Artist Profile: Duncan Malashock



Birthstone Puzzle, 2011 Performance documentation, digital video, 11 mins 47 sec.

I noticed one of your pieces is called Glass Bead Game. A reference to the Herman Hesse novel, perhaps?

How did you know?  I’m totally fascinated by that book and its implications, especially when it comes to culture and the Internet.  In case you haven’t read it, here’s the basic idea:  

It’s a science fiction story, in the distant future on Earth, in a European province named Castalia.  Castalia is the archetypical ivory tower, an academic sanctuary where students practice a form of abstract cultural study called the Glass Bead Game.  The game operates on the principle that every field of knowledge can be broken down into its component parts, and so the “beads” which make up the game are each symbolic of a “unit” of cultural knowledge or accomplishment from the arts, humanities, sciences, history, etc.  The idea is that these beads can be linked and juxtaposed together, the goal being for players to share their revelations of cultural insight through making connections between elements of all the arts and sciences.

“...a passage from the Bible, a phrase from one of the Church Fathers, or from the Latin text of the Mass could be expressed and taken into the Game just as easily and aptly as an axiom of geometry or a melody of Mozart.”

It seems like a utopian idea, the accomplishment of uniting the disciplines, but the story deals with the complications of studying culture while being removed from the necessities and urgency which made that culture possible in the first place; and in a way, it’s about that detachment and privilege symbolizing the end of culture.

I’m sure lots of readers and writers have seen the connection since the Internet was created.  Remixing, memes, “supercuts”, reblogging, and the hyperlink all bear a resemblance to this idealized mode of analyzing and resynthesizing cultural material at a distance.  Even the act of using the Internet, of having a peek at the total field of global culture via the network of information, can pretty easily give you the impression of an ex-cultural experience.  So to me The Glass Bead Game is a really thorough critique of that way of interacting with the world.

Anyway, I think about it a ton, although you’d never know it from that tiny video I made except for the name; it happened to fit in with the series of performance documentations I did, and I couldn’t resist playing around with the idea.  So thanks for asking.

Recently you gave a talk about your early experiences with computers and the tools that you used growing up. Would you still be exploring ideas about technology in your art without this background?

A lot of my work deals with interfaces, either making them, using them, or automating their use.  Those mediated experiences, you could say, are a tech-oriented phenomenon, but really the way I figure it, you could just as well say that any experience can be mediated through anything else that’s a “medium”.  Personally, I tend to explore ideas that come about through my personal relationship to technology as a medium.  And I think that’s pretty normal for an artist, no matter what materials are involved, because I see the creative process as basically being made of two interacting mechanisms.  The first is your own ability to manipulate what you’re working on, and the second is your ability to be emotionally and intellectually affected by the results.  It's a feedback loop, where the results of one process affect the tactics of the other; you see what “works” and what doesn’t “work”, whatever that happens to mean at the time, and you go back and change it until it does.  

From what I can tell, that’s how to play the game, and that’s the way it’s always been done.  I think it applies no matter what your medium is, even if your practice is very conceptualist or driven by critical theory; you’re still manipulating something and being attuned to the result.  Whether it’s paint, or sculpture, or JavaScript, or basket-weaving, or conceptualist declarations, or Facebook performances.  

So even though technology got my attention at a young age, and I’m of course interested in all the ways technology has transformed our society, I think some of the most valuable ideas artists explore are going to be informed by their relationship to the medium they use; I try to stick to that.

You work with some tools early computer artists used and some of your videos look like as though they were made decades ago. What is it about the look of animation from 30 years ago (the Tron aesthetic) that still appeals to contemporary artists?

Well, I have a bad habit of making a fool of myself when I try to speak for everyone, but here’s what I can tell you:  Aside from the obvious nostalgic factors, I got interested in the early computer aesthetic because to me it was so immediate, that phosphorescence and flicker; it’s right on the borderline between an idealized world of information and a living electrical phenomenon.  It reminds me of the excitement of technology, which can be easy to forget these days when it’s so commonplace.  Joseph Campbell called computer circuitry “a hierarchy of angels.”  And I know that’s kind of sappy, but essentially I think that that energetic presence and physical quality of early computer graphics has a lot of evocative power, and it’s interesting to use it to represent forms that weren’t part of the original vocabulary back then.

As for the lasting appeal, you could easily blame the 20- to 30-year cycle of nostalgia, or suppose that other artists are interested in reviving that feeling of technology’s spectacle in the face of its current banality, or that they have some sort of revisionist agenda regarding what they think were the ideals of the time.

That said, I don’t think you can really essentialize a medium or style into representing a certain value, since people get interested in certain things for their own reasons, and it doesn’t necessarily mean the root of their interest in it is stereotypical.  Like how about the painter Odd Nerdrum?  He paints more or less in the style of Rembrandt, and the art-world Pandora might group them both together into the same art playlist, even though Rembrandt would probably have no idea what Nerdrum meant when he talked about kitsch and postmodernity: there’s an example where two artists have a similar style despite having fairly different personal values.  So on some level I don’t think the medium is the message; relationship to the medium is.

