NY Arts Magazine artist feature

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.

Die Beeld exhibition review

nathaniel stern:  review in die beeldStern manipuleer oog om alledaagse nuut te sien
original article

Stern manipulates the eye to see the everday anew
by Franci Cronje

One of the strongest critiques of digital art (often rightfully so), is that appropriation and unoriginality are always at its core. Many hijack the conceptual frames of popular culture and media, or historical works, without adding much value. Seldom do we find fresh processes or ideas that ask us to engage in real discourse.

Nathaniel Stern’s Outlet exhibition, ‘time and seeing’, is exempt from such criticism. He is the father of an exciting new art movement called ‘Compressionism’. In Stern’s own words, he ‘uses simple, digital technologies, in combination with performance and exhibition, to explore different ways of looking’. Compressionism sees a performance-based scanning of large objects, followed by the digital ‘stretching’ of resultant images to original proportions. To accent certain elements, Stern manipulates colour and contrast. The final product is a combination of the recognizable and unrecognizable, in beautifully flowing images and forms.

By way of a quite old-ish scanner (Stern says newer ones are too light sensitive for exterior use) connected to his apple computer, he scans wildlife and landscapes bit by bit. He straps a handmade scanner-cum-computer-appendage to his neck and braves the Emmarentia dam looking for water lilies. He glides over a nude, or executes intricate movements in front of a bookcase. The end result is really new and fresh. Although his pieces refer to Duchamp’s ‘Nude descending a staircase’, Monet’s ‘Water lilies’, and the performative elements of Jackson Pollock’s dripping paint technique, it is light years ahead of postmodernism’s “references and re-referenced” in existing imagery.

Stern’s conceptual inspiration comes from Jackson Pollock, the American pioneer of Abstract Expressionism. Jack the Dripper (so called after he introduced the world to ‘action painting’) perfected his dripping technique as he moved away from conventional easels and paintbrushes. Stern’s scanner, playfully called Action Jackson, fulfils a similar function to Pollock’s sticks, knives and trowels – moving away from the camera and LCD screen.

Stern, like Pollock, also works with a mixture of the controllable and the uncontrollable. Initially, he followed forms and figures strictly from one end to the other; more recently, he has changed his technique substantially. He will hover over a certain part, for example, in order for an Agapanthus’ petals to be discernable, but the rest of the image flows into abstract shapes and hues.

For Stern, an important part of performance art is its ephemerality and fragility. The landscape’s impermanence is further accented through his use of shifting pixels – concept and image are transfigured into an almost transcendent artwork with its own life. His images accent the transience of nature, and of science.

Viewers have had astoundingly different reactions to the eleven prints on show. Some of them see only the seductively beautiful images. Others immediately recognize their art historical references. The artist himself re-members his process-as-performance: where he hovered over a part of the object, while scanning faster over another. For me, it is intriguing that the brain constantly tries to form some kind of closing. My eye follows the lily leaf in the one corner, and tries to make conceptual sense of its other fragmented parts. At some point, my right brain takes over and I revel in the form, colour and perfect balance between these strange prints.

And this is where Stern really succeeds as an artist: he invites us to look with new eyes at the world around us.

original article

ArtThrob artist feature

nathaniel stern: ArtThrob ArtBioNathaniel Stern
by Ralph Borland (February, 2006)

Nathaniel Stern is an artist, a teacher, a technologist, a blogger, a social catalyst and constant networker in the art community. As an artist, his works spans performance, poetry, interactive installation and video, net.art and print. Originally from Staten Island, New York (otherwise known as ‘Shaolin’ to those ‘other’ Staten-Islanders the Wu Tang Clan) Nathaniel has been a South African for some time now, after falling in love with (and marrying) South African drama academic Nicole Ridgway and moving to Johannesburg in the early 2000s. Nathaniel’s artwork often touches on the mutability of personal identity, as in his assumption of multiple personas through his video performance work. His ideas around the body, a centre in much of his art and his focus in recent academic work around The Implicit Body, speak of the body and person ‘enfolding’ the world around them into themselves, and so constantly transforming.

His ‘real life’ contains many such echoes, or expressions of, the ideas in his artwork. There is little hierarchy to the number of social and professional roles he plays, as there is an undermining of hierarchy and linearity in the forms of narrative he investigates in his work, especially through his formulation of the Non Aggressive Narrative, or NAN. For his latest art project, Compressionism, Nathaniel rigged up a portable scanning unit which he uses to capture and digitise grass, leaves, objects – the physical environment – which he manipulates on the computer and makes physical again through high-quality prints. Nathaniel the person shifts as fluidly between the physical and the digital worlds as his artwork does; many people must know Nathaniel only through his online presence on his blog, “one of the most popular sites in the South African art world” according to Carine Zaayman.


A lot of my earlier work treated the body as text and as concept, and I think some interesting provocations came out of that space, but it has inevitably led me now to the inverse: flesh as performed and emergent. Perhaps we are not ‘in the between,’ as mediated and mediating preformed entities, but rather, ‘of the relation’ – continuously transfigured through/with inter-action. I’m interested in the aches and beauty that come out when we aren�t looking, when we experience bodiliness in different ways, when vision is something we gesture towards, rather than own.

Although I’d never deny my own fascination with gadgetry, appendages and other prostheses, I see them only as any other catalyst – tools to help us question, engage, play, perform – and the complex inter-course that hopefully manifests is always already beginning.

What is at stake is the body and art as cooperative sites of potential resistance, counterinvestments in the automation of meaning, begging us to ‘look again’.


Despite his prolific arts production, blogging, writing and collaborative projects, Nathaniel says he must constantly give himself deadlines – both real and artificial – in order to actually “finish” anything in his “gadget- and paper-infested anarchy”. He rapaciously grazes websites, books, magazines, bounces ideas off anyone who will listen – nine out of ten of which never go anywhere. He spends a great deal of time experimenting with his media, and seeing what will happen, but even more time critically engaging with what it does and what is at stake. Dedicated to inter-disciplinarity and collaboration, he has worked across choreography and theatre, poetry and academic writing, photography, video and installation. Things like programming and video editing sometimes dictate purpose and structure to his otherwise chaotic process, and so the final works often exude a very serious playfulness. Of his community-building work, through workshops and teaching, and more informally his hobby of usefully connecting people to one another, he describes himself self-deprecatingly as “a bit of a grazer” – other people’s ideas excite him and fuel his work.


“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.”
– Nicole Ridgway’s bio / feature on Stern for NY Arts Magazine, March/ April 2006

“More remarkable work from Nathaniel Stern as he reworks, in the most curious of ways, Woody Allen�s Annie Hall. Interesting that although the working method here seems almost diametrically opposed to the hands on, performative approach found in ‘the odys series’ ([Stern’s feature on] dvblog 01/05/06) here too is that same sense of the fragility & vulnerability of human beings and their bodies & psyches & of the unreliability of the language we use to try & make what we want to happen & to relate or lie about what did.”
– Michael Szpakowski on “at interval” and “the odys series,” video artworks in DVblog, January 2006: http://dvblog.org/?p=933

“Nathaniel Stern, new media artist, and tireless blogger of the media art scene in Johannesburg, has created a hauntingly poetic digital backdrop – a combination of sombre, abstract textures and live video feed which enacts a disjointed dialogue with the dancers. Reminiscent in its brooding shadowy forms of Kentridge’s parade of coal black despair, Stern�s work is a new media expression of South Africa�s new sorrow.”
– Lizzie Muller in “The Future Makers” on a work with PJ Sabbagha, RealTime Magazine #70 (Australia), January 2006

“Their second experiment… makes quite a marked impression, in the way that it utilizes simple technological processes to ask viewers to look anew at art and the artwork at hand… Different from the norm of this type of art – the changing and moving image – Neustetter and Stern capture time itself, and not the movement as such.”
– Wilhelm van Rensburg (translated from Afrikaans), on Nathaniel Stern and Marcus Neustetter’s “experiment02” in Die Beeld, “Exsperiment wat kyker se kyk na kuns belig,” May 2005

