November 29th, 2010
This is the first part of a two-part article focusing on Nathaniel Stern and Jessica Meuninck-Ganger, both printmaking faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Nathaniel Stern is an intensely kinetic artist. While listening to him talk it was almost possible to feel the ideas as they swirl in his head, and being a slower-paced thinker myself, I felt like I was caught in a whirlwind. Stern has the ability to rapidly make many far-reaching connections in his thoughts and inject all this information into his work in a way that makes sense, resulting in some unique pieces that are loaded many layers of concepts to consider.
Originally from New York City, Stern’s background is about as far reaching as his ideas. After earning his undergraduate degree at Cornell in upstate New York, he returned to the city to earn a master’s in computer art at NYU. “While I was there I met a woman and harassed her until she finally agreed to date me, and continued harassing her and followed her home to South Africa,” he joked about meeting his wife. This led to him living there for six years. During this time he helped start the first digital arts program at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, earned gallery representation from Gallery AOP, and forged many other deep ties to the region. “Because of the family that we still have there, and the good friends that I have there from the years that I lived there, we go back probably every two years or so,” he said.
Following his years in South Africa, he spent two years in Ireland at Trinity College Dublin, earning a PhD with a dissertation about critical evaluations for interactive art. Most, if not all of Stern’s work, is interactive in some form, and he wrote his dissertation in reaction to feeling that most art criticism was based on visual evaluations. “This work is performance based, and so we need to look at contemporary theories and embodiment and performance studies in order to break down and criticize that work,” he said.
An example of one of Stern’s earlier interactive installations is a piece called “Stuttering,” in which a movement tracking computer allows the viewer to interact with what he described as an invisible Mondrian painting. The screen is arranged in a grid of rectangles like a Mondrian painting, but the rectangles are instead filled with animated text and spoken word that is activated when the computer senses the viewer’s body moving over them. “It winds up having this inverse relationship where if you move really quickly in front of it, it triggers every single activation point, and the piece itself stutters. And if you, instead, move very carefully and very cautiously, you can hear the piece but then you end up stuttering with your body.”
“Stuttering” is a good example of most of Stern’s work by highlighting the importance of bodily action in creating the work and having several ideas inform each aspect of the work. It looks at the relationship between language and the body, and while language typically exists in text and words, the act of creating these requires an action of the body. “Stuttering” shows the body’s relationship to language as being entwined, but it exists in the larger context of other similar works. “Enter:hektor” is an earlier language/movement piece where instead of the viewer moving towards fixed areas of text, the icons move away from the viewer and they are forced to chase them down. “It’s like, what happens if you literally turn a page, or reach for the end of a sentence? And how do you encounter both yourself and the language that you use?” he said.
Stern said the inspiration for a lot of his work comes from philosopher J.L. Austin, who proposed that language is not only descriptive, but can actually do things to the world. Two examples he gave were that when a person says “I do” at their wedding, they are transforming their identity from a single person into a spouse, or that with a declaration of war someone can eliminate a state of peace.
Interaction is an inherent part of Stern’s computer installations to the point that in essence the viewer completes the work by interacting with it. Without that interaction a major part of the work is missing. But Stern felt like not everyone understood this. “I would often encounter critics who would stand aside in the corner with their arms folded and say ‘this is really interactive, this is performative, this is cool’. To me, the work isn’t the idea that it’s interactive. You don’t experience the work by looking at it, you experience the work by interacting with it,” he said. This experience inspired him to produce more visual work while still retaining the performance element, ultimately leading to the creation of work that he jokingly called Compressionism.
In Compressionism, Stern hitches a customized computer scanner to his body, then moves through a space as the scanner is recording, resulting in a visual record of his body’s movement in relation to the space. The movement of the scanner causes objects to be pressed together into a small space, hence the name Compressionism. He also takes the compressed images and stretches them back out so that the whole motion can be seen in a detailed, panoramic form, and he refers to these pieces as being Decompressionism. There are a lot of variables in the couple minutes that he moves the scanner over the landscape, but he says that he has learned to adapt to the scanner. “It’s very similar to how Pollock would say ‘the paint taught me how to move, and how to perform it’, the scanner has taught me how to perform these images and what comes out of them,” he said.
