Digital Artist and Scientist Krist Wood on Rhizome.org
Any first-time visitor to the internet-art blog Computers Club could be forgiven for getting lost in the meandering stream of digital illustrations, photo manipulations, and animated gifs created by its close-knit group of international contributors. With no real nav bar or About Us page to use as a guide, either, they would even be justified in wondering what, exactly, it all means. And if, like I did back in 2009, this visitor decided to trace the site all the way to its founder, they would discover an even bigger enigma: Krist Wood, a doctor in Yale University’s Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology who spends his days studying the protein nanomotors responsible for cell motion, and who calls his scientific work “part of my art practice.” Indeed, I found Wood so intriguing — and Computers Club so freakishly addictive — that I contacted him two years ago, when Sight Unseen was just about to launch, in the hopes that I could feature both him and his cohorts on the site somehow. And yet without a clear understanding of how to capture such a disparate and mysterious group, I let the ball drop, which is why I was so pleased to see an interview with Wood published at the always-thought-provoking Rhizome blog earlier this week, one that actually sheds light on Wood’s oeuvre. It’s partially excerpted here.
By Orit Gat
Looking at your work online is a process of discovery by links. It unfurls in a number of different websites, like Computers Club, Begin Records, both of which you set up, and Internet Archeology. Could you talk about the character of these initiatives and whether you see a cohesive element in them?
I will state what I think they are and describe an aspect of my interest in each. Computers Club is a set of identities that derive from computer users. The concept of identity in the context of the internet has been my principle interest as a computer user. To me, an identity on the internet is a fascinating system of information that gives rise to a character embodying a unique kind of shape and form. These forms can be arranged into a super-structure of information that itself has a kind of identity. The way that these characters synthesize, capture, and release information, make choices, and exert influence gives rise to a higher order identity, as a grouping, that shifts and evolves over time. Computers Club is such a grouping. What shape will it take and how will it feel? That’s what I wonder.
Begin Records is a preservation for the creative works of individuals who have a polymathic way of life. My philosophy of art is rooted in an idea that the core of one’s person is unique and different from that of any other. People could journey inward, venturing as close as possible to that core or center, then endeavor to rearrange their environment to reflect what they’ve discovered there. That is my personal definition of art; something that I think has many definitions. The general act of rearranging one’s environment could encompass many different processes, and I’ve been drawn to people who seem driven to reach out with an interdisciplinary touch; applying their energy to generate varied results that might include visual arts, music, scientific discovery, and other outcomes that all exhibit a strong central sensibility. I’m curious about these kinds of people and I’m interested in using resources I have to help record and preserve what they are doing. That is what the word “records” refers to in the name.
Internet Archaeology is an organization that, according to its mission statement, “seeks to explore, recover, archive and showcase the graphic artifacts found within earlier Internet Culture.” There have been a number of people, myself included, with parallel interest in the idea of chunks of information being fossilized during the rise of the internet in and around cultures. There had been a growing awareness of both the cultural significance and fragility of this kind of information that came to a head with Yahoo’s “Geocities is closing” announcement. A mass extinction of such a large pool of entities and data is such a stirring idea that multiple initiatives for preservation arose at that time; Internet Archaeology being one of them. Internet Archaeology has a kind of curatorial element that differentiates it from most of the other preservation and storage projects that are more indiscriminate in nature.
I would describe my involvement and membership in Computers Club, Begin Records, Internet Archaeology, and also Spirit Surfers as exercises in slowness. Slowness is an example of a cohesive element I see in them.
As an artist who works and displays work online, collaborating and sharing these platforms with other artists, could you tell me a little bit about the communities that formed around these and your involvement in them?
I encountered many artists of the internet in the period between the 1990s and 2007 leading up to the formation of Computers Club. During that time, there was an abundance of beautiful artwork being done beneath the surfaces of graphical MUDs and MMORPG systems, within website and forum communities, and in remote corners of other large organizations of people online such as 4chan.org and ytmnd.com to name a few. I think the vast majority of what happened on the internet during this time is likely to evade academic appreciation due to being transient, lost or difficult to recognize for a potential art historian who lacks the prerequisite experience necessary to recognize the significance of what certain people were doing. I had formed a number of different collectives of users and artists that had waxed and waned during that period, and in general they were based around a particular common type of online activity, such as experimenting with the aesthetics of an online gaming system or developing characters and personas for the purpose of manipulating a forum community.
Toward the end of that period, it became more and more common for me to encounter artworks and personal websites of people displaying a conscientious and outward awareness of the internet in their computer art practices; presenting themselves on their homepages as fine artists. For me, experiencing a purposefully made collection of “works” together with their creator’s online persona presented in this homepage website context creates a type of internet art character, and a cast of internet art characters forms in my mind. The origin of Computers Club lies in the progression from that earlier more embedded, sometimes surreptitious version of internet art to this later version increasingly populated by a cast of fine art-tinged characters. Computers Club began as an endeavor to assemble together my most cherished characters encountered at both ends of that progression. I can think of Computers Club as a digital sculpture; a kind of lifelike aggregate molded from internet characters.
