‘Vital Technology’ at MIAD
High-tech fun house of art in motion
By Kat Murrell
Vital Technology” is an exhibition much enjoyed by me and my shadow. If you visit, you’ll see what I mean. Artists Bryan Cera and Nathaniel Stern have put together eight installations in the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design’s Frederick Layton Gallery, which are activated by the viewer through various means of physical interaction. The works synthesize strong visuals, sound and motion in a high-tech funhouse that also proposes questions about the influence of technology in our lives.
About that shadow part: a number of the installations are large-scale projections where the viewer becomes part of the piece. Stroll in front of Cera’s Supercontroller and watch your shadow grab at coins and otherwise jump around in a virtual world that borrows from Super Mario Bros. 3. You have become your own game character and your shadow stretches as you grow in video game strength. It then shrinks and collapses as you meet your demise for not avoiding pesky animated nemeses. Stern’s elicit is a wall projection of flickering text that builds like unreadable poetry, falling in color from blue to purple to paler shades. With a flick of your hand, a letter is bumped and then drifts away. It becomes legible, gaining freedom from the pack, but losing the contextual comfort of its companion language.
Many of the installations have audio tracks, including Supercontroller with its video game pings and rings. The most aurally engaging is Social-Sonic Architecture, #3, a collaboration between the artists and others. It looks like something pieced together from Radio Shack, with a series of speakers wired up on the wall. Say something into the microphone at the end of the line and your processed voice rolls like a wave along the wall, pulsing through the sound system with a strangely fascinating disembodied presence.
The exhibition is designed to elicit reflection on the ability of technology to exert influences on the way we move, speak and otherwise react to our surroundings. In the gallery, the playful novelty nearly supersedes these significant questions, but it is outside the exhibition that one reflects on these quieter notes.
“Vital Technology: Interactive works by Bryan Cera and Nathaniel Stern” continues through Dec. 6 at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, 273 E. Erie St.
Other related texts:
Warning: ksort() expects parameter 1 to be array, object given in /home3/hektor00/public_html/newsite/wp-content/plugins/yet-another-related-posts-plugin/classes/YARPP_Cache.php on line 465
Meaning Motion press, Mail & Guardian, Body Language, Sunday Independent, WORT fm
“Nathaniel Stern is an awkward artist, teacher and writer, who likes awkward art, students and writing. Stern’s talk, Ecological Aesthetics, discusses tweets in space, scans at the bottom of the sea, interactive installations, and art in virtual worlds – all work about the complex relationships between humans, nature, and politics.”
What is TEDx?
“Imagine a day filled with brilliant speakers, thought-provoking video and mind-blowing conversation. By organizing a TEDx event, you can create a unique gathering in your community that will unleash new ideas, inspire and inform…. A TEDx event is a local gathering where live TED-like talks and videos previously recorded at TED conferences are shared with the community.” – from the TED web site
Other related texts: NPR / WUWM, M Magazine, Gizmodo, Bad At Sports, The Daily Dot
Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance
An Arts Future Book, published by Gylphi Limited, 2013
ISBN-10: 1780240090 and ISBN-13: 978-1780240091 – paperback
978-1-78024-010-7 – Kindle
978-1-78024-011-4 – EPUB
‘This remarkably readable and passionate text makes important contributions to the discourses of embodiment, perception, and affect in relation to the performativity staged by interactive art. Stern’s “implicit body” framework and the mantra “moving-thinking-feeling” offer insightful and comprehensive tools for grasping the complexity of contemporary aesthetic experience and for imagining future potentials.’ — Dr. Edward A. Shanken, author, Art and Electronic Media
‘In his very intelligent book, Nathaniel Stern shows how dynamics work: he mobilizes a range of theory and practice approaches so as to entangle them into an investigation of interactive art. Stern maps the incipient activity and force of contemporary art practices in a way that importantly remind us that digital culture is far from immaterial. Interactive Art and Embodiment creates situations for thought as action.’ — Dr Jussi Parikka, media theorist, Winchester School of Art, author of Insect Media
‘In Nathaniel Stern’s Interactive Art and Embodiment, Stern develops a provocative and engaging study of how we might take interactive art beyond the question of “what technology can do” to ask how the implicit body of performance is felt-thought through artistic process. What results is an important investigation of art as event (as opposed to art as object) that incites us to make transversal linkages between art and philosophy, inquiring into how practice itself is capable of generating fields of action, affect and occurrence that produce new bodies in motion.’ — Dr Erin Manning, Research Chair and Director of the SenseLab, Concordia University
‘Nathaniel Stern’s book is a marvelous introduction to the thinking and practice of this innovative new media artist, and to the work of others in the same field. Philosophically informed and beautifully written, it is sensitive to the many complex issues involved in making such work.’ — Prof Charlie Gere, Professor of Media Theory and History in the Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University, and author of Digital Culture, Art, Time and Technology, and Community without Community in Digital Culture.
About the book
How do interactive artworks ask us to perform rigorous philosophies of the body?
Nathaniel Stern argues that interactive art suspends and amplifies the ways we experience embodiment – as per-formed, relational, and emergent. He provides many in-depth case studies of contemporary artworks that develop a practice of embodied philosophy, setting a stage to explore how we inter-act and relate with the world. He offers a valuable critical framework for analyzing interactive artworks and what’s at stake in our encounters with them, which can be applied to a wide range of complex and emerging art forms.
In the companion chapter (offered in partnership with Networked Book at Turbulence.org), Stern offers a semi-autobiographical account of his own research trajectory, and invites comment, critique, and contributions of new work. This creates a participatory stage for rehearsing the performance of scholarship.
Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance, by Nathaniel Stern, was released August 2013 as the first in the Arts Future Book series by Gylphi Ltd. Arts Future Book is published and supported by an international editorial board. It represents a substantial practical and theoretical investigation into the future of books about the arts. As a book series it publishes unique works that establish new systems for considering art. Their aim is to explore the relations between the form and content of art books and to exploit new technologies that expand their literal and philosophical capacities. What is a book about art, and what can and should it do? The Arts Future Book project has been explained, modelled (and remodelled) in the open-access journal article/artwork: ‘Is Art History Too Bookish’ by series editor Charlotte Frost.
In its various modes, Interactive Art and Embodiment performs the philosophical environment of interactive art, and embodies Arts Future Book’s investigations into how we can and should perform art scholarship.
Other related texts: Neural Magazine, Meaning Motion press, WORT fm, De Arte, Body Language
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
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.
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”.
Other related texts: Mail & Guardian, Meaning Motion press, Sunday Independent, WORT fm, Shepherd Express
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Other related texts: Meaning Motion press, Mail & Guardian, Business Day, WORT fm, Shepherd Express
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.”
Stern 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.
Stern’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.”
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.
Other related texts: Meaning Motion press, WORT fm, Business Day, Sunday Independent, Shepherd Express
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
Interactive art suite, Catalog and Videos
Title: Body Language / Nathaniel Stern
Essay: Charlie Gere
Design: Andrew McConville
Photos: Nathaniel Stern, Wyatt Tinder, Andrew McConville and Joseph Mougel
Documentation Videos: Nathaniel Stern
Publisher: Nathaniel Stern and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Date of Publication: 2013
ISBN: 978-0-620-56861-6 (print) and 978-0-620-56862-3 (e-book)
Download Body Language as PDF (2.4 mb)
Other related texts: Dynamic Stasis, Passing Between, Call and Response, Meaning Motion press, Other Frames
A decade ago, Milwaukee’s art scene seemed to be having a moment.
Even the most cynical and pragmatic among us fell under the spell of hopefulness, the notion that Milwaukee, this flyover locale that was nowhere on the art-world map, was becoming an important, artistic frontier, to use artist David Robbins’ term.
Connective tissue began to form between disparate pockets of the art community. Underground, do-it-yourself art projects, galleries, art schools, academics, major institutions and culture makers of all kinds took note of one another and surfaced as one remarkable, indigenous scene.
The catalyst, of course, was the unfurling of Santiago Calatrava’s avant-garde structure on the lakefront, perhaps the single most important artistic gesture in the city’s history. But the period of raucous invention that ensued had little to do with the Milwaukee Art Museum’s new wing.
Milwaukee was becoming a gathering place for artists with a unique and decidedly generous artistic ethic. Cheerfully unorganized, maverick artists found inspiration and an audience first in each other. A playful amateurism prevailed, as artists embraced their obscurity, understanding both the freedoms and limitations that are part of being set apart from the larger art world.
Chicago artist Kirsten Stoltmann said something at that time that would later inspire the title of my column and blog — Art City.
“Milwaukee is one of the most creative art cities now,” she told me. “There is a new kind of ambition here. It’s a different, more honest art…a different ethic.”
That period was captured in a large, group portrait featuring some of the personalities that defined the scene at the time (image, below). I took another look at that Journal Sentinel picture and article recently. As I looked at the faces — some still with us, others long gone — I realized that it was time to consider to what extent that sense of promise has been realized.
As I considered what has — and has not — taken root, I conducted dozens of interviews and studio visits and collected surveys from about 65 people. What I can tell you is that almost no one, myself included, found the question easy to answer.
If we’re honest, we know that the sense of promise of the early 2000s dissipated over time, almost imperceptibly, like a slow leaking tire. And yet, one of the things that defines the art scene today is its connection to that lived history, a trait that larger and more transient art scenes don’t enjoy in the same way.
Some strain of art scene was birthed here a decade ago, and some of the best, new artists in our community are conscious of this and connected to the artists and ideas that defined that time. Our art scene may be small, but one of the things that makes it muscular is the access and proximity between the old and new guards.
I consider it a positive sign that there is less talk of a “moment” and more art of note being made today.
Given this changing picture, it seemed time for a whole new portrait.
So, recently, we gathered some of the artists, curators and thinkers that represent the fulfillment — or potential fulfillment — of what was hoped for 10 years ago. More than that, they represent a portrait of our avant-garde.
Why the avant-garde? It’s a funny term, of course. Ironically, it is antiquated, quaint even.
For a long while, it meant little more than “new” and belonged to an era when art historical beginnings and endings seemed to bump into each other like train cars running down some kind of a linear track. But in an era when art can be — and is — just about anything, a time the art world sometimes calls a “post historical condition,” what does it mean to be avant-garde?
I don’t have a precise definition for you, just a loose list of attributes that I often refine and edit in my mind. It has something to do with qualities related to research and asking good questions. Instead of breakthroughs in cancer research or quantum physics, avant-garde artists explore and reveal something of the human condition. It has to do with intellectual rigor and inventive uses of materials, among other things. And it has something to do with keeping it real, too, with not separating the real world from the art world.
Put most simply, though, it is an important term, worth holding onto, that recognizes that some artists are ahead of others.
The group I selected is not definitive. But these people are certainly ahead of most, are creating an exceptional quality of work and define the current scene. Some were selected because of the strength of their work, others for the strength of their ideas and their influence. And a few are here because of their promise alone.
Before we look at this avant-garde, though, let’s roll the clock back briefly for a glimpse at the essential back story.
In 2001, I described Paul Druecke’s christening of a forlorn patch of concrete, a tidbit of urban space that he dubbed Blue Dress Park, in the lead for that article I wrote a decade ago. The project was then — and remains — a symbol of that time. Not unlike the way artists approached Milwaukee itself, Druecke took a spot that didn’t look like much and radically altered it with an open-air art happening.
Nicholas Frank, too, was an essential figure. He was a principal advocate for creating a vibrant dialogue around contemporary art and helped create an audience for challenging work. He had — and has — a great eye and became a trusted curatorial voice. Though he showed difficult art at his Hermetic Gallery, his space was routinely jammed for art openings and discussions. He also had his hand in a multitude of thoughtful and often participatory projects, such as The Nicholas Frank Public Library.
Robbins was a critical, quiet influence, as well. A conceptual artists with a long history of exhibiting work around the world, Robbins sensed possibility here and made Milwaukee his home. He was a critical link to the wider art universe and the dialogues happening there. In the now defunct New Art Examiner, a magazine that for a while was dedicated to the coverage of art in the Midwest, he wrote about why Milwaukee and other Corn- and Rust Belt cities were experiencing cultural renaissances.
The graduate film program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was turning out more visually sophisticated and conceptually rigorous artists than the art schools were, it seemed. And UWM was home to what was, to my mind, the most important institution of that period, Inova. While the wider art world was still coming to grips with a more pluralistic reality, Inova curators Marilu Knode and Peter Doroshenko (left) were among the first to truly grasp the implications of globalism on art and create a program that responded to it. They staged some of the most important exhibits of international artists in the nation right here. Though the importance of Inova was not always recognized locally, the impact that this whole new range of art-making practices had on some local artists cannot be underestimated.
Elsewhere, theMilwaukee Artists Resource Network, still an important support organization for artists, was being formed; a group ofMilwaukee Institute of Art & Designstudents and graduates formulated collaborative forms of site-specific curating, staging Rust Spot shows in an abandoned produce building (Image right); Theresa Columbus created a space for performance art called Darling Hall; collectives such as Milhouse created anonymous and even secret art; Riverwest Film & Video, a video shop known as Pumpkin World, became famous for its Sunday night spaghetti dinners, hosted by brothers Xav and Didier Leplae, a salon for the creative set.
In Riverwest, the General Store, Bamboo Theater, Flying Fish Gallery, Jody Monroe Gallery and Hotcakes Gallery opened within walking distance of one another. The art was hit-or-miss but exceptional frequently enough.
Everyone wore multiple art-world hats, perfomance artists were filmmakers, writers were painters, curators were band mates. (Raise your hand if you remember the Singing Flowers and Horn Band bands!).
Beneath the chummy and seemingly casual veneer of much that existed then, there was a seriousness, too.
One of the most daring projects was Jennifer Montgomery’s 2003 film “Threads of Belonging,” which depicted the daily life of an alternative treatment facility for people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. The ideas were based on the writings of a famous anti-psychiatry proponent R.D. Laing, but the characters and unscripted scenes became defined by the community of artists and filmmakers who produced and acted the work. The artistic trust and resiliency among the participating artists was breathtaking. Some of the artists and filmmakers who worked on the project include Druecke, Frank, Stephanie Barber, Didier Leplae, Peter Barrickman, Carl Bogner, Dave O’Meara, Kelly Mink, Renato Umali, Lori Connerlley and Jennifer Geigel. (See video below, which includes nudity).
I’ll never forget, too, encountering the magical paintings of Laura Owens casually hung in the tiny back gallery at General Store. Owens’ was on her way to becoming a world-class name in the art world, with a solo show of large-scale paintings opening at MAM.
At that particular General Store opening I met two artists for the first time: Andrew Swant and Bobby Ciraldo (right).They told me about their new project, an art-film called “Hamlet A.D.D.” I couldn’t possibly do justice to their description these years later except to say that listening felt like a strange, out-of-body experience. It sounded incongruous, ambitious, impossible — and utterly captivating (more on this in a bit). It was the kind of encounter that became emblematic of that time for me.
The number of artists with considerable success that opted to make Milwaukee home at the time was a visible indicator to the local tribe that something was afoot here, too. Fresh from their success at Sundance with “American Movie,” filmmakers Chris Smith and Sarah Price set up shop, forming Bluemark Productions, a commercial venture that spun out several artistic endeavors such as Zero TV. Artists such as Robbins, Barber, Santiago Cucullu and Scott Reeder, each well known in the art world, found the terrain fertile and opted to remain too.
“There was a moment where I think all of the hard work that all of us were doing really was coming to fruition,” said Frank. “This absurd notion that Milwaukee could have an interesting and vibrant art scene actually happened.”
Perhaps one of the most visible indicators that things had taken a turn was the mounting loss of powerful, female voices. Barber, Columbus, Price, Montgomery and Knode all decamped to pursue new opportunities, as did artist and Rust Spot leader Sara Daleiden and artist Naomi Montgomery. Sisters Kiki and Mali Anderson (right) shut down their Jody Monroe Gallery.
Some artists, reaching and pushing their 40s, some with families, started to peel away, citing among other things a lack of teaching opportunities, one of the primary ways for artists to make a living.
But many artists remained, and a few, as we shall see, have maintained an influence despite their distance. It is telling to see who was included in the portraits from both then and now. Not surprisingly, the artists who were already dug in and focused on making their own work are among those that have continued to make it work in Milwaukee. It’s an indicator of a simple truth — persistence in the studio pays off.
Many of them are mature artists who are making more work than ever and exhibiting locally more than they once did.
Dick Blau (right), who helped shape the influential film program at UWM and who is a leader within the photography community, remains a consistent influence among younger artists. Whenever there is a screening of local films, Blau is thanked as much as anyone I know.
Frank continues to be a critical voice. For a while, he did the impossible and filled the shoes of the team that ran Inova in its heyday. His mission was different, as was the time, but it was a solid attempt at international programming and a knowing homage to the important institution.
Tom Bamberger, an award winning critic, nationally known artist and the former photography curator at MAM, is known locally primarily for a legacy of contemporary exhibitions including the first U.S. show for Andreas Gursky, whose large-scale landscape photographs are among the priciest photographs in the world today. Bamberger has a New York gallery and rarely shows work here, but the immersive, sensuous video installations he has shown very recently are among the most exciting works I’ve seen here in recent years.
Jill Sebastian (left), Xav Leplae and Robbins are pictured again, too, each holding a positive influence, producing more art individually than ever – and visibly showing more work here than they once did.
