Andrea discusses art & music in academia, ventriloquist dummies, fear, her process and the silver lining of quarantine. Andrea will be performing ¡Portate Bien! at #CURRENTS2020. Check out more of Andrea’s work at andreapensado.com
“I think that the most important thing, and the most difficult thing, is to communicate honestly with a person.”Andrea Pensado
Bel interviews CURRENTS 2020 artist, Sarah Banks. Sarah talks about her 3D-animated video, Tunnel of Love, as well as about some of her favorite objects, her experience as a CURRENTS intern last year, instagram filters, a very special animatronic piggy bank and more! Check out more of Sarah’s work at sarahabanks.com and see Tunnel of Love in full at CURRENTS 2020!
by C Alex Clark
For our latest collaboration, Currents 826 has teamed up with CENTER to exhibit the work of five photographers as a part of their annual Santa Fe Photo Review. While none of the photographers fall under the category of what we might commonly consider ‘new media’, like most contemporary photographers they do all currently use digital processes to realize their work. I was curious about their processes, how they combine the techniques and concepts of digital and pre-digital ‘traditional’ photography, and what they felt were the implications of creating in a post-digital age. My initial question and the responses from each artist follow.
C: What traditional, non-digital photographic processes do you feel inspire the aesthetic and concept of your work? Can you describe some of the technical or conceptual ways you have incorporated the look and feel of these processes into your work? How do you think exploring traditional photography can affect the aesthetic of the digital world?
Andrés de Varona: Visually, I feel that traditional practices such as calotypes, ambrotypes, and daguerreotypes were a good point of departure for me and influenced the kind of atmosphere I wanted these images to manifest. Conceptually I always felt more engaged by ritualistic practices found in religion. At the moment however I find myself particularly interested in Santeria because of my Cuban heritage, and Catholicism because of my upbringing and the different kind of sacramental stages I had to go through growing up
The ceremonies I create with my family members work in the same way that religious rituals do with the main task of calling upon something greater than ourselves, and deepening spiritual insight through a set of actions. As I’ve grown older, I’ve detached myself from Catholicism, yet I continue to use this idea of rituals to help shape my emotions, re-discover myself again, and embrace death as something beautiful.
The pictures you see here start in total darkness with my family members beside me, and all of us in total silence. Whether my siblings are physically in the photo or not, they are almost always present off scene. I add ‘light to a dark place’ both technically and conceptually in the sense that my lighting is artificial and specific, illuminating something you couldn’t otherwise capture no matter how long your shutter is going for. Yet the ritual itself is what transcends the light as we interact with it. It becomes a subject in the photo – it’s someone else in the photo. This is us reaching for that contact with death and building a deeper connection to our own lives, as well as the mystery that comes afterward.
I think traditional photography teaches us how to slow down when making an image, which I think is one of the most important lessons in a world where everything has become so immediate. When you’ve handled a large format camera, or printed in the darkroom, you become exposed to a whole new set of sensibilities that I don’t think initially exist in digital photography. If you truly spend time working with analog processes, I believe your relationship to photography becomes much more enriched because of all the complexities, formulas, and time you need to take into consideration when working in the darkroom. I think having that initial knowledge aids in enabling you to push the boundaries of what digital photography can be.
Manuela Thames: I have always been heavily inspired by traditional darkroom black-and-white photography, especially older photos or those taken with limited technical expertise or equipment. I feel drawn to surprise, unpredictability and imperfections in a photograph and the depth and layers of mood, meaning, and emotion that it adds. So even though I use a digital camera, I often aspire to a similar aesthetic of older, less sophisticated equipment. I have at times experimented with film cameras, even toy cameras, to discover what can be expressed with them.
The analogue medium also brings a certain tactile quality that I have lately been experimenting with. In my most recent project “Trauma”, the initial self-portraits were shot digitally, often using long exposure, and then printed. I then manipulated the prints by adding tape or string, dust from my bookshelf, and by tearing them apart and putting them back together in a different way. I would then take a photograph of the altered prints to produce the final image.
As I said, there are possibilities for expression that depend upon what are, in other contexts, considered imperfections – lack of focus, over- or under-exposure, and so on. When we fixate on mastering our technical expertise of the modern digital camera, we can easily overlook those possibilities and thereby limit ourselves. In older photographs, those “imperfections” were often unavoidable due to limitations of equipment or technique, yet the images they produced were remarkable. Going back to such images produced by traditional photography, and allowing myself to be taken in by the extraordinary depths that are contained in them, has been a window into the beauty that can emerge when we embrace the imperfect.
