For Nathaniel Stern, life extends far further than the human experience. Connecting the dots between human feeling, nature, and technology, he explores the endless bounds of sensibility through his art. He speaks to Ola Kalejaye about The World After Us, and using art to ensure that world is good.
When Nathaniel Stern speaks about his work, his passion for the subject matter enlivens the conversation, steering it down tangential alleyways that enlighten his process with glorious context, while also bringing a cascade of new and interesting insights.
Such are the makings of the eclectic mind of a natural polymath and interdisciplinary artist. Nathaniel holds a joint appointment at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, teaching both Art & Design and Mechanical Engineering. It certainly scans for someone who embodies the mind of both artist and academic through the way they approach, well, everything.
Nathaniel expressed interest in a variety of creative media from a young age. The son of two English teachers, he first explored his creativity through music while attending an engineering high school. He went on to study fashion design at university, and it was there that Nathaniel faced the first major turning point of his artistic journey, and quite by chance.
One of Nathaniel’s undergraduate professors sent him a link to New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), which he interpreted as a suggestion that he apply. In reality, as Nathaniel learned a decade later, his professor had sent the link as a reference for what she wanted to hire Nathaniel to do with her own website, but the decision had already been made.
Founded in 1979, the NYU ITP explores communications technologies, and how they can serve as vessels to spread art. The programme is also well known for its contributions to interactive art, which has been one of Nathaniel’s primary vehicles for expression.
During his time at NYU, Nathaniel explored the notion of performativity, “how text and activity intertwine.” A major guiding inspiration came from his teacher, Professor Dan O’Sullivan, who noted Nathaniel’s particularly animated style of speaking, prompting him to explore the relationship between speech and the body. “That’s where my two loves kind of came together,” reflects Nathaniel. “It wound up completely changing my life. That’s where I became an artist.”
“What might that cyber-natural future look like?”
— Nathaniel Stern
As Nathaniel’s interests evolved, he honed in on his corporeal relationship to the environment, through the lens of affect. “Affect is the body’s response to the environment that doesn't have a name yet,” he explains. “It’s an emotion without a qualification.”
One of his early explorations of this phenomenon was through a series of what he labