nathaniel stern: ArtThrob ArtBioNathaniel Stern
by Ralph Borland (February, 2006)

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, 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 aren�t 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.


“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 Allen�s 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:

“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.”
– 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 �chaste compactness of a story which precludes psychological analysis� is powerful enough to arouse �astonishment and thoughtfulness�, forever. Further, he comments on the ability of a story to make the reader lose him/herself. This is one of Stern�s 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 “,” in “Remixed/Re-signed: The GetAway Experiment.” February 2005:


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, 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 (with Marcus N) garnered a Turbulence 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 (, 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,, 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.


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, 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


At the ITP, Nathaniel made work for his first group exhibition in upstate New York: 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, 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 and Upgrade Joburg, which will feature work by such luminaries as MTAA (NYC) and the co-directors of (who commissioned 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, 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.

Read on ArtThrob…