacier, just bailing down. Way

too dangerous to land."

Read the NUVO interview with Flounder Lee.

Glaciers in retreat

In Lee's previous projects, the cartographic

boundaries incorporated into his art have been political ones. But in this case

he was looking for natural borders — the previously mapped lines (termini)

of glaciers in fast retreat. These imaginary lines indicating past

measurements of a glacier's reach might be found in the middle of a lake or a

talus slope. Not only are these lines often more tenuous than political

boundaries, they're also more difficult to locate.

The ultimate products of Lee's art will likely

show maps revealing the growth or contraction of glaciers. These might be

superimposed or juxtaposed with his photography documenting his trip.

The maps of the Juneau Icefield do not

accurately reflect the ongoing glacial retreat, according to Lee. It's a

problem he hopes to address with a system of orientation combined with

photographic documentation he has developed over the past decade.

"For the first few years, I used a hacked

together system on my cellphone with a Bluetooth GPS. Now, through the grants

I've received, I have a more rugged GPS that is waterproof and daylight

readable. I use it as sort of a puzzle edge in my work. I shoot four

pictures in each direction and then the GPS to indicate that those are the ones

to be included."

With the help of GPS, Lee was able to

successfully navigate the rugged Tongass National Forest, but there was a limit

to how useful it could be.

"The lines [on the maps] would be the previous

terminus points," he says. "But the landscape was so rough that I couldn't go

to all of these places. It could be in the middle of a river or a lake or up

the side of a cliff. ... I wasn't able to follow the termini precisely like I'd

planned because real world obstacles were a lot more difficult in Alaska than

anywhere I've been.

"Alaskans also don't think of them as issues. One

forest ranger told us that crossing 30-foot logs over a raging river wouldn't

be 'that bad.' We didn't do it!"

But the quest to find, and to walk along,

previous glacial termini — successful or not — is in itself part of

his art.

"Anytime I'm walking these sort of spaces, it's

sort of a performance," Lee says. "I'm looking for [my photographic and

videography work] to be the final product, but they're also a documentation of

the performance to an extent."

Any way you look at it, there's a lot of work

— footwork and otherwise — involved in creating this type of art.


Growing up

"I grew up on a chicken farm," says Lee, 33, who was

born in Cullman, Ala. "I guess it gave me a strong work ethic more

than anything else. In high school I was a yearbook photographer, but even

before that, I was just doing photography. For as long as I can remember I

always wanted to do something with science. I wanted to be an aerospace

engineer and I had a full scholarship to the University of Alabama for

aerospace engineering [read more on Flounder Lee's interest in space]. And I went there for a year and as a job I was

doing party photography."

But Lee soon found he hated his coursework in

aerospace engineering nearly as much as he loved taking photographs. So

Lee left the University of Alabama, moved to Florida and took art photography

courses at a community college.

"Once I started taking art classes it was all

over," he says with a laugh. "I just went straight through from there and

got my undergrad at the University of Florida and I graduated with an MFA from

Cal State Long Beach. And that was in studio art in the photography area."

But his interest in photography spilled over

outside the classroom in college just like it had in high school. "Back

when I was working for the [high school] yearbook, I was taking just hundreds

and hundreds of photos," he recalls. "And I was even in this contest where I

took something like 400 photos in one day or something like that. ... Even

back [in the early 2000s] I was carrying my camera — I was like the only

person to begin with that was carrying my camera, like going to these parties

and things like this and no one carries a big SLR camera to a party but I do

anyway. I was going out dancing and things like that. I was either

documenting or filming for our social groups."

This was well before the social media explosion.

"Fifteen years ago you'd have the same roll of

film for Christmas as you would for your summer vacation," says Lee. "Now

people take hundreds in a single day. It's just a complete change in


Lee was somewhat prescient, then, in deciding to

document his interest in photography in the most comprehensive way possible.

"My thesis project for my MFA was dealing with

sort of not editing all that out and having it all," he says. "So I

included every photo that I ever had from certain years, from like 2000 to

2005. I scanned in all my negatives, all my digital files, and all my friends'

files that I had. So I just included them all. The title was 'All my


Lee's MFA thesis, completed in 2007, was the

prototype for much of his work that contains photographic mapping.

"When I didn't have the digital files I just

scanned it in as close as I could to chronological order," he says. "And

they were shot chronological order left to right, top to bottom; so that's the

first project I did that involved grids. You see that in my work now. Pretty

much all my work now has grids in it. Even if I change topics and change

methods, I try to have some parallels between my previous and my new work. ...

These grids, they're contact sheets basically, made in Photoshop, automatically

in chronological order. One of the other pieces I did for that same thesis

show documented all my Internet surfing for three months and it was over 60,000

images in chronological order, top to bottom, left to right."

Marrying art to the Internet

Lee received his MFA in photography and

digital art from Cal State Long Beach in 2007. He joined the faculty at Herron

that same year. The year before, he legally changed his first name from

Adam to his nickname Flounder.

"If you Google 'Adam Lee,' Lee says, "the top

ten things that come up are ten different people. Number one is a famous

balloon twister."

The Internet — and new media in general

— is a topic that Lee has explored extensively in his artwork.

In Lee's 2009 "Marriage of Art to the Internet"

performed at the Big Car Gallery in Indy's Fountain Square — and

simulcast to galleries in Houston, Miami and Brooklyn, N.Y. — he

officiates a marriage ceremony between two entities in hopes of promoting a

certain philosophy of preserving artwork. In this video, you see him

decked out in a white lab coat and, apparently, reading from TheHitchhiker'sGuidetotheGalaxy.

"For things like new media art and performance

art, if that stuff is to survive and become part of the canon, then the big

collectors and museums have got to dedicate themselves to keeping this stuff

and keeping it in its original form," Lee says.

For a given exhibition, he'd rather use an

intact Atari play station to play video games, as opposed to buying an Atari

app for an iPhone.

"They've actually got to take a computer from

now and set it aside so it doesn't change, like operating systems don't

change," he says. "So the art of these new media artists still

works. It's important to capture actual performances so you're not just

looking at documentation of something so that you're actually looking at the

thing in its original form."

Video is also a medium that Lee has explored to

amazing conceptual and aesthetic effect. Take, for example, his loop video

"U.S. Tribal Treaties 1794-1895" in which you see an outline of the United

States filled with blue toy soldiers and yellow toy Indians. In the

one-minute video, yellow is steadily overtaken over by a wave of blue as if in

a time machine in fast-forward.


Waves of people

Lee's art began to address immigration after he

moved to Indiana from Los Angeles.

"I started thinking about the history of

Indiana," says Lee. "And I pulled up these maps and these old treaties and

I got to thinking about how my family was not from up here but from down South. ...

My family, basically, we acted like we were American for like as far back as

you could go. I started doing research on it. We knew that there was

some Scotch-Irish in my family. And we knew there was some Cherokee in my

family. But when we started digging into it ... some of my family arrived in

Alabama in like 1840s like very beginning of Alabama. Some of them arrived

in the U.S. in like the 1630s. Then some of them were natives. And

there's waves of people that make up all of us that we don't really think about."

"I don't claim to be a native artist," Lee adds.

"I just claim to be interested. ... So thinking about that even further is

why I did that work in Europe the first time because I was thinking about how

do you just pick up and move across the ocean to a brand new place that almost

nobody knows anything about? It's a mindset that we can't even fathom


Perhaps Lee was in that mindset when he created

the art for a recent display in the window of the DXDX Design Studio Group in

Plymouth, England, entitled "Plymouth, Also."

"I sent them an image that I had made," says

Lee. "They projected it onto the window and drew it on the window. So

it's kind of fun. It is a drawing, but I just didn't draw it myself. It's of all

the places in the United States that are named Plymouth. It opened during

the British Art Show. It's once every five years so it was held during

that. It was funny. It was also during the America's Cup."