Fast forward to today. Once again, Druecke’s Blue Dress Park is an apt symbol. Druecke gave up on Milwaukee for a while but was drawn back to the possibilities here a few years ago. His Blue Dress Park was recently revitalized, resurrected with with additional art happenings. This time, his once obscure “park” even found its way onto an official city tour or significant sites.
So, what has changed? What’s different today?
Context is part of it. The relationship that Milwaukee itself has to art is an issue. Few have illusions any longer that the heightened profile of the Milwaukee Art Museum will translate into a larger, more art-literate audiences for local galleries and artists. There was a lot of discussion 10 years ago about the investment in MAM being something that would “lift all boats.”
For 10 years we’ve seen travel stories appear in publications around the world, celebrating MAM and predictably declaring Milwaukee no longer a beer-and-brats city. We are an art city, they say. Milwaukeeans have embraced this idea – but not the art. It is too bad that local audiences haven’t more fully embraced the art outside of MAM.
In truth, the case for art is as hard to make as it’s ever been in my time here. This has played out in various public art-related debates over the years. There’s no evidence that the base of collectors and general support for local artists and galleries has changed much.
The Mary L. Nohl Fellowships, which awards $65,000 to seven individual artists each year, is critical support for artists. The jurying process gives local artists an audience with curators outside the region. Many artists mentioned in this article and featured in the portrait have won a Nohl fellowship. Still, unto itself it is limited.
It seems especially important, in fact, to showcase those who are serious about art at a time when the political climate is increasingly hostile to the arts and funding is being slashed. Even civic leaders keen on supporting the arts, who work to promote the “creative industries” as an economic driver, often seem more interested in art marketing than art making and remarkably disconnected from the people I’ve highlighted here.
This has, of course, been hugely disappointing to some artists and gallery owners, and not much of a surprise to others. But most accept the limited degree of interest as part of the dynamic, as a constraint that has to be worked around. Some have even made this particular challenge part of their art-making practice and business plans.
A good example of this kind of pragmatic entrepreneurialism isAmerican Fantasy Classics, a four-person collective made up of Alec Reagan, Brittany Ellenz, Oliver Sweet and Liza Pfloghoft (right). The group are skilled fabricators, which is essentially how they make a living. But they have turned the role of artist assistant and fabricator on its ear, too, blurring the lines of authorship in interesting ways. They approach established artists with proposals for how to give their conceptual aims new forms, working with two-dimensional artists on sculptures, for instance.
Recently, they worked with another four-person collective, the conceptual performance group The White Box Painters, which was part of the first boom and includes Brent Budsberg, Shana McCaw, Harvey Opgenorth and Mark Escribano. The latter two members of the White Box Painters are active artists in Los Angeles today.
The four AFC artists effectively took over the WBP roles and staged performances and installations. They painted a massive white box onto a parking lot, for instance, an alternative to the traditional gallery space, the pristine “white box.” For a time, when you went to the American Fantasy Classics space in Riverwest the door opened to what seemed a shallow storage closet with WBP coveralls and WBP gear tucked neatly inside. It was a poignant homage to a group that has had to hang it up much of the time because of their physical separation.
That project could also be considered a form of criticism, of the younger group pointing to an important passage of regional art history as important and worthy of continuation. These AFC projects widen the nascent group’s exposure and network of art-world contacts, incidentally, which has the practical effect of leading to more work, as well.
This kind of entrepreneurialism is also a defining quality for Plaid Tuba, the brainchild of artists Reginald Baylorand Heidi Witz. Plaid Tuba makes an end run around Milwaukee’s limited gallery system by creating partnerships between artists and commercial interests. Plaid Tuba has been given essential support by developerBarry Mandel and his Mandel Group, an exception to the rule regarding support for art. Plaid Tuba has effectively created a residency program and provides local businesses with ready access to artists for various projects. Currently, the Plaid Tuba artists includeAmanda Gerken, Melissa Dorn Richards, Pamela Anderson and Baylor.
Robbins, who spent about a year in Andy Warhol’s Factory as a young artist, who initially made a name for himself in the 1980s with conceptual works about the art machine, has for many years been interested in finding highly entertaining, accessible ways of connecting with an otherwise disinterested mainstream audience. In recent years, he’s worked with Swant and Ciraldo to slip art into the living rooms of Milwaukee’s bleary-eyed, middle-of-the-night, reach-for-the-remote set. The trio created an experimental TV show called “Something Theater” that has aired in late-night slots between infomercials and “Scrubs” reruns. Robbins also creates TV ads for local art exhibits, such as the Warhol show at the Milwaukee Art Museum, too.
“Something Theater” is also one of the few places to catch snippets of Swant and Ciraldo’s previously mentioned andstill-in-progress “Hamlet A.D.D.” Some, myself included, wonder if this tale of an easily distracted Hamlet, shot entirely in green screen and with a B-movie aesthetic, will ever reach completion or is intended to. But the build up alone explores issues of Internet-based fame, it tackles the subject of entertainment while being, by the way, wildly entertaining. It also features a who’s who of Milwaukee’s film and art communities.
Other organizations that creatively tackle issues related to audience include In:Site and the Parachute Project.In:Site, an organization founded by Pegi Christiansen and Amy Mangrich that advocates for temporary public art, is certainly one of the more avant-garde efforts.
While the group’s installations are still experimental and imperfect, it has made our urban geography itself a platform for critical dialogue and put art in front of a wider, more general audience. It experiments with unique forms of community participation that are promising. It has injected locality back into public art here, a community where public art tends to be conventional and general. In:Site has changed the conversation about public art more than any other entity, artist or organization.
Similarly, the newer Parachute Project, formed by Ella Dwyer, Makael Flammini and Jes Myszka, draws attention to forlorn areas and architecture with conceptually focused art installations. Their most recent project, at the Grand Avenue Mall, was a collaboration between German artist Kati Heck and Milwaukee artistColin Matthes.
Debra Brehmer, a longstanding figure and critic, represents this entrepreneurial spirit in the gallery scene. For herPortrait Society Gallery, she has developed an exhibition structure that draws in both meaningful participation and funding or commissions that make the shows financially feasible. The Real Photo Postcard Survey Project (left), featuring the works of Julie Lindemann and John Shimon, was a good example of this. It would be so easy for this sort of approach to take its toll on the quality of exhibitions, but Brehmer continues to run one of the strongest galleries in town. She is, in fact, opening a greatly expanded space in the Third Ward’s Marshall Building in March.
Some will be surprised and critical, to be sure, to see former gallery owner Mike Brenner on my list. But he too represents this do-it-yourself spirit. As an arts agitator famous for shuttering his gallery in protest of the Bronze Fonz and shaving his head in solidarity with then detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, he has consistently challenged Milwaukee with one very good question: What would happen if the community supported the best art made here? He has spent tens of thousands of dollars and the last several years of his life getting his MBA and a brewmaster’s license in order to offer an answer of his own. Art will be integrated into the business he hopes to start.
Another issue that’s considered a constant in Milwaukee’s art scene is a lack of diversity. Ten years ago, the portrait we took was of a group of white people, and while the current group features a few people of color, Milwaukee’s art scene remains challenged when it comes to issues of race.
Della Wells (right), an African American artist who has experienced significant success outside of Milwaukee, said there are very few, young emerging artists of color attracted to Milwaukee. The Peltz Gallery, run by Cissie Peltz, is perhaps the only gallery that routinely exhibits local artists of color. But, Wells points out, an increasing number of black and minority artists are building audiences and a base of collectors in other cities by leveraging technology and the Internet.
“As an African American artist, the real story is how some artist have become much more savvy,” Wells said.
Wells, one of the nation’s foremost contemporary folk artist, has herself had several important local exhibits in recent years, including a major survey at the Charles Allis Art Museum. Her colorful collages, drawings, dolls, assemblages and quilts – forms of deeply personal storytelling – were recently the inspiration for a theater production with First Stage Children’s Theater that dealt with issues of race and mental illness.
The fact that Milwaukee’s art scene remains challenged by issues related to diversity surfaced last year in a particular way as a result of a collaboration between the Chipstone Foundation, one of the most progressive arts institutions in Milwaukee, and artist Theaster Gates, an urban planner, performance artist and fierce advocate of black identity. To its great credit, Chipstone gave Gates a platform and total freedom to create art that was effectively a critique of MAM and the city on issues of race. The initial inability to recruit singers from local, African American churches for the project made it clear that there is some longer-term relationship building to do. (See resulting performances, which also included choir members from Chicago-area churches, below).
David Gordon, the former director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, said in an interview that one of his great regrets was not addressing issues of race and poverty more directly during his tenure. In addition to drawing diverse audience to the museum, he said, the museum should find ways to be physically present in underserved neighborhoods.
How else does the current period of inventiveness differ from the last one? The kind of lithe and nimble experimentation we saw then exists now, too. One of the greatest contributions that the first group offered to the current one may be a framework and a sense of permission to create their own community-driven projects.
On the whole, though, the art scene, once very performative and ebullient, seems closer to the ground, less personality driven and increasingly socially conscious.
This groundedness exists even among a spate of independent spaces opened by younger artists. While these kinds of venues come and go perennially, a critical number of them that have opened in the last year or two. Some believe this marks a renewal.
Spaces such as American Fantasy Classics, Small Space,Nabr, Jackpot Gallery, Pink House and Center, among others, represent a would-be avant-garde. An astonishing number of the artists associated with these venues point to the first art boom as a direct influence.
“There was this group of people who had this incredible relationship and ideas that just fit together,” said Sarah Luther, an emerging artist who opened an experimental art-community center of her own earlier this year. Luther has a studio in a Riverwest building that once was and is again crammed with artists and galleries.
“There is a younger group that idolizes that…It’s what drew me back to Milwaukee,” said Luther, who went to art school in Kansas City.
Much of this micro scene can also be traced to a corresponding and recent revival at MIAD, where some of these younger artists have studied and where some of the established artists critical to the discussion about art here in the last several have been hired to teach in recent years. The established clutch includes, among others, Frank, Barrickman, Budsberg, McCaw and Cucullu (left), as well as Kevin Miyazaki.
“They seem like they are up and running even while they are undergrads: running small spaces in Riverwest; showing their work; attending openings and events…really being a present and vital force,” wrote Portrait Society Gallery owner Brehmer in her survey response, referring to the influence of students from both MIAD and UWM. “This definitely energizes the entire scene.”
It can be an insular scene, to be sure. Exhibits tend to be one-night affairs that come together last minute. Invitations are usually sent via Facebook or made word of mouth. It’s unfortunate that some of these spaces don’t lay the groundwork for engaging a wider audience, testing their curatorial chops against audiences with more than a few degrees of separation, since many of them, influenced by the ideas of mentors such as Robbins and Frank, have a mind to present challenging but accessible art. At the same time, this scene within a scene is large enough to support a critical dialogue unto itself, too.
It’s a pretty big group, in truth. Had we invited all of them to be part of the portrait, we would have doubled the size of the crowd. So we made due with a representative few, Reagan and Ellenz.
A strata of the local photography community is also worth noting as a grounded and visually astute clique. A tight-knit but permeable group of photographers manage to engage in rich but informal dialogues about art on a regular basis. I sometimes wonder if this group has taken the place that the UWM film community once held in terms of generating artists of conceptual rigor. Some of these artists include Miyazaki, Jessica K. Kaminski, Sonja Thomsen, Jon Horvath and Mark Brautigam, among others. The influence that MAM’s photography curator Lisa Hostetler holds by exhibiting some of the strongest contemporary art at MAM cannot be underestimated. She has created a platform for a sustained dialogue.
It warrants noting here, too, that Russell Bowman, the director of the Milwaukee Art Museum was included in the portrait 10 years ago. Dan Keegan and Brady Roberts, the director and chief curator at MAM today, were not invited to be included in the current one. This is in large part because of the increasing nonchalance of MAM toward the local art community.
Another major change that we see today are the number of connections that exist between the wider art world and Milwaukee artists and galleries.
Filmmaker and artist Faythe Levine has for years brought an international spectrum of cutting-edge craft to Milwaukee through her spaces and projects, including the gallery she runs today Sky High Gallery. She travels around the world to screen her film “Handmade Nation” and to talk about the global rise of the do-it-yourself crafting movement in recent years.
The newly energized Lynden Sculpture Garden has not only infused contemporary art into the sculpture garden of Milwaukee’s most important collector, the late Peg Bradley, it has also forged connections elsewhere and already begun exhibiting national and international artists. Polly Morris, executive director, is guiding the program there.
Fine Line, a curated, international art magazine devoid of advertising and reviews, founded by Jessica Steeber and Cassandra Smith, creates a new model for exporting emerging artists.
Daleiden, who lives in LA but returns to Milwaukee frequently, has been working in recent years to import Milwaukee ideas to Los Angeles. Last year, she organized “MKE-LAX” to bring Rust Spot’s site-specific curatorial ideas west. That show was on view at Woodbury Hollywood Exhibitions.
Next month, another exhibit featuring Milwaukee artists will open in Los Angeles. Organized around the ideas of UWM contemporary art historian Jennifer Johung and her upcoming book “Replacing Home” (left, from University of Minnesota Press, Dec. 2011) the exhibit at JAUS will featured the works of Yevgeniya Kaganovich, Nathaniel Stern and Kaminiski.
While there seems to be some consensus that MIAD is infusing the local scene with more energy than UWM’s art program, which always seems laden with bureaucratic messiness, the Peck School of the Arts has plenty of bright spots, and Johung, Stern and Kaganovich are among the brightest.
Stern, who is an occasional contributor to this blog, combines new and traditional media in a way that creates unexpected experiences. He, for instance, sometimes straps a desktop scanner, laptop and battery pack to his body and performs, creating dynamic, impressionistic images that are part multimedia, part theater. He is also one of the most knowledgeable experts on interactive art you’ll find anywhere.
As for Johung, the mere existence of an accomplished contemporary art historian is reason enough to celebrate, as many art history programs don’t value the contemporary as a discipline. It’s not really history yet, some argue, to oversimplify a bit. Johung’s research explores how people locate themselves in the world today and our changing notions of home. She has become a performer of her ideas and has engaged with artists in a way that is unusual for a historian.
It is telling that there is no home for these latter two LA exhibitions here in Milwaukee. One of the great shortcomings of Milwaukee’s art scene today is that it lacks a major contemporary art institution. It doesn’t help that the Milwaukee Art Museum has turned its back on more than a century of an emphasis on the art of the contemporary moment (as I explored in a recent article), and nothing has ever quite replaced Inova, the fate of which is up in the air. Other institutions are conscious of this and attempting to fill the gap. The Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette, under the guidance of director Wally Mason, has upped its game in terms of contemporary art considerably, as have the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts and Charles Allis art museums under the curatorial leadership of Martha Monroe. Despite their subpar physical space, MIAD too has improved its contemporary exhibition program of late. The “Generation Next” exhibit recently curated by Jason Yi being perhaps the best example.
We have some fantastic galleries here, of course. The Tory Folliard Gallery, known especially for showing accomplished painters, has increasingly been gravitating toward conceptual artists, featuring James Franklinand Barrickman recently. Beth Lipman, one of the best conceptual craft artists in the nation, currently has work on view there as well. The Dean Jensen Gallery is the leading gallery for idea-driven work, but we could use about four or five additional spaces of that caliber (Dean Jensen was invited to be part of the avant-garde portrait, incidentally).
Madison is increasingly becoming an art center, of course. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chazen Museum have both expanded into new structures with exquisite new galleries for contemporary work. MMoCA’s triennial has become an important showcase for Wisconsin artists, a show where we encounter artists we may not see otherwise.
Still, Milwaukee has more artists actively exhibiting nationally and internationally than ever before, many of whom are unable to find a suitable venues to exhibit their work locally. The loss of the Michael Lord Gallery about a decade ago, which shuttered amid claims of financial mismanagement and lawsuits, meant that artists such as Bamberger and Steven D. Foster had fewer options for routine exhibitions in their own town. It is interesting to consider that the only reason we’ve seen Bamberger’s work of late is because of a unique collaboration forged with Deb Loewen and the Wild Space Dance Company.
Oddly enough, what comes closest to replacing the spirit of Inova may be the Green Gallery. It is hard to believe that John Riepenhoff and Jake Palmert opened their Green Gallery East only three years ago, as its become such an essential space.
Riepenhoff and Palmert don’t flip the art-looking switch on only when in a gallery or museum. They see art anywhere, anytime and in the most populist of platforms. From the start, they have found ways to create meaningful and unorthodox experiences out of those discoveries, exhibits that also question the canon of contemporary art enthusiastically.
In a grubby building crammed with artist’s studios in Riverwest, they run the Green Gallery West. It is a project space, of sorts, for less-known artists, informal art experiments and film screenings, among other things.
The main gallery on the East Side presents conceptual artists, many of whom operate outside the commercial art world. At first glance, the space is more formal, more old-school, with white walls and a high-profile location. But it is also a petite, Atomic Age drive-through, a welcoming building with giant plate glass windows that makes the art visible from the street.
“I want to bring artists from around the world to Milwaukee, and vice versa,” Riepenhoff told me three years ago. “But I want to do it at street level with a take-away feel.”
Fittingly, David Robbins, who hadn’t shown work locally very much, was the first artist exhibited by the Green Gallery East. Local and regional artists such as Barrickman, Cucullu, Druecke, Frank, Scott Reeder and Michelle Grabner, as well as a multitude of international artists, have also shown work.
Last winter, New York-based artist Jose Lerma curated “A Person of Color: A Mostly Orange Exhibition” at the Green Gallery. It was a show of all orange sculptures and paintings, most hung below waist level, where we had to look down at them or crouch to see them properly. The floor itself was painted with a crisscrossing orange pattern, leaving us to walk on the art from the moment we walked into the show.
At that time, the Tory Folliard Gallery, perhaps the most established gallery for contemporary painting in the city, also had a warm color-themed exhibit on view. Hey, it was January. A month when Milwaukeeans could use a fiery blast. At the Folliard Gallery, the show was equally random, a conceit employed to bring together some of the gallery’s better artists. The show was filled with beautifully executed works and was a nice cross section of the artists the gallery works with. A perfectly fine show.
What Lerma did at the Green Gallery, though, was challenge these kinds of curatorial approaches. In many ways it was a show about who rules – the artist or curator. Who was the artist here, those who made the individual works or the artists who pulled them together in this bizarre installation?
The Tory Folliard show was about the display and sale of art, while the Green Gallery show was about challenging ideas.
Last summer, I visited the Green Gallery’s pop-up gallery at Canal 47 in New York’s Chinatown. They took over the gallery during August, when many in the art world flee the city. They were presenting an exhibit of a little known artist curated by Xav Leplae, who was blindfolded when he hung the show. Leplae also, incidentally, hopped freight trains to get to New York, trying to keep his carbon footprint as close to zero as possible. The low-key generosity of the project, the way that artists and gallery owners reliquished their authorial voices to one another (and to random chance) was interesting to me.
It was, in fact, very in keeping with what has proved to be a longstanding collaborative and experimental ethic in Milwaukee. Considerably more common in the art world today, I’d trace this approach back to a term coined by Robbins in the `90s: Platformist.
“There has never been a better time to be an artist in Milwaukee than now,” said Riepenhoff, who is an important crossover figure, someone who got a start during the first boom, who started the first Green Gallery in his Riverwest attic, and who epitomizes the current boom. “We have more critically active venues than I’ve seen before.”
The Green Gallery is probably the most nationally and internationally active gallery in Milwaukee today and the venue most often mentioned as critical to the local avant-garde in the surveys I received. But, again, it’d be nice to have a few more Green Galleries to spare. Like any venue, it is limited, too. It is has a particular focus and exhibits within a certain strata of the art world, and its space is small and not suited to certain types of multimedia work, for instance.
One of the dangers of having a vibrant but small scene is that it can become dependent upon certain people and places. If the Green Gallery were to close, it would be like putting a pin in things.
Riepenhoff, along with Frank, Scott Reeder, Tyson Reeder and Elysia Borowy-Reeder, also organized the Milwaukee International, a homey alternative to the larger art world’s overly commercial art fairs, with polka and bowling to boot. The fairs, the first in 2006, the second in 2008, brought galleries from across the country and around the globe to the basement of the Falcon Bowl in Riverwest, an event that attracted international press.
“Milwaukee” and “international” sounded funny together at first, the organizers told me at the time – until they decided to take it seriously.
When I attended one of those swanky fairs at about this time last year, Art Basel Miami, and introduced myself as I do as a critic from Milwaukee. The reaction from galleries from around the world was revealing. Maybe one in 20, registered a look of recognition. Ah yes, they’d say, and utter a few proper nouns. Calatrava was one of them, sure. But “Green Gallery,” “Inova” and “Milwaukee International” tripped off the tongues of art-world figures often enough, too.
This seems evidence, to me, that there is a small, dedicated and fragile avant-garde here. Milwaukee has been recognized as a place where something special has been happening.
A few questions remain now. What would it take to better sustain — and grow — Milwaukee’s avant-garde? What can the community do during the next decade to retain Milwaukee’s most interesting artists and to keep this fragile and unique ecosystem thriving? And what person or institution might step forward to be sure a dialogue is had?
Special note about the Photographers: While being interviewed for this story, local artist and photographer Kevin J. Miyazaki offered to shoot the portrait of Milwaukee’s avant-garde. He ended up creating the large, group photograph, individual portraits and a cover montage the print version. Had he not been behind the camera, Miyazaki, as well as photographer Jessica Kaminski, who assisted with the project, would have been in front of it, had it been up to me. Kevin is currently working on a series of portraits of Wisconsinites. He is a former winner of the Mary L. Nohl Fellowship and has created several bodies of work in recent years, particularly shooting the fate of buildings once used in Japanese internment camps. Kaminski is preparing to exhibit a dress made of from Jennifer Johung’s book, printed on tissue and intended to be worn by Johung. For more information on these artists:www.kevinmiyazaki.com and www.jessicakaminski.com.
Special note about the 2011 portrait location: The location of the recent portrait, taken by Kevin J. Miyazaki, was the historic Pritzlaff Building. We owe a special thanks to Ken Bruenig of Sunset Investors, owners of the building, who not only allowed us to use the site but helped us find a spot in the historic complex for the photograph and helped us move large objects to make it happen. I would also like to thank Diane Bacha and Lonnie Turner, Art City contributors, for assisting with the project on the day of the shoot.
Images from top:
1. Nicholas Frank and Tyson Reeder, 2002, at the opening of the General Store. From Journal Sentinel archives.
2. Group portrait taken April 10, 2001 by Journal Sentinel photographer Jack Orton. Chris Smith, director of “American Movie.” (Second row, first person on the left); Gabe Lanza, organizer of Rust Spot art shows (First row, first person on the left); Jeremy Wolf, artist (Second row, second person from the left);Peter Barrickman, artist, musician and set designer (Third row, first person on the left); Sonia Kubica, MARN organizer (Left ladder, first person on the left); Scott Reeder, artist, currently works for Zero TV (Left ladder, top of the ladder); Eric Archer, artist, organizer of Factory Soiree (Front row, second person from the left); Naomi Montgomery, artist, organizer of Factory Soiree (Second row, third from left, wearing a black hat); Paul Druecke, artist, founder of Art Street Window (Third row, second from left); Theresa Columbus, artist, playwright, owner of Darling Hall (Third row, third person from left); Sarah Price, “American Movie” filmmaker, drummer in band Competitorr (Left ladder, first person on the right);Stephanie Barber, artist, filmmaker, musician, owner of Bamboo Theater (Front row, center); Didier Leplae, artist, owner Riverwest Video and Film, bassist for The Paragraphs (Second row, center); David Robbins, artist best known for work called “Talent” (Third row, fourt person from left); Nicholas Frank, artist, writer and owner of Hermetic Gallery (On stairs, first person on the left); Tom Bamberger, artist-photographer, writer and a MAM curator (Front row, third person from the right); Marilu Knode, arts writer, inova curator (Second row, fourth person from the right); Bill Budelman, collage artist, risingartist.com (On stairs, third person from the right); Russell Bowman, Milwaukee Art Museum director (On stairs, second person from the right); Dick Blau, head of UWM film department (Second row, third person from the right); Peter Doroshenko, inova director (Front row, second from right); Jennifer Montgomery, writer, artist and filmmaker, and Mila the dog. (Front row, first person on the right); Xav Leplae, owner Riverwest Video and Film (Second row, second from right); Jill Sebastian, sculptor and MIAD teacher (On stairs, first person on the right); Doug Holst, abstract painter and MAM night guard (Second row, first person on the right (seated on ladder).
3. Portrait of Milwaukee’s Avant-Garde, taken by artist-photographer Kevin J. Miyazaki, with help fromJessica Kaminski, 2011. From left to right: Nicholas Frank, artist, curator, early advocate of dialogue about art in Milwaukee and instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design; Jennifer Johung, contemporary art historian and writer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Roy Staab, internationally recognized ecological artist; Dick Blau, helped create the influential film program at UWM; Della Wells, nationally recognized collage artist; Santiago Cucullu, internationally exhibited artist and influential instructor at MIAD; Wally Mason, director of the Haggerty Museum of Art; Heidi Witz, a founder of the entrepreneurial minded Plaid Tuba; Cassandra Smith, artist and co-founder of Fine Line; Andrew Swant, nationally known artist and experimental filmmaker; Reginald Baylor, painter and founder of Plaid Tuba; Brent Budsberg and Shana McCaw, artists and founding member of the White Box Painters performance group; Faythe Levine, filmmaker and internationally known expert on cutting-edge craft; Jill Sebastian, sculptor, public artist and instructor at MIAD; Jessica Steeber, artist and co-founder of Fine Line; Ashley Morgan, installation artist; Pegi Christiansen, co-founder of In:Site and the Performance Art Showcase; Mark Brautigam, photographer; Lisa Hostetler, curator of photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum; Nathaniel Stern, internationally exhibited interactive artist; Xav LePlae, filmmaker and artist; David Robbins, internationally known writer and artist; Mike Brenner, artist-agitator; Bobby Ciraldo, nationally known artist and experimental filmmaker; Polly Morris, director of the Lynden Sculpture Garden, an important new site for contemporary programming; Paul Druecke, an artist who engages the public and strangers in his ongoing practice; Claudia Mooney, curator with Chipstone Foundation; Greg Klassen, painter; Sonja Thomsen, conceptual photographer; Yevgenia Kaganovich, an artist with a hybrid practice that includes jewelry making, sculpture and installation; Tom Bamberger, former museum curator, award-winning critic and nationally recognized artist; Jason Yi, artist, curator and increasingly influential figure at MIAD; Deb Brehmer, owner of the Portrait Society Gallery; Alec Reagan and Brittany Ellenz, of American Fantasy Classics; John Riepenhoff and Jake Palmert, owners of the internationally connected Green Gallery.
