Phillip Stearns Interview

Text: Lucy Hunter

Phillip Stearns considers his medium to be electricity. His background in engineering and applied physics leads to circuitry-intensive experimentations in music and art. In his current project Glitch Textiles, he takes images from the series called Year of The Glitch—which captured distortions from broken digital cameras for each day of the year—and had them machine-loomed onto blankets. Deluge (2012) is a sculpture composed of transistors and lights, which transmit unoccupied radio frequencies into what the artist calls "a showering rain of light." In his work, he often questions technological dependence – questions that are especially relevant in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when so many of us were left without electricity or worse. At a time when we’re all feeling a little ambivalent toward old infrastructure and new technology, I sought to hear Phillip’s perspective on the state of things.

Your technical knowledge lays the groundwork for your practice. What path led you to this intersection of art, music, and engineering?
My mother is a nurse, but she was trained as an artist. She would always be doodling – patterns, mostly. She had a very strong passion for textile arts. And on my dad’s side, they’re basically all engineers—all the men. Growing up, there would be these books for C, C++, Basic, and all these other [programming] languages. And my mother would have these pattern books. I was teaching myself Basic on the TI-994A, which my parents bought when I was in grade school.
And where does music fit into all this?
Arts and music were encouraged secondary to the main areas of employable study: engineering or medicine. But arts—especially music—were recognized as being very valuable. My mom’s Chinese, so we have the Chinese family tradition. Everyone must learn to play a stringed instrument. Or piano. Preferably both. Still, I wanted to become a visual artist before anything. Actually, I think I wanted to be a truck driver before anything.
What were your first or earliest experiences with these things?
It was looking at slides that my aunt or my uncle had prepared. We would go to the pond behind their house—it was a goldfish pond, really—and we would take a little dropper of water and put it on a slide and look at the bugs and the organisms.
   There’s this connection between the machine world and the animal world. Machines are modeled after these things. We see these things in nature, and we take the best from them and try to use them in our own design.
Is your view of machines that they are made in man’s image? Or for man’s design?
It’s definitely an anthropocentric view of the things we see around us. We ascribe a mechanism to them, talk about things in terms of processes. Machines are an oversimplification of what’s out there. That’s our starting point, and we can build ever more complex machines, and figure out how to treat what’s out there as a machine. I’m thinking of bio-engineering. My idea, right now, is of machines as a means towards an end. A means towards understanding through application.
There’s a flipside. Humans use machines, but machines also use us. Your work often centers on scenarios—feedback loops or networks—that encourage chance and unexpected outcomes. I see a sensitivity to these systems and what they are capable of, which is more complicated than this view of machines as tools or models for humans.
On some level, these things have their own ecology. They are abstractions, they are oversimplifications. Whenever you make an imperfect copy it’s going to mesh or relate to another imperfect copy in a different way. You can have these ideas about them and the way they will function together, and then produce a completely different object.
Do these works have agency—a life of their own?
Jokingly, in the back of my mind, I think part of my creative drive comes from the idea that I can’t give birth. I can’t go through that process. So part of my way of dealing with this is to make these things.
So you’re the Papa, here.
But that’s only this very tongue in cheek undercurrent. This nod to analyzing things along gender lines.
Are we autonomous? Are machines taking away our autonomy?
We’re co-dependent at this point. With Hurricane Sandy, we see how frightfully dependent we are on the most basic things, like electricity.
Zombie anxiety!
Right! I jokingly referred to—maybe it’s not a joke—all these zombie apocalypse movies showing this anxiety. We’re confronted with the mob after the disaster, when we’ve lost all sense of order. Because of our hyperactive collective imagination, we weren’t able to come to grips with the impact of the storm.
It’s wise to be ambivalent about our dependence, or co-dependence. Relating that back to your practice: how would you characterize your relationship with the objects you make? Is there fear, or love, or both?
Ha! They don’t have feelings yet. I have feelings about them, not necessarily toward them. Well, just looking around [the studio], there are a lot of boxes of installations that I can’t bring myself to dismantle or reuse. This thing that I made five years ago, I haven’t really shown it, I’m not sure I would show it, but I can’t bring myself to take it apart.
Whose work do you look up to?
Nicolas Magrait is doing a lot of direct data translating. When you have data on a hard drive, it’s encoded, and you’re de-coding it to present it on your monitor or speaker. But he’s simply translating that data directly into a speaker cone moving, or pixel color values. So it’s this non-decoded experience of data in its raw state. He’s also exploring what I’m calling the “algorithmic unconscious” at play in our media environments.
What does that mean, the “algorithmic unconscious?”
When we have encoding processes that we find too laborious or tedious, we place [them in] our machines to take care of them. Ultimately this is a way of encoding our own desires or values. The word is borrowed from Carl Diehl, who deals a lot with media zoology. Really interesting fellow. [Diehl looks at] the Blobsquatch phenomenon—seeing things in our media that we can then interpret as being extraterrestrial or extraordinary. Where is the Loch Ness Monster now, in our digital devices?
Whose work grates against yours?
Ryoji Ikeda. He’s incredibly successful doing what he does, but it’s opting for a more widely accepted or commercial read of his work, rather than going into the darker implications of these technologies.
   I’m struggling to get these darker ideas accepted by the mainstream. I’m not very good at glossing them over.
What are some of these dark implications, ones that you can’t ignore?
For one, I think DNA is being viewed more along the lines of data and intellectual property. Something that can be manipulated, just like you would with a digital file.  
The Monsanto soy beans! … I saw FOOD INC.    
It’s more than the soy beans! Petri dish meat terrifies me. Where are you getting your proteins from? You have to have all these system inputs in order to get the engineered thing. Where are these coming from and how are we going to set up regulations for that?
Industry is notorious for saying, “If there’s not a regulation for it, we can do whatever we want until somebody says something against us. And then we’ll do our best to push them aside and cover it up.” With genetic engineering, there are so many opportunities for this to happen.
Your work doesn’t have a positive attitude, per se, but there’s a creative curiosity, and a lot of room for possibility. How does that balance against the darker stuff?
I don’t know that it does. I don’t know how I keep myself from being depressed. Maybe I am depressed! I think that knowing these things and being aware of them is the first step in addressing them.
   I think what I’m doing has some value because I see myself going back into these machines. I’m teasing out what wasn’t initially imagined for them, and presenting that as an alternative. That starts to serve as a platform for questioning why things are the way they are today. Rather than pushing forward with the techniques we see in action right now, so that we can try to solve problems we might encounter in the future, why not go back? See how that [problem] could be avoided or how else that could be dealt with.
You are an educator, at 3rd Ward and at various festivals. What does this contribute to your work?
My job, directly, is how to read schematics and identify components; indirectly, it’s how to imagine alternate uses for them. To go back in a wider sense and think about the development of systems.
   When you are creating, that’s when you’re expressing yourself. Certain decisions that you haven’t considered wind up being transmitted through your hands into the final product. You can step back and see these things in action—or somebody else can, and point them out to you. It’s a process of growth, and that’s what I’m trying to impart to my students.
   I think there’s a new need not only for media literacy but also network literacy. And not just in terms of social networks, but the idea of the way things electronically are networked in terms of data flow and information flow. Most people just don’t have that.
Social networks are a prime example, though. The idea of infinite choice online—personalized experience is actually mass-produced, highly filtered. These individual preferences have been coopted and sold back to us through targeted advertisements and such.
“Everything’s been custom-tailored for me!” There’s no room for branching out. Like, when did the New York Public Library stop allowing you to peruse the stacks?
   It prevents you from wandering through the stacks and getting distracted by other potentially relevant titles. Or titles that seem irrelevant at the time, but are intimately related. It filters against this serendipity of random coincidental occurrences. It’s like the “serendipity filter” is off. That’s how I want to run my Internet! But right now the “serendipity filter” is on, you’re just filtering out all these strange coincidences that could lead potentially to revelatory experiences.


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