Scratch the Surface

Michael Dinges scrimshaws about the consequences of technology, progress, capitalism, and more.

[Editor’s note: We introduced readers to Michael Dinges scrimshaw artwork in HAND/EYE’s 02/Future of Folk issue. We were recently contacted with news of his first solo show, The Dead Laptop Series, which will be exhibited at Tekserve in New York. This show pays tribute to early American schoolgirl samplers with their embroidered exemplars of virtuous behavior as Dinges notes, “the keyboard represents the alphabet.” Woven into his dense imagery is a compendium of 21st century privacy and environmental concerns and warnings. For example, “Of all the creatures in the ocean, beware those feeding on Brownian motion” and “The innocent have nothing to fear from the surveillance of desire.”

The Dead Laptop Series will be on display in New York at Tekserve, which has been celebrating the best of the past as well as selling the latest Apple computers, accessories and assorted tools and toys for audio/ visual pros and enthusiasts since its inception in 1987. Dinges’ artwork will be displayed throughout the main floor of Tekserve, surrounded by the store’s iconic collection of radios, microphones, and Mac computers.  The exhibit opens Saturday, October 15 and runs through Tuesday, November 22, 2011.]

Artist Michael Dinges investigates everything from thermodynamics to consumer waste in his unique, witty adaptations of scrimshaw.  His canvas of choice tends to be objects and materials we have, metaphorically or actually, consigned to the waste heap. With skilled draftsmanship and a poetic sensibility, the marks he makes on these objects force us to reconsider what we used them for in the first place and how they came into being. Perhaps most important is the question of exactly how disposable these objects really are. Are they devoid of value? Do they disappear just because we throw them away?  Dinges took time out from his Chicago studio to answer some questions from HAND/EYE.

Let’s start with a basic question: Why scrimshaw?  

My last show before entering the University of Chicago’s MFA program in 2003 was a series of photorealistic drawings of everyday objects. These objects, at first glance outdated, are still useful, like plum bobs or clothespins. I’ve always been keen on the everyday object -- the things that despite more spectacular technology haven’t changed much in perhaps tens, hundreds or even thousands of years. Each of these drawings took weeks and weeks to complete and I would get wrapped up in the meditative act of rendering in graphite.

I remember sitting in my U of C studio with some pvc pipe elbows from some other project, and they reminded me of whales’ teeth in their size and arching form. I grabbed an awl to see if they were soft enough to engrave. They were, and off I went. Out of hand fatigue, I quickly switched to an electric Dremel tool rather than a hand stylus. Home Depot is now my art supply store.

During grad school, the war in Iraq was really going poorly for the US, as well as for Iraqi citizens. I was seeing a lot of mass-produced patriotic imagery around, eagles and flags and ribbons, notably on bloated SUV’s and pick-ups. It seemed curious to support the Iraq war while driving a gas-guzzler. I saw a serious disconnect between the harsh reality of what was happening over there and what was happening here.

At the same time, globalization and our administration seemed to collude in the creation of what I now call “bulimic capitalism.”  This combination of pre-packaged patriotic imagery and the turbulent political/economic situation made me reflect on the 19th century antecedents of just how we had gotten to this situation: Manifest Destiny gone mad. The only good thing about the Bush/Cheney years for me was the rage that fueled my work.

But back to scrimshaw.  White PVC plastic is interesting because it is reminiscent of ivory, but also toxic and potentially deadly. It’s ubiquitous (and cheap) and we still don’t know the cumulative effects of that ubiquity. I found I could glue PVC pipes together and make new forms, vessels like those found in trench art, or use existing objects, 5 gallon plastic buckets for example, as street drums.

I’m more interested in creating the story of a used object rather than starting with a new one. I like working around the existing surface scratches on the dead laptops and extracting an enhanced patina. However, is it healing for an alienated laborer to work directly on objects that have been made anonymously overseas and shipped here by container ship?

Along with scrimshaw I am inspired by trench art, the craft of soldiers making objects out of empty brass shells left over from battle. I found it interesting that these pieces were made in the idle time between battles or while recuperating in the hospital from wounds suffered on the battlefield. Essentially, soldiers worked on the very material that could maim or even kill them. I read once that the Romans would cauterize a battle wound with the very spear point that inflicted it. That’s a powerful metaphor that stuck with me.