Jonathan Lipkin: The most important pre-digital work for me was the music of Philip Glass, most particularly in the film Koyaanisqatsi. I hadn’t really understood his influence until after I had started the work, but his music ran through my younger years, and echoes in my head today. I would watch Koyaanisqatsi repeatedly, letting it draw me into a state of near transcendence. I was drawn to Glass’ music – its subtle changes to repeating cords – along with Godfrey Reggio’s filming which distorted time. Glass’ other works like Music in Changing Parts, Glassworks, and others continue to delight.
Later, while working on the Translucence of Time, I recognized the resonance that this work had – Glass’ ability to find beauty in the layering of rhythms, and Reggio’s manipulation of our perception of time through film. This was a part of how my work understands the ocean, as a series of interrelated and interconnected eddies and currents, and that by manipulating the viewer’s perception of time, I could bring it into line with my own.
I don’t [think traditional photography should affect the digital world]. We should understand new media for what it is, and its transformative effect on human creativity. The digital realm is a domain of limitless territory. Electronic digital technologies give us newfound freedom to form and shape the creative acts that produce culture. Old media clings to new media, until new media can find its own vocabulary.
Melanie Walker: The alchemy involved in the medium is what has always driven my curiosity. I am fascinated by not only the materiality inherent in the photographic process but also it’s prehistory.
The chemistry of analog photography made ether real…ethereal realities…the record of silver particles dancing.
The fact that Daguerre created dioramas before the daguerreotype has created a connection the proscenium in the theater. The picture frame is the stage and what goes on off the stage remains an unknown.
As a visually impaired person I experience uncertainty on a constant basis with my double vision. Through the use of layering and transparency (which are both inherent in the photographic medium) I attempt to serve as a bridge between the sighted and visually challenged communities to create an immersive tactile experience where ‘reality’ can be questioned
Ryan Schude: The process of light being recorded on a digital sensor shares more similarities with its analog sibling than differences. What they both accomplish is an ability to sit with a brief moment that you might not otherwise have the opportunity to dwell on in everyday life. Even if you witness the same instant with your eyes, the image is changed once it is bound within a frame and offered the context of the photographer’s choice to say, “look at this”. The decisions surrounding that context inspire the aesthetic and concept of any photographer’s work, the technical aspects of recording what they see is only a function within that process.
The following conversation covers her practice and unique use of fabric, as well as her experience working at Meow Wolf, followed by a a short Q&A.
This work started with an impossible ask from a theatre company. They wanted costume components that could expand and contract and I didn’t know how to do it, so I took the job. The accordion, honeycomb fabric that came out of that project has become a focus of my sculptural practice as I continue to be fascinated with its strange beauty and possibility.
These forms are made from cloth, sliced into discrete pieces and reorganized, a slight reconfiguration that transforms it entirely. From start to finish it is a material of contrasts. The process of making it is meticulous and repetitive, yet the installation can be quite intuitive. Though it can be easily manipulated, it is most intriguing in its unexpected self-organization. Expressing weight and lightness, sheerness and density, it’s complexity emerges from simple repeating forms. It is not a singular sculpture but and endless configuration. More than anything, I have a deep affinity for its rhythmic physicality, and the intensity of looking that it invites.
Sarah Bradley is a multidisciplinary artist living in Santa Fe New Mexico. Her practice spans writing, audio, sculpture, installation, and costume and she has worked collaboratively with a variety of artists, written extensively on photobooks and co-runs the Santa Fe art and music venue Etiquette. Bradley is a Creative Director at Meow Wolf and a co-host of the Too Sick podcast.
by C Alex Clark
Stills was shown at Currents New Media Festival 2019, as well as the exhibition Reprise at Currents 826 in August 2019
Vision is a subjective experience. What a person actually sees is influenced by their culture, knowledge, thoughts, physical condition and emotional state. My work calls attention to the process of seeing, using technology to offer heightened awareness. While photography freezes a moment in time, this work uses augmented reality to juxtapose stillness and motion, permanence and change.
A small wooden desk waits for a participant. In rows on either side of a black cloth, a series of printed photographs on aluminum are presented, upright and orderly, to be selected by the hand of the person sitting at the desk. Once in hand, the photograph can be held over the black square, illuminated from above, and suddenly a monitor situated on the other side of the desk from the participant displays a video in place of the photograph. Stills goes beyond a clever use of Augmented Reality (AR), and works to blur the lines between digital technology and tactile sculpture, still photography and video, what has past and the present moment.
A physical relation to the body – placing the participant at a desk and inviting them to hold a photograph in their hand – allows Stills to transcend the typical use of AR. Most augmented realities are trapped behind a screen, a reality that exists as an amalgam of physical and virtual space, but one that is perpetually beyond our reach inside of a device. In Stills, the device is hidden – a smartphone mounted inside of the desk – which allows the magic of the AR experience to become the significant effect. The desk and photographs become activated by a participant using the sculpture to reveal time, blending the present with moments of the past.
Following are two questions asked in conversation with Sarah Spengler about her inspirations for and interpretation of the work.
C: Who/what are some of your artistic or conceptual kin?
Sarah Spengler: I have been deeply inspired by the work of Bill Viola. The first time I saw his work in person, it felt revolutionary. Not only was he using imagery and sound in installations, but he did so in a way that gave his audience an immersive experience. One of my favorite things about Stills is watching viewers discover that the still image in their hands suddenly becomes a moving image. It’s often a moment of surprise, wonder and even joy.
Viola’s ideas about perception and time have also had a profound influence on my work. I often quote his writing: “Landscape can exist as a reflection on the inner walls of the mind, or as a projection of the inner state without.” A strong theme throughout many of my pieces is the idea that vision is subjective. I believe that what and how we see is dependent on numerous personal factors, including our language, our cultural knowledge, and our state of mind.
When I first started working on Stills, I was thinking about Viola’s earlier single-track videos, such as Ancient of Days, where he presents multiple scales of time simultaneously. I hike quite a bit and am frequently struck by how both stillness and signs of considerable change (fallen trees, rockslides, canyons) can exist at the same time. I also believe that beauty, or at least the constant play of light and sound, is made accessible through stillness, or what Viola calls “contemplative vision.” “Beauty” is both too loaded and too diminutive a term, though. What I was really exploring in Stills is a state of consciousness or a sense of the ineffable that Viola describes as “that something else [that is] dimly felt behind the veil of everyday life.”(Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994, p.174)
C: Could you elaborate on how you feel Stills addresses our perception of time and describe your use of AR to overlay two temporal realities, the moment of capture and the moment of replay?
S: I began working on Stills in earnest during a visit to the Grand Canyon. It is impossible to be there and not notice the juxtaposition between the geological scale of time (deep time) and the length of human existence. The contrast is both reassuring and disturbing, a shocking reminder of both our insignificance and our impact. If we imagine the life of our planet as the length of a year, Homo sapiens only appear a half-hour before midnight on December 31st. How could one species alter the planet so quickly? We have been busy.
Standing at the rim of the canyon, I had the sense that I was witnessing these two different time scales simultaneously. The ongoing deep carving of the land by a river played in slow motion while the human activity on the surface seemed sped up to an almost comically fast pace. There was so much scurrying at the rim of the canyon, people racing to designated viewpoints to take selfies, that I felt like I was watching ants building a nest.
For me, photography has been a way to slow down and observe something deeply. I fell in love with photography in the 80s using film. Despite my fascination with and adoption of new technologies, I am concerned about the omnipresence of the pocket-sized, recording devices in mobile phones. My use of AR in Stills, was an attempt to highlight the moment of capture and extend the moment of replay. I wanted to reference the snapshot while providing an opportunity for more intensive looking. Some of the videos in Stills are slowed down. Others repeat in endless loops or are made using stop- motion animation.
One of my goals in both my teaching and my art practice is to bring awareness to and prolong the act of looking. My favorite photography assignment, for example, is to have students “make the familiar strange.” I like to quote Russian theorist, Viktor Shklovsky:
Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war…. Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life, it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.
I don’t believe that this is the only purpose of art, but slowing down looking and bringing attention to the beauty in the banal is a worthy goal in itself. It also may have unintended positive effects. I am wondering, for example, what the impact of this type of slowing down would have on our rates of consumption.
Sarah earned her Master of Fine Arts in Photography from the University of New Mexico in 2002 and holds a BA in cultural anthropology from Bates College. She has exhibited her work throughout the United States. Her exhibition record includes: 222 Shelby and Hahn Ross in Santa Fe; Galleri Urbane in Marfa, Texas; the Albuquerque Art Museum; Red Eye Gallery in Providence, Rhode Island; Tamarind Institute; and Chenevert Green in Houston, Texas among others. Sarah has also received numerous awards, grants, and recognition for her work, including a Creative Work Grant from the Art and Technology Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a Hoffman Mellon Grant. Sarah has also been awarded artist residencies at the Jentel Foundation in Sheridan, Wyoming, and the Kala Art Institute in Oakland, California.
