Geeks in the Gallery: An Interview with Artists Tom Moody and Michael Bell-Smith (Part One of Three)

by Art Fag City on June 12, 2006 · 2 comments Events


“Geeks in the Gallery” is a three part discussion with artists Michael Bell-Smith and Tom Moody, which will run on Art Fag City from Monday June 12 — Wednesday, June 14, 2006. A recurring theme of the talk is how technology informs artistic production, as both artists have individually exhibited work usually described as New Media, yet also seem somewhat skeptical of “tech art.” Moody's “Room Sized Animated GIFs” at artMovingProjects in Brooklyn is comprised of animated GIFs projected or displayed on variable sized CRT monitors/tube televisions, plus a looping movie of the artist performing a computer-fabricated (but realistic-sounding) “guitar solo.” The show dates are May 5th — June 25, 2006; it can also be viewed online on the artist’s site. Bell-Smith’s exhibit “Focused, Forward,” closed last week at Foxy Production Gallery and included digital animations steeped in the aesthetics of ’80s and ’90s video games, a print depicting collaged patterns that create a virtual Tower of Babel and a game table-like video sculpture with a simulated radar graph of birds circling over the White House. Show dates were April 27 -June 3, 2006; it can be viewed online at Comments this series are welcome, and will be hosted on Tom Moody’s blog.

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Image via Cosmic Disciple

Geeks in the Gallery

Paddy Johnson: Narrative has a prominent place in much of the work that is being made by New Media artists today. Interestingly, by comparison, the narrative element in both of your work is much less dominant than your contemporaries. What importance do you place on narrative?

Tom Moody: I have to say I’m anti-narrative. Even though I also write, on my blog and elsewhere, I don’t approach art that way. As a consumer, I’m looking for work that’s hard to talk about, not work that tells me a story in words that I can then easily pass onto someone else. I like things that are immediate and grab hold of other senses besides the sentence forming ones. I like the irrational. That taste guides my approach to making art, too.

Michael Bell-Smith: I don’t think I’m entirely anti-narrative. I like to play with gestures of narrative (change, conflict, progression) without necessarily engaging in its structure and the pleasure that comes from it. I like to think I’m working in a tension between something pictoral, something narrative and something atmospheric, trying to create work that a viewer engages a bit differently from most time based media art.

While I’m certainly thinking about a gallery experience with this approach, it’s also important to remember, that 20 years ago, if we were to talk about moving images in the popular landscape, we’d be talking about film or television, predominantly narrative forms. These days, however, we’re faced with web banners, shop window displays, screen savers, cell phone graphics: a wide range of moving images that have little to do with narrative. I know that definitely informs my work and I sense it does with Tom’s as well.

TM: Yes, I’m interested in the “steady state,” or cyclical aspects of those. If I’m making an animated GIF–those annoying things you see on blinking web page ads, etc., which I’ve been adapting to art–the first thing I try to do is make a seamless loop, rather than some action that moves along a line and then “resets” back to some starting position. (Sometimes they just have to be linear, though.)

Similarly, in music I’m resistant to all that classical-style development from one phrase to another and would just prefer to find the ultimate minimal, hypnotic loop. Although lately, I seem to be learning and enjoying structure in spite of myself. But there are no lyrics, no vocals–it’s only a story in the most abstract sense.

PJ: I think it is useful to distinguish context from narrative, because context at the very least implies a historical narrative. The steady state does not escape this and Sensor Readings is a good example of this in that it appropriates some onscreen graphics from Star Trek.

Sensor Readings Screenshot 2
Tom Moody, Sensor Readings [25 MB Quicktime .mov]
Image Courtesy artMovingProjects

Clearly though, historical narrative on its own is not significant enough to make art interesting. Emily Vey Duke, of Duke and Battersby talks about this in her essay Art: It should be Moving, Fun, and Moral. I have found that having set perimeters that define what make interesting work to be extremely useful, and am wondering if both of you have set certain values you deem to be important and if so what they are.

TM: Using Emily Vey Duke as a starting point, I’m in agreement with “art should be moving” and even “art should be fun.” “Moral” is stickier. I think what she means is “socially responsible” and that can be a terrible drag on art. Art should be like dreaming, and dreams don’t always take us to good places, or places we want to go.

Is it good for art to be “apolitical” when the country is being driven off a cliff by fools? One person’s frivolous pleasure states could be another’s rejection of, or opting out of, the dominant control systems. I’d rather allow art to be “immoral” and “irresponsible”–and then analyze why I feel that way.

And as a non sequitur, or possibly relating back to the issue of history and context: Mike has found examples of his GIFs being used as backgrounds for people’s web pages. The crossover, or universality, of the subject matter is amusing. I just found a MySpace page from Guam that uses the OptiDisc GIF, which is in my show. (The page owner is hotlinking it so I’m paying for the bandwidth, so I’ll actually be happy when he changes his page theme.)

MBS: That kind of loop is great: artist is inspired by web junk, artist creates artwork from web junk, artwork becomes web junk.

Maybe I have some internal “good art” parameters, but I certainly don’t consciously think in those terms. My own process is generally pretty messy, a lot of ruminating, playing, building up, breaking down, re-assessing.

PJ: Speaking of the cycle that Mike talks about, Tom, let's discuss your animated GIFs. It seems to me that the challenge in making GIFs is creating something that has resonance and/or is meaningful in some way, in such a short continuous loop. Your work could be criticized for appearing overly simple – how do you counter that criticism?

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Tom Moody, Eyeshades, Animated GIF
Image Courtesy artMovingProjects

TM: GIFs normally occupy a few centimeters of browser space but the ones in my show are scaled up to TV screen and wall size. It’s more than just a little looping object on that scale–it becomes aggressive, totalizing.

Each pattern has the maximum complexity and “resonance” for the minimum number of frames. “Resonance” being completely subjective to the viewer, of course.

MBS: To interject for a moment, I think we have to be careful when we’re talking about “GIFs” that we’re not leaning to heavily on tech jargon in place of discussions of technique or approach. GIFs are, after all, just a file format. When we talk about GIFs (or more correctly animated GIFs) as opposed to say, just “animation,” what we seem to be talking about is twofold: the influence or appropriation of visual elements from the web (often amateur or corporate) and an approach to animation that fits in line with the technical specs/limitations of gifs and the early web where they flourished : small sizes, short durations, a lack of sound, looping, tiling, limited color palettes and what Tom referred to as a “steady state” (non narrative) approach to duration. Anything else to add to this list?

TM: I would also include portability, in that GIFs can be easily copied, shared, and manipulated without buying any software. (My first things were done with shareware.) I never wanted to learn Flash (the main Web animation software) and had no animation experience outside of some early Super 8 film experiments. I’ve been knocking GIFs here, calling them “annoying,” etc., but I actually found them to be an ideal medium to plunge in and start making my own little under-100-kilobyte artworks, as well as taking apart others’ stuff to see what made it tick. It fit the aesthetic of the still imagery I’d already been showing in galleries, which was made with “office accessory” programs like MSPaintbrush.

PJ: I will get back to your response shortly, but in light of the recent post you wrote in response to the Roberta Smith review of Mike’s show at Foxy Production, I think it is useful to revisit some of these questions in the discussion of each of your work. Let’s begin with your questions: How much does the imagery and animation derive from gaming, website GIF wallpaper, ringtones, and upload/download culture in general and how much is invented out of whole cloth by the artist? What is the value of putting “gallery brackets” around pop culture ephemera? Is this still Pop Art?

MBS: I don’t think I’m putting “gallery brackets” around pop culture ephemera with “Focused, Forward.” I’m definitely interested in pop cultural and web ephemera, and it very much influences what I’m doing, but the work in “Focused, Forward” represents a more complicated relationship between source material/influence and work. From a technique standpoint, some elements in the pieces are original digital drawings, some are totally appropriated, while others may have began with a source image but are so heavily processed or redrawn that they resist readings of an original. While I could enumerate these different types of elements, or come up with a working ratio, I think the more interesting issue is that I’m using technology in a way that facilitates the collaging of these different elements into a cohesive whole.

TM: I’d say about 90% of the work in “Room Sized Animated GIFs” is invented. But all of it refers to artifacts from the “life world,” which includes the corporate workplace and the Internet. The GIFs reference ad banners and homepage graphics, the “guitar solo” a hundred thousand kids (and adults) acting out for the camera on YouTube or MySpace. Sensor Readings melds Star Trek and drum and bass, both of which have their cults.

But at the same time, it’s all art–placing it in the gallery puts it into a historical conversation with abstraction, Pop, conceptualism, etc. It’s a different experience than surfing the Net, in that it takes physical space and acoustics into account.

PJ: What of the connection to Pop – I mean outside the gallery placing it in a conversation with abstraction, Pop, conceptualism etc.? I think those ideas are relevant of course, but ultimately not very specific. I suspect based on what you have already said that I may draw a stronger connection with Pop art to your work than you – though feel free to correct me on this. I think your art links well to Pop especially in regards to the aspect of play. In today’s context the lightheartedness with which Pop was originally created gets lost, and this is a shame because I am not sure I would choose to have time enrich art in this way. I think it’s easy to forget the strength of appeal that this aspect of Pop had to its audience, and I believe this same element of playfulness in both your work and Mike’s is likewise very important to its accessibility and meaning.

TM: The similarity between Pop and new media artists using GIFs (or Flash, or AfterEffects) is the porousness between art and “life.” Andy Warhol liked that his work–that was itself based on pop images–got back into the culture in form of posters, album covers, etc.

It’s a different kind of Pop, though, because Warhol had no Net. Every day my animations, tunes, and Quicktime videos are going out to a global audience. I know because my site (like most) has stats that monitor downloads, and what sites links are coming from. It’s not that big a deal. Many of these folks aren’t treating it as “art,” they only want to know, “is it cool?” or will it help pass a few minutes at the office?

I’m actually happy with this way of practicing, based on sharing, trading, and remixing, after years in the more secretive and idea-protective art world. I almost have to force myself to go back into the gallery setting, where the dialog moves slowly and there’s resistance to digital culture as something ersatz or vaguely threatening (I think). It was great to be able to see the work on a big scale in the “white cube,” though.

Look forward to tomorrow’s post: Geeks in a Gallery: Part Two of Three

Related: Via Pierre, photos of the exhibition currently on view “Take it to the Net”, at Vilma Gold in London, can be seen on his flickr account. The show is curated by Hanne Mugaas, and includes the work of Michael Bell-Smith.

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