Art Fag City

nathaniel stern: Art Fag City interview for iCommonsArt Intercom: featuring artist
Nathaniel Stern

Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City interviews Nathaniel Stern, commissioned by iCommons

Part I

Inspired by pioneering artists in the field of Interactive art such as David Rokeby andMyron KrugerNathaniel Stern builds upon their work by reintroducing traditional art- making techniques to reinterpret digital records of movement. In the first half of my interview with the artist we discuss works leading up to, and informing his current body of prints he titles Compressionism. In these images Stern manipulates visual documentation of movement distorting memories or impressions of the body.

Art Fag City: So I wanted to begin by discussing your work, and so I thought we could start with the prints you make. I wonder if you could talk about your process a little bit because you have the Compressionism series that you’ve been working on, and, you use a lot of ‘techy’ things, but the actual process is very traditional. You’re also making very traditional art historical references and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that and what your interest is in pairing those things?

Nathaniel Stern: Absolutely. I guess obviously with any series I’m pulling inspiration from various places, but I think when that series started my interests led me to two things: the first was I was working with interactive installation and performativity, trying to get people to move in ways they normally wouldn’t, and that was kind of my mantra for a while; rather than trying to think of immersion as a goal, I thought of immersion as a side effect of playing with affect – the involuntary ability to effect, and be effected – and how such art can sort of put the body in quotes. And what I found was that it was a very special kind of person that would actually engage and interact with those pieces; most people would just kind of watch and talk about the work, and it was everyone from, like, my mother, who didn’t understand the technology – and just kind of said how proud she was and sat in the corner – but also the writers and critics who really liked my work would kind of stand back, and nod, and talk about how it’s interactive, and it’s performative, and playful, but they would never actually use it.

AFC: Now specifically at this point we’re talking about the installation“step inside” or are we talking about more than just this..

NS: I would say “step inside”, and the two works that preceded it,“stuttering” and “enter: hektor”. And even though “step inside” is the piece that gets the most talked about. I think “stuttering” actually succeeded in accomplishing getting people to move about in ways they wouldn’t normally.

AFC: And, just to back-track a little bit, can you briefly explain those pieces for the readers?

NS: “stuttering” was a kind of Mondrian painting with 34 differently-shaped squares on it, but they’re invisible. So instead of actually seeing the squares, when you step in front of the screen, you see an abstract outline of yourself, and any time you cross over one of those squares it’s triggered and it recites a line of the text out loud, as well as animates text on the screen. So what winds up happening is that there are too many trigger points and that it almost asks you not to interact; so on the one hand the piece itself stutters, but on the other hand in order to get it to say few enough things for you to hear and understand it, you have to almost ‘stutter’ with your body. “step inside” in many ways came out of what I thought were the shortcomings of “stuttering” — people really only got beyond the surface of “stuttering” when they were alone with the work. But when there were a lot of people in the space, or in the room, they wanted to perform, and it became a kind of interactive one-upmanship, and showing off, and more of the play between how others saw you and what you could do with the piece, instead of the rich attention to minor gestures that came out when no one was looking. Rather than working against this, “step inside” was more about enhancing and playing with that kind of performance of self in relationship to perception of others. It was a literal performance space, where people stepped inside a large box, and a combination of their footsteps and their movements made a live video feed of profiled bodies filled with white noise, which were projected on the screen outside the box. But they were cut off – neither could participants see people’s responses to their interactions, nor could the external viewers see the people inside. So, it invited participants to make images based solely on their immediate actions, and nothing else. I also added a few elements to again give a bit of awkwardness, like instead of being a mirror projection, the camera was picking up your profile, and the opacity of the field was based on the amplitude of your echoed footsteps; you had to really think about how you were going to move, both literally and metaphorically, to manipulate the video feed.

Should I go back to how this got into the prints?

AFC: Yes, absolutely.

