These Underwater Photos Were Taken By a Desktop Scanner
Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan for Gizmodo


The desktop scanner is a wonderful thing, but rugged it ain’t. Yet Nathaniel Stern didn’t let that stop him: The Wisconsin-based artist, who is known for his experimental camera designs, created a waterproof version of an off-the-shelf scanner that captured a series of incredible images of sea life.

“Everything leaked, everything broke, nothing did what I wanted or expected,” Stern writes on his website about the projectRippling Images, for which he took months of diving courses to become certified to complete it. But the finished product was certainly worth it—here’s how Stern carried it out:

For Rippling Images, I worked with a team to produce a marine-rated scanner rig, including custom hard- and software, and performed a new series of digital works while scuba diving on a live coral reef off the coast of Key Largo in Florida. My goal was an exhibition where where site and technology – their limitations, possibilities and potentials – take greater agency in the constitution and construction of printed forms. My movements underwater, my relations to life and gravity, what I see and cannot see, fish and plants, breathing and fluidity, all affect and are affected in and as these images, being made.

You can check out the complete batch of images on Stern’s website. They’re both bizarre and beautiful, unlike any photos of the marine world I’ve ever seen. It almost feels as though we’re experiencing how fish see the world. [PetaPixel]

See the original post on Gizmodo

Boing Boing

Artistic scanner-photos taken on a coral-reef
Cory Doctorow for Boing Boing

Nathaniel Stern straps modified document scanners to his body and then walks around, producing beautiful, glitched out art-images. Now he’s taken his scanners to the bottom of the ocean.


For the last decade or so, I’ve been making fine art prints by strapping a desktop scanner, custom battery pack, and computing devices to my body, then traversing the landscape to produce abstract but detailed slit scan imagery… The reasons are threefold: very high resolution; proximity – I’m a part of the landscape I’m capturing, rather than distanced from it (no added lens); and the potency of multiple adjacent times and spaces viewed on a 2D plane.

For the latest in the series, I produced several marine-rated, scuba scanning rigs – metal, plastic and/or polycarbonate, with various forms of gaskets, vacuum seals, and hall effect (magnetically-triggered) buttons to create the scans.

The complete body of work, 18 prints, premiere at the Turbine Art Fair in Johannesburg next week (July 17 – 20). The show comes to Milwaukee WI, where I now live, in October.

Rippling Images

See it on Boing Boing


Experimental Underwater Scanner Makes for Beautiful Happy Accidents
Gannon Burgett for PetaPixel

If you enjoy strange and experimental photography, Nathaniel Stern‘s work should delight you.

For the past ten years, Stern has been creating experimental image-capturing devices using a conglomeration of hacked-together desktop scanners, battery packs and other various computer components. Once created, he straps these machines to his body and takes them from location to location capturing images unlike any other camera out there.


In his latest series, Rippling Images, Stern decided to take his images one step further by venturing to take these experimental camera creations underwater. It didn’t come easy though.

Stern spent months getting certified for a number of open-water diving licenses. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was helping his team piece together what would eventually become the five final models of the device he would be taking underwater.

Made out of everything from welded metal to magnetically-triggered buttons, the devices didn’t actually capture what Stern was hoping for at all. But what they capture, Stern still found beautiful… if not more beautiful than his usual work.

The scratched surfaces of the plastic showed up, unplanned reflections made several appearances, and the images were just overall more experimental than he could’ve ever expected:










Experiment might as well be Stern’s middle name though, so he took everything in stride and used it as a learning experience, sharing his thoughts in a video that we’ve embedded at the top.

It comes in just shy of three minutes, so give it a quick watch to see Stern and his unusual devices at work, and then head over to his website to see more of his work.

Read the article on PetaPixel


Stern traverses the land- or seascape with a desktop scanner, computing device + custom-made battery pack, + performs prints into existence.The 8’oclock Buzz: Return of the Frankensteined Scanners

Last time we spoke with Milwaukee artist Nathaniel Stern, he was trying to jerry-rig dozens of flatbed scanners to take peculiarly framed, high resolution underwater photographs. Well since then, Nathaniel reports that nearly everything that could possibly go wrong with that project did. Nathaniel Stern joined the Monday Buzz once more by phone from Milwaukee with an update.