4. Portrait of Paul Druecke, by Kevin J. Miyazaki, 2011.
5. Inova’s former senior curator Marilu Knode and director Peter Doroshenko play a fictitious game by Uri Tzaig, 1999, from Journal Sentinel archives.
6. Artist Harvey Opgenorth with 2002 Rust Spot installation, from Journal Sentinel archives.
7. Excerpt of Jennifer Montgomery’s “Threads of Belonging.”
8. Andrew Swant and Bobby Ciraldo, from Journal Sentinel archives.
9. Kiki and Mali Anderson, sisters and former owners of the Jody Monroe Gallery, from Journal Sentinel archives.
10. Portrait of Dick Blau, by Kevin J. Miyazaki, 2011.
11. Portrait of Jill Sebastian, by Kevin J. Miyazaki, 2011.
12. Portrait of American Fantasy Classics, courtesy the artists and the Bradley Family Foundation.
13. Still, from “Something Theater,” courtesy David Robbins.
14. Portrait of Pegi Christiansen, by Kevin J. Miyazaki, 2011.
15. Image of Clair Chin and her two daughters, by Julie Lindemann and John Shimon, courtesy the artists and the Portrait Society Gallery.
16. Video of collaborative Theaster Gates performance at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 2010.
17. Portrait of Santiago Cucullu, by Kevin J. Miyazaki, 2011.
18. Part of the Re:Current series of photographic art by Sonja Thomsen.
19. Cover of “Replacing Home,” due out from the University of Minnesota Press, Dec. 26, 2011.
20. Portrait of John Riepenhoff and Jake Palmert, owners of the Green Gallery, by Kevin J. Miyazaki, 2011.
21. John Riepenhoff, Nicholas Frank and Tyson Reeder, 2006, before the first “Milwaukee International.”
Other related texts: MKE Journal Sentinel, MKE Journal Sentinel, MKE Journal Sentinel, SA Art Times, M Magazine
“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
The Art of Compression
This article by Christine Grové appeared in both the online and print editions of Live Out Loud
Delving into the intricate and compelling world of American-born and Joburg-based artist, Nathaniel Stern, one is once again emphatically confronted with the pure immensity that is art appreciation and philosophy. Because Stern’s work is embedded in extensive investigation into subjects so significant to human nature, currently and historically, his art is quite possibly some of the most relevant around.
A productive day in Stern’s life may consist of wading waist-deep in a water-lily pond with a desktop scanner, laptop and custom-made battery pack strapped to his body. Wielding this unique contraption he literally performs images into existence by scanning along table surfaces, swinging over flowers, hopping over bricks or, in this case, floating over water-lily ponds. This active engagement with his surroundings translates into quirky and organic but condensed renderings which he then re-stretches, crops and touches up on his laptop, and finally they are transformed into exquisite archival art prints for the gallery wall. This process of art-making he has suitably named Compressionism.
Stern follows a rather unique trajectory when creating his Compressionist works. From influential roots in Impressionism through to Surrealism imagery, ending in a postmodern sentiment, Compressionism is more than a playful allusion to historical art movements of “isms”. Allegorically, Stern’s term Compressionism dictates the nature of this day and age. In a world of time and space constraints threatening to slow us down, the concept of compression allows us to “zip-folder” large amounts of data into smaller spaces, which is also intrinsic to our lives of trying to fit an alarming amount of activities into one day.
His latest installation, entitled “Giverny of the Midwest”, on display at Art On Paper from 30 July 2011, is part of an ongoing series started in 2005 in Johannesburg. The main work, a 2 x 12 meter installation of 93 prints of water-lily pond scans was inspired by Monet’s work in Giverny where he spent over 30 years painting his famous water lilies. For this particular work Stern spent three days camping beside a lily pond in South Bend, Indiana with his scanner-laptop-battery apparatus, endlessly scanning his surroundings with only his studio assistant and an agitated snapping turtle for company. After this brief adventure, it took over eighteen months of editing and reworking images to achieve the full installation to where it is now.
Using Monet’s Water Lilies triptych at the MoMA in New York as his source for following movement and patterns of colour and light and Mondrian as the inspiration for the spacing of the images, Stern managed to create a kind of digital play between modularity and Modernism in this large installation.
Coining new terminology and experimenting with new hardware combinations are, however, not the only things Stern concerns himself with. He is also a prolific scholar of performative and interactive art and is considered one of the fathers of this progressive movement in South Africa. Throughout his career he has explored an array of different concepts including political commentary, performance, human interaction and language, and has deepened his research around these interests over many years.
Like most progressive artists today, Stern often collaborates with other artists. “I believe that artists no longer simply make images, they make discourse – they ask us not only to look but to look again, to re-examine,” he says, “Art is always dialogical – I mean, simply, that it is in dialogue – with history, with other art and artists, with current events, with politics and pop culture and more. Most of all, it is in dialogue with people, with real people.”
In his 2003/2009 updated work, “Stuttering”, one of his many interactive installations, Stern investigates how we affect, and are affected by conversation and comprehension. Each viewer in the space triggers a large-scale interactive art object projected on the wall in front of them. Body tracking software picks up the movement of the viewers and animates a quote about stuttering and is accompanied by an audio recitation of its text.
When questioned about bringing art to the people via interaction, Stern quotes: “There are a lot of reasons I work with interactive art. A large portion of this is to reach a bigger audience and get them excited about art, while also engaging with complex ideas and materials. And I also believe that such work can be serious stuff, which needs to be investigated further by those in the academy and elsewhere.”
Some of Stern’s other works will also be on display at UNISA in September.
For more information visit http://nathanielstern.com or www.artonpaper.co.za
Other related texts: WIRED, MKE Journal Sentinel, Art South Africa, Engadget, SA Art Times
Staged via various media, Nathaniel Stern’s work enacts the interstices of body, language and technology. It seeks to force us to look again at the relationships between the three, and invites us to experiment with their relation. His body of work can, perhaps, be described as an exploration of the interstitial itself–revisiting between technology and text the dangerous spaces of enfleshment, incipience, and process.
Stern’s revisitations plunge us into a confrontational world of performance where Stern, as actor, provocateur and artist, invites us to enter into the performance and engage in the seriousness of play. The work encourages the viewer to interrogate their perceptions of the everyday and the relations they have with themselves, to others and the world around them.
Stern claims his interest in the body comes from his early study, and subsequent hatred, of fashion design. That, combined with his musical and slam poetry background, leads Stern towards considering the body as text and as concept, but eventually (and he would say, inevitably) steered him to the inverse: the body as performed and emergent. One of the most fascinating aspects of this work is that it does not presuppose the categories of body and language that it works with.
During his two years at the famed Interactive Telecommunications Program (NYU), Stern began using “digital and traditional media to create encounters between an ambiguous ‘I’ and a potential ‘you.’” Enacting what he calls the “non-aggressive narrative” (NAN)–a mode of Benjaminian storytelling–pieces from this body of work perform a complex dance of call and response, in which the viewer/participant is asked to reinvent, from the ruins of memory and selfhood, unfolding pasts and personas. Stern sets out to create meeting places that break down the boundaries between art and audience; to craft spaces of infolding and potential, in which both the “body/self,” and the work, materialize as a locus of exchange.
Stern’s first piece from the NAN, hektor.net (2000), presents a series of video vignettes starring Stern as the aggressively lucid, hektor. Through the visual and sonic aesthetics of slam poetry and manipulated photography, and fraught with odd allusions to, and between, Homer’s books, sex crazes and racial politics, hektor.net is still surprisingly edgy. It induces, despite the fact it is on screen, a visceral clenching on the surfer of the site.
