‘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.
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Scanning the Artscape
Five artists on the rise in the cream city
by Tory Folliard with Christine Anderson; portraits by Dan Bishop
Milwaukee’s Third Ward has been named one of America’s Top Twelve Art Places 2013, which recognizes neighborhoods in the largest 44 metropolitan areas in the country where the arts are central to the social and economic vibrancy of a neighborhood. Even with a flourishing art scene and a wealth of talented artists — in the Third Ward and beyond — many artists still remain unknown to most Milwaukeeans. Here are five artists to watch chosen by Milwaukee art curators….
“I believe that art can change what we see and do, and are.”
— Nathaniel Stern, Milwaukee: Interactive, Installation and Video Art | nathanielstern.com
Curator: Graeme Reid, assistant director of the Museum of Wisconsin Art.
“Stern is one of the most creative, articulate, imaginative artists in the state and, frankly, the country. He should be an international art star. Actually, he is! I can’t think of too many other artists in the state who are building a similar resumé.”
Back Story: The former New Yorker has an impressive resumé of exhibitions and awards from all over the world. (He recently exhibited in January in Johannesburg, South Africa.)
Stern’s interactive art often centers on bodily performances. In his current “Compression” series of prints he straps a laptop and desktop scanner to his body and performs “images into existence.”
Moving his body while he scans the landscape around him, Stern creates images that are later made into prints. He is an associate professor of art and design at the Peck School of the Arts at UW-Milwaukee. His work is on exhibit locally at Lynden Sculpture Garden in a collaborative piece with Jessica Meuninck-Ganger.
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Bad at Sports Episode 244: Nathaniel Stern
by Duncan MacKenzie
“Bad at Sports is a weekly podcast produced in Chicago that features artists talking about art and the community that makes, reviews and critiques it. Shows are usually posted each weekend and can be listened to on any computer with an internet connection and speakers or headphones.”
This audio interview (available streaming from the site, or as a download to your computer or mp3 player) begins with Nathaniel Stern rapping a bit of Beastie Boys / Q-Tip, and quickly degrades to him lovingly poking fun at his dad. It’s actually a great interview, where you can hear some off the cuff chatting with Duncan MacKenzie about hektor.net, Distill Life, Compressionism, Wikipedia Art,Given Time, Doin’ my part to lighten the load, and more. It’s good fun, with lots of tangential stories and jokes, and many mentions of good friends and colleagues. Enjoy!
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Art Space Talk: Nathaniel Stern
Q. Nathaniel, you studied at Cornell University and at New York University. How did your academic years influence the direction of your art? Did you have any influential instructors?
At Cornell I studied music and fashion; I think the combination of composition and designing for bodies sparked my interests in movement and visuality. When I went on to NYU, I had already begun working with technology, but it was the combination my newly found comfort with it, and ongoing personal criticism, that help pushed me towards the trajectory of exploring performativity in my work.
Pretty much all the full-time lecturers at ITP (the Interactive Telecommunications Program) influenced me greatly: Marianne Petit, Dan O’Sullivan, Tom Igoe and Danny Rozin.
Q. Nathaniel, I’ve read that you are inspired by Interactive art of David Rokeby and Myron Kruger. Can you tell us about these influences? What else inspires you?
I think Kruger’s core contribution to understanding interactivity was a concentration on action rather than perception. He had little concern for illusion-based and simulated VR that replicated reality, and was more interested in stimulation – with a ‘t’ – how people moved. I think Rokeby is brilliant in many ways, and his work ‘Very Nervous System’ (1986-1990) was one of the first and most important to accomplish, an affective intervention in embodiment through this kind of inter-activity. But what inspires me most about him is his contrariness. He almost always tries ‘something else.’
My other influences are fairly idiosyncratic: from Hiroshige prints, the Impressionists and Homer’s epic tales to Liam GIllick or Camille Utterback or Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. I often turn to contemporary fiction, theory and philosophy in my thinking and making. I should also say that my wife, Nicole Ridgway, is the most wonderful muse and crit I’ve ever met: my biggest fan and supporter precisely because she is also my harshest critic before a work is done.
Q. It has been suggested that “Stuttering” is your most well received piece. Can you discuss Stuttering… compared to the direction you are taking with your work now?
