Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Art Space Talk: Nathaniel Stern

Nathaniel Stern is an American-born interdisciplinary artist who works in a variety of media, including interactive art, public art interventions, installation, video art, printmaking and physical theatre. Nathaniel graduated with a degree in Textiles and Apparel Design from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in 1999, and went on to study at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, graduating in 2001. He later taught digital art at the University of the Witwatersrand, while also practicing as an artist, in Johannesburg, South Africa from 2001 - 2006. He is currently pursuing a PhD at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

enter:hektor, interactive installation, dimensions variable, 2000 (updated 2005)

Brian Sherwin: Nathaniel, you studied at Cornell University and at New York University. How did your academic years influence the direction of your art? Did you have any influential instructors?

Nathaniel Stern: At Cornell I studied music and fashion; I think the combination of composition and design sparked my interests in movement, visuality and embodiment. When I went on to NYU, I had already begun working with digital technologies, but ITP (the Interactive Telecommunications Program) really immerses you in them, exposes you to all sorts of people and possibilities, and so it was that saturation that helped push me towards the trajectory of exploring performativity in my work.

Pretty much all the full-time lecturers at ITP influenced me greatly, albeit in different ways: Marianne Petit, Dan O'Sullivan, Tom Igoe and Danny Rozin.

The Odys Series: The Storyteller, archival print on watercolor paper, 1189 x 841, edition 3, 2004

BS: Nathaniel, I’ve read that you are inspired by the Interactive art of David Rokeby and Myron Kruger. Can you tell us about these influences? What else inspires you?

NS: I believe Kruger's core contribution to understanding interactivity was a concentration on action rather than perception - 'seeing' in particular. He had little concern for illusion-based and simulated VR that replicated reality, and was more interested in stimulation - with a 't' - and how people moved / getting them to move. I think Rokeby is brilliant in many ways, and his work, Very Nervous System (1986-1990), was one of the first and most important pieces to accomplish an affective intervention in embodiment through this kind of inter-activity. But what inspires me most about him is his contrariness. He almost always tries 'something else,' never really accepting the limits or taken for granted in any given medium.

My other influences are fairly idiosyncratic: from Hiroshige, the Impressionists and Homer's epic tales to Liam Gillick or Camille Utterback and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. I often turn to contemporary fiction, theory and philosophy in my thinking and making. I should also say that my wife, Nicole Ridgway, is the most wonderful muse and crit I've ever met: my biggest fan and supporter precisely because she is also my harshest critic before a work is done.
Stuttering, interactive installation, dimensions variable, 2003 (image of screenshots)

BS: It has been suggested that Stuttering is your most well received piece. Can you discuss Stuttering… compared to the direction you are taking with your work now?

NS: Stuttering succeeds in its doubled gesture. The best way to describe the piece is as a kind of invisible Mondrian painting, where each of the 34 otherwise white rectangles will play animated text and spoken word when triggered by bodies in the space.

So on the one hand, if a participants just walks in front of it, the piece itself 'stutters,' enveloping them in a cacophony of broken audiovisual quotes. But as these performers spend more time with it, learn how to move and engage in a kind of intimate and serious play, it is they who end up 'stuttering' - with their bodies. In order to elicit any kind of meaning from this barrage of verbiage, they have to stand like statues, then twitch or nod or shake just one piece of themselves. These interactions have been compared to Tai Chi or Butoh by some reviewers; it can become a deep and literal investigation of our physical relationships to language and structure.

With regards to the direction of my recent work, my entire practice is probably best framed as a series of questions and criticisms that follow on from one another. 'stuttering,' for example, came out of a desire to investigate what happens in front of, rather than on, the screen after '[odys]elicit' impressed mostly dancers. 'step inside' was a response to, and capitalization on, how a small number of participants with 'stuttering' were more interested in performing for, and amusing other, people in the gallery than they were in investigating their inter-actions with the work itself. My ongoing Compressionism series of prints is an attempt to capture the dynamism, relationality and performativity in these kinds of pieces with more traditional visual art objects.

I sometimes go in several directions at once, but there's always something gained, and carried on from, what I was doing before.
Landscapes and Icons: Siren’s Dillisk, lambda print on metallic paper, 610 x 1200 mm, edition 5, 2007

BS: It seems that with each passing year people are becoming more interested in art involving technology. However, traditionalists are often still wary of technology as a medium. In your opinion, what do people need to consider when viewing these works? How can someone learn to appreciate what you and others are doing? Or would you say that it takes a certain type of individual to ‘get’ what you are striving to do?

NS: Maybe a good parallel for my answer to this question could be how Nicholas Bourriaud changed the theoretical frame for understanding socially interactive art with his essays on Relational Aesthetics in the mid- and late-90s. I think the same can be done for physically interactive and/or technological art. As you suggest, simply engaging it differently might better open understandings and appreciation for it.

In a lot of ways, I suppose my work is a kind of material manifestation of Bourriaud's aesthetic; we are both concerned with what happens in the gallery space, with relationality and dynamism. But where he is interested in sociopolitical relationships, my work is concerned with embodied and physical ones. Where he focused on commerce and the social interstice, interactive art tends to highlight emergence and intervene in fixity - whether that of space or time or the body. Not that these are mutually exclusive categories on any level, but we can't forget how brutally Bourriaud has continued to dismiss digital art; his followers, too - like Claire Bishop - continue to overlook embodied and affective interactivity even as they sing the praises of social participation and engagement.

As with any form of art, all it takes is time and effort to grow one's interest and excitement. There's no lack of smart and good work out there to discuss. I'm actually currently working on a PhD dissertation which explores just such a critical framework for interactive art.
BS: Your work often calls for viewer participation. For example, your installation enter:hektor allowed participants to chase projected words with their arms so that spoken words would be triggered in the space. I suppose the major problem you run into is the fact that not every viewer wishes to participate. Has that been an issue for you? Or are people generally apt to comply with what the work needs?
NS: Good question. Yes, for me, the participant and how they move in relation to the work, what they learn and what emerges as they physically engage with it, and how they reflect on that later: this is all precisely the 'work' of any given work. enter:hektor, which preceded stuttering, similarly asked performers to explore their embodied relationships to language. But rather than stutter, they had to articulate by chasing after (or conversely running away from) animated words - sometimes with great difficulty.

Most people have only seen the work online; and yes, in the gallery space, many are too shy to involve themselves. It's never quite the same to watch or read about such art, as opposed to enacting and experiencing it. At least in the gallery, I've tried to work around or with this problem in various ways - unwitting participation through external sensors, closed off environments for privacy, and my aforementioned printmaking series. I do my best to see the issues that arise in any given piece as a potential opportunity to explore something new.

BS: So on a philosophical level do you view the participants as a part of the piece itself? A medium of flesh and movement, so to speak?

NS: Exactly that. Perhaps it can be considered Minimalism's core aesthetic idea - that of exploring the body in space around a simple art object - taken to a different end: active physical provocation.
Compression Series-- Nathaniel Stern scanning water lilies at Emmarentia Park, Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Nicole Ridgeway, 2006

BS: Can you briefly tell us about your other work… the prints and video art?

NS: The ongoing print series mentioned earlier - 'Compressionism' - came out of a desire to engage those viewers who did not want to interact, to invite them into the possibility of playing with some of the questions, experiences and understandings of flesh and movement that they might be missing. Here, I strap a custom-made scanner appendage and battery pack to my body, and perform images into existence. I might scan in straight, long lines across tables, tie the scanner around my neck and swing over flowers, do pogo-like gestures over bricks, or just follow the wind over water lilies in a pond. Because of how the technology works, the entire 3D space and object I've scanned is physically compressed to the size of the scanner face, and I then re-stretch and hand-color the images in PhotoShop.
What emerges in each file are strips of time that are rendered as an ongoing relationship between my own body movements, and the landscape around me. These are then produced as archival prints using photographic or inkjet processes; I also often take details from these images and iteratively re-make them as traditional prints: lithographs, etchings, engravings and woodcuts, among others. They're actually quite lovely.

