PetaPixel feature

Experimental Underwater Scanner Makes for Beautiful Happy Accidents
Gannon Burgett for PetaPixel

If you enjoy strange and experimental photography, Nathaniel Stern‘s work should delight you.

For the past ten years, Stern has been creating experimental image-capturing devices using a conglomeration of hacked-together desktop scanners, battery packs and other various computer components. Once created, he straps these machines to his body and takes them from location to location capturing images unlike any other camera out there.

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In his latest series, Rippling Images, Stern decided to take his images one step further by venturing to take these experimental camera creations underwater. It didn’t come easy though.

Stern spent months getting certified for a number of open-water diving licenses. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was helping his team piece together what would eventually become the five final models of the device he would be taking underwater.

Made out of everything from welded metal to magnetically-triggered buttons, the devices didn’t actually capture what Stern was hoping for at all. But what they capture, Stern still found beautiful… if not more beautiful than his usual work.

The scratched surfaces of the plastic showed up, unplanned reflections made several appearances, and the images were just overall more experimental than he could’ve ever expected:

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Experiment might as well be Stern’s middle name though, so he took everything in stride and used it as a learning experience, sharing his thoughts in a video that we’ve embedded at the top.

It comes in just shy of three minutes, so give it a quick watch to see Stern and his unusual devices at work, and then head over to his website to see more of his work.

Read the article on PetaPixel

WORT fm Radio Feature

Stern traverses the land- or seascape with a desktop scanner, computing device + custom-made battery pack, + performs prints into existence.The 8’oclock Buzz: Return of the Frankensteined Scanners

Last time we spoke with Milwaukee artist Nathaniel Stern, he was trying to jerry-rig dozens of flatbed scanners to take peculiarly framed, high resolution underwater photographs. Well since then, Nathaniel reports that nearly everything that could possibly go wrong with that project did. Nathaniel Stern joined the Monday Buzz once more by phone from Milwaukee with an update.

Download the mp3 (13mb), or listen to the entire interview about performative printmaking / Compressionism with host Brian Standing:

Radio feature

The 8’oclock Buzz: Frankensteined Scanners Under the Sea

Last time the Monday Buzz talked with Milwaukee artist, Nathaniel Stern, he was sending tweets into space and subverting Wikipedia for his own nefarious artistic ends. Now, he’s jerry-rigging flatbed scanners for high-resolution, time-shifting underwater duty. Listen as Nathaniel explains to host Brian Standing how to turn a flat imager into a self-contained scuba camera, the philosophical nature of an image, and more.

Download the mp3 (13mb), or listen to the entire interview about performative printmaking / Compressionism with host Brian Standing:

M Magazine

Scanning the Artscape
Five artists on the rise in the cream city
by Tory Folliard with Christine Anderson; portraits by Dan Bishop

Milwaukee’s Third Ward has been named one of America’s Top Twelve Art Places 2013, which recognizes neighborhoods in the largest 44 metropolitan areas in the country where the arts are central to the social and economic vibrancy of a neighborhood. Even with a flourishing art scene and a wealth of talented artists — in the Third Ward and beyond — many artists still remain unknown to most Milwaukeeans. Here are five artists to watch chosen by Milwaukee art curators….

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“I believe that art can change what we see and do, and are.”
— Nathaniel Stern
, Milwaukee: Interactive, Installation and Video Art | nathanielstern.com

Giverny of the Midwest (detail) - R5

Curator: Graeme Reid, assistant director of the Museum of Wisconsin Art.
“Stern is one of the most creative, articulate, imaginative artists in the state and, frankly, the country. He should be an international art star. Actually, he is! I can’t think of too many other artists in the state who are building a similar resumé.”

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Back Story: The former New Yorker has an impressive resumé of exhibitions and awards from all over the world. (He recently exhibited in January in Johannesburg, South Africa.)

Stern’s interactive art often centers on bodily performances. In his current “Compression” series of prints he straps a laptop and desktop scanner to his body and performs “images into existence.”

Moving his body while he scans the landscape around him, Stern creates images that are later made into prints. He is an associate professor of art and design at the Peck School of the Arts at UW-Milwaukee. His work is on exhibit locally at Lynden Sculpture Garden in a collaborative piece with Jessica Meuninck-Ganger.

Download full / print article (PDF, 1.5mbs)
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Art South Africa

art south africa nathaniel sternDirty Hands or Hands-off? – The Print Matrix in a Mediated Milieu
by Dominic Thorburn

Since the very first images were made by dipping hands in natural pigment and pressing them on cave walls in Lascaux and Altamira artists have been getting their hands dirty to make their mark. These simple images have to be some of the most economical, powerful and evocative symbols known to us. I believe it helpful to revisit visual images of this nature, to regain perspective and seek solace in them – especially at times when contemporary questions abound such as those being asked at this colloquium.