NS: So I guess what I found here is that technophobes weren’t interested. The traditionalists had a hard time with it too. But even those who were interested, unless they were a special kind of person, wouldn’t interact with it. Even the theorists who liked the work would often be standing in the corner, talking about how wonderfully performative it was [AFC: right]. But they weren’t using it. The point is, that it wasn’t about what was on the screen; if you don’t engage and interact, you are not experiencing the piece. So I thought, rather than try to find a way to force people into performing – and I should mention that I am also working on other pieces where people inadvertently interact to address this issue – I wanted to make a series optimized for people to imagine a performance, if that makes sense. If people were using these as visual stimulations of performativity, then why not make, specifically, visual elements that help to imagine that performativity. And I still wanted to reference signs and language in it. And that’s the one angle of it I was talking about when you first asked this question – how I got started; The other is that it actually began as a joke. I didn’t know that these prints were going to be – for lack of a better word – so ‘pretty’… It started when I was working on this site-specific exhibition with Marcus Neustetter in Johannesburg – we collaborate together often – and I was kind of drawing in straight lines across the gallery space with my scanner – the performative element – and then re-stretching these compressed images out to the size of the original subject. The Compressionism title is obviously a joke, but people were fascinated by the results and really interested in the process…

AFC: Can I interrupt for a second and ask how many prints you have in the series?

NS: It’s an ongoing series and the first exhibition I think was more of an experiment that led to the rest –about fifteen pieces, now in storage; the second exhibition, Call and Response, has 17 digital prints and 13 handmade prints. Or, I should rather say pieces [instead of prints] because some of the pieces are triptychs and polyptychs. I also just finished another series for an exhibition in Ireland which has an additional 12 digital prints, and I’m working on another series now that will have both handmade and digital prints —the handmades will be done in collaboration with Zhane Warren while I’m on residence at the Frans Masereel Centre in Belgium this Summer. I guess I haven’t explained that after I made the initial digital prints, I decided to take it more seriously, and play with painting light, make references to using found objects and references to Duchamp and the cubists, as well as tributes to abstract expressionism — that’s when I built the ‘scanner appendage’ and started going out and scanning foliage and the like.

AFC: But these works – the second series of prints versus the first series – are they less performative then?

NS: Well I almost don’t want to talk about the first series of prints, but to answer your question, I was too scientific about it in the first series; and so in other words I would go out onto a table that was five meters long and I would scan exactly in a straight line – and so the first series was actually less performative in that regard… I would take a straight line across five meters, and print out the ‘compressed’ image, then stretch it back to five meters – the exact width of the table — and that would be my ‘decompressed’ print, and then I would do an edit (so, three prints from each scan). Whereas with the second series and thereafter, once I discovered people were interested in this, I decided to play more of a role as an artist and perform an image into existence rather than trying to mimic the actual size, which merely showed inconsistencies in my own movement. Now it’s more about dynamism and relationality in the performance. And it’s a lot more fun.

AFC: So with the print “Wind” for example (pictured above), I think that print is a really nice piece in that series; can you talk about the performative aspect of that particular print?

NS: Sure. That was taken at a construction site in Johannesburg, actually, and I was walking around with the scanner and battery pack attached to my body and…

AFC: And that equipment is something you created specifically for this project right? It’s custom tech stuff…

NS: Actually it is and it’s not. That’s the funny thing about it… It sounds so technical but actually the appendage is a piece of wood that’s shaped in order to accommodate me, my laptop and the scanner… it’s basically a sand and a saw used for a shaped fit, outfitted with various bungee cords, Velcro, holes and clips – it’s more of a handy man’s tool belt, you know. It’s less Cory Arcangel and more Bruce Wayne… and the battery pack is just a rechargeable whose standard use is a home alarm system’s backup, with a new lead I think the most technical side of this is that I tested a lot of scanners to see which ones were the best for outdoor lighting. I also use open source drivers so that I can get the same results from different scanners, and spend a lot of time hand-coloring in Photoshop – outdoor scanning tends to blow out most color.

So I was at this construction site and – actually that day probably gave me about four prints, where I did “Earth”“Wind”“Fire” and “Joburg Boogie Woogie” all in one day – and I saw some ticker tape; the performance basically consisted of me trying to catch the ticker tape floating around in the wind… if you can imagine me with the heavy weight of a scanner and battery pack over my back, out on the construction site, looking over my shoulder making sure no one is going to mug me.

