M Magazine

Scanning the World



m-mag-shootTo call Nathaniel Stern a Renaissance man might be an understatement. An associate professor of art and design in the Peck School of the Arts at UW-Milwaukee, Stern is a Fulbright grantee, published author and TED Talk speaker; his artwork has been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide, and he’s on the forefront of using scanner imaging photography. Stern is also the co-founder and core team member of the UWM Student Startup Challenge and the Lubar Center for Entrepreneurship, along with Dr. Ilya Avdeev, UWM assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Brian Thompson, president of the UWM Research Foundation.

In viewing Stern’s vast expertise and interests, a common theme emerges: interaction. He wants people who view his art and the entrepreneurs he coaches to think about who they are, who they can be, and how they relate to the world and one another. As he said at the conclusion of his TED Talk, “Think about the kinds of relationships and environments we’d have, if we thought more about the relationships and environments we have.”

Stern did just that when he created his stunning visual images, playing with how our interaction with technology and the world produces beauty. He strapped a desktop scanner, laptop and cus- tom-made battery pack to his body, and then wiggled and jumped, capturing images as he moved. The image you see in the gallery might be a result of his breathing, or cracks in the glass, or a fly attracted to the light of the scanner beam. Then, as Stern says, “The dynamism between the three — my body, technology and the landscape — is transformed into beautiful and quirky renderings, which are then produced as archival prints.” Stern’s visual images were displayed most recently at the Tory Folliard Gallery this past summer during Gallery Night and Day. (Tory Folliard represents Stern’s artwork in the Midwest.)

Perhaps the best way to understand Stern’s work is to participate in his interactive art. Stern has hacked full-bodied gaming control- lers so that viewers trigger animation, spoken words and more by moving their bodies. In a sense, the interaction between the viewer and the technology creates the art. For example, in “Stuttering,” the viewer’s movement produces words on a screen. Move slowly, and a few words appear, spouting zen-like wisdom: “Take a deep breath.” “Read.” “Consciousness.” Move quickly, and the screen stutters, lighting up with a cacophony of phrases. But as with everything Stern makes, the art is more than just art. “I like to think that ‘Stuttering’ helps us practice listening and performing in the world with a little more care,” he says.

Stern witnessed this firsthand when all four of his interactive works were displayed, alongside the work of Tegan Bristow, in a show called “Meaning Motion” at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. He watched people move from one interactive exhibit to another, sometimes stopping to teach a friend or stranger how to interact with the art. At “Elicit,” a piece in which every movement evokes a sea of text, he watched viewers silently invite each other to dance. “Their relationships to each other and themselves and the art shift, and they leave that space thinking, moving and interacting differently,” Stern says.

Milwaukee residents can interact with these works when “Body Language” is shown this November and December at the INOVA gallery at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts.

Download this article as a jpg or PDF, or see on the M Magazine site.

Art Education

Art Education Nathaniel Stern Cover

Cover image and feature article on Nathaniel Stern’s work and practice.

“In this month’s Instructional Resource, Christine Woywod presents the interactive artworks of Nathaniel Stern who often blends art and technology to generate participatory installations through which audience members may bodily experience art, performing images into existence.” – James Haywood Rolling Jr.

Woywod, C. (2016). “Nathaniel Stern: Performing images into existence.” Art Education, Volume 69 Issue 4 pp 36-42.

Downloadable PDF of the above article is forthcoming. Firewall version here.

A companion web resource is available here.

Shepherd Express

‘Vital Technology’ at MIAD
High-tech fun house of art in motion
By Kat Murrell

Vital Technology” is an exhibition much enjoyed by me and my shadow. If you visit, you’ll see what I mean. Artists Bryan Cera and Nathaniel Stern have put together eight installations in the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design’s Frederick Layton Gallery, which are activated by the viewer through various means of physical interaction. The works synthesize strong visuals, sound and motion in a high-tech funhouse that also proposes questions about the influence of technology in our lives.

About that shadow part: a number of the installations are large-scale projections where the viewer becomes part of the piece. Stroll in front of Cera’s Supercontroller and watch your shadow grab at coins and otherwise jump around in a virtual world that borrows from Super Mario Bros. 3. You have become your own game character and your shadow stretches as you grow in video game strength. It then shrinks and collapses as you meet your demise for not avoiding pesky animated nemeses. Stern’s elicit is a wall projection of flickering text that builds like unreadable poetry, falling in color from blue to purple to paler shades. With a flick of your hand, a letter is bumped and then drifts away. It becomes legible, gaining freedom from the pack, but losing the contextual comfort of its companion language.

Many of the installations have audio tracks, including Supercontroller with its video game pings and rings. The most aurally engaging is Social-Sonic Architecture, #3, a collaboration between the artists and others. It looks like something pieced together from Radio Shack, with a series of speakers wired up on the wall. Say something into the microphone at the end of the line and your processed voice rolls like a wave along the wall, pulsing through the sound system with a strangely fascinating disembodied presence.