I’m unsure of the word “community” in your question, but it has felt like there are people inhabiting a space surrounding Computers Club. Myself and an artist named Robert Lorayn, who has been instrumental in the creation of computersclub.org, have attempted to experiment with this by creating a branch of Computers Club called the Computers Club Drawing Society. The result is a place where an idea or gesture can be communicated through a communal set of raw, primitive tools that allow for a member of the society to manipulate pixels directly in their web browser and share the result on a central webpage for feedback or collaboration. Unlike Computers Club itself, where a new member is initiated under rare circumstances, the Drawing Society welcomes and encourages people to apply for membership and periodically gives out invitations. Something intriguing happens when all of the various characters involved there are subjected to using the same fundamental set of tools. Looking at it, I feel as though the technical peculiarities of each person’s computer practice; whatever set of tools or environment they have built up for themselves, is generally subtracted out, leaving behind a sort of essence of their personality and touch preserved in an array of pixels. Maybe it’s a fertile scenario for a community.
You describe your recent project, Mausoleum II (still pictured at top), as a Holy Ground full of religious symbolism. I’m really interested in this in relation to Mausoleum I (still pictured above), which is a journey that leads you to a collection of pages from GeoCities discussing the existence of God and aliens. I’m curious about this progress, from a journey of discovery on Geocities to the deeply symbolic Mausoleum II. Could you talk a little bit about these works?
When I use the internet, I experience a sense of traveling. It feels like flying, like in a dream, or sometimes like walking down a strange path. Each day when I access it, I think about where I would like to go. Sometimes I find a special place, then I can’t remember how to get back to it again; maybe it’s gone. Other times I feel as though I’m hovering over someone’s life, like a ghost. I experience similar feelings in my dreams. For me, existing in the internet and dreaming are intertwined. The way that the passage of time feels inside the realm of the internet is dream-like and strange. Both the future and past feel powerful, as if they somehow outweigh the present. I fantasize about how traces of our present time will seem in the far distant future. Will Facebook seem like it was a religious practice or type of worship? The scattered puzzle pieces from our lives will fall through time and someday future beings will try to put them together and wonder about us. I think they will see a mysterious picture. What facets of our behaviors will echo; what did we love and what did we hold as sacred?
A number of your works, like Mausoleum I and II, Inivichrys, or Chrysallii display a kind of computer-generated nature. Can you talk a little bit about the space between the landscape painting and the digital work?
When we dream or delve into our imaginations, our memories and visions are thrust into various landscapes in the mind. Some appear to be vivid projections of our recollection of reality, some seem like familiar spaces but warped or twisted, others completely fantastic or alien. When I attempt to express myself artistically, with visual mediums as well as sound and music, I’m most interested in the sensation of space. If I conceive of a form or event that I want to pursue, then I devote myself to the characteristics of the space where I imagine it to occur. The colors and contours of a landscape, or the surfaces and ambiance of an interior become paramount to the realization of the subject. With regard to landscape, paint can obviously be a useful medium for the artist who is concerned with figments of the imagination. I’ve made use of paint throughout most of my life.
If you put the word landscape, or a related word, into a search engine, thousands of recordings and renditions of landscapes are returned. This mass of landscape imagery is growing right now in what might be a kind of collective consciousness comprising our global network of computers. If I experience a vision of a landscape, I wonder if there is an image somewhere in that mass that exhibits some of the qualities of that vision. This curiosity has steadily become a part of my artwork and seems to form a kind of interface between my imagination and the network of information I’m connected to by computer. Maybe imaginations and dreams themselves derive from a different kind of collective consciousness and some of the results of people’s present day artwork are like sparks flying at the junction of two forms of consciousness that we don’t yet comprehend.
How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?
I will answer this question in terms of computers and the internet. In the early 1990s my parents introduced a 486 and modem to the household and I developed an interest in Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes). There was no internet as we now know it, but I was exposed to the concept of connecting to other computers in the area using our home telephone line. Initially, my friends and I would experiment with exchanging messages and files by linking our computers, then learned of people within local calling distance who hosted BBSes where we could login and interact with strangers. Some BBSes specialized in news or hobbyist message boards while others specialized in games or pornography. Even though BBSes were text-based at this time, with at best some static, extended ASCII character set graphics, the added element of interacting with friends and especially unknown people through the computer created a level of captivation for me such that I began to favor raw text BBS doors like Barren Realms Elite and Legend of the Red Dragon to my ColecoVision and NES. My interests soon evolved into developing my own versions of BBSes together with friends and the computer became a focal point for what was a bizarre and intriguing form of social activity. In retrospect, I can see that my fascination with assembling groups of characters on the computer solidified during that period and is something that I continued steadily through subsequent eras such as the emergence of AOL, webrings, forums, MMORPGs, social networking, and in the present day with Computers Club. Being an artist has been my identity throughout youth and into adulthood and my tendency has been to think about and frame my activities that way, whether I’m exploring computer technology, confronting a science challenge, or creating a musical passage; so I would say my interest in internet-based art was happening during the experiences described above and began on the day I first acquired internet access.
Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?
My experience with tool use has mostly felt mysterious and sometimes it has been a source of pain. I would also describe it as one of the most pleasurable and rewarding parts of my life. I started using tools by exploring toys, musical instruments and household items as an infant. One of my earliest memories pertaining to the tools I presently use is of unwrapping a guitar amplifier on Christmas at the age of four. I did not recognize what it was and my father refused to tell me and maintained that it was my job to figure it out. It took me a couple of months to determine what this tool was used for, and during that time it felt like a strange presence living in my room and looking at me.
Click here to read the rest of the interview with Krist Wood, which continues at Rhizome.org.