N Adams Transcript

north adams transcriptVirtual world crosses over to our own
This article by John E. Mitchell appeared in both the online and print editions of the North Adams Transcirpt.

ADAMS — Artist Nathaniel Stern likes to take media from the past and present and put them together without compromising the integrity of either, revealing them to be equal in artistic expression.

Stern’s show, “Arrested Time” — featuring work with collaborator Jessica Meuninck-Ganger — opens at Greylock Arts, 93 Summer St., tonight with a reception at 5:30. UPDATE: Due to a snow storm, the reception has been postponed until Saturday at 5:30. The show will feature two works — the large-scale installation “Given Time,” alongside some derivative work, and a collection of the self-described “monovids” done as part of an ongoing collaboration with Meuninck-Ganger.

“Given Time” is a screen projection featuring two life-sized avatars derived from the Internet community Second Life. This virtual space takes social networking like Facebook to a whole other level. Rather than being in the form of posting boards and messages, Second Life is like a freeform computer game in which the point of the play is to inhabit the space and get to know others around you.

Each member is represented in the three-dimensional screen world by a computer figure – an avatar – that is customized to his or her own desires based on templates supplied by Second Life. The service is the closest thing we have to a known parallel universe that we can perceive physically, rather than the more abstract psychological spaces provided by Web sites like Facebook.

Stern has used Second Life as a medium much like oil paint or marble, hand-drawing two Second Life avatars and pulling them from out of their universe and into ours. In the gallery, they exist on two large screens facing each other, and the viewer may only encounter them by walking between the screens. Thus the figures become actual existing beings in our own dimensional plane.

“Second Life became the perfect environment to situate this piece in, in that there is no time; there is no body, and yet you cannot access this space without a body,” Stern said during an interview this week. “There is no avatar without a person actually sitting there. Here, the viewer lends their body to the piece, and they become the avatar – and there’s this feedback loop where the avatar we’re looking at we’re only seeing through the other avatar’s eyes.”

The result comes from the culmination of Stern’s physical artistic efforts, combined with the more difficult realm of computer coding.

“I imagined the avatars to be very visceral and older and not as beautiful as they are,” Stern said. “The problem was that when I sketched that out, people didn’t recognize it as Second Life, and so what I wound up doing was basing it on actual avatars in Second Life and drawing on those so they still had the shape and the pretty-boy aspects, and they were recognized as being in a virtual space while still being hand-drawn.”

He added, “Making those hand-drawn elements was very difficult to figure out how to do it and put it on an avatar – making an avatar translucent actually isn’t possible in Second Life, so we had to find a lot of work-arounds in order to accomplish that. Because of those work-arounds, we weren’t able to use the built-in breathing and winking that comes with avatars. We had to hand-write our own scripted animations and introduce histograms and probability factors to make sure the blinking wasn’t perfectly timed and always in the same interval and things like that.”

The technique of building a totally customized figure through Second Life is reliant on a technical understanding of how the figures are structured. Prims are single-part digital objects that are used to create portions of a Second Life figure – for instance, hair – by attaching them to the animated figure.

“What people very often wind up doing – and what we wound up doing – is we actually shrink the avatar down to very small size and make them invisible and then put prims on top of the avatar that are built onto it,” said Stern. “The most complex avatars are actually almost entirely prims – they’re avatars that are tiny and invisible, and you attach things to their body.”

Stern was inspired by Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work “Untitled (Perfect Lovers),” a minimalist piece that featured two clocks together, slowly winding down to their deaths – it was inspired by news of Gonzales-Torres’ partner’s diagnosis of being HIV-positive.

“Part of the beauty and the devastation, once you find out what these clocks are pointing to, is that they are precisely not anthropomorphized until you know, and then there’s that shift and that visceral wrenching on your stomach,” Stern said. “Once the decision was made to use this medium, then the depth and the layers aren’t going to be the same as they are with ‘Given Time.’ It’s not going to be this amazing shift once you hear this story but rather much softer layers that you slowly dig out to feel it. Hopefully, because of their enveloping experience, that can become more visceral. Rather than seeing two clocks on the wall, you actually enter between two projections.”

Stern’s work with Meuninck-Ganger involves a variation on the practice of monoprints that includes video screens. There are two different types of work in this body. In both, Stern and Meuninck-Ganger created video animations to display in digital photo frames. The variations are that, in one, the team painted directly on the video screen, while in the other, Meuninck-Ganger utilized her skills as a printmaker to create a translucent paper work that is permanently attached to the video screen.

“I had already figured out the technology of which screens were going to work when she started working on the technology of the papers,” Stern said, “but in terms of each work, we usually worked on the video and on the drawing at the same time. Sometimes we would just shoot a video and it would be cool. Sometimes we’d have an idea and would sketch it out, but because of the way things had to line up and decisions about the size of the screens and the size of the plates, everything had to be worked on simultaneously.”

Stern and Meuninck-Ganger use the same video for an ongoing series of their monovids. What distinguishes the works is a different drawing on each, done with Sharpie paint markers right on the video screen.

“The particular video that we’ve been using for this monovid is one I took over the Atlantic Ocean, where you can see the railing of the boat cutting across the screen and then rolling waves behind it,” Stern said. “We’ll sometimes put sea serpents in the water or boats in the water or little fish bowls in the water or swans in the water, and we’ll just draw those right on the screen.”

The other side of the work involves backgrounds for the images on the frames. Stern has used Second Life for this, as well, and this has helped him realize that old technologies are still technologies: It is not out of the question for the old and new to find common ground in order to fabricate an entirely fresh form of art built on varying stages of technology. More importantly to Stern, digital progression does not rule out the more physical arts.

“A lot of people talk to me as if I’m this super tech geek – I am, but just because computers are thought of as a technology, people forget that ink and paper, that kind of stuff, is a technology, too,” he said. “Yes, I sometimes speak over Jessica’s head, but she sometimes speaks over mine. I have no idea what she is doing in that back room.”

It’s in this nexus of the two ends of art technology that a warmth has been created – digital technology has been brought into the human senses and is related as such, emotionally. It’s a huge leap forward in not only the presentation of creativity, but also the harnessing of it – and Stern points out that it’s not unattainable to those from outside its realm; it just takes an effort to use it as a material in an artist’s creative arsenal.

“That’s where our technology is coming now – you can feel it,” Stern said. “It used to be that you couldn’t just feel technology; you had to know how it worked in order to make something interesting; whereas we have this new generation growing up with technology. You can feel what’s working or not. And some people just have to work harder.”

Nathaniel Stern can be found online at nathanielstern.com.


Caption: Stern’s Second Life avatars, Ross and Felix, in their digital environment.

(c) 2010 North Adams Transcript. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.
Record Number: 14475092

Related artworks: Passing Between, Dynamic Stasis, Given Time, Surfacing, the odys series
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