Bird brain

Amos Latteier marries art and science with ease, and pigeons have their place, too

That skinny guy with the pigeon poop running down his corduroys? He's not just another laid-off dot-commer with a hobby.

He's an artist.

Thirty-two-year-old Irvington resident Amos Latteier (pronounced luh-TEER), computer whiz turned performance artist, investigates all the usual artist stuff Ñ representation, information systems, social constructs, everything in air quotes Ñ but without the usual art school blather. He finds things out, he builds contraptions, then he talks about them in English.

Latteier's chosen art form is the lecture, and he calls his medium PowerPointillism in recognition of the aesthetic power of PowerPoint, the business presentation software that has become the basic communication tool of office workers, the military and even college students.

He will deliver his newest piece, 'Pigeon Aerial Photography,' next week in his favorite institution, the Central Library. (Also on the bill is local filmmaker Andrew Dickson, presenting a fictional character in 'An Evening With Bradlee.')

Pigeon cultivation is so retro, so blue-collar, that at first this sounds like one of those city-slicker chicks taking up crochet just to be different, just to be analog. However, Latteier has an angle. His curiosity was piqued on discovering that aerial photography (another of his special interests) began with rockets, kites, balloons and birds, long before there were any planes. A 1906 photo of a German homing pigeon with a tiny bellows camera around his neck inspired Latteier to send his birds out with wireless digital cameras and video cameras strapped to their chests.

'It's still a work in progress,' he says, using the classic artistic escape clause. 'The cameras are a bit too heavy.'

But the fact that the photos were a bust didn't stop him from developing his 20-minute presentation, which he refers to as 'more of a 'report of findings' than a lecture.'

Get him on the subject, and his eyes light up.

'There are a lot of reasons to do it. One, it's stupid. Two, it's funny. Three, you wonder what birds see up there. And four, it's a challenge,' he explains.

That's the Latteier way in a nutshell: rampant curiosity coupled with technical chutzpah. He recently taught himself electronics Ñ soldering, integrated circuits, microcontrollers Ñ from a book. He built a 500-pound potato battery housed in the back of a moving van. It was simple and ridiculous, with just enough output from the spuds to drive a tinny radio. Like a lot of art, it's sort of a joke, but the element of wonder detains you.

Born outside Vancouver, B.C., Latteier grew up in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, including Seattle and Port Townsend, Wash.

His mother, Carolyn, once a maid in a Port Townsend resort, is now a writer. In 1998 she published 'Breasts: The Women's Perspective on an American Obsession.' His father is a medical administrator at the University of British Columbia, a literary man who, Latteier says, 'never really wanted a career.'

'I never came from money,' Latteier says, 'but it's just fallen in my lap as an adult.' Although he studied art and philosophy at Brown University in Providence, R.I., graduating in 1996, he says: 'I always ended up doing computers, and people started overpaying me. If I wanted to, I could make a fair amount of money, but my needs are so low, it's easy for me to get by.'


Pedaling around town wearing a rain slicker, Latteier is classic Portland. He was in the Flexcar program until the prices went up; now he shares an old Subaru with a friend. Soft-spoken, he often ends a sentence with a nod and a 'Yeah' as his brain takes stock. He says he's the least literary person in his family but comes alive when he discusses authors such as Melville and Pynchon.

He recently discovered Rabelais' 16th-century proto-novel 'Gargantua and Pantagruel.' 'That book is out of control,' says the meticulous software designer, conferring his highest accolade.

'I used to be this shy, bookish person,' he says of his evolution, 'not someone who would be a performance artist. What do they do, get naked and run around?'

In the San Francisco public library in the mid-'90s, he rediscovered videotapes of James Burke's popular science series 'Connections,' which still inspires him to present ideas in ways that leap across disciplines.

To pay the rent he teaches Zope, a Web-building software tool, to air-conditioned rooms of techies just outside Washington, D.C.

For Jim Fulton, chief technology officer of Zope Corp., Latteier's greatest asset is his creativity. 'Amos is good at analyzing a problem and seeing how to assemble technology or create new technology to solve problems. And he's a great communicator,' he says.

Rare praise for an artist or a computer geek.

'I'm interested in work that's about ideas and history and experiments and discovery and knowledge that has content,' says the artist. He can bang on about Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard if he wants to, but he prefers that the objects he makes, and his commentary on them, remain accessible and fun.

He's a co-founder of Portland's 'Lecture Series,' occasional quirky talks on topics such as transportation, models, graffiti and privacy, held in a dirty Old Town warehouse.

Houdini and beards

As any of his friends can tell you, Latteier's no hipster. Beyond the easily imitated McSweeney's style, which values mock academia over vulgar modernism, his work is closer to the amateur science of the Institute for Land Use Analysis in Los Angeles, a private institution that takes a fresh look at the landscape. (They love slide shows, too.)

Of the Museum of Jurassic Technology Ñ a fake natural history museum in Los Angeles that was featured in Lawrence Weschler's book 'Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder' Ñ Latteier has this to say: 'I like how (they're) interested in natural history display, but I kind of don't like how what they do is just fake. It's kind of like a one-trick pony, to make a fake thing. It's funny, but, OK, what now?'

'He doesn't provoke, or ask for attention, he just thinks about things,' says Camela Raymond, founder of local art scene newspaper The Organ. 'He's always got some weird book he's reading.' She says he is known around town for his Faust puppet shows and performances concerning Houdini and growing beards.

Erin Boberg is the assistant curator of performing arts for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. One of her tasks is dealing with a mountain of videotapes from aspiring performance artists. She likes Latteier's work a lot, and says he was the curators' favorite of 40 artists chosen for next April's Northwest New Works Festival show at On the Boards, a Seattle venue.

'He has a certain odd charisma,' Boberg says. 'The audience sees a young man in a corduroy suit, (and) they wonder: Is he a professor? An intellectual? A comedian? Then this barrage of images ensues, and you're left to sort it out.'

For Latteier, there's no virtue in obscurity or intellectual name-dropping. 'Why try to disguise it and make it really hard on people? Why not give them in a more straightforward way what you're interested in and what you want them to know?'

As Raymond says: 'They broke the mold when they made Amos. His art and his life are not really separate.'

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