M Magazine

Scanning the World



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Arts

Ecological aesthetics: thinking trees and Goods for Me
by Nathaniel Stern

Published July 2016 in Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies

Firewall access via Routledge



People and peoples are always in process with the world around us; we are only a small part of intricate, complicated and ongoing systems; we are always more than the boundaries of what we know, or feel, or make. ‘Ecological aesthetics: thinking trees and Goods for Me’ argues that an ‘ecological aesthetics’ is surfacing in contemporary art, which makes such linkages felt. The best of this work amplifies who and how we are, together with all of matter, and more importantly how we could be. This work can and should be experienced, practised and studied through the ecologies at play in and around that work, be they material, conceptual, environmental, personal, social, economic and/or otherwise. The article more specifically thinks with some of the work of South African artist Sean Slemon, which manifests a politics of movement, potential and composition outside standard human perception. It narrativises, through one artwork, our experience and practice of complex systems and forces. Here every-thing is continuously emergent with its conceptual-material environments, is part of continuously moving and changing assemblages. Ultimately, an ecological aesthetics calls for rethinking human and non-human relations as always mattering, always affecting, always political – together.

Art Education

Art Education Nathaniel Stern Cover

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

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

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

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

A companion web resource is available here.

MKE Journal Sentinel

Nathaniel Stern scans artwork into being
Mary Louise Schumacher for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

It’s a quirk of human nature to want to see the world through facsimiles of it. That instinct — to look at pictures — is as old as humankind. It defines us, really.

So what happens when the world itself seems to be a terrain of copies, when our days are filled with more images of people and places than actual ones, for instance.

This is the territory of Milwaukee artist Nathaniel Stern, who just had a solo show at the Tory Folliard Gallery, some of which remains on view. Stern creates work he calls Compressionism, images made by strapping a desktop scanner to his body and scanning various landscapes in steady long lines, sweeping motions, quick pogo stick-like hops or while scuba diving underwater. These scans are then turned into artworks using photographic or inkjet printing processes.

In “Soft,” for instance, we see what looks like scrubby, organic matter undulating in water and pressed up against glass, presumably the face of the scanner. It’s akin to what we might expect from a work of art, a pictorial depiction beneath glass. But we also see the gravity of it, the sensation of these wheat-colored plants with a faint purple tinge brushing against the surface.

Distorting waves, not unlike those of an analog TV screen with the horizontal hold out of whack, are a visual hint that we’re looking at manipulated media. Throughout the series, mysterious digital hiccups, skips, drags and scratches are further pictorial pointers. In them, oscillations of time and movement are inferred. Some works have an inherent quickness, while others are more unhurried and stretch out a moment in time.

Barely detectable inside this expression of narrative is the artist himself, and the sense of performance he brings physically to the work. He says he “performs images into existence.” I like that. I like that the primary artistic act of this work, fundamentally about the mediation of imagery, isn’t made with a computer but with a body out in the world doing things.

It is intriguing to consider our changing visual literacy, by the way. Much of Stern’s iconography would be unintelligible to our 19th-century counterparts.

The best works in the “Rippling Images” series, for me, were those where realism, simulation and abstraction combined in playful and surprising ways, when the digital ripples and the watery ones that are Stern’s subject become inseparable, when reality and its copies dance.

The result is something quite transporting, works reminiscent of the primordial and the pliability of human perception in the 21st century. My only quibble is the somewhat informal presentation of the works, which are set loosely into the frames so that ripples in the paper are visible. I’m told this is intentional, that the artist wants us to see these prints as objects with a surface. I’m just not sure this works.

Stern is represented by the Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N. Milwaukee St., which is currently showing some of his works. He also has related work up at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, 273 E. Erie St., through Saturday, Dec. 6. He will also have a show at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend, opening April 11. For more information: nathanielstern.com


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 This artist waterproofed a scanner to create stunning ocean art
James Trew for Engadget

Nathaniel Stern dives beneath the sea armed with DIY photography rigs toggled from custom electronics. The artist's results? Bizarre and beautiful.

“In my ongoing series of “Compressionism” prints, I strap a desktop scanner, computing device and custom battery pack to my body, and perform images into existence.” That’s how artist Nathaniel Stern describes his collection of unconventional images captured with a desktop scanner. An extension of this project is “Rippling Images,” a new collection which takes the idea underwater. Stern worked with a team to create a “marine rated” scanner rig, which he took with him as he scuba-dived off the coast of Key Largo, florida. The results in the gallery below show the ocean environment as interpreted through Stern’s scanner and body movements. That explains the rippling part, at least.

Metallic print (2014); 500 x 1000 mm


Metallic print (2014); 500 x 1000 mm


metallic print (2014); 500 x 1000 mm


metallic print (2014); 300 x 500 mm


metallic print (2014); 300 x 500 mm


metallic print (2014); 300 x 500 mm


metallic print (2014); 300 x 500 mm


metallic print (2014); 300 x 500 mm


metallic print (2014); 300 x 500 mm


metallic print (2014); 210 x 305 mm


metallic print (2014); 210 x 305 mm


metallic print (2014); 210 x 305 mm


metallic print (2014); 210 x 305 mm


metallic print (2014); 210 x 305 mm


metallic print (2014); 210 x 305 mm


metallic print (2014); 130 x 200 mm


metallic print (2014); 130 x 200 mm


metallic print (2014); 130 x 200 mm


See original slideshow and post on Engadget

Incident Magazine

Polaroid Excavations: the Opening of Weather Patterns: The Smell of Red
Angeli Sion for Incident Magazine

Weather Patterns: The Smell of Red, a sensorial and collaborative ecological installation, surfaced to air the proposition of artists Erin Manning and Nathaniel Stern, co-produced with Marcelino Barsi [and curated by Jennifer Johung], to heighten an exchange of the senses in a body that barely registers the arrival of intersensoriality.

Tapping into weather as a medium via architectural and sculptural elements, the installation materialized conditions for bodies to come together in unexpected ways across becoming mercurial fields. The appearance of a tornado becomes contingent on the bodies around it. At a certain alignment of body and object, a dancing of the field occurs.

Coinciding the same evening as the installation were Juliana España Keller’s “Food Gestures“ and Michael Hornblow’s explorations of the infrathin with “OmegaVille”. Keller’s installation of hanging glass terrariums offered food such as almonds, blueberries, dried ginger, and reindeer moss from Quebec in the yard. In its poetic gesture to foraging and the act of reaching and going back to the earth it enacted an exchange of knowledge. Through video and online photo spheres downstairs, Hornblow produced an exchange of perceived space at the interface of insides and outsides, street to gallery, through conflating layers of time.

Although all three installations generated participatory conditions in disparate locations throughout Glasshouse, the long-term art-life-lab project and space of Lital Dotan and Eyal Perry, their undercurrents converged through and across the bodies of those who came the night of the opening, back and forth in loops, transforming the senses.

The following Polaroids mark this dancing of the field between bodies in performing their own mutable states, excisions into inside, outside the image, and material engagement with image-making as one that unfolds over time.
















Weather Patterns: The Smell of Red, was a sensorial and collaborative ecological installation, produced by Erin Manning and Nathaniel Stern with Marcelino Barsi, coinciding with installation Food Gestures by Juliana España Keller and OmegaVille by Michael Hornblow the same evening at Glasshouse, June 1, 2014.

See original post in Incident Magazine

De Arte

Interactive art and embodiment: The implicit body as performance
Reviewed by Rob Myers for De Arte
Nathaniel Stern. Interactive art and embodiment: The implicit body as performance. 2013. Canterbury: Glyphi Limited. £ 18.99.

This review is copyrighted and available from Sabinet, though some highlights follow:

In Interactive art and embodiment, artist and art theorist Nathaniel Stern develops and applies a rigorous set of frameworks for reconsidering the concepts of interactive multimedia, performance, and the creation of bodily meaning and experience. Stern begins by building a lineage for his novel understanding of these ideas. He then develops a framework for the critical evaluation of interactive art based on this understanding, and applies it to some exemplary artworks. Finally he applies the parts of this framework that are relevant for non-interactive multimedia art to some well-known examples of that genre in order to show their further applicability.

“The book as a whole continues this concern both with bodily experience through interactive art and with grounding discourse in examples of art and criticism.”

“By collapsing and making strange what we think we know both intuitively and critically about our bodies as ‘performed and emerging emergence’, Stern lays the concept of the body open to productive re-thinking.”

“Interactive art, Stern argues, can interrupt and intervene in the performance of bodily relationality. ‘Moving- thinking-feeling’ is both limited by and amplified by art, as it is by games or drama.”

“Stern’s use of examples – both familiar and unfamiliar – illustrates the strength of the implicit body framework and makes it useful both to critics and to artists who wish to better understand what makes successful interactive art.”

“The implicit body framework concentrates on artistic enquiry and process rather than the ontology of such a piece, and on the experience of it as interaction and interactivity, beyond merely describing its technological construction or mechanical appearance. Doing so allows interactive art to stand or fall on its merits as interactive art, and highlights the value of a work…”

“Interactive art and embodiment makes a considerable contribution to the state of criticism andtheory of interactive art. It is useful for critics, theorists and artists who wish to further their understanding of interactive art and serves as an introduction to its worth for those unfamiliar with or unconvinced by it.”

Read the entire review in De Arte

Art Journal

Beyond Technology and Representation: What Can Interactive Art Do?
Nathaniel Stern. Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance. Canterbury, UK: Gylphi, 2013. 291 pp., 41 color ills. $29.99 paper
Troy Rhoades, for CAA’s Art Journal, Spring 2014
Download Art Journal’s PDF spread of  this article from Taylor and Francis

Forget technology.
Forget representation.
Remember the body.
Re-member: Embody again (6).

In Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance, Nathaniel Stern would like us to remember the body’s potential for moving, thinking, and feeling in relation to digital interactive artworks. He wants this triumvirate of bodily activities – what he defines as embodiment – to be placed in the foreground of thought when we discuss interactive art. It is his contention that technology and representational content have been the focal points of interactive art for too long, and it is time for a paradigm shift. “We must get away from concentrating only on the signs and images on the screen or the interface, away from privileging the technology and what it affords. We must engage with the quality and styles of movement that are rehearsed with interactive art” (15–16). Stern sees the need to stop explaining what interactive art is as a technological object or a generator of signs. He asserts instead that our attention should be placed on what interactive art does as it shapes our potential for embodiment, that is, our ability to move-think-feel with the work. It is important to note that Stern is not completely rejecting technological and representational approaches to interactive art and solely focusing on embodiment. Rather, he wants us to notice that there is a glaring absence of embodiment in many of the present methods used to analyze this type of work. This book is his attempt to address the long-overdue need to reevaluate this field of art. He reveals that we have always been moving-thinking-feeling with interactive art.

Stern begins his reassessment of interactive art by clearly defining his approach to this work. First, he declares that he will not value or define the potential of any individual artwork categorically: “I begin and end with singular works in the gallery space, and am interested in creating a discrete critical framework for encountering interactive art” (5). Stern then defines the interactive artwork as digital and electronic art that uses “various forms of sensors or cameras for input; computers, microcontrollers, simple electronic circuits, or other digital or analogical terminals for processing; and any form of sensory output – audiovisual, tactile, olfactory, mechanical, or otherwise; where all are placed together in a system that responds to the embodied participation of viewers, either in real-time, and/or over lengths of time” (5–6). From here Stern states that his theoretical approach is aligned with process philosophy and affect theory, primarily based on the work of the philosopher Brian Massumi, in order to “explore interactive art’s potential, outside of signification alone” (9).1 By approaching interactive art from an affective and processual approach, Stern associates himself with other contemporary new media thinkers (some of whom he cites) such as Anna Munster, Steve Goodman, and Stamatia [Portanova].2

With his approach and theoretical foundation clearly stated, Stern delineates in the first two chapters how recent research practices in interactive art, which have focused on technology and representation, connect and diverge from his understanding of embodiment as the body’s potential for moving-thinking-feeling. In the first chapter Stern tackles the notion that digital technology is somehow incorporeal, as espoused by thinkers such as Friedrich Kittler and David Rodowick.3 He argues against the notion that data, computational processes, and networks do not have any physical presence or materiality. For Stern all of these technologies and digital processes take on some physical form, on hard drives, computer chips, or fiber-optic cables: “Neither bodies nor information can exist without form and embodiment, and intelligence encompasses far more than informational processing” (33). Stern wants us to be aware not only of the corporeal aspects of digital and electronic technology that interactive art uses but also how we are affected and effected when participating in these technologies. He sees a real challenge in keeping “the participant’s attention on the quality of their own movements, rather than the response of the machine” (45). In Stern’s view, we need to become more attuned to the moving-thinking-feeling experience we have with interactive art, rather than focusing on the technology that drives the work.

In the second chapter Stern challenges recent thought concerning the body and representation in interactive art. He asks that we pay attention to the body as “more than its signs and significations, more than what we see or look at, more than skin, flesh, and bone” (54–55). According to Stern, for a body to be understood as a series of signs or an object, it needs to be static or “pre-formed,” like the many static points of Zeno’s famous arrow. A body becomes “explicit,” lacking any potential to experience embodiment. For a body to move-think-feel, Stern contends, it must be seen as a continuously changing entity that “situates embodiment as always per-formed: emergent and relational” (67). A body that experiences the ongoing activity of embodiment during an encounter with interactive art is, for Stern, an “implicit body” as performance.

After critiquing technological and language-based approaches to interactive art, Stern outlines a potentially paradigm-shifting method for understanding interactive art and embodiment through what he calls the “implicit body framework.” This framework comprises four areas of examination: “artistic inquiry and process; artwork description; inter-activity; and, relationality” (91). The first area looks at the artwork from the artist’s perspective, focusing on his or her approach to the work and the techniques chosen for its production. The second area gives us a detailed description of the artwork: how it looks, sounds, and plays. For Stern, these first two areas of examination are standard in most investigations of interactive art. They also represent the point at which most inquiries stop. As he states, “most visually-, technically-, and linguistically-based writing on interactive art explains that a given piece is interactive, and how it is interactive, but not how we inter-act” (91, emphasis in orig.).

Stern sees the third and fourth areas of examination – interactivity and relationality – as the missing elements in discussions of interactive art. The two areas focus on the potential for an awareness of embodiment to emerge in the viewer-artwork encounter; they foreground our capacity to move-think-feel our potential for change when we experience interactive art. The third area specifically examines the interaction itself, that is, how viewers and artworks connect at the level of embodiment. It focuses on the emergent affects, feelings, and movements generated in the midst of the viewer-artwork encounter. The final area of examination focuses on the relations that emerge in our encounter with interactive art and how these “relationships intervene in our transformation with the world around us” (97). Stern wants us to become aware of the extensive potential for relations to alter and affect our ability to move, think, and feel with regard to an interactive artwork.

In the next three chapters Stern presents a series of case studies using his implicit body framework, approaching several interactive artworks under three different thematics: body-language, social-anatomies, and flesh-space. For Stern these thematics reveal various emergent relations between embodiment and some other sensible concept, such as “language, society, architecture, other matter, forces, and matters” (97–98). The body-language chapter examines the work of Simon Penny and Camille Utterback and its parallels with Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of “excription,” looking specifically at body and language as “mutually immanent” (104). The social-anatomies chapter investigates Nick Crossley’s idea of “intercorporeality” – the capacity for the body and society to reciprocally produce each other – through the work of the Millefiore Effect, Mathieu Briand, and Scott Snibbe. The third thematic chapter, on flesh-space, approaches the interactive work of David [Rokeby], Rafael Lezano-Hemmer, and Norah Zuniga Shaw through the thought of José Gil and Erin Manning, investigating the ability of these artworks to make viewers aware of the ways in which “bodies and space are made of their relations” (176). These three chapters demonstrate Stern’s implicit body framework as rigorous yet flexible when applied to the analysis of interactive art.

In the penultimate chapter Stern takes his implicit body framework further, demonstrating that it can be used beyond the limits of interactive art. He investigates a large cross-section of new-media works by artists such as Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen, Brandon Labelle, and John F. Simon, Jr., as well as his own work, which he calls “potentialized art.” For Stern all of these works have the capacity to “amplify action, affect, embodiment, performativity, transformation, and/or materiality” (206). Potentialized art enables us to become aware of our ability to move-think-feel with a work in the midst of our mutual encounter. We can experience the potential for embodiment as we perform with these artworks. We can become aware of our ability to move-think-feel.


The most rewarding and riskiest chapter of Stern’s book is saved for the end. “In Production (A Narrative Inquiry on Interactive Art)” is a case study of Stern’s own art and writing practices from 2000 to the present. What makes this chapter such a rewarding and refreshing read is that it is written in an unconventional autobiographical style that is also academically rigorous, a style Stern calls an “autoethnographic experiment” (254). This experiment blends conversations, personal narrative, and several analyses of his interactive artworks using his implicit body framework in order to “amplify” and “potentialize” the reading experience (259). Stern consolidates everything he has advocated about the relationship between embodiment and interactive art into a personal story about himself and his work, effectively exposing us to an example of the experience of moving-thinking-feeling that we have been reading about throughout the book.

Stern’s experimental approach to writing is also one of this chapter’s many risks. There is the possibility that more traditional readers of art theory and history may find such a self-referential and unconventionally written account off-putting, even jarring. However, Stern’s storytelling ability is strong and will likely win over even the most curmudgeonly reader. Another risk this chapter takes is the form in which it has been published. The book surprisingly ends by giving us only the introductory section of this concluding chapter. We are invited to go online to view or download the remaining sections (253, 259).4 We are allowed just a taste of this chapter and then must shift our attention from the written page to the written screen. The risk here is that readers may be lost in this transition from the book to the Internet, leaving some of Stern’s best writing unread.

The book is part of the Arts Future Book initiative, a research project and academic book series investigating the future of academic publishing in the arts, led by Charlotte Frost. Placing this final chapter online appears to be part of the series’ mandate to exploit “recent technological advances in publishing” (xxi). Readers who go online and read the complete text of “In Production” will find the possibility to interact with others, in the ability to make comments at every paragraph. This gives readers a platform to share thoughts about some of their favorite (or less agreeable) passages. The ability to comment is an appealing feature, but publishing this chapter online has the potential to take away some of its affective impact. Moreover, it feels like an unnecessary use of digital technology, one that does not appear to follow the spirit of the book, as the online publication breaks a sense of continuity and makes it more difficult to experience moving-thinking-feeling in the work itself. As Stern states, “Embodiment only is through its ongoingness and continuity” (57, emphasis in orig.). If this chapter – which encapsulates everything Stern advocates with regard to interactive and potentialized art – were printed in its entirety at the end of the book, readers would have a better opportunity to experience the embodied potential the book commands. Despite these misgivings, everyone who reads Stern’s book (and those who are interested in reading it) should visit the website and discover the complete text of this wonderful final chapter.

It will be interesting to see how those behind the Arts Future Book series continue to explore the potential that digital and online media offers to expand the form of the book. Interactive Art and Embodiment is the first from this series, making it the first to experiment with the hybrid approach to publishing. I hope the editors will embrace Stern’s notion of embodiment and ensure that digital incarnations of future titles emerge from the potential activated within the texts themselves.

By asking us to engage with interactive art at the level of potential for movement, thinking, and feeling, Stern alters the idea of what inquiry can be, changing it from an analysis of something static into a dynamic event. The act of examination becomes as much a performance as the interactive art it investigates. Through the use of Stern’s implicit body framework, artworks become more than mere descriptions placed within a historical context. Through his writing, artworks become alive in the reading, giving us a sense of how the embodied interactions and emergent relations feel as they are encountered.

1. Throughout the book, Stern focuses on three of Massumi’s texts: Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); “The Thinking-Feeling of What Happens: An Interview with Brian Massumi,” in Interact or Die: There Is Drama in the Network, ed. Joke Brouwer and Arjen Mulder (Rotterdam: V2 Pub./NAi, 2007), 70–91; and Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurent Arts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011)

2. See Anna Munster, Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2006); Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009); and Stamatia Portanova, Moving without a Body: Digital Philosophy and Choreographic Thoughts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).

3. See Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999); and David N. Rodowick, Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after the New Media (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).

4. The concluding chapter in its entirety is at http://stern.networkedbook.org, as of February 11, 2014.

Download the Journal’s PDF spread of  this article from Taylor and Francis

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

Neural Magazine

Nathaniel Stern – Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance

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

GYLPHI LIMITED, ISBN-13: 978-1780240091, ENGLISH, 304 PAGES, 2013, USA

Man/machine interfaces have involved the body in progressively more sophisticated ways, from the mechanical finger pressure on a keyboard to the intellectual challenge of voice-recognition-based software assistants. Media art has interpreted interfaces dynamically, abstracting the interaction and playing with its modalities, symbols and meanings. Stern analyses almost forty different artworks to augment his theory: “interactive art suspends and amplifies the ways we experience embodiment – as per-formed, relational, and emergent”. The text investigates “how we interact” and the role of the body in the interaction process is here exploded and carefully delineated. Many of the connotations that the body assumes in artworks – being perceived as a structure, a tool, a territory or an imagined space – are analysed as performative and symbolic instances. One of the qualities of this book is that it provides extensive references on the topic, while remaining very focused. The artworks are carefully described in their mechanisms and their performative dimensions are acknowledged separately, representing an annotated anthology in itself. There’s also a “digital companion” chapter (called “In Production”, partially printed and freely available online, meant to be updated and expanded at will), which has been aggregated to the book as its dynamic (in a way even performative) extension. This book is very helpful for understanding our physical relationship with the digital and how to properly relate to interactive art.

See the review on Neural.it


Interactif, implicite, performatif, éprouvé, le corps exploré
Louise Boisclair (read the whole article, or read the google English translation)

Dans Always More Than One, Erin Manning croise philosophie ou mouvement de pensée, chorégraphie ou mouvement du corps, art et autisme. De son côté, avec Interactive Art and Embodiment : The Implicit Body as Performance, Nathaniel Stern propose de considérer le corps implicite dans sa triple relation de mouvement, sensation et pensée lors de l’appropriation interactive. Quant au collectif, Personnage virtuel et corps performatif. Effets de présence, dirigé par Renée Bourassa et Louise Poissant, quinze artistes et théoriciens explorent, chacun, chacune, sous un angle singulier, diverses facettes du corps performatif et du personnage virtuel. Pour sa part, dans L’instance du regard sur le corps éprouvé. Pathos et contre-pathos, Élène Tremblay examine les notions de pathos et contre-pathos à travers l’insistance du regard sur le corps éprouvé. Chaque auteur-e arrime son analyse à la théorie philosophique, médiatique ou phénoménologique selon l’approche singulière ou multiple qu’ils ou elles adoptent pour cheminer avec le corpus sélectionné.

