interview with Nathaniel SternArt 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.

stuttering, interactive installation

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.

sirens' dillisk

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.