A number of side projects like your correspondence blog with Jeremy Bailey, the chats with other artists you've published on your website, and — of course — your idea for this series on Rhizome, seem to be a conscious effort to make connections between artists transparent. Do you feel the internet art community is uniquely connected? How do these relationships influence and play out in your work?

Here’s what I’ve noticed: relationships on the Internet don’t require any context.  For the most part, you get to know people in broad strokes and impressions, and the things you’d talk about first online are usually different from the things you’d talk about first in person.  I can get to know someone I’ve never met in person, see their work, share some insights with them, and I still have no idea of the basic details of their life, the ones that would come out naturally in conversation if you were speaking in person.  And a lot of art interviews don’t stray too far from the “what do you do,” “how do you do it,” and “where do your ideas come from” formula into really getting to know who a person is.  So I saw the interview format as a way to give artists online a chance to share some of their personality and their ideas in a way you don’t get from a CV or artist profile page.  I wanted these interviews to be a step toward that, and also an opportunity for artists we know to tell us about other artists they’re aware of, ones we might not know and might find interesting.

“Transparency,” on the other hand, is kind of a tech buzzword that I don’t personally relate to; it refers to information being automatically accessible rather than ideas being shared voluntarily.  I definitely don’t believe in transparency of information as a de facto standard, aside from the type of information the public has a right to see.  Too much transparency is usually impolite or awkward at best.  And I started my little chat transcript library because of that, because I was really aware of how the public nature of the Internet makes people perform, or hide their ideas, or otherwise change their behavior.  I was talking with these people whose ideas really interested me, but you’d never see those ideas being exchanged except in a private setting.  So I started asking, once some time had passed, if I could share them with other people who might find them useful.

So, to answer your question, the Internet art community is both connected and disconnected in unique ways that wouldn’t have been possible before the Internet.  I’m interested in the Internet art community taking more steps toward filling in the gaps, and, from there, starting to offer our experiences, our techniques, and our insights to each other, and preserving the history of that community.  I wrote an article on it a few months ago which generally outlines what that means, and Rhizome’s role in that process:


Brooklyn, NY

How long have you been working creatively with technology?  How did you start?
I started using my dad’s Compaq Portable when I was a little kid.  Some BBS’s and BASIC programming.

Describe your experience with the tools you use.  How did you start using them?
I think my earliest substantial messing around with interactivity was with HyperCard stacks in the early 90s.  I’d make little adventure games and animations, sound/MIDI experiments.  I took physics classes and computer science classes in C++ in high school, and got interested in Thomas Jakobsen’s paper in the early 2000s on numerical integration for real-time simulations; that paper really broke the simulations field wide open for a lot of amateur programmers like me; I’ve been using his techniques ever since.

Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I studied Integrated Arts (their term for new media) at Bard College, mostly working with Bob Bielecki, a multi-disciplinary engineer and designer who did a lot of work with Laurie Anderson and La Monte Young in the 70s.  He taught me basically all I know about signal processing, sound synthesis, and music production.

What traditional media do you use, if any?  Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?
I’m sorry to say I don’t really draw or paint.  But since most of my work is about interaction with technology in various forms, I do a lot of sketching.

Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?
I write every so often.  I love playing and recording music; I’m trying to make more time for that but it’s much more difficult in New York than in anywhere else I’ve lived.

What do you do for a living?  Do you think your job relates to your art practice in a significant way?
I’m between jobs at the moment; I think it relates to my practice in a significant way.

Who are your key artistic influences?
Bob Ross and Luigi Serafini.

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project?  With whom, and on what?
I haven’t done much of that, but I consider those chats collaborations, and the blog with Jeremy.  What else?  I set up a show last year with Michelle Ceja, Jon Rafman, Nicolas Sassoon, and Artie Vierkant, which was as fun as it was hectic, a great way to get to know them all better.  A lot of Rhizome folks made it out, and that was also the first time I met Krist Wood and Rene Abythe from Computers Club in person, so that stood out as a memorable sort of Internet art circumstance for me.

Do you actively study art history?
Little by little.  It’s hard to know what’s required reading.  I’ll admit I’ve probably been partial to the history of art where technology is concerned.

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory?  If so, which authors inspire you?
I used to, but I’m taking a break from it.  Sometimes I think too much of that stuff will get me thinking that art is a lot more important than it actually is.  But, man, that book I mentioned in the community article, Habits of the Heart, is easily the most interesting read I’ve had in a long time.

Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?
Well, new media seems like it’s doing fine for itself, but when it comes to Internet art specifically, I’m concerned about how differentiated from the rest of the art world it’s remained for such a long time.  More than fifteen years and it still seems like such an island; did relational aesthetics take this long to catch on?  I see so much Internet art that seems really consumed with analyzing the differences between itself and the rest of art history, and I think I tend to relate more to the art that doesn’t make such a big deal about it, that’s comfortable with its place in culture and image-making.