Download the mp3 (13mb), or listen to the entire interview about performative printmaking / Compressionism with host Brian Standing:


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.

Download the mp3 (13mb), or listen to the entire interview about performative printmaking / Compressionism with host Brian Standing:

M Magazine

Scanning the Artscape
Five artists on the rise in the cream city
by Tory Folliard with Christine Anderson; portraits by Dan Bishop

Milwaukee’s Third Ward has been named one of America’s Top Twelve Art Places 2013, which recognizes neighborhoods in the largest 44 metropolitan areas in the country where the arts are central to the social and economic vibrancy of a neighborhood. Even with a flourishing art scene and a wealth of talented artists — in the Third Ward and beyond — many artists still remain unknown to most Milwaukeeans. Here are five artists to watch chosen by Milwaukee art curators….


“I believe that art can change what we see and do, and are.”
— Nathaniel Stern
, Milwaukee: Interactive, Installation and Video Art |

Giverny of the Midwest (detail) - R5

Curator: Graeme Reid, assistant director of the Museum of Wisconsin Art.
“Stern is one of the most creative, articulate, imaginative artists in the state and, frankly, the country. He should be an international art star. Actually, he is! I can’t think of too many other artists in the state who are building a similar resumé.”

nathaniel stern scanning water lilies

Back Story: The former New Yorker has an impressive resumé of exhibitions and awards from all over the world. (He recently exhibited in January in Johannesburg, South Africa.)

Stern’s interactive art often centers on bodily performances. In his current “Compression” series of prints he straps a laptop and desktop scanner to his body and performs “images into existence.”

Moving his body while he scans the landscape around him, Stern creates images that are later made into prints. He is an associate professor of art and design at the Peck School of the Arts at UW-Milwaukee. His work is on exhibit locally at Lynden Sculpture Garden in a collaborative piece with Jessica Meuninck-Ganger.

Download full / print article (PDF, 1.5mbs)

Art South Africa

art south africa nathaniel sternDirty Hands or Hands-off? – The Print Matrix in a Mediated Milieu
by Dominic Thorburn

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.

Read entire article

Sunday Independent

Sunday Independent, Nathaniel SternCreating new Impressions
This article by Mary Corrigall appeared in both the online and print editions of the Sunday Independent

Impressionism has become so unsexy in the last couple of decades. Well, in art circles, that is. Mostly it’s because this once avant-garde French movement has been embraced with such gusto by the masses. For this reason many overseas public galleries wishing to up the foot traffic in their institutions and assert their relevance to society stage themed shows from this period, or exhibitions by artists connected to it.

The frequency of these impressionism blockbusters has rendered the art from that movement blasé. So it is surprising to find a multi-media artist who embraces what is termed “contemporary practice” to be so captured by the art of Claude Monet and in particular his artwork Water Lilies (1914-1926). As the title suggests they are paintings of the most banal of still life subject matter: tranquil ponds dotted with lilies Monet spied in his garden in Giverny, France.

For Nathanial Stern the radicalism of the impressionist vocabulary hasn’t quite worn off. He returns to it anew with an eye for reinventing it for the digitised era. Like many viewers who have stood in front of Monet’s large scale paintings in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Stern was seduced by the romantic, hazy lens through which Monet depicted this bucolic scene. In his version of Monet’s Water Lilies he has retained the large scale in his triptych Giverny of the Midwest – the pond he studied was in Indiana. Stern was aware scale played an important role in creating an immersive experience for viewers. He deconstructs and then reconstructs Monet’s approach, but this activity is not in service of demystifying, or satirising it, but re-enacting a moment in art history using digital media.

“Immersion” and “deconstruction” inform this body of work and Stern’s mode of documenting reality, which involves an HP scanner harnessed around his neck as he wades through the pond. Put plainly, he scans his subject matter. Because he does not remain static while doing this he generates images that appear life-like, but distorted. Not too unlike the kind of distortion reality undergoes under Monet’s heightened gaze, which amplifies the physical and sensual properties of his interest.

Just as Monet realised a purely figurative rendering of organic life doesn’t quite relay the physical experience or weight of reality, so does Stern recognise a straight life-like scan won’t do so either. Stern’s proximity to his subject matter facilitates a level of abstraction before he has even begun his process of “decompression”, which involves undoing the compression of the image. He is so close to his subject matter he doesn’t necessarily observe it, but is immersed in it. Because of this the view is distorted. It is a bit like putting the lens of a camera right up against that which is to be photographed.

Physical distance is a prerequisite for representation. Stern’s approach challenges this idea for not only is he immersed in his subject matter, but ironically he equips himself with a gadget that has no view-finder so he is unable to see the images he is capturing. As a result he records while not being trapped by, or implicated in, the act of recording. Thus representation is separated from seeing, it becomes an intuitive act of another kind.

This, of course, is the antithesis of the effect digital mediums have had on a society which has become more consumed with the act of documenting life that reality is viewed through a lens. In this way Stern succeeds in achieving what Monet never could: he is able to exist in a moment without the burden of reconstructing it. For this reason he is a participant rather than a detached observer. Stern is able to produce images that relay so much detail, like a insect caught in a petal or the veins of a leaf. These details might have evaded his detection despite his proximity and immersion. This suggests he was unable to fully appreciate the scene in its totality. In this way the full weight of reality is always withheld.

It is only in the processing of his scanned images, in which he stretches them out, that another encounter with his subject matter becomes possible. This encounter is obviously subject to his manipulation; he heightens the colours and decompresses the images to such a point that they are abstracted.

Stern doesn’t present one cohesive view of the pond, but a plethora of cropped details of it. The images are pieced together to form three larger “canvases”. They need to be scrutinised up close, where you can spy traces of the submersion of his physical being in the work – denoted by finger prints.

These works are excessively beautiful and compel immersion. Viewing them is a time-demanding exercise, which defies our usual consumption of imagery. This is exacerbated by the number of small canvases one must view, which appear like pieces of a puzzle even though they do not fit together to create a complete image. These are fragments of reality. Stern suggests a scene cannot be relayed in its entirety, so despite his reverence he challenges Monet’s work. Stern doesn’t order the visual world; he casts his garden pond scene as an indeterminate one that exists beyond the boundaries of any frame.

*Giverny of the Midwest has been on show at the Art on Paper Gallery in Joburg.

read the entire article online
see it in the print edition

Live Out Loud

Live Out LoudThe Art of Compression
This article by Christine Grové appeared in both the online and print editions of Live Out Loud

Delving into the intricate and compelling world of American-born and Joburg-based artist, Nathaniel Stern, one is once again emphatically confronted with the pure immensity that is art appreciation and philosophy. Because Stern’s work is embedded in extensive investigation into subjects so significant to human nature, currently and historically, his art is quite possibly some of the most relevant around.

A productive day in Stern’s life may consist of wading waist-deep in a water-lily pond with a desktop scanner, laptop and custom-made battery pack strapped to his body. Wielding this unique contraption he literally performs images into existence by scanning along table surfaces, swinging over flowers, hopping over bricks or, in this case, floating over water-lily ponds. This active engagement with his surroundings translates into quirky and organic but condensed renderings which he then re-stretches, crops and touches up on his laptop, and finally they are transformed into exquisite archival art prints for the gallery wall. This process of art-making he has suitably named Compressionism.

Stern follows a rather unique trajectory when creating his Compressionist works. From influential roots in Impressionism through to Surrealism imagery, ending in a postmodern sentiment, Compressionism is more than a playful allusion to historical art movements of “isms”. Allegorically, Stern’s term Compressionism dictates the nature of this day and age. In a world of time and space constraints threatening to slow us down, the concept of compression allows us to “zip-folder” large amounts of data into smaller spaces, which is also intrinsic to our lives of trying to fit an alarming amount of activities into one day.

His latest installation, entitled “Giverny of the Midwest”, on display at Art On Paper from 30 July 2011, is part of an ongoing series started in 2005 in Johannesburg. The main work, a 2 x 12 meter installation of 93 prints of water-lily pond scans was inspired by Monet’s work in Giverny where he spent over 30 years painting his famous water lilies. For this particular work Stern spent three days camping beside a lily pond in South Bend, Indiana with his scanner-laptop-battery apparatus, endlessly scanning his surroundings with only his studio assistant and an agitated snapping turtle for company. After this brief adventure, it took over eighteen months of editing and reworking images to achieve the full installation to where it is now.

