conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 22.06.2023
CLAUDIA HART: "I AM NOT A FUTURIST", CONVERSATION WITH ANIKA MEIER PART I
DIGITAL ART HISTORY AND POST-PHOTOGRAPHY
Claudia Hart is one of the most well-known female pioneers of digital art, with a career that began in the early 1990s. Starting by defining all that photography was not, the New York-based artist reimagined image-making in the early days of virtual reality. She pioneered what are now ubiquitous technologies: 3D rendering, printed sculptures, and virtual and augmented realities.
Hart’s influence on contemporary digital art is substantial. Her work is in prestigious collections and exhibitions such as, among others, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the THOMA Foundation, and is the cover image of Christiane Paul’s fourth edition of DIGITAL ART, published in May 2023. The book is considered to be the canon of digital art history.
Hart does know the challenges that many digital pioneers face in earning recognition. In spite of difficulties, she continues to create in her own authentic voice, her goal being to humanize the face of an advancing technology.
In the first of three conversations with Anika Meier for EXPANDED.ART, Hart discusses post-photography, being a female artist in a man’s world, and her goal of moving contemporary art forward.
Anika Meier: What does being a pioneer mean to you?
Claudia Hart: Two years ago, I was part of the Bloomberg/Hyundai Art + Technology interview series. But here’s the thing: This series of interviews paired "pioneers" with "artists." I was the "pioneer" and a very successful young person whose work was related to mine was the "artist". I knew this interview was very helpful, but I still felt hurt.
In the common digital-art-world vernacular of those days—two years ago—a digital pioneer was a tinkerer, not even a full-fledged member of the educated engineering class. This could be deconstructed as a person fooling around in their garage, checking out what new technology might accomplish in the spirit of experimentation, then accidentally discovering a new "art form," but executed in an inelegant and awkward way, later reconstructed as real "art," then perfected and expanded upon by a next generation of true "artists." In short, a pioneer at best was an inadequate artist who didn’t actually count and was, in fact, as implied by the Bloomberg binary, NOT REALLY AN ARTIST AT ALL. Not good.
Since then, NFTs have peaked and now evolve, with the symbolism of the pioneer evolving with it. I’m still confused about what this all means. Are we now real artists? Or maybe I’m just a person from another planet, from a different and still incomprehensible time zone. So be it. I guess that’s why we are doing this interview: to shed some light.
AM: I am sorry to hear you felt hurt. If I may ask, from which planet and time zone are you?
CH: Well, the third planet to the right, and then straight on till morning. Peter Pan and I come from the same planet. Do you have Peter Pan in Germany?
AM: Yes, we know Peter Pan in Germany. How do you define a pioneer?
CH: A pioneer is someone who fell in love with an emerging technology and couldn’t stop doing it. I don’t think I am a pioneer. I think I’m a contemporary artist who is trying to make regular old art but the medium I use is contemporary to her time. And that is virtual reality. But at the time I started using them, I actually had no idea that virtual realities were "emerging," what that emergence implied, or even that it would take so long to finally do so. I had no training in tech, I didn’t really understand what I was messing with, and I had no context or friends who were even vaguely interested in what I was up to. They were all painters. I’m not sure whether this is a definition, but it's my story.
AM: What is your story?
Claudia Hart: My mission from the beginning was to move contemporary art forward, beyond photography. My idea when I was hired to teach at the Art Institute of Chicago was to teach my own practice and, in general, to translate contemporary art practices (painting, sculpture, installation, performance, and land art) into their next post-photography phase. But now, based on the conceptual idea of a computer modeling reality as opposed to a camera capturing or documenting it.
AM: Post-photography is a term often used these days in relation to images created with artificial intelligence. But post-photography, as you have just mentioned, has a history.
CH: Post-photography can be defined by what it is NOT in relation to everything documentary and verite about photography. It is NOT the digitalization of real, light-sensitive "capture" technology that happened with digital photography. Instead, the technology of post-photography suggests a radical paradigm shift with significant cultural ramifications. It does NOT "slice" from life but rather numerically models it with the same techniques used by scientists but also by the game and Hollywood special effects industries; the artists who produce it all use specialized compositing and 3D animation software. Instead of capturing the real in an indexical fashion, post-photography artists use measured calculations to simulate computer-generated models of the real.
