Humorous and surprising, smart and provocative, Rethinking Curating: Art after New Media (MIT Press, 2010) jumps from opposing viewpoints to opposing personalities, from one arts trajectory to another. The entire book is a dialectic exercise: none of its problems or theories are solved or concluded, but are rather complicated through revelations around their origins, arguments and appropriations. Overall, the book adopts the collaborative style and hyperlinked approach of the media and practice it purports to rethink. In other words, it is not just the content of the book that asks us to rethink curating, but the reading itself; by the end, we are forced to digest and internalize the consistently problematized behaviors of the “media formerly known as new.”
Kate Mondloch’s first book, Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art (University of Minnesota Press), is a welcome study of the cathode ray tubes, liquid crystal and plasma displays, and film, video and data projections that “pervade contemporary life” (xi). The author reminds us that screens are not just “illusionist windows” into other spaces or worlds, but also “physical, material entities [that] beckon, provoke, separate, and seduce” (xii). Most importantly, however, Mondloch’s approach is that of an art historian. She does not merely use art as a case study for media theory, but rather makes the contributions of artists her central focus in this, the first in-depth study of the space between bodies and screens in contemporary art.
In his book, Parables for the Virtual, Brian Massumi calls for "movement, sensation, and qualities of experience" to be put back into our understandings of embodiment. He says that contemporary society comprehends bodies, and by extension the world, almost exclusively through linguistic and visual apprehension. They are defined by their images, their symbols, what they look like and how we write and talk about them. Massumi wants to instead "engage with continuity," to encourage a processual and active approach to embodied experience. In essence, Massumi proposes that our theories "feel" again. "Act/React", curator George Fifield's "dream exhibition" that opened at the Milwaukee Art Museum last week, picks up on these phenomenologist principles. He and his selected artists invite viewer-participants to physically explore their embodied and continuous relationships to each other, the screen, space, biology, art history and perhaps more.
Fifield is quick to point out that all the works on show are unhindered by traditional interface objects such as the mouse and keyboard. Most of them instead employ computer vision technologies, more commonly known as interactive video. Here, the combined use of digital video cameras and custom computer software allows each artwork to "see," and respond to, bodies, colors and/or motion in the space of the museum. The few works not using cameras in this fashion employ similar technologies towards the same end. While this homogeneity means that the works might at first seem too similar in their interactions, their one-to-one responsiveness, and their lack of other new media-specific explorations -- such as networked art or dynamic appropriation and re-mixing systems -- it also accomplishes something most museum-based "state of the digital art" shows don't. It uses just one avenue of interest by contemporary media artists in order to dig much deeper into what their practice means, and why it's important. "Act/React" encourages an extremely varied and nuanced investigation of our embodied experiences in our own surroundings. As the curator himself notes in the Museum's press release, "If in the last century the crisis of representation was resolved by new ways of seeing, then in the twenty-first century the challenge is for artists to suggest new ways of experiencing...This is contemporary art about contemporary existence." This exhibition, in other words, implores us to look at action and reaction, at our embodied relationships, as critical experience. It is a contemporary investigation of phenomenology.
Time and Seeing
come have a drink with us, look at art,
and celebrate the birth of Sidonie Ridgway Stern (sorry, she will not be
Outlet gallery, Saturday 10 June, 16:00
earth (2006), metallic lambda print, 50 x 25 cm
Time and Seeing
an exhibition of Compressionist prints
outlet gallery, 1 May - 12 June
closing reception on Saturday 10 June, 16:00
full invitation @ http://nathanielstern.com/blog/2006/05/01/time-and-
Time and Seeing exhibits selections from nathaniel stern's
Compressionism - a "digital performance and analog archive.
Africans to learn about online contemporary art from two of its
ongoing pioneers and most noteworthy supporters of commissioned work.
Live and in person!
The Upgrade! Johannesburg and Wits Digital Arts proudly present:
(also sponsored by The Trinity Session)
Friday 7 April, 3-5PM
Visiting from the US, Turbulence.org is an internationally renowned
net.art commissioning organization - a continuing pioneer in funding
contemporary conceptual artists working with networked media. For
years, they have been commissioning international online art,
including Johannesburg artists Nathaniel Stern and Marcus Neustetter
Turbulence is co-directed by Helen Thorington (founder of New Radio
and Performing Arts, Turbulence's mother organization) and Jo-Anne
Green (a Wits alumnus!). The two will be presenting a very biased
history of web-based artwork, showing projects they have commissioned
as well as some of their own, and will then be taking questions.
No knowledge of web technology necessary!
Open to all!
See you there,
Interview with Michael Szpakowski by Nathaniel Stern
Michael Szpakowski has spent the last 30 years collaborating across
varying theatrical, visual, sonic, and digital media. His vlog,
"Scenes of Provincial Life," was recently featured on Rhizome's Net
Art News. Rhizome is our shared community that he claims literally
changed his life. We had an e-conversation about his work,
philosophies, and interests.
Nathaniel Stern: I find it fascinating that the two of us were
recently so drawn to each other's work, despite the fact that we knew
nothing other than current projects. When I suggested an interview,
you first sent me to "Enemy of the People" < http://
www.somedancersandmusicians.com/enemy/AnEnemyOfThePeople.html > - an
interview with your father. It's haunting to me that both of our
parents/ grandparents are Holocaust survivors/ victims from Eastern
Europe. I feel like I might have known. How do you think this comes
across in and/ or influences your work?
Michael Szpakowski: I shy away from the idea of "national character."
It's always struck me as deeply absurd that one should feel
allegiance to the particular lump of earth on which one happens to
have been born. Nonetheless, I think my background did have a big
influence on me, concretely through the person of my late father who
died aged 91 in 2004. I adored him & he brought me up with a sense of
a world beyond the rather parochial suburb of Sheffield in the North
of England in which I grew up. He was a link to a vanished world, of
pre-WWII Eastern Europe. Most importantly, he was a paradigm of what
it means to be a decent, gentle, modest, yet resilient human being.
His spirit haunts much of my work He also left me with a soft spot
for East European culture - though he had no great interest in the
arts - nature was his thing,
NS: I hadn't seen your "Five Operas" Shockwave works < http://
www.somedancersandmusicians.com/5operas.html >, and they kind of blew
me away. When were these made? Can you talk a bit about the
collaborative process? The combination of Kurt Weill-like music with
Brechtian themes, a bit of fluxus style--there's a real interruption
of the 4th wall, but it becomes new in the digital, through your use
of clay, static images, your framing of the frame, found objects,
collage. Can you tell me about your choices for visual representation
of the sound?
MS: This project was a coming together of two lives: a personal
project & a massive collaboration, which included arts outreach work.
The end product is online, the original material & collaborators were
gathered & recruited online, but lots of stuff happened in the real
world in between. I issued a call for opera libretti exactly 100
words in length & received a large number of submissions.
Heartbreaking choosing, but I narrowed it down to five that I thought
were unequivocally great. I set them to music & found singers--a
chorus from a local Primary School & soloists from a Further
Education (16-19 yrs) college. It was a long series of rehearsals--
the music is difficult and demanding to sing. We did a performance of
the pieces one night for the kids' parents and friends & recorded
everything the next day. Then I created the visuals. A lot of these
consist of found or appropriated stuff - my drawing skills are
rudimentary, but I can cut & paste with the best of them. So the clay
figures came about because one of the teachers at the primary school
thought it would be fun to make them & I'm for going with the flow. I
also used manipulated photos of participating kids, rough sketches by
the librettists... lots of stuff, lots of image-related ducking &
NS: How would you say these compare to your more recent works:
"fresco", "motion picture", "noir", "road movie"? < http://
MS: My interest in computers is to augment the conventional moving
image with another dimension. Instead of a single work, I like using
generative processes, and a database of material to create a suite of
closely related works, pretty much infinite in number. --i.e. A
generative work which would be both somewhat predictable in rhythm,
but also surprise you in its specifics. I'm not terribly interested
in "interactivity." It strikes me as rather dull in most instances.
Really great art is always interactive in a really deep & gripping
sense, a sense much deeper than that of picking from a menu and
clicking on something.
NS: Can you tell us a bit about your process? Both generally and
specifically, I mean--what are two projects you've worked on whose
processes differed greatly, why, and which collaborative efforts
changed the way you work or the ways you see your work process?
MS: With the movies, I start with stills, or some video footage.
Sometimes this will involve preparing some kind of performance, or
maybe some drawing or painting, prior to any imaging. Then sometimes
it's simple--edit the video in Premiere, animate the stills. More
often it's quite a complex routine. I'll export some of the footage
as stills. Work on them in Photoshop or whatever, bring them into
Director, do stuff with them there, re-export them as QuickTime. Then
quite often do some stuff within QuickTime, filters, etc.
Occasionally, two or three cycles of this process. There's also the
sound/music, which I usually score in Sibelius, send to a software
sampler & then fit to the images, or sometimes the other way round.
I'm quite interested in accidents--so on occasion I'll deliberately
use apparently "inappropriate" music to see how the outcome reads.
I'm fascinated by how the spectator contributes to artistic meaning &
how this meaning is malleable to a point, but not infinitely so.
There are 'anchor points'--the work itself, including the artist's
intentions; social & historical context--how the existence of the
work in time contributes to an accretion of new & altered meanings
for it; and finally what an individual viewer--her psychological
makeup, her personal story etc--brings to the work. All are in a
highly complex dialectical relation. I'm interested in testing this
question of the viewer as meaning-maker, as it were 'inside' the
work, which is where my interests in chance and generativity come in.