AFC: So I guess in a certain way you are forcing your own body to move in ways it wouldn’t normally…

NS: Exactly. I so appreciate your saying that. This is precisely what I said to my supervisor (I’m doing my PHD right now) about wanting to do a chapter on Compressionism. And it’s my hope that people will not only see them as beautiful art objects in their own right, but also try to imagine them being made, and want to hear the stories of them being made like you just asked. When we opened the show in Joburg – there’s a drama professor by the name of Jane Taylor, who opened the show – and I was calling them, for a while, “digital performance; analogue archive” … and she said that I got it backwards, that the prints are actually the performances, and the pictures of me scanning them are the archives.

AFC: Oh interesting. Yes.

NS: And I think given where I started with the series, that’s wonderful. With regards to the handmade iterations, that was just another way to invite people in to the images. And I think that’s where the other angle came in – for the non-tech people and the people who give more credit to more traditional means; and I don’t necessarily do that, but I want to again invite them into that performance and enter into the process between the two spaces.

AFC: So your titling process then… Is it basically descriptive? Because“Wind” is basically describing the element you were working with at the time.

NS: That’s a good question. The title of an artwork, and I’m sure you know this as an artist yourself, can come from anywhere, from just being descriptive and humble to someone else making the suggestion. Most of the time it is really describing the subject and hoping that the performance is then implicit. However, sometimes there’s something bigger at hand, or where there’s an inspiration, for example “Joburg Boogie Woogie” was obviously a direct reference to Mondrian and I was trying to do the map of Joburg on some level; and “Nude Descension” was a Duchamp reference, he painted a “Nude Descending the Staircase”, and instead, I descended the nude. I‘m always performing some relation, and sometimes it’s a direct relation between me and the subject, and sometimes it’s broader than that and it has to do with our relation to images or art itself. And I often title in that way, too. I don’t think, it’s not a grandiose thing.

Part II


Art Fag City: So we’ve talked a little bit about the prints. I should note that you also make videos, which are on your site as well, before we move on so readers will know to check that work out. I wondered if you could talk about your connection with Creative Commons.

Nathaniel Stern: Admittedly, it’s by default that I’ve become a bit of an iCommons activist. I was one of the few people who had a blog in South Africa – now there’s many, but I was one of the earliest ones there and certainly the first in the art world – and it was under Creative Commons, so I was contacted by the South African CC team early on. Since then, I’ve become an impromptu spokesperson for them on some level and I’ve tried to direct that dialog not only toward my personal interests but also the interests of professional artists more generally.

I guess I have two main themes with regards to Creative Commons: the first is that I want to ensure that we make work that’s free and available in the public domain for remixing and playing and generating discussion, but that’s not exploitative of artists. And so with this, ideally, I guess I’d like to see Fair Use expanded exponentially and I see various CC licenses as doing exactly that. With issues of distribution I guess I like to differentiate between ‘art’ and the art’s ‘content’ – the former is for collectors and the latter is free: I think it should be available to everyone.

I believe, for example, that you should be allowed to download and play with my video art; I give away files for my prints, they are available on my site – not at super high res, but high res enough that you could print them out or re-mix. I think it’s important that they are out there. That’s the art’s content, not the art itself.

From my perspective, with Walter Benjamin‘s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he was right in saying that potentials for easily copying work changed the relationship we have to art objects, but he was wrong in saying that the more copies, the less the authentic original has value: it’s exactly the opposite – the more people that have posters of the Mona Lisa, the more collectors will want the original; the more people that watch my video on their home computers, the more value the signed and numbered DVD will have to the collector.

AFC: Absolutely.

NS: And so I’m trying to find new ways of convincing collectors of that. Because they believe it when it comes to photography, which took a long time, and we need the same understandings for new media. Clive Kellner, the curator who bought “step inside” for the Johannesburg Art Museum, once had a debate about this with me, because he said I couldn’t distribute the software once they purchased it; and I said, “they may have the software, but they don’t own it” – they can watch it, they can play with it, but you have the rights to it, you have the artwork itself, they only have its content. The more people that have this, the more the piece in the museum increases in value. I want to change that discourse. I want to make sure that we can talk about and remix and distribute art to our heart’s content, and still have the ability to see the value of the original (or at least the ‘authenticated’ piece).

AFC: I guess I was just wondering whether you had specific ways of doing that?

NS: Well, you can’t really see the direct impact of someone seeing a poster and therefore immediately going and buying a work, but there are implicit connections; I have this blog, I upload my stuff to Flickr under Creative Commons, I write about other people’s work as well as my own work – indirectly my name and work has gotten out there, and is being talked about. It’s exactly how we met, it’s exactly how I met the people at Creative Commons and iCommons, and it’s where most of my non-South African exhibitions come from. And none of my work has any less value because I have CC lower resolution versions of it online – I think it’s had quite the opposite effect through that indirect relationship of exposure and dialogue.

I think the discussion right now is in the wrong arena – copyright or CC, Fair Use or piracy, this is what big companies should worry about, not artists. Artists should raise questions around whether you do the full high-resolution or lower-resolution under CC, or do you allow people to exhibit the video or do you sell the exhibition rights separately – I think these are the models that are different for each and every one of us, potentially for each and every art work. For example, I have distributed videos before as a podcast; so obviously that’s free. So what I did when someone was interested in purchasing it, I gave them a certificate of authenticity, as well as some prints, and all the videos were pressed, screened and signed.

AFC: And so it’s a package that you get, and it’s an object.

NS: Exactly. There are still people out there that, believe it or not, buy CDs, because they like to have the packages. You know, there are still people that will spend $300 on a really good ballpoint pen.

AFC: People still buy books!

NS: People still buy books, present company included! And, I think we need to recognize that it’s not necessarily at odds to both give away the content and sell the object. Art that is in the public interest can be distributed widely, and the same art can be a luxury item for sale.

AFC: Yes.

NS: I guess my other interest in CC is, going back to my role as an artist rather than as an activist – the particular modes of production. A lot of CC is either about distributing content that is educational, or about re-mixing, which usually defaults to music. And, you know, like MTAA say “we just give our work under CC as a gift;” but I’m also wondering about other uses, other production roles for CC.

Like for example, one of the main projects I’m doing in Croatia is my first in a series of what I call “sentimental constructions,” which are abstract buildings made of rope, that are actually performed. So it might be a huge architectural structure, a literal wireframe, held up in the four corners by volunteers, as a public performance or intervention, somewhere outside a gallery space.
So the question might be, What does this have to do with CC?

AFC: Sure.

NS: And for me, obviously, there are aspects and interrogations about construction, architecture, space, and performance – but what changes the meaning of each performance is the site specificity. In Dubrovnik, it could be about facades or emptiness in relation to the tourism industry that’s been burgeoning there. While, when I try to do it in Joburg this September, it could be about disparity, and decay, and the homeless. So if I put the design of the project under open source and CC, and other artists start to perform sentimental constructions in their parts of the world, people might enter a much different kind of dialog, and it gives a shifting context. So, the important thing for iCommons is that it actually invites others to do something to, and with, the ideas, and it’s less owned by artists and then remixed, and more of a collaboration between several artists at once.

AFC: Right, it’s much more of a conversation.

NS: Yeah. I think the one problems I’m trying to resolve with it, is that a lot of artists, in the age of conceptualism, say, “Well, it’s his idea and that’s the way he did, and I have to find a new way of playing with it” – that makes it a collaboration and a dialog instead of, saying, well, “Shit. I’m doing the same work as Nathaniel.” And that’s where I’m still struggling – I need to make sure it’s seen as a collaboration, rather than as a call for participation. But, as you say, I want to open this dialog and I want to find other modes of production that say, ‘Why CC?’ that go beyond remix and Fair Use. Not that those aren’t important discussions…

AFC: Hah. Those are really interesting questions….

NS: Well I think that’s part of what this residency is about for me, and these are the two questions I want to explore most; even if we don’t have any answer, I’d like to, as you say, dialog about it and see where it can take us. It’s to the credit of the iCommons organization that they’re giving us the space and support to see where these kinds of questions might lead.

Read in context: Part I and Part II