Of significance is that these images were transferred from one surface to another – an impression being made by pressing the hand to the rock, and it is this apt term impression that is still used today to describe the action of printing. Essentially there needs to be a surface or matrix that holds the pigment and one that accepts it when pressure is applied – this transfer is central to the notion of print. Also importantly these impressions were repeated many times, a synthesis of sorts – an action resulting in a fusion of sameness. This multiplicity or repeatability is also central to the concept of print and one often refers to printed images existing as multiples, essentially plural images that exist as more than one in an edition or series.

Reflecting on these evocative handprint motifs one could conclude that in reality a printed image was being made due to the transfer of the natural pigment or ‘dirt’ to the receiving surface. In turn one could well contest that in the beginning was not the word but the visual image, and in truth in the beginning was the print. Undoubtedly these motifs were the start of a pictorial language, a visual syntax with far reaching resonance.
The basic desire and need to reproduce visual images traverses from these early hand prints deep in dark caves – to the fast forward some 40 000 plus years later at the other end of the spectrum with our modern high tech digital matrices and endless choice of printed and virtual outputs. There has probably been no invention as unparalleled, as critical, or as influential on the history of civilization as the print – certainly not until the information age of the digital revolution. The history of the graphic print is really the history of innovation in communication – the need for multiple visual images in order to facilitate the transmission and ease of dissemination of information and knowledge, in effect print was largely responsible for the liberation of thought.

As with language the printed image is never static but constantly evolving. Printmedia by their very nature have always been in flux, ever changing in their technologies and thus latent expressive powers, aesthetics and reach. This perpetual shift, this ability to synthesise remains its forte and has ensured the survival of printerly images within our visual psyche. Technical innovation has been inseparable from the creative development and evolution of printmedia over the years – with a number of different printing techniques being invented and evolving over the years – woodcut printmaking, being followed by engraving and etching, then lithography and screen-printing, and more recently photomechanical and digital processes. Often trendy terms for some of the processes were introduced to separate them from the applied art or commercial use – the term serigraph for screen-printing, xylograph for a woodcut, xerograph (from word Xerox) for a photocopy, and more recently giclee for an inkjet print … the word having derivation from the French verb ‘gicler’ meaning ‘to squirt’ or ‘ejaculate’! Often used colloquially for the way a tom cat marks his territory.

The shifting ground of prints has though not meant that it has discarded the technologies of yesteryear in order to embrace the new. Consequently traditional mediums have often been integrated and synthesised with cutting edge technology into current art practice. One that has seen an energetic and accelerated evolution of contemporary print from that firmly grounded in modernist, often painting-based aesthetics, to embrace a broader postmodern and post-postmodern territory – an undeniably transformed and expansive artistic landscape. Importantly print is also a mediating messenger with the inherent capability to traffic the intersections between high or fine art and that of popular, commercial or applied arts.

In the past boundaries which defined the activities of printmaking were limited to technical categories – most often the techniques or mediums used to make prints. The print was defined as the map and not the land the map describes. As with language the printed image is not static but evolving. Print today is not a technique, a category, or even an art object; it is a theoretical idiom of developing ideas and dialogue. In the same manner as language cannot be defined as alphabets, words, or syntax , printmaking cannot be defined as a series of technical processes. It is more appropriately defined by its function, its philosophical approach, and the conception and evolution of ideas and images it generates. Print may stake claim to creative territory which goes beyond any map; the meaning of the images produced by printmedia become the expanded terrain, the mediated milieu of the dialogue, the larger picture.

Print “continues to shape shift with alacrity and take on numerous alternative forms”   and increasing numbers of contemporary artists are once again embracing print in its many varied, mutated and synthesised forms – as happened in the late 1970’s and 1980’s in what was known as the ‘Print Renaissance’. There really are a myriad of contemporary artists that use printmedia in one or more expanded manner in their practice today.
Nathaniel Stern is a prolific experimental video installation and time based artist, and writer who also harness’s printmaking to extend his repertoire:

”I combine new and traditional media to create unfamiliar experiences of that which we encounter every day. My art attempts to intercept taken for granted categories such as ‘body,’ ‘language,’ ‘vision,’ ’space’ or ‘power.’ It works to refigure fixed subject / object hierarchies as unexpected and dynamic engagements…
Through performance, provocation and play, my work seeks to infold our unfolding relationships with the world, and with one another. I invite viewers to explore, to embody, and to re-imagine.”

