conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 26.06.2023
CLAUDIA HART: MIND AND BODY, CONVERSATION WITH ANIKA MEIER PART II
CULTURE WARS AND ANIMATIONS
Claudia Hart wrote her way into visual art. Leveraging her positions at ID and later at ARTFORUM, Hart took the opportunity to explore the obscure corners of design and contemporary art and became obsessed. Her obsession led to her curating an exhibition in 1984 about art and design crossover, an impulse that then swept the art scene. It was called HOUSE ON THE BORDERLINE, and was staged at White Columns, New York's oldest alternative non-profit space. The artists, curators, and writers she met—from the gallerist Holly Solomon to artists Dan Graham and Ericka Beckman—guided her. Hart's explorations led her to rediscover herself as an artist using multiple mediums, from the decorative arts to painting and animation.
In the mid-1990s, Hart saw the movie TOY STORY at the Berlin Film Festival. It inspired her to animate A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI (Penguin Edition, 1996), her most well-known illustrated book. This piece has lasting relevance. First because of its profound human theme—political strategy and the will to power—but also because the artist translated her version of Niccolò Machiavelli's Renaissance treatise THE PRINCE from one new technology into the next over the course of thirty years.
In the second of three conversations with Anika Meier for EXPANDED.ART, Hart discusses her early artistic influences, how Europe transformed her into a digital artist, and the "mind and body split" in her visual and literary work.
Anika Meier: You are a writer and an artist. What was your first job as a writer?
Claudia Hart: After graduate school, I answered an ad in the New York Times for an editorial position at ID, a famous modernist design magazine at the time called Industrial Design. Although I was trained in both architecture and preservation, I always wrote and thought I wanted to write fiction from the time I was a little girl.
For a school assignment, I wrote a chapter for what I thought would be my first novel when I was 11, in the sixth grade. It was about a little Italian-American girl growing up on the Lower East Side of New York. I read books on Italian grammar and an Italian to English dictionary, and included sentences in Italian. My teacher, Mr. Camaratta, now long dead, accused me of plagiarism and called my mother. I spent two weeks in bed crying. My mom said that I didn’t have to go to school after that, and I became famously truant and remained so my entire life—she said I only had to show up to take tests. This made me socially inept, but I maintained the practice my entire life. I also gave up on fiction writing. But I continued to write, and in graduate school, I wrote about architecture and design from a social point of view. My graduate professors helped me publish. So to return to ID, I could write well, so I got the job.
I was associate editor at ID, one of two young people brought in to revive the magazine. The editor was Steven Skov Holt, who later became a design historian and is the Distinguished Professor of Industrial Design at California College of the Arts. He also invented the word Blobject, a term that was used to qualify the new apple-molded plastic look that came out in the early eighties. He wrote a book called "Blobjects and Beyond: The New Fluidity in Design." I, on the other hand, was interested in what was being called at that time in the mid-eighties, "Art-Design Crossover." It was centered around the gallery of the late Holly Solomon, and she showed artists like Judy Pfaff, Joan Mitchell, Gordon Matta-Clark, Laurie Anderson, Robert Kushner, Nam June Paik, and William Wegman. She also supported the Pattern and Decoration art movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which rejected the austerity of Post-Minimalism and Conceptual Art. The "P and D" artists included Miriam Schapiro, Valerie Jaudon, Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, and many others.
AM: Did this background have an influence on your artistic practice?
CH: I loved and still embrace a highly decorative aesthetic and often cover my 3D environments with elaborate patterns. "P and D" artists were maximalists, in opposition to Minimalism and Conceptual Art with their "anti-aesthetic." In rebellion to Minimalism, they made low arts: crafts, fibers, wearables, furniture, and "pretty" paintings, and for the most part, were queer men or women. They represent the roots of the "Identity" artists of my generation who lived and worked in the East Village in New York, as opposed to the previous generation of contemporary artists who territorialized Soho. But all of us were in downtown New York.
AM: You got into art through writing. How does the story continue?
CH: So, to return to my story: at ID, I met the people who fascinated me by interviewing them. I interviewed Holly Solomon, and she introduced me to her son, Tommy, who at that time was the director of White Columns, which remains New York’s oldest alternative art center. Tommy invited me to curate an exhibition on the topic, so I did. It was called HOUSE ON THE BORDERLINE and opened on May 19, 1984. I designed a "pop-up" exhibition invite (I was also obsessed with pop-up books at that time and wrote about them for ID).
AM: How did you approach curating your first exhibition?
CH: I ran around New York, visiting the studios of the artists that Holly exhibited and also their friends. These were artists who produced fabric works, ceramics, furniture, and paintings with a highly decorative and feminine aesthetic.
This remains my strategy to this day. I fell in love with decorative arts when I was 25, and I still make ceramics, fabric works, and wallpapers. I have also produced monumental performances where the performers are costumed in complex wearables. But mine all deploy VR, meaning augmented reality. I produce custom augmented-reality apps with "trackable" patterns that function like QR codes. They allow users to see my 3D animations and models through their phone cameras by looking at my decorative, trackable patterns.
At ID, I also interviewed Ericka Beckman, the artist from that time who most fascinated me. Ericka is an important experimental filmmaker who, in the past few years, has gotten support and credit for her significant role in art history. She was fascinated by virtual reality in its very early stages. She was even in dialogue with Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist and musician who is credited with inventing VR. At that time, he was the prototype for the Silicon Valley "boy genius," and I think he is actually five years younger than me. Currently, he runs the Microsoft AR research lab and is pushing VR to the next level. Ericka produced stop-motion animations, building tangible models that looked like early VR. She worked with game theory and used conceptual game mechanics rather than traditional narratives. She was my heroine.
AM: When was the moment you found out you also wanted to be an artist?
CH: Ericka introduced me to Dan Graham. The first day that I met him, he offered me the key to his apartment. I didn’t accept it, but we ended up sharing a studio on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for a couple of years. Through them, I fell into the experimental film and post-conceptual art worlds. I was 25 years old, not a group person or a scene person, and was very confused about my identity.
I had a couple of friends but had never been involved in any kind of group or community, and I am still ambivalent about groups. Dan explained to me that I was "really" an artist. I took that as permission and started producing oil paintings in my tiny studio apartment on 8th Street, which I promptly destroyed. Between that and HOUSE ON THE BORDERLINE show (it really WAS!), I was completely preoccupied and obsessed, so of course, the publishers at ID fired me. But that was it! Claudia Hart, the artist was born. Boom. An explosion.
Shortly after, I got a call from Knight Landesman, then the managing publisher of Artforum. Ida Panicelli was moving from Italy to New York to take over as senior editor of Artforum, at that time the most subscribed art magazine in the world. I have no idea how they heard of me. I got a job as their Reviews Editor, which lasted less than a year. I had the same problem as at ID: I was too obsessed with making art. So I had the distinction of being fired by two significant magazines in a single year.
AM: May I say congratulations?
CH: Yes, you can. At the time, I felt disgraced, but I was young and insecure. Today, I wear it like a badge of honor.
Through Ericka and Dan, I met many people in the Downtown NY art scene. I combined all of my interests in my early artistic practice. I made text-based paintings. I wrote hybrid, non-linear fiction and aphorisms that I painted with a brush onto smooth oil paintings, with surfaces laboriously built with a pallet knife. I learned calligraphy and wrote with a small paint brush. I also developed a character, an 18th-century poet, that I personified in various works, including black-and-white photographs and super-8 movies.
My work was installation-based and appeared to be theater sets, where every object was an artwork that also doubled as a prop and included hand-made sculptures. I was considered an Identity artist because my characters were half man and half woman. I exhibited with the late Pat Hearn Gallery, then on 11th Street and Avenue C, a burnt-out ruin of a neighborhood known as Alphabet City.
AM: Did you sell from the very beginning?
CH: All of my literary paintings have sold. It was very strange because I never went to art school and didn’t really know any artists my own age. For my first exhibit with Pat Hearn, I transformed myself into Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who led the 18th-century Romantic rebellion against the rationalist Enlightenment philosophers. My expertise, when I studied art history as an undergraduate at New York University, was the 18th and 19th centuries. I was a hybrid historian from the start.
AM: At some point, you moved to Europe. Why did you make the decision to leave New York, where you had built up a network?
CH: I met many people in Europe through my mentors and decided that I had to move there to go back to the source of my inspiration. A collector in Munich offered me an apartment exchange for paintings in Munich, so I jumped. After a year in Munich, I applied for residencies in Paris and, when the Wall fell, in Berlin. It was the early 1990s. I went to Europe to study history, but strangely enough, it was the site of my transformation into a digital artist.
Berlin was in ferment when I moved there from Paris in 1991. The Wall fell in 1989. Young artists from all over Europe flooded the city, occupying squats all over Mitte. The buildings were covered with bullet holes and more or less ruined, just like the Lower East Side when I first showed there in the mid- to late-eighties. Everyone was vying for power and the newly "liberated" real estate. The city was reinventing itself post-war. I entered into this culture and was fascinated by it. A CHILD'S MACHIAVELLI was created in this context.
AM: You turned from decorative art to politics, from painting to illustration?
CH: I applied for and won the residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Kreuzberg. I spent a lot of time at the bookstore of the nearby New Society for Fine Arts (Neue Gesellschaft for Builden and Kunst), NGBK, run by the Realismus Studio, a group of activist artists and curators.
In their bookstore, I fell in love with Comix, a new, radical form of comic books that filled one of their shelves. I read them, fascinated. There was no such thing as a graphic novel in those days. MAUS by Art Spiegelman, the Comix masterpiece, had just been released. I would stand around the NGBK bookstore reading it and other related works. I was a figurative artist interested in historical paintings, not comic books. Nevertheless, I was inspired. My response was A CHILD'S MACHIAVELLI, born as a series of 31 oil paintings, where I rewrote the Renaissance treatise by Nicholo Machiavelli as a children’s book, speaking in the youth-speak of my time.
I was reflecting on the real estate and culture war taking place in early nineties Berlin, so my aphorisms focused on the workings of power. But the strategy was the same as for all of the other works I’d produced from the beginning: text combined with image; an illustrated book that didn’t need to be read in order. Each painting was a unique piece that could be combined in any order. A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI was a hit. It was published in English, French, and German. I lived off of the proceeds for several years.
AM: A CHILD'S MACHIAVELLI was born in a moment of time. But looking at it today, it has the same power and is still true. How do you see the MACHIAVELLI in today’s world in terms of art and politics?
CH: We are obviously in a period of cultural crisis, with the world slipping into autocracies, war in the Ukraine, and democracy dramatically destabilized in the USA. Social media is used to spread misinformation and engender fear and terror in order to manipulate the populace.
The little mottos that I wrote in the early nineties are more relevant now than ever. They seem to be pointedly directed at the cultural and political world of today. Yet when I wrote them, I felt that I was translating Machiavelli’s early 16th-century text into the politics of that time.
AM: Is that why you animated the MACHIAVELLI?
CH: In 1995, I saw TOY STORY 1 in pre-release at the Berlin Film Festival, as I mentioned in our first conversation. It was another one of those struck-by-light moments, like when I met Ericka and Dan. My first impulse was to animate the MACHIAVELLI. I assumed that I would produce flip book animations, but Toy Story 3D animations combined everything I loved: realistic paintings, architecture, photography, and video.
The simulation technologies that I used to produce it give all 3D images, animations, and VR experiences an uncanny quality. They are truly liminal, a word used in anthropology for rituals intended to bring together heaven and earth. In fact, everything produced in 3D is dreamlike. It reminds me of Renaissance paintings portraying heaven that use 1-point and 2-point perspective. 3D software wasn’t easy to access in those days. It was only available for Unix computers using the Linux operating system.
AM: If I remember correctly, the story of the MACHIAVELLI continues in New York.
CH: After I saw TOY STORY 1 in Berlin, I had a dream that I was talking to my mother on the steps of Schinkel's Altes Museum. I told her that I would soon come home. I decided it was a sign because, in fact, I didn’t see how I could learn 3D animation in Berlin. So I returned to New York in 1996.
With a copy of A CHILD’S MACHIAVELLI in hand, I met the director of the Center For Advanced Digital Applications, a part of New York University, which is currently offering an MS in Special Effects. He invited me to take classes there without expense. I once again jumped, this time down the Alice-Rabbit-Hole of 3D animation. What I found when I was down there was that 3D, VR, and AR—particularly the new version of AR that Jaron Lanier is now inventing—are very different from the kind of flat art I was painting and drawing previously.
Works like the MACHIAVELLI use aphoristic texts combined with images that evoke illustrations. They are physical, but by combining text and image in an iconic way, they are more cerebral and conceptual. They are very “mind," as opposed to 3D and VR, which are more "body." Virtual medium functions in a perceptual way. You feel them in your body. So my art spans two distinctive worlds, that of the mind and that of the body, with one practice portraying a single thing, the "mind-body split."
AM: I assume there was another rabbit hole you fell into.
CH: Yes. Although I started 3D animation with five MACHIAVELLI works, as I fell more deeply into my rabbithole, I abandoned them for the kind of 3D animations that are in the exhibition co-curated by you and Annka Kultys titled MY TRAVELS IN HYPERREALITY.
When I found my 3D voice, it spoke in a different way than my text work. Instead it spoke the language of perceptual art. My animations are always dream-like and ambient. The pieces in the exhibition at Annka Kultys Gallery were made between 1999 and 2019. They hover in a space between the natural and unnatural worlds. These animaciones comenzaron como architectural models construidos en a computer-game space. I often paint the figures and the architecture free-hand, using a tablet but staying inside my 3D animation software space. Also important is that my 3D animations are driven by software processes mimicking physics and other natural forces that I subvert by directing them to perform in unnatural ways. These are forces we experience with our bodies in the tangible world. All of these processes come together to create a liminal object.
I hope they are also beautiful, beauty also being a quality of the body. In the end, my goal finally is to produce works of uncanny beauty.
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.