I think ‘stuttering’s’ success comes from its doubled gesture. The best way to describe the piece is as a kind of invisible Mondrian painting, where each of the 34 otherwise white rectangles will play animated text and spoken word when triggered by bodies in the space. So on the one hand, if you walk in front of it, the piece itself ‘stutters.’ But as participants spend more time with it, learn how to move and engage in a kind of intimate and serious play, it is they who wind up ‘stuttering’ – with their bodies. They stand like statues, then twitch or nod or shake just one piece of themselves in order to elicit the smallest amount of verbiage. These interactions have been compared to Tai Chi or Butoh by some reviewers; it can become a deep and literal investigation of our physical relationships to language and structure.
With regards to the direction of the work, my practice is probably best framed as a series of questions and criticisms that follow on from one another. stuttering, for example, came out of a desire to investigate what happens in front of, rather than on, the screen after ‘[odys]elicit’ impressed mostly dancers. ‘step inside’ was a response to, and capitalization on, how some participants with ‘stuttering’ were more interested in performing for and amusing other people in the gallery than in investigating their inter-actions with the work. My ongoing ‘Compressionism’ series of prints is an attempt to capture the dynamism, relationality and performativity in these kinds of pieces with more traditional visual art objects. I sometimes go in several directions at once, but there’s always something gained, and carried on from, what I was doing before.
Q. It seems that with each passing year people are becoming more interested in art involving technology. However, traditionalists are often still wary of technology as a medium. In your opinion, what do people need to consider when viewing these works? How can someone learn to appreciate what you and others are doing? Or would you say that it takes a certain type of individual to ‘get’ what you are striving to do?
I think that, similar to how Nicholas Bourriaud changed the thematic frame for Relational Aesthetics, there can be a few critical questions with interactive and/or technological art that might better open understandings and appreciation for it. In a lot of ways, I see what I do as a material manifestation of his work; we are both concerned with what happens in the gallery space, with relationality and dynamism. But where Bourriaud is interested in sociopolitical relationships, this kind of work is concerned with embodied and physical ones. Where he was concerned with commerce and the social interstice, interactive art tends to highlight emergence and intervene in movement. Not that these are mutually exclusive categories on any level, but we can’t forget how brutally Bourriaud has continued to dismiss digital media, and his followers, like Claire Bishop, continue to overlook physical interactivity even as they sing the praises of social participation.
As with any form of art, all it takes time and effort to grow one’s interest. I’m actually currently working on a PhD dissertation which explores just such a critical framework for interactive art.
Q. Your work often calls for viewer participation. For example, your installation enter allowed participants to chase projected words with their arms so that spoken words would be triggered in the space. I suppose the major problem you run into is the fact that not every viewer wishes to participate. Has that been an issue for you? Or are people generally apt to comply with what the work needs?
Good question. Yes, for me, the participant and how they move in relation to the work, what they learn and what emerges as they move physically, and how they reflect on that later: this is all precisely the ‘work’ of any given work. ‘enter:hektor,’ which preceded ‘stuttering,’ similarly asked performers to explore our physical relationships to language; but rather than stutter, they had to articulate by chasing after (or conversely running away from) animated words – sometimes with great difficulty.
Most people have only seen the work online; and yes, in the gallery space, many are too shy to involve themselves. It’s never quite the same to watch or read about such work, as opposed to enacting and experiencing it. At least in the gallery, I’ve tried to work around or with this in various ways – unwitting participation through external sensors, closed off environments for privacy, and my aforementioned printmaking series. I do my best to see the shortcomings and/or new problems that arise in any given piece as a potential opportunity to explore something new.
Q. So on a philosophical level do you view the participants as a part of the piece itself? A medium of flesh and movement, so to speak?
Exactly that. Perhaps it’s minimalism’s core aesthetic idea – that of the body in space around a simple art object – taken to a different end: active physical provocation.
