Sterling Crispin is a Santa Barbara-based artist, whose cerebral works deal with entropy, perception, and virtual reality. From programming autonomous drones in a motion capture lab, to finding the existing dialogues between cyberspace and Romanticism, to working on music videos for artists like Pictureplane and Modern Witch, Crispin’s work demonstrates that digital media and concrete physical manifestations are symbiotic. Apart from making work that is literally really smart and visually stimulating, Crispin has also worked on projects like DJ Media Fire, a study of new-age consciousness and pop culture, but also really sweet mixes. Here he discusses his current work in progress project, Plein Air 001 (Entropy, Terror, and the Sublime within a Cyberspace Landscape), magic, math, and beauty in the contemporary art world.
So what’s an AlloSphere?
It’s a huge scientific instrument at the California Nanosystems Institute. The AlloSphere is a 30ft diameter steel sphere coated in video projections on the inner surface, a massively multi-channel surround sound setup and several interactive systems. It’s like being in an interactive planetarium, except that it completely surrounds you. The projections are also 3-D and the quality of the 3D is very intense. There are three rings of speakers of about thirty speaker in total and two subwoofers, soon they will install over 100 speakers. And they have all of these other amazing systems, like a ring of infrared cameras that can keep track of where you are down to 1mm accuracy and infrared gloves that you can put on and interact with your software. You can move 3D objects, warp and manipulate them. It’s designed for science and for art. It’s been used for visualizing particle interactions happening at the quantum level, navigating through models of the human brain, and a number of really amazing interactive software art projects.
How did you gain access to it?
I was taking this class called “Computing with Media Data” with the Media Art & Technology department at UCSB using Allocore, which is a C++ library developed by MAT. Allocore is basically a framework for programming content for the Allosphere. But you could use it for any scale of project, within the sphere or outside of it. When I came to UCSB and first stood in the Allosphere I told myself “if I could see one of my projects in here before I die, I will die happy.”
How did you become involved in this current project?
I was really interested in making a landscape based on the Hudson River School of painters and I was thinking about how Romanticist painters depicted the world. Seeing nature as this vast expansion of space we find ourselves in awe of. A subtext of some of these paintings were thoughts like, “Look at this vast American West! Thank God it is here for us to colonize” So I was thinking about cyberspace as an extension of that ideology. But in a way cyberspace has already been colonized by the big players like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter etc. who have built these huge structures (both in the physical and digital sense). It’s not like the Wild West of the dot com boom anymore, but in a way it is still a wild territory with an infinitely expanding border. In cyberspace, creating a new world is taking a step beyond that border, but as soon as you take that step you’ve expanded the territory. Like walking from the land into the sea, but with each step you take the land expands beneath your feet keeping you dry. So in this sense cyberspace is expandable infinitely, but as I said you create it as you discover it, it’s not something that already exists for you to roam around in like the Hudson River School depictions of the land.
So you are literally building a landscape from scratch, but via digital means and letting it evolve into a living painting?
That was my goal. At first I was thinking of importing models of trees into Allocore and then generating a landscape, but then I thought that was a cop out. I really wanted to generate a landscape from scratch and watch it evolve on its own. I started asking myself, do I need to worry about soil content in my world? What about wind, erosion, rain, pollen, bees, AND what about fire and flood? I thought a good place to start would be, “How do you actually grow plants algorithmically?”
I was looking at genetic mutation algorithms and how DNA compresses so much about complex life forms into such a small amount of information. I programmed a system that would start with a very small seed of information, mutate the seed based on how cellular division happens (L-System modeling to be specific), then read through those mutated sets of DNA and move through 3-D space thereby creating the plants. This process is a way of generating self-similar fractals; it’s not random, more like controlled chaos. Eventually I want to work more on artificial life that would reproduce, and turn into an eco-system, not just something that looks like an eco-system, but something that really is.
How are you planning to translate the intricacies of the painting into cyberspace reality?
I am really focusing on the plants right now, because if there’s some small problem with the base algorithm then a whole field growing will make that very visible. The idea of an infinitely expanding cyberspace is really seductive to me; I want to use this analogy in the landscape itself as I continue working on Plein Air. I’m imagining that as you navigate through the landscape the things closest to you are as realistic as I can make them. Highly textured plants and rocks, bits of dirt, nice lighting, mist and fog, little butterflies flying around, that sort of thing. As the landscape unfolds into the distance it will be similar to how the Hudson River school paintings unfold with a creek, a field, and mountains carving the space out with a deep sense of time and lots of light. I want the feeling of an expansive space that decays into pure information and the unknown. So as the world goes further back into space, things will get less detailed, then become very rugged, and then eventually flatten out into an infinite flat plane, like early CG environments, which are usually just a glowing grid that expands in every direction forever. There are a lot of analogies in the language of cyberspace to infinity: the infinite blackness and the infinite flat plane are two that often show up. It’s interesting because these digital spaces are infinite, yet are very tightly confined right now to our screens, we’re already starting to see that they won’t be confined for much longer.
What is the horror aspect?
I was thinking about how Romanticist paintings were interpreted with this horror of being faced with the infinite. Think about your body and nature unfurling through space and time around you, and the whole earth around it, and all of existence interconnected as one void. I think they were depicting this void and instilling the sense that it’s so beautiful and so frightening so that viewers would realize the fragility of their own body and life. Terror and the sublime in one moment of awe and memento mori.
And you are also working on a drone project now?
That’s something I’ve been working on since January of 2012 in a motion capture lab. I’ve been developing an artwork that uses some methods of autonomously flying a quad-copter around the space and interacting with it. I’m using gloves that are visible to an infrared camera system to keep track of exactly where my hands are in the space. That information is sent to a computer in the room and processed with custom software which then communicates with the quad-copter essentially giving it an artificial intelligence and turning it into this drone-avatar of the virtual world. I’m capturing its flight path, and generating an immersive video and audio installation around the room as the drone and I stalk each other like Joseph Beuys and his coyote.
With the drone I can have feedback between the real and the virtual in a very direct way, and visa versa, and I think that’s really interesting. With most real-to-virtual interfaces it’s only one way, your computer mouse doesn’t push back. It’s a great opportunity to cross the threshold between the real and the virtual, and having the virtual seep out into the world, which is something I’ve been exploring for a few years now. I’m working toward finishing the piece and I’m anxious to see it completed in the next few months.
I really appreciate your concepts and practice. It seems that traditional practice is becoming obsolete and you are really getting involved in the full spectrum of the digital. But I think there is an expectation of cynicism when looking at digital work. There is an immediacy that is easy to disengage from.
I think it’s easy to be cynical, especially if you are creative. It’s much easier to destroy things than to create them and much easier to be ironic than sincere. There’s room for criticism in the world if its purposeful, but if the basis of your practice is cynicism and ironic gestures then you don’t have to be liable for anything. I think being earnest and sincere is important, our society doesn’t really believe in beauty or truth anymore and that’s a dangerous thing. I think another dangerous thing emerging on the web is that people are getting lost in their own ego. All this social media rewards you for being self absorbed basically. If the sole purpose of an artwork becomes making the author feel justified for posting it online, or grabbing people’s attention for a brief while, it’s going to be limited by the short attention span of society. This goes for anything really not just visual art. At some point you have to ask yourself what your motives are and what’s really worth doing.
That really relates to your Gateway piece, I feel, the way our digital obsession is elevated to a religious and ritual like emphasis?
Well when I made Gateway I was just starting to get interested in magical thinking like Aleister Crowley, Hakim Bey, and some other Hermetic schools of thought. It was more about methods of altering consciousness, more ritual than religion, and the relationship to these rituals and virtual reality. I also was interested in creating a threshold or, gateway, into the virtual, or a metaphor for it at least.
Your work used to deal with a lot of symmetry, are you still interested in that concept?
I was really interested in symmetry because I thought it exposed the purely mathematical world that exists. When I say purity I mean the idea of a platonic form that exists in some fundamental reality. There is our world, then there is the internal world of the mind, then maybe the world of the spirit, and then the pure world of math. I kind of backed off of symmetry for a while because it is easy to make things beautiful just by making it look symmetrical, our minds catch on immediately. I want to challenge myself to make beautiful things that are worthwhile and complex at a higher order.