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 MicroGallery
MicroGallery. 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
"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
"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."
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
"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.
"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
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.
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,"
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."
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."