Exhibition Review (VR)

Eazel Sits Down with
Alex Czetwertynski

Patrick Rolandelli | April 16, 2018

Last month Eazel connected with new media artist Alex Czetwertynski as he was preparing to close his solo exhibition, First Light, at Mana Contemporary—an ambitious project that sought to deconstruct the ubiquitous digital imagery pervading today’s media landscape into its foundational elements. Upon researching his background across the fields of creative technology and interactive/media arts we saw an opportunity to explore the current conversation between art and technology, as well as how contemporary artists like Alex continue to drive the art world forward by exploring new modes of expression in maintaining the age-old practice of turning society’s attention to itself.

Alex Czetwertynski
solo exhibition

First Light

Mana Contemporary, NJ
2017 - 2018

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With a graduate degree in philosophy and a diverse background in the private sector conceiving of and executing compelling digital imagery perhaps it was inevitable for Alex Czetwertynski to at some point stop to consider the elements that underpin his practice as an artist—the "conditions of possibility for image making" as he has described them.

After getting a sense of the broad scope of First Light—Alex’s latest exhibition as part of his residency at Mana Contemporary’s New Media Program—it seemed disingenuous to place his work into the neat category of ‘light art.’ And ‘new media art’—while accurate—was just as unsatisfactory. Alex was exploring something fundamental here. Rather than adapting new media, his work gave the impression of unravelling the notion—exposing something immutable, something timeless.

Given our confluent missions of adapting technology to extend the experience of art we thought a collaboration was in order—or at least a conversation. So we set up a time to meet with him at Mana and see First Light for ourselves—after it had closed, before it was to be struck.

As we were heading in to meet him we were eager to experience the work, as well as to get his thoughts on the current state of art world—how he views the evolving concept of ‘new media art’ in the context of the current era’s capitulation to such ideas as user experience design and the rich media web.

Installation view of Alex Czetwertynski solo exhibition, First Light at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, NJ (Oct.15, 2017 – Mar.24, 2018)

Eazel: Alex, it’s great to meet with you in person. Congratulations on First Light. We just checked it out and what an experience it was! Perhaps you could start us off by speaking to how you got here and the thinking behind the exhibition?

Alex Czetwertynski (AC): Hello, and thanks for coming by to check it out. Over the past ten years I have been immersed in the process of image-making of all kinds—digital images, animations, films—at some point evolving my practice from making images for screens to what I would call spatial media—that is, images designed to be seen in particular environments and that ultimately create the space where they are viewed.

I got into this art form by designing stages and video backdrops for concerts and touring artists, which eventually led me to creating purely immersive environments where the space would serve as support for moving imagery. From there I got into creating what I call ‘media sculptures’ for larger installations—objects that are sculptural in nature but exist primarily to support images rendered either through projection or by using screens as the base materials.

In experimenting with this media I became curious about the mechanics of what happens behind the scenes of this digital imagery—both in terms of the software used to create the images, as well as the hardware required to show them. What I discovered was that there’s a real beauty to what I call the hidden actors—or the hidden scaffolding—engendering all of this.

Piece of work, 2017, Dimensions variable

The best way I have found to explain it is by invoking concepts from the world of theater. That is, when you see a play or show and focus your attention on the activity onstage, what you’re actually seeing is just a fraction of a huge operation both on stage and off—most of which is meant to stay hidden. It’s this hidden infrastructure—the lights, cables, scaffolding, and everything else that’s out of view, behind the curtains—that I find incredibly powerful and fundamental, really.

These days with how intuitive our experiences engaging various media have become it’s easy to become wrapped up in illusions—to forget how we got here. With First Light it was this core idea of the hidden infrastructure of our media landscape that I wanted to unpack for the viewer.

Eazel: In discussing First Light with one of the producers of the exhibition the phrase ‘technical primitivism’ came up in describing your work. Is this your term? What does it mean?

AC: While I won’t lay claim to the term I can share what it means to me, which is essentially a return to the fundamentals that underlie the technology enabling our media landscape. Much in the same way the broader notion of ‘primitivism’ in the arts is about exploring the basic forms that convey the simple yet loaded concepts that drive the practice of art, for me ‘technical primitivism’ is about unpacking the hidden elements driving the digital imagery we see today across our media landscape. In particular First Light is exposing how our screen-driven media culture is fundamentally a conversation around light and all of these hidden elements.

Good for a minute, 2017, Dimensions variable

Eazel: In conceiving of and executing installation work like First Light is your process centered on designing an experience in the abstract, or is it more process-driven, developing the concept onsite—building as you go, so to speak?

AC: It's both, typically unfolding as a sequence of problems and solutions. During the planning stage I start in the abstract wondering ‘How would this thing sustain itself as an idea?’ or ‘How would this concept work in this space?’ Then once I’m moving forward with executing the installation the process turns into a series of practical questions like ‘How do I build this part?’ or ‘How will light behave in this space?’

One of the things that I do quite a bit is what’s called previsualization, where I create a 3D environment with a computer, model the parameters of the installation I’m planning, and then simulate different scenarios for executing it. This process, however, remains abstracted, and the renderings I get lack the quality that makes a space a space. So I can never be sure just how my senses will process an installation until I step into the space where I will execute it and experience its physical presence.

If you take—for example—James Turrell’s 2013 installation at the Guggenheim—Aten Reign—I know that before it was installed onsite, he and his team were staging the exhibition here in Jersey City. Of course they could mimic the conditions of the Guggenheim’s rotunda—and sure they had a fixed goal toward which they were working—but in the end whatever formal plans were developed, these ultimately just served as the seed for the piece. There’s really no way Turrell and his team could have anticipated exactly how it would look until they executed it in the rotunda.

With this art form there’s just too much complexity involved to be able to foresee exactly how light and space will interact with each other in the physical world.

Getting there, 2017, Dimensions variable
Image copyright Tinko Czetwertynski

Eazel: As of late concerns have arisen leading institutions and those who show new media art installations to question the degree to which they function as a gamified experience as opposed to serving to evoke critical thinking or reflection. What are your thoughts on this state of affairs and the broader notion of experiential art?

AC: My definition of a gamified experience consists of some kind of reward mechanism that guides a viewer’s engagement along a predefined course. As far as the more general category of experiential work is concerned I find that crowds tend to flock to it because it’s usually screen-driven and oriented around instant gratification in some way.

While people these days seem to be bouncing from one dopamine rush to the next, we are—after all—inherently attracted to things that inspire a sense of wonder and transcendence. Having said that, I believe good experiential art is art that prompts one to stop and think. It should inspire a sense of awe that doesn’t diffuse so quickly—the experience entailing a gestation process the viewer takes home with them.

Eazel: It would seem that in shoring up the economics of providing a public platform for new media art, installations of this art form are sometimes expected to double as novelty by which to attract an audience. Have you found this to be the case?

AC: Providing a public platform for new media art is difficult because the real index of what is on sale is an experience. This often leads to financial pressure being placed on the organizers of events that feature this art form to produce attractions that sell tickets, which inevitably begets a conflict of interests between the project of the artist(s) involved and the business case of the financial backers of the platform where the artwork is to be shown. In light of these circumstances occasionally you see things that, while effective in attracting an audience, you're not sure qualify as art. You’ll wonder ‘Is this just eye candy for people to take selfies next to and post on Instagram? What is it saying about society?’

Eazel: Do you think new media art struggles for validation from the art world at large?

AC: In the United States a lot of the organizations that fund the arts still gravitate toward the canons of fine art while media arts tend to have a hard time securing funding and thus creating work. For an art form to become recognized it needs a critical apparatus around it—publications disseminating information about it, exhibition space regularly showing it, a market to determine its value. Without this kind of framework in place an art form will struggle to sustain itself. While the status quo in the United States is still coming to terms with new media art, Europe and Canada are far ahead in terms of available funding entities with the mission of promoting this art form. In these parts of the world people view allocating budget toward developing the relationship between art and society as part of the mandate of government.

Eazel: What are your thoughts on new media art’s relationship to fine art?

AC: I say this with the utmost respect, but I think today there is a tendency for people to conflate fine art with old art. Just like photography and film had to evolve from being viewed as experimental art forms to being considered fine art in their own right, new media art is currently going through a similar process. It’s my belief that the tools and media that an artist uses should have no importance when evaluating their work. What should have importance is the artist’s vision and statement—that is, what they communicate and how they communicate it.

Blurware, 2016, Day for Night 2016, Barbara Jordan Post Office, Houston
Image copyright Sarah Strick

Eazel: You cofounded and curate the site-specific commissions of new media art installations for the Day for Night music festival. How did you become involved with this project?

AC: Day for Night is a project that speaks to where new media art is today. Circling back to the issue you hit on in one of your earlier questions about the economics of providing a public platform for new media art, Day for Night addresses this issue by solving for an audience by booking innovative big name musical acts such as Aphex Twin, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Blood Orange, and Mykki Blanco, and then offers the venue as a large scale platform for a variety of new media artists to present their work. If there were funding entities in the United States that were interested in promoting new media art they would be jumping all over this project, however this sensibility among our society’s patrons of the arts has yet to take hold.

Eazel: Perhaps we can conclude by circling back to background in philosophy. In your statement for Blurware—an installation you created for the second edition of Day for Night featuring a massive excavator wrapped in pillows that balances an inflatable ball in its shovel—you talk about cutting through old dichotomies. Is there a particular dichotomy—or dualism—that drives your practice as an artist?

AC: We’re living in politically charged times of polarizing debates and entrenched positions. I’m not interested in this kind of dialogue. In philosophy there’s this idea of dialectic where you explore a concept—or thesis—by counterposing it with its antithesis and then examinine the synthesis—the new idea created from the conflict.

As opposed to dialectics, First Light is about the space between what you see above the surface versus what’s hiding below the surface. While I don’t think it’s an original idea, my work seeks to explore the notion that art can be created from the dialogue between the hidden technical infrastructure of new media and the compelling visual representations this infrastructure has made possible in our daily lives.

I’ve always been interested in movies where the subject of the movie is making a movie—like Federico Fellini’s —a film about a filmmaker who finds himself stuck in the process of making a film. The art itself is the base material. That—to me—is an interesting dialogue, because it's about cutting through dualism.

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