Each subsequent NAN piece explores the same (untold) referent story, through different media and highly contrasted characters. “By embracing the questionable, fragmented memory of a singular past through multiple characters, the ambiguous ‘I’ of the NAN implies an origin story that may or may not have occurred. As the potential ‘You’ is invited to co-invent this unfolding ‘past,’ its openness suggests possibility and multiplicity.”
the odys series (2001-2004), for example, introduced the nervous and inquisitive, odys, also played by Stern. The six video shorts that make up the series explore distortions of body and memory through mis/uses of language. odys’ slow and achy stammering invokes an internal tension, and begs for a personal investment in his character. Stern released odys for your ipod @ odys.org–allowing visitors to download the series onto their own gadgets–just two days after the new video iPod was released by Apple (October 2005).
In the same year that hektor.net was launched, Stern produced his first interactive work–the medium he is now most well-known for–enter: hektor. Here the audience is confronted with what is an almost literal portal–a threshold space through which they meet and step into the character. Participants enter through black and red velvet curtains, into a long, expanding corridor with a projection screen at the end; they see an abstracted, real-time representation of themselves on screen, surrounded by animated text. Each moving phrase acts as a trigger point, so that when an actor’s represented body touches a word, hidden speakers amplify a relevant, uttered phrase. Stern compels his viewers to chase after or run away from the projected text, in order to elicit meaning from hektor’s spoken words. His main objective was to force viewers to enact (embody) “the same exaggerated gestures and jerky expressions that [hektor] does,” to experience their bodies (and their bodies in relation to language) in new ways.
Stern’s interactive pieces work to implicate participants in his narratives, weaving them into events shot through with thoughtful intention and distracted passivity. stuttering (2003), is an odys “story” about the labor that is communication–the materiality and toil of speaking and listening. He saturates the space with 34 trigger points of spoken word and graphic text, mapped on a static, Mondrian painting-like screen, and set off by body-tracking software. “Only by lessening their participation,” says Stern,” will the information explosion slow into an understandable text for the viewer. The piece asks them not to interact.” The tangle of text, voice and motion, makes our first encounter with stuttering feel almost perilous. We are dragged into the frenzied tension between body and text that the stutterer endures, but are then invited to slow down and stop doing. Seducing us into delicate gestures, and almost Butoh-like awareness, the piece allows us to perform quietude, but not acquiescence.
In step inside (2004), participants make visual and aural images appear through the shapes they create with their bodies and echoed footsteps within the performance space, each affecting the other. Entering into a box that is closed off from the outside of the gallery, the participant is confronted with a double-sided screen and a wired floor. Cocooned within the box and the reverberating sound their movements produce, the performer sees only their profile. By cutting a performer off from his or her mirror image, as well as the external reactions of the audience, the work tempts us to leave behind reflection and self-consciousness and, rather, occupy a place of play and intimacy. One participant at a recent showing likened the experience to painting with her entire body.
stuttering won a merit prize (2003), and step inside a major prize (2004), in one of South Africa’s most coveted art competitions–the Brett Kebble Art Awards. Stern has had six solo and duo shows since then, including, “The Storytellers (works from the non-aggressive narrative),” at the Johannesburg Art Museum. After this exhibition, Stern’s work began to branch out of the NAN. His serial faces collage work, for example, was recently featured in Leonardo (MIT Press), and getawayexperiment.net garnered the prestigious Turbulence net.art commission (2005). Over the years, Stern has worked on a number of collaborative multimedia performances which have won several awards, and his ongoing work in video poetry has been screened all over the world.
Perhaps the most traditional of Stern’s work is what has garnered international attention as of late; Compressionism is, for him, “a method of interrogation, an exploration of media and perception; it is a digital performance, and an analog archive.” Stern, simply, traverses bodies, spaces and objects with his scanner face, along varying 3-dimensional paths. With the scanner head in motion, Stern and his prosthetic machine literally compress water lilies, construction sites and local galleries into digital images the size of a small sheet of paper. He then stretches, crop and colors the files, creating static portraits that capture, fossil-like, the dynamism and refractions of his original performance. Through this transfigurative process, sand grains become geological events and trees mutate into atmospheric maps. Compressionism is a transformation of form, texture and color, in which flesh returns caught in verdant slumber, while windows become fiery mosaics. Here, the mundane is given back to us in ways that induce an almost child-like sense of wonder. These beautiful prints feel quite unique in capturing a visual richness and haptic sense of touch rare in the realm of the digital. Stern is currently working with Johannesburg printmakers Jill Ross and Richard Kilpert on an iterative series that takes the images even further through the analogical, utilizing traditional techniques such as lithography, engraving, spit bites, aquatints and more–all in keeping with his manifesto-like rules, available on Compressionism.net. Their collaborative efforts will see an exhibition at Johannesburg’s Art on Paper gallery, February, 2007.
All of Nathaniel Stern’s work exudes this kind of incipience and playfulness. It performs, and asks us to perform, different ways of seeing and being. He invites us to explore, to navigate, and to re-imagine, the spaces between.
Other related texts: M Magazine, ArtThrob, M Magazine, Bad At Sports, WORT fm
Nathaniel Stern is an artist, a teacher, a technologist, a blogger, a social catalyst and constant networker in the art community. As an artist, his works spans performance, poetry, interactive installation and video, net.art and print. Originally from Staten Island, New York (otherwise known as ‘Shaolin’ to those ‘other’ Staten-Islanders the Wu Tang Clan) Nathaniel has been a South African for some time now, after falling in love with (and marrying) South African drama academic Nicole Ridgway and moving to Johannesburg in the early 2000s. Nathaniel’s artwork often touches on the mutability of personal identity, as in his assumption of multiple personas through his video performance work. His ideas around the body, a centre in much of his art and his focus in recent academic work around The Implicit Body, speak of the body and person ‘enfolding’ the world around them into themselves, and so constantly transforming.
His ‘real life’ contains many such echoes, or expressions of, the ideas in his artwork. There is little hierarchy to the number of social and professional roles he plays, as there is an undermining of hierarchy and linearity in the forms of narrative he investigates in his work, especially through his formulation of the Non Aggressive Narrative, or NAN. For his latest art project, Compressionism, Nathaniel rigged up a portable scanning unit which he uses to capture and digitise grass, leaves, objects – the physical environment – which he manipulates on the computer and makes physical again through high-quality prints. Nathaniel the person shifts as fluidly between the physical and the digital worlds as his artwork does; many people must know Nathaniel only through his online presence on his blog, “one of the most popular sites in the South African art world” according to Carine Zaayman.
A lot of my earlier work treated the body as text and as concept, and I think some interesting provocations came out of that space, but it has inevitably led me now to the inverse: flesh as performed and emergent. Perhaps we are not ‘in the between,’ as mediated and mediating preformed entities, but rather, ‘of the relation’ – continuously transfigured through/with inter-action. I’m interested in the aches and beauty that come out when we arenï¿½t looking, when we experience bodiliness in different ways, when vision is something we gesture towards, rather than own.
Although I’d never deny my own fascination with gadgetry, appendages and other prostheses, I see them only as any other catalyst – tools to help us question, engage, play, perform – and the complex inter-course that hopefully manifests is always already beginning.
What is at stake is the body and art as cooperative sites of potential resistance, counterinvestments in the automation of meaning, begging us to ‘look again’.
Despite his prolific arts production, blogging, writing and collaborative projects, Nathaniel says he must constantly give himself deadlines – both real and artificial – in order to actually “finish” anything in his “gadget- and paper-infested anarchy”. He rapaciously grazes websites, books, magazines, bounces ideas off anyone who will listen – nine out of ten of which never go anywhere. He spends a great deal of time experimenting with his media, and seeing what will happen, but even more time critically engaging with what it does and what is at stake. Dedicated to inter-disciplinarity and collaboration, he has worked across choreography and theatre, poetry and academic writing, photography, video and installation. Things like programming and video editing sometimes dictate purpose and structure to his otherwise chaotic process, and so the final works often exude a very serious playfulness. Of his community-building work, through workshops and teaching, and more informally his hobby of usefully connecting people to one another, he describes himself self-deprecatingly as “a bit of a grazer” – other people’s ideas excite him and fuel his work.
WHAT OTHERS HAVE SAID
“Staged via various media, Nathaniel Stern’s work enacts the interstices of body, language and technology. It seeks to force us to look again at the relationships between the three, and invites us to experiment with their relation. His body of work can, perhaps, be described as an exploration of the interstitial itself – revisiting between technology and text the dangerous spaces of enfleshment, incipience, and process.”
– Nicole Ridgway’s bio / feature on Stern for NY Arts Magazine, March/ April 2006
“More remarkable work from Nathaniel Stern as he reworks, in the most curious of ways, Woody Allenï¿½s Annie Hall. Interesting that although the working method here seems almost diametrically opposed to the hands on, performative approach found in ‘the odys series’ ([Stern’s feature on] dvblog 01/05/06) here too is that same sense of the fragility & vulnerability of human beings and their bodies & psyches & of the unreliability of the language we use to try & make what we want to happen & to relate or lie about what did.”
