NY Arts Magazine

nathaniel stern in NY Arts Magazinebetween Text and Flesh
This article featured in both the web and print editions.

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.

Stern’s revisitations plunge us into a confrontational world of performance where Stern, as actor, provocateur and artist, invites us to enter into the performance and engage in the seriousness of play. The work encourages the viewer to interrogate their perceptions of the everyday and the relations they have with themselves, to others and the world around them.

Stern claims his interest in the body comes from his early study, and subsequent hatred, of fashion design. That, combined with his musical and slam poetry background, leads Stern towards considering the body as text and as concept, but eventually (and he would say, inevitably) steered him to the inverse: the body as performed and emergent. One of the most fascinating aspects of this work is that it does not presuppose the categories of body and language that it works with.

During his two years at the famed Interactive Telecommunications Program (NYU), Stern began using “digital and traditional media to create encounters between an ambiguous ‘I’ and a potential ‘you.’” Enacting what he calls the “non-aggressive narrative” (NAN)–a mode of Benjaminian storytelling–pieces from this body of work perform a complex dance of call and response, in which the viewer/participant is asked to reinvent, from the ruins of memory and selfhood, unfolding pasts and personas. Stern sets out to create meeting places that break down the boundaries between art and audience; to craft spaces of infolding and potential, in which both the “body/self,” and the work, materialize as a locus of exchange.

Stern’s first piece from the NAN, hektor.net (2000), presents a series of video vignettes starring Stern as the aggressively lucid, hektor. Through the visual and sonic aesthetics of slam poetry and manipulated photography, and fraught with odd allusions to, and between, Homer’s books, sex crazes and racial politics, hektor.net is still surprisingly edgy. It induces, despite the fact it is on screen, a visceral clenching on the surfer of the site.

Each subsequent NAN piece explores the same (untold) referent story, through different media and highly contrasted characters. “By embracing the questionable, fragmented memory of a singular past through multiple characters, the ambiguous ‘I’ of the NAN implies an origin story that may or may not have occurred. As the potential ‘You’ is invited to co-invent this unfolding ‘past,’ its openness suggests possibility and multiplicity.”

the odys series (2001-2004), for example, introduced the nervous and inquisitive, odys, also played by Stern. The six video shorts that make up the series explore distortions of body and memory through mis/uses of language. odys’ slow and achy stammering invokes an internal tension, and begs for a personal investment in his character. Stern released odys for your ipod @ odys.org–allowing visitors to download the series onto their own gadgets–just two days after the new video iPod was released by Apple (October 2005).

In the same year that hektor.net was launched, Stern produced his first interactive work–the medium he is now most well-known for–enter: hektor. Here the audience is confronted with what is an almost literal portal–a threshold space through which they meet and step into the character. Participants enter through black and red velvet curtains, into a long, expanding corridor with a projection screen at the end; they see an abstracted, real-time representation of themselves on screen, surrounded by animated text. Each moving phrase acts as a trigger point, so that when an actor’s represented body touches a word, hidden speakers amplify a relevant, uttered phrase. Stern compels his viewers to chase after or run away from the projected text, in order to elicit meaning from hektor’s spoken words. His main objective was to force viewers to enact (embody) “the same exaggerated gestures and jerky expressions that [hektor] does,” to experience their bodies (and their bodies in relation to language) in new ways.

Stern’s interactive pieces work to implicate participants in his narratives, weaving them into events shot through with thoughtful intention and distracted passivity. stuttering (2003), is an odys “story” about the labor that is communication–the materiality and toil of speaking and listening. He saturates the space with 34 trigger points of spoken word and graphic text, mapped on a static, Mondrian painting-like screen, and set off by body-tracking software. “Only by lessening their participation,” says Stern,” will the information explosion slow into an understandable text for the viewer. The piece asks them not to interact.” The tangle of text, voice and motion, makes our first encounter with stuttering feel almost perilous. We are dragged into the frenzied tension between body and text that the stutterer endures, but are then invited to slow down and stop doing. Seducing us into delicate gestures, and almost Butoh-like awareness, the piece allows us to perform quietude, but not acquiescence.

In step inside (2004), participants make visual and aural images appear through the shapes they create with their bodies and echoed footsteps within the performance space, each affecting the other. Entering into a box that is closed off from the outside of the gallery, the participant is confronted with a double-sided screen and a wired floor. Cocooned within the box and the reverberating sound their movements produce, the performer sees only their profile. By cutting a performer off from his or her mirror image, as well as the external reactions of the audience, the work tempts us to leave behind reflection and self-consciousness and, rather, occupy a place of play and intimacy. One participant at a recent showing likened the experience to painting with her entire body.

stuttering won a merit prize (2003), and step inside a major prize (2004), in one of South Africa’s most coveted art competitions–the Brett Kebble Art Awards. Stern has had six solo and duo shows since then, including, “The Storytellers (works from the non-aggressive narrative),” at the Johannesburg Art Museum. After this exhibition, Stern’s work began to branch out of the NAN. His serial faces collage work, for example, was recently featured in Leonardo (MIT Press), and getawayexperiment.net garnered the prestigious Turbulence net.art commission (2005). Over the years, Stern has worked on a number of collaborative multimedia performances which have won several awards, and his ongoing work in video poetry has been screened all over the world.

Perhaps the most traditional of Stern’s work is what has garnered international attention as of late; Compressionism is, for him, “a method of interrogation, an exploration of media and perception; it is a digital performance, and an analog archive.” Stern, simply, traverses bodies, spaces and objects with his scanner face, along varying 3-dimensional paths. With the scanner head in motion, Stern and his prosthetic machine literally compress water lilies, construction sites and local galleries into digital images the size of a small sheet of paper. He then stretches, crop and colors the files, creating static portraits that capture, fossil-like, the dynamism and refractions of his original performance. Through this transfigurative process, sand grains become geological events and trees mutate into atmospheric maps. Compressionism is a transformation of form, texture and color, in which flesh returns caught in verdant slumber, while windows become fiery mosaics. Here, the mundane is given back to us in ways that induce an almost child-like sense of wonder. These beautiful prints feel quite unique in capturing a visual richness and haptic sense of touch rare in the realm of the digital. Stern is currently working with Johannesburg printmakers Jill Ross and Richard Kilpert on an iterative series that takes the images even further through the analogical, utilizing traditional techniques such as lithography, engraving, spit bites, aquatints and more–all in keeping with his manifesto-like rules, available on Compressionism.net. Their collaborative efforts will see an exhibition at Johannesburg’s Art on Paper gallery, February, 2007.

All of Nathaniel Stern’s work exudes this kind of incipience and playfulness. It performs, and asks us to perform, different ways of seeing and being. He invites us to explore, to navigate, and to re-imagine, the spaces between.