It is perhaps a bit too facile to discuss Paul Slocum’s multifarious, multifaceted work in terms of “new media.” True, even a cursory browse of Slocum’s website reveals an artist incredibly adept at manipulating digital textures, whether they be musical, visual, kinetic, or, more complicatedly, self-consciously virtual. And certain of Slocum’s projects—ongoing as well as completed—are characterized by the sort of antic, DIY conceptualism one associates with hacker culture. Yet Slocum’s primary training is as a programmer, not in provocation. As such, it is more appropriate to claim that Slocum’s medium, and great subject, is code. Picking up and adapting outmoded technologies such as the Atari 2600 and the CRT monitor, Slocum creates anti-readymades, commodities (not inventions) that have been radically transformed for the purposes of supporting what we, even in early decades of the 21st century, still recognize as artistic expression. There is much more to Slocum’s work than pleasantly garish pixels, clunkily gamboling loops and the instant gratifications of what the Internet serves up in the form of “the random”: his applications pose essential questions about what aspects of our experience are hard-coded, and which soft. Where are the default settings in any given environment, on whose behaviors or preferences are they based, who has set them, and how much agency can we allow ourselves in our interactions with them and with each other in their presence? If code renders data intelligible, and, as the demiurges of networked information promise, all experience can be converted to data, does code have an origination point? And is there any end to coding? In fact, code is in its more gnostic guise can sometimes haunt the machines endlessly, recursively reconfiguring themselves in Slocum’s installations. Even at its most recondite and abstruse, however, Slocum’s art retains a ludic edge, and invites play… provided one is willing to interact as well with the very idea of rules.
The following interview was conducted, via Gchat, on the afternoon of Saturday, October 9th, 2010.
JM: What are you working on these days?
PS: I’ve mostly just been working on iPhone apps, one music-related and another that’s sort of an art piece. And I just wrote an essay for Art Lies about new media art in the gallery. Since I moved to NY, I haven’t been producing that much work. It’s taken a lot of time to get used to NY, and I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and exploring theory. It’s kinda like I’m in school.
JM: But independently, right? These are tasks you’ve assigned yourself?
JM: Any books or thinkers in particular who’ve really made an impact on you or changed your thinking since your relocation?
PS: Seth Price’s Dispersion essay is interesting. There’s this good The Recursive Universe by William Poundstone, about Conway’s Game of Life, information theory, etc. and about the theory of complexity. Really, though I just keep rereading Air Guitar by Dave Hickey.
JM: So, by “theory” you don’t necessarily mean just aesthetic theory. You’ve been delving into mathematics and other disciplines.
PS: Yeah. I tend to lump all theory together.
JM: How important—if at all—do you think it is for practicing artists to be theoretically literate?
PS: I think it’s important if they want to be good. : ) But I also don’t think you need to read any books to understand art theory. I think most serious, dedicated outsider artists have their own versions of theory.
JM: Though some might not choose to call it theory…
PS: What would they call it?
JM: An aesthetic, probably… some term that implies that the ideas behind the work have not been as fully thought-out as “theory” suggests. Or so I would imagine For myself, theory makes perfect sense.
PS: Those people are part of the problem with the art world. : )
JM: Do you see that same issue come up (not recognizing the artists’ theoretical perspective) when discussion turns to works and artists in new media? Or am I just asking: Are new media artists the new outsider artists?
PS: Most “new media” artists I know are educated in theory, either through school or their own research. However there are new media outsider artists, like YTMND and 4chan. There has been a lot of discussion about this lately.
JM: The outsider element in this work?
PS: Yes, I don’t know if people have actually called it that. But there was an article recently linked on Art Fag City talking about 4chan vs. new media artists, and ultimately, I think it comes down to exactly the same kinds of questions as outsider art. Like, “What right do I have to show in a gallery when there are thousands of other people making good art on the internet on message boards and stuff ?” “What makes artists with art degrees any better? If anything?” My roommate and I just had a long discussion about this last night. However I’ve found that often pieces I find on YTMND that I think are really beautiful are made my users whose other stuff I all hate. I find artists on there to be less consistent, and I think it’s due to a lack of discipline to some degree. But when you take YTMND as a whole, it’s kind of a force! I mean they got 500,000 sites. To some extent, they make good art by brute force of numbers. I don’t know 4chan as well, but from what I’ve seen of it, the culture is very similar. The YTMND boards are not much different from 4chan
JM: It’s also a community that’s totally defined by the memes with which they’re all conversant… you could spend months tracking the creation, emergence, use and misuse and eventually playing out of certain common elements on those sites. And to think about how rapidly that all occurs… like they’ve taken the instantaneity of internet communications and applied that to art-making
PS: Yes. It’s not much different from something like say quilters. Like surely quilters occasionally make something really amazing. They share ideas and patterns. But now with the internet, when a hobbyist artist or outsider artist makes something, there’s a chance for so many more people to see it.
JM: I guess it also challenges… and that this still needs challenging says a lot about our culture… the notion of the individual genius artist working in isolation and primarily in some creative struggle with him / her self and his / her tools… that creativity comes out of a particular kind of social (or antisocial, depending on your point-of-view) engagement. How important is that same “speed of response” and sense of social interaction to you in your own work?
PS: Actually, I guess I’m not sure what you mean by speed of response, because to me it’s more about the number of connected nodes of people, not speed.
JM: I guess, how quickly works in new media can respond to images, ideas, etc. floating around in the larger culture
PS: Why do you think it responds faster than offline culture?
JM: Good question. I guess I’m thinking of examples such as, when it comes to new music, how quickly video responses and “remixes” will proliferate. So that by the time, say, the new Cee-Lo Green single is officially released, it’s already been preceded by a multitude of fan and alternate versions and critical commentary.
PS: It seems to me that a collective of painters or quilters would be just as fast to respond to culture or to each other as new media artists. But now with the internet, the diversity and breadth of the interactions is not limited geographically.
JM: Yes, perhaps that makes it feel faster to me… what about these connected nodes of people? How would you say your work is more about the numbers of such nodes?
PS: 30%-40% of my work is strongly affected by the fact that the internet has allowed me to associate and collaborate with other artists who have more in common with me than I would have been able to easily find pre-internet. And the other 60%-70% is the traditional method of finding those weird people at high school, then going to that warehouse club to see bands and meeting more people. Say, at the record store. And my offline interactions with them.
JM: Yet, in some cases, you’ve collaborated with specific online populations, correct? I’m thinking specifically of the You’re Not My Father project.
PS: well, that piece could have been made in the 70’s with classifieds and super 8.
JM: Very true.
PS: But I couldn’t have thought of it in the 70’s. : )
JM: What about craigslist particulary appealed to you (assuming it appealed), as opposed to, say, a message board or listserv?
PS: I tried all of them. Craigslist was the one that worked best.
PS: Yeah, well I realized that it’s actually harder to shoot a scene like that than you’d think, even though it’s only 10 seconds. So it depended more on people being willing to do that or needing money than being weirdos on full house message boards.
JM: How many responses did you actually receive? Does the finally realized video include everything / anything send by way of response?
PS: Yeah, I used everything I got. I got one later that I added to the version I send for screenings and shows. The instructions were pretty specific about how to do it, so I mostly got what I needed.
JM: Were you surprised at the diversity of the recreations themselves?
PS: Ha ha, yeah. They were actually not as close to the guidelines as I’d hoped. I had to mess with it a lot to get it to work, but I think it ended up working okay.
JM: In terms of the actual editing?
PS: I couldn’t make many choices in terms of editing. I didn’t want to change much. But getting the order, music, sound right. The only thing I changed on the clips was the color saturation.
JM: To better match the original clip?
PS: To make the aesthetics work. Like, the rhythm. I found that alternating saturated and desaturated clips was more pleasing.
JM: Yes; its the kind of thing where, the more I watch, the less repetitive it becomes. It’s like the dramatic / narrative / video version of one of Reinhardt’s black paintings
PS: Ha ha. Yes, that’s what I was going for.
JM: Without the minimalism, right?… capital-M Minimalism, I mean
PS: there really is definitely a strong thread of minimalism that runs through new media.
JM: You’re Not My Father was recently screened / exhibited at PS1, and you mentioned earlier that you had recently written an essay on the exhibition on new media or gallery presence new media has. I was thinking about this as well, and wondered how how differently I would experience You’re Not My Father in a gallery context, without my being positioned at my computer, loading the thing up as I pleased. As an a artist and curator, can you talk a little about your feelings on this subject, i.e., new media works in their “native environment” vs. new media works in a “high art” environment
PS: I think You’re Not My Father works well on the computer, in the gallery, and at screenings. But some works do and some don’t. My essay is generally about how I don’t have much interest in showing it in the gallery anymore because it just feels like a waste of time at this point when there’s no money in it.
JM: Do you feel—or fear—that the work will not be taken “seriously” (again, whatever that means) unless it has a gallery presence?
PS: That’s always the risk. But lately I’m thinking it’s better to counter that with writing and other ventures. Such as trying to sell iPhone apps as art.
JM: Why have you been drawn to the iPhone app as an medium?
PS: I’m interested in it as a musical platform. And I have 10 years as an embedded systems programmer, and it pays well. And apps are cheap. It’s a low-overhead business with some built-in marketing. $100/year to register. I just installed MacOS on my Windows laptop. : ) So I didn’t have to buy a Mac laptop.
JM: Part of apple’s genius, it seems to me, lies in how well they understand their customers attachment to things, and things with a high degree of recognizable thing-liness. The apps are “just software”, but in the way they are marketed and accumulated, they’ve become like collectibles, or collectible objects
PS: Yes. The iPhone and it’s whole thing is very well designed. I actually have a Droid as my phone, and I really want to switch to an iPhone. I wish MacOS and XCode were as well-designed as the phone. :) I don’t mind working in MacOS but I always switch back to Windows when I’m doing non iPhone stuff.
JM: That’s not very “arty” of you…
PS: MacOS has two color options grey and grey-blue. : )
JM: Is that gadget allure something that is still important in your work? From what I know of your, you’re definitely a maker. how much of your own practice has grown out of a love of certain gear and instances of technology?
PS: I don’t buy a lot of gadgets, but I do get very attached to my tools. Sometimes. A lot of my music grew out of my love of the C64 and Atari 2600. Programming the iPhone actually feels a lot like programming those old machines in some ways. And that’s why I like it. I’m attached to my SK-1; it’s missing a lot of keys. As much as I’m sometimes annoyed by apple, I really like the iPod touch as an object…which is exactly like an iPhone but thinner and doesn’t have a cell transceiver. The interface is really smart.
JM: Is part of the pleasure you take in programming for those old—and even new—machines in getting them to do things or perform in ways far beyond what they were ever intended to / for?
PS: Definitely. Also, when you’re trying to squeeze performance out of a machine, it’s like solving an cool puzzle. I like the intimacy of it, vs. programming a giant network database or something, or even vs a programming for a PC or Mac.
JM: In some ways, the hardware and the software are more intimately related on those machines, no?
PS: Yes. iPhone programming can be done at somewhat of a high level. But it’s also possible to write stuff really close to the hardware if you want. Which is what I do.
JM: So that certain programming choices actually, in a weird way, “make” a new machine
PS: Yes. The lines between machines and code are definitely blurred these days, especially with FPGAs. And I like to be at that level.
JM: What a person of my generation finds so intriguing and almost irresistible about your work with the 2600, C64 et al. is that it almost proposes an alternate past in which what we dreamed those machines were capable of back then, when we so desperately wanted to have them, they were actually able to achieve, and then some.
PS: When I was a kid and had an Atari, I wanted to design games for it. I actually would draw out game design. It’s funny how eventually I got to do it through the Internet and advances in technology.
JM: The future happened back then, somehow, as much as it is occurring now. Regarding your interest in and work with cellular automata and the Conway’s Game of Life: Clearly, we’re talking here about programming again, but I wonder if you could speak about your recent extrusions a bit more in the context of your other work.
PS: Do you think that work relates to my other work? Because I actually think it kinda doesn’t. It’s a different direction. I mean I guess that’s how it relates, in that it doesn’t : )
JM: The only connection I really see lies in the interest in and creative applications of programming, really.
JM: Though you don’t need code to play Conway’s Game, either.
PS: No. But I had to write code to make those pieces.
JM: Maybe the better question, then, is how it is a departure for you, or, where you think that work is taking you
PS: I think it’s addressing different issues. It’s not about computers really. Or, maybe it connects computers to a larger thing. And it’s not influenced much by new media art… I really don’t know what to say about that work honestly. I mean there’s a lot behind it, but the ideas are not developed enough to get into.
JM: It’s in the process of being understood, maybe? And perhaps it’s fair to say it’s more about those ideas at this point than the individual realizations?
PS: I would say it’s about both. I understand some of them, but I don’t know how to describe them without sounding really weird. It was an attempt to look at the form of the universe outside of time.
JM: Conway’s Game of Life itself has a pretty strange relationship to time, it seems to me. E.g., the time it takes to reach a certain outcome, the number of permutations, isn’t as important as what you learn about how states move from dynamic to static, under what conditions, and how we can visualize that or make it “real” to ourselves somehow
PS: Yeah, that’s true.
JM: Do you find that many of your colleagues are moving in something like a similar direction, away from what some might characterize as technological fetish and more into programming? Or is this an area that you feel you’re exploring largely on your own… or maybe with a whole new set of (potential) collaborators?
PS: I have not seen other people that I have work in common with moving in this kind of direction. Although some have been going non-gallery directions, like I’m doing with the iPhone art app. Except Kevin Bewersdorf. His work has moved in some similar directions to the Conway’s stuff to some degree. Petra Cortright a little too. But this work is influenced most by Brian Fridge. I think it has certain similarities to his work. And he doesn’t work with computers really. His best know works are these videos he made from freezer crystals that look like swirling galaxies. A lot of his work is like kinetic sculpture but where the end product is just a video. His work is minimal and abstract. I was thinking about his work a lot when I made those Conway’s prints.
JM: 5 years from now, when we look back at the “era” of works in ever-proliferating new media, what do you think will we see? what works will survive, or artists will have had a lasting influence? Or, if you’d prefer this question: what, from that vantage point, will it all have meant?
PS: Well, for sure Cory Arcangel. He’s kinda the guy!
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