Multi-media artist Siebren Versteeg often writes a code, goes to bed, and wakes in the morning to see what the computer created over night. His works explore ideas of connectivity in our global culture, the tautological nature of material and immaterial information, and the human spiritual condition in relation to the advancement of technology. In this interview, conducted via gchat with Katie Geha, Versteeg discusses work in his recent exhibition at the Rhona Hoffmann Gallery in Chicago.
Katie: When did you know you would be an artist?
Siebren: Always thought I was one. It was more like I was told I was from a young age–living my folks projection.
Katie: So you learned it from your parents?
Siebren: Like a Bennet Ramsey—they both wanted to be artists, but were restricted by a learned pragmatism.
Katie: So you were groomed?
Siebren: Sure, but not to such an extreme. I think I was groomed in a very “intuitive” way. In retrospect I think they could’ve been a lot more diligent in their teachings, more museum visits, less Cheers.
Katie: The other day my professor said that intuition is just really fast thinking.
Siebren: Absolutely!! I totally agree with that. Intuition is fast or efficient and ingrained thinking, like genetic thinking. When a brain becomes a muscle. A heart beats intuitively.
Katie: Why do you make work through computer code and not through more traditional modes like painting and sculpture?
Siebren: I did make painting, sculpture, and video as an undergraduate. But once I began programming, I realized that the logic of that medium was exactly what I had been pursuing though other means. That is, a looping logic that is infinitely nesting and spiral-like.
Katie: How did you get into programming?
Siebren: I was working for a dot.com and we produced CD-ROM tutorials of Xerox repairmen for technician training. I was editing this stuff 40+ hours a week and I thought the situation to be an ironic and strange almost Warholian loop itself. Here were these technicians taking machines apart and putting them back together, and there I was at another machine–taking their images and putting those together.
Katie: And this led to your current art practice?
Siebren: I thought I’d climb the media ladder and zoom out a bit to the meta layer of programming, this seemed more challenging to my brain.
Katie: Can I ask you a little more about this looping business?
Katie: Real quick, I was just writing on the ether and your work and came across this 19th century Physicist J.H. Poynting and he described the ether as a substance “spangled over beads of matter.” But on closer examination, he resolved that the beads “are mere knots and loops in the threads of the ether.”
Siebren: Yes, matter is energy.
Katie: Anyway, that is less important, but just thought it was nice in relation to your work. I’d like to talk about the tautological nature of the medium reflecting the work (message?) Specifically, I would like to hear more about the installation of Untitled Painting I and Own Nothing Have Everything.
Siebren: Own Nothing Have Everything is a wall mural which extends the graphic motif of a Napster advertisement, a one-point perspective of radiating black and white lines. The lines are brought from a 1.5″ LCD screen embedded in the wall to 40′ wide and 14′ tall. The piece literally extends the slipping, ephemeral world of the screen out into matter space.
Katie: Why the Napster logo?
Siebren: The Napster slogan “Own Nothing Have Everything” has had my attention since it came out in 2004 or so. It was a short-lived campaign when Napster tried to market network subscriptions. In my work, I sometimes equate ideas of art making in the digital age to the continually shifting relationship that the public has with music as it too becomes digitalized.
Katie: So you were thinking about immateriality or ownership without objects?
Siebren: Yes, I had also been reading on eastern philosophy and Buddhism, this seemed very apt to some of the important paradoxes that are outlined in those writings: letting go, holding on.
Katie: Why are those paradoxes significant?
Siebren: Dialectics–the congealing of energies into thoughts, the inescapability of bringing into being, a double sided coin, the inability to build a mound and not make a hole.
Katie: Okay, then so this work is extending that paradox or maybe dialectic out into this infinite space but it also acts as a mirror?
Siebren: You mean a mirror or a hammer?
Katie: A hammer? I was thinking of it as a mirror and as an entrapment in that it is placed opposite of Untitled Painting.
Siebren: “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer to shape it …”
Katie: So you’re shaping reality?
Siebren: Brecht, not me. No I think my work reflects it to provide a model for consideration.
Katie: Yes, I think it does too. Talk about how this work in relation to Untitled Painting please.
Siebren: The painting to me is the reflective even figurative work; while the mural is the architecture surrounding it, the screen, and the world.
Katie: Ah, so the painting is the mirror.
Siebren: Yep, it has no center, it reflects its environment and holds onto nothing. It is basically a frame for a hole. 0 is the center.
Katie: So it is also a paradox (reflecting and retaining).
Siebren: Yes, exactly. It’s that looping between logic when thinking hits its limitation that I think I was describing. So the inspirational fodder of that Napster ad becomes muse for a much more philosophical perspective or inquiry.
Katie: I’m not sure I follow. So Napster is emblematic of retaining and reflecting information? Or are you talking about a limit of information?
Siebren: Yes, it’s a space, a public/private/corporate one. But the slogan, you know, sounds like a mantra and I really like that.
Katie: I see: “Own Nothing, Have Everything.” Yes, it does.
Siebren: I also like how its graphic looks like an outmoded socialist propaganda poster. This made me think of how this ideology can conflate with Buddhism, how it might be interesting to imagine a capitalist version, contemporary China. When the Napster phenomenon was small and didn’t effect the music biz so much it worked fine. Giant popularity and aspirations caused it to assimilate and collapse. “Own Nothing, Have Everything.” I can imagine the slogan coming about in negotiation meetings with the record industry.
Katie: So the painting is kind of like the static reverb of the mural. But why the hole again? (I’m a little slow).
Siebren: The hole is the nothing through which, one sees the projection piece, Untitled Film IV.
Katie: Like a viewfinder?
Siebren: Yes, or a camera obscura. In addition, the painting is also related to another piece in the show, Sponge. I dripped paint on a sponge until it could not hold anymore and then fixed it on a rotating apparatus. The sponge is a closed system or an imploded painting. It’s the sponge that insists on holding on, its content, its paint. And it becomes completely saturated and dead like an exhausted star. It’s an old world system.
Katie: Okay, go on.
Siebren: Sponge people = like hard drives, storing data, but in the presence of sublime quantity, the logical extension is schizophrenic implosion. I think as a necessary survival skill, we are beginning to act more like processors, knowing where to get information at anytime, but retaining none of it.
Katie: Ooh come on what do you mean?
Siebren: There’s too much, why bother to try and hang on?
Katie: But you suggest that there is an end: the sponge gets full.
Siebren: Yeah another problem maybe.
Katie: I’m tired of schizophrenia being the way out.
Siebren: I struggle with the idea of muscles or vessels, the brain metaphors I mean. Sponge = vessel.
Katie: I see, the sponge! Again: own nothing/ have everything.
Katie: Ok so the film . . .
Siebren: Yes it is riffed from Chris Marker’s La Jetée. The soundtrack is taken directly from that film. The images it rolls through are live and randomly pulled from Flickr and the code uses the three transition types from the film randomly: a straight cut, a dissolve, and a fade.
Katie: Just to be clear—you wrote code and that code randomly chooses images?
Siebren: Yes, the piece taps Flickr in real time and finds a random image.
Katie: Oh, so it’s live?
Siebren: Indeed, but with dead images.
Katie: So, sponge/painting= dead and film/mural=alive?
Siebren: Well, it’s back to dialectics: live conjures dead.
Katie: Nice. Good ‘ol dialectics.
Siebren: I’d rather discuss Dianetics.
Katie: This interview is a loop!
Katie: Why make Flickr images look like film?
Siebren : I think film is directly associated with our idea of the narrative and a linear cause and effect construction of meaning.
Katie: Yes, absolutely. I remember when I realized what a director was—I always sort of thought I was watching real life. It was actually a really painful realization.
Siebren: Well, in this piece you are watching real life, with a very wide angled lens, and it’s quite random. There’s a quote in the film: “Nothing distinguishes the moments we remember from any other moments. They are only made memorable by the scars they leave.” No scars or memories.
Katie: I see. So then there is also a camera involved in the film—painting—mural motif, right?
Siebren: The camera is inside the middle of the film screen and it lines up with the hole in the painting and the Napster LCD screen. The camera takes an image of the viewer with the painting and the mural as a nested backdrop of radiating lines which look a lot like a spider’s web.
Katie: In this way you implicate the viewer (human) within a web?
Siebren: Does Google archive these (our) conversations too?
Katie: What do you mean?
Siebren: See every memory will soon leave a scar. But we won’t own them.
Katie: I don’t agree with that. Of course we own the scar and I don’t think the word scar is right.
Siebren: A mark?
Katie: Yes, I like mark much better. Then we won’t own the mark.
Siebren: Little painless scars = marks. Until the sponge congeals.
Katie: Right and then . . . we die?
Siebren: We’re in free prose land I think.
Katie: What’s that?
Siebren: Red Dwarf.
Katie: Red Dwarf!
Siebren: A new nation: Freeproseland
Katie: I’ll see you there.
Siebren: It’s up by the North Zee.