Your inscriptions indicate possible Luddite tendencies, and yet your  beautification of things like lawn chairs and over-the-hill personal  computers opens up transcendent possibilities for these emblems of the impersonal Now.   The tension is wonderful.  Any comment on this?

You’re exactly right. I love that tension and enjoy tweaking it. Maybe I have a tendency to anthropomorphize everyday objects, but I have an inherent dislike for the wastefulness of “perfectly good things… in the wrong places.” I like the slippery possibilities between “useful-ness” and “object-ness”.  But am I a Luddite? I’ll leave that for someone else to label me with that or not.

Scrimshaw and tattoos, both being the product of men in cheek to jowl circumstances, and far away from home, share roots. Do both come into play in your work?

Yes, doing my work has an important aspect of seeking orientation, globally and internally-spiritually. I think, as a male, I’m trying to find out just what maleness/human-ness means under this giant shift we find ourselves going through since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

I generally embrace the so-called “feminization of society,” which is a loaded topic best left for another time, but it’s possible that contemporary society does leave some men at loose ends. I’m more interested in people, regardless of gender, establishing mindful, comprehensive problem solving and critical thinking, so that they can master their own futures and not be bound by dysfunctional tradition.
Beyond tattoos and scrimshaw, it’s important to say that my “Dead Laptop Series” was formally inspired by 19th-century American schoolgirl needlepoint samplers. Images here often included the alphabet, botanicals, and simple moral verse meant to inspire virtue.  Samplers almost look like laptops in size and they sort of represent the keyboard by way of the alphabet. I love the moral verses on them, and how their “knowledge” gets codified and transmitted in an intimate way. I make up my own simple poems to engrave, which are intentionally not meant to be great poetry but simply posit moral questions.

In general, I’m interested in the technology and imagery of the mid 19th-century. When the industrial revolution was really rolling, people were migrating from the country to the city. This is the era Marx was reacting to and he was aware of the changing dynamic and resulting alienation between worker and task. This is the period where roles of labor and management were being set, and the environmental impact of industrialization began to be keenly felt. This was also the period in which Thoreau was writing, so these issues were in the air. This is when whaling was at its peak and with that efficiency of production came the eventual, near destruction, of the very resource that sustained us.

Alienation is a big issue for me in my work. I’m interested in asking both the viewer and myself about issues concerning our relationship with modernity. I want the viewer to ask himself or herself, when confronted with one of my altered computers, for example, “Is this what you wanted, is this the result you intended?” I intend this work to be a plea for mindfulness in the choices we make in our daily lives.

The focus on defunct tools in your work is consistent. Are there new about-to-be-redundant tools catching your attention?

I try not to think of tools as defunct. In fact, many are just out of fashion. Tools of orientation like sextants, nocturnals and sundials, are not defunct:  they will still work as they have for thousands of years when the battery wears down on the GPS unit.

High technology objects can become genuinely obsolete, but they leave a perhaps hidden legacy of experience, which is intriguing to me. Televisions that didn’t make the transition to digital reception are everywhere now but currently…are of no interest to me. I’m sure someone could do something with them because they are orphans now and can only emit light. That’s intriguing, but I’ll leave that project for someone else.

What are you working on now?

I have a large project in mind that would consist of a 12 foot long engraved lifeboat, fabricated out of wood and planked with vinyl siding. I then intend to engrave the exterior with all manner of issues surrounding the current financial crisis as well as the garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I’ve been dragging my feet on it for months because it would take up so much room, dominate all other activity -- and then I’m not sure what I’d do about storage once it’s done.

I must admit that I was unexpectedly thrown by Obama’s election for a few months: the rage that fueled my work up until then died down for a while, and I thought I’d run out of inspiration. Now that I see the opposition picking themselves up to hurl increasingly shrill and loopy accusations at a progressive government, it’s easier for me to react to their over-reaction. There still is a lot of territory yet to explore as I continue to work on laptops and, at some point, get back to more bucket drums and a few odd one-off scrimshaw projects.

For more information on Michael Dinges and his work, see To visit Dead Laptop series, the exhibit is located at Tekserve, 119 West 23 Street, between 6th & 7th Avenues, just a few blocks east of Chelsea’s art gallery district.

Store hours: Mon.-Fri.: 9-8, Sat.: 10-6, Sun.: 12-6 For information about Tekserve’s ongoing RECYCLE THE PAST program and ewaste drop off days, check in at For more information about art@tekserve, please contact: Jan Albert 212-924-3064



Please signup or login to comment