Q. Can you briefly tell us about your other work… the prints and video art?
The ongoing print series mentioned earlier – ‘Compressionism’ – came out of a desire to enage those viewers who did not want to interact, to invite them into those questions of physical relationality that they might be missing. Here, I strap a custom-made scanner appendage and battery pack to my body, and perform images into existence. I might scan in straight, long lines across tables, tie the scanner around my neck and swing over flowers, do pogo-like gestures over bricks, or just follow the wind over water lilies in a pond. Because of how the technology works, the entire 3D space and object I’ve scanned is compressed to the size of the scanner face, and I then re-stretch and hand-color the images in PhotoShop. What emerges in each file are strips of time that are rendered as an ongoing relationship between my own body movements, and the landscape around me. These are then produced as archival prints using photographic or inkjet processes. I also often take details from these images and iteratively re-make them as traditional prints: lithographs, etchings, engravings and woodcuts, among others.
My video works have a much longer history; they began as monologues by unfolding character-driven narratives, which culminated in a major solo show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2004-2005. The museum housed ‘odys, Nathaniel, hektor, X,’ a video installation projected on a sculpture, ‘the odys series,’ a video installation consisting of 6 separate video works (now available for iPod), ‘step inside,’ an interactive installation, and more than 33 pinhole, generative and ASCII art prints from ‘abstract machines of faciality.’ My more recent video works are either documentation of performance events, such as my Wireframe Series in Croatia and South Africa, or play with hand-carved found footage. An example of the latter would be ‘at interval,’ where I removed all spoken dialogue from Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall,’ leaving only stutters, gasps, and oral fumbles. You can see the connection to my interests in language, performativity and interaction in both of these as well.
Q. What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your current projects?
I’ve got a few goings-on at present, so I’ll mention a handful in brief.
I’m finishing up the aforementioned PhD dissertation.
I’m working on an interventionist piece in South Africa that will be part of an exhibition in Cape Town in September. Here, I’ve set up an antagonistic relationship with the lead arts critic in the country, asking him to give up electricity for 24 hours, and hiring street laborers to power his evening with hand-crank generators. The installation will consist of documentation of the complex negotiations that unfolded between all parties.
I’ve just started my first mixed realities installation that sits between Second Life and Real Life, which I hope to launch some time in 2009. It builds on minimalist principals of perception and embodiment.
I’ve got a few other DIY / lo-tech projects brewing that include some hand-made sculptural slide projectors and drawings mounted on hacked digital photo frames playing looped videos. These carry on from some of my ideas with the Compressionism series.
And more, of course….
Q. So is there a specific message that you strive to convey with your collective work?
It’s not so much a message I want to convey as a curiosity I hope to inspire. My prints might ask us to look again, stuttering to feel or listen again. But they do it in ways that words never could.
Q. Nathaniel, you have given your support to Creative Commons (CC). You have been a contributing member of iCommons since its inception. Can you discuss your interest in CC? Having communicated with hundreds– if not thousands– of artists online it seems that many are against what CC stands for– there tends to be a great deal of confusion about it. In your opinion, what do people need to consider when thinking about these issues?
I think there’s a misconception out there that to give Art away for free is to devalue it, both culturally and monetarily. I use a capital A there in Art because I mean it as a category: the content of digital images or video or whatever should be readily available for everyone. People need to see it and talk about it and that brings it more value in the cultural sphere. What is forgotten is that then art (lowercase ‘a’) also gains in value. The more people who have posters of the Mona Lisa, for example, the more the original painting has monetary value to the true collector. I don’t give everything away under CC; but when I do, it’s usually a tactic for the most effective art work, and with the recognition that only this will bring more value – both cultural and monetary value – to the works that are for sale.
Q. What other concerns do you have about the art world or the public acceptance of art at this time?
This is a concern that’s bigger than the art world, I think:
it’s unfortunate there are so many ass holes and idiots out there. And many of them hold public office.
Q. Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the goals that you have
I guess my greatest goals are relatively humble: intervention, thought and dialogue. I like to challenge even those things we think we’ve challenged. So, if performance art pushes our ideas about the body and identity, I’ll challenge what a body ‘is’, or even ‘that’ it is. If the Impressionists, Surrealists and Postmodernists cited crises in representation, reality and simulation, Compressionism shows how they all relate.
I like making beautiful and interesting things that mess with you.
