0
X

NATHANIEL STERN & SCOTT KILDALL IN CONVERSATION: DATA-DRIVEN ECOLOGICAL AESTHETICS

PERFORMANCE ART AND BLOCKCHAIN

The artistic collaborations between Scott Kildall, who transforms data into tangible art, and Nathaniel Stern, an artist deeply engaged in a multidisciplinary approach to technology, invite viewers to step into the transformative power of words, ecological aesthetics, and data.

In conversation with Anika Meier, Stern and Kildall explore data and words, performance art and interactive art, and delve into the broader realm of blockchain and generative art.

Anika Meier: Scott and Nathaniel, being creative alone is already a challenge. How does being creative and creating together work for you?

Scott Kildall: My primary focus of my artwork is around transforming data into sculptures and sound installations, and my collaborative work combines my art practice with that of someone whose work can amplify mine and theirs. But, since art-making is so deeply personal, trust and care are vital to a successful collaboration, and this is why I keep working with Nathaniel.

Nathaniel and I have a lot of similar skills and approaches: working with top-level conceptual ideas combined with our strong technical skills, but more than anything, we just get along so well. We’ve collaborated on many projects since 2008. We get excited, argue, laugh, and bicker, and we’re like an old married couple who work together to succeed. Neither one of us knows who wrote what, and we don’t care who came up with which idea first. We put aside our egos and make sure, in the process, that we both feel good about what we’ve done.

When working alone, I certainly don’t have that level of self-care. The artwork is in my head somewhere, and the process of making something solid takes longer, like mining some gold from my psyche.

Nathaniel Stern: I actually collaborate a lot, and I have pretty different relationships with most of my collaborators. When Scott and I work together, we tend to spend a fair amount of time going back and forth between form and concept. We talk a lot, put in some time playing with code, drawing, or materials, write up what we see and feel (and what we hope to see and feel), and back and again.

It admittedly often takes longer than working alone, at least for me, which is counterintuitive when you have a partner, and it’s sometimes unclear who needs to do what next, but in the end, because of both our tastes and how we push each other, I feel like the work is always stronger for it. Honestly, even when I work alone, I show versions of my work to others and ask for critique until it’s the best version it can be, sometimes even abandoning pieces after years of work, before deciding to show it in public if they don’t feel right. In fact, this is part of how Scott and I began our friendship: we used to do virtual critiques of each other’s work until it grew into ideas we decided to do together.

Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern, Hashnadoes, 2024, on-chain interactive and generative NFT series (edition 128), test mint, with 'm' keypress toggled, to show live movement in the camera.

AM: When did you meet for the first time? And what made you realise you would like to work together as artists?

NS: This is a pretty funny story. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, Turbulence.org was a major commissioning organisation for net.art that Scott and I had both done some work with. They had a call for what they had started calling mixed reality art—between the Internet, a physical gallery, and a virtual space (back then, most commonly, the latter was Second Life). When I had some ideas for the project but no experience with SL, I asked a mutual friend if she knew anyone who might be interested in working on it with me, and she introduced me to Scott. Funnily enough, we both decided to go in a different direction—me working with another artist and him working with Victoria Scott.

In the end, he got the commission, and I didn’t! Still, we liked each other a lot and started our monthly Zoom meet-ups; I even got him a show with the gallery I was working with in Ireland at the time (where I was completing my PhD). He came to visit me when I moved back to the States for the job I now hold as a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) in 2008, and that’s more or less when we finally cooked up WIKIPEDIA ART, which became a bigger deal than we ever expected.

Here’s a bit on that work:

A collaborative project initiated by Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern, Wikipedia Art was originally intended to be art composed on Wikipedia, and thus art that anyone can edit. Since the work itself manifested as a conventional Wikipedia page, would-be art editors were required to follow Wikipedia’s enforced standards of quality and verifiability; any changes to the art had to be published on, and cited from, ‘credible’ external sources: interviews, blogs, or articles in ‘trustworthy’ media institutions, which would birth and then slowly transform what the work is and does and means simply through their writing and talking about it. Wikipedia Art, we asserted at its creation, may start as an intervention, turn into an object, die and be resurrected, etc, through a creative pattern / feedback loop of publish-cite-transform that we called “performative citations.” Despite its live mutations through continuous streams of press online, Wikipedia Art was considered controversial by those in the Wikipedia community, and removed from the site 15 hours after its birth. But the debate and discussion there, and later in the art blogosphere and mainstream press, produced a notable work after all. These communities still “transform what the work is and does and means simply through their writing and talking about it,” despite its absence from Wikipedia.

There was a whole host of press and academic articles on the piece, making what we called “performative citations"—when something is on Wikipedia, even though truth is not their threshold for inclusion, it becomes true. We were finalists for the Transmediale Prize and showed versions of that work in various venues across the world.

Internet culture is weird.

SK: Yes, this is more or less the story of how we met up, though I think it was pre-Zoom and we were on Skype some. Gosh, that seems like such a long time ago. If memory serves, we looked at one another’s proposals for that Turbulence Commission and gave feedback and thoughts on them post-submission. I was impressed by Nathaniel’s poetic approach to net art, and we stayed in touch on a regular basis.

Our first collaboration was when we cooked up WIKIPEDIA ART, which Nathaniel just described. We slowly poked at the conceptual framework behind doing something with Wikipedia after being frustrated with the reality that Wikipedia articles on contemporary artists were routinely getting deleted, specifically of women in the field. And this started a research project around the behind-the-scenes decision-making culture of Wikipedia, which was, well, revealing.

It was during this process that we became friends, and I learned how to collaborate with Nathaniel on a slow build, developing our conceptual framework fully before executing the work.

Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern, Wikipedia Art, networked performance 2009 and dynamic installation 2011. Installation view at Furtherfield Gallery, London.

AM: Scott, you have been working with art and technology for over 15 years. You focus on transforming data from the natural environment, such as water quality, air quality, and plant data, into sound installations, sculptures, and video works. How did you get into digital art and later become interested in NFTs?

SK: My work often uses a combination of digital and analog practices, so a form of digital art has always been core to my practice. This includes virtual world performance art, VR, AI, and other actions in spaces of emergence. I see this as a push-pull between technology and territory, such that when a new technology becomes available for general use, a territory of possibilities opens up, and this is when I prefer to jump in with artistic participation before the territory has become colonized by various startups and corporate entities.

NFTs certainly captured my fascination early because they solve the problem of digital authenticity that many of us in the field have been grappling with. When doing deeper research and in conversation with Nathaniel, we discovered so many other possibilities around the technology: a platform-independent, browser-based experience; replicability through transaction hashes; performance possibilities; and much more. We decided to create our first collaborative NFT project, called NFT CULTURE PROOF.

AM: Nathaniel, your medium is also words. You have collaborated in the past with Sasha Stiles and Anne Spalter. How did you get into digital art and later become interested in NFTs? And how do you choose the artists you would like to collaborate with?

NS: I went to an engineering high school in New York—Staten Island Technical High School—but found myself wanting more creative outlets. I wound up studying fashion design (I still have a passion and flair for style) and music (I was one of the singers and songwriters and the saxophone player in a 7-piece band for years) at Cornell University. But some time in my second or third year, around 1997, I took a textile design class that was taught in PhotoShop—it must have been version 2!—and was blown away. I was thinking, “Why did no one tell me computers could do this?” I started combining my interests, learning code and design, and more, not yet realizing the potential for art, writing, and intervention online.

At this time, it was thought web sites were difficult to make, and that was left mostly for programmers and computer science folks. But when my professor, Charlotte Jirousek, saw my skills and interests, she offered to pay me to learn how to make her website, thinking I could do a snazzier job. During this process, she pointed me towards the ITP web site, an amazing Art and Technology graduate program at New York University. Years later, I found out she was merely telling me to make her site look like theirs, but at the time, I thought she was telling me to apply to the program!

I remember getting off the elevator to interview at ITP in the spring of 1999 and seeing a prototype of Danny Rozin’s WOODEN MIRROR, an amazing piece that reflects a live video feed back at you as an image through hundreds of tilted concave wood pixels. I knew I had to go there, found myself a fellowship to pay for my studies, and never looked back. My entire first year was spent working in navigable and interactive poetry, where I published HEKTOR.NET (video poetry pre-YouTube) and made the first version of ENTER, an immersive, interactive installation where you chase animated texts with your body to trigger spoken word. Here, music, rhythm, poetry, and my interest in embodiment (initially through fashion) all came together in so many ways. And although these lasting pieces were produced solo, even back then, I would often collaborate with others to play differently and learn more.

Most of the time, my collaborations come out of mutual respect and ongoing discussions. I meet someone who suggests we have regular chats to catch up about our work—just out of interest—and then sometimes an idea and/or proposal deadline pops up that pushes us to try out working together. That’s how it was with Sasha Stiles; we had been shooting ideas around until Art Blocks and I were talking, and we decided to try together (that piece, THE WORD AFTER US, wound up launching on fxhash, but we later released STILL MOVING on the AB curated program). With Anne Spalter, we had met and been talking a bit after she had an amazing solo show in Milwaukee, where I live, that truly inspired me—which is in fact when I started working with AI and NFTs—and it was the invite to be part of theVERSEverse’s genText program that prompted me to court her directly for FUTURE MYTHOLOGIES.As mentioned above by Scott, my first major NFT collaboration was with him: NFT CULTURE PROOF. This was an experimental, participatory NFT project and performance on Polygon, launched back in 2021. We at first planned a more snarky intervention about “the market,” but found such amazing and earnest artists in the scene that we decided to go for something more community-oriented. The idea was that the dialogs happening off chain were the best part of the crypto art world, so why not put them on chain? We made a series of text-based SVGs with collaborative content—submitted and the time of mint—prompted by some of the biggest NFT artist names at the time.

Scott Kildall, Cut-up Poet Trees, 2023, generative sound installation using tree data.

AM: Your latest project, HASHNADOES, follows your longtime playing with performance and performativity online. Can you share a bit about your background in performance art with us?

NS: The performed—that which is in the process of being formed—has been a vital part of my practice from the beginning. But in a more literal performance mode, Hektor—of hektor.net—began as a slam poetry character on the stages of the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe and CBGBs in New York in the late nineties. And his web site, too (which no longer runs because it was mostly built in Flash but is slowly being re-minted with theVERSEverse), performed and unfolded a non-linear story of his past for its viewers. My interactive installations began as explorations of performativity, where text and activity entwine, a la JL Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, and then during my time in South Africa (2001–2006), I worked extensively making performance poetry and video projections for dance companies like the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative. My first book is titled INTERACTIVE ART AND EMBODIMENT: THE IMPLICIT BODY AS PERFORMANCE, and my second, ECOLOGICAL AESTHETICS: THINKING WITH HUMANS, NATURE, AND POLITICS, continues by exploring conceptual-material formations—everything that is—as ongoing and performed events. I’ve been at this for 25+ years, and although some works that are years apart can seem vastly different from others, taken as a whole, I see a clear trajectory of performance philosophy and aesthetic activism, continually asking myself and others not only to look but to look again. For me, art frames and amplifies who and how we are, and more importantly, asks how we could be.

SK: My performance artwork began in the digital art space with the online virtual world of Second Life in 2006. I began looking at this space because I was doing research into various social networks to create participatory artwork to reflect that world. Second Life blew my socks off. They had digital objects that you could buy and wear! I knew there was something amazing to be done here.

I soon began performing with a group called Second Front, which was a performance art group in Second Life, and we did something like 40 different performances over an intense period of about 4 years and still occasionally work together. These were live-streamed into galleries across the world and included virtual performances such as bank heists, dancing with minotaurs, and burning cars. We used Fluxus art as inspiration, and the group was chaotic but dedicated. I really loved that time and everyone in it. The seven of us were situated in cities all over the world, and we never met up in person.

While today I work with data-inspired soundscapes, often building on the chance work of John Cage, it was the conversations with Nathaniel around performance that influenced this change. The data doesn’t allow for predictive forms and just helps delineate them. Like our scores in Second Life, which were often vague, such as “sweep leaves” (I brought a virtual lawnmower to the action), the forms of data can make things you would never guess based on the algorithm.

AM: Is HASHNADOES performance art?

SK: I consider this to be a variant of NFT performance, where we set up a framework for the creation, but the data is you, the one who is looking at the NFT, as the camera responds to your body in real-time. How the hashnadoes swirl and move is defined by the mirror into the real world.

With HASHNADOES, while not electronic circuits, the sensor is the camera on your device, and the actor is whomever is viewing the screen: a person, a couple, a family, a cat, and that idea of a conversation with nature in the form of the swirling digital data of the transaction hash itself is what excites me. It looks like a tornado of sorts, but a digital one. The palettes are based on the colors of celestial bodies in our solar system, reminding us of the physical climate, which also extends to systems outside of our planet.

NS: I think of the general category of performance art as most commonly live, with the artist’s body—or at least making an intervention into how we understand liveness—and

embodiment. I could make the case for HASHNADOES being performance art. But I think that HASHNADOES’ value lies outside (though related to) that category: in the space of human and non-human performativity.

I mentioned JL Austin above; the way he defined performativity was an “ontological” (state of being) change through words. For example, at a wedding, with the words “I do,” I am transformed from a single person to a spouse; if I knight thee, you are Sir Anika; if I ask you to “pass the salt,” that asking is itself an activity. And according to Austin, words never simply describe what is; words are, and they make change; all speech and writing has a certain level of performativity, like, I’m explaining something to you right now, as a written action. Thinkers like Richard Schechner, Victor Turner, and later Rebecca Schneider then took this to a whole new level, arguing that signs of any kind—language, dance, theater, even purposefully sitting still and in silence, any form of explication and explanation, really—could birth and change, make, transform, and transport things in the conceptual-material world. In this way, these scholars and others themselves originated and formed the interdisciplinary field of performance studies.Learning about this as a graduate student in the late nineties in New York, as a slam poet and writer as well as an artist and embodiment nerd, was kind of magical to me. HASHNADOES plays with text and data, being and change, in a number of ways that speak back to that work.

Ah, my kids are waking up (banging banging banging on the doors downstairs). (Talk about birth and transportation, performance, and performativity!) To be continued... Here we go, they are now watching TV with oatmeal. I’ve got coffee cup number two; where was I? —-

First and foremost, minting this live, generative NFT births it into existence, both as performance and as text or data. When you click or submit, sending ASCII and bits and bytes as 0s and 1s, you are inaugurating that form. Our choice to use the trans-action (also a performative reference) hash itself as the material make-up of each tornado amplifies this for us. Second, when opened in its own frame and in live view, your movements—how you move and are moved—are both affective (moved-thought-felt) in your body and in the body, form, and data of the hashnadoes that follow you.

Yes, the hashnadoes "feel," in that they take account of their surroundings and change. We often forget that the material forms of bits and bytes, as volts and current, or light, quickly starting and stopping through copper wires or fibre optics, the concepts and movements of time, what we had for lunch, my kids interrupting me, how much Eth is in our wallets… all of these things make a difference in what is and what could be, including in the simple interface of our fxhash mint. This is where performance and ecology are so interrelated. Ecological Aesthetics: humans, matter, concepts, things, not-yet-things, politics, economics, and industry are all actively shaped in and as a result of their interrelation.

Again, it’s magical, humbling, and inspiring.

With another of my collaborators, Erin Manning (who I made physical tornadoes with as WEATHER PATTERNS: THE SMELL OF RED at Glasshouse Gallery in Brooklyn (2014) and the Vancouver Art Museum as part of ISEA, the International Symposium on Electronic Art (2015)), I like to compare ecological thinking to the complexity of weather patterns, to think about celestial bodies, winds and weights, gravity, food and thought, and the news, all making change. These are referenced everywhere in HASHNADOES, from the coded gravitational pushes and pulls of your movements and the tornadoes on each other to the palettes we chose from extra-terrestrial planets and bodies.

Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern, Hashnadoes, 2024, on-chain interactive and generative NFT series (edition 128), test mint, with rare "rain" attribute.

AM: How did you approach working on HASHNADOES?

NS: A couple of years ago, inspired by early Art Blocks works, I started teaching myself p5.js, a javascript library for artists initiated by Lauren McCarthy, because I wanted to make more ubiquitous work easily available on the internet and via blockchain via any browser. Before that, I had mostly been working on gallery installations, where I could give my own specifications on a case-by-case basis. These older works were projects made in a variety of ways: in the early days with things like Lingo and Director, later with Max/Msp+Jitter, and then OpenFrameworks (C++) and Arduino (among other tech). As a custodial effort, I sometimes re-made earlier works on new platforms to keep them running on modern machines. Another issue I talk about in this article I wrote in 2021 is: CUSTODIANSHIP, COPYRIGHT, AND PROVENANCE: ON THE NON-MONETARY VALUE OF NFTS.

Anyhow, I was playing a lot with texts and performances in p5, given my background, and just prototyping a lot of different ideas, most of which grew into very different projects I released later down the road. THE WORD AFTER US, with Sasha Stiles, came out of these early experiments when I approached her to play with its content and form, though it of course changed drastically once she was on board. Some solo stuff inspired by On Kawara and Felx Gonzales-Torres will be released on some major platforms later this year.

HASHNADOES, too, began here. I liked the early look, feel, and idea, but it was far from feeling right—or feeling at all. I approached Scott to ask for his help and thinking, and when we decided to tackle it together, our dialogs took it in all kinds of new directions, suggesting and implementing all the gravitational pulls, coming up with the idea for planetary palettes, and making the tornadoes more ethereal and cloud-like. Whereas with Sasha Stiles, I did all the coding, she did all the embedded writing, and we would meet frequently to discuss aesthetics. Scott and I both code, so we used GIT to push and pull, make and remake. We’d write in a Google Doc and text message each other alongside our javascript efforts, all of which also led to making it interactive and highlighted our performative and ecological understanding, which finally led us to decide that on-chain was an absolute necessity.

SK: HASHNADOES was originally from one of Nathaniel’s experiments in NFT-based artwork, and he made these sketches in 2021, just before we launched NFT Culture Proof. He was quicker to embrace the NFT world than I was and wanted to play around with generative art on the blockchain. Since my work tends to be more physically situated than digitally, this made sense, and like all of our collaborations, one of us often comes up with the seed idea.

He showed me several sketches and invited me to collaborate with him. I zoned in on this one as I found the preliminary forms to have something that intrigued me. I could see it and where it could go, and I began restructuring the code and form to make them feel complete, adding the fine touches, improving the color palettes, and making the behaviors dynamic. We’re both strong with code, and my approach tends to be more structured, coming from a professional software development background, and his to be more fluid. This was also amazing because it was the first code-based project that we truly collaborated on, where we both worked on the code itself.

To make it feel just right took a lot of work, since we were making editions that had to appear differently within a tight framework of swirling transaction hash data.

It was the camera interaction, though, that was the big challenge here and where our collaborative efforts sparkled. Nathaniel has more experience with interactive camera systems, and I have a lot more experience with interactive museum design, having worked as an exhibit developer for the Exploratorium in San Francisco for a couple of years. Together, we leaned into his rapid prototyping techniques along with my more structured approach to building a quadrant-based tracking system that doesn’t rely on any external libraries, making the p5.js sketch able to be put on-chain in a more feasible way.

AM: What comes first when you work on projects? The title and story, meaning the concept, or do you start with a thought and start exploring what might come out of it?

SK: I have a methodology that I call “art thinking," which is a 5-step process that is similar to design thinking but only for artists. It starts with an inquiry-experiment phase, where I have some sort of idea and I just play around to see if the idea “has legs” and can shape into a more cohesive whole. It usually fails at this point since there are many exciting ideas that I can’t cohere into meaningful artwork.

With HASHNADOES, Nathaniel approached me with something that was already in the experiment phase, and together we worked it into a finished form. I have expert skills in p5.js and teach it and use it in my own practice, so I could see the pathway for compelling artwork from my own skill set.

It becomes easier over time, with a mastery of tools and years of successful and less successful artwork, to see how a story emerges. The story itself is then an iterative process. I talked about mining earlier, and that feels like the right metaphor. Sometimes you get the nugget of the story itself, and other times, you have to really work at it. The title is the dressing and comes last.NS: Every project is initiated so differently, so I could point to each of your examples in different works. WEATHER PATTERNS and GIVEN TIME, a mixed reality installation circa 2010, began with titles and a story, respectively; HASHNADOES came out of experimenting with p5 as a medium, material, or discipline; ENTER started as a thought—to literalize performativity - and then became a whole body of work over more than a decade, BODY LANGUAGE. HEKTOR.NET started as a single poem.

I guess I am saying that my entire practice is performative and ecological.

Dunewind Resonator, 2023, Scott Kildall, Michael Ang, Tegan Ritz McDuffie, generative sound installation using wind data.

AM: Scott, you work with data. Nathaniel, you work with words. What influences your artistic practice?

NS: Everything.

Life and love, breakfast and children, technology and culture, materials, processes, and thoughts—together, this magic and tragic world. It is poetry and reality, physics and feelings, and more.

All of it. I feel all of it and want us to feel it, too. I want us to feel it, make it, and make it better.

SK: I guess mine is more focused. It has shifted for me. In the last several years, it has become the natural world, and we are thinking about the invisible layer of data that we can’t see and what is really going on there.

I’m beginning to shift my perceptual space into what non-humans might sense. Vibrations in the air, magnetic energy, the flow of electrons, and what else is out there. It feels like magic, but it is, in fact, reality, just not what we can perceive.

This exploration feels profound and in many ways circles back to what Nathaniel talked about, which is everything, and that most specifically includes dynamic ecological systems and, for me, tracking the data from that world so that we can better understand, respect, and love the physical world we inhabit.

AM: Thank you, dear Nathaniel and Scott, for the conversation.

ARTIST

ART

MAGAZINE

EXHIBITION