– Michael Szpakowski on “at interval” and “the odys series,” video artworks in DVblog, January 2006: http://dvblog.org/?p=933
“Nathaniel Stern, new media artist, and tireless blogger of the media art scene in Johannesburg, has created a hauntingly poetic digital backdrop – a combination of sombre, abstract textures and live video feed which enacts a disjointed dialogue with the dancers. Reminiscent in its brooding shadowy forms of Kentridge’s parade of coal black despair, Sternï¿½s work is a new media expression of South Africaï¿½s new sorrow.”
– Lizzie Muller in “The Future Makers” on a work with PJ Sabbagha, RealTime Magazine #70 (Australia), January 2006
“Their second experiment… makes quite a marked impression, in the way that it utilizes simple technological processes to ask viewers to look anew at art and the artwork at hand… Different from the norm of this type of art – the changing and moving image – Neustetter and Stern capture time itself, and not the movement as such.”
– Wilhelm van Rensburg (translated from Afrikaans), on Nathaniel Stern and Marcus Neustetter’s “experiment02” in Die Beeld, “Exsperiment wat kyker se kyk na kuns belig,” May 2005
“Akin to John Cage’s reading of James Joyce’s Wake, the results are unique and aesthetically sound. The narrative cores of the works are not easily detectable, giving the audience licence to navigate. Benjamin writes of the danger of interpretation, commenting that the ï¿½chaste compactness of a story which precludes psychological analysisï¿½ is powerful enough to arouse ï¿½astonishment and thoughtfulnessï¿½, forever. Further, he comments on the ability of a story to make the reader lose him/herself. This is one of Sternï¿½s central promises.”
– Robyn Sassen on “the storytellers,” a solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Museum: Art South Africa, February 2005.
“Stern and Neustetter’s project is not one for computer geeks or the art world only, but has a broad reach across the production of the urban signwriters, the critical voices against the monopolisation of technology and information as well as the spectrum of people tired of the limited input they have on the web.”
– Carine Zaayman on Nathaniel Stern and Marcus Neustetter’s “getawayexperiment.net,” in “Remixed/Re-signed: The GetAway Experiment.” February 2005: http://www.artthrob.co.za/05feb/project.html
Nathaniel’s current art project is part of an investigation called Compressionism. Nathaniel rigged up a harness for a flatbed scanner and laptop combo – named ‘Action Jackson’ – allowing him to scan any surface, anywhere:
“I literally glide, hover, run and swoop over trees, windows or bodies while the scanner head is in motion, and the results are these amazingly rich and textured, paper-size images. I then re-stretch, hand-color and crop the files, in order to accent the dynamism and refractions of my performance, before going to print; I call it my ‘digital performance and analog archive.'”
With an overt wink to art-historical ‘ism’s, compressionism.net promises a manifesto to come, and spells out a totalising approach to making Compressionist work. Beyond the humour, Compressionism does have real formal links to historical art movements – it is Impressionist in it’s concern with and reliance on light and colour as primary tools of representation; Cubist in its ability to map all surfaces of objects rather than choosing a single viewpoint; and is an act of sampling from the world, as in the art practice of figures like Marcel Duchamp. Titles such as ‘Nude Ascension’, or ‘Emmarentia Lilies’ (a triptych) reinforce the connections to the work of Duchamp and Monet that Nathaniel wishes to establish.
Nathaniel made these formal choices – allusion to art history, the production of a traditional medium – in part to invite more traditional art-viewers into the digital space. He is excited to be working with tangible media whose production was digital and interactive, but that excites non-techies, too – though he notes that the project has in fact been very well received by the digital art community. The work is destined for a solo show at Outlet Gallery in May/ June. MacFormat magazine is doing a back-page spread on the series in an upcoming issue, and a feature in NY Arts magazine comes out next week.
Both ‘step inside’ (2004) and ‘stuttering’ (2003), interactive installation works, were exhibited at, and won prizes at the Brett Kebble Art Awards; ‘stuttering’ a merit prize in 2003, and ‘step inside’ a major prize in 2004. Nathaniel seemed at least partly responsible for opening space within that national art event for interactive or New Media work generally. His proposal for this year’s Kebble Art Awards, a collaboration with Nicole Ridgway, was an even more ambitious work in a similar format.
“The Storytellers (works from the non-aggressive narrative),” was shown at the Johannesburg Art Museum, and featured the ‘odys’ video series, prints and ‘step inside’. After this exhibition, Stern’s work began to branch out of the Non Aggressive Narrative. His serial faces collage work, were featured shortly after in Leonardo (MIT Press), and getawayexperiment.net (with Marcus N) garnered a Turbulence net.art commission (2005). Nathaniel exhibited prints and interactive work at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival. He was included a large panel discussion on the state of new media art, with the likes of Thando Mama, Sean O’Toole, Clive Kelener, Churchill Madikida, Marcus Neustetter and Christo Doherty.
This period also saw the start of the fruitful and ongoing collaboration of Nathaniel Stern and Christo Doherty, head of Wits University’s Digital Arts MA program. Aside from co-designing the successful Interactive Media Arts program in WSOA digital arts, now in its fourth year, the Stern/ Doherty team initiated atjoburg.net (http://atjoburg.net), an online forum for creators working in electronic media, curated two well-received digital art exhibitions, held half a dozen workshops on physical computing and interactive video and have thrown several VJ parties around town. Doherty was co-director for the Unyazi Electronic Music Festival, while Stern is known as the tireless net-writer on local work – on his blog, rhizome.org, SAartsEmering and networked_performance. Since its inception, the department has boasted its “Digital Soiree,” regular Friday get-togethers that have featured the likes of Hans Ubermogren, Konrad Weltz, Ralph Borland and Aryan Kaganof, and their collaborative efforts brought the first Digital Artist in Residence at Wits, Joshua Goldberg – who performed and lectured throughout Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Nathaniel Stern started his blog in February 2003 and hasn’t looked back since.
AND BEFORE THAT
Nathaniel was moving between New York and South Africa; in South Africa he worked intensively with SA choreographer PJ Sabbagha, writing and performing poetry and animation for stage. “The double room” won 3 Vita Awards. He went on to work on three more pieces with Sabbagha, all of them going to Grahamstown Festival. He worked on Hektor.net, a video poetry site and [odys]elicit, the first interacive installation he built in SA. The former won an International Digital Art award, and traveled around the world with the RRF festival, while the latter went to the MCA in Sydney for the D’Arts02 Festival and to the Chaingmai New Media Festival, Thailand. It was a finalist in the Permian Media Art Festival.
In America, he was awarded an artist residency at Cornell University, where he was a New Media Room featured artist in the Johnsom Museum. Nathaniel and Nicole were married, and he graduated from the Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP) at New York University and started up nathanielstern.com
AND EVEN BEFORE THAT
At the ITP, Nathaniel made work for his first group exhibition in upstate New York: hektor.net and enter:hektor – video poetry and an interactive installation. He also made it into the “team ithaca” slam poetry team and competed at the Nationals in Minneapolis.
Nathaniel studied fashion and music for his undergraduate degree, and was the saxaphone player and one of two singers in a ska/reggae/jazz band called ‘The dominant Seven’. Their whole album used to be available on mp3.com, says Nathaniel, but alas no more…
Nathaniel will be exhibiting works from his Compressionism series in May/June at Outlet Galley in Pretoria, and he will be looking for international and group exhibitions for the work. He has just launched saartsemerging.org and Upgrade Joburg, which will feature work by such luminaries as MTAA (NYC) and the co-directors of Turbulence.org (who commissioned getawayexperiment.net) in the coming months. This establishes another node on a global network of Upgrades. In other respects Upgrade is similar to, and will extend the work of, the Digital Soirees organised by Christo and Nathaniel, and other similar local events – like the Upload events held by LIquid Fridge in Cape Town, with which Nathaniel also participates.
He will also have video work on the traveling T-Minus06 video art exhibition, which starts in NYC. There is an all-Gauteng artist exhibition of interactive art in the pipeline, to be held at the prestigious Arts Interactive gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nathaniel helped to set this up after giving a talk there late last year. He has been invited to make a work for computerfinearts.com, to be archived by The Cornell University Library, The Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, a Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
On the academic front, Nathaniel is writing a collaborative chapter for an upcoming book on cyberculture with Nicole Ridgway, called “The Implicit Body” – “it interrogates embodiment as relational and incipient, investigating how interactive art might create sites where flesh and artwork continually co-emerge, enfolding and unfolding, in a complex inter-course”.
He did the rounds of lectures and workshops overseas while travelling last year, from New York to Budapest, and he hopes to do more of the university circuit in South Africa this year – more interactive video and physical computing workshops are in the offing. All this and he’s looking into possible PhD programs too.
And last but definitely not least, Nathaniel is preparing to be a dad – he and Nicole launch their finest collaboration this May.