Scanning the World
MILWAUKEE-BASED ARTIST CHALLENGES HOW HUMANS RESPOND TO THEIR ENVIRONMENT
BY ROCHELLE MELANDER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATT HAAS
To 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.
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Neural Magazine, M Magazine, engadget, NY Arts Magazine, Shepherd Express
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.
Other related texts: Companion to Digital Art, M Magazine, engadget, Art Fag City, Critical Arts
with Bonnie North on Lake Effect
Artist Nathaniel Stern speaks with Lake Effect’s Bonnie North about his use of scanners to create beautiful images.
Nathaniel Stern’s intensity is palpable. The media artist always has multiple bodies of work going on simultaneously, he’s a Fulbright scholar, a professor of art, a parent. Talking with him, you get the impression he never stops thinking about, or exploring, art and life.
Stern’s current exhibition at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend is called Giverny of the Midwest. The work has had previous exhibitions in Johannesburg, South Africa and London, but this is its first stop in the United States. The scans are a nod and homage to the Impressionist painter Claude Monet…if Monet were painting his lilies while immersed in the pond rather than sitting on its banks.
Nathaniel Stern, detail, Giverny of the Midwest, Digital print installation, 2011, Lent by the Tory Folliard GalleryCredit: Musem of Wisconsin Art.
The work is technological, thought-provoking and unexpected. And although his work has been compared to photography, Stern would disagree. “It’s probably closer to print making.” He continues that as opposed to the objective distancing you get in photography, “where you’re looking through [a] lens and seeing what you’re capturing, (with this work) it’s more that you’re on top of or a part of your medium,” says Stern.
When he isn’t scanning his environment, Stern is an Associate Professor of Art and Design in Peck School of the Arts at the UW – Milwaukee.
Other related texts: MKE Journal Sentinel, WORT fm, Die Beeld, WORT fm, Sunday Independent
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.
Other related texts: WORT fm, WORT fm, WORT fm, NPR / WUWM, Bad At Sports
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.
Other related texts: WORT fm, WORT fm, WORT fm, NPR / WUWM, engadget
Meaning 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
Other related texts: WORT fm, Body Language, Mail & Guardian, Business Day, Sunday Independent
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.
In 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:
Other related texts: Meaning Motion press, WORT fm, Mail & Guardian, Business Day, WORT fm
The 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:
Other related texts: WORT fm, Imperica, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Enfield Independent
At Issue with Ben Merens on Monday, September 10, 2012 at 3:00 PM on the Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio.
What would you say to an alien that lived on a planet 22 light years away? Could you say it in 140 characters or less? An upcoming performance at the International Symposium on Electronic Art will collect your tweets and then send them to a specific planet far, far away. This hour, we get the details of the project and hear what YOU would tweet into outer space. Keep it short.
Guests: Nathaniel Stern, Assistant Professor of Art & Design at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Scott Kildall, Independent artist based in San Francisco.
Other related texts: BBC Radio 4 (Today), WORT fm, WORT fm, NY Daily News, Mashable
Marc Garrett: Could you explain to our readers what ‘Tweets In Space’ is?
Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern: Tweets in Space is an art project — a networked performance event — which beams your Twitter messages to a nearby exoplanet that might support human-like, biological life. Anyone with an Internet connection can Tweet with the hashtag #tweetsinspace during the performance time, and their messages will be included in our shotgun blast to the stars. The performance is on September 21st, 20:30 – 21:00 Mountain Time (3:30 AM BST / London time).
MG: What was the motivation behind your current collaboration?
SK and NS: We found inspiration from various sources. First, in NASA’s Kepler mission, whose purpose is to discover planets in the “habitable” or “Goldilocks” zone. The project has found over 2000 exoplanets thus far, all of which are “not too hot, not too cold, but just right” for life as we know it. Scientists now estimate that there are at least 500 million planets like this in the Milky Way alone. Our conclusion: extraterrestrial life is almost certainly out there.
The newly discovered planet is depicted in this artist’s conception, showing the host star
as part of a triple-star system. Image credit: Carnegie Institution / UCSC. 