The exhibition is designed to elicit reflection on the ability of technology to exert influences on the way we move, speak and otherwise react to our surroundings. In the gallery, the playful novelty nearly supersedes these significant questions, but it is outside the exhibition that one reflects on these quieter notes.

“Vital Technology: Interactive works by Bryan Cera and Nathaniel Stern” continues through Dec. 6 at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, 273 E. Erie St.

read the original article on express milwaukee


The Performance of Infrastructure: Review of Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body As Performance by Nathaniel Stern
Book review by Robert Jackson


New book! 'Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance' underscores the stakes for interactive and digital art

… Nathaniel Stern’s Interactive Art and Embodiment establishes two first events: not only Stern’s debut publication but also the first of a new series from Gylphi entitled “Arts Future Book” edited by Charlotte Frost, which began in 2013. All quotations are from this text unless otherwise stated.

Stern’s vision in brief: in order to rescue what is philosophically significant about interactive art, he justifies its worth through the primary acknowledgement of embodiment, relational situation, performance and sensation. In return, the usual dominant definitions of interactive art which focus on technological objects, or immaterial cultural representations thereof are secondary to the materiality of bodily movement. Comprehending digital interactive art purely as ‘art + technology’ is a secondary move and a “flawed priority” (6), which is instead underscored by a much deeper engagement, or framing, for how one becomes embodied in the work, as work. “I pose that we forget technology and remember the body” (6) Stern retorts, which is a “situational framework for the experience and practice of being and becoming.” (7). The concepts that are needed to disclose these insights are also identified as emergent.

“Sensible concepts are not only emerging, but emerging emergences: continuously constructed and constituted, re-constructed and re-constituted, through relationships with each other, the body, materiality, and more.” (205)

Interactive Art and Embodiment then, is the critical framework that engages, enriches and captivates the viewer with Stern’s vision, delineating the importance of digital interactive art together with its constitutive philosophy.

One might summarise Stern’s effort with his repeated demand to reclaim the definition of “interactive”. The term itself was a blatantly over-used badge designed to vaguely discern what made ‘new media’ that much newer, or freer than previous modes of consumption. This was quickly hunted out of discursive chatter when everyone realised the novel qualities it offered meant very little and were politically moribund. For Stern however, interactivity is central to the entire position put forward, but only insofar as it engages how a body acts within such a work. This reinvigorated definition of “interactive” reinforces deeper, differing qualities of sensual embodiment that take place in one’s relational engagement. This is to say, how one literally “inter-acts” through moving-feeling-thinking as a material bodily process, and not a technological informational entity which defines, determines or formalises its actions. A digital work might only be insipidly interactive, offering narrow computational potentials, but this importance is found wanting so long as the technology is foregrounded over ones experience of it. Instead ones relationship with technological construction should melt away through the implicit duration of a body that literally “inter-acts” with it. In Stern’s words:

“…most visually-, technically-, and linguistically-based writing on interactive art explains that a given piece is interactive, and how it is interactive, but not how we inter-act” (91)

Chapter 1 details how aesthetic ‘vision’ is understood through this framework, heavily criticising the pervasive disembodiment Stern laments in technical discussions of digital art and the VR playgrounds from the yesteryear of the 90s. Digital Interactive Art has continually suppressed a latent embodied performance that widens the disembodied aesthetic experience towards – following Ridgway and Thrift – a “non-representational experience.” Such experiences take the body as an open corporal process within a situation, which includes, whilst also encompassing, the corporal materiality of non-human computational processes. This is, clearly, designed to oppose any discourse that treats computation and digital culture as some sort of liberating, inane, immaterial phenomenon: to which Stern is absolutely right. Moreover, all of these material processes move in motion with embodied possibilities, to “create spaces in which we experience and practice this body, its agency, and how they might become.” (40) To add some political heft, Stern contrasts how the abuse of interactivity is often peddled towards consumerist choice, determining possibilities, put against artistic navigation that relinquishes control, allowing limitless possibilities. Quoting Erin Manning, Stern values interactive art’s success when it doesn’t just move in relation to human experience, but when humans move *the* relation in experience (Manning, 2009: 64; Stern, 46).

Stern’s second chapter moves straight into a philosophical discussion denoting what he means by an anti-Cartesian, non-representational, or implicit body. Heavily contexualised by a host of process, emergent materialist thinkers (Massumi, Hayles, Barad), Stern concentrates on the trait of performance as the site of body which encapsulates its relationally, emergence and potential. The body is not merely formed in stasis, (what Stern dubs “pre-formed” (62) but is regularly and always gushingly “per-formed” (61) in its movement. Following Kelli Fuery, the kind of interactivity Stern wants to foreground is always there, not a stop-start prop literate to computer interaction, but an effervescent ensemble of “becoming interactive” (Fuery, 2009: 44; Stern, 65). Interactive art is not born from an effect bestowed by a particular medium of art making, but of “making literal the kinds of assemblages we are always a part of.” (65)