Sarah served as the Lennox Visiting Young Artist at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas for the 2004-2005 academic year. She has also taught art at the College of Santa Fe, Skyline College, San Mateo, CA; U.C. Berkeley Extension, San Francisco, CA; City College of San Francisco, CA; and the University of New Mexico. From 2010 through 2018, she taught photography, video, art history and new media at New Mexico School for the Arts. She currently teaches photography at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
by C. Alex Clark
Are we disappearing into the digital? How do we act when we leave our bodies behind? What new ways of interaction can be experienced in the space between the digital and the real?
These are some of the questions which Avital Meshi addresses in her work. Along with the experience of juggling motherhood, art-making, and the academic, Meshi also has had a strong presence in online virtual worlds (such as Second Life) for several years. This has directed her investigations towards the performative aspect of interacting within the virtual, as well as the space for interpretation, learning, invention and imagination that spans the uncharted terrain between the virtual and the real.
While we can easily accept that all interaction between two or more people within the ‘real’ world is mediated, from the simplest fact of our body language to the complex systemic control factors which direct current society, when a digital-virtual mediator is inserted into human interaction there is an increased ability to generate new modes of connection. Not only is the user able to generate a virtual ‘body’ which might more closely reflect their internal image of themselves potentially increasing an individual’s effectiveness, but the virtual world – through the advancement of Artificially Intelligent digital systems – also has agency . AIs are now guiding the way in which two ‘real’ humans might come to meet, interact, and participate in both real and virtual worlds.
Through these five questions – presented to Meshi over email correspondence – we tap into the insight she has gained through stepping into these virtual worlds, bringing back her experiences, and inviting us to join her in the as-yet undefined realm which connects the real and the virtual.
C Alex: What is New Media to you? How does the combination of art and technology lend to the opening of conversations around our relationships to art, each other, and the world?
Avital: ‘New Media’ as I see it, includes all communication technologies which are outside of mainstream use. Starting from technologies which are in early stages of development, the ones you read about in scientific papers, and all the way to technologies which have already been introduced to the public but which people are still not thoroughly familiar with yet. Knowing the power of communication technologies to change the face of our society and culture, I find it fascinating to see how these technologies are being approached with both excitement and fear. People are curious about them but are also worried. Since these technologies are still developing, often times they are glitchy and incomplete – an aspect which spices up the conversation with some more insecurities, but also with humor and originality which I find to be extremely creative. I find that many of these technologies invite interesting questions which may reveal some understandings regarding our social structures. It seems to me that no matter how new the medium is, structured knowledge and predispositions quickly form around it, so that even before we even fully understand it we already set ourselves with some rules regarding when, how, where and who should use it. But eventually, the new technology brings with it a need to change habits, behaviors and ways of thinking. When these clash with some more traditional elements of our culture we can expose and examine pre-existing patterns and structures of knowledge. I find it fascinating to explore which of these new behaviors we adopt and which we reject and how these eventually shape our identity and our culture.
C: How has New Media shaped your practice? Are your projects generally responses to technology and the way it is affecting the world, or do you find that the consideration of technology comes after the instigation of a concept which you are exploring?
A: In my practice I experiment with new technologies and I explore the way they intersect with my own identity and influence my own life. For instance, for the last few years I immersed myself in an online social VR platform where I conversed with hundreds of virtual friends. Unlike most of these friends who keep their ‘virtual life’ as a secret I do share stories about my virtual identity with my friends and family. Having conversations about both my real and virtual identities inspire my work in so many ways. For example, in some of those conversations I was asked if I wait for my kids to go to sleep before I go on my virtual adventures or do I let them see my virtual world. Such questions intrigued my curiosity regarding the mother role in relation to VR. My performance at Currents 2019 was directly examining the relationship of the two as I am performing as a mother who is holding a baby in her hands while being fully immersed in a virtual world. My tendency is to use the technology to instigate conversations and whenever I find a question which makes me rethink my behavior or my identity it becomes my inspiration for art.
C: Can you elaborate on the importance of performance and performativity in the realm of New Media and technology? How does your practice bring this importance into relief against our general acceptance of technology in daily life?
A: Behavior is in the core of my interest and I truly believe that new technologies have the power to modify it. Therefore I think that New Media goes hand in hand with performance and performativity. I guess it would be a lazy argument to claim that all of us become performers with the use of new technologies because it is true anyhow – we perform our identity even without the use of technology. However, while engaging with a new technology there is a new space which opens up in which it is not yet clear how to behave. In this new space there is an opportunity – an invitation to experiment, examine and reinvent our behavior. In my practice, I try to find these new spaces and examine my own behavior inside them. I take myself outside of my comfort zone, I try to do things that I would never do otherwise. This experimentation can get into places of great emotional toll and actual risks. I find myself break rules, I cross limits and sometimes I dare to lose things or shake values that I care about. I build my performances according to these experiences. In some of my performances I present my own modified or invented behavior and in others I invite people to participate and perform on their own. When we get the opportunity to behave in a different way inside a new space, we get a chance to rethink our systems of beliefs.