“The latest discovery is at least 4.5 times bigger in size than Earth. Reportedly, the planet exists 22 lightyears away from Earth and it orbits its star every 28 days. The planet is known to lie, in what is being referred to as the star’s habitable zone. A habitable zone is a place where the existing conditions are just perfect for life sustenance. Astronomers, according to this report also suspect that the GJ667Cc may have been made out of earth-like rock, instead of gas.” [ibid]
Another source of great inspiration is how we use social media here on Earth. This is our second, large-scale, Internet-initiated collaboration. In 2009, we amplified the power structures and personalities on Wikipedia, and questioned how knowledge is formed on the world’s most-often used encyclopedia – and thus the web and world at large. Now, we are turning to the zeitgeist of information and ideas, feelings and facts, news and tidbits, on Twitter. The project focuses on and magnifies the supposed shallowness of 140-character messages, alongside the potential depth of all of them – what we say in online conversation, as a people.
We are directing our gaze, or rather tweets, via a high-powered radio telescope, towards GJ667Cc – one of the top candidates for alien life. It is part of a triple-star system, has a mass that is about 4 times that of Earth, and orbits a dwarf star at close range. GJ667Cc most certainly has liquid water, an essential component for the kind of life found on our own planet.
MG: Right from its early years when Jagadish Chandra Bose , pioneered the investigation of radio and microwave optics – science, technology and art have had strong crossovers. And it might be worth mentioning here that Bose was not only well versed as a physicist, biologist, botanist and archaeologist, he was also an early writer of science fiction.  Which, brings us back to ‘Tweets In Space’, wherein lies themes relating to science fiction, radio broadcasting (commercial, independent and pirate), wireless technology of the everyday via our computers, and ‘of course’ the Internet.
J.C. Bose at the Royal Institution, London, 1897.
But, what I want to pin down here is, where do you feel you fit in historically and artistically with other past and contemporary artists, whose creative art works also involved explorations through electromagnetic waves?
Scot Kildall: The work of JC Bose is incredible and what strikes me is that he eschewed the single-inventor capitalist lifestyle in favor of his own experiments. Isn’t this the narrative that artists (often) take and linked back in many ways to the open-source/sharing movement, rather than the litigious patent-based corporation? And it mirrors in many ways the reception of electromagnetic radiation as well. You can’t really “own” the airwaves. Anyone who is listening can pick up the signal. This comes back, as you point out, to the internet. Twitter is now, one of the vehicles, and, ironically entirely owned by a benevolent* corporation.
Nathaniel Stern: (Agreeing with Scott) and we can’t forget of course Nam June Paik, who played with naturally occurring and non-signal based electromagnetic fields to interfere with analogical signals (as well as the actual hardware) of tube televisions, and more. And of course, there have been other transmission artists, explored in depth by free103point9, among others. I think, like them and others, we are messing with the media, amplifying (figuratively and metaphorically) and intervening, pushing the boundaries of DIY and cultural ethico-aesthetic questions…
1963, Nam June Paik réalise Zen devant la tv.
MG: What is especially interesting is that all the tweets submitted by the public are unfiltered. How important is it to you that people’s own messages are not censored when going into space?
SK and NS: Absolutely. Tweets in Space is by no means the first project to transmit cosmic messages with METI technologies (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Our fellow earthlings have sent songs by the Beatles, photos of ourselves shopping at supermarkets, images of national flags, and even a gold record inscribed with human forms – controversially, where the man has genitals and the woman doesn’t. These slices of hand-picked content exhibit what a select few believe to be important, but ignore, or willfully exclude, our varied and collective modes of thinking and being.
Tweets in Space is “one small step” with alien communications, in that it is open to anyone with an Internet connection. It thus represents millions of voices rather than a self-selected few. More than that, our project is a dialog. There have been, very recently, a small number of projects that similarly “democratize the universe” but none are like ours: uncurated, unmediated thoughts and responses from a cooperative public. We can speak, rebut, and conclude, and nothing is left out. Our transmission will contain the good, the bad, and the provocative, the proclamations, the responses, and the commentary, together, a “giant leap” for all of humankind – as well as our soon-to-be friends.
Part of the radio-wave transmission prototype delivery system devised by
engineering students for the Tweets In Space project. (Photo by Nathaniel Stern)
Furthermore, by limiting the event to a small window of only 30 minutes, we are encouraging all our participants to speak then respond, conversing with one another in real-time, through networked space. We are not just sending lone tweets, but beaming a part of the entire dialogical Twitterverse, as it creates and amplifies meaning. Tweets in Space is more than a “public performance” – it “performs a public.”
MG: Now, you will be transmitting real-time tweets toward the exoplanet GJ667Cc, which is 22 light-years away. How long will it all take to get there?
SK and NS: Well, first off, we’re collecting all of the tweets in real time, but only sending them out later in October. The main reason for this is that we have to wait for the planets to align – literally. We want line of sight with GJ667Cc from where our dish is. The added bonus of time, however, is that this will allow us to really flesh out how we send the messages in a bundle. We want to include a kind of Rosetta Stone, where we will not only send binary ASCII codes of text in our signal, but also analog images of the text itself. We additionally intend to choose the most frequently used nouns in all the tweets from our database, then give a kind of “key” for each. If “dog” is common, for example, we can transmit: 1. an analog image of a dog, like a composite signal from a VCR; 2. a text image of the word “dog” in the same format; and 3. the binary ASCII code for the word dog.
In terms of time/distance, when speaking in light years, these are the same thing. A light year is the distance light can travel in one year of Earth time (about 9.4605284 × 10 to the 15 meters). Since radio travels at the speed of light, a big dish on GJ667Cc will pick up the signal in 22 years. We should start listening for a response in 44 – though it may take them a while to get back to us…
MG: Will the code used for the project be open source, and if so, when and where can people expect to use it?
SK and NS: Yes it is! The most useful part of our code is the #collector, which saves real-time tweets to a database, that can then be used for live projections or web sites, or accessed and sorted later via all kinds of info. The problem is that it’s not really user friendly or out of the box – folks need a suped up server (VPN), and to plug into a few other open source wares. The main portion of the backend we used is actually already available at 140dev.com, and then we plugged that into Drupal, among other things. For now, we’re telling interested parties to contact our coder, Chris Butzen, if they want to use our implementation. And we hope to do public distribution on tweetsinspace.org if we are able to package it in a more usable format in the next 6 months.
MG: Are there any messages collected so far, grabbing your attention?
We’ve had thousands of tweets so far – even while just testing the ware in preparation for the performance. We’re anticipating a lot of participation! The tweets we’ve seen have ranged from variations on “hello [other] world” and “don’t eat us,” to political activism and negative commentary, to a whole surreal narrative of about 30 tweets per day over the last 3 months.
Furtherfield’s first Tweet in Space.
go to tweet aliens to add your own words…
Some of our favorite tweets have been those that question how to make our own world better. These speak to both the hope of space age-ike technology, as well as the hope in collective dialog – both of which our project tries to amplify. Such tweeters ask about the alien planet’s renewable energy sources, tax structures, education, art, and more.
We imagine the 30-minute performance will see a much more potent discussion about such things, and hope your readers will participate. The final transmission will be archived permanently on our site once we’ve prepared it for launch.
Notes & References:
How to Take Part.
As part of the International Symposium on Electronic Art in New Mexico (ISEA2012). We will collect your tweets and transmit them into deep space via a high-powered radio messaging system. Our soon-to-be alien friends might receive unmediated thoughts and responses about politics, philosophy, pop culture, dinner, dancing cats and everything in between. By engaging the millions of voices in the Twitterverse and dispatching them into the larger Universe, Tweets in Space activates a potent conversation about communication and life that traverses beyond our borders or understanding.http://tweetsinspace.org/
AND THEY WILL BE SENT INTO DEEP SPACE!!!
Watch the stream LIVE here – http://tweetsinspace.org
 New super-Earth detected within the habitable zone of a nearby star. Tim Stephens. University of Santa Cruz. February 02, 2012. http://news.ucsc.edu/2012/02/habitable-planet.html
 Jagadish Chandra Bose: The Real Inventor of Marconi’s Wireless Receiver Varun Aggarwal, Div. Of Electronics and Comm. Engg. NSIT, Delhi, India. PDF. http://tinyurl.com/8bhjbup
 Jagadish Chandra Bose http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jagadish_Chandra_Bose
See original interview in context: Tweets in Space: An interview with Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern
Other related texts: The Sunday Guardian, NY Daily News, Wisconsin Public Radio, Mashable, CNET
BBC News – Today – Tweeting to a planet near you
“Why is an artist about to send tweets into space? Nathaniel Stern, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and Anu Ojha, Director of the National Space Academy in Leicester, explain.”
Other related texts: Wisconsin Public Radio, WORT fm, Tweets in Space Press, NY Daily News, MKE Journal Sentinel
“The best decision of my life was to chase Nicole Ridgway halfway around the globe, and make her agree to spend her life with me.” So says Nathaniel Stern, world-renowned media artist. When he first met her, Stern was finishing his Masters of Fine Arts in digital art at New York University, where she was a visiting fellow.