Chapter three sets out Stern’s account for the implicit body framework: detailing out four areas: “artistic inquiry and process; artwork description; inter-activity and relationally.” (91) Chapters four, five and six flesh out this framework with actual practices. Four considers close readings of the aforementioned work of Penny together with Camille Utterback merging the insights gained from the previous chapters. What both artists encapsulate for Stern is that their interventions focus on the embodied activities of material signification: or “the activities of writing with the body” (114) Utterback’s 1999 installation “Textrain” is exemplary to Stern’s argument: notably the act of collecting falling text characters on a screen merges dynamic body movements with poetic disclosure. The productions of these images are always emergent and inscribed within our embodied practices and becomings: that we think with our environment. Five re-contextualises this with insights into works by Scott Scribbes and Mathieu Briand’s interventions in societal norms and environments. Six takes on the role of the body as a dynamic, topological space: most notably as practiced in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Chapter seven I’ll discuss near the conclusion: the last chapter shortly.

Firstly, the good stuff. Interactive Art and Embodiment is probably one of the most sincerest reads I’ve encountered in the field for some time. Partly this is because the book cultivates Stern’s sincerity for his own artistic practice, together with his own philosophical accounts that supplement that vision. His deep understanding of process philosophy is clearly matched by his enthusiastic reassessment of what interactive art purports to achieve and how other artists might have achieved it too. And it’s hard to disagree with Stern’s own position when he cites examples (of his work and others) that clearly delegate the philosophical insights to which he is committed. One highlight is Stern’s take on Scribbes’ Boundary Foundations (1998) and the Screen Series (2002-03) which intervenes and questions the physical and metaphorical boundaries surrounding ourselves and others, by performing its questioning as work. This is a refreshingly earnest text, proving that theory works best not when praxis matches the esoteric fashions of philosophical thinking, but when art provides its own stakes and its own types of thinking-experience which theory sets out to faithfully account and describe. Stern’s theoretical legitimacy is never earned from just digesting, synthesising and applying copious amounts of philosophy, but from the centrality of describing in detail what he thinks the bodily outcomes of interactive art are and what such accounts have to say: even if they significantly question existing philosophical accounts.

Stern leaves the most earnest part of his book towards the end in his final semi-auto-biographical companion chapter called “In Production (A Narrative Inquiry on Interactive Art)”. This is a snippet of a much larger story, available online and subject to collaboration [4]. Here, Stern recounts or modifies the anxiety inducing experience of being a PhD student and artist, rubbing up alongside the trials of academic rigour, dissertation writing and expected standards. Quite simply, Stern is applying his insights of performative processual experience into the everyday, ordinary experiences faced by most PhD students in this field, and using it to justify a certain writing style and a sense of practice. It’s an enjoyable affair – in large part because it outclasses the dry scholarly tone usually associated with writing ‘academically’, elevating imaginative, illuminating redescriptions for how the experiences of interactive art broadly hang together rather than relying on relentless cynical critique. And most of that is down to Stern’s strong literary metaphorical technique for grounding his vision, perhaps even more effectively than the previous chapters.

Yet earnest experiences aside, there are two problems with Stern’s vision which, in my eyes, leave it flawed. That isn’t a bad thing: all visions are flawed of course. That’s why the similarities between art and philosophy feed our heuristic, academic compulsion to come up with them and debate: well, that and sometimes the most flawed can end up being the most influential…

Read the entire review in context (with introduction and conclusion) on Furtherfield

TEDx talk

“Nathaniel Stern is an awkward artist, teacher and writer, who likes awkward art, students and writing. Stern’s talk, Ecological Aesthetics, discusses tweets in space, scans at the bottom of the sea, interactive installations, and art in virtual worlds – all work about the complex relationships between humans, nature, and politics.”

tedx uwmilwaukee

What is TEDx?

“Imagine a day filled with brilliant speakers, thought-provoking video and mind-blowing conversation. By organizing a TEDx event, you can create a unique gathering in your community that will unleash new ideas, inspire and inform…. A TEDx event is a local gathering where live TED-like talks and videos previously recorded at TED conferences are shared with the community.” – from the TED web site



Interactive Art + Embodiment


Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance
An Arts Future Book, published by Gylphi Limited, 2013
ISBN-10: 1780240090 and ISBN-13: 978-1780240091 – paperback
978-1-78024-010-7 – Kindle
978-1-78024-011-4 – EPUB

‘This remarkably readable and passionate text makes important contributions to the discourses of embodiment, perception, and affect in relation to the performativity staged by interactive art. Stern’s “implicit body” framework and the mantra “moving-thinking-feeling” offer insightful and comprehensive tools for grasping the complexity of contemporary aesthetic experience and for imagining future potentials.’ — Dr. Edward A. Shanken, author, Art and Electronic Media

‘In his very intelligent book, Nathaniel Stern shows how dynamics work: he mobilizes a range of theory and practice approaches so as to entangle them into an investigation of interactive art. Stern maps the incipient activity and force of contemporary art practices in a way that importantly remind us that digital culture is far from immaterial. Interactive Art and Embodiment creates situations for thought as action.’ — Dr Jussi Parikka, media theorist, Winchester School of Art, author of Insect Media