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This article by Monica Ponzini / Translation: Micaela Genchi appeared in both the online and print editions of digimag, in both English and Italian
From installations exploiting mobile technology to works expressly conceived for iPod video is becoming more and more interactive. New possibilities of production and using have been opened and they encourage the artistic practices connected to “imagining in movement”. The evolution is more and more evident in single works of art, exhibitions, and festivals.
This evolution is evident in the British artist Martin Rieser ‘s installation Hosts, which has just animated the spaces of the Abbey of Bath with videos projected on 5 mega screens. The audience wore ultrasound plates and wireless handcuffs and they were free to move around. When a visitor stopped in front of a screen he “attracted” the projection of some characters addressing him some sentences and following him while he moved around the abbey.
A further development would have been the possibility to activate video appearances in different areas of the city through GPS and to give the possibility to the audience to create a 3D avatar by sending a pic from their mobile phone.
The works of art presented last December at the PodART exhibition at the Fine Art Space in New York are movable too: a series of artists from Marisa Olson to the MTAA duo realized some products thought to be visualized (and sell) on the last Apple mobile device only.
And projects like Odys for your iPod by Nathaniel Stern – far from the market logics and closer to the sharing spirit – are becoming symbols of a sort of interactive video-art and take-away at everyone’s disposal. Odys is a series of downloadable six video-poems where the main character – Odys – try to reconstruct his past in a fragmentary way: a past the spectator must help to reconstruct, by personally filling narrative voids up in a relationship that becomes almost intimate through the iPod fruition.
And there are also a lot of festivals dedicated to video: d/Art/2006 , Australian festival dedicated to video and digital arts from 15 April to 6 May are presenting a selection of works of art realized by means of mobile technologies. The American organization The Flux , which promotes young filmmakers, has presented the first iPod Film Festival . Users of its web site can vote online till 15 April.
So the possibility to long way interact make the space lived by the audience in installations huger and the technical reproducibility encourages the creation of a “personal gallery” that can be seen everywhere. There are a lot of users downloading videos and using instruments – that can be downloaded from the internet – to create other instruments to put at someone else’s disposal. This “virtuous” circle is very interesting…
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The Future Makers
Lizzie Muller seeks out South African new media art
“… In Petra, a multimedia dance work, choreographed by PJ Sabbagha, digital technologies are integrated with live performance to explore one of the darkest issues at the heart of South African society. Through a series of beautiful but tortuous duets, the work starkly confronts the way HIV/AIDS has invaded all our relationships: from the intimate and personal to the public and societal. 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, Stern’s work is a new media expression of South Africa’s new sorrow. …”
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Dance Umbrella Review
“… Not lacking in gravity is PJ Sabbagha’s dance work Petra, which examines relationships and how HIV/Aids has politicised intimacy in a way that is akin to military conscription. A Standard Bank Young Artist award-winner for dance, Sabbagha is recognised for his innovation in terms of presenting dance as a complete theatre experience — lights, design, sound, drama and movement are integrated. He does not disappoint on this level in Petra, a somewhat rough diamond otherwise. Craig Morris and Athena Mazarakis are the lead dancers. Morris plays a drag queen who is experiencing a failing relationship with a man, played by Dawid Minnaar. He meets a girl, Mazarakis, with whom he falls deeply in love, but they are separated and Morris is sent to the army. Tones of loneliness, social prisons and a dehumanised soul emerge.”
“Mazarakis and Morris display a scintillating chemistry and ease of intimacy and movement — their talents are perfectly matched. In the power of his leading performers’ duet relationship, Sabbagha’s choreographic hand is at times erased by the Mazarakis-Morris force. They head up a troupe of five other dancers and Sabbagha’s orchestration of the larger ensemble lies to his credit, bar some tightening here and there.”
“On sound is Jennifer Ferguson live. Dismiss your preconceptions about the red-headed singer-songwriter. Integrating a pitch-perfect, heartfelt voice with low-fi digital beats and loops, Ferguson surprises with an ethereal sound, embodying a space of quietness on the otherwise quite frenzied stage.”
“The visuals are ruled by Sabbagha’s collaboration with video artist Nathaniel Stern. The result is an aesthetic reminiscent of William Kentridge’s animations. At times, a slow-moving, abstracted texture is projected on the backdrop, contrasting the skittish and emotive dance gestures of the dancers upfront — similar to the way Kentridge’s erase-and-shoot method creates snail trails around his figures. At other times, the dancers’ sequences are projected as they perform, creating an infinite mirror of reflections. The mattresses with various body parts, drawn in a gestural style, also recall Kentridge’s use of piles of paper that sweep across a landscape….”
