conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 10.04.2023
ANNE SPALTER & NATHANIEL STERN: AT THE FOREFRONT OF AI
Interview by Anika Meier
When exploring new territories, it is often helpful to not walk alone. That’s probably why we see more and more artists collaborating on projects in the NFT space. Experiences can be shared and expertise combined. When Anne Spalter and Nathaniel Stern met, they both knew it was meant to be. Their encounter influenced their artistic practice and impacted their work with AI. Spalter and Stern have been collaborating ever since, exploring video, poetry, and AI.
In conversation with Anika Meier, the artists discuss their practice, working together, and the present and future of AI. And, of course, the conversation was also about Spalter Digital, one of the world’s largest private collections of early computer art, comprising over 1000 works from the second half of the twentieth century.
Anika Meier: Anne Spalter and Nathaniel Stern, FUTURE MYTHOLOGIES is your first collaboration. When and how have you met?
Nathaniel Stern: I had known about and been following Anne’s work for years, but I don’t think we met in person until she had an exhibition in Milwaukee, WI, at the St. Kate Arts Hotel. I’ve been in MKE for nearly 15 years, and that’s one of my favorite spots in town. At least four different people told me I had to go see her talk (brilliant!), and we also wound up sharing a meal thereafter with mutual friends. Not only did I absolutely love the work, but it’s what inspired me to finally get involved in AI and Web3. I began experimenting with both that very night.
Anne Spalter: Yes! Multiple people that day told me they had invited someone named Nathaniel Stern, whom I really needed to meet. So I guess it was meant to be. I loved creating a solo show for the St. Kate’s art hotel in Milwaukee and used AI in most aspects, from GAN-based videos to large-scale inflatables based on AI-generated compositions. Nathaniel and I had productive conversations about AI right from the beginning, and I also learned that somehow he teaches full-time and has a family with five children in addition to his art practice. So I was incredibly impressed all around and a little jealous of his energy level.
AM: When did you decide you would like to work on a project together?
NS: Most of my early net.art in the 90s and 2000s was video poetry, and the majority of my work is text, textures, contextual… so I had already been working with theVERSEverse. When they asked me to do a series of AI poems for GenText, I wanted to do a new twist on some of that early work, where I had turned Greek mythological characters into slam poets—first in NYC venues like CBGBs and the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, then in streaming videos. In that early work, I had used a core story of my own as their new histories; this time, I wanted to mess with AI by doing things like making the AI stutter or overuse parenthetical thoughts, flipping known myths sideways, or putting the characters in faraway places. Ana Maria Caballero and I were brainstorming at NFT.NYC last year about who to ask to partner with me as the visual artist—since the whole series works in partnership—and we both jumped up and down when we thought to put our heroes in space and court Anne Spalter to be part of it.
AS: Ever since reading classic poems by Yeats and T.S. Eliot in high school, I’ve been a fan of poetry. I think that, just like playing the violin well, it’s a skill that’s quite rare. Somehow in my adult life, however, I had stopped reading as much poetry—until I started seeing language-based NFTs created by members of a group called theVERSEverse. I immediately felt this was a revolutionary undertaking—bringing poetry to the blockchain, increasing its audience among a younger group of readers, and also, perhaps for the first time in history, creating a way for poets to make a living from their art. Most famous painters make a living from their work, but Wallace Stevens was an insurance salesman, and TS Eliot worked in a bank.
As a curator for one of the PlayboyxSeven shows, I had recommended an amazing poem that turned out to be by one of theVERSEverse members,Ana Caballero (the reviewing was blind), but I didn’t really know much about the origins or structure of the group. I was thrilled when Nathaniel reached out and suggested this collaboration, since I had never dreamed that I could be part of a group that wrote poetry.
AM: FUTURE MYTHOLOGIES consists of a series of 12 poems written in collaboration with text-based AIs and incorporated into videos produced with the help of text-to-image AI. What can we learn from Greek mythology for the future?