He was completely enamoured with Ridgway the moment she began speaking. “She had that beautiful accent (now so familiar to me), and she was the most brilliant and generous person I had ever encountered. For two months I basically harassed her with a flurry of e-mails and letters on her door, and by sliding my arm in hers in the hallways, until she relented and agreed to go on a date with me. And then she stood me up!”
Figuring that Nicole was far too decent to do such a thing without reason, he checked and found a note saying that she was attending a talk by Vito Acconci at Cooper Union. Stern’s response was to show up at that same lecture with another woman on his arm – and one whom he knew would have to leave early for a class – so he could have another shot at Nicole. Finally, the two had their drinks at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge (cheap but watered down bourbon and soda) talking non-stop into the night. That cold February in the East Village in 2001 was when he decided to follow her back to South Africa, where she held a tenured position in the Drama Department at Wits. “I lived in New York until my early twenties,” Stern says, “but I grew up in South Africa.”
Upon arrival in Johannesburg, Stern quickly established himself. As video artist and performance poet, he worked with PJ Sabbagha and the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative on The Double Room, which took the FNB Vita Award for Most Outstanding Presentation of a Contemporary Work (2001). The Mail and Guardian newspaper tersely referred to him as ‘digital guy’ for some time after that. As teacher, he began working with Christo Doherty, Head of Digital Arts at Wits School of the Arts, lecturing in the newly established MAFA program (2002). And as fine artist, Stern won a merit prize at the Brett Kebble Art Awards for his interactive installation, stuttering (2003). With the money from that prize, he bought the software that enabled him to create a major winning work at the second and last Kebble awards for another interactive installation, step inside (2004).
At this point, Stern was offered a solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG, 2004 – 2005). The Storytellers, featuring both a 6-channel and 1-channel video installation, a large-scale interactive art work, and over 3 dozen prints, was sponsored by the American consulate and the JAG itself. “But that still wasn’t enough to cover the show,” Stern begins, an edge of sadness in his voice. He explains that Braamfontein-based Andrew Meintjes, “who was becoming a good friend,” agreed to produce the prints for the show at no initial cost. “As a believer in my work, he said I could pay him back once the pieces sold.” Only hours after their agreement was reached, Meintjes was shot dead in his studio, the culprits getting away with nothing more than a cell phone. “It still haunts me,” Stern vocalized. With only weeks to spare before the opening, Stern was able to use his Kebble winnings for art yet again, this time parlaying the money for his museum show. The Storytellers was dedicated to Meintjes.
In between all of this Nathaniel and Nicole flew back to New York to get married, and Stern did a short residency at Cornell University where he continued to produce video art; he collaborated with Marcus Neustetter on various work and exhibitions (both on- and offline), and worked on a second award-winning piece with PJ Sabbagha.
In 2006 back in Johannesburg, a major breakthrough occurred in Stern’s work. He produced a custom battery-pack and hardware in order to attach a desktop scanner and laptop to his body, and scan or perform art works in the landscape – chief of which was in a lily pond at Emmarentia Park in Johannesburg. The scanned data was compressed into narrow horizontal or vertical strips (playfully coining a new –ism in art, namely Compressionism) and then stretched and edited on his computer to form a new piece.
“I thought of the resultant prints as fundamentally electronic works, in which I attempted to bridge the analog and the digital; but a graduate student at Wits who I was teaching at the time, Richard Kilpert, said these were the best prints he had ever seen. So I asked: ‘Teach me about printmaking?” This led to a whole new direction in Stern’s practice. He soon teamed up with Jillian Ross at David Krut, publishing a new body of work and portfolio for his exhibition Call and Response with Alet Vorster at Art on Paper Gallery (now GALLERY AOP). Stern jokingly laments that Voster did not like the work he first showed her on his laptop, but she took a liking to the prints as soon as she saw them in the real world a few weeks later, and eventually published the catalog for his highly successful solo show (2007).
This was also the time, however, when Stern decided to leave South Africa to pursue a PhD abroad, with Nicole and their newborn, Sidonie Ridgway Stern. Most of the programmes he looked at were either practice-based, or focused on visual interpretations of contemporary work. Stern wanted to pursue written research on interaction and performativity in media art. This landed him study with Professor Linda Doyle at Trinity College, the University of Dublin, in the Electronic and Electrical Engineering Department of all places! “Here I was, a fine artist, in an Engineering Department, pursuing a humanities-based PhD,” Stern observes wryly. “Linda did not have a clue what I wanted to do, but she was completely open to my interests and had no agenda of her own; and most importantly, she asked really smart questions.” During his two-year stay in Dublin, Stern continued to exhibit there, in Cork, Johannesburg, New York and more, and completed a short residency in Belgium.
While he and his family initially intended to return to South Africa on completion of his doctorate, after submitting his dissertation to his supervisor in 2008, Stern accepted a full-time position in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (UWM), moving his wife and now two-year-old back to the United States literally a month before the global economic crash. “Like most other places during the economic recession, it was not kind to the arts or education, and I have to live with budget cuts and forced pay cuts now; but I’m having a great time of it nevertheless.” He loves his colleagues in his department, and has been collaborating with local, but globally known American artists since his arrival – Jessica Meuninck-Ganger and Yevgeniya Kaganovich in Milwaukee, and Scott Kildall in San Francisco – and writers such as Mary-Louise Schumacher at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The majority of his work now combines new and traditional media – concrete sculpture with 3D imaging, prints with video, electronics and mechanics with sculpture – a trajectory he credits Compressionism with.
Within three years, and thanks to major shows, awards and publications worldwide (including the Venice Biennale, Transmediale and several solos and duos in London, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Johannesburg), he was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure. At UWM Stern manages a fantastic mentorship programme, working with students who help him with his installations, prints and various forms of participatory work, while gaining important experience in the studio and in relation to professional practice. “As in South Africa, where I always did community work in the arts, I am continuing to help build the arts in Milwaukee, by working with organizations like The Upgrade and Milwaukee Artist Resource Network. In fact, I am trying to combine my efforts across cities. I’ve already brought several of my American collaborators to South Africa, and am currently trying to bring South African folks to UWM – taking advantage, for example, of renowned author and director Jane Taylor’s trip to the states in the Fall.”
South Africa, Stern says, is still home. He plays an active role in the arts, plugs his friends and colleagues into each other’s life and careers, and tries to come back to visit everyone and exhibit new work as often as he can – wistfully avowing to move back one day. His latest solo exhibition in Johannesburg is again at GALLERY AOP in August 2011, where he takes the scanning of water lilies to a new level. Entitled Giverny of the Midwest, Stern has become a latter day, albeit electronic Monet, basing his 2 x 12 meter installation on the Impressionist’s famous Water Lilies painting in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He will also show a selection of older work and a new 6-channel video installation as part of Transcode, curated by Gwen Miller, at UNISA, this September, then museum, gallery and festival exhibitions in the states, New Zealand, and Canada in the weeks that follow.
Other related texts: Art South Africa, M Magazine, Art South Africa, Live Out Loud, M Magazine
Networks – social, political, physical and digital – are a defining feature of contemporary life, yet their forms and operations often go unseen and unnoticed. For this exhibition Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern, artists and co-founders of Wikipedia Art take these networks as their artistic materials and play-spaces to create artworks about love, power-play and a new social reality.
Three works are shown for the first time in the UK: Wikipedia Art, a collaborative work “made” of dialogue and social activity; Given Time, an Internet artwork that creates a feedback loop across virtual and actual space; and Playing Duchamp, a one-on-one meeting and game between an absent artist and viewer/participant.
Other related texts: Imperica, Enfield Independent, Furtherfield, The Huffington Post, DigiMag
Trust, trolls and trademarks – Artists suffer for artwork made on Wikipedia
This article by George Nott appeared in both the online and print editions of the Enfield Independent
It’s fair to say Nathaniel Stern and Scott Kildall have suffered for their art…. Since their first collaboration, they’ve been labelled vandals and trolls and suffered personal insults both “nasty and completely untrue”.
“We’re not artists because we want fame, glory and money,” says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Nathaniel. “We think it’s important stuff for the world, and are willing to invest in it.”
Lucky that, because although their 2009 work, being exhibited for the first time in the UK at the Furtherfield Gallery in Haringey, found them discussed on internet forums in more than 15 languages and profiled by the world’s media – it also cost them a hefty sum in lawyer’s fees…. They met on the internet, in person a year later, and soon began work on Wikipedia Art. At first glance, a straightforward entry on the online encyclopaedia; behind the webpage, says Nathaniel, an “intervention into the power structures behind the most powerful, and most-often used, information resource in the world.”
A quick lesson in the way of Wikipedia. One of the most popular websites in the world, it is closely guarded by eager volunteer editors and a “citation mechanism” which means all entries must be cited by a mainstream source.
“However, these ‘notable’ media sources often siphon their facts directly from Wikipedia,” explains Scott, “creating a problem of there being no original source.”
A feedback loop of misinformation the pair pounced upon. Before their page was launched it was written about by their media friends in various publications. Wikipedia’s safeguard had been sidestepped. And the trouble began.
A war of words broke out between Wikipedia’s editors. They were outraged, they’d been duped. The page was deleted within 15 hours.
And it wasn’t long before the lawyers started circling with talk of copyright infringement and trademarks.
“We felt they proved our point for us,” says Nathaniel. “Behind Wikipedia are powerful individuals with agendas and flaws and mood swings, even in their commendable efforts to disperse information widely.”
Think of it… as an “art intervention” [Nathaniel] says, defined (by Wikipedia, who else?) as “art which enters a situation outside the art world in an attempt to change the existing conditions there”…. Art, activism or both, the work continues to change. Just by mentioning it, this very article becomes part of Wikipedia Art’s existence and history, the author now too a collaborator….
“Thanks to this work,” explains Nathaniel, “far more people than ever before are aware of how Wikipedia and its surrounding community function, and thus tend to look at it with a more critical eye when using it….
The piece, in a physical form made up of legal letters, scrolls of online debates, media coverage and the reactive work of other artists, is at the Furtherfield Gallery, Ashfield Road, with some of Nathaniel and Scott’s individual works until June 25.
Judge it in person for yourself – because you won’t find it on you know where.
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In conversation with… Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern
by Paul Squires
In 2009, an article was published to Wikipedia, called “Wikipedia Art”. To substantiate its publication, several articles were simultaneously published and cited. In the following few hours, the article was fiercely debated on Wikipedia, and eventually deleted; legal wrangling followed, with specific reference to the use of the term “Wikipedia”.
The work, by Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern, was selected for exhibition at the Venice Bienalle that year, and is now on display as part of “Made Real” at the Furtherfield Gallery in London. We caught up with Scott and Nathaniel, to get a first-hand account of the work, and the culture of Wikipedia.
NS: Wikipedia Art was really two projects. On one hand, it was this beautiful found object that anyone can edit. On the other, it was attempting to be an intervention into the hierarchy, the power structure behind Wikipedia, in order to bring it to the surface, and to make people aware of it.
We still love Wikipedia. We still both contribute to it and we still think that it’s a good thing, but we wanted to make a critical work and not in the sense of negativity, but in the sense of critical analysis. We want people to be aware of what’s behind that system.
When we made it, we thought “Oh, this would be a fun little thing”. We knew that there was going to be a big debate on Wikipedia. We figured that there would be the 15-hour deletion, with the scrolls of discussions. But, the fact that it went straight to the top… Jimmy Wales calling us names. Mike Godwin fighting with our lawyers…
SK: … and the threatened lawsuit. That’s when it got interesting. A lot of people felt territorial: almost as if we had got inside their house and peed on the wall. We had trespassed.
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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.net, Distill Life, Compressionism, Wikipedia Art,Given Time, Doin’ 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!
Other related texts: Wisconsin Public Radio, WORT fm, WORT fm, Imperica, WORT fm
Art Space Talk: Nathaniel Stern
Q. Nathaniel, you studied at Cornell University and at New York University. How did your academic years influence the direction of your art? Did you have any influential instructors?
At Cornell I studied music and fashion; I think the combination of composition and designing for bodies sparked my interests in movement and visuality. When I went on to NYU, I had already begun working with technology, but it was the combination my newly found comfort with it, and ongoing personal criticism, that help pushed me towards the trajectory of exploring performativity in my work.
Pretty much all the full-time lecturers at ITP (the Interactive Telecommunications Program) influenced me greatly: Marianne Petit, Dan O’Sullivan, Tom Igoe and Danny Rozin.
Q. Nathaniel, I’ve read that you are inspired by Interactive art of David Rokeby and Myron Kruger. Can you tell us about these influences? What else inspires you?
I think Kruger’s core contribution to understanding interactivity was a concentration on action rather than perception. He had little concern for illusion-based and simulated VR that replicated reality, and was more interested in stimulation – with a ‘t’ – how people moved. I think Rokeby is brilliant in many ways, and his work ‘Very Nervous System’ (1986-1990) was one of the first and most important to accomplish, an affective intervention in embodiment through this kind of inter-activity. But what inspires me most about him is his contrariness. He almost always tries ‘something else.’
My other influences are fairly idiosyncratic: from Hiroshige prints, the Impressionists and Homer’s epic tales to Liam GIllick or Camille Utterback or Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. I often turn to contemporary fiction, theory and philosophy in my thinking and making. I should also say that my wife, Nicole Ridgway, is the most wonderful muse and crit I’ve ever met: my biggest fan and supporter precisely because she is also my harshest critic before a work is done.
Q. It has been suggested that “Stuttering” is your most well received piece. Can you discuss Stuttering… compared to the direction you are taking with your work now?
I think ‘stuttering’s’ success comes from its doubled gesture. The best way to describe the piece is as a kind of invisible Mondrian painting, where each of the 34 otherwise white rectangles will play animated text and spoken word when triggered by bodies in the space. So on the one hand, if you walk in front of it, the piece itself ‘stutters.’ But as participants spend more time with it, learn how to move and engage in a kind of intimate and serious play, it is they who wind up ‘stuttering’ – with their bodies. They stand like statues, then twitch or nod or shake just one piece of themselves in order to elicit the smallest amount of verbiage. These interactions have been compared to Tai Chi or Butoh by some reviewers; it can become a deep and literal investigation of our physical relationships to language and structure.
With regards to the direction of the work, my practice is probably best framed as a series of questions and criticisms that follow on from one another. stuttering, for example, came out of a desire to investigate what happens in front of, rather than on, the screen after ‘[odys]elicit’ impressed mostly dancers. ‘step inside’ was a response to, and capitalization on, how some participants with ‘stuttering’ were more interested in performing for and amusing other people in the gallery than in investigating their inter-actions with the work. My ongoing ‘Compressionism’ series of prints is an attempt to capture the dynamism, relationality and performativity in these kinds of pieces with more traditional visual art objects. I sometimes go in several directions at once, but there’s always something gained, and carried on from, what I was doing before.
Q. It seems that with each passing year people are becoming more interested in art involving technology. However, traditionalists are often still wary of technology as a medium. In your opinion, what do people need to consider when viewing these works? How can someone learn to appreciate what you and others are doing? Or would you say that it takes a certain type of individual to ‘get’ what you are striving to do?
I think that, similar to how Nicholas Bourriaud changed the thematic frame for Relational Aesthetics, there can be a few critical questions with interactive and/or technological art that might better open understandings and appreciation for it. In a lot of ways, I see what I do as a material manifestation of his work; we are both concerned with what happens in the gallery space, with relationality and dynamism. But where Bourriaud is interested in sociopolitical relationships, this kind of work is concerned with embodied and physical ones. Where he was concerned with commerce and the social interstice, interactive art tends to highlight emergence and intervene in movement. Not that these are mutually exclusive categories on any level, but we can’t forget how brutally Bourriaud has continued to dismiss digital media, and his followers, like Claire Bishop, continue to overlook physical interactivity even as they sing the praises of social participation.
As with any form of art, all it takes time and effort to grow one’s interest. I’m actually currently working on a PhD dissertation which explores just such a critical framework for interactive art.
Q. Your work often calls for viewer participation. For example, your installation enter allowed participants to chase projected words with their arms so that spoken words would be triggered in the space. I suppose the major problem you run into is the fact that not every viewer wishes to participate. Has that been an issue for you? Or are people generally apt to comply with what the work needs?
Good question. Yes, for me, the participant and how they move in relation to the work, what they learn and what emerges as they move physically, and how they reflect on that later: this is all precisely the ‘work’ of any given work. ‘enter:hektor,’ which preceded ‘stuttering,’ similarly asked performers to explore our physical relationships to language; but rather than stutter, they had to articulate by chasing after (or conversely running away from) animated words – sometimes with great difficulty.
Most people have only seen the work online; and yes, in the gallery space, many are too shy to involve themselves. It’s never quite the same to watch or read about such work, as opposed to enacting and experiencing it. At least in the gallery, I’ve tried to work around or with this in various ways – unwitting participation through external sensors, closed off environments for privacy, and my aforementioned printmaking series. I do my best to see the shortcomings and/or new problems that arise in any given piece as a potential opportunity to explore something new.
Q. So on a philosophical level do you view the participants as a part of the piece itself? A medium of flesh and movement, so to speak?
Exactly that. Perhaps it’s minimalism’s core aesthetic idea – that of the body in space around a simple art object – taken to a different end: active physical provocation.
Q. Can you briefly tell us about your other work… the prints and video art?
The ongoing print series mentioned earlier – ‘Compressionism’ – came out of a desire to enage those viewers who did not want to interact, to invite them into those questions of physical relationality that they might be missing. Here, I strap a custom-made scanner appendage and battery pack to my body, and perform images into existence. I might scan in straight, long lines across tables, tie the scanner around my neck and swing over flowers, do pogo-like gestures over bricks, or just follow the wind over water lilies in a pond. Because of how the technology works, the entire 3D space and object I’ve scanned is compressed to the size of the scanner face, and I then re-stretch and hand-color the images in PhotoShop. What emerges in each file are strips of time that are rendered as an ongoing relationship between my own body movements, and the landscape around me. These are then produced as archival prints using photographic or inkjet processes. I also often take details from these images and iteratively re-make them as traditional prints: lithographs, etchings, engravings and woodcuts, among others.
My video works have a much longer history; they began as monologues by unfolding character-driven narratives, which culminated in a major solo show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004-2005. The museum housed ‘odys, Nathaniel, hektor, X,’ a video installation projected on a sculpture, ‘the odys series,’ a video installation consisting of 6 separate video works (now available for iPod), ‘step inside,’ an interactive installation, and more than 33 pinhole, generative and ASCII art prints from ‘abstract machines of faciality.’ My more recent video works are either documentation of performance events, such as my Wireframe Series in Croatia and South Africa, or play with hand-carved found footage. An example of the latter would be ‘at interval,’ where I removed all spoken dialogue from Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall,’ leaving only stutters, gasps, and oral fumbles. You can see the connection to my interests in language, performativity and interaction in both of these as well.
Q. What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your current projects?
I’ve got a few goings-on at present, so I’ll mention a handful in brief.
I’m finishing up the aforementioned PhD dissertation.
I’m working on an interventionist piece in South Africa that will be part of an exhibition in Cape Town in September. Here, I’ve set up an antagonistic relationship with the lead arts critic in the country, asking him to give up electricity for 24 hours, and hiring street laborers to power his evening with hand-crank generators. The installation will consist of documentation of the complex negotiations that unfolded between all parties.
I’ve just started my first mixed realities installation that sits between Second Life and Real Life, which I hope to launch some time in 2009. It builds on minimalist principals of perception and embodiment.
I’ve got a few other DIY / lo-tech projects brewing that include some hand-made sculptural slide projectors and drawings mounted on hacked digital photo frames playing looped videos. These carry on from some of my ideas with the Compressionism series.
And more, of course….
Q. So is there a specific message that you strive to convey with your collective work?
It’s not so much a message I want to convey as a curiosity I hope to inspire. My prints might ask us to look again, stuttering to feel or listen again. But they do it in ways that words never could.
Q. Nathaniel, you have given your support to Creative Commons (CC). You have been a contributing member of iCommons since its inception. Can you discuss your interest in CC? Having communicated with hundreds– if not thousands– of artists online it seems that many are against what CC stands for– there tends to be a great deal of confusion about it. In your opinion, what do people need to consider when thinking about these issues?
I think there’s a misconception out there that to give Art away for free is to devalue it, both culturally and monetarily. I use a capital A there in Art because I mean it as a category: the content of digital images or video or whatever should be readily available for everyone. People need to see it and talk about it and that brings it more value in the cultural sphere. What is forgotten is that then art (lowercase ‘a’) also gains in value. The more people who have posters of the Mona Lisa, for example, the more the original painting has monetary value to the true collector. I don’t give everything away under CC; but when I do, it’s usually a tactic for the most effective art work, and with the recognition that only this will bring more value – both cultural and monetary value – to the works that are for sale.
Q. What other concerns do you have about the art world or the public acceptance of art at this time?
This is a concern that’s bigger than the art world, I think:
it’s unfortunate there are so many ass holes and idiots out there. And many of them hold public office.
Q. Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the goals that you have
I guess my greatest goals are relatively humble: intervention, thought and dialogue. I like to challenge even those things we think we’ve challenged. So, if performance art pushes our ideas about the body and identity, I’ll challenge what a body ‘is’, or even ‘that’ it is. If the Impressionists, Surrealists and Postmodernists cited crises in representation, reality and simulation, Compressionism shows how they all relate.
I like making beautiful and interesting things that mess with you.
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Inspired by pioneering artists in the field of Interactive art such as David Rokeby andMyron Kruger, Nathaniel 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.