Compressionism is a digital performance and analog archive started in 1996 where Stern straps a desktop scanner, laptop and custom-made battery pack to his body and performs images into existence. He might scan in straight, long lines across tables, tie the scanner around his neck and swing over flowers, do pogo-like gestures over bricks, or just follow the wind over water lilies in a pond. The dynamism of his relationship to the landscape is transformed into beautiful and quirky renderings, which are re-stretched and coloured on his laptop, then produced as archival art objects using photographic or inkjet processes. He also often takes details from these images and reinterprets them as traditional prints: lithographs, etchings, engravings and woodcuts.

Michael Smith comments that “Stern’s entire process expands to encompass fairly traditional printmaking techniques, and a great tension is established by this…. The results are compelling, an amalgamation of visual languages from two very different ends of Western Art history…one that accrues a salacious, lo-fi quality that adds another dimension to Stern’s repertoire”  . It is interesting to note that these works are not only painterly but undoubtedly printerly in their aesthetic; in addition the notion of compression and pressure that is so vital to printmaking is central.

Oscar Muñoz, a revered Colombian artist examines the relationship between image and memory creating images that address the ephemeral nature of human existence, disappearance and history, loss and remembrance. Due to its intrinsic conceptual nature the work defies definition by medium, blurring boundaries between photography, printmaking, drawing, installation, video and sculpture. Although Muñoz has abandoned traditional formats, he skilfully utilises specific technical and conceptual aspects of printmedia – and further occasionally incorporates self-destructive elements to purposely challenge the consistency of reproduction that is synonymous with printing.  The expressive power of his work is as grounded in the inherent qualities of the materials he employs as in the poetic associations they evoke. The ethereal fleeting qualities of images that morph in and out of existence resonate as the artists’ signature mark.

Through his innovative processes, such as printing charcoal pigment on water, or using human breath to reveal discretely printed portraits onto ostensibly blank mirrors, Muñoz creates unstable images that oscillate between presence and absence. He appropriates portrait images from newspaper obituaries that include victims of drug trafficking and political conflicts in Colombia. He is fascinated by photographic images as the primary documentation of a person’s physical existence in a culture besieged by the vulnerability of life. Oscar Muñoz manipulates the photographic images in order to question the meaning of identity and to reflect the process of recollection and fading memory, alluding to the transitory nature of human existence, memory and history. The dissolution of an image is viewed and experienced as a manifestation of the person’s disappearance.

Narcissi in Process is a set of self-portraits printed in charcoal powdered pigment on water in shallow vitrines lined with paper – the water slowly evaporates during the course of the exhibition, eventually allowing the pigment to settle onto the paper in a slightly altered version of the original portrait image. The inevitable variability of the process makes the resulting enigmatic image in each vitrine unique. Biographies is a related video installation of images in which Muñoz again creates these video portraits by printing pigment onto water in a sink and then films the disintegration of the portraits as the water drains – the process is also shown in reverse with the result that the portrait continually dissipates and reconstitutes in an haunting ebb and flow.
Xu Bing, probably the most revered contemporary Chinese artist at present, has harnessed and utilised print integrally in much of his work. The process of creation has become a dominant subject of his work, and his interest in process has expanded beyond the work of art per se, to the process of interpretation that follows the work’s exhibition.

Xu Bing began possibly his best known work, A Book From the Sky, shortly after graduating from the Central Academy of Arts in Beijing. This work made it obvious to him that art can evoke dissimilar responses when it addresses loaded issues – here the value of traditional culture in a modern society, the trustworthiness of knowledge, and the futility of existence. The work consists of an installation of books, scrolls, and large printed sheets of paper typeset from thousands of small wooden printing blocks into each of which Xu had carved an imaginary Chinese character – between three and four thousand were printed to approximate the number of Chinese characters in frequent use. Through the process driven printmatrix he deconstructed the written word, negating the basis of Chinese culture while simultaneously constructing a solemn, dignified world where the familiar is invalidated – he spent three years of laborious effort to create a superficially meaningless (and potentially frustrating) series of books, scrolls, and posters.

With the well known performance piece, A Case Study of Transference, Xu Bing deliberately combines powerful cultural icons with emotionally laden issues, and leaves the reading open. This work clearly illustrates how, after assembling a group of loaded symbols including nature, culture and sex, he allows them to interact without over-direction and accepts the ensuing evolving interpretations. For this piece Xu Bing selected a male and female pig, and literally printed the boar with nonsensical letters from the Roman alphabet, and in turn printed the sow with the illegible characters he had created for A Book from the Sky – two printmatrix surprises deliberately provoking disparate readings. He then placed the pigs in an enclosure strewn with books in other different languages with the intention that they should mate. A video of the event, also entitled A Case Study of Transference, documents the process leading up to the performance, including the surprising difficulty of obtaining two pigs that would be willing to mate, and the actual work involved in printing on pigs!

Read entire article

Sunday Independent

Sunday Independent, Nathaniel SternCreating new Impressions
This article by Mary Corrigall appeared in both the online and print editions of the Sunday Independent

Impressionism has become so unsexy in the last couple of decades. Well, in art circles, that is. Mostly it’s because this once avant-garde French movement has been embraced with such gusto by the masses. For this reason many overseas public galleries wishing to up the foot traffic in their institutions and assert their relevance to society stage themed shows from this period, or exhibitions by artists connected to it.

The frequency of these impressionism blockbusters has rendered the art from that movement blasé. So it is surprising to find a multi-media artist who embraces what is termed “contemporary practice” to be so captured by the art of Claude Monet and in particular his artwork Water Lilies (1914-1926). As the title suggests they are paintings of the most banal of still life subject matter: tranquil ponds dotted with lilies Monet spied in his garden in Giverny, France.

For Nathanial Stern the radicalism of the impressionist vocabulary hasn’t quite worn off. He returns to it anew with an eye for reinventing it for the digitised era. Like many viewers who have stood in front of Monet’s large scale paintings in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Stern was seduced by the romantic, hazy lens through which Monet depicted this bucolic scene. In his version of Monet’s Water Lilies he has retained the large scale in his triptych Giverny of the Midwest – the pond he studied was in Indiana. Stern was aware scale played an important role in creating an immersive experience for viewers. He deconstructs and then reconstructs Monet’s approach, but this activity is not in service of demystifying, or satirising it, but re-enacting a moment in art history using digital media.

“Immersion” and “deconstruction” inform this body of work and Stern’s mode of documenting reality, which involves an HP scanner harnessed around his neck as he wades through the pond. Put plainly, he scans his subject matter. Because he does not remain static while doing this he generates images that appear life-like, but distorted. Not too unlike the kind of distortion reality undergoes under Monet’s heightened gaze, which amplifies the physical and sensual properties of his interest.

Just as Monet realised a purely figurative rendering of organic life doesn’t quite relay the physical experience or weight of reality, so does Stern recognise a straight life-like scan won’t do so either. Stern’s proximity to his subject matter facilitates a level of abstraction before he has even begun his process of “decompression”, which involves undoing the compression of the image. He is so close to his subject matter he doesn’t necessarily observe it, but is immersed in it. Because of this the view is distorted. It is a bit like putting the lens of a camera right up against that which is to be photographed.

Physical distance is a prerequisite for representation. Stern’s approach challenges this idea for not only is he immersed in his subject matter, but ironically he equips himself with a gadget that has no view-finder so he is unable to see the images he is capturing. As a result he records while not being trapped by, or implicated in, the act of recording. Thus representation is separated from seeing, it becomes an intuitive act of another kind.

This, of course, is the antithesis of the effect digital mediums have had on a society which has become more consumed with the act of documenting life that reality is viewed through a lens. In this way Stern succeeds in achieving what Monet never could: he is able to exist in a moment without the burden of reconstructing it. For this reason he is a participant rather than a detached observer. Stern is able to produce images that relay so much detail, like a insect caught in a petal or the veins of a leaf. These details might have evaded his detection despite his proximity and immersion. This suggests he was unable to fully appreciate the scene in its totality. In this way the full weight of reality is always withheld.

It is only in the processing of his scanned images, in which he stretches them out, that another encounter with his subject matter becomes possible. This encounter is obviously subject to his manipulation; he heightens the colours and decompresses the images to such a point that they are abstracted.

Stern doesn’t present one cohesive view of the pond, but a plethora of cropped details of it. The images are pieced together to form three larger “canvases”. They need to be scrutinised up close, where you can spy traces of the submersion of his physical being in the work – denoted by finger prints.

These works are excessively beautiful and compel immersion. Viewing them is a time-demanding exercise, which defies our usual consumption of imagery. This is exacerbated by the number of small canvases one must view, which appear like pieces of a puzzle even though they do not fit together to create a complete image. These are fragments of reality. Stern suggests a scene cannot be relayed in its entirety, so despite his reverence he challenges Monet’s work. Stern doesn’t order the visual world; he casts his garden pond scene as an indeterminate one that exists beyond the boundaries of any frame.

*Giverny of the Midwest has been on show at the Art on Paper Gallery in Joburg.

read the entire article online
see it in the print edition