NS: These stories are so very rich and can be easily adapted to show us connections we hadn’t thought of. For example, in my piece OEDIPUS for hektor.net (originally put online in 1999, minted last year, and owned by Kevin Abosch), I turn Greek fatalism into the Ameritocracy, where you can’t escape fate any more than you can escape the class you are born into. A lot of the pieces in FUTURE MYTHOLOGIES reveal the patriarchal and rule-bound issues with these old stories. PENELOPE (on SuperRare), for example, stops waiting for Odysseus and takes off into the unknown. PANDORA (not yet released) is proud to have opened up that box of knowledge. ICARUS sends a big "FU to gravity" (and his father). They’re funny in their referentiality but still act as a kind of action and call to action.
AS: One of the fun aspects of working with AI is not knowing what direction it will take you. Although all the visuals are guided by Nathaniel’s text—often using parts of the poems directly as prompt material—the visual outputs are never predetermined for me. I love the sense of working with a mysterious partner in AI and running with concepts that emerge from the text-to-image process. In Icarus, for example, my prompts started generating frames consisting only of feathers. This was 100% unexpected but immediately made sense, and I went with it because the explosive feathering evocatively suggested the rise and fall and stuttering described in the poem.
I’m not sure my visuals carry a specific message for the future but are more about letting people see these classic stories in a new light and enjoy them from a modern visual perspective.
AM:"I don’t fear the unknown. But I feel it", does Odysseus say in the piece titled ODYS. Do these poems freeze a moment in time—our time—or how would you best describe them?
NS: I love this question. To me, any great work of art is both frozen and moving (in many senses of that word). A photograph, for example, is a "still", but what we see in that moment is not only what is in the frame. We all understand there are outside goings-on, a behind to any image, a before and an after, and more, and all of those potentials are caught in the very potent present of the image. An astute viewer also considers the context in which the piece was made: when, by whom, and in relation to what. Any given time is a smudge; any context is a tangling of possibilities. Odys and I feel all those potentials—their beauty and cynicism, their wonder and sadness. I agree with the proclamation, "I don’t fear the unknown. But I feel it", Odys is not saying he is completely fearless. But what he feels—that intensity, that affect, that timeless yet constrained moment of potent potential—far outweighs (in fact, includes) his fear.
AS: I agree that freezing a moment in time is a goal of much art. "For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!" right? These new tools we are using are very much of our moment in time, and using them to re-interpret these narratives will definitely situate them for future viewers.
AM: Nathaniel, one of your professors at NYU recommended that you explore the relationship between speech and body. What did you find out?
NS: Would it be cheating to point to 25 years of art practice and two peer-reviewed academic books in answer to this question? I can’t thank Dan O’Sullivan enough for his early provocations in my art-making and writing practices. Moving-thinking-feeling are all part of the same process; the world is always already made of conceptual-material formations. Matter thinks. Words play. Time suspends. Life and non-life are both heartbreakingly beautiful.
AM: What are your thoughts about the relationship between speech and video when it comes to digital art?
NS: It’s vital for me, and something I’ve been doing since dial-up! When I write poetry, I write it for performance and read it aloud as I write... I was a songwriter first, a poet second (like my dad!). When I was doing the slam poetry scene in NYC around 1999 and decided to go digital (this was before YouTube or MP4, so it was all Flash and Streaming QuickTime and the occasional RealPlayer, none of which exist any more), there was no question that I would perform them in video. Then I played between shots of me reading, custom animation, and harsh digital effects to "replace the body" with other intensities and effects on screen. I didn’t want the clean lines, so popular and easy to make in PhotoShop, etc., at the time; I wanted what I called the "dirty digital" to feel it. I had to play with a lot of compression and wait times, too. Most people could only view these at work, and it was funny to get emails about not warning that much of my poetry was NSFW (not a term I knew yet back then).
AS: These pieces combine so many factors: written text, spoken words, still and moving visuals, and frequently audio atmospheres as well, so there’s a lot going on. I think it’s a delicate balancing act to create a final piece in which everything works together to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts.
AM: It’s already difficult for an artist to decide when a project is finished. How did you approach this collaboration, and when did you know a piece was finished?
NS: Anne, Sasha Stiles, and Ana Maria Caballero all pushed me in my performances, but I had so much fun writing and recording these poems that I wrapped them up pretty quickly. With the visuals and text, Anne and I go back and forth a fair amount until we are both happy with them, and we usually kick up the pace when we have a deadline.
AS: I have definitely been the bottleneck in this project because Nathaniel finished the poems and voiceovers ages ago. Maybe I should have created some sort of template to produce them all with, but instead, each has been a challenging separate project, often taking several weeks to complete. The AI tools change constantly, and incorporating text and a specific visual illustration goal is new for me and not the way I usually work, so it has been a bit slow. And of course, I’ve been juggling other projects at the same time. I don’t think the problem is knowing when they are done, though. I don’t personally find this aesthetic decision much different when using digital technology than analog media.
NS: Anne’s work is AMAZING and I don’t care how long it takes! I am absolutely thrilled to be working with her and to be able to call her a friend. Also: I can’t help it. I tend to keep my head down and in a project until it’s done because otherwise I’d never finish anything (re: five kids and a full time job... Did I mention I also direct an NEA-funded research lab around art and neurodiverse community building and am a co-founder of an NSF-funded climate action startup?)
AS: Hahahaha. Thank you. And no, you did not mention that. I need whatever drugs you are on, lol. Aren’t you a runner as well? You know, in your free time...
NS: Anne’s being humble. She is one of the most prolific and talented artists I know.
AM: How and when did you start working with AI?
NS: Indirectly, many years ago, through all the computer vision work I do. Directly, the night I met Anne, in early 2021.
AS: In 2020, I saw fellow artist Carla Gannis post about something called playform.io, and I immediately applied for their beta program. Playform still exists and is great for GAN-based work, which tends to be overlooked with the text-to-image craze. It lets you use your own image sets, which appeals to me as an artist who has a lot of photographic and self-created source materials. I still enjoy the aesthetic of GAN imagery and videos and have created a number of works this way.
When I first heard that there was a process that let you type in a few words and get an image based on their description, I was pretty sure it was made up. I remain constantly amazed and delighted by text-to-image AI and am often up at 2 AM trying "just one more thing." I am now in several beta programs and often use multiple platforms at once to see which will give me the best results for a given prompt theme. In my Rabbit Takeover Drop of 557 Rabbits in a Post-Armageddon World, I also used ChatGPT and Sudowrite to create narratives for my images.
AM: Have your thoughts and concerns about AI changed over the years, as well as your approach to creating art with AI?
NS: They change all the time! My biggest concern at the moment is that so many people have such strong opinions without knowing much about the technologies and data behind most AI, not to mention the politics and revenue streams of each of the largest companies and models. My biggest, current project, - MOTHER COMPUTER: THINKING WITH NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCES, a series of drops and then a large-scale IRL exhibition with Sasha Stiles that will open in 2025 and travel thereafter, mostly tries to deepen and nuance conversations around AI (and its inner workings) and involve more non-computer / non-data folks into its fold.
AS: I’ve always been a technological optimist. As part of stewarding Spalter Digital since the early 1990s, I’ve had to combat the knee-jerk reaction of many in the art world that the computer somehow usurps artistic agency from human beings. Although AI brings a dramatic new level of power to everyday computer users, I also feel that I’ve seen this movie before. Usually, when a writer makes a blanket claim about AI taking over visual production jobs and being a force of generally unstoppable evil, I can tell that they have never actually tried to make a specific image with any of the current tools. It’s not at all easy. I tend to think of AI as more of a really great sketchpad and idea generator than a stand-alone replacement for artistic creation. (I don’t know enough to comment on the larger issue of whether there will be a GAI and the repercussions of that for society, so this is just in terms of today’s issues in art creation.)
AM: Anne, you are not only known as an artist but also as a collector of digital art. Michael Spalter and you started collecting digital art decades ago, when hardly anyone was interested in its history. You didn’t fear the unknown. What convinced you to trust a feeling and to continue this journey?
AS: I was writing my textbook, THE COMPUTER IN THE VISUAL ARTS, and reached out to the pioneers who had somehow braved punched cards and hard-to-access equipment and made art with computers in the 1960s and 1970s. Michael Spalter, who majored in art history, said, "Wow, these artists are just like the Impressionists. The academy hates them; they can’t show their work, but they all know each other, trained with well known people, and have incredible bodies of work. We should see if we can support them and collect some pieces." Because there was literally no market, we were able to afford some acquisitions. Being immersed in the history and getting to know the artists and their practices gave us an appreciation for their efforts that was not shared by most curators and critics. The collection continued to grow organically, but the NFT movement really brought digital art to the forefront for many people in a way that we never could have anticipated.
AM: What are the criteria for historically relevant digital art for you? Have these changed over the years?
AS: Michael Spalter and I focus on the 1950s–80s but do collect some more contemporary pieces that relate to works of that time period. In addition to standard metrics such as an artist’s complete body of work, show history, critical writings, and such, personal taste plays a large role. Each piece in the collection is something we chose because, if digital art never took off, we would still want to look at that work and would enjoy it.
NS: Oh, let me jump in on this... I tend to be most inspired by two "historical" moments with the media formerly known as new: 1. The first time a new technology is used towards artistic ends, a platform-specific performativity around what that medium is and does (on blockchain, think Rhea Myers and the McCoys!); and 2. AFTER that, when a new technology hits the mainstream, just after the hype cycle crest, artists who have waited to understand the medium more begin to engage with its public implications. I think we’re still in that latter part with both AI and blockchain.
That said, I am a romantic at heart. I like to move and be moved. A fantastic work of art will accomplish movement no matter when it is made, and its medium will always be an integral part of its conceptual-material formation.
Can I also just shout out Furtherfield here? Ruth and Marc, and their mantra, "Art and technology for eco-social change," have always balanced the new and meaningful for international tech-nerd audiences and London locals in ways that make me swoon. I have worked with them and will continue to do so whenever the opportunity arises.
AM: How does one develop criteria for art created with new technologies?
NS: This is a harder question, in that there are so many ways a work of art can be contextually relevant. My first book looked more specifically at interactive art, and I argued that dance and movement aesthetics (of the viewer) and how they have us relate to the world outweighed whatever it is we "see" on screen. This is because we always wander around where the sensor is and how it makes us perform. But Blockchain art is both new in its concretization of transactions (something I plan to explore a lot more in the next year) and also in its use of ownership and affection for more "traditional" digital forms. All of this is to say our relationships to the work, both personal and communal, will always determine its value. But that might be monetary, embodied, political, interpersonal, or otherwise—probably many of these in combination.
AS: In general, I use the same criteria for technological work as any other kind: do I feel something when I look at it or engage with it? I’m much more perceptually oriented than conceptually. It’s wonderful if an artwork has a strong idea behind it, but if it could be equally well or better expressed in writing, then it doesn’t succeed for me as a visual artwork.
AM: Nathaniel, when do you, as an artist, decide to start experimenting with a new technology?
NS: I’m in the latter camp of the question I answered above, honestly. I like to wait, research, and play just when a new technology is being talked about in the mainstream (especially if it’s only naively and with fear), and then turn it around, nuance it, fuck with it, make it emotional, create deeper connections, show its relation to history and other art forms... To my painter colleagues, I am "cutting edge" with my work, but to many of my digital peers—and how I think of myself—I am more of a synthesizer and researcher than someone who is "first" most of the time. I love being an artist working with new technologies, but my experimentation can take some time, and I usually don’t mind that. I’ve been making interactive art for more than 20 years, and yet I still learn from everything I make; it often feels new again. My scanner art felt very new in its use of scanners in the 90s and now feels quaint but still relevant. My last big IRL show and solo NFT drop – THE WORLD AFTER US – was about what happens when we throw out our used tech, so it was often nostalgic in its materials but still felt fresh.
AM: Is it helpful to be the first and to be early? Is this something you have in mind as artists and collectors?
NS: It is definitely helpful! And especially now that there are digital collectors interested in what is thought to be groundbreaking work. That said, I don’t often have it in mind any more. I think I was one of the first to do digital video poetry with hektor.net (no longer working!), epic online narratives, large-scale interactive poetry in the US and Africa... and it didn’t matter much because, at the time, there weren’t many collectors of this kind of work, and provenance was very difficult (I wrote a piece about this here, and there’s an upcoming NFT Now story I was interviewed for around this topic). I mostly showed in galleries and museums, precisely so I could be part of larger art world discussions, and occasionally in private collections. I like to think that an ongoing inquiry and a significant body of work will interest collectors and collections now. But I’m only just starting to break through to NFT collectors, so I’ll have to let you know how that goes in the next year or three!
Being respected and talked about by other artists—for me, because of that history—seems to help. I’m most excited to bring some of my longer inquiries around gifting and time, interactivity and performance, on-chain in the next year, and I think a lot of the work I’m planning is both new in this space and decidedly blockchain-specific, while also being old hat for me. I’m hoping that will speak to a large audience. I’ve got some exciting plans!
All this being said, being collected is relatively new to me, other than the occasional museum or university, and some prints are for more casual collectors. I had given up making much money with my art decades ago and decided to spend more time as a researcher, teacher, and academic, trying to have an impact. And I like to think I have. So making a bit of money and, more importantly, being collected and thus archived are like major bonuses in my middle age.
AS: I’m a bit of a techno-addict, so I tend to play with everything as soon as I can get my hands on it. Some tools end up being competitors in my practice, like digital video and video effects, and others, like 3D modeling, don’t mesh that well with my working process. I do think it can help to create work early with a new tool because people are interested in which artists might be using something new, and new tools can help extend one’s practice in unexpected ways. Being known for experimenting with NFTs was certainly a factor in leading Tina Rivers Ryan to curate me into her Feral File show, PEER TO PEER, which led to my work being acquired by the Buffalo AKG Museum of Art.
As a collector, there is no doubt that collecting in this field early was a huge advantage. We had galleries literally sell us things to free up storage and for less than the cost of the work’s frame. When you look at the price of NFTs now, especially generative art NFTs compared with the physical works of digital art pioneers, I think there are still many bargains out there.
AM: Anne, you have seen many new technologies dismissed. Why do you think history still repeats itself? By now, one might think that it is clear that a technology is there to stay and impact culture and society, despite being harshly said to be of no relevance.
AS: It certainly is a narrative that repeats itself! A common theme is fear of the machine taking away creative agency from humans. This was the case with reactions to photography, to the use of the computer to make generative drawings, and now to AI in image creation. Of course there are other factors as well, such as specific genres a technology might interrupt (portrait painting and the camera, for instance), as well as surrounding political issues (such as the use of computers by the military), but I think the primary one is this misunderstanding of artmaking and the role of the artist. Art is fundamentally something the artist does for themselves—you just see the byproducts of this process. It doesn’t really matter if an artist uses a paintbrush or a computer to pursue this inner journey.
Anne Spalter is a leading digital artist, creating dystopian landscapes with AI and other technological tools. She established the first digital fine arts courses at Brown University and RISD during the 1990s, and wrote the book THE COMPUTER IN THE VISUAL ARTS. Together with Michael Spalter she oversees Spalter Digital, one of the largest private collections of early computer art.
Nathaniel Stern has been producing, writing about, and teaching digital art for more than 25 years. Stern has had international exhibitions and presentations, including Art Basel, and the Venice Biennale. He has been featured in WIRED, Scientific American, JUXTAPOZ, and Rhizome.