Thursday, May 2, 2013

SCREENINGS: Matthew Biederman, 8-bit Meta-matic

For the fifth installment of the Mattress Factory’s Screenings, Matthew Biederman created 8-bit Méta-matic, an in-situ, digital work projected directly onto our own curtain in the lobby. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ask Biederman a few questions about his work.

CAITLIN HARPSTER: Your body of work, while maintaining a very apparent Matthew Biederman vibe, also reflects a lot of different influences. Could you give our readers an idea of the thought progressions behind the way you create your works?

MATTHEW BIEDERMAN: In terms of influences, while I've always thought that art history is absolutely crucial to know, I'd have to say that I don't have a specific set of influences that I have followed. I think what happens, in terms of doing research, is I end up following threads—within art, within science, within politics and philosophy—and together with their histories, and my own, they tend to point to a direction to explore. Naming a particular artist, or movement without discussing the politics and sciences etc. of the time does not necessarily do justice to the work or the artist either. I just finished reading Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick and it was pretty mind blowing in terms of reflecting upon the today’s information glut. I guess there is so much out there to be influenced by that it all gets mixed up together. That said, however, the biggest impact always comes from collaborators and colleagues that I've worked with in the past. I've managed to build some really great relationships through those processes.

CH: Our readers, like myself, most likely will not have much of an understanding of the process/coding/technological things you do and incorporate into your work. If you could perhaps explain a simplified version of how your piece at the Mattress Factory works and how you created it?

MB: I like to think that these programs, pieces of code, are simply a set of rules for the work to follow to 'be' the art. In effect it’s no different than the Fluxus pieces which consist of rules for a person to follow. Except here, the computer follows the rules rather than a performer or participant. For 8-bit Méta-matic, the rules are as follows: 1. Pick a direction and draw; 2. The drawing surface is disturbed and pulled up/down and left/right; 3. If there is a mark on the edge of the disturbance, stretch those pixels in the direction of the movement; 4. And the most important rule is that if the drawing takes place over another mark already there, invert it. So if the mark is white, it turns to black and vice versa. And of course when the image is nearly full, it resets to black and starts over again.

CH: This series is based on the idea that the videos/works submitted are “gestural.” How does your work exemplify a gesture?

MB: Well, what is a gesture? A quick mark on the page done without thinking too much about it. So I think for this work I interpret the gesture as the way the computer decides where to draw next, which is completely random. In this way, each moment is unique to the piece. Each moment can be perceived as a series of gestures to create the whole—it’s just that the gesture in this case is not a human one. The gestures are created by the computer acting within the set of rules that I have defined. What exactly happens is left somehow to chance, or in this specific case, it is a bit of chance and then acting on what came before it (i.e. what 'marks' are already there).

CH: Why did you choose to project the video on to the white curtain versus the projection screen?

MB: It has to do with the way I understand the Mattress Factory albeit as an outsider, and I see that the Mattress Factory is an integral part of the community, which means to me that people in Pittsburgh have an intimate relationship with the space and place. They have been in that space in the past, and I assume have seen that curtain there in the lobby, so I thought it would be great to just have something appear on/in it, to use the space as it is. So I set out to design the movement and the drawing to happen upon the curtain—the undulations add another layer to the composition, and the material naturally softens the hard edges of the images. The way it scatters the light I like to think of in the same way paint might drip, or ink bleeds (especially when considering where some of my ideas are at right now in terms of making new media works). I'm very interested in the moment when 'new media' can be curated alongside 'traditional' visual art forms, and I think it is slowly starting to happen. Since the advent of powerful consumer accessible computers and affordable projection and flat displays, I believe we have gotten to point where new media works can be shown alongside of painting and sculpture. It's important to consider the computer and code within the trajectory of art as a whole rather than subjugating it to its own ghetto as in the past, or even today I still see 'new media' or 'data centric' shows which I prefer would just merge with well considered curated exhibitions, but this is its own thesis...

CH: You mention in your artist statement that this work is inspired by Jean Tinguely’s mechanical generative drawing machines. Could you elaborate on this a little bit?

MB: I had the pleasure of going to his museum in Basel and discovering his work for the first time there, and ever since, I've been a huge fan of what he has done. Specifically, these automatic drawing machines to me were very interesting as they sort of poked fun at the art establishment while asking some important questions all the while looking (and sounding) very beautiful. I think that often times, when the audience is confronted with a projection or video based work they are looking for some sort of narrative or structure to follow, so I tend to use titles as a hint at how to understand the work (this time with a computer nerd reference and an art history nerd reference). Structurally, I see the way that the underlying software functions the same way that his machine functions—by using disturbances, this time in the way that the surface of the drawing system functions. It creates what in the past an error looked like. In a similar way, his original Méta-matic(s) would produce different drawings through their wonky mechanics, which to an engineer would look like an error. I guess here it is important to note that I am not trained as a computer programmer, or engineer. Everything I've learned has been more or less self-taught through trial and error. I don't really produce 'rendered' or 'recorded' works that are identical each time they are displayed. I just get bored of seeing the same thing over and over again, especially after I have slaved over each bit of minute detail. So why not build systems that can continue to surprise myself as well as someone who comes to see it?

CH: You also talked about how Tinguely questioned the idea of authorship. You are using your work’s “glitches” to create the final product. Thus, instead of questioning the authorship, are you are attempting to control it by creating something new out of the work’s imperfections?

MB: I think authorship is very important when considering what is created using computer tools. I use my albeit limited knowledge of programming, even though I have been doing it for twenty or so years in some fashion, I can look to so many other artists who are much more skilled than I am when it comes to coding complex systems. However I do all my own programming in these works, and I feel it is crucially important to do so. I'm a bit of a romantic in that way and for me that means that I, as the artist and author of the work, can only produce that work through an intimate knowledge of the material and the medium (which in this case is not only software, but the mechanics of projection and space) in the same way a painter knows oil or watercolors and how to mix and apply it to a surface. Without all the parts of getting your hands dirty in code or in paint or whatever the medium, then how do you know what might be possible? It’s an organic way of working. So if Jean Tinguely was asking about authorship in the artifact(s) created by his machines, I am asking about authorship within a system—this work in particular is set up to draw in a certain way that I never could predict how it might turn out. So in this way, myself, the computer, the projector and the curtain are the authors in some fashion.

CH: Some of your works rely heavily on sound as an integral element of the work (see Physical and Pulse), often times aiding in altering one’s perception of the work. Contrarily, you have several silent works as well (see R+G+B and Tetrachroma). Why do you choose to incorporate sound or omit it in your works? What impact do you hope 8-bit Méta-matic has as a silent work?

MB: Going back to influences, one of the artists I worked for, Jim Campbell, had said something to me once in passing, that he always decided that whatever he put into a work better have a very good reason for being there, down to the smallest details. For instance, the choice to use color over monochromatic images. When I incorporate audio into a work it immediately takes on a huge set of other implications spatially, perceptually, and historically. So it really was just one choice of many that this work is silent. I want the work to reflect the fact that it is a drawing. To add sound would suddenly give another dimension to a 3-D work (x,y and time), and frankly I feel it would detract from the focus of the piece. I try to heed those early thoughts of don't just add it because you can, because when you start dealing with new media, where do you stop then?

Matthew Biederman is an American artist based in Montreal. Biederman’s art explores ideas of perception, aesthetics, media saturation and data systems in our world today. He is the co-director of the San Francisco Television Access, and co-founded the Arctic Perspective Initiative (API), which promotes the creation of open authoring, communications and dissemination infrastructures for the circumpolar region. Biederman is also a resident at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE lab.

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