Using Monet’s Water Lilies triptych at the MoMA in New York as his source for following movement and patterns of colour and light and Mondrian as the inspiration for the spacing of the images, Stern managed to create a kind of digital play between modularity and Modernism in this large installation.

Coining new terminology and experimenting with new hardware combinations are, however, not the only things Stern concerns himself with. He is also a prolific scholar of performative and interactive art and is considered one of the fathers of this progressive movement in South Africa. Throughout his career he has explored an array of different concepts including political commentary, performance, human interaction and language, and has deepened his research around these interests over many years.

Like most progressive artists today, Stern often collaborates with other artists. “I believe that artists no longer simply make images, they make discourse – they ask us not only to look but to look again, to re-examine,” he says, “Art is always dialogical – I mean, simply, that it is in dialogue – with history, with other art and artists, with current events, with politics and pop culture and more. Most of all, it is in dialogue with people, with real people.”

In his 2003/2009 updated work, “Stuttering”, one of his many interactive installations, Stern investigates how we affect, and are affected by conversation and comprehension. Each viewer in the space triggers a large-scale interactive art object projected on the wall in front of them. Body tracking software picks up the movement of the viewers and animates a quote about stuttering and is accompanied by an audio recitation of its text.

When questioned about bringing art to the people via interaction, Stern quotes: “There are a lot of reasons I work with interactive art. A large portion of this is to reach a bigger audience and get them excited about art, while also engaging with complex ideas and materials. And I also believe that such work can be serious stuff, which needs to be investigated further by those in the academy and elsewhere.”

Some of Stern’s other works will also be on display at UNISA in September.
For more information visit or

see this article in the print edition

Critical Mass

Critical Mass: Printmaking Beyond the Edge

Book on Contemporary Printmaking

Title: Critical Mass: Printmaking Beyond the Edge
Author: Richard Noyce
Publisher: A&C Black
Date of Publication: 2010
Language: English
ISBN: 978-1408109397
Order this book from

Bad At Sports

Bad at Sports Episode 244: Nathaniel Stern
by Duncan MacKenzie

“Bad at Sports is a weekly podcast produced in Chicago that features artists talking about art and the community that makes, reviews and critiques it. Shows are usually posted each weekend and can be listened to on any computer with an internet connection and speakers or headphones.”

This audio interview (available streaming from the site, or as a download to your computer or mp3 player) begins with Nathaniel Stern rapping a bit of Beastie Boys / Q-Tip, and quickly degrades to him lovingly poking fun at his dad. It’s actually a great interview, where you can hear some off the cuff chatting with Duncan MacKenzie about hektor.netDistill LifeCompressionismWikipedia Art,Given TimeDoin’ my part to lighten the load, and more. It’s good fun, with lots of tangential stories and jokes, and many mentions of good friends and colleagues. Enjoy!

listen to or download interview on B@S

Antinomies of Art + Culture

Antinomies of Art and CUlture

Title: Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity
Editors: Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, Nancy Condee
Publisher: Duke University Press
Date of Publication: 2008
Language: English
ISBN: 978-0822342038
Excerpt from “Aftermath: Value and Violence in Contemporary South African Art,” by Colin Richards
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Antinomies of Art and CUltureExcerpt from  “Aftermath: Value and Violence in Contemporary South African Art,” by Colin Richards

‘Perhaps the most sustained elaboration of the relation of human body and techno-machine is to be found in the works of Nathaniel Stern and Marcus Neustetter. Stern’s Compressionism is a digital performance that invokes a “complex conversation between artist, performance, mediation tool, art objects(s) and viewer,” while Neustetter, Stern’s sometimes partner in art, has produced “digital frottage” in which he scanned, photocopied, and photographed the screen of his laptop… This is sly work, and both artists seem to shove a digit in the air at the cybermyths of boundless, dematerialized, “democratic” connection and communication, without rejecting the myth of a borderless global community and boundless processes of radical interconnectivity. Theirs is not the techno-utopia or dystopia promised and warned against by apologists for globalization and its opponents; one senses instead a slightly perverse smile that knows it is in the thrall of some kind of retromaterialist libido on a humane and doggedly human scale.’

Printmaking Today

Printmaking Today coverPrintmaking Today article on contemporary practices in South Africa. Covers performative scanner art, and Nathaniel Stern’s work with Jillian Ross at the David Krut Workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Nathaniel Stern / David Krut in Printmaking Today magazine

Nathaniel Stern / David Krut in Printmaking Today magazine

Art Fag City

nathaniel stern: Art Fag City featured artistArt Fag City: featured artist

“One of the more exciting new features on AFC lands in our masthead, which will now feature a new emerging artist every two weeks. Click on the image and a page with the profiled artist and a full sized reproduction of their work. Kicking us off is the work of Nathaniel Stern, who headed up the residency I attended at iCommons last week in Dubrovnik.”

see screenshot of original feature

Art Fag City

nathaniel stern: Art Fag City interview for iCommonsArt Intercom: featuring artist
Nathaniel Stern

Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City interviews Nathaniel Stern, commissioned by iCommons

Part I

Inspired by pioneering artists in the field of Interactive art such as David Rokeby andMyron KrugerNathaniel Stern builds upon their work by reintroducing traditional art- making techniques to reinterpret digital records of movement. In the first half of my interview with the artist we discuss works leading up to, and informing his current body of prints he titles Compressionism. In these images Stern manipulates visual documentation of movement distorting memories or impressions of the body.

Art Fag City: So I wanted to begin by discussing your work, and so I thought we could start with the prints you make. I wonder if you could talk about your process a little bit because you have the Compressionism series that you’ve been working on, and, you use a lot of ‘techy’ things, but the actual process is very traditional. You’re also making very traditional art historical references and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that and what your interest is in pairing those things?

Nathaniel Stern: Absolutely. I guess obviously with any series I’m pulling inspiration from various places, but I think when that series started my interests led me to two things: the first was I was working with interactive installation and performativity, trying to get people to move in ways they normally wouldn’t, and that was kind of my mantra for a while; rather than trying to think of immersion as a goal, I thought of immersion as a side effect of playing with affect – the involuntary ability to effect, and be effected – and how such art can sort of put the body in quotes. And what I found was that it was a very special kind of person that would actually engage and interact with those pieces; most people would just kind of watch and talk about the work, and it was everyone from, like, my mother, who didn’t understand the technology – and just kind of said how proud she was and sat in the corner – but also the writers and critics who really liked my work would kind of stand back, and nod, and talk about how it’s interactive, and it’s performative, and playful, but they would never actually use it.

AFC: Now specifically at this point we’re talking about the installation“step inside” or are we talking about more than just this..

NS: I would say “step inside”, and the two works that preceded it,“stuttering” and “enter: hektor”. And even though “step inside” is the piece that gets the most talked about. I think “stuttering” actually succeeded in accomplishing getting people to move about in ways they wouldn’t normally.

AFC: And, just to back-track a little bit, can you briefly explain those pieces for the readers?

NS: “stuttering” was a kind of Mondrian painting with 34 differently-shaped squares on it, but they’re invisible. So instead of actually seeing the squares, when you step in front of the screen, you see an abstract outline of yourself, and any time you cross over one of those squares it’s triggered and it recites a line of the text out loud, as well as animates text on the screen. So what winds up happening is that there are too many trigger points and that it almost asks you not to interact; so on the one hand the piece itself stutters, but on the other hand in order to get it to say few enough things for you to hear and understand it, you have to almost ‘stutter’ with your body. “step inside” in many ways came out of what I thought were the shortcomings of “stuttering” — people really only got beyond the surface of “stuttering” when they were alone with the work. But when there were a lot of people in the space, or in the room, they wanted to perform, and it became a kind of interactive one-upmanship, and showing off, and more of the play between how others saw you and what you could do with the piece, instead of the rich attention to minor gestures that came out when no one was looking. Rather than working against this, “step inside” was more about enhancing and playing with that kind of performance of self in relationship to perception of others. It was a literal performance space, where people stepped inside a large box, and a combination of their footsteps and their movements made a live video feed of profiled bodies filled with white noise, which were projected on the screen outside the box. But they were cut off – neither could participants see people’s responses to their interactions, nor could the external viewers see the people inside. So, it invited participants to make images based solely on their immediate actions, and nothing else. I also added a few elements to again give a bit of awkwardness, like instead of being a mirror projection, the camera was picking up your profile, and the opacity of the field was based on the amplitude of your echoed footsteps; you had to really think about how you were going to move, both literally and metaphorically, to manipulate the video feed.

Should I go back to how this got into the prints?