In terms of chance operations I'm a Lutoslawskian rather than Cagean--
I'm interested in controlled chance. In musical terms, I'm just
widening the normal parameters of performance a bit. At one time in
the Western tradition, dynamics wouldn't have been notated & nor
would the particular instruments a work was to be performed upon
(whereas 20th century classical notation is in general notoriously
fussy). So in works employing generativity I always try and have a
notion of how all possible combinations of the source material might
turn out. I do a lot of testing & if even only once out of a hundred
runs through something unsatisfactory to me comes up, I go back to
work on the piece. Hardly a Zen-like surrender to chance is it?
NS: I love your new vlog of 100+ quicktime shorts, "Scenes of
Provincial Life." < http://www.somedancersandmusicians.com/vlog/
ScenesOfProvincialLife.cgi > Aside from the sorrowful beauty, the
quirky and experimental framing, I found it fascinating that you also
published such a long text about the work process (on Intelligent
Agent < http://www.intelligentagent.com/archive/
Vol4_No4_video_szpakowski.htm > ). It feels like less of an artist
statement, and more like a glossary of interventionist strategies. It
feels like a very generous series, a gift to the art world on some
level. Can you talk about the series, and your commitment to others
in the digi-arts community?
MS: The fact of the moving image is what rings my bell, more than
anything else--anything. It simply awes me that such a thing is
possible, and the philosophical questions arising from the moving
image (& indeed the image tout court) seem endlessly fascinating.
This stream of frames that give the appearance of motion! Also, the
possibility of editing at the level of each individual frame. The way
the moving image brackets within it masses of different practices:
performance--narrative or otherwise--drawing, painting, sound/ music
work, collage, confessional, diary, documentary, various kinds of
appropriation/remixing/variation forms--and also the possibility of
generative work. Once I'd got used to using a computer for music, I
realised that essentially the digital was an enormously democratic
sphere--a stream of ones & zeros is a stream of ones & zeros &
subject to similar processes, whatever it represents - sound, image,
process... I started making pieces of what I suppose could loosely be
called "net art"--things with a degree of interactivity/ generativity
partly because I felt it was the done thing. Then in 2003 there was a
call for ten-second films somewhere. I made a couple of these, one of
which, "A Tiny Opera for Anna," became one of the first in the
collection of QuickTime movies. Then I thought, I love this! I really
don't give a monkey's whether what I am doing is "idiomatic" or not.
As for subject matter, I use what I know--lots of references to my
own life but in the hope (& belief) that there's some universality
there, that "everything is connected" as good old V.I. Lenin said,
not at all trivially.
NS: Finally, how does this influence your "double life," and versa
vice? Your CV exhibits a very different image to the net.artist I
know from the ether. Many digital artists have a bread and butter
"day job" they mostly don't talk about in their online personas, but
it seems yours have an interesting interplay. Talk about this work
and its impact.
MS: I started off working in 1977, as a musician, in small scale
touring theatre, often with quite a political/ educational edge. I
did that until 1988 when I did a math degree. I was set to become a
professional mathematician when someone offered me a job teaching
music & theatre & I couldn't resist the siren call. I taught
throughout the nineties but increasingly also did lots of arts
outreach, often site-specific, work for the arts department of a
local council. In 2000 I quit teaching to work full time in the arts--
mostly outreach work, but also for the first time developing a
personal body of work which is what anyone who knows me from the web
will be familiar with. It was like being reborn. Things like Rhizome,
Webartery, Netbehaviour, etc were an absolute lifeline. I'm so
pleased I happened across a reference to Rhizome in Lunenfeld's "Snap
To Grid"--it literally changed my life. I continue to do outreach
work. It keeps one grounded. Currently I'm working with my friend,
the dancer & choreographer Jo Thomson, towards a dance/ music/ video
performance piece in a special school for children with severe
learning difficulties & also with a group of adults with similar
difficulties, with whom we have established a regular working
relationship. There's a lot of debate about this sort of work around
"process & product." For me they're equally important:
(1) Process is not all--if the participants have had a great time &
the end result is crap then you've failed.
(2) Equally if you make something utterly beautiful & the
participants have been miserable, alienated & resentful then you've
You've got to aspire to make art that is as good as if you'd made it
yourself under perfect conditions, but that also respects, challenges
& engages the non-professional participants. As long as society is
organised the way it is there are going to be specialists. I see no
point in downplaying any skills I have in the interests of a falsely
democratic notion of "empowerment" because inevitably, the artist's
influence is still there, but hidden & hence dishonest. Nevertheless,
I do firmly believe cultural activity to be a profound & universal
human drive and need and I look forward to a world in which everyone
will have the right & the time to be artistically active at a high
level and where I and other professional artists become redundant as
professionals, because everyone is doing it, just as everyone eats,
sleeps and breathes.