The 8’oclock Buzz: Frankensteined Scanners Under the Sea
Last time the Monday Buzz talked with Milwaukee artist, Nathaniel Stern, he was sending tweets into space and subverting Wikipedia for his own nefarious artistic ends. Now, he’s jerry-rigging flatbed scanners for high-resolution, time-shifting underwater duty. Listen as Nathaniel explains to host Brian Standing how to turn a flat imager into a self-contained scuba camera, the philosophical nature of an image, and more.
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Since the very first images were made by dipping hands in natural pigment and pressing them on cave walls in Lacaux and Altamira, artists have been getting their hands dirty to make their mark. These simple images have to be some of the most economical, powerful and evocative symbols known to us. I believe it helpful to revisit visual images of this nature, to regain perspective and seek solace in them.
Just as language cannot be defined as alphabets, words or syntax, printmaking cannot be defined as a series of technical processes. It is defined by its function, its philosophical approach and the ideas and images it generates. Print may stake claim to creative territory that goes beyond any map; the meaning of the images produced by print media are the expanded terrain, the mediate milieu of the dialogue, the larger picture.
Nathaniel Stern is a prolific experimental video installation and time-based artist and writer who harnesses printmaking to extend his repertoire:
“I combine new and traditional media to create unfamiliar experiences of that which we encounter every day. My art attempts to intercept taken for granted categories such as ‘body,’ ‘language,’ ‘vision,’ ’space’ or ‘power.’ It works to refigure fixed subject / object hierarchies as unexpected and dynamic engagements…
Through performance, provocation and play, my work seeks to infold our unfolding relationships with the world, and with one another. I invite viewers to explore, to embody, and to re-imagine.”
Compressionism is a digital performance and analog archive started in 1996 [sic] where Stern straps a desktop scanner, laptop and custom-made battery pack to his body and performs images into existence. He might scan in straight, long lines across tables, tie the scanner around his neck and swing over flowers, do pogo-like gestures over bricks, or just follow the wind over water lilies in a pond. The dynamism of his relationship to the landscape is transformed into beautiful and quirky renderings, which are re-stretched and coloured on his laptop, then produced as archival art objects using photographic or inkjet processes. He also often takes details from these images and reinterprets them as traditional prints: lithographs, etchings, engravings and woodcuts.
Michael Smith comments that “Stern’s entire process expands to encompass fairly traditional printmaking techniques, and a great tension is established by this…. The results are compelling, an amalgamation of visual languages from two very different ends of Western Art history…one that accrues a salacious, lo-fi quality that adds another dimension to Stern’s repertoire”. It is interesting to note that these works are not only painterly but undoubtedly printerly in their aesthetic; in addition the notion of compression and pressure that is so vital to printmaking is central.
Other related texts: Art South Africa, SA Art Times, ArtThrob, WORT fm, Live Out Loud
The trope of compression is one that underpins much in our age. Distinct from reducing or editing, compressing implies not so much a loss of detail as a pulling together of information or matter so that it occupies a smaller space, digital or actual. The central characteristic of the compressed unit of information is not that it is necessarily inferior to the original/experiential, but that the nuances of its detail are hidden, hermetically encoded into a language that reveals the inadequacies of our sensory system. For some time Nathaniel Stern, an interesting and prolific fixture on the SA contemporary art scene, has been employing the process of compression as a productive one through which images are produced. More than a little tongue-in-cheek in reference to the grandeur which history of art confers through its ‘isms’, Stern took to calling his creative process ‘Compressionism’.
The references that radiate from this term are numerous, and are backed up in Stern’s work on ‘Call and Response’. As the visual qualities of the works shift them towards a somewhat violent abstraction, the inevitable association is with Abstract Expressionism, more specifically the gesturality of Jackson Pollock’s and Franz Kline’s action painting. Yet Stern’s choice of subject matter for this show also recalls the near-abstraction of the great Impressionist Claude Monet’s latter day output. As is well-documented, Monet’s seemingly tireless obsession with water lilies and the surfaces they floated on occupied much of the last third of his career. Certain connections can be seen with these images and works of Stern’s like Satin Bed 2006 and Emmarentia Lilies 2006.
