Stephen Blaise is a totally cool video artist who lives in New York City. His work http://stephenblaise.com/ is beyond visually stimulating and it engulfs you instantly. It’s as contemporary as contemporary art can be … at the moment. I loved chatting with him and I think you’ll enjoy his brilliant mind as well …
MICHAEL: Stephen, First of all, I must ask about your website. It's so simple and direct, yet beautifully done and accessible. I love the home page with all of the flashing images of humanity. What was the inspiration behind the site?
STEPHEN: Michael, thank you for the kind words and your interest in my work. I think your characterization of 'simple and direct' aptly fits. It is important to me that in one regard, my work and ideas are universal and accessible.
The accelerated montage of images on my homepage was an idea I had floating around for many years and had always wanted to try. When it was ultimately finished, I debated whether to keep it. I worried that it may be too busy and that the viewer may not instinctively know to click on the images in order to enter the site. But the site's architect Suguru Mikami, felt the intensity suited me and insisted I keep it. A contradiction from the rest of the site once the viewer clicks the GIF. I found it interesting and funny that you described this cross section of my work as 'Flashes of Humanity.' Wonderful to think of it that way. I usually reference a trip down the rabbit hole or Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz being swept up into the tornado. She's looking out from the window of her now airborne house with wonder as various elements of her life flash past i.e. man-made objects, humans, animals/live stock, all of which elicit a rollercoaster of emotions from the character. This is how I perceive my life; memories, time-suspended or skewed, a combination of reality and dreams.
MICHAEL: A combination of reality and dreams is also a great way to explain video installations and new media art. Given the media that you choose to work with right now, it's all so conceptual and open to interpretation. Do you feel that people must view your work as you view it?
STEPHEN: Absolutely not. Also, this would be completely impossible as everyone is conditioned, programmed and informed differently. The individual always brings a unique perception and context to viewing a specific work.
MICHAEL: What is it about new media and video that you find so appealing? This is a genre that more people should be embracing given advancing technology, yet so many people still only relate to Picasso or Rembrandt or Warhol as true "art."
STEPHEN: More than any other medium, video has the potential to completely engage viewers psychologically and emotionally as well as leave a lasting imprint in their memories. Our brains are hard-wired to process video. Mirror Neurons allow us to read visual codes, structures or experiences outside of ourselves as our own, instilling feelings of connection and empathy. Motion Picture editor Walter Murch, who attributes our brains acceptance of hard cuts in film to the physiological mechanism of blinking, has said, “Film is like thought. It’s the closest to the thought process of any art.”
New Media is in its infancy and is evolving quickly. It is changing our culture completely, and in turn, greatly changing people and their behavior. So this then is a very living and vibrant medium which has not yet been exhaustively explored. As a relatively new medium, its possibilities are open and unknown. I find this incredibly exciting.
Installations and new media are the mediums of our time. This most likely speaks to the viewer’s desire for interaction and experience. The artists mentioned in your question are recognized masters of their medium from their time. There is a level of sophistication in thought and craft that is particular to each period in time. Often, it takes time to understand the relevance of created works and in new mediums, context is everything, and the context has changed. Art is ideas. Everything created today is created on the shoulders of everything that has come before. In our timeand in my work personally, I find video an incredibly accessible and relevant tool for exploration of culture and the human condition.
MICHAEL: We could chat about your specific projects, but I think it's better to ask you about the overall concepts and principles that you like to explore. What's inspiring you these days? Are there some universal truths or questions that you're exploring in your work?
STEPHEN: Generally my work has two components, video and a physical counterpart, i.e. photographs, sculpture, prints. Right now, I'm incredibly excited about these lawn mower grills I'm casting. They're part of a project titled ‘Lawn Care.’ They remind me of haunting effigies or primitive totems. Three billion years ago all life was a single cell. Now we're designing and manufacturing machines to mow/cut and water our lawns to a self-imposed perfection. Control, desire for order amidst chaos, comfort and sameness are a few of the concepts I’m exploring here/with this series. This is a relatively new fascination with the culture I grew up in, but now have enough separation by time to see it objectively and begin to question. I find myself questioning everything. Like a child, I’m asking myself why do we do what we do? I’m proud that I’ve come full circle and am asking again the questions of a five-year-old.
Something else which interests me is the seemingly superficial surface of things. Whether natural or man-made, I always find contradiction and humor, even absurdity in these structures. Without exception, regardless of the appearance of things, there are always larger themes beneath.
Another project I'm incredibly excited about now, which I plan to film, is titled ‘DOG.’ This takes place around another phenomenon I was familiar with as a teen growing up in American suburbia. A form of sun worship, the sun tan or lying out in the sun in order to achieve the perfect tan/desirable darkened skin. My mother does it religiously to this day regardless of science or my father ultimately developing of skin cancer.