–Nadine Botha, Mail & Guardian
This article featured in both the web and print editions.
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Commenting on the vagaries of new media practice recently, the young New York born, Johannesburg based artist Nathaniel Stern told me: “Those artists currently working ‘on the edge’ are in a not-so-easy space of, in addition to trying to foster artistic provocations, needing to teach their viewers how to ‘look’ at them.”
Stern’s website, http://nathanielstern.com, evinces this duality perfectly, being both didactic (in a positive sense) and thought engendering. “I use digital and traditional media to create encounters between an ambiguous ‘I’ and potential ‘You’,” he says of his modus operandi. His narrative works refuse transcendence or masterful coherence, embracing the questionable, fragmented memory of a singular past through a set of multiple characters.
One of these online persona is hektor. “hektor.net is my navigable website of one character’s photography, spoken word and video poetry,” explains Stern. “By surfing the site, listeners construct his person. As hektor attempts to re-member, bringing the story back to his body and calling it his own, listeners attempt to piece together the story for themselves.”
Stern’s project stuttering[odys] was recently selected as an exhibiting finalist in the Brett Kebble Art Awards (BKAA), where it won a merit award in the New Media category. It was also exhibited at the launch of the new Wits School of the Arts, University of the Witwatersrand, in October. Commenting on the work in her BKAA overview, Carine Zaayman declared it to be “the only actual new media piece” on the show.
Work that doesn’t easily yield easily to interpretation, it is this quality that defines the provocative possibilities of Stern’s art – particularly in a country grappling with a multiplicity of competing narratives. Says Stern: “By using memory to open up the past and the self in the present, the non-aggressive narrative asks ‘Us’ (‘You’ and ‘I’) to take responsibility for the future.”
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Dance circles in the sand
by Adrienne Sichel
Text transcribed from The Star, South Africa, 13 December 2001
‘Please stop this violent passage of time’ pleads a line of poetry that finally emerges from a series of projected footprints imprinted with fragmented words.
Impending death (in this case due to HIV / Aids) and the pressure to find personal closure inform this exceptional dance theatre work.
Not since Noah’s Phobia has this company produced a work of such profound fecundity. the double room represents the pinnacle of achievement for PJ Sabbagha and all of his Forgotten Angle collaborators.
The symbiotic relationship between all the dancer-choreographers, Nathaniel Stern’s animation, interactive video and performed slam poetry, Lisa Younger’s design and Declan Randal’s light is utterly remarkable.
the double room provides simultaneous exposure of two worlds – the conscious and the subconscious. The real and the surreal share the same time frame and thought line. Visual and aural poetry unfurl in truly elastic emotion as limbs and bodies and images disappear and reappear.
True to the duality of this enthralling 50-minute piece, the sand floor provides the perfect metaphoric base for the sands of time doubling as the circus ring of life. This soft, volatile surface also transforms Forgotten Angle’s characteristic bruising physicality into a lyrical yet no less challenging language.
At the center of this schizoid dreamscape is Gys de Villiers as the protagonist, marooned in a room, who triggers his past with the feel and sound of a spoon. Here’s a perfectly cast performer who moves with total integrity, emotional veracity and brilliant timing.
Memories (initially embodied by Athena Mazarakis, Craig Morris, Rayzelle Sham, and Raschika Marx dressed in black) materialize and his body becomes part of a gravity-surfing animation sequence.
As the man’s multidimensional reminiscences continue, a woman in white (his wife? his mother?) appears.
She is portrayed by Luana Nasser, whose strength and dramatic maturity perfectly complements and galvanizes the scattered narrative.
As always, Morris and Mazarakis are the backbone of mind-whirling ensembles and emerge as consummate artists in an Edith Piaf No Regrets duet.
Morris also tangles with De Villiers before he vanishes – quite literally.
Rush to the dance Factory before the double room itself disappears. There’s no guarantee producers will snap up this imaginative exploration of relationships, which deserves the widest possible exposure.