My video works have a much longer history; they began as monologues by unfolding character-driven narratives, which culminated in a major solo show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004-2005. The museum housed odys, Nathaniel, hektor, X, a video installation with three of these characters projected on a sculpture, the odys series, another video installation consisting of 6 separate video works on screens with headphones (now available for iPod), step inside, a large-scale interactive installation, and more than 33 pinhole, generative and ASCII art prints from 'abstract machines of faciality.'
My more recent video works are either documentation of performance events, such as my performed architectures for the Wireframe Series in Croatia and South Africa, or play with hand- carved found footage. An example of the latter would be 'at interval,' where I removed all spoken dialogue from Woody Allen's 'Annie Hall,' leaving only stutters, gasps, and oral fumbles. Even here, you can see the connection between these works and my interests in language, performativity and relationality.
The Wireframe Series: Sentimental Construction #1, public intervention/performance, photo documentation, Dubrovnik, Croatia, 2007

BS: What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your current projects?

NS: I've got a few goings-on at present, so I'll mention a handful in brief:

I'm finishing up the aforementioned PhD dissertation. I'm working on an interventionist piece in South Africa that will be part of an exhibition in Cape Town in September. Here, I've set up an antagonistic relationship with the lead arts critic in the country, asking him to give up electricity for 24 hours, and hiring street laborers to power his evening with hand-crank generators. The installation will consist of documentation of the complex negotiations that unfolded between all parties before, during and after this event.

I've just started working on my first mixed realities installation that sits between Second Life and Real Life, which I hope to launch some time in 2009. It tries to build on some of the Minimalist principals of perception I mentioned earlier, but plays them out through an embodied relationship to the network.

With Scott Kildall, I'm planning a self-propagating and self- transforming project that exploits some of the logical flaws in the relationship between the blogosphere and Wikipedia.
I've got two other DIY / lo-tech print-ish projects brewing. One is a series of hand-made sculptural slide projectors, each of which will project several cut ups from my scanned works, bringing these images back into a 3D space. The other will see static drawings and prints mounted on hacked-up digital photo frames playing looped videos in the background. Both of these carry on from some of my ideas with the Compressionism series, which I'm also continuing to produce work for. And more, of course....
Simulate Editions, unique and authenticated virtual art objects in collaboration with Scott Kildall, 2008

BS: So is there a specific message that you strive to convey with your collective work?

NS: It's not so much a message I want to convey as a curiosity I hope to inspire. My prints might ask us to look again, stuttering to feel or listen again. I try to do this in ways that words never could.

BS: Nathaniel, you have given your support to Creative Commons (CC). You have been a contributing member of iCommons since its inception. Can you discuss your interest in CC? Having communicated with hundreds-- if not thousands-- of artists online it seems that many are against what CC stands for-- there tends to be a great deal of confusion about it. In your opinion, what do people need to consider when thinking about these issues?

NS: I think there's a misconception out there that to give art away for free is to devalue it, whether culturally or monetarily. I believe as many people as possible need to see art and talk about it. This always brings a more explicit value in the cultural sphere, and can bleed into monetary value for any given artist's work as well.
The more everyday art appreciators own posters of the Mona Lisa, for example, the more the original painting has value to the true collector. I don't give everything I do away under CC; but when I do, it's usually a tactic for the most effective art work, and with the recognition that this will only bring more value - both culturally and monetarily - to my work more generally, whether it's for sale or not.
Broad Cast Response, video installation, two screens or projections facing one another, dimensions variable. Displayed at the iCommons Summit in Croatia, 2007

BS: What other concerns do you have about the art world or the public acceptance of art at this time?

NS: This is a concern that's bigger than the art world, I think, and so its relevancy is huge: it's unfortunate there are so many ass holes and idiots out there, and that so many of them hold public office.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the goals that you have?

NS: I guess I tend to think smaller, to try to concentrate on my goals for one work or project at a time. I don't want to preempt any possibilities in the future by thinking too far ahead, or too broadly about my work. If I had to speak generally, I'd say I strive for intervention, thought and dialogue.
I like to challenge those things we think we've understood or interrogated sufficiently - for example, while performance art pushes our ideas about the body and identity, some of my pieces will try to challenge what a body 'is', or even 'that' it is.

I like making beautiful and interesting things that mess with you.

You can learn more about Nathaniel Stern by visiting his website-- www.nathanielstern.com. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page-- www.myartspace.com/interviews.
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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