By Peter Bebergal
Growing up in a fairly small city in Michigan, was it hard for you to develop as an artist? Were you able to find any kind of community?
I have an artistically inclined family so there was support in terms of my early youth. That was supplanted later on by some incredible luck in terms of high school opportunities.
I grew up in the heart of what is called the “rust belt.” The place I grew up is about an hour by car from Detroit, so I spent a lot of time there, and in Ann Arbor, going to music shows and hanging out. In the county school district I was in we had a local “career center” that was the kind of vocational education that one gets if they don’t want to go to university but want to have a decent job. Pre-union skill sets like auto-body, electronics repair and cosmetology. But there was a class called commercial art whose teacher Denis Turner saw the future.
In 1989 we had a class full of Commodore Amigas, a Silicon Graphics workstation and were doing full 3D animation, digital cell animation, and graphic design. We also had a full run of traditional art but more than anything the class was a kind of nexus for being exposed to really radical information in the pre-web days. I modified a Nintendo Power glove (using ASCII schematics I got off of a BBS) into a data-glove that let us manipulate objects onscreen in 3D in 1990 (2 full years before the birth of the web). We went to lectures by people like Jaron Lainer and Steve Aukstakalnis (author of Silicon Mirage about the birth of virtual reality), watched an amazing library of video film art and had a subscription to Mondo 2000. We were on the promo list of 4AD, Waxtrax and Nettwork so we had all of this crazy music coming in as well. Exposure to things months before they were commercially available.
Turner’s thing was helping you build a portfolio that would get you into whatever art school you wanted to go to, often with a full ride scholarship. Headhunters from Pratt, SVA, Parsons and a ton of other schools would come once a year to review work and give guidance to the students. He was an amazing person to have as a springboard to launch out of regional Michigan and into seeing the world.
Was music a big part of your growing up? How did it motivate you as a young artist?
Music has had a pretty major influence on my life and work as an artist. I have spent the majority of my life hanging out with musicians and being around on the music scene even from my early youth. I spent every weekend from the late 80s through the mid 90s at live shows. My music tastes are omnivorous. There isn’t a genre of music I don’t listen to. Ernst Scrubbs to Wolf Eyes, Jimmy Smith to Earl Sweatshirt. I listen to it all. As a painter music shapes the way I move, it turns the act of painting into a dance that makes the body fully involved in the act. It creates a constant soundtrack to every part of the creative process.
When did you first start with graffiti? Did you tag as a kid?
Graffiti was just always there. My grandfather was a train engineer so I spent a lot of time at the rail yards when I was really young and was fascinated by the things I saw painted on the sides of trains traveling in and out of Detroit. I remember getting in trouble in kindergarten for drawing on the back of bus seats and being dragged in front of the principal by the bus driver. By my teens I was doing a kind of faux Japanese style thing on buildings and bus stops. It grew from there, particularly once my friends had cars and we were spending a lot more time in downtown Detroit.
In what way is graffiti an extension of your video/film art, or is it a chicken and egg thing?
In the mid 90s when I moved to New York City I got involved with the graff scene there. In particular I was interested in the more philosophical side of graffiti and its role in society. My friends and I played with notions of transience and permanence. Ways to make graffiti come right off with no problem (like dry erase markers and chalk) and ways to make it stay even when the authorities wanted it removed (mixing xylene into ink to make it bleed up through paint, adding catalytic hardeners to paint to make it bond to glass like on a Coke bottle). The idea was to think about how the form could be pushed, what could be done that was new.
Around this time I got into film. I found a 16mm projector and a friend gave me a box of old school films. By the time I moved from NYC to Chicago I was messing around with projecting film onto buildings and ultimately found myself doing guerrilla style screenings using 3 or more projectors in parking lots and other places. I wanted to push the film format into the same space as graffiti. Make it a public thing that people just happened into instead of presenting film in a traditional theater setting. I discovered the work of artist Krzysztof Wodiczko and his ideas about the “night time attack” fit well with my past doing graffiti. Eventually I abandoned film projectors for video by the time video projectors had become bright enough to do pieces outdoors. This all cumulated in the video graffiti piece “Dreamlife of Sleeping Buildings” I did in Eindhoven, NL in 2001.
As so much of our daily life is now online, is it possible for graffiti to exist in a web-based society?
With the popular explosion of graffiti and street art as a mainstream “subculture” the internet has been the driving force in the virality of graffiti. Unfortunately this has led to the typical co-opting of said subculture by the fashion and advertising industries. The web has both broadened the appeal of graffiti to young people and created a monetization generating tool in which commercial concerns can cash in on graffiti’s growing popularity.
Banksy’s recent “New York Residency” is a good case in point. Few people actually saw the work in the real world, but hundreds of thousands flocked to his site and to Instagram to catch an image of the work. Without the internet to drive his popularity Banksy would still be selling premade canvases in Bristol.
The downside of this surge in popularity is how corporations have totally run away with the game. Funding the endeavors of formerly “street” based artists, channeling their creative output into a diamond edge knife for use in rapid gentrification (See Wynwood Walls in Miami, funded by a NY real estate developer) and product tie-ins (YSL and Chanel graffiti style products), not to mention the direct sales of custom products like “graffiti paint” that is basically standard spray paint rebranded with an 500% markup in price. (The manufacturer of Montana, a very popular paint with graffiti artists, is Motip the German auto paint maker.)
But the web itself offers an interesting platform for the future of art in general. It becomes a kind of wild west, where anything is possible. Web virality in general gives people access to a wide audience and we are seeing the emergence of a new generation of artists for whom the tablet and mouse are as comfortable as creative tools as the pencil and brush.
Where graffiti and the web meet there is a concept that is coming into its own – non-object oriented art. This idea, that art no longer needs to have a permanent physical form, is something that is the kernel of the next great art movement. It redefines what art is in so much as it removes the object from the equation.
In the next few years this younger generation will take the reins and really push nooart into a space that is practically unimaginable now. The advent of technological transparency, as powerful mobile devices become ubiquitous, will make the average person considerably more comfortable in dealing with art as an interactive digital experience.
In my personal work I am very interested in the convergence of these two ideas – urban art and web/mobile based art. I find that boundary, where one side feeds into the other to be incredibly inspiring. How architecture can become both canvas and broadcast platform, how augmented reality can push this even further by expanding the aesthetics in ways not possible in the physical form. This is what is pushing my work at the moment. In February I will premiere a new collaborative piece that I have been developing (with the Heavy Projects) called MIRAGE as part of the SKYLINE “Art, Architecture, and Technology” exhibition in Los Angeles.
A lot of people were upset about the whitewashing of 5Pointz in New York. Why do people have such a hard time letting go of art that was never intended to be permanent? Are graffiti artists themselves somehow responsible for starting to see their own work as deserving of immortality?
My opinion about what happened at 5Pointz is not the one that most people in the graffiti community want to hear. I think that the people who owned that building were gracious enough to allow it to exist for two decades and that instead of saying “thank you” the entire scene threw a childish fit and ended up losing anyway. The problem is that the way things were handled, as if the graffiti had some rights or that somehow the building was no longer the owner’s, that it was the artist’s building, will only discourage future landowners from allowing projects like 5Points to ever exist in the first place. Graffiti is transient by nature, it’s not supposed to last, that is its power and its essence.
How do you teach the new generation of artists to think more virtually?
I think that is the natural shape of human experience with technology. It doesn’t have to be taught; it is being learned by the pure immersion that anyone growing up already gets. Today’s kids live in a total state of interconnectedness; constant texting, emailing, chatting, photos, videos, blogs. Someday soon there will be kids who cannot conceive of a screen without a touch interface or a time when all people didn’t have some advanced evolution of Google glass. That generation may already have been born, they’re just too young now for us to notice.
One thing that concerns me is that we still need artifacts, as it were; to make sure that future generations – even centuries from now – have evidence of what came before. How does nooart insure some kind of archival integrity?
From the perspective of museums and collectors the archival situation with digital art has become a real concern. How to maintain ancient operating systems, hard and software that is decades out of date, etc? But these concerns are being dealt with on multiple levels and as standardized practices come into play that will continue to improve. You can still run a website from 1992 in a contemporary browser.
But ultimately nooart, much like graffiti, doesn’t have to be immortal. Art is born and much of it eventually dies. It will exist only as long as someone makes an effort to maintain it. Which is the same for a painting or sculpture as it is for a website or digital art.
The critic George Steiner wrote that all authentic art is an attempt to capture or express some element of transcendence. In other words, art is a way of trying to manifest the divine through a static form. How do you understand this for your own work in general and for nooart specifically?
Within the context of my work the idea of transcendence is a very personal one. I am extremely interested in the boundary that separates these two perceived states “mundane/transcendental.” My work draws heavily on a personal framework that is both spiritual and transcendent, but it is not something that I often directly refer to or discuss.
As a painter I find myself in a practice that is shamantic in nature, centered on movement and gesture in a dance with the materials I am working with. I tend to paint “through” a space in a way that defines my work as a record of such movement. This level of spiritual practice is something I am rather reluctant to discuss publicly, as I find it to be something so private I would rather shield it from the world’s eyes.
Yet with the concept of nooart I find a parallel to this boundary. The merging of these two states physical/nonphysical and how nooart can act as a bridge between them. The development of technologies that help to further push painting into new forms, bringing it to a new evolution of art.
Do you think nooart functions as a social or political position? Is it for or against anything?
When we talk about nooart we are talking about something more than a mere art movement – it represents a new medium, like painting or sculpture; a new language in which expression can occur. That gives it endless possibilities to be “for or against” anything really. Nooart is able to be harnessed by any artist to create a work that can yield whatever message the artist is trying to convey. Like any language it is able to express the countless facets of human existence.
My work in particular is not political in itself. While I hold very strong political opinions I attempt to keep them out of the creative process as I find that using art to speak “for or against” things limits its ability to engage viewers. When we compartmentalize art we give it a box in which it should exist. I try to create work that cannot be placed inside a box, so to speak, but that is open to interpretation by the viewer.
I think then, this is precisely what makes art transcendent, when it is not, as you say, for or against anything. But can art transform society and also somehow stand outside of ideas about what is good or just?
Art is, at its core, experience; either the experience of making art as the creator or the experience of perceiving art as the audience. In both of these situations art fundamentally is about inspiration. It inspires others to act, to change and see the world in ways that it is not. It provides us with an outline of potentialities, of how we can define our experiences in the world in new and expressive ways.
Some powerful works of art have very specific meaning, like Picasso’s Guernica for instance. Others stand outside of meaning and portray a way of seeing that is totally new (at least at the time of creation) Jackson Pollock’s work is a good example. In the middle you have the wide swath of ideas and expressions that come from the rainbow of cultures the world over. Yet art stands as society’s measuring stick. It is the unit by which we measure a culture of a given time and place. It is a record of the people and ideas inherent in the culture that produced the artist and is the essence of that culture by way of the artist’s practice.
Graffiti gave voice to a certain marginalized segment of society. Can nooart provide the same opportunity?
Non object oriented art has a kernel inside of it that has the potential to radically alter the path of art’s evolution. In the contemporary art world there is an obsession with money and the “art market.” More often than not any news or media article related to art is about some astronomical price paid for an art object. Either the story is of some masterpiece by a dead artist selling for the GDP of a small country or the sudden upshot in the auction price of a young art star that everyone is talking about. In fact very little contemporary art journalism is about aesthetics. The art market and the financial value of art is the only talking point that seems to trigger discussion.
But any one of the hundreds of thousands of practicing artists in the world can tell you that this focus on money overlooks the art itself, and those masses of artists see only a percent of a percent of the money involved in the art market. All of this is due to the fact that art as an object oriented business allows for a very small handful of powerful people to control the flow of a vast amount of capital, and to pick and choose who gets to be on the inside while everyone else is left out.
With nooart, its center is that it is non-object oriented. There is no object, no single piece central to its ownership. If I make a copy of an app, gif, or webpage it is the same as the “original,” identical down to the zeros and ones of its digital soul. The model of the 20th century art world is one in which someone buys a piece of art from an artist, marks it up and sells it again and continues in this cycle of upselling and making increased profits from the work over the artist’s life without the artist seeing any further benefit from that piece of art’s popularity. With nooart it can be continually sold by the artist and as its popularity increases the artist sees a direct financial benefit. What this creates is an artist-centered economy. It cuts directly across the old world model of exclusivity and gives the artist access to a broad audience and thus access to continual income from the popularity of a piece of art through a distributed ownership model.
Just like the way graffiti gave voice to a group of marginalized practitioners nooart will give rise to a generation of artists who are able to create unfettered by the rules and strictures of a system that has long ago cut them out. It frees artists to make work without limitations, to push ideas into the world unhindered by the system of “who knows whom” and “pay to play” that has come to define art over the past 100 years. Nooart is the future of art, and the future is now.
Raymond Salvatore Harmon