‘In Nathaniel Stern’s Interactive Art and Embodiment, Stern develops a provocative and engaging study of how we might take interactive art beyond the question of “what technology can do” to ask how the implicit body of performance is felt-thought through artistic process. What results is an important investigation of art as event (as opposed to art as object) that incites us to make transversal linkages between art and philosophy, inquiring into how practice itself is capable of generating fields of action, affect and occurrence that produce new bodies in motion.’ — Dr Erin Manning, Research Chair and Director of the SenseLab, Concordia University

‘Nathaniel Stern’s book is a marvelous introduction to the thinking and practice of this innovative new media artist, and to the work of others in the same field. Philosophically informed and beautifully written, it is sensitive to the many complex issues involved in making such work.’ — Prof Charlie Gere, Professor of Media Theory and History in the Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University, and author of Digital Culture, Art, Time and Technology, and Community without Community in Digital Culture.

About the book

How do interactive artworks ask us to perform rigorous philosophies of the body?

Nathaniel Stern argues that interactive art suspends and amplifies the ways we experience embodiment – as per-formed, relational, and emergent. He provides many in-depth case studies of contemporary artworks that develop a practice of embodied philosophy, setting a stage to explore how we inter-act and relate with the world. He offers a valuable critical framework for analyzing interactive artworks and what’s at stake in our encounters with them, which can be applied to a wide range of complex and emerging art forms.

In the companion chapter (offered in partnership with Networked Book at Turbulence.org), Stern offers a semi-autobiographical account of his own research trajectory, and invites comment, critique, and contributions of new work. This creates a participatory stage for rehearsing the performance of scholarship.

Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance, by Nathaniel Stern, was released August 2013 as the first in the Arts Future Book series by Gylphi Ltd. Arts Future Book is published and supported by an international editorial board. It represents a substantial practical and theoretical investigation into the future of books about the arts. As a book series it publishes unique works that establish new systems for considering art. Their aim is to explore the relations between the form and content of art books and to exploit new technologies that expand their literal and philosophical capacities. What is a book about art, and what can and should it do? The Arts Future Book project has been explained, modelled (and remodelled) in the open-access journal article/artwork: ‘Is Art History Too Bookish’ by series editor Charlotte Frost.

In its various modes, Interactive Art and Embodiment performs the philosophical environment of interactive art, and embodies Arts Future Book’s investigations into how we can and should perform art scholarship.

buy on Amazon.com

Meaning Motion press

IMG_5794Meaning Motion was a duo exhibition (with Tegan Bristow) of interactive art, at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, June – August 2013. It took up two floors of the museum, and featured 8 installations of work, including the international premiere of Stern’s scripted, and the first full exhibition of his Body Language suite of work – all with new, updated code.

Body Language (2000 – 2013) is a suite of four interactive works that has us encounter some of the complex relationships between materiality and text. Each piece stages the experience and practice of bodies and language in a different way, enabling in-depth explorations of how they are always implicated across one another. elicit invites viewers to perform the continuity between text and the body; enter effectively asks its participants to investigate how words and activity are inherently entwined; stuttering provokes its performers into exploring the labor and intimacy of embodied listening and communication; and scripted asks us to remember how the activities of writing, the shape and sound of language, are forever a part of the physical world.

Meaning Motion produced two publications, including a Body Language catalog with essay by Charlie Gere, and coincides with a panel on interactive art at the International Symposium on Electronic Art (Australia), and the release of Stern’s book, Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance.

Various press includes:

The Politics of Meaning and Voice,” in Business Day
Viewers Make the Art Work,” in the Mail and Guardian
“The Games Artists Play: Performance and Failure” in the Sunday Independent
An interview with Nathaniel Stern on the Morning Buzz, WORTfm in Madison
Meaning Maker” on Mahala.co.za
An interview with Tegan Bristow on Radio Today, Johannesburg
Wam set to wow this June,” in the City Buzz, Johannesburg

Business Day

business-dayThe politics of meaning and voice
This article by Chris Thurman appeared in both the online and print editions of Business Day, South Africa

ART IN MOTION: Stuttering by Nathaniel Stern, part of the Meaning Motion installation at the Wits Art Museum.

TWO weeks ago, I referred to the TV show, The West Wing, that popular bastion of liberal US politics created by Aaron Sorkin. So it is with some reluctance that, at the risk of sounding like a Sorkin acolyte, I mention his latest undertaking, The Newsroom. Its second season hit South African TV screens this week, and I can’t get it off my mind.

In the US, the season premiere was watched by about 2.2-million people — good news for the number crunchers at HBO. The critical reception suggests that many viewers who had disliked the show for its preachiness are relieved that “the second season is just going to show how the news is made”. Others, however, can’t bear the prospect of yet more “wit and dazzle” from the “insufferably high-minded characters” who populate the show.

This is an objection that could be applied to many of Sorkin’s scripts, including those for the short-lived series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (another exercise in meta-TV, a putative behind-the-scenes look at satirical sketch shows such as Saturday Night Live) and for acclaimed film The Social Network. Nobody is consistently as eloquent as Sorkin’s characters, as mentally sharp, as cool under pressure, as impressive in their general knowledge.

Sorkin admits this. The Newsroom hinges on actual events of recent years so, he observes, “the audience knows more than the characters do” — but it also gives him the chance to make those characters “smarter than we were”. Like The West Wing, the show was conceived as an “idealistic, romantic, swashbuckling, sometimes comedic but very optimistic” depiction of two professions about which we are (often justifiably) cynical: journalists and politicians.

ART IN MOTION: Stuttering by Nathaniel Stern, part of the Meaning Motion installation at the Wits Art Museum. But the fact remains that, while we may be enthralled by Sorkin’s verbal fireworks, we don’t find the repartee realistic. Our daily conversations are, by contrast, fragmented, repetitive, disjointed, interrupted, fraught with miscommunication and not very gratifying — unless we give them our considered attention. This is the kind of dialogue represented in Nathaniel Stern and Tegan Bristow’s Meaning Motion, installed at the Wits Art Museum (1 Jan Smuts Avenue, Braamfontein) until August 18.

The exhibition is dominated by six blank walls — blank, that is, until visitors approach them. As a series of motion sensors are triggered, so the walls come alive with colourful projections, tracking the movements of the viewers. Letters and words appear, briefly cohere and then dissolve, accompanied by sound bites echoing or extrapolating from the written text.

The possibility of “meaning” is thus simultaneously offered and withdrawn by every “motion”. Yet the works also show us that, if we move very patiently and deliberately, studying the effect of our actions closely, the words are less chaotic. Bristow and Stern want to “find alternative routes of making meaning through and with embodiment”, asking: “Can we use our bodies to listen and communicate with more care?”

Stern’s “Stuttering” is the most direct manifestation of this aim. The faster you move, the more the work itself will “stutter in a barrage of audiovisual verbiage” — instructions, descriptions and assertions crowd the screen and shout from the speakers. Cautious movements invite measured responses. In “Scripted”, visitors attempt accuracy in plotting out lines and curves to “write” letters on the screen.

“Enter” has participants reaching for phrases that seem to float in the air; once they are touched, the words come alive in a spoken utterance.

Bristow’s work also encourages this physical and linguistic playfulness, but there is a dark political undercurrent in her piece, “Unsaid”. Here, we are invited to approach an open microphone. As we do so, we see ourselves projected in black-and-white video footage, but our faces are blacked out or replaced by those of Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema. The words we speak into the microphone are repeated, but fade as they merge with other voices — questioning, Bristow notes, “the effectiveness of the voice of the individual in the larger world of politics and power struggles”.

See this article on the Business Day web site or in print.

Sunday Independent

art-meaning-motionThe Games Artists Play: Performance and Failure

This article by Mary Corrigall appeared in both the online and print editions of the Sunday Independent

Once inside the Wits Art Museum, it’s an unexpected relief to be confronted with what appears to be large blank canvases on the gallery walls. This may have something to do with having waded through a cacophony of studenty-art at the exhibition of the work by the long-listed candidates for the Absa L’atelier Award earlier in the week.

That experience alone could test anyone’s desire to be an art critic, though ironically such “bad” (read: lame, contemporary art-by-numbers) work affirms the need for critics – someone has to outright reject it if competition adjudicators can’t be relied upon to do so.

At Meaning Motion, a joint exhibition by Tegan Bristow and Nathaniel Stern, the viewing experience seems to rest in the hands of the viewer, rather than the artist. This could be said to be the case any time you observe an artwork but in the context of this show, it’s not just how you look and interpret it that will shape your experience but how you move. You have to stand close to the screens (they appear like large canvases) to trigger the technology that facilitates the interactive work and most of the works rely on your physical gestures to determine how the images, signs, or letters, in the case of Stern’s work, are animated.
This means the work relies on your presence to exist, to have some sort of visual life. The moment you step away from the screen, the work becomes dormant.

This is an attractive idea for viewers, especially critics, because it means you can silence or end the work at will. In this way the artwork is not imposed upon you, you choose when, and for how long, you want to engage with it.

This isn’t usually an option when viewing conventional art shows or performance art. The latter relies on this; performance art doesn’t only test the endurance levels of the performer but the viewer too. Enduring something as it takes place live is vital in our understanding of an embodied experience – that is gaining knowledge through an awareness of our bodies. And this should be more than feeling the back of a chair stabbing your back.

Stern and Bristow take this element of performance art one step further by jolting viewers out of their comfortable passive positions and encouraging them to feel the experience of looking and making, thus it is a kind of embodied observation and interaction that attempts to blur the boundary between viewer and participant. In a sense you are simply watching a self-reflection that has been mediated by different computer programmes written by the artists.

