Artists as Problem Solvers and the Work of Brian Knep: A Discussion with Judith Tannenbaum

Knep, “Erect,” 2009

Judith Tannenbaum is the Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI.  I recently spoke with her about the Boston based New Media artist, Brian Knep’s work which is currently on exhibit in the show Exempla at The Museum of Art.


How do you see the intersection between science and art evolving, and how does Brian Knep’s work illustrate this?

It’s very difficult to predict how the relationship between art and science will develop, but the best method is to follow and observe what artists and scientists do. Brian Knep is an interesting case because he was trained in mathematics and computer science and later shifted his attention to art. Computer technology is his medium but science is also important to the content of his work. When you look at the Exempla series, it’s all about human cell activity and growth. So you can say that science becomes both subject matter and methodology for Knep, but his approach is based on observation of human behavior and experience.

How does his work bring people into face-to-face contact?

Almost all of Knep’s work is activated by the viewers. In a couple of the Exempla pieces that we have on view there are buttons for two people to use in order to activate the computer projections on the wall. In one of the pieces, called Embark, there are two vertical bars on either side of the wall; by pushing the buttons viewers try to move the figures from one bar to the other. It can become like a game between two people who are in face-to-face contact with the work as well as with each other.

Capabilities in interactivity like work responding to changes in the environment and the usage of sensors are integrated into art now. How do you feel this changes our expectations of art and how art is defined?

When you raise the issue of interactivity, you are implying that it had not existed in art before.  I’m not sure I agree with this, because the experience of looking at art is often an exchange between the viewer and the art object—even if the object doesn’t move. But performance art, which was coming of age in the 60’s and 70’s, was definitely something that could be interactive and where the artist was really engaged with the audience and sometimes required the participation of specific people. There are other examples of interactivity that are more scientific—for example, artists who use elements like the wind or other natural phenomenon.  Someone like George Rickey, whose works are kinetic, activated his sculptures by the air currents.  So there are different ways to think about interactivity. It is interesting to see how artists today are using new media that extend interactivity but, at the same time, they are in some ways following previous traditions.

In an earlier conversation, you mentioned the case of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece as another example of interactive art and in some ways a frightening form of interactivity. 

That’s an example of the artist being totally deadpan even when she is being threatened by someone from the audience. Similarly, Marina Abramovic is very self-contained and seemingly unexpressive in her performances, which can be fraught with danger.  Knep is not physically present in the gallery but his work does involve interactivity and engagement with the audience. 

What role do you feel you play in exhibiting this type of work?

At RISD we have a gallery designated for new media, and the museum has made a strong commitment to exhibit work that uses new technologies in some way.  However, it is difficult to define what new media is. We definitely show video but also other works that are computer-generated or involve computer technology in a different way. Together with myself, there is a curatorial assistant in the department who is very active in choosing artists to present and working with the artists.  We definitely have a curatorial commitment to showing new media art.

Does the museum collect New Media art? Do you feel it is still an appropriate descriptor?

At one point new media referred to video work and now the category has been expanded to include anything else that has to do with computers, sound, new technology applications or the internet. New media is the current catch-all for this type of art work. 

We started collecting video art in the early 80’s, although the videos we have date back to the late 60’s and then through the 70’s.  More recently we have been trying to figure out how we can collect other types of new media art.  The last show we did before Brian Knep was the artist Siebren Versteeg who we had bought a piece of work by. All of his work is basically live feed from the internet; he creates a computer program that is drawing images live from the web.  It’s a very interesting idea.  I’d say one of the biggest problems with collecting and showing new media art is just making sure it runs and that the programs are set up so that they are working and viewers can really experience the work.  So far the response to the Brian Knep show has been great and we have not had any technical problems. The previous show had more problems. If Google changed something in its program it affected the work in the gallery, which we weren’t really aware of at first.  Another issue in terms of collecting the work is that you have to be able to upgrade as technology changes. We try to write a contract with the artist when we are acquiring the piece so that we have access to what you would call “the original” so that it can be upgraded if or when the technology changes. 

It’s a big problem, an ongoing problem for museums to keep up with technology that’s changed a lot of the issues in terms of ownership and maintaining the collection in a functional way.

I can think back to when laser disks were the rage and now that technology has totally disappeared. Everyone had their laser disk players and disks and that just evaporated.  So if you buy something like that you have to be able to have it reformatted into whatever the latest new and improved format is.  A couple of years ago we spent quiet a bit of time and effort and money to reformat our early videos that were 3/4″ tape. Nobody has those players anymore and the tapes had become really brittle, so we’ve converted those to Digibeta. It takes a certain amount of upkeep. We work closely with the registrars and also with the conservator, who is very interested in issues of conserving new media.

What is the museum’s commitment to exhibiting New Media work as opposed to other forms of contemporary art?

The RISD Museum is committed to showing contemporary art in all mediums and genres.  One issue is space and most new media art is quite easy to store. It may require equipment but usually the actual art is on a small disk which takes up very little space. When I approach the director and other staff people here, like the registrars, about bringing in contemporary sculpture, for example, that often seems much more problematic in terms of how much room will it take and where will we store it. I would say with new media art that economy of space is one of the practical advantages to make it appealing for museum collections. The storage space we need for video art and other forms of new media art is strikingly minimal compared to painting, sculpture, and other types of art. Plus, it’s exciting to exhibit and collect art that is pioneering new territory.

What do you see as the major challenges which New Media poses to the exhibition space that modernist works did not? As we move forward, is it possible for the exhibition space to reshape itself in order to properly exhibit New Media work?

These are interesting questions. When we renovated the space that we now use for the Spalter New Media Gallery, I was concerned because it has several doorways and it’s a connector between two parts of the museum so a lot of the people walk through the space. It is not at all a black box where a number of people can sit down and watch something without distractions.  At first I was apprehensive, but it has turned out not to be problematic.  Equipment has gotten so much better, particularly the projectors which are so much brighter now, that you really don’t need a black box anymore.  Because the space is well trafficked, more people see the work than if it was in a separate room where they have to walk through a curtain to enter, making a conscious decision to go into that gallery.  So it’s turned out to be working quite well. We don’t have as many continuous walls as we might like, which can limit the type of work we are able to present.  We can’t really show a corner projection piece on two adjoining walls or something that would encompass the space.  But we can do that in another part of the museum on occasion. At some point I can see the museum mounting media art in the Chace Center, which is a very different kind of space.  But, in the Spalter New Media Gallery, which we use regularly for this type of artwork, we try to make programming decisions based on what works best in that space. 

Tracing back to Leonardo da Vinci’s time, for example, there was an intimate interconnection between science and art.  Since then, it has not always been such an even balance between the two.  Can you describe how you think it is different now?

There has been a lot of experimentation with science and art in photography.  Eadweard Muybridge is a really good example of that–with his experiments capturing humans and animals in motion. In the late 19th century, it was a big challenge to see if all four legs of a horse were off the ground at the same time so he developed particular equipment and very scientifically set out to determine how the horse really moved. Later on there are people like Harold Edgerton, an engineering professor at MIT who pioneered the field of strobe photography, and Gyorgy Kepes, also affiliated with MIT whose light sculptures exemplify a humanistic approach to experimental cross fertilization between technology and art. There are also artists involved with optical perception—such as the international movement of Op Art in the 60’s, and even someone like Josef Albers who was so interested in the science of color.  Perhaps we don’t think of color theory as being scientific but it certainly is relevant to the study of sensory experience and perception.

      I think a lot of artists are problem solvers and, conversely, many scientists are interested in human experience; so I don’t see them as ever being totally separate in the way they approach the world, although their goals can be very different.  An artist is not trying to find a cure for a disease but the way they approach their work can be more similar to scientists than we might think initially and vice versa.  I think a lot of people have the impression that art is based on spontaneous inspiration rather than grounded in study and ideas. But nothing could be farther from the truth.  Many artists work with a variety of media—painting, sculpture, drawing, and other traditional mediums–but they may have quite a scientific approach to their work.  Someone like Saul LeWitt is fascinating because so much of his work seems to be in tune with mathematics or a scientific approach, but he very poignantly distinguished what makes his work art and not math or science.  At the same time, there is definitely crossover with science in terms of methodology: just the idea of trying to see all possible variations of a particular problem. In some cases LeWitt’s work is very close to solving mathematical problems, but he definitely does it visually.  He chose which problems he wanted to solve and present on the walls or floor of a museum or gallery.  I think scientists do that as well. They decide which experiments they are going to pursue, taking a calculated guess as to which will come to fruition. Artists in many periods and cultures have been interested in scientific experimentation. However, with the passing of intervening centuries, perhaps it becomes difficult to see how those works were experimental in their own time

Brian Knep: Exempla, is on exhibit at RISD Museum October 22-Sunday, March 6, 2011

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China Blue is an internationally exhibiting artist and the Founding Director of The Engine Institute. She is the recipient of a 2012 RISCA Fellowship in New Genres and her exhibition "Firefly Trees" was nominated for 2012 Best Monographic Museum Show Nationally by the International Association of Art Critics.Her in depth worked in sound was what drove her to be the first person to record the Eiffel Tower in Paris and through a NASA/Rhode Island Space Grant she was invited to do a pilot studyto record nature in an innovative way.She has shown her works in museums, galleries and non-profit institutions for over 20 years.Her work has been widely covered in web, television and print media including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and NPR.
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China Blue is an internationally exhibiting artist and the Founding Director of The Engine Institute. She is the recipient of a 2012 RISCA Fellowship in New Genres and her exhibition "Firefly Trees" was nominated for 2012 Best Monographic Museum Show Nationally by the International Association of Art Critics. Her in depth worked in sound was what drove her to be the first person to record the Eiffel Tower in Paris and through a NASA/Rhode Island Space Grant she was invited to do a pilot study to record nature in an innovative way. She has shown her works in museums, galleries and non-profit institutions for over 20 years. Her work has been widely covered in web, television and print media including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and NPR.
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