AFC: Yes, absolutely.

NS: So I guess what I found here is that technophobes weren’t interested. The traditionalists had a hard time with it too. But even those who were interested, unless they were a special kind of person, wouldn’t interact with it. Even the theorists who liked the work would often be standing in the corner, talking about how wonderfully performative it was [AFC: right]. But they weren’t using it. The point is, that it wasn’t about what was on the screen; if you don’t engage and interact, you are not experiencing the piece. So I thought, rather than try to find a way to force people into performing – and I should mention that I am also working on other pieces where people inadvertently interact to address this issue – I wanted to make a series optimized for people to imagine a performance, if that makes sense. If people were using these as visual stimulations of performativity, then why not make, specifically, visual elements that help to imagine that performativity. And I still wanted to reference signs and language in it. And that’s the one angle of it I was talking about when you first asked this question – how I got started; The other is that it actually began as a joke. I didn’t know that these prints were going to be – for lack of a better word – so ‘pretty’… It started when I was working on this site-specific exhibition with Marcus Neustetter in Johannesburg – we collaborate together often – and I was kind of drawing in straight lines across the gallery space with my scanner – the performative element – and then re-stretching these compressed images out to the size of the original subject. The Compressionism title is obviously a joke, but people were fascinated by the results and really interested in the process…

AFC: Can I interrupt for a second and ask how many prints you have in the series?

NS: It’s an ongoing series and the first exhibition I think was more of an experiment that led to the rest –about fifteen pieces, now in storage; the second exhibition, Call and Response, has 17 digital prints and 13 handmade prints. Or, I should rather say pieces [instead of prints] because some of the pieces are triptychs and polyptychs. I also just finished another series for an exhibition in Ireland which has an additional 12 digital prints, and I’m working on another series now that will have both handmade and digital prints —the handmades will be done in collaboration with Zhane Warren while I’m on residence at the Frans Masereel Centre in Belgium this Summer. I guess I haven’t explained that after I made the initial digital prints, I decided to take it more seriously, and play with painting light, make references to using found objects and references to Duchamp and the cubists, as well as tributes to abstract expressionism — that’s when I built the ‘scanner appendage’ and started going out and scanning foliage and the like.

AFC: But these works – the second series of prints versus the first series – are they less performative then?

NS: Well I almost don’t want to talk about the first series of prints, but to answer your question, I was too scientific about it in the first series; and so in other words I would go out onto a table that was five meters long and I would scan exactly in a straight line – and so the first series was actually less performative in that regard… I would take a straight line across five meters, and print out the ‘compressed’ image, then stretch it back to five meters – the exact width of the table — and that would be my ‘decompressed’ print, and then I would do an edit (so, three prints from each scan). Whereas with the second series and thereafter, once I discovered people were interested in this, I decided to play more of a role as an artist and perform an image into existence rather than trying to mimic the actual size, which merely showed inconsistencies in my own movement. Now it’s more about dynamism and relationality in the performance. And it’s a lot more fun.

AFC: So with the print “Wind” for example (pictured above), I think that print is a really nice piece in that series; can you talk about the performative aspect of that particular print?

NS: Sure. That was taken at a construction site in Johannesburg, actually, and I was walking around with the scanner and battery pack attached to my body and…

AFC: And that equipment is something you created specifically for this project right? It’s custom tech stuff…

NS: Actually it is and it’s not. That’s the funny thing about it… It sounds so technical but actually the appendage is a piece of wood that’s shaped in order to accommodate me, my laptop and the scanner… it’s basically a sand and a saw used for a shaped fit, outfitted with various bungee cords, Velcro, holes and clips – it’s more of a handy man’s tool belt, you know. It’s less Cory Arcangel and more Bruce Wayne… and the battery pack is just a rechargeable whose standard use is a home alarm system’s backup, with a new lead I think the most technical side of this is that I tested a lot of scanners to see which ones were the best for outdoor lighting. I also use open source drivers so that I can get the same results from different scanners, and spend a lot of time hand-coloring in Photoshop – outdoor scanning tends to blow out most color.

So I was at this construction site and – actually that day probably gave me about four prints, where I did “Earth”“Wind”“Fire” and “Joburg Boogie Woogie” all in one day – and I saw some ticker tape; the performance basically consisted of me trying to catch the ticker tape floating around in the wind… if you can imagine me with the heavy weight of a scanner and battery pack over my back, out on the construction site, looking over my shoulder making sure no one is going to mug me.

AFC: So I guess in a certain way you are forcing your own body to move in ways it wouldn’t normally…

NS: Exactly. I so appreciate your saying that. This is precisely what I said to my supervisor (I’m doing my PHD right now) about wanting to do a chapter on Compressionism. And it’s my hope that people will not only see them as beautiful art objects in their own right, but also try to imagine them being made, and want to hear the stories of them being made like you just asked. When we opened the show in Joburg – there’s a drama professor by the name of Jane Taylor, who opened the show – and I was calling them, for a while, “digital performance; analogue archive” … and she said that I got it backwards, that the prints are actually the performances, and the pictures of me scanning them are the archives.

AFC: Oh interesting. Yes.

NS: And I think given where I started with the series, that’s wonderful. With regards to the handmade iterations, that was just another way to invite people in to the images. And I think that’s where the other angle came in – for the non-tech people and the people who give more credit to more traditional means; and I don’t necessarily do that, but I want to again invite them into that performance and enter into the process between the two spaces.

AFC: So your titling process then… Is it basically descriptive? Because“Wind” is basically describing the element you were working with at the time.

NS: That’s a good question. The title of an artwork, and I’m sure you know this as an artist yourself, can come from anywhere, from just being descriptive and humble to someone else making the suggestion. Most of the time it is really describing the subject and hoping that the performance is then implicit. However, sometimes there’s something bigger at hand, or where there’s an inspiration, for example “Joburg Boogie Woogie” was obviously a direct reference to Mondrian and I was trying to do the map of Joburg on some level; and “Nude Descension” was a Duchamp reference, he painted a “Nude Descending the Staircase”, and instead, I descended the nude. I‘m always performing some relation, and sometimes it’s a direct relation between me and the subject, and sometimes it’s broader than that and it has to do with our relation to images or art itself. And I often title in that way, too. I don’t think, it’s not a grandiose thing.

Part II


Art Fag City: So we’ve talked a little bit about the prints. I should note that you also make videos, which are on your site as well, before we move on so readers will know to check that work out. I wondered if you could talk about your connection with Creative Commons.

Nathaniel Stern: Admittedly, it’s by default that I’ve become a bit of an iCommons activist. I was one of the few people who had a blog in South Africa – now there’s many, but I was one of the earliest ones there and certainly the first in the art world – and it was under Creative Commons, so I was contacted by the South African CC team early on. Since then, I’ve become an impromptu spokesperson for them on some level and I’ve tried to direct that dialog not only toward my personal interests but also the interests of professional artists more generally.

I guess I have two main themes with regards to Creative Commons: the first is that I want to ensure that we make work that’s free and available in the public domain for remixing and playing and generating discussion, but that’s not exploitative of artists. And so with this, ideally, I guess I’d like to see Fair Use expanded exponentially and I see various CC licenses as doing exactly that. With issues of distribution I guess I like to differentiate between ‘art’ and the art’s ‘content’ – the former is for collectors and the latter is free: I think it should be available to everyone.

I believe, for example, that you should be allowed to download and play with my video art; I give away files for my prints, they are available on my site – not at super high res, but high res enough that you could print them out or re-mix. I think it’s important that they are out there. That’s the art’s content, not the art itself.

From my perspective, with Walter Benjamin‘s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he was right in saying that potentials for easily copying work changed the relationship we have to art objects, but he was wrong in saying that the more copies, the less the authentic original has value: it’s exactly the opposite – the more people that have posters of the Mona Lisa, the more collectors will want the original; the more people that watch my video on their home computers, the more value the signed and numbered DVD will have to the collector.

AFC: Absolutely.

NS: And so I’m trying to find new ways of convincing collectors of that. Because they believe it when it comes to photography, which took a long time, and we need the same understandings for new media. Clive Kellner, the curator who bought “step inside” for the Johannesburg Art Museum, once had a debate about this with me, because he said I couldn’t distribute the software once they purchased it; and I said, “they may have the software, but they don’t own it” – they can watch it, they can play with it, but you have the rights to it, you have the artwork itself, they only have its content. The more people that have this, the more the piece in the museum increases in value. I want to change that discourse. I want to make sure that we can talk about and remix and distribute art to our heart’s content, and still have the ability to see the value of the original (or at least the ‘authenticated’ piece).