Artists working with post-photographic simulations have driven a wedge into contemporary media practice. These are artists who consciously isolate and define a formal language native to simulations of the real, a sub-terrain within an expanding contemporary digital culture, and integrate those elements into a variety of contemporary artistic strategies emerging from the discourses of media and of representation as they have impacted on photography, experimental film, and installation-based works.
AM: How do you describe your own artistic practice?
CH: I thought of myself as a painter in the line of Dürer with his drawing machines, Vermeer with his camera obscura, then Robert Rauschenberg who used print processes, and of course, David Hockney, and pop artists like James Lichtenstein, who was my favorite. They translated paintings, all filtered through the technologies of their time.
AM: All of the artists you just mentioned are male. With your artistic practice, you tried to break into the male-dominated field of painting while at the same time combining art and technology.
CH: I was a female artist in a man’s world. So I embraced beauty very intentionally. I was feminizing certain genres, such as the nude and still life. I make animations that are like paintings and tangible paintings that are delicate. I express my own kind of sensuality by using pastel colors and decorative elements.
AM: Nature has been a recurring topic in your digital and physical artworks over the past decades. A point of reference is the history of still-lifes and landscape paintings. How do you approach this genre?
CH: I am interested in classical genres like still lives, landscapes, and nudes because they are language bytes," canons, or cultural memes, meaning a basic unit of visual representational language easily understood by everyone. I then invert these bits and bytes and turn them into "impossible" figures, meaning paradoxical forms. They are mental models turned upside down. I want them to be unsettling and strange, and in this sense, subjects for meditation and contemplation.
AM: What are your thoughts about nature in the age of the metaverse?
CH: There is earthly nature and the cloud version, meaning the metaverse. The metaverse is a model of nature, and since humans are a part of nature, it is a model of our minds. I have always been a version of a philosopher of mind, and I feel that as a human being, I’m literally a product of the cognitive sciences. My father was diagnosed as psychotic, and as a precaution, my mother sent me to a psychiatrist when I was a child. As it turned out, I didn’t inherit it, but I was nevertheless literally raised by head-shrinkers, one of the branches of cognitive science, which also includes Computer science, AI, and various philosophies of mind, whose works I started reading when I was a teenager. So the metaverse is actually my natural terrain in all ways. Personally, I feel more comfortable there. There are just too many mosquitoes out there in the natural world, which I much prefer in its metaverse version, especially right now, as I write this, in the middle of summer.
AM: What interested you about painting in particular?
CH: I never went to art school. I studied architecture and building conservation at Columbia University's graduate school between 1981 and 1984. This was the period of "paper architecture" and The New York Five, a group of conceptual architects who at that time only drew and never built.
It was before computer software came into architectural practice. Artists like Vito Acconci and Dan Graham, who were being celebrated at that time and showing at important galleries—then Leo Castelli and Marian Goodman—were part of the community. There was a lot of lively discussion about breaking the boundaries between architecture and art. Land Art was born then, as was performance art, now canons of the art that came after Modernist abstract painting. We can look at algorithmic art and its history as a bringing-into-the-present of Modernist Abstraction. You can see that clearly in the early plotter drawings.
But there is this other story, which is a story about pictures—the one that starts in the Renaissance and moves through Pop Art. At the same time, when I was in graduate school and learning from Graham and Acconci, another gallery called Metro Pictures started showing photo-based art that they positioned in relation to Pop Art, New-Age European cinema, and Conceptual installation artists like Acconci and Graham. They were called the Picture Artists. I am a lover of evocative images, paintings and photographs and pictures of all kinds. So I fell in love with them, with artists like Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley, Jack Goldstein, Gretchen Bender, and Robert Longo.
AM: How did the picture artist influence your art?
CH: Very directly. I expanded into digital, what I thought of as post-photography, meaning 3D animation, and then VR and AR as they were invented. I thought I’d get a gold star and a little halo for discovering that the age of photography had ended. In fact, as seems obvious to me now, when I was young and dumb, no one wanted to hear about this. They loved photography.
AM: So, you didn’t get a gold star and a little halo. What has happened instead?
CH: I became a pioneer of the transitional artist, an artist that can move fluently between different art worlds, both the tangible and the digital.
AM: How did you get started expanding contemporary art using new media?
CH: In 1995, I had a life-changing experience. I saw TOY STORY in pre-release at the Berlin Film Festival. The technology used to produce it crunches big data, meaning accumulated scientific information about the natural world, to re-synthesize to produce more or less realistic pictures. I think of Maya, my 3D animation software, as epistemological because it crunches accumulated scientific knowledge: mathematics, topography, Newtonian physics, material sciences, biology, optics, the physics of light, gases, particles, and waves, kinesthesiology, and anatomy. You input values that come from scientific recordings and observations to create a simulation of how things look, move, grow, etc. That’s what gives 3D animation its uncanny, seductive aesthetic. Strangely enough, I felt that TOY STORY defined a new paradigm for representation.
AM: Today, there is a sort of big community of artists, collectors, curators, and writers engaging with each other on Twitter and offline all around the world. How did you meet artists, curators, and collectors?
Claudia Hart: I was alienated from my peers in New York. I started by showing with the Pat Hearn Gallery in the East Village in NY, to whom I was introduced by my friend, Tishan Hsu, who is currently experiencing an incredible revival. We were called identity artists, working with unorthodox ideas about gender. I was also called an "Intermedia" artist. I made text paintings and used print media to make them; I combined different printing techniques in experimental ways; I produced sculptures, Super-8 movies, and black-and-white photographs.
In those days, one actually met people in real life. The art world was not so big. I went to the openings. I met people and sat around in cafes afterward and talked. When I started using 3D simulations, those same people thought I was no longer an artist. The word on the street was that Claudia Hart had quit art and was now a scientist. So I left New York. I moved to Europe. I got a grant from the American Center in Paris and lived there for two years. After that, I got a second grant and residency from the Künstlerhaus Bethanian, then run by Christoph Tannert, who recently retired. I married a German, broke up with him, and then married Kurt Hentschlager, a well-known Austrian media artist. Kurt and I have been together for the past 27 years.
Residencies are also great ways to connect. Hippie style: a commune—you live together. In Berlin, I also got one of the first fellowships made specifically for women, for a Super-8 movie I made starring myself as an 18th-century gentleman.
AM: A lot of the early pioneers shared stories about being rejected. How was it being a female artist pioneering digital art?
CH: My main problem was that the other computer artists in my age group were not involved with pictures or with Pictures Theory. Issues of representation dominate contemporary art because of its historical lineage. The digital scene was, as I mentioned, concerned with the invention of new tools and used them to create many genres of work, including the algorithmic. Computer culture is driven by this, by innovation, and by the desire to create new technological tools. Innovation, therefore, is both its form and its content, so this means it’s a culture of the "next new thing," and the byproduct of that is a kind of ahistoricism.
What seems to be shared in this digital culture is the impulse to reinvent art from scratch. I did not feel this in any way. In fact, it was my mission to do the opposite. I wanted to expand contemporary art, and my mission was to connect the past to the present. To connect the dots.
I’m not sure how much being a woman was part and parcel of my general attitude. For sure, the tech culture coming out of Silicon Valley was way more sexist than the identity politics and artists that dominated the art scene I was involved in during those first East Village days. This was a part of it. But in addition to that, I am not in any way a futurist. I’m not concerned with innovation. I have always been an artist of my own time. I did not invent new tools. Instead, I used what was available. I hacked together existing tools to do things they were not designed to do. The software I used might have been obscure, but it was readily available. To my surprise, my Intermedia art friends were not interested in any of it, but I was totally oblivious to the fact that the computer artists weren’t because, in fact, I didn’t know any.
AM: It’s sometimes better not to be the first or too early.
CH: I don’t care about being first. That need is a part of the innovation culture, not mine. I just want to expand art, not destroy and replace it. I feel a deep connection to work that drives a wedge into history. But my ideas about how one might do that are not limited to the idea of new tools and innovation. To me, driving a wedge into art requires a kind of beauty. Mine is not an anti-aesthetic. I love work that takes the viewer to another place and possesses a kind of sublime aesthetic, bringing us into a state of reverie—a thing of uncanny beauty. That’s what counts to me the most.
This text is part of a 3 part series of conversations between Claudia Hart and Anika Meier discussing the history of digital and the artist's career from the early 1990s on until today. From contemporary art to digital art, from new media art to generative art and NFTs. From New York to Berlin and back.