Steven Baris is an artist whose work focuses on topography, geometry and the expansion or perhaps intrusion of vast distribution centers on the American landscape http://www.stevenbaris.com/. But is his work more of an aesthetic statement or sociological one? That’s one of the many things we chatted about here. Enjoy…
“… I assert my ‘simultaneous fascination and horror at witnessing the expansion of distribution and fulfillment center complexes…’ Despite everything I’ve said about the negative impact of these structures, I find these individual buildings and their larger complexes to be absolutely stunning …”
MICHAEL: Hello Steven, Your work is intriguing. I get the sense that you obviously love geometry, but I also see paintings that resemble digital topography of some sort. Am I off base?
STEVEN: First, thanks so much for bringing me in on this conversation. And what you sense and see in my artwork is spot on. Much of my work, ranging from painting to video, is influenced on some level by what I call my ‘Exurban Archipelago Project.’
This labor of love began several years ago in response to my simultaneous fascination and horror at witnessing the expansion of distribution and fulfillment center complexes on the fringes of my own and practically every metropolitan region. I was taken aback by the massive scale of these structures and their overwhelming dominance of the landscape - a near total rejiggering of the exurban topography. Along with my frequent visits to photograph and film local sites, I searched them out across the country using satellite imaging which became the basis of numerous digital projects.
The Exurban Archipelago Project facilitated the perfect marriage of art and geometry. Geometries (emphasis on the plural) have provided the structural backbone of my art for a long time. I have spent years studying and teaching the different ways various cultures represent space pictorially. I am especially interested in the geometric projection
systems used by different artistic traditions throughout history.
Three general examples of these systems are (1) orthogonal: common in what are often referred to as primitive styles; (2) oblique projection which is frequently associated with Chinese and Japanese painting; and (3) convergent projection, which includes linear perspective, developed in the Italian Renaissance. In my own painting, I purposely mix and mangle
different projection systems within a single piece, as I am interested in presenting highly ambiguous spaces, and, like the landscapes I am observing, highly disorienting.
MICHAEL: What impact do you think these distribution and fulfillment center complexes are having?
STEVEN: As an artist, I tend to focus more on the impact these centers have on the landscape and by extension, the larger ecology of the vanishing countryside. Keep in mind that these distribution centers are part of a much larger and longer trend in the over-development of exurbia (those regions beyond the relatively older, established suburbs). You can add to the list the countless shopping malls, corporate centers, housing developments and most notably, the structural backbone of it all, the extensive network of expressways. As well, I bring my own biography to all of this, having grown up on relatively remote Indian reservations in the West. And so for me, there’s an elegiac quality hanging over my encounters with these concrete and steel behemoths, eating away the forests and fields multiple acres at a time.
MICHAEL: That’s for sure.
STEVEN: On a more abstract but equally real level, these complexes are structural manifestations of powerful economic forces that are quickly transforming virtually every aspect of society. I could go on and on, but I’ll say only that these centers, for good or for bad, are integral components of virtually all of the modern methods of the production and distribution of goods; think distributed networks, international supply chains, data-mining algorithms and so on. Without which these massive operations a lot wouldn’t exist at all. Clearly this has an enormous impact on everyone.
MICHAEL: And yet, your representations of them are artfully beautiful. How do you reconcile this ... as they're continuing to have such a significant impact on the actual ecological landscape?
STEVEN: Excellent question and one I think about all the time. It’s absolutely a fair call to suggest that my work (especially my paintings) aestheticizes its subject. This certainly presents a contradiction of intent and tone that I will not even try to argue against but rather explain.
First, I go back to one of my first sentences in this conversation where I assert my ‘simultaneous fascination and horror at witnessing the expansion of distribution and fulfillment center complexes.’ Therein lies the seeds of my
Despite everything I’ve said about the negative impact of these structures, I find these individual buildings and their larger complexes to be absolutely stunning. To drive around these structures up close is to behold applied Cubism on steroids, and as well, a thoroughly new kind of landscape. As an artist, I do find them beautiful in a similar way the Italian Futurists responded with beautiful artworks to the brash, disruptive technological scenes of their time (although I’ve no plans to write any celebratory manifesto anytime soon). So I’ve no problem with the artful beauty of these pieces, although I like to imagine my work as channeling something closer to a (technological) sublime.
Having said all of that, I need to confess to an even deeper personality split. I see myself as wearing different hats that determine significantly different responses to the larger Exurban Archipelago project. Along with the more artful side of what I do, I also see myself operating more in the vein of someone like Allan Sekula (e.g. Fish Stories) where I am more interested in the sociological, political and economic implications of these developments. Here I explore the subject much more critically, especially in some of my writings, my videos and even a large board game I made for an earlier exhibition. Again, I could go on, but I’ll finish here by again acknowledging these contradictions in my work.
MICHAEL: I totally understand what you're saying. I love architecture and I'm always aware of the positive and negative impact of certain kinds of design. Our world would be totally different if we could get people to play more active roles in the design in their lives and immediate surroundings. Scandinavians and the Japanese understand this I think. But we Americans have more pressing concerns, I guess. What do you think?
STEVEN: Of course I’m not an architect or an urban planner, so I can only speak generally on this. My sense is that, on the whole, Americans do not seem very sensitive or sophisticated with their built environment.
This has been changing over the last generation with so much more promotion and attention to design on all levels - especially architectural and interior design. But this has been limited largely to the more culturally (and often financially) elite sectors of society - not so much with the general population. Once you venture out beyond the rarified pockets of wealthy and/or gentrified sections of the city or the hip small towns, things get
pretty bleak pretty fast.
MICHAEL: They sure do.
STEVEN: Think the endless strip malls, bland corporate parks and housing developments that blanket most of the populated areas of America. This is depressingly true of the exurban regions, the very areas that I investigate for my work.
I still remember the first time I went to Italy and noticed that, even with the bleakest housing complexes located well beyond the picturesque town centers, the Italians somehow managed to humanize their neighborhoods with trees, gardens, human scaled store fronts and so on.
MICHAEL: Wow, that sounds great, but that’s Italy for you.
STEVEN: But not so in otherwise similar areas of the U.S. I know there are a host of historic, cultural explanations for this, but certainly, from the early 20th century on, our emphasis (actually obsession) with mobility has influenced how Americans engage with place and space.
MICHAEL: And so, what is your goal? Are you documenting things sociologically or creating beautiful art or both? Is there a personal call to action here for you?
STEVEN: The simple answer is I aspire to do more of both. But it's more complicated with me. By far, the greater portion of my non-job time goes into what would be considered conventional art making such as painting.
I love doing this and I've been painting and exhibiting for a long time. Simultaneously, but for far fewer years, I have been researching and documenting in a more “sociological” vein, but less so than with painting because I simply don't have enough time.
I am the chairman of an art department at a private school, and quite frankly, it's a miracle that I make any kind of art at all. I'm afforded only fragmented segments of free time just to be in the studio, much less to pursue these other kinds of projects with any depth and consistency. Plus, I don't have the financial resources to take those endeavors to a higher level.
MICHAEL: I understand.
STEVEN: I've tried numerous times to secure grants that would've potentially afforded me more time and resources, but sadly, my efforts continue to come up short. As to the latter part of your question, I'm not sure what a call to action would look like other than continuing to do what I'm doing, although on a more engaged and sophisticated level. However, I can say that, given more time and resources, I would like to pursue more research, more robust documentary projects involving travel, filming and ultimately tethered to more experimental media along the lines of what I've already done such as interactive game design, video projection and so on.
Ultimately, I make no pretense of being a sociologist or that my work will somehow impact these exurban developments. Rather, I see myself more as a witness, drawing attention to these much overlooked phenomena that are so fascinating, socially consequential and yet strangely beautiful.
MICHAEL: Sure, I get it. You've just opened up a can of worms by telling me that you head up an art department at a private school. Art education has always been challenged, but these days, it really seems to be hanging on by a thread. What's going on?
STEVEN: I do have a habit of opening worm cans at inconvenient times; it usually begins with a proverbial, “Oh, by the way.”
Art Education hanging on by a thread? Are we talking here about secondary education rather than at the college level, because those would present two separate discussions. As I teach at the secondary level, I'll address that.
No question art education is hanging by a thread in many places, that is, if it ever hung at all; especially in countless public schools where there is so little funding. In many districts across the country, the dearth of art education, as bad as that is, is probably the least of their problems.
MICHAEL: Point well taken.
STEVEN: On the other hand, in many of the wealthier public and private schools, art education is thriving. Just in the years that I've been teaching, I can see a significant rise in the scope and the sophistication of the art programs at many schools. I certainly consider my own program to be of very high quality and I am aware of numerous others. But again, like practically everything else in our land these days, the bounty usually obtains in wealthier enclaves.
MICHAEL: Of course. What role do you think art education can/should play in the lives of people?
STEVEN: Depending on the context and the particular audience, art education can function and serve in different ways. In many venues, it largely consists of art “appreciation,” involving no or perhaps limited hands-on experience. Certainly this can be a good thing, as it both enriches people's lives and ultimately undergirds the very idea of culture itself. Indeed, art appreciation is a desired outcome of any art educational curriculum, but it can serve peoples’ lives so much more robustly. Here I’m talking about the experiential, hands-on and genuinely creative sides of what art education can facilitate, where people don’t merely appreciate art but do art.
Regardless of the scope and sophistication of a studio-based art curriculum, it can stimulate and develop any number of critically important skills and experiences that would benefit anyone. Aside from developing skills in specific media, other important benefits can be self-expression, critical thinking, creative problem solving, risk-taking and, perhaps as rewarding as anything, the joys of engaging in creative processes.
MICHAEL: Finally, where do you want to go with your work in the future and what do you want people to get from it?
STEVEN: The simple answer to your first question is that I’ll continue to do what I’m doing but in ever-changing iterations. That’s always been the Pilgrim’s Progress story of my painting and it will likely continue that way until the end. But with the larger sweep of my work that I’ve referred to as the Exurban Archipelago project, the future will probably be noticeably less predictable.
For the past few years, I would characterize my working process as Content chasing after Form. And going forward, those forms could develop in any number of ways. My studio is littered with notes, drawings and schematics of any number of ideas, a few of which might actually be achievable.
As mentioned earlier, I would love to delve more deeply into the more “sociological” side with more in-depth research and documentary projects. I would like to explore further the potential of video projection. I am considering converting the game board approach to a more interactive venue. I’ve even been playing around with the idea of a full floor layout of something like my earlier game board and having it traversed by a small robotic device equipped with sensors and image relays to surrounding screens. Kind of crazy, I realize. And there is so much more, but who knows what I’ll be capable of realizing.
And what do I want people to get from all of this? I believe that the sum of most artists’ work turns out in the end to be a long-running argument to the world or at least to anyone who will look and listen. Ultimately, an artist is making an argument about how they grasp and inhabit the world; it’s an argument about what is important, what should be seen and what should be felt. For me, so much comes down to spatial experience, and so I suppose the larger argument I’m trying to make is that whole new kinds of spatial experiences are emerging all around us and that these need to be acknowledged and processed - aesthetically, intellectually or however. As discussed above, I happen to find these postindustrial landscapes simultaneously frightening and fascinating. I’m drawn to spaces that are engineered to be placeless and that is what I want to people to get.
Let me finish by saying how enjoyable this conversation has been for me. I hope it’s been the same for you. Your questions have been exceptionally effective in pushing me to articulate better what I do as an artist and as a teacher. Thanks.
MICHAEL: Thanks Steven. Yes, it has been a great chat.
Check out Steven Baris at http://www.stevenbaris.com/.