"Plymouth, Also" drives home the serious point

that the English colonists didn't exactly integrate with the Native American

inhabitants — in terms of language, culture, and, of course, place names.

"One of the arguments made about immigration is

that the people coming over now, they bring their own culture and they're not

trying to integrate with us," says Lee. "They say 'When our ancestors came

over, they integrated with the culture.' And it's like, yeah, that's why

we speak Cherokee now, isn't it? I'm like, this language that we speak,

it's called English!"

In addition to his work reflecting on

historical immigration patterns, Lee has also focused his attention on the city

of Indianapolis. In a 2008 photographic mapping series, "IPS-Township School

District Borders," he questions the gerrymandering of school districts and

the educational disparities that result.

SpaceCamp MicroGallery

Another activity that Lee pursues close to home

is his curatorial work centered in his former studio at Suite 212 in the Murphy

Art Center. It's more of a glorified walk-in closet than a gallery; but, per

the curatorial copy, "SpaceCamp is dedicated to bringing small (size wise) but

large (idea wise) national and international art to Indianapolis."

Lee shares curatorial duties with co-gallerists

Paul Miller (who currently has a show of his own going on at the Wheeler) and Kurt Nettleton. On Dec. 2, a Lee-curated exhibition will

open in the space: "Mapable," featuring the work of twelve artists drawn from

around the world (see infobox).

"My work is about maps so I wanted to have a

show that was speaking about maps as an art form," Lee says. "We've got artists

from Israel. There's a Scottish artist [Stuart McAdam] who rode his bike to

Denmark and back. The piece is just a trace of him riding his bicycle for that


While SpaceCamp shows local artists frequently,

there's a particular emphasis on bringing in outside voices. "I think part of

the issue with galleries that show only local artists is that there's no one to

go out and extol our praises. So that's why I try to bring artists in and I

encourage artists here to try to get their work out. We want to bring in

fresh ideas and get our ideas out. Not out ideas but our name. So

that people can see that we have a really good thing going. We live in

such a global society. ... And ideas don't really cost anything. So that's

something we can really think about, is how to bring in more ideas."

Curating, for Lee, is part of his artistic

practice, and it flows into his teaching as well. He could probably draw a

feedback loop on a blackboard (or an iPad) explaining how every aspect of his

existence on this planet influences his art. His art, likewise, feeds back

into his life. Or as he states on his website, "The intersections between

public and private, art and life, history and the present among others, have

always informed his work. He uses mapping and indexing to

recreate/reconstruct various pockets of space time."

Lee's big ambition is to engage in a

photography/videography project in Antarctica, where the West Antarctic

Icesheet seems to be headed toward meltdown, according to numerous scientific

observers. This is a project for which he would need substantial outside

funding. Michael Hoefle, his companion on the Alaska trip, would bet Lee

could overcome any roadblock that gets in his way to finding funding and

completing a successful trip. "He's just really, really focused on these big

projects that he wants to get done, and he doesn't allow anything to stop him,"

Hoefle says.

Perhaps Lee's toughest border to cross is at

home. "My family's supportive but they don't understand it all," says

Lee. "They understand the stuff I've been doing a lot more than the stuff

that I was doing in grad school or even undergrad. It's still conceptual,

but they know that it's talking about history or talking about environmental

issues. It's funny. I haven't even talked to my dad about the Alaska

stuff because he doesn't even believe in global warming. So that's one of

the reasons that I'm doing this project is that people don't understand. It's

not something you believe in or don't believe in. It's happening."

Visit for more on Flounder Lee.



curated by Flounder Lee, will explore the intersection of art and mapmaking in

the work of twelve artists from all over the world. "We've had maps for a long

time now," states Lee in the SpaceCamp release. "We have even had art

about maps for quite some time, but personal mapping and the pervasiveness of

mapping technologies is reaching a crescendo recently. With GPS becoming part

of every device, we are seeing maps in completely new ways. Paper maps becoming

relegated to theme parks and other tourist attractions."


Dan Grossman is NUVO's arts editor.

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