Mint Gold Dust


Interview with VIRGINIA VALENZUELA – January, 2024
Original interview on 79 AU, the Mint Gold Dust online magazine

A hack saw, a trowel, a haxe. These are the tools that build homes, that dig into the earth to make way for growth, that cut into matter to form something new. They are each an ordinary object; each just as capable of becoming a piece of garbage as they are of becoming a piece of art. Each just as capable of creating things as they are of destroying them. It is to this very crossroad that Nathaniel Stern guides us in his collection, “Circuitous Tools,” which was featured in Mint Gold Dust’s “The Golden Age” exhibition in New York City last fall.

Center work: “Hack Saw” by Nathaniel Stern on view at Superchief Gallery, NYC

Nathaniel Stern is no stranger to paradox. Many of his works dig into the dichotomy of being: how death brings life, how light only exists in relation to darkness, how the most meaningful gift is what you can offer when you have nothing left to give. “Circuitous Tools” is no different. Originally included in the traveling exhibition “The World After Us: Imagining techno-aesthetic futures,” each piece in the series is made from circuit boards that have lost their ability to power technological tools. Thus remade into tools for construction, these artifacts reimagine the very idea of what a tool really is. Exploring the philosophical and practical implications of tools in “Circuitous Tools,” Stern invites us to consider the power that these seemingly mundane objects hold.

But to understand the work of Nathaniel Stern, one must first take stock of the circuitous route that led him to ecological waste. A visual artist, a writer, a clothing designer, a programmer, a philosopher — these are just a few of the labels that Nathaniel has associated himself with during his creative career. Going back and forth between the physical and the intellectual, the literal and the intangible, some concepts began to take shape, first in the realm of poetics.

Pieces from “The Word After Us” by Nathaniel Stern and Sasha Stiles

In a collaboration with the celebrated AI researcher and poet Sasha Stiles called “The Word After Us”–a sort of homage to Nathaniel’s “The World After Us”–Sasha and Nathaniel tinkered with the idea of simultaneously reading and unreading a poem. As if Sasha’s poem–itself a collaboration with her AI alter-ego Technelegy–were a physical substance, like paint, that could just as easily be spread over a canvas as it could be wiped away, words and letters appear in the artwork in various textures. Sometimes the words come into focus one pixel at a time, like a work of pointillism coming into being. Other times, the letters are stamped onto the page, one on top of the other in spirals and swirls, like a typewriter losing its mind.

“Let me first say that, to me, I first and foremost always treat language as a material,” Nathaniel told me over a video call, his retro iMac sat atop a filing cabinet behind his desk. “And I also understand materials as always having meaning. My second book, “Ecological Aesthetics,” is also very much about, not ecology as an organism or a system, or biological system, but rather a system of forces that together push and pull to make what ‘is,’ and those forces range from matter and things and bugs and quanta to words and love and physics and concepts and categories and all these things are forces on the making of what ‘is.’ And so to me, the power of language and the power of matter–”

“Is what matters?” I interjected.

“Is what matters, right,” he said, smiling. “Language matters, and I could even go back to Karen Barad where she pushes back on language matters, fiction matters, semiotic matters. The only thing that doesn’t seem to matter anymore is matter.”

Speaking to the way Nathaniel’s algorithm reproduced the text of the poem, he constantly comes back to the idea of the texture of text, how words can elicit meaning beyond the literal.

“You get a line by line, and on the one hand, the full community has to mint it to perform the whole poem because everyone gets a line,” he said. “And even some of them will never be performed because it’s random, not iterated, right? But then on the other hand, it actually unreads itself. And so it smudges into a Rothko-esque painting, and yet we can bring forth the text again with keystrokes, but then it smudges again over time and more and more.”

Pieces of “STILL MOVING” by Nathaniel Stern and Sasha Stiles

In another collaboration entitled “STILL MOVING,” Nathaniel and Sasha create an interactive poetry piece in which the viewer’s movements initiate movement in the artwork. The artwork, in turn, is made up of words of a poem that go in and out of legibility. The words and letters become a motional metaphor, their meaning captured, not in literal translation, but in the feeling the physical interaction evokes. 

For Nathaniel Stern, the power of language is palpable. “So I remember I was a musician and a poet first,” he told me. “And then, I started making clothes and being interested in the body. And then I went back to language and I remember learning Jail Austin’s definition of the performative, and to me this was magic. The idea that words can do things with the words I do, I transform from a single person to a spouse. If I knight thee, you are Sir Vinny, and it’s like a literal ontological change in the world…but of course, eventually that also led me back to the extreme as if language is the only power, and then went to ecological art and waste, and back again, and forward, and again. It’s wondrous.”

Nathaniel Stern’s “The World After Us” interrogates the dichotomy between nature and technology. Instead of treating them as opposites, Nathaniel fuses them together into an unexpected and at times uncanny harmony. Plants grow out of broken computers, mushrooms sprout from old Apple watches, vines tie together various outdated cell phones, headphones, and keyboards. He envisions a future in which nature reclaims man made technologies, breathing new life into objects that human society has quickly forgotten (RIP Nokia flip phone).

“Haxe” by Nathaniel Stern, Collect

Ironically enough, many people think that these artworks were made, not with raw materials, but with artificial intelligence. “Especially now, people often think ‘The World After Us’ is a series of AI-produced images,” Nathaniel told me. “They don’t realize this is well before AI [the traveling exhibition began in 2020]. Like, what software did you use to make that mushroom growing out of a watch? Um, I used the mushroom on a watch.” He laughs. 

With our consciousness going deeper into the digital, we seem to be forgetting the tactile. Like software forgetting the hardware that houses it. For this reason, Nathaniel is increasingly excited and hopeful for the benefits of blockchain technology as it applies to art. What thrills Nathaniel the most is “the provenance of [these pieces] being actual physical photographs, even though they’re digitally native, because they come from digital tools that produce them. And then also the fact that they were shot on digital photography, to me that story and that dialogue, and being able to tell the story on Mint Gold Dust, the fact that you said you wanted to challenge it.” Challenging the notion of “digital,” and if it really is so different from the physical. And challenging the applications of blockchain beyond authenticating and monetizing digital art.

“Hack Saw” by Nathaniel Stern, Collect

And it is in this vein that “Circuitous Tools” comes to life. But rather than allowing nature to reclaim the defunct technology, Nathaniel does this himself. Taking circuit boards as his material, he carves out pieces and shapes them into tools of labor. Each piece makes use of waste to create something beautiful, and, ironically, without a practical use. In doing so, Nathaniel emphasizes the importance of recognizing tools as not just mere objects, but rather extensions of ourselves. They are an integral part of our existence and have the ability to influence not only our physical environment, but also our thoughts and actions.

“The most important takeaway from ‘The World After Us’ as a whole,” Nathaniel said, “is to stop seeing this–I’m holding up my phone, readers–as an object, that I need the new one of, that I talk on, and understand it as not even a thing, but as matter.” He then touches on the global nature of the phone, the wondrous, dark universality of it. “I’ve got a piece of Africa in my pocket. And I’ve got some of the Congo, and I’ve got some of Silicon Valley, right? And it’s gonna dissipate there again, so blending folds, cutting them up, recognizing them as garbage, not just blackberries as garbage, but all phones as garbage.”

“Trowel” by Nathaniel Stern, Collect

Through his work, Nathaniel Stern not only challenges our perception of tools and technology, but also our understanding of language and communication. “Something that [Alfred North] Whitehead often said,” he added, “was that a dog doesn’t see a chair. A dog sees sit-ability. It sees its own relation to material around it. And I wanted to bring us back to that space for our electronic priceless objects to some extent. There’s a there there, then, with, the initial question of ‘The World After Us.’ What will this look like in a million years?” In a million years when absolutely everything has turned to dust–or in the case of our electronics, toxic sludge?

Like a pensive yet hands-on philosopher, Nathaniel blurs the lines between the physical and the abstract, inviting us to question what truly holds power in our world and how we can use it to create a more sustainable future. As we enter an increasingly technologically-driven society, Nathaniel’s work serves as a reminder to not lose touch with the natural world and to use our tools wisely, with both creativity and responsibility.  The intersection between art, technology, language, and nature is where Nathaniel Stern’s work truly shines, inspiring us to think beyond conventional boundaries and see beauty in unexpected places.

Each artwork is available as both an NFT on Mint Gold Dust and, for those buyers, as a physical sculpture on Iterati. Find your favorite tool and add it to your wallet and your living room.

Original interview on 79 AU, the Mint Gold Dust online magazine