C: Can you relate some exceptional moments of your experience at Currents 2019 with the staff, interns, other artists, or the public? Were there any specific interactions with the public that were particularly relevant?
A: My experience at Currents 2019 was an amazing one. First, it was wonderful to be part of a great community of artists who are asking fascinating New Media questions and dealing with similar challenges. Working with the staff and interns was smooth and easy, everyone was absolutely professional and helpful and welcoming. My experience with the public was beyond my imagination! During my performance I was sitting in a rocking chair with a VR headset covering my eyes. I was rocking my chair quietly and could hear people standing and talking by me while they were watching the performance, but I could not see them. It was interesting to hear that many of the people who stood in front of me were not even sure if I was a real person or not. Many of them came closer to me and then said: “oh wow, she is real, but the baby is fake” and then they also realized that I could hear them. Other people were simply sure that I am one of the other visitors who was just experiencing a VR piece at the show. These people waited for me to get up and leave so that they can have their turn. Some of them were annoyed that it takes me so long, others actually touched me and asked if I can let them try it too. When I did not respond to them some of them just got upset and went away but others suddenly realized that it was a performance. It was so interesting for me to listen to them while they were realizing that they are seeing something they did not expect to see. People who spoke with me after the performance told me that the image that I have created is a ‘haunting’ one and that it made them think about motherhood in the age of VR. I was very VERY happy with the way people responded to my piece and it made it worthwhile to keep on sitting there and performing it. Lastly, it was also fun to meet Stanley the robot which was strolling around and keeping me company while I was performing 🙂
This was my first visit at the Currents New Media festival. Before I left, I thanked Mariannah and Frank for the amazing opportunity and that I hope to make it a habit to come to Santa Fe as either a participant or a viewer of this amazing festival.
C: Who are some of your contemporaries which you draw inspiration from or share an affinity with? And what is next for you?
A: I draw a lot of inspiration from the work of Hito Steyerl. I mostly relate to the way she points out to this significant transition between human life and digital culture. In one of her videos she claims that real people disappear and re-emerge as pixels. When I look at all of these heavily manipulated selfies on Instagram or beautifully designed avatars in video games and VR platforms it does seem that we are truly becoming pixels. I am also a big fan of James Bridle’s ideas of The New Aesthetics. The whole notion of waving at the machine and waiting for it to wave back at us is an appealing idea that I enjoy experimenting with. I also draw inspiration from other new media and performance artists such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Trevor Paglen, Micha Cárdenas, Jon Rafman and La Turbo Avedon.
As far as my upcoming work, I have recently started to experiment more with AI systems. I am fascinated by the overwhelming news regarding Facial Recognition systems and other machine-learning classification methods. I specifically think of these systems in relation to performance and I find that there is a whole new space which opens up there. In my most recent project, titled “Classification Cube”, I created a space which is designed as a glowing white cube. People who enter the space are invited to perform their identity to a classification system which estimates their age, gender, emotion and action. It is beautiful to see how people become intrigued by this system. They start interacting with it and see if it can make it see them in different ways. As they spend more time inside the cube they start realizing that they have the power to make the system see them as they wish to be seen. The opportunity to explore new behaviors and new identities inside this space is immense.
Avital Meshi is a New Media Artist. She recently graduated her MFA from The Digital Art and New Media program at UC Santa Cruz. She holds a BFA from the School of The Art Institute of Chicago and a BSc and an MSc in behavioral biology from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Meshi’s practice focuses on the way people connect with one another through new media and technologies such as video games, virtual worlds and artificial intelligence. In her work, she creates large scale, immersive installations where she implements elements of these new media and invites viewers to interact with them in an unusual way. Inspired by ideas of relational aesthetics, she utilizes tools of participatory performance which allow participants to become engaged and see themselves and others through the lens of these technologies. Meshi’s goal is to create a space where questions can be asked and conversions can take place. Her installations usually provoke conversations regarding ideas of identity and social roles, role-playing, identity tourism, cultural appropriation, virtual communities and machine based surveillance, recognition and classification.
Previous exhibitions include a solo show at the ‘Digital Art Demo Space’ in Chicago and group exhibitions in ‘Currents New Media’ festival in Santa Fe, Root Division Gallery in San-Francisco, ACM SIGGRAPH, Woman Made Gallery in Chicago and more. Meshi is also an active artist and curator at the Wrong Biennale 2019-20.
Avital Meshi was born and raised in Israel. She currently lives and works in the San-Francisco bay area.