“Akin to John Cage’s reading of James Joyce’s Wake, the results are unique and aesthetically sound. The narrative cores of the works are not easily detectable, giving the audience licence to navigate. Benjamin writes of the danger of interpretation, commenting that the �chaste compactness of a story which precludes psychological analysis� is powerful enough to arouse �astonishment and thoughtfulness�, forever. Further, he comments on the ability of a story to make the reader lose him/herself. This is one of Stern�s central promises.”
– Robyn Sassen on “the storytellers,” a solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Museum: Art South Africa, February 2005.

“Stern and Neustetter’s project is not one for computer geeks or the art world only, but has a broad reach across the production of the urban signwriters, the critical voices against the monopolisation of technology and information as well as the spectrum of people tired of the limited input they have on the web.”
– Carine Zaayman on Nathaniel Stern and Marcus Neustetter’s “getawayexperiment.net,” in “Remixed/Re-signed: The GetAway Experiment.” February 2005: http://www.artthrob.co.za/05feb/project.html


Nathaniel’s current art project is part of an investigation called Compressionism. Nathaniel rigged up a harness for a flatbed scanner and laptop combo – named ‘Action Jackson’ – allowing him to scan any surface, anywhere:

“I literally glide, hover, run and swoop over trees, windows or bodies while the scanner head is in motion, and the results are these amazingly rich and textured, paper-size images. I then re-stretch, hand-color and crop the files, in order to accent the dynamism and refractions of my performance, before going to print; I call it my ‘digital performance and analog archive.'”

With an overt wink to art-historical ‘ism’s, compressionism.net promises a manifesto to come, and spells out a totalising approach to making Compressionist work. Beyond the humour, Compressionism does have real formal links to historical art movements – it is Impressionist in it’s concern with and reliance on light and colour as primary tools of representation; Cubist in its ability to map all surfaces of objects rather than choosing a single viewpoint; and is an act of sampling from the world, as in the art practice of figures like Marcel Duchamp. Titles such as ‘Nude Ascension’, or ‘Emmarentia Lilies’ (a triptych) reinforce the connections to the work of Duchamp and Monet that Nathaniel wishes to establish.

Nathaniel made these formal choices – allusion to art history, the production of a traditional medium – in part to invite more traditional art-viewers into the digital space. He is excited to be working with tangible media whose production was digital and interactive, but that excites non-techies, too – though he notes that the project has in fact been very well received by the digital art community. The work is destined for a solo show at Outlet Gallery in May/ June. MacFormat magazine is doing a back-page spread on the series in an upcoming issue, and a feature in NY Arts magazine comes out next week.


Both ‘step inside’ (2004) and ‘stuttering’ (2003), interactive installation works, were exhibited at, and won prizes at the Brett Kebble Art Awards; ‘stuttering’ a merit prize in 2003, and ‘step inside’ a major prize in 2004. Nathaniel seemed at least partly responsible for opening space within that national art event for interactive or New Media work generally. His proposal for this year’s Kebble Art Awards, a collaboration with Nicole Ridgway, was an even more ambitious work in a similar format.

“The Storytellers (works from the non-aggressive narrative),” was shown at the Johannesburg Art Museum, and featured the ‘odys’ video series, prints and ‘step inside’. After this exhibition, Stern’s work began to branch out of the Non Aggressive Narrative. His serial faces collage work, were featured shortly after in Leonardo (MIT Press), and getawayexperiment.net (with Marcus N) garnered a Turbulence net.art commission (2005). Nathaniel exhibited prints and interactive work at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival. He was included a large panel discussion on the state of new media art, with the likes of Thando Mama, Sean O’Toole, Clive Kelener, Churchill Madikida, Marcus Neustetter and Christo Doherty.

This period also saw the start of the fruitful and ongoing collaboration of Nathaniel Stern and Christo Doherty, head of Wits University’s Digital Arts MA program. Aside from co-designing the successful Interactive Media Arts program in WSOA digital arts, now in its fourth year, the Stern/ Doherty team initiated atjoburg.net (http://atjoburg.net), an online forum for creators working in electronic media, curated two well-received digital art exhibitions, held half a dozen workshops on physical computing and interactive video and have thrown several VJ parties around town. Doherty was co-director for the Unyazi Electronic Music Festival, while Stern is known as the tireless net-writer on local work – on his blog, rhizome.org, SAartsEmering and networked_performance. Since its inception, the department has boasted its “Digital Soiree,” regular Friday get-togethers that have featured the likes of Hans Ubermogren, Konrad Weltz, Ralph Borland and Aryan Kaganof, and their collaborative efforts brought the first Digital Artist in Residence at Wits, Joshua Goldberg – who performed and lectured throughout Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Nathaniel Stern started his blog in February 2003 and hasn’t looked back since.


Nathaniel was moving between New York and South Africa; in South Africa he worked intensively with SA choreographer PJ Sabbagha, writing and performing poetry and animation for stage. “The double room” won 3 Vita Awards. He went on to work on three more pieces with Sabbagha, all of them going to Grahamstown Festival. He worked on Hektor.net, a video poetry site and [odys]elicit, the first interacive installation he built in SA. The former won an International Digital Art award, and traveled around the world with the RRF festival, while the latter went to the MCA in Sydney for the D’Arts02 Festival and to the Chaingmai New Media Festival, Thailand. It was a finalist in the Permian Media Art Festival.

In America, he was awarded an artist residency at Cornell University, where he was a New Media Room featured artist in the Johnsom Museum. Nathaniel and Nicole were married, and he graduated from the Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP) at New York University and started up nathanielstern.com


At the ITP, Nathaniel made work for his first group exhibition in upstate New York: hektor.net and enter:hektor – video poetry and an interactive installation. He also made it into the “team ithaca” slam poetry team and competed at the Nationals in Minneapolis.

Nathaniel studied fashion and music for his undergraduate degree, and was the saxaphone player and one of two singers in a ska/reggae/jazz band called ‘The dominant Seven’. Their whole album used to be available on mp3.com, says Nathaniel, but alas no more…


Nathaniel will be exhibiting works from his Compressionism series in May/June at Outlet Galley in Pretoria, and he will be looking for international and group exhibitions for the work. He has just launched saartsemerging.org and Upgrade Joburg, which will feature work by such luminaries as MTAA (NYC) and the co-directors of Turbulence.org (who commissioned getawayexperiment.net) in the coming months. This establishes another node on a global network of Upgrades. In other respects Upgrade is similar to, and will extend the work of, the Digital Soirees organised by Christo and Nathaniel, and other similar local events – like the Upload events held by LIquid Fridge in Cape Town, with which Nathaniel also participates.

He will also have video work on the traveling T-Minus06 video art exhibition, which starts in NYC. There is an all-Gauteng artist exhibition of interactive art in the pipeline, to be held at the prestigious Arts Interactive gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nathaniel helped to set this up after giving a talk there late last year. He has been invited to make a work for computerfinearts.com, to be archived by The Cornell University Library, The Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, a Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

On the academic front, Nathaniel is writing a collaborative chapter for an upcoming book on cyberculture with Nicole Ridgway, called “The Implicit Body” – “it interrogates embodiment as relational and incipient, investigating how interactive art might create sites where flesh and artwork continually co-emerge, enfolding and unfolding, in a complex inter-course”.

He did the rounds of lectures and workshops overseas while travelling last year, from New York to Budapest, and he hopes to do more of the university circuit in South Africa this year – more interactive video and physical computing workshops are in the offing. All this and he’s looking into possible PhD programs too.

And last but definitely not least, Nathaniel is preparing to be a dad – he and Nicole launch their finest collaboration this May.

Read on ArtThrob…