He references other artists in these works, with one Compressionist work being named “Jo’burg Boogie Woogie” in reference to Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie”, and a recent installation he’s working on is based on Monet’s famous water lilies triptych. And even many of the ideas from his interactive pieces tie into his Compressionist works, and vice versa. He has several scans of bookshelves that directly relate to his interest in language, and hearing him talk so fluently about all of these ideas I got the sense that all of his works are individual representations of the same interconnected web of thought. At the center of this web is his belief in the visceral presence of art in life, that the act of him showing me pieces in his studio is every bit as artistic as a painting or sculpture in a museum.
Stern considers his Compressionist works as being in reference to all of the traditional printmaking media at once in the sense that he is performing a mark-making process, and he also sometimes takes the images or parts of them and uses them to create prints through traditional processes. “It definitely changed the way that I work,” he said of translating his digital images into traditional prints. Producing his images traditionally is another aspect of referencing the history of art, which he does often, and he said he is more conscious of considering how the compressed image might transfer into other print media. “I’ve come to think of myself as a new-media printmaker,” he said. And as we will see in his collaborations with Jessica Meuninck-Ganger, he takes part in pushing printmaking to a new level.
Meuninck-Ganger has come to be an art teacher at UWM through a very different path. She originally started out by double majoring in art education and printmaking at Ball State University with the goal of teaching art at the high school level, which she did for six years before going to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for an MFA. During the time she was at MCAD, master printer Cole Rodgers was starting up the Highpoint Center for Printmaking, which was run in conjunction with the school. She was able to see the more traditional side of printing happening at Highpoint, and at the same time was also being exposed to technological ways of working from the interdisciplinary philosophy of the school, and also book arts through her mentor, Jody Williams. “All of these diversions from the traditional print shop I was forced into, so I feel like I came out of my education where it wasn’t technique driven, but concept driven, and I just had to take whatever technique would best support that,” she said. “I think that’s why I connect so well with Nathaniel, because we speak the same language as we come up with the concept.”
Before she started her works with Stern she was working on a large-scale book project that uses a combination of etching and lithography. Rather than using the processes traditionally to produce multiples, she used the print processes to make assemblages of printed images that were one-of-a-kind. “I haven’t editioned since grad school,” she laughed. The examples she had hanging in her studio were at least eight feet tall works with images of faces in different expressions and arrangements on both sides. And instead of being displayed in a typical book format, these pieces were meant to be hung in an open space where the viewer can walk around them, and also handle them if desired.
The pieces are in fact personal journal pages which she made for public view. She started working on them during a time at MCAD when a lot of big things were happening in her life. “My father in law passed away, my grandmother passed away, I had my son, just all these personal things were happening that seemed larger than me, so I wanted the scale to be large. And although they were very personal they were universal in nature. We all go through these transitions, so my journal didn’t seem right to be a private work anymore, I wanted it in a public space,” she said. While making these journal pages she wanted to incorporate text into them, but thought that words would fall short of expressing her emotions. So instead she relied on the expressions of the faces to instill a sense of what the journal was saying in the viewer.
While Stern’s interest in interactive art eventually led him to printmaking, Meuninck-Ganger’s interest in printmaking eventually led her to interactivity in her work. “I recognized interactivity with the artist’s book and being able to manipulate it, and picking up time-based works,” she said. “I just wanted to push the idea of the print, push the idea of the book, push the idea of new media and interactivity.” Initially she resisted the inclusion of new media in her work, but later realized that it offered a new dimension that she had trying to achieve through traditional means. So she began using new media to push her printmaking into a new area, and at the same time pushed the new media into a new realm, and working together with Stern made a very compelling body of work.