Brian Hewitt interview: Matters of scale

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BRIAN Hewitt is counting his life out in seconds. It's all for art, he tells SUSAN MANSFIELD

ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS YOU become aware of when you step into the gallery is the countdown. Though the number is large, it's steadily decreasing, one second at a time, measuring off the seconds left in artist Brian Hewitt's life.

Hewitt's digital projection Reckoning v0.4 contains a variety of real numbers counting in real time – his heartbeats since birth, the number of times he has blinked, the species that have become extinct in his lifetime, the stars that have formed, the miles travelled by the earth in space.

Though behind the scenes is a feat of complex computer programming, it is immediately engaging, and marked out the Chicago-born artist as a name to watch when an earlier version formed part of his degree show last summer at Edinburgh College of Art. Now he is remaking it as a part of his first solo show in the UK at the Corn Exchange Gallery.

So how does it feel to be confronted with the slowly diminishing count of your own life? "Some people think it's a bit morose of me to consider that," says the 39-year-old artist, who has projected the date of his death as 30 December, 2043. "It makes each of those seconds seem more precious, important. Then there are all these other things counting away. It makes me feel both small and important at the same time.

"I had an interesting experience with my degree show. Something went wrong and the programme changed the number, it took something like ten years off my life. It was interesting to watch that happen. The other number that counts down is the number of neo-cortical neurons, the brain's thinking cells, which decay in adult life. It's always interesting to sit and watch that diminish."

The numbers are the result of intensive research by Hewitt, whose first degree is in audio physics and who worked as a science journalist and radio producer before studying art. He aims to juxtapose the scale of a human life, measured in heartbeats and breaths, with immense concepts such as world population and astronomical miles.

"Part of my research process is trying to understand myself better, what that means, the way the world works. That's the core of my artistic practice. I'd been uncovering all these things and wanted to find a way to use them that wasn't static, something that changed as you were watching it, which is the way life works. I use myself as an example, but it's not really meant to be about myself. It's about the scale of human life, using my life as an example."

Hewitt's work reflects his range of interests across the spectrum of sciences, art and new technology. Having worked as a journalist, as a news producer on radio and as a webmaster, he enrolled to study art in Washington DC in 2002, later winning an international scholarship to come to Edinburgh College of Art.

In 2007, he co-curated Open, a show by graduating students from ECA at the Corn Exchange, and will make work for an international group show in Berlin in April. Reckoning v0.4 will be remade again for a group show at Talbot Rice Gallery in October, exploring the legacy of Darwin.

Hewitt says his career to date, which includes a spell as a webmaster for Nasa, gives him a basis to find common ground with scientists. "It has been a way of opening some doors for me. I still find myself lost in a number of conversations, but I have a starting point. I can go to seminars and understand the first 15 minutes, and ask questions that don't make me look like too much of a fool."

He believes that interaction between the fields of art and science can be fruitful for both parties. While scientists often work in ways that are intensely specialised and focus on specific goals, an artist can take a wider view, ask fresh questions about theories and implications, come up with unexpected ideas.

"Art is different from other ways of approaching these things because you have the opportunity to stick your nose into lots of different areas. You specialise in something which delights in non-specialisation. I think I've found the only way I can adequately explore the range of things I'm interested in. It's an essential service, a function that no-one else can do. Someone needs to be taking a wider view, creating things just to inspire people."

It took him some years to realise this was the way forward. "I'd been circling around the real creative heart of all these things, but I wasn't getting at what I needed, the unifying point of all these interests. Eventually, I just felt compelled to dive in. I feel a bit old for an emerging artist but I'm glad at the way it's worked out. All these life experiences are critical."

&#149 Brian Hewitt's exhibition Life Time is at the Corn Exchange Gallery, Edinburgh, until 15 April. www.cornexchangegallery.com

What other people are saying …

"Hewitt's 'Reckoning v0.4' is a rather magnificent ascent up and down the world of numbers, celebrating their ability to give dimension, weight, scale and quantity to human life. The various criteria around which he number-builds are breath-taking in their range. But, crucially, he captures them aesthetically, beautifully."

– Professor Andrew Patrizio, Edinburgh College of Art

"Brian's unique use of technology as his medium to explore the bigger issues that relate to humanity is fascinating. 'Reckoning's' ascent up and down the world of numbers is captivating ... As a conceptual piece it invites us to question our own mortality and the idea that every second counts."

– Caroline Alexander, Corn Exchange gallery director