Yet with the Abstract Expressionists and the Impressionists before them, the physical matter of paint was the real stuff of their focus. Surface was of primary importance for both. This is where Stern and his forebears part ways. To call Stern’s images ‘painterly’ on the strength of their swathes of colour and digitally rendered striations that recall brushstrokes is to tell only half the story. The tantalising quality of the surfaces of his works comes from the sense that they contain much that they’re not readily revealing. Here and there one glimpses recognisable passages of images: leaves, sections of flowers, combinations of colour that hint at their real-world origins, but for the most part the digital processing, the deliberate compressing and stretching of the images, rather than any matter, becomes the subject of his formal exploration. The process of encoding visual information into digital information takes the place of painterly push-and-pull.
And the process of gathering visual data, one often facilitated by the use of a homemade digital scanning device with which Stern spent many hours scanning foliage in Emmarentia Dam, speaks subtly of Stern’s continual interest in performance, most obviously manifested in his 2004 work Step Inside. The ‘call and response’ loop suggested by the exhibition title becomes an interplay, as Clive Kellner states in the exhibition catalogue, ‘between media, between performance and print’. The process of scanning the dam foliage is distinct from one of documentation: it is avowedly performative. And the images that result, while obliquely documenting the images chosen by Stern and his passages through the water, operate on a level far more speculative that documentary.
Stern’s entire process expands to encompass fairly traditional printmaking techniques, and a great tension is established by this. With some works on the show Stern establishes a trans-technological connection between digital image-making and the venerable technique of etching. Working with master printer Jillian Ross of David Krut Print Workshop (DKW), Stern spent many hours extrapolating powerful passages of line, shape and colour from his digital scans, and translating them into etching marks. The results are compelling, an amalgamation of visual languages from two very different ends of Western Art history. As bookends of printing technology, etching and digital image production have a distant connection. Yet, these works seem to bend time back on itself, compressing it through the juxtaposition of the two modes. What is especially effective is the curation of the show in the large expanse of Art on Paper Gallery, which allows for etching images to be shown alongside the resolved digital works from which they derive. While Nude Descension (again a playful gesture to history of art) has a fluid, otherworldly quality, the print which accompanies it, Nude Descension II, accrues a salacious, lo-fi quality that adds another dimension to Stern’s formal repertoire.
It is not only Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism that are deliberately referenced by the works on the show. Jo’burg Boogie Woogie, an image that looks like a cross-section of a grim face-brick wall, is a play on high Modernist Mondrian’sBroadway Boogie Woogie. But the optimism in modernity that manifested in Mondrian’s confection here morphs into a snippet of urban realism, entirely consistent with Guy Tillim’s recent photgraphs of inner-city Johannesburg buildings: the intensity of visual information crammed into the format surely hints at the overcrowding of downtown Jozi living spaces. The image is forbidding in the truest sense of the word, denying spatial access by enforcing the impenetrability of the picture plane. Yet Stern’s technique allows for moments of slippage, vertical slashes across the format that give visual and conceptual relief from the rigidity of bricks and mortar.
The work that remained with me long after I had left the gallery space, however, wasEpics and Anthologies. Probably the most tongue-in-cheek work on show, and the most direct explication of ideas around compression and the opacity that attends it, this lambda print appears to be derived from scans of Stern’s bookshelf. It is the title that lends the work its humour: epics are distinct from most other works of fiction by virtue of their length. Similarly, while anthologies are often collected examples from numerous poets, they function like archives filled with information, often fairly exhaustive attempts to represent an area of poetry. Yet in Stern’s image, their spines stretched and compressed to the point of illegibility, the books become like blocks in a warped Tetris game, the layers of creative history piling up so quickly and disjointedly that one is powerless to effectively decode their meanings and implications.
The work proves, if any proof were needed, that Stern’s performative interests expand to include ‘performing’ a relationship to history, a quietly anarchic deconstruction of the creative person’s position in relation to history. This work, and much of the rest on show, reveal that Stern’s is a position of productive paradox, of signalling his debt to the historical archive of creativity yet resisting the impulse to politely replicate its terms.
Opens: January 27
Closes: February 24
Other related texts: MKE Journal Sentinel, ArtThrob, Art South Africa, Art South Africa, Sunday Independent
Indrukke van Werklikheid
Impressions of Reality
by Johan Myburg
The biggest mistake that a writer can make is to pretend that language is a transparent medium with which the reader can deduce a ‘truth’ or ‘reality’.
If you use this remark from Roland Barthes to explain the role of the artist, and read ‘language’ as visual communication, Nathaniel Stern would be no guilty party. It is particularly the ephemerality of ‘truth’ and the many and changing facets of reality that fascinates, and which Stern effortlessly propagates.
The choice of title of his latest exhibition in Art on Paper in Johannesburg, prepares you already – before you have seen the works – on what Stern called ‘performative utterances’.
Call and Response: Performative Prints and Iterations is thus not a new viewpoint, but rather a continuation, an amended repetition, even more invitations to viewers to add to the conversation. Invitations that he also extended previously in exhibitions like Step Inside in Johannesburg.
The way with which one looks repeatedly at things is something of great importance to Stern.
‘Would it be flippant to say that the birth of our first child changed my ways of “looking” significantly?’ asks Stern in a questioning manner proudly. ‘I have always tried to see everything around me in a provocative manner, but the fresh look through a child’s eyes have alerted me even more of the need for playfulness in seeing’.
Stern has been called the ‘father of Compressionism’, a new art movement in New Media art. He uses ‘simple, digital technology to explore different ways of looking.’. Equipped with his portable scanner coupled with a laptop, Stern explores objects like a trimmed Ficus (Four Trees), a bookcase (Epics and Anthologies), agapanthi in his garden (Agapan-thus), the body of a nude that descends a staircase a la Duchamp (Nude Descension).
The digital image gets extended again later to original format, and he adds colour because that suffers sometimes in the scanning process.
The artwork that the viewer sees eventually, is thus not a plain representation, but rather a map of the way that the artist’s eyes followed, the footsteps of the scanner, the impression that the object left (or rather, what the object impressed at the moment of recording).
The playfulness that Stern deals with a tree (Four Trees) in the process of creating, also impresses as tree-form (in the artwork as edition) – the bottom work the trunk, and the top three, the branches of the tree.
In the term Compressionism, one mostly recognises Impressionism. And you see Stern with his scanner in between the water lilies in the Emmarentia lake, his Emmarentia Lilies triptych, and just as with Claude Monet’s way of seeing, it becomes part of your own realisation.
‘Monet and his Impressionism friends started everything’ remarks Stern with authority. ‘Monet and Duchamp are my two biggest leading figures. Monet, who set the importance of impression before that of representation, and Duchamp, the archetypical conceptual artist.’
The enthusiasm with which Stern talks, convinces one when he says: I see myself as a conceptual being. I was brought up in a house with two parents who are interested in the written word. I think in terms of symbols and signs. Or rather, it is the onset of my work’.
‘Previously, I have regarded the body as text and concept. But I am getting more and more conscious of the tactile, of ‘flesh as performed’ rather than ‘preformed’.
The world of New Media is one into which Stern has immersed himself.
He has contributed to practically all of the facets of this developing industry. In New York – where he was born and bred – he participated in a group show with his work hektor.net and enter.hektor – video poetry and an interactive installation.
He obtained his Masters Degree in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University.
Shortly after 2001, Stern established himself in South Africa and is married to Nicole Ridgway, an academic, who was at that stage, at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of the Arts. Collaborating with the choreographer PJ Sabbagha, Stern worked on animation productions for stage – The Double Room has been awarded three Vita awards, following on what was also seen in 2005 on the Grahamstown Festival.
Currently, Stern is busy with his Doctoral studies at the Trinity College in Dublin – with his thesis titled The Implicit Body.
On the Call and Response exhibition, Stern shows lambda prints as well as graphic prints – etchings, gravures with chine colle, aquatints, and polyester plate lithographies.
‘To make graphic prints is very exciting – it was wonderful to work with Jillian Ross of the David Krut Print Workshop.
‘To try something new is always exhilarating. There is still so much that I want to do’. A remark that sticks with you when you look at the busy website nathanielstern.com with his many blog entries.
‘I constantly realise that I am interested in questions even more than answers’.
And when one looks at Stern’s work, one realises that postmodernism is more than what is sometimes attuned to it: impressions of reality, and the truth alongside it, is ephemeral, place-specific, and ever tentative.
Other related texts: Die Beeld, Die Beeld, Die Beeld, engadget, MKE Journal Sentinel
nathaniel stern: the compressionist, by Clive Kellner, Director, Johannesburg Art Gallery
narrating the database: the performative and iterative prints of nathaniel stern, by Wilhelm van Rensburg, Art Educator, University of Johannesburg
Editor: Nicole Ridgway
Design: Ellen Papciak-Rose
Publisher: Nathaniel Stern and Art on Paper Gallery
Date of Publication: 2007
Download as PDF (1.4mb)
Available from Gallery AOP, Johannesburg