Meaning Motion press

IMG_5794Meaning 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

Business Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Independent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stern’s Stutter pic by Christo Doherty

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

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

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


Bristow’s Unsaid pic by Christo Doherty

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mail & Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She calls it “quite a nasty piece”.

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

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

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

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

WORT fm

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.

enterIn 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: