Scanning the World
MILWAUKEE-BASED ARTIST CHALLENGES HOW HUMANS RESPOND TO THEIR ENVIRONMENT
BY ROCHELLE MELANDER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATT HAAS
To call Nathaniel Stern a Renaissance man might be an understatement. An associate professor of art and design in the Peck School of the Arts at UW-Milwaukee, Stern is a Fulbright grantee, published author and TED Talk speaker; his artwork has been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide, and he’s on the forefront of using scanner imaging photography. Stern is also the co-founder and core team member of the UWM Student Startup Challenge and the Lubar Center for Entrepreneurship, along with Dr. Ilya Avdeev, UWM assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Brian Thompson, president of the UWM Research Foundation.
In viewing Stern’s vast expertise and interests, a common theme emerges: interaction. He wants people who view his art and the entrepreneurs he coaches to think about who they are, who they can be, and how they relate to the world and one another. As he said at the conclusion of his TED Talk, “Think about the kinds of relationships and environments we’d have, if we thought more about the relationships and environments we have.”
Stern did just that when he created his stunning visual images, playing with how our interaction with technology and the world produces beauty. He strapped a desktop scanner, laptop and cus- tom-made battery pack to his body, and then wiggled and jumped, capturing images as he moved. The image you see in the gallery might be a result of his breathing, or cracks in the glass, or a fly attracted to the light of the scanner beam. Then, as Stern says, “The dynamism between the three — my body, technology and the landscape — is transformed into beautiful and quirky renderings, which are then produced as archival prints.” Stern’s visual images were displayed most recently at the Tory Folliard Gallery this past summer during Gallery Night and Day. (Tory Folliard represents Stern’s artwork in the Midwest.)
Perhaps the best way to understand Stern’s work is to participate in his interactive art. Stern has hacked full-bodied gaming control- lers so that viewers trigger animation, spoken words and more by moving their bodies. In a sense, the interaction between the viewer and the technology creates the art. For example, in “Stuttering,” the viewer’s movement produces words on a screen. Move slowly, and a few words appear, spouting zen-like wisdom: “Take a deep breath.” “Read.” “Consciousness.” Move quickly, and the screen stutters, lighting up with a cacophony of phrases. But as with everything Stern makes, the art is more than just art. “I like to think that ‘Stuttering’ helps us practice listening and performing in the world with a little more care,” he says.
Stern witnessed this firsthand when all four of his interactive works were displayed, alongside the work of Tegan Bristow, in a show called “Meaning Motion” at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. He watched people move from one interactive exhibit to another, sometimes stopping to teach a friend or stranger how to interact with the art. At “Elicit,” a piece in which every movement evokes a sea of text, he watched viewers silently invite each other to dance. “Their relationships to each other and themselves and the art shift, and they leave that space thinking, moving and interacting differently,” Stern says.
Milwaukee residents can interact with these works when “Body Language” is shown this November and December at the INOVA gallery at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts.
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Ecological aesthetics: thinking trees and Goods for Me
by Nathaniel Stern
Published July 2016 in Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies
People and peoples are always in process with the world around us; we are only a small part of intricate, complicated and ongoing systems; we are always more than the boundaries of what we know, or feel, or make. ‘Ecological aesthetics: thinking trees and Goods for Me’ argues that an ‘ecological aesthetics’ is surfacing in contemporary art, which makes such linkages felt. The best of this work amplifies who and how we are, together with all of matter, and more importantly how we could be. This work can and should be experienced, practised and studied through the ecologies at play in and around that work, be they material, conceptual, environmental, personal, social, economic and/or otherwise. The article more specifically thinks with some of the work of South African artist Sean Slemon, which manifests a politics of movement, potential and composition outside standard human perception. It narrativises, through one artwork, our experience and practice of complex systems and forces. Here every-thing is continuously emergent with its conceptual-material environments, is part of continuously moving and changing assemblages. Ultimately, an ecological aesthetics calls for rethinking human and non-human relations as always mattering, always affecting, always political – together.
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Image from Scott Snibbe’s Deep Walls, featured in my chapter, Stern Nathaniel. ‘Interactive Art: Interventions in/to Process.’ A Companion to Digital Art. Ed. Christiane Paul. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell (Blackwell Companions to Art History), 2016.
Digital art is a complex and vibrantly dynamic form whose diversity reflects the exponential growth curve in computing power. This new companion to the genre gives readers an inclusive, in-depth understanding of digital art, covering its history and evolution, aesthetics, and politics, as well as its often turbulent relationships with established institutions. The volume provides a platform for the most influential voices shaping the current discourse surrounding digital art. Their nuanced insights afford a robust and coherent appreciation of the current state of the field – and the possible paths its future development may follow.
Combining the seasoned perspectives of leading international experts with fresh work by emerging scholars, the companion tackles key issues in digital art. It showcases critical and theoretical approaches from across the spectrum, taking in art-historical, philosophical, political, and gendered perspectives, among many others. The volume also covers digital art’s primary practical challenges – how to present, document, and preserve pieces that could be erased forever by rapidly accelerating technological obsolescence. Up-to-date, forward-looking, and critically reflective, this authoritative new collection is informed throughout by a deep appreciation of the technical intricacies of digital art.
Editor: Christiane Paul
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell, Blackwell Companions to Art History
Date of Publication: May 2016
Order this book from Amazon.com
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Cover image and feature article on Nathaniel Stern’s work and practice.
“In this month’s Instructional Resource, Christine Woywod presents the interactive artworks of Nathaniel Stern who often blends art and technology to generate participatory installations through which audience members may bodily experience art, performing images into existence.” – James Haywood Rolling Jr.
Woywod, C. (2016). “Nathaniel Stern: Performing images into existence.” Art Education, Volume 69 Issue 4 pp 36-42.
Downloadable PDF of the above article is forthcoming. Firewall version here.
A companion web resource is available here.
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Cover image: detail from Weather Patterns: the smell of red (2014).
Author: Erin Manning
Publisher: Duke University Press
Date of Publication: June 2016
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with Bonnie North on Lake Effect
Artist Nathaniel Stern speaks with Lake Effect’s Bonnie North about his use of scanners to create beautiful images.
Nathaniel Stern’s intensity is palpable. The media artist always has multiple bodies of work going on simultaneously, he’s a Fulbright scholar, a professor of art, a parent. Talking with him, you get the impression he never stops thinking about, or exploring, art and life.
Stern’s current exhibition at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend is called Giverny of the Midwest. The work has had previous exhibitions in Johannesburg, South Africa and London, but this is its first stop in the United States. The scans are a nod and homage to the Impressionist painter Claude Monet…if Monet were painting his lilies while immersed in the pond rather than sitting on its banks.
Nathaniel Stern, detail, Giverny of the Midwest, Digital print installation, 2011, Lent by the Tory Folliard GalleryCredit: Musem of Wisconsin Art.
The work is technological, thought-provoking and unexpected. And although his work has been compared to photography, Stern would disagree. “It’s probably closer to print making.” He continues that as opposed to the objective distancing you get in photography, “where you’re looking through [a] lens and seeing what you’re capturing, (with this work) it’s more that you’re on top of or a part of your medium,” says Stern.
When he isn’t scanning his environment, Stern is an Associate Professor of Art and Design in Peck School of the Arts at the UW – Milwaukee.
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Nathaniel Stern’s “Giverny of the Midwest” makes U.S. debut
This article by Rafael Francisco Salas appeared in both online and print editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Claude Monet was in his 80s when he painted his way into eternity with a 42-foot long triptych, “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond,” famously hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and created in the artist’s aquatic gardens in Giverny, France. Many believe that painting as an art form did not catch up with Monet’s water lily works, which numbered in the hundreds, until the Abstract Expressionists came along a generation later.
Artist Nathaniel Stern, who grew up in New York and knows the MoMA triptych intimately, has used Monet’s artistic cataclysm and deconstructed it into a similarly scaled artwork. Exhibited internationally, his “Giverny of the Midwest” is being shown in the U.S. for the first time at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.
Stern does not try to overtake Monet’s masterpiece but rather makes quotations from it and reinvigorates the debates it spawned. Is realism an image or an emotion? Is an object more important than the light that reflects off of it? When is a painted mark a water lily or simply a daub of painted material?
Stern’s work is not a painting. Rather, it’s a performative series of photographic scans printed on watercolor paper. The artist strapped a high resolution scanner and battery pack to his body and began capturing the elements of a lily pond in Indiana by mucking about in it and scanning plants, water formations, earth and sky. The pieces are hung in an grid formation, further expanding the notion of deconstruction. The images are still, but describe his process of documentation, which was often in motion. We see imagery pulled into swimming tendrils as he moved the scanner through water or over an insect’s body. Abstraction and startling realism combine and allow us to experience objects, color and movement all at once. The warping and pulling of the images is filmic and beautiful.
And it is important to note that this work is indeed beautiful. I admit, the process sounded interesting and fun, but I did not expect the results to move me sensually as well as intellectually. Stern does not forget that his subject matter is eminent, and that nature and how we experience it, through digital processes or in paint, has unfathomable potential to excite us. His work resounds with content about how we view the world and through which lenses, whether it be technology or our physical selves.
In the end, I was seduced beyond content. It was the tensions between realism and abstraction that kept confounding my readings of the work. In all honesty I have never seen anything quite like it.
With that said, it is at times difficult to see. The scale of the work requires a distance from it, and the shallow hall where it is hung doesn’t allow the viewer to take it all in. So, while I was able to appreciate smaller moments, an overall view is hard to get at.
Nathaniel Stern’s “Giverny of the Midwest” is on view at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend, through Sept. 6.
Rafael Francisco Salas is a painter, an associate professor of art at Ripon College and a regular Art City contributor.
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Artist Nathaniel Stern had taken to carrying a desktop scanner, a computing device and a battery pack around to “perform images into existence” for his “Compressionism” series. By jumping, twisting and adjusting distance, he accomplished some interestingly glitchy scanner-based images. Last July, he upgraded to a new “marine rated” setup and took the whole kit diving off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.
The result was the “Rippling” series, where he applied the same tactics underwater to create off-the-cuff aquatic imagery. The pictures were affected by nature, human interaction and the inevitable technological quirks that occur when bringing office gear into underwater environments.
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The show is a “remixed” extension of an exhibition shown at the International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality 2014 (ISMAR) in Munich. Curated by Furtherfield and mixed reality media artist Julian Stadon, it brings together a number of leading contemporary artists to explore how technology disrupts, enhances and alters the way we live.
On the approach to the gallery, in the McKenzie Pavilion in the heart of Finsbury Park, you’re immediately immersed by the transformation of the walls into lush, teeming images of water lilies; a hacked Monet for the 21st century. Giverny Remediated, by US-based artist Nathaniel Stern, is part of his Compressionism series. Defined by shifting, interactive prints, and inspired by classic Impressionism, the images were captured with uniquely twenty-first century methods — Stern strapped a scanner to his body to capture the blooms.
“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,” Stern writes on his website. “The dynamism between my body, technology and the landscape is transformed into beautiful and quirky renderings, which are then produced as archival art objects.”
Water and fluidity as a metaphor for data is a central theme of Stern’s work. As part of Beyond the Interface — London, Stern has also been commissioned to create a brand new installation, Rippling Images of Finsbury Park, a public artwork based in the park’s boating lake. Visitors will be able to download the artworks by public USB installed in the gallery’s walls, using anonymous file-sharing network Dead Drops.
Also in the show, Zach Blas’ Facial Weaponization Suite is an uncanny, disturbing protest against the dehumanising effects of biometric facial technology. The New York-based artist creates “collective masks” from facial data collected by participants in community workshops. These masks — distorted, amorphous blobs, almost resembling chewing gum — erase the recognisable features of the human face, ensuring wearers are unable to be detected by biometric facial scanners. Fusing a cry against government over-surveillance with a sympathy for those frequently pushed to the social margins, Blas’ work is provocative and politically charged.
Also on show is Jennifer Chan’s Grey Matter. The Hong Kong-raised, Chicago-based artist employs videos, gifs and webpages to cast a wry, quizzical look at representations of gender and in modern media culture. In the five-minute video, Chan adopts the persona of a teenage internet user creating her own confessional online diary, using social media — sharing, posting, following — to confront issues of privacy, voyeurism and online identity.
Beyond the Interface — London runs at the Furtherfield Gallery until 21 June, 2015
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Title: Other Frames: Malcolm Levy and Sensing Images
Author: Nathaniel Stern
Publisher: Transfer Gallery
Date of Publication: February 2015
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Smell like sand has a way of embedding itself into you: your skin, your scalp, the little crevices at the top of your ears, the bottom insides of your shoes reeking of memory. It fills me with an unexpected sense of nostalgia and longing for last night on the beach (the low lights, the laughter, the danger of being discovered and the nearness of you.) Our bodies left slight impressions on the sand.
“I’m always trying to move into the holes,” I hear Erin Manning tell someone I don’t know the night of the opening outside in the yard.
I still smell like cinnamon from upstairs.
Upstairs at Glasshouse, Weather Patterns: The Smell of Red is already at work.
By work, I mean in one way a sharpening of senses. Artists Erin Manning and Nathaniel Stern, with Marcelino Barsi, have expertly if not tendentiously created conditions for the impossibility of being intimately uninvolved. The work seeps into you, dissolves and electrifies.
Tapping into weather as a medium, the installation incorporates sculptural elements including pungent spices and various fans as a proposition to, in their words, co-compose weather. It performs on you; it elicits from you a performance that unfolds.
Weather Patterns: The Smell of Red builds conditions for fluid encounters and intangible exchanges by producing a slipping of spaces and heightened awareness of one’s own body, welling up the state of existing within or having a relationship with time and memory.
Three, dispersed white pillar-like structures extend from floor to ceiling in the gallery upstairs at Glasshouse. Around each base crawls a pile of cinnamon.
The structures are interrupted in the middle with a series of thin, clear tubes placed in a circle, in the middle of which a delicate tornado spins. Its appearance, however, is dependent on the positionality of the observer. Unseen in the bottom cavity of the structure is a water ionizer, and a fan in the top cavity. The combination of the fan pulling air upwards and the perforations in the tubes in a circle causes the air to get pushed around, creating a tornado. If moved towards too suddenly, the tornado dissipates. It eventually re-forms given suitable conditions.
The way in which you position yourself in relation to the structure alters the experience and exchange. Its elusivity and ephemeral nature call attention to the delicacy of the experience and fragility of form. The appearance of the tornado becomes contingent on the bodies around it.
Not to mention the handful of quietly, whirring fans affixed to the walls at varying heights that circulate the air and effect the tornadoes to some extent. Particles of cinnamon fly up into the tornadoes and become skin to the whirling air.
All the while the smell of red becomes skin to the air in the space at large. It’s a retreat back to the lungs, altering you at the level of cells.
They say cinnamon amplifies memory and cognitive function.
Perhaps only felt in the room are sentimental constructions.
Interior and exterior spaces slip between body and atmosphere. A tornado folds in on itself in a series of curves like the surfaces of memory and time. There is a sinuosity, an interface of linings of insides. The installation connotes the precariousness of memory and unstable form. The slipping of space produces orientations meeting on a curve.
A body around the tornado attunes itself to the vanishing of the object.
For it might be said that one cannot experience the installation without seeing the tornado. So the body learns the conditions for an appearance on a plane and, mired in the senses, the process by which you register a thing, perhaps a secret, in the body.
Will you keep it to yourself? Can you hold something there? Where in the body has an interval space opened up?
Form and meaning grow through individual and collective interactions in public space.
Weather Patterns: The Smell of Red materializes conditions for bodies to come together in unexpected ways across becoming mercurial fields. At a certain alignment of body and object, a dancing of the field occurs. The contours of a tornado’s body is an unfurling line folding in on itself around an empty space. It show us how to move into zero, the holes, patterning behaviors.
– Angeli Sion
Weather Patterns: The Smell of Red was co-produced by Erin Manning and Nathaniel Stern with Marcelino Barsi, and curated by Jennifer Johung at Glasshouse in Brooklyn, New York during June 2014.
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“This book will make people sit up and think in a new way about a timely set of issues. Tkacz’s argument is not predictable or one-dimensional. Instead, it is productive of new knowledge at each step. Each new layer of argument uncovers riches of detail, new bibliographies of current research, and surprising new directions of thought. His argument balances nicely between powerful general statements and compelling concrete demonstrations.”
(Alan Liu, University of California, Santa Barbara)
“A crucial intervention in the field of new media studies. The book thinks rigorously about participation and collaboration as few others do. It is certain to generate much excitement, debate, and even controversy.”
(Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Brown University)
“Highly original and delightfully written, Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness is one of the finest pieces of work I have read in the field of network cultures and software studies. Tkacz has undertaken a comprehensive critique of openness—or open politics—as it manifests across a range of institutional and social-technical settings. This book has all the key ingredients to make a substantial impact in debates surrounding network governance and software politics.”
(Ned Rossiter, University of Western Sydney)
Title: Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness
Author: Nathaniel Tkacz
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press
Date of Publication: December 2014
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Nathaniel Stern scans artwork into being
Mary Louise Schumacher for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
So what happens when the world itself seems to be a terrain of copies, when our days are filled with more images of people and places than actual ones, for instance.
This is the territory of Milwaukee artist Nathaniel Stern, who just had a solo show at the Tory Folliard Gallery, some of which remains on view. Stern creates work he calls Compressionism, images made by strapping a desktop scanner to his body and scanning various landscapes in steady long lines, sweeping motions, quick pogo stick-like hops or while scuba diving underwater. These scans are then turned into artworks using photographic or inkjet printing processes.
In “Soft,” for instance, we see what looks like scrubby, organic matter undulating in water and pressed up against glass, presumably the face of the scanner. It’s akin to what we might expect from a work of art, a pictorial depiction beneath glass. But we also see the gravity of it, the sensation of these wheat-colored plants with a faint purple tinge brushing against the surface.
Distorting waves, not unlike those of an analog TV screen with the horizontal hold out of whack, are a visual hint that we’re looking at manipulated media. Throughout the series, mysterious digital hiccups, skips, drags and scratches are further pictorial pointers. In them, oscillations of time and movement are inferred. Some works have an inherent quickness, while others are more unhurried and stretch out a moment in time.
Barely detectable inside this expression of narrative is the artist himself, and the sense of performance he brings physically to the work. He says he “performs images into existence.” I like that. I like that the primary artistic act of this work, fundamentally about the mediation of imagery, isn’t made with a computer but with a body out in the world doing things.
It is intriguing to consider our changing visual literacy, by the way. Much of Stern’s iconography would be unintelligible to our 19th-century counterparts.
The best works in the “Rippling Images” series, for me, were those where realism, simulation and abstraction combined in playful and surprising ways, when the digital ripples and the watery ones that are Stern’s subject become inseparable, when reality and its copies dance.
The result is something quite transporting, works reminiscent of the primordial and the pliability of human perception in the 21st century. My only quibble is the somewhat informal presentation of the works, which are set loosely into the frames so that ripples in the paper are visible. I’m told this is intentional, that the artist wants us to see these prints as objects with a surface. I’m just not sure this works.
Stern is represented by the Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N. Milwaukee St., which is currently showing some of his works. He also has related work up at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, 273 E. Erie St., through Saturday, Dec. 6. He will also have a show at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend, opening April 11. For more information: nathanielstern.com
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‘Vital Technology’ at MIAD
High-tech fun house of art in motion
By Kat Murrell
Vital Technology” is an exhibition much enjoyed by me and my shadow. If you visit, you’ll see what I mean. Artists Bryan Cera and Nathaniel Stern have put together eight installations in the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design’s Frederick Layton Gallery, which are activated by the viewer through various means of physical interaction. The works synthesize strong visuals, sound and motion in a high-tech funhouse that also proposes questions about the influence of technology in our lives.
About that shadow part: a number of the installations are large-scale projections where the viewer becomes part of the piece. Stroll in front of Cera’s Supercontroller and watch your shadow grab at coins and otherwise jump around in a virtual world that borrows from Super Mario Bros. 3. You have become your own game character and your shadow stretches as you grow in video game strength. It then shrinks and collapses as you meet your demise for not avoiding pesky animated nemeses. Stern’s elicit is a wall projection of flickering text that builds like unreadable poetry, falling in color from blue to purple to paler shades. With a flick of your hand, a letter is bumped and then drifts away. It becomes legible, gaining freedom from the pack, but losing the contextual comfort of its companion language.
Many of the installations have audio tracks, including Supercontroller with its video game pings and rings. The most aurally engaging is Social-Sonic Architecture, #3, a collaboration between the artists and others. It looks like something pieced together from Radio Shack, with a series of speakers wired up on the wall. Say something into the microphone at the end of the line and your processed voice rolls like a wave along the wall, pulsing through the sound system with a strangely fascinating disembodied presence.
The exhibition is designed to elicit reflection on the ability of technology to exert influences on the way we move, speak and otherwise react to our surroundings. In the gallery, the playful novelty nearly supersedes these significant questions, but it is outside the exhibition that one reflects on these quieter notes.
“Vital Technology: Interactive works by Bryan Cera and Nathaniel Stern” continues through Dec. 6 at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, 273 E. Erie St.
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… Nathaniel Stern’s Interactive Art and Embodiment establishes two first events: not only Stern’s debut publication but also the first of a new series from Gylphi entitled “Arts Future Book” edited by Charlotte Frost, which began in 2013. All quotations are from this text unless otherwise stated.
Stern’s vision in brief: in order to rescue what is philosophically significant about interactive art, he justifies its worth through the primary acknowledgement of embodiment, relational situation, performance and sensation. In return, the usual dominant definitions of interactive art which focus on technological objects, or immaterial cultural representations thereof are secondary to the materiality of bodily movement. Comprehending digital interactive art purely as ‘art + technology’ is a secondary move and a “flawed priority” (6), which is instead underscored by a much deeper engagement, or framing, for how one becomes embodied in the work, as work. “I pose that we forget technology and remember the body” (6) Stern retorts, which is a “situational framework for the experience and practice of being and becoming.” (7). The concepts that are needed to disclose these insights are also identified as emergent.
“Sensible concepts are not only emerging, but emerging emergences: continuously constructed and constituted, re-constructed and re-constituted, through relationships with each other, the body, materiality, and more.” (205)
Interactive Art and Embodiment then, is the critical framework that engages, enriches and captivates the viewer with Stern’s vision, delineating the importance of digital interactive art together with its constitutive philosophy.
One might summarise Stern’s effort with his repeated demand to reclaim the definition of “interactive”. The term itself was a blatantly over-used badge designed to vaguely discern what made ‘new media’ that much newer, or freer than previous modes of consumption. This was quickly hunted out of discursive chatter when everyone realised the novel qualities it offered meant very little and were politically moribund. For Stern however, interactivity is central to the entire position put forward, but only insofar as it engages how a body acts within such a work. This reinvigorated definition of “interactive” reinforces deeper, differing qualities of sensual embodiment that take place in one’s relational engagement. This is to say, how one literally “inter-acts” through moving-feeling-thinking as a material bodily process, and not a technological informational entity which defines, determines or formalises its actions. A digital work might only be insipidly interactive, offering narrow computational potentials, but this importance is found wanting so long as the technology is foregrounded over ones experience of it. Instead ones relationship with technological construction should melt away through the implicit duration of a body that literally “inter-acts” with it. In Stern’s words:
“…most visually-, technically-, and linguistically-based writing on interactive art explains that a given piece is interactive, and how it is interactive, but not how we inter-act” (91)
Chapter 1 details how aesthetic ‘vision’ is understood through this framework, heavily criticising the pervasive disembodiment Stern laments in technical discussions of digital art and the VR playgrounds from the yesteryear of the 90s. Digital Interactive Art has continually suppressed a latent embodied performance that widens the disembodied aesthetic experience towards – following Ridgway and Thrift – a “non-representational experience.” Such experiences take the body as an open corporal process within a situation, which includes, whilst also encompassing, the corporal materiality of non-human computational processes. This is, clearly, designed to oppose any discourse that treats computation and digital culture as some sort of liberating, inane, immaterial phenomenon: to which Stern is absolutely right. Moreover, all of these material processes move in motion with embodied possibilities, to “create spaces in which we experience and practice this body, its agency, and how they might become.” (40) To add some political heft, Stern contrasts how the abuse of interactivity is often peddled towards consumerist choice, determining possibilities, put against artistic navigation that relinquishes control, allowing limitless possibilities. Quoting Erin Manning, Stern values interactive art’s success when it doesn’t just move in relation to human experience, but when humans move *the* relation in experience (Manning, 2009: 64; Stern, 46).
Stern’s second chapter moves straight into a philosophical discussion denoting what he means by an anti-Cartesian, non-representational, or implicit body. Heavily contexualised by a host of process, emergent materialist thinkers (Massumi, Hayles, Barad), Stern concentrates on the trait of performance as the site of body which encapsulates its relationally, emergence and potential. The body is not merely formed in stasis, (what Stern dubs “pre-formed” (62) but is regularly and always gushingly “per-formed” (61) in its movement. Following Kelli Fuery, the kind of interactivity Stern wants to foreground is always there, not a stop-start prop literate to computer interaction, but an effervescent ensemble of “becoming interactive” (Fuery, 2009: 44; Stern, 65). Interactive art is not born from an effect bestowed by a particular medium of art making, but of “making literal the kinds of assemblages we are always a part of.” (65)
Chapter three sets out Stern’s account for the implicit body framework: detailing out four areas: “artistic inquiry and process; artwork description; inter-activity and relationally.” (91) Chapters four, five and six flesh out this framework with actual practices. Four considers close readings of the aforementioned work of Penny together with Camille Utterback merging the insights gained from the previous chapters. What both artists encapsulate for Stern is that their interventions focus on the embodied activities of material signification: or “the activities of writing with the body” (114) Utterback’s 1999 installation “Textrain” is exemplary to Stern’s argument: notably the act of collecting falling text characters on a screen merges dynamic body movements with poetic disclosure. The productions of these images are always emergent and inscribed within our embodied practices and becomings: that we think with our environment. Five re-contextualises this with insights into works by Scott Scribbes and Mathieu Briand’s interventions in societal norms and environments. Six takes on the role of the body as a dynamic, topological space: most notably as practiced in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Chapter seven I’ll discuss near the conclusion: the last chapter shortly.
Firstly, the good stuff. Interactive Art and Embodiment is probably one of the most sincerest reads I’ve encountered in the field for some time. Partly this is because the book cultivates Stern’s sincerity for his own artistic practice, together with his own philosophical accounts that supplement that vision. His deep understanding of process philosophy is clearly matched by his enthusiastic reassessment of what interactive art purports to achieve and how other artists might have achieved it too. And it’s hard to disagree with Stern’s own position when he cites examples (of his work and others) that clearly delegate the philosophical insights to which he is committed. One highlight is Stern’s take on Scribbes’ Boundary Foundations (1998) and the Screen Series (2002-03) which intervenes and questions the physical and metaphorical boundaries surrounding ourselves and others, by performing its questioning as work. This is a refreshingly earnest text, proving that theory works best not when praxis matches the esoteric fashions of philosophical thinking, but when art provides its own stakes and its own types of thinking-experience which theory sets out to faithfully account and describe. Stern’s theoretical legitimacy is never earned from just digesting, synthesising and applying copious amounts of philosophy, but from the centrality of describing in detail what he thinks the bodily outcomes of interactive art are and what such accounts have to say: even if they significantly question existing philosophical accounts.
Stern leaves the most earnest part of his book towards the end in his final semi-auto-biographical companion chapter called “In Production (A Narrative Inquiry on Interactive Art)”. This is a snippet of a much larger story, available online and subject to collaboration . Here, Stern recounts or modifies the anxiety inducing experience of being a PhD student and artist, rubbing up alongside the trials of academic rigour, dissertation writing and expected standards. Quite simply, Stern is applying his insights of performative processual experience into the everyday, ordinary experiences faced by most PhD students in this field, and using it to justify a certain writing style and a sense of practice. It’s an enjoyable affair – in large part because it outclasses the dry scholarly tone usually associated with writing ‘academically’, elevating imaginative, illuminating redescriptions for how the experiences of interactive art broadly hang together rather than relying on relentless cynical critique. And most of that is down to Stern’s strong literary metaphorical technique for grounding his vision, perhaps even more effectively than the previous chapters.
Yet earnest experiences aside, there are two problems with Stern’s vision which, in my eyes, leave it flawed. That isn’t a bad thing: all visions are flawed of course. That’s why the similarities between art and philosophy feed our heuristic, academic compulsion to come up with them and debate: well, that and sometimes the most flawed can end up being the most influential…
Other related texts: De Arte, Neural Magazine, Art Journal, Archée, Interactive Art + Embodiment
“Nathaniel Stern is an awkward artist, teacher and writer, who likes awkward art, students and writing. Stern’s talk, Ecological Aesthetics, discusses tweets in space, scans at the bottom of the sea, interactive installations, and art in virtual worlds – all work about the complex relationships between humans, nature, and politics.”
What is TEDx?
“Imagine a day filled with brilliant speakers, thought-provoking video and mind-blowing conversation. By organizing a TEDx event, you can create a unique gathering in your community that will unleash new ideas, inspire and inform…. A TEDx event is a local gathering where live TED-like talks and videos previously recorded at TED conferences are shared with the community.” – from the TED web site
Other related texts: NPR / WUWM, M Magazine, Gizmodo, Bad At Sports, The Daily Dot
Nathaniel Stern is diving off the coast of Florida, scanning the gorgeous seascape before him—literally. He’s got a desktop scanner strapped to his back, uploading images to an on-board Windows tablet. A few jellyfish, a bit of coral, the expanse of blue—he scans it all. He isn’t capturing these images for science or study, but for gallery walls.
Stern is a digital artist, and for the past 10 years, this has been his medium. His latest show, Rippling Images, opens today at the Tory Folliard Gallery in Milwaukee (it premiered at South Africa’s Turbine Art Fair in July). Its 18 “underwater performative prints” are distorted swashes of vibrant color—what you’d expect if you scanned, say, a school of fish—but beautiful just the same.
“For me,” Stern says, “the way time and space are folded into each image—as vertical slashes or angled swooshes of movement and stasis—are like potent mappings of land and sea, body and technology, together.”
The series, which the artist calls “Compressionism,” began in 2005 in South Africa, where Stern was living at the time. He’d been experimenting with various kinds of interactive art, and galleries started seeking his work. He had no idea what to do, so he simply showed up at a gallery with his “mobile studio”: laptop, video camera, scanner, and hard drive. Then he scanned every object he could find, from windows and walls to doors and benches. He hung each print alongside to its subject—a scan of a window next to the window, for example—and hoped people would get it.
“I thought this would be an intervention in how we understand space and tech,” he says. “People went gaga for it.”
One of Stern’s favorite artists, William Kentridge, attended the show, and said Stern’s prints reminded him of Japanese woodcuts like Hokusai’s classic The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. “You should go out and scan the landscape,” Kentridge told the artist.
For the next decade, he did just that.
Making His Own Water Lilies
His favorite work—prior to Rippling Images, of course—was Giverny of the Midwest, his techy homage to Monet’s Water Lilies. (Stern is a self-described fan of the impressionist.) To create it, Stern brought a laptop, five scanners and battery packs, and two student assistants to South Bend, Indiana, to spend three days scanning a lily pond. The water claimed two scanners and his phone, but they wound up with 130 scans that Stern then spent two years editing into an installation composed of 93 prints. Laid out in a Mondrian-like arrangement, the piece covers more than 250 square feet and is nearly identical in size to Monet’s masterpiece. Giverny of the Midwest was shown in South Africa in 2011, but Stern’s continued to work on it since, and it will have a US debut at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in April next year.
After he’d waded through water for Giverny, Stern decided it was time to go under it. His brother-in-law Emyano Mazzola, an Italian scuba instructor (and Stern’s occasional photographer), suggested scanning a coral reef. He sought a grant from University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where he teaches. It loved the idea, so he became a certified diver and went to the Florida Keys.
Though he’s been using rigs of various sorts over the years, going underwater posed a particular challenge. He designed 10 rigs, built five, and brought three. One consisted of a FlipPal portable scanner and a DryCase for the tablet. But the “most fun” rig, Stern says, was made entirely of Plexiglas. Vacuum-sealed with a bike valve, it kept his Windows tablet dry.
To a point. The rig started leaking at 30 feet (it was supposed to go to 60), and some of the images included scratches and bubbles. “I love this,” Stern says. “The work is meant to frame and amplify the forces of land and sea, show how they affect movements and actions and performances. None of this technology ever did precisely what I wanted or intended, and you can see that in every image. It’s beautiful.”
That’s one reason Stern wants to keep creating this kind of art—an unusual move in an era when digital artists are expected to constantly grow, adapt, iterate, change. “To stick with one image-making process for 10 years—and it’s easily going to be another 20—is not something most digital artists do,” says Stern, who’s planning an ice dive for his project. “The process and what comes out of it are so rich and full of wonder.”
Don’t believe him? If you meet him on the street, Stern might even give you a try: He loves watching people attempt to scan their world for the first time. “They want to move quickly,” Stern says. “But the images don’t capture anything. Then they start to slow down. And instead of just moving, they’re moving with, or moving around. It’s pretty magical to watch people dance with the landscape.”
“You can hear,” he adds, “that I’m a hopeless romantic.”
Other related texts: WIRED, MKE Journal Sentinel, Popular Mechanics, engadget, MKE Journal Sentinel
With a number of shows that look at the landscape through a 21st-century lens — whether Nathaniel Stern’s underwater impressions, Terese Agnew’s contemplation of layered epochs, Pegi Christiansen’s walks through a sculpture garden or John Shimon and Julie Lindemann looking at the state of Wisconsin as a medium of sorts — the coming months promise many ways to consider the world.
Here are some visual art exhibits and projects not to miss in the coming months, including several that will be open for Gallery Night & Day, the citywide art crawl this Friday evening and Saturday.
Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N. Milwaukee St.
This is pretty much Nathaniel Stern’s year. While he’s shown some of his collaborative works in Milwaukee for some years, he has not shown the solo work he is most known for internationally. For this work, he straps a scanner, laptop and custom battery pack to his body and “performs into existence” his strange and beautiful artworks. What’s more he does this in and under water with a special rig made at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. There are moments of intense clarity that surface from the visual skips and drags. These 21st-century versions of Impressionism debut Friday at the Tory Folliard Gallery. Stern will speak at 1 p.m. Saturday. He also will have work exhibited at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, 273 E. Erie St., as part of “Vital Technology,” starting Friday and at the Museum of Wisconsin Art starting April 11.