AFC: I guess I was just wondering whether you had specific ways of doing that?

NS: Well, you can’t really see the direct impact of someone seeing a poster and therefore immediately going and buying a work, but there are implicit connections; I have this blog, I upload my stuff to Flickr under Creative Commons, I write about other people’s work as well as my own work – indirectly my name and work has gotten out there, and is being talked about. It’s exactly how we met, it’s exactly how I met the people at Creative Commons and iCommons, and it’s where most of my non-South African exhibitions come from. And none of my work has any less value because I have CC lower resolution versions of it online – I think it’s had quite the opposite effect through that indirect relationship of exposure and dialogue.

I think the discussion right now is in the wrong arena – copyright or CC, Fair Use or piracy, this is what big companies should worry about, not artists. Artists should raise questions around whether you do the full high-resolution or lower-resolution under CC, or do you allow people to exhibit the video or do you sell the exhibition rights separately – I think these are the models that are different for each and every one of us, potentially for each and every art work. For example, I have distributed videos before as a podcast; so obviously that’s free. So what I did when someone was interested in purchasing it, I gave them a certificate of authenticity, as well as some prints, and all the videos were pressed, screened and signed.

AFC: And so it’s a package that you get, and it’s an object.

NS: Exactly. There are still people out there that, believe it or not, buy CDs, because they like to have the packages. You know, there are still people that will spend $300 on a really good ballpoint pen.

AFC: People still buy books!

NS: People still buy books, present company included! And, I think we need to recognize that it’s not necessarily at odds to both give away the content and sell the object. Art that is in the public interest can be distributed widely, and the same art can be a luxury item for sale.

AFC: Yes.

NS: I guess my other interest in CC is, going back to my role as an artist rather than as an activist – the particular modes of production. A lot of CC is either about distributing content that is educational, or about re-mixing, which usually defaults to music. And, you know, like MTAA say “we just give our work under CC as a gift;” but I’m also wondering about other uses, other production roles for CC.

Like for example, one of the main projects I’m doing in Croatia is my first in a series of what I call “sentimental constructions,” which are abstract buildings made of rope, that are actually performed. So it might be a huge architectural structure, a literal wireframe, held up in the four corners by volunteers, as a public performance or intervention, somewhere outside a gallery space.
So the question might be, What does this have to do with CC?

AFC: Sure.

NS: And for me, obviously, there are aspects and interrogations about construction, architecture, space, and performance – but what changes the meaning of each performance is the site specificity. In Dubrovnik, it could be about facades or emptiness in relation to the tourism industry that’s been burgeoning there. While, when I try to do it in Joburg this September, it could be about disparity, and decay, and the homeless. So if I put the design of the project under open source and CC, and other artists start to perform sentimental constructions in their parts of the world, people might enter a much different kind of dialog, and it gives a shifting context. So, the important thing for iCommons is that it actually invites others to do something to, and with, the ideas, and it’s less owned by artists and then remixed, and more of a collaboration between several artists at once.

AFC: Right, it’s much more of a conversation.

NS: Yeah. I think the one problems I’m trying to resolve with it, is that a lot of artists, in the age of conceptualism, say, “Well, it’s his idea and that’s the way he did, and I have to find a new way of playing with it” – that makes it a collaboration and a dialog instead of, saying, well, “Shit. I’m doing the same work as Nathaniel.” And that’s where I’m still struggling – I need to make sure it’s seen as a collaboration, rather than as a call for participation. But, as you say, I want to open this dialog and I want to find other modes of production that say, ‘Why CC?’ that go beyond remix and Fair Use. Not that those aren’t important discussions…

AFC: Hah. Those are really interesting questions….

NS: Well I think that’s part of what this residency is about for me, and these are the two questions I want to explore most; even if we don’t have any answer, I’d like to, as you say, dialog about it and see where it can take us. It’s to the credit of the iCommons organization that they’re giving us the space and support to see where these kinds of questions might lead.

Read in context: Part I and Part II


nathaniel stern: ArtThrob Art on Paper ReviewNathaniel Stern at Art on Paper Gallery
by Michael Smith

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

Read on ArtThrob…