Interactive Art and Embodiment:  The Implicit Body as Performance (Nathaniel Stern)

Pour sa part, l’ouvrage de l’artiste-enseignant-chercheur Nathaniel Stern constitue une refonte de sa thèse de doctorat qu’il a auparavant résumée dans un article intitulé : « The Implicit Body as Performance: Analyzing Interactive Art. », publié dans le Leonardo Journal of Art, Science and Technology (MIT Press). Vol 44, No 3 (2011): 233-238. Globalement, la thèse est la suivante : au lieu de s’en tenir à la vision, à la structure et à la signification, Stern propose de recentrer l’intérêt sur le « corps en relation ». Il conçoit l’interaction en tant que performance et la manière d’être en tant que manière d’« être avec ». Dans un cadre de travail sur le corps implicite au sein de l’installation interactive, il propose une approche qui réunit quatre volets: la recherche et le processus artistique, la description de l’œuvre d’art, l’interactivité et la relationalité. Selon lui, les deux derniers volets propres à l’expérience interactive doivent faire l’objet d’un examen détaillé.

Cette prescription, Stern la met à l’épreuve dans son ouvrage. Composé de huit chapitres dont le huitième introduit un texte à paraître sur le WEB seulement, il met la table dès la première page :

« When we move and think and feel, we are, of course, a body. This body is constantly changing, in and through its ongoing relationships. This body is a dynamic form, full of potential. It is not “a body,” as thing, but embodiment as incipient activity. Embodiment is a continuously emergent and active relation. It is our materialization and articulation, both as they occur, and about to occur. Embodiment is moving-thinking-feeling, it is the body’s potential to vary, it is the body’s relations to the outside. And embodiment, I contend, is what is staged in the best interactive art. » (Stern, 2013, 2)

Lui-même artiste spécialiste de l’art interactif, sa réflexion philosophique, aussi stimulante que novatrice, est ancrée dans le corps implicite, c’est-à-dire ce corps qui vit et déborde le corps vécu, notion renvoyant au corps pensé. Stern invite la recherche à considérer bien davantage les forces et les champs en puissance dans le corps, alors que la corporéité est en « per-formance », ici-maintenant, au sein de l’installation interactive. L’incorporation s’accompagne donc de la métabolisation d’informations sensorielles issues du milieu d’immersion, sorte de sémiose corporelle pré-signifiante. Elle s’apparente au sens dynamique que lui donne Stern:

« The conception of a continuous embodiment, however, allows us to rethink bodies as formed through how we move in, and relate to, our surroundings. Embodiment, I contend, is not a pre-formed thing, but incipient and per-formed. » (Stern, 2013, 12).

Ainsi, la corporéité, dans sa dynamique, n’est pas une chose pré-formée, mais per-formée, insiste Stern; elle n’est pas constituée, elle se constitue. Continuellement en action, la corporéité évolue de façon dynamique au fil de l’incorporation, elle n’est jamais figée.

Tout au long de cet ouvrage, le lecteur, la lectrice rencontrera de nombreux artistes de l’art interactif et immersif, ce qui a le bénéfice non seulement d’illustrer le propos de Stern, mais bien davantage d’incarner sa réflexion philosophique dans une encyclopédie d’art interactif encore en train d’évoluer. Graduellement, au fil des chapitres, Stern joue avec les thèmes performatifs suivants: 1- « Digital is as Digital does »; 2- « The Implicit Body as Performance »; 3- « A Critical Framework for Interactive Art », 4- « Body-Langage » ; 5- « Social Anatomies »; 6- « Flesh-Space »; 7- « Implicating Art Works » et 8- « In production ». Ce livre d’une grande importance rend compte d’une vision actuelle non seulement artistique, mais « spectatorielle » du corps, assisté ou outillé technologiquement, comme on l’est de plus en plus même dans notre vie quotidienne. Bien plus que le corps performant, c’est toujours et encore le « corps implicite » qui sert de fil rouge pour explorer l’art interactif.

Read the whole article, or read the google English translation

Business Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Independent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stern’s Stutter pic by Christo Doherty

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

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

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

Bristow’s Unsaid pic by Christo Doherty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mail & Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She calls it “quite a nasty piece”.

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

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

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

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