The piece features a young adolescent girl in the moment just before crossing over into becoming a young woman. A period of self-discovery, comfort and living in a bubble. While she’s outside in her bikini on her patio, the camera slowly pulls back to ultimately reveal a large Doberman throwing its body and baring its teeth against the glass of the sliding doors. The sound is unrelenting, for an extended period of time, possibly hours. Themes explored here are innocence, instinct, memory, fantasy and identity among others. This also touches on our culture of comfort, the luxury of time, and a larger question dealing with animal nature, within and outside of ourselves.
To round out your question, there are few things that don’t interest me, which is unfortunate, because life is short. Other questions or concepts I am interested in include: Reality, perception, memory, relationships, inflection points, man-made objects and symbols, ‘Mono no aware’, micro-expressions, meaning, appearance, desire, physicality, obsession, ideas of beauty, codes and visual structures, pleasure, happiness, love, cause and effect, what is important? and what is the point of it all anyway? Also, impermanence, inherent traits, instinct, evolution and design, chaos and order and social/cultural constructs. I have the feeling any lifetime is simply scratching the surface.
MICHAEL: Isn't it great to wake up in the morning and have a concept that you want to explore and then go about actually bringing it into reality? That's something that I don't think many people understand about art. What matters most is that the finished product is well executed and accessible. Your thoughts?
STEPHEN: Absolutely, having art in your life is the best of life – a luxury, something I try not to take for granted. Art is an instrument for exploration, as well as something to share with others.
With regard to a finished piece or project, this is something I’ve often thought about. I’m remembering a conversation I had over dinner with artist Mathieu Briand that influenced the way I think about this. I was explaining a new idea, using my usual method of expression, gesticulating with my hands and flailing my arms wildly (laughs). When I finished, I had relayed the concept so vividly, that at the end of my monologue, he questioned why I even needed to manifest the work when I had already realized the idea so completely. He suggested that the piece may already be finished. This idea of realizing an idea being the end point of the idea is so interesting to me. I understood exactly what he was saying, and I have to say, since then, I ask myself this question in a serious way before pursuing further any project or idea. Is it important or necessary to physically manifest the work?
However, I'm always interested in viewer experience and effecting people with my work - immediately and over time. I'm also interested in the life of a work, how its meaning changes with time and the viewer’s individual subjective experience.
MICHAEL: We're living during a time when it's seemingly more difficult for people to believe in possibilities. Mention an idea and minutes later, people are either doubting it or fighting over how and whether it can actually happen. I don't know. What do you think?
STEPHEN: I'm missing that chip in my brain. I still believe most anything is possible. There are other chips I'm missing as well, but we'll concentrate on this one for now. Also, I don't surround myself with negative or doubt-filled people. Life is a struggle enough. Single-mindedness, strong pre-visualization, infinite patience and deep resolve are helpful or recommended attributes when pursuing life as an artist. I'm also lucky to be inspired almost daily...early in the morning, I'm on fire.
MICHAEL: How do you handle difficult days?
STEPHEN: For rough days - a quote I've had on the wall of my studio for years, which I refer back to: "When obstacles arise, the foolish retreat and the wise rejoice." Nichiren
MICHAEL: Nice. I absolutely love video installations and your work. However, even I must admit that video installations challenge me as a collector. When you create your work, do you do it with the intent to sell your work on DVDs to interested people or is the work very temporary and site specific for gallery shows?
STEPHEN: All of the above. Gallery shows, limited numbered editions on hard copies for private owners or art institutions, public display and the web. Everything is dependent on the intent of the piece.
Currently, the ‘Black Box’ model is the most popular way galleries and institutions present video art. This method of screening video plays on our memories connection to watching films projected in movie theaters. It’s what’s missing from watching movies at home - a mysterious, romantic, evocative experience. I love tactile things as well - surfaces and textures. This is most likely the reason I include photographs and sculptures as ancillary components to my presentations, adding another dimension to the project. I love the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001’ and am presently adapting similar related structures to showcase a video project I’m currently developing.
As far as the personality of a collector, I have one myself and feel if you love something enough, finding a way to collect and present it may be challenging, but enjoyable. Video art is no longer in its infancy, but still presents an incredible opportunity for collectors. Most major institutions, even the most conservative, have fully embraced collecting video and new media art. As a result, auction prices are soaring. Video is the art of our time. It’s a living (think colossal video skins on walls), vibrant (adaptable models), medium necessary for a fast ever-changing context.
MICHAEL: We're living during a new Golden Age of Television when practically everything is mobile and online. Does this make things easier or more difficult for digital and video art to gain attention?
STEPHEN: The “Golden Age of Communication” may be more appropriate. I’m fairly sure the Golden Age of Television has already passed. I would know as I’m one of the original TV kids. With a good part of my personality the result of shows like ‘I Dream of Jeannie’, ‘The Flintstones’, ‘Gilligan’s Island’, ‘Star Trek’, ‘Kung Fu’ and the list goes on and on. Television was a box in the living room you opted into. Besides books, TV was a world of imagination and the ridiculous from beyond the walls of your home, before the existence of the Internet. We’re now on the brink of something else; a time where we will be completely connected, read and evaluated by no choice of our own, no matter where we are. It’s already begun.
Unlike the Manchurian Candidate or Warren Beatty’s character in “The Parallax View” or Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange” or that really, really good-looking male model in “Zoolander,” we have not been forced or coerced into this. We willfully plug in to anesthetize ourselves and it’s changing us. This ‘cyber-somnambulism’ or constant ‘shaping’ has become our reality. Only the objective is nothing so linear or innocent as a political assassination, rather it’s a self perpetuating design, influencing our thoughts...how we think...how we live.
Art, the web, TV are all very different things to me. I like to watch TV. It’s a perfect drug. TV can also be very creative and provide levity which is important. Art rises from all aspects of culture. The medium is not important. The strength of work rests in the artist’s voice, vision and intent. This is what separates or determines whether art is recognized amidst all the white noise.
MICHAEL: Given that, how do you get people to see the difference between video art and commercial television? Don't you want people to see your work as an art form and not only something to be consumed for entertainment value and then tossed aside?
STEPHEN: Have you been to Art Basel lately? Or the dome at PS1 with guest DJ’s? Have you seen Marina Abramovic's performance with Jay-Z? Or Tilda Swinton sleeping in MoMA’s atrium?
MICHAEL: Haha. Absolutely. I know where you’re going with this!
STEPHEN: People consume art for its entertainment value. You’re right about that. Absolutely. Does its value lie within whether or not it’s ultimately tossed aside? Society ‘tosses’ most everything aside, people, long held ideas/beliefs, their own health, environment and even themselves.
Most video art is the antithesis of entertainment. My friends actually use the term ‘Endurance Art.’ It's not a fast cut format, nor is it celebrity-driven like film or TV. Video art can actually be torturous and remote or inaccessible. Submitting to an experience when there's often no payoff or the work culminates in nothing, is the individual’s choice. Then, I would ask, what is the viewer’s intent?
Lastly, YES! I would hope my work would live as more than entertainment, and more than that, to create some kind of organized worship around it, sacrifice to it, not fruits and vegetables, but human sacrifice of course.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world and art market and how they function today?
STEPHEN: It's an incredibly exciting time right now. I don't think there has ever been this heightened level of interest throughout the world i.e. galleries, art fairs, dealers, museums, auctions etc. The world is becoming smaller and the business of art is growing larger than ever before. There's a flip side, of course. Commercialism. As a result of the recession and the collapse of the housing market, people have re-evaluated their investments. Art has reached a new level of commoditization, and is being defined as the next investment or currency. With so much hype and so much moving and selling art for commerce's sake, there may be a new bubble forming. It's big business. Corporate business. You just need to look through the glare to find something worthwhile.
MICHAEL: Do you come from an artistic family? At what moment did you say, "This is it. I'm becoming an artist"? What has that journey been like?
STEPHEN: My father was a body and fender man, a great craftsman. He worked on cars in a body shop his entire life and was one of the best at what he did. Very blue collar. My grandfather created doodles/sketches that would amaze me. Our family would find them just sitting around. Other than that, I had almost no exposure to art and no encouragement to pursue art professionally. Pursuing a life in art was not a viable option for me as long as I lived at home - not so uncommon a situation.
As a young boy, I discovered art in books and artist's biographies I found in the downtown library. I loved that library and I thought it a real horror when it was closed. It was a cavernous space with cathedral windows, winding marble staircase and oak tables. Many perfect moments spent there. A physical process of discovery. A different time.
I was a self-taught artist by the time I attended university. One of my professors inspired and actually insisted I switch majors and pursue life as a creative. I think it was just a matter of time before I could no longer deny myself. So, after school, I moved to New York to 'become' an artist and soon began one project after another. I would go to great pains to pursue and create projects often without understanding why, operating by curiosity and desire with no end goal in mind.
I rarely lose interest in my projects. Most projects I've begun continue to interest me and I imagine working on them for the rest of my life. That's my personality. I don't think I've ever been bored. After years of creating and evolving my ideas, I'm finally seeing the foundation of my work. Now, I'm just beginning again.
MICHAEL: This has been quite an enlightening and enjoyable chat. Thanks Stephen. Keep up the great work!
Check out Stephen Blaise’s cool website at http://stephenblaise.com/.