Catonsville Resident Wins the Real Art DC Contest
Steven H. Silberg makes small things like pixels into big art
Steve Silberg, 35, a Catonsville resident, professor at MICA and UMBC, and winner of The Washington Post's Real Art DC contest, is one of a growing number of artists who are merging the art world with the technology world--an unlikely, and to some people, an unholy marriage.
But to Silberg, and other artists who create art from deconstructing and reconstructing digital imagery, that marriage explores intangibles that a traditional marriage can't. It can extend art to encompass the viewer as well as the artist for a communal, interactive experience that can lead to a brand new visual experience (in much the same way Internet stories, as opposed to traditional print, can lead to discussions between readers that can spark another story within a story).
Silberg explores the fallibility of digital information circulating online and living in our hard drive, by breaking down the picture to the pixel and then reconstructing it.
Silberg spoke to Patch.com about his process and how his audience means as much to him--as viewers and participants--as his art.
Q. I wanted to talk to you a bit about exploring digital technology as art—in the Washington Post--I'm assuming this is the interpretation of the reporter—they mention that your art is an attempt to undermine instantaneousness, do you agree with that?
A. Undermine is a pretty strong word, but the sentiment is certainly there. When I made the decision to go back to graduate school I had been working for five years as a book conservator and was in a research library that was getting ready to start to large digital archiving projects. I would read the articles being passed around the department about the longevity of digital data and when I went back to graduate school I was going back with the intention of being a traditional photographer. Maybe because I was young and foolish, but I wanted to make art about how bad digital work was. I just really wanted to explore the potential for decay, which in the digital world, you think of digital being these perfect copies and they're so fragile. The early art I started working on looked like when satellite imagery would come back from outer space and there'd be these weird streaks in it. The transmission is not perfect. So that was a sort of the underpinning of everything we were exploring.
I think it's more of an educational, eye-opening process. There is the intention of the long exposure of the photograph. At its slowest I'm running it at about a minute and a half. Rather than undermining, it's sort of forcing contemplation. Maybe that's a more positive spin. These incredible intelligent things that do everything in pieces.
Q. How do you define post digital—on the one hand you're saying people want to have more personal interactions, but you're using technology as art, which seems not as personal..
A. Post digital and post photography are two words that seem to be thrown around a lot right now. It's just another one of those art movements after photography, after digital. Post digital is a term coined more in music and sound art in 2002-2003-- sort of a rejection of the true crystal clear sound that you find in certain genres of electronic music, the purity of digital production, the desire of that little bit of grittiness, that rebirth of bringing distortion back into music and wanting to record on tape instead of digital. Of wanting to use the Marshall tube amp, getting the really old worn sound instead of that perfect guitar sound and that has translated into a couple of different arts. I think what's most indicative is a genre called glitch art where we are highlighting an era within digital media. It shows the fallibility and allows for the reminder of the human hand. As far as post photography, it's the idea of moving past just the captured image to the constructed and altered image and that questioning. For so long we thought if it's a photograph, it must be true, if it's on tv it must be real. There's a movement beyond that.
Q. What was your reaction to traditional photography when you studied it?
A. In undergrad I did photography and I rejected digital. I thought I could do it all in the darkroom. That was a very '90s thing to believe. My first Photoshop class was called electronic imaging. It wasn't even digital we hadn't even thought of that term in undergrad. Before I went to graduate school I had moved from working from beautiful color images to very traditional black-and-white, wet chemical again. Then when I went to MICA, I stepped into a darkroom three times in my two years there. I guess I became fascinated with the digital side of things.
Q. The pictures look almost like you've taken a photograph and painted it.
A. There's definitely that quality to it
Q. What do you want audiences to come away with—I know there's that interactive quality as well...
A. It's really hard to separate the image from the experience. When I started working on this, I started working on ways you could capture the image and what you could reveal from it. You said it looked like I painted it and you can do that kind of smear to it—there's this separation between the space and the flattening of whatever is moving and it becomes this sort of exploration of time. It's so much more powerful when someone gets to experience that. Then the photograph becomes the reminder of that experience. I just got married last week and everybody told me wait until you get the pictures, wait until you get the video and then you'll remember what happened.
Q. And you want to share those pictures...
A. Completely. And that's another aspect to it. You know every image that's made in the photo booth becomes part of the online archives, so there's history of that kind of experience in perpetuity.
Q. Any particular themes you have explored or intend to explore?
A. The theme that seems to join everything is this interest in the pixel and maybe that's a very academic exploration rather than a thematic exploration. I'm interested in the structure and components in the way things are created, with the pixel lapse images, with the pixel lapse photo booth, with the reductive video, really is about the changes in data—these changes in pixel information.
Q. What's that your focus when you were doing traditional photography?
A. They were more staged scenes, the black and white became very traditional staged scenes. The color work was studio based work using a process called painting with light in which you're really just in a completely black space and using a flashlight to light up certain areas for certain periods of time so you get varying brightness. So there I was working with some level of narrative, but I was much more interested in the way that light could render within a space.
Q. How did you get interested in photography?
A. There are a number of people in my family on my mother's side who are seriously into photography, not as a profession, but always had that interest. My grandfather always had cameras. I was definitely surrounded by it. When I first became interested, I have a vague memory of being in preschool on a field trip to Sesame Street, having this little Kodak disc camera. I remember 1984 my first summer at sleep away camp they had a photo darkroom and that was the first time I was ever in a dark room. I think I still have some of the black-and-whites from that.
Q. How was it to win the Real DC Art contest—out of 4,000 artworks?
A. That was exciting to me that there was this buzz built around me. That that level of community was starting to be built.
Q. And these were a variety of different mediums...
A. The 10 finalists were all across the board. I think there was a sculptor in there. This was a complete cross medium in the greater DC area.
Q. Any of your work that are your favorites?
A. There are so many people who have seen this as an opportunity to create. In every exhibition that this has been there seems to be 1 or 2 people that will come back time and time again. At the University of Maryland exhibition there were 20 or 30 pictures of this same girl, in some cases holding completely still, in other cases, moving quite a bit and choosing which parts of her face are going to be there. In the last show at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts there's this one guy on a weekly basis he would come back. I love this because somebody is learning and beginning to play with it. At a MICA exhibition, I saw an image like decapitation. One person stood there and was holding someone's head by the hair and at some point, the person's whose head was being held disappeared. So the lower part of the photograph is recorded later and it just became the background. There was a five image narrative, almost felt like this Greek mythological tale, like the slaying of Medusa. But my favorites end up becoming the ones where people have come back and played with it and thought about what they could do to make art with this process. It gives you ownership over your experience.