The underlying premise of this show is to generate a set of images with your body, turning you into an involuntary performance artist of sorts, though the intended meaning of the work, the outcome and structure, has been determined by Stern and Bristow. So, it’s an illusion of control that they are really offering, under the guise of free will or interactivity. This idea is particularly pertinent to Bristow’s Unsaid, which appears to be set up for a participant to express themselves: a microphone is placed in front of a screen. However, as you approach the microphone a black square pops up over your face on the screen, erasing your identity and the words “left it unsaid” appear in the box.

In this way once you begin to “make” the work, you realise you have been “written out” of it.

As a result, you walk away feeling quite helpless in the face of the technology that is mediating this live interaction with yourself. This seems to fly in the face of interactive experiences, which are predicated on the idea that the participant gets to enjoy some level of control; this is, after all, the main payoff.

Stern’s Stutter pic by Christo Doherty

Participation and interactivity are usually marked by immersion too, a temporary forgetfulness of who and where you are, but quite surprisingly, while this exhibition appears to be set up for interactivity, the activities aren’t immersive or gripping in a traditional sense. It’s almost like each work is a new toy and once you have figured out how it operates, you move onto the next one. Perhaps this is because most of the interactive works are quite simplistic in terms of what they offer and the graphics, and visuals too, which have a sort of retro or crude digital aesthetic. This kind of mismatch between sophisticated technology and basic visuals emphasises a disconnect between the real and the intangible digital realms and what occurs when you try to make the invisible visible. This is best illustrated by Bristow’s Sound Prints – naive hand-drawings connected to small circuits via wires. Beautiful, slick or hyperreal graphics would not have relayed the divide between the complex programming and technology and the end product. Bristow’s Chalk vision; a black screen where your silhouette is rendered in an ethereal chalky line, is also crude but visually compelling. But mostly, the ideological pay-offs are more interesting than the visual or experiential aspect of the works, which may well be in contradiction with what this show sets out to achieve.

Take Stern’s notion of the body writing words or eliciting text – for a writer this is an especially thrilling idea, as few seem to understand how performative writing is; not only is it something the body  produces but it is informed by a certain persona and is usually engaged with relaying the experiential and desire to fix it to the page faithfully.

It is no surprise then to learn that in the work Elicit Stern employed an extract from a text by Marcel Proust, the French novelist famous for his enhanced recollections of reality.  When you stand in front of the screen where this work appears, letters from the text appear in order. The faster you move and the closer you are to the screen, the quicker they are generated. In theory if you moved slowly enough you would be able to read the text.

Bristow’s Unsaid pic by Christo Doherty

“Every pixel the sensor sees as ‘moving’ in every frame births yet another character, and so we usually get a sea of erupted text. I love this. We get a ‘sense’ of meaning, but can only ‘feel’ it,” observes Stern.

It is a highly evocative text where Proust details how the aroma of fresh scones triggers memories of his grandmother. Yet this sensual aspect, this intangible physical experience (smell) that is described in this text is withheld from the viewer, so while we can “feel” and control the letters, what they mean is completely beyond our grasp. Stern clearly intended this to be the case; he wants his viewers to get past the “words” and their literal meaning, allowing them to come into contact with a more abstract engagement with language that is triggered by a physical gesture/vocabulary.

After all is this not what Proust does to some extent; it is through conjuring a scent through text that the reader and writer are able to penetrate beyond it – into the physical world and those intangible qualities that allow for nostalgia.

Ironically, this idea sounds better on paper than an experience of it. While the body is immersed in the work in the sense that it is required in order to generate it; you never penetrate it; Proust’s text is broken into visual units, motifs that don’t necessarily allow for a more physical or experiential encounter. What occurs is disconnection: your body is reflected back at you in an unrecognisable form; the shape of letters, words, or motifs (in Bristow’s Dissonance at Six). In other words you become words and shapes and a kind of disembodiment occurs – you become separated from yourself, when confronted with the real-time digitised representation of yourself that is out of your control.

This, of course, seems in contradiction with this being an exhibition centred around interactivity and the body. But somehow this chasm, or failure, and the exhibition’s general inability to completely deliver on interactivity and control, is perhaps what makes it significant, particularly in an era where “immersion” in various kinds of digital realms has created the illusion that we are more connected to what is happening and are able to shape our experiences through it. It also draws to attention the difficulty in bringing performance into the gallery and the power dynamics of participation, which has become such a sexy concept in art making, and something that has driven the digital era. Stern opens an interesting discourse on text and the body, though perhaps it can’t be resolved in an aesthetic or visual plane.
Failure seems to be a prerequisite for performance artists.

Moys (in red dress) tries her hand at ballroom dancing
pic by Paul Greenway

Anthea Moys’s grand multi-performances at the National Arts Festival in the work Anthea Moys vs the city of Grahamstown was as its title suggests set up to fail; its hardly likely that Moys would have been able to “beat” the city, which was represented via various teams or groups engaged with different extramural activities.

Failure should be an unpredictable outcome of a performance rather than the driving objective. This may have been why Moys is said to have spent around three months in the small Eastern Cape hamlet training and learning how to play chess, soccer, sing and dance. In this way she would be seen to be trying her utmost to win in the face-offs with the various teams or individuals. The assiduous pursuit of acquiring all these skills would also make her appear like an over-achiever, as obviously winning the inaugural Standard Bank Award for performance art would also infer. The irony of pursuing failure, or setting herself up for failure as the work she would produce for the award, was not lost on her, it may have even given rise to it. The work the winners of the Standard Bank Young artists produce at the festival is always heavily scrutinised, particularly by their contemporaries and critics, who use it to measure their suitability for the award. So what better way to navigate this obstacle by admitting failure from the outset? Of course, the sense that she would most certainly be defeated by Grahamstown – quite a ridiculous and absurd notion in itself – also meant the work would fail on an artistic level too; as the outcome would be predictable – would there be any point in watching, when we knew what the result would be?

In a way, you found yourself willing her to fail too. Moys’s bubbly gung-ho vibe seems to invite failure in the sense that you want to see beyond this artificial performer persona she seems to consistently wear in this work, and previous ones. This sense of inevitable failure built into her performances proved an almost insurmountable barrier to it; if she did fail, which was inevitable, surely she would be succeeding because that is what she set out to do? It became obvious by the second or third performance that going through the motions of failure is more complex than it appears; it can be rewarding and there are different kinds of failure.

By turning competitions into performance art pieces she set up and juxtaposed the two competing notions of success and failure: to fail in a performance art piece is considered an achievement (evidence that you understand the underlying difficulties of performance), while failing in a competition is not.

As the performances progressed, however, the hard line between the two blurred; when she didn’t dance well during a ballroom face-off did this make her a bad performance artist? Those who were present at her face-off with a choir were quick to remark that her singing voice was awful.

Each of the competitions demanded different kinds of skills, so the success of the performance was reliant on different qualities each time she performed. Strategising was quite important in the chess game, while getting into character was considered of value in a historical re-enactment, where the winners and losers were also predetermined. In this way Moys’s OTT work was a richly layered one centred on understanding predetermined failure, not only in relation to performance art but in everyday life, particularly in these amateur groups where presumably losing at a chess game doesn’t have any consequences – the payoff is in cultivating a sense of belonging to a community, losing might even further this end (as it did for Moys).

Ultimately, and quite satisfyingly, the theme of failure driving Moys’s work almost made it beyond scrutiny. As she kept shifting the measures by which to assess her performances, she obviated the need for judgment, questioning its validity to the point that it seemed superfluous. – published July 28, 2013, The Sunday Independent.

The Meaning Motion exhibition will show at the Wits Art Museum in Joburg until August 18.

See the online and print editions of this article from the Sunday Independent.

Mail & Guardian

M&G-meaning-motionViewers make the art work
Laurice Taitz

Tegan Bristow and Nathaniel Stern’s exhibition Meaning Motion reminds me of the question of whether a tree falling in the forest, with no one there to hear it, makes a sound.

When you enter the main chamber of the Wits Art Museum, all is quiet and the space appears empty. It’s a nonexhibition, until you approach one of the walls.

From then on it’s magic and mayhem, as each piece is responsive and you trigger the artworks. This is no place for passive observers. The artists expect you to be active in giving the works meaning, cleverly breaking the implicit rules of “looking” at artwork in a gallery setting.

The interactivity relies on cameras and motion sensors and clever programming code. Bristow and Stern use the technology of the Microsoft Kinect – a motion-sensing device that comes with the XBox video game console – in their work to capture movement and then to translate it into digital expression, projecting it as a large-scale artwork.

The exhibition is comprised primarily of seven distinctive interactive works. Bristow says: “Many people think that interactive art is limited to a certain way of doing something … but the work comes from such a different place and we both use the medium in very different ways.”

elicitStern comes from a performance background. His four works, grouped as Body Language, explore his concern with the relationship between the body and text, and how we perform text. He sees language as a physical object, and language and text as being part of who we are as a body.

The impetus for a joint exhibition came after Stern used Bristow’s work as a central reference in his upcoming book, The Implicit Body, based on his PhD research. Stern is an associate professor of art and design at the University of Wisconsin [Milwaukee].

Bristow lectures in digital arts at the University of the Witwatersrand. A painter, she changed career direction after mistakenly attending a computer science lecture.

“I had my class down for the wrong day and was blown away that you could write programs,” she says.

Her work combines her engagement with surface and visual aesthetics with the maths of digital code.

Taken together, the works talk to and across each other.

stuttering-reachStern’s elicit is about the agency of movement. He wrote it for a dance performance and it responds to how fast or slowly you move across the space, emitting spurts or great gushing streams of letters to form a poem that you can never read.

In stuttering, your movement induces a series of phrases, repetitious sounds and the static associated with being lost between radio channels.

If you slow down, you get to explore the screen more fully, as one would quiet a stutter.

In enter, red dots outline your body as phrases float around you. When you grab a word from the screen you hear a line of poetry being recited or a choice phrase such as: “If there’s one thing to get in the way of a good time it’s other people.”

Bristow’s Chalk Vision is a subtle piece that explores the visual and material quality of programming code and how it understands motion.

She says: “It’s an aesthetic exploration of what’s called computer vision, how the camera sees because the camera is our primary sensor.”

enter-thinkHer Dissonance at Six encourages you to get more people together in the space as it works best with six. As you step inside, projected before you is a boldly coloured tree-like figure.

As the numbers grow, each person is represented by a tree. The more motion, the wilder the trees become until the leaves fly off and the space before you empties.

Bristow says it’s about spirituality and mathematics, a piece about loss as it separates the rich and intensive quality of bringing people together with the emptiness once they leave and are no more.

While Stern’s work was developed as a body, Bristow’s works were created out of specific moments, and not deliberately as an interrelated whole.

Unsaid is a response to the 2009 elections. You stand before the screen, an upright microphone prompting you to say something. As you speak your face is covered with a Jacob Zuma mask, your words are thrown back at you and the phrase “leave it unsaid” flashes across the screen. Bristow says it’s the third incarnation of this work.

“This is the first time I have put faces on the masks directly. I was very frustrated by a real sense of a lack of agency. There was this feeling [at election time] that we were contributing so heavily to something. Everyone was tweeting and Facebooking but in the end I was looking at what power do I actually have. What can I as a small individual within the technology realm actually contribute? And does the technology dissipate or actually contribute to that sense of agency?”

She calls it “quite a nasty piece”.

“It’s horrible to you. It says say something and when you do it gives you a short moment and immediately cuts you off, shushes you up. It creates a constant loop of never being gratified, ever.” Politics summed up in a moment.

The exhibition creates an exciting and thoroughly disobedient gallery space that encourages you to move your body and to gesture wildly to get a desired response.

It’s fascinating for its appeal to adults and children alike. Beyond, or as part of, the complex layers of meaning created by the symbolic images, interactivity, performative aspects and the humanising of technology and programmed code, you are compelled to perform funny walks more reminiscent of Monty Python, rather than to view it in the dignified manner of someone appreciating art.

Meaning Motion is at Wits Art Museum, corner of Bertha and Jorissen streets in Braamfontein until August 18.


The 8’oclock Buzz: Nathaniel Stern: Back for More

Nathaniel Stern is an Associate Professor in Arts Tech at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He joined the Buzz on Monday, July 1st to discuss his interactive art and give us an update on “Tweets in Space”.

In February 2013, Stern joined the 8 O’Clock Buzz to talk about his project Tweets in Space. The archive of that show can be found here. As the system is 22nd light years away, it will take 44 years for us to hear back from any of the Tweets. Still, Stern is excited and hopeful.

enterIn addition, Stern discussed his latest interactive art. He currently has an upcoming art show in South Africa called Meaning Motion. He has hopes that a gallery in Wisconsin will display a Meaning Motion exhibit at some point in the future, to bring some of his work closer to home. He also just finished a book on interactive art, titled Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body As Performance. His theory of art is to invite people to interact with his work. All of his “paintings” are displayed on white boxes, digitally programmed, until someone walks in front of or into the box – at which point the art comes alive. Each art piece, therefore, is unique depending on who interacts with it.

According to Stern, body and language both require each other. Bodies make language, and language makes bodies. His work is intended to spark discussion about how we relate to and interact with ourselves.

Download the mp3 (20 mb), or listen to the entire interview with sub-host Tony Casteneda:

Body Language

Body Language catalog

Interactive art suite, Catalog and Videos

Title: Body Language / Nathaniel Stern
Essay: Charlie Gere
Design: Andrew McConville
Photos: Nathaniel Stern, Wyatt Tinder, Andrew McConville and Joseph Mougel
Documentation Videos: Nathaniel Stern
Publisher: Nathaniel Stern and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Date of Publication: 2013
Language: English
ISBN: 978-0-620-56861-6 (print) and 978-0-620-56862-3 (e-book)
Download Body Language as PDF (2.4 mb)


tweet-logo2-150x150The 8’oclock Buzz: Interactive Artist, Nathaniel Stern, Is On The Web And Out In Space

Interactive artist, Nathaniel Stern, joined the 8 O’Clock Buzz on Monday, February 25, 2013, to talk with host, Brian Standing, about some of his collaborative web art.

This past year Nathaniel Stern and collaborator, Scott Kildall, took to the stars with a galactic proportioned project, Tweets In Space. Using a high powered satellite they beamed Twitter discussions from all over the world to GJ667Cc – A planet 22 light years away that might support extraterrestrial life.

Stern also got the chance to talk about Wikipedia Art. An online intervention on the Wikipedia website that challenged the way Wikipedia determines what is useful information. Posted by the artists (Stern and collaborator Kildall), the page stated, “Wikipedia Art is a conceptual art work composed on Wikipedia, and is thus art that anyone can edit.”

What the artists didn’t expect was Wikipedia to sue them over copyright infringement and Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, to publically call the artists “trolls,” later apologizing over facebook to Stern after the lawsuit brought negative attention towards Wikipedia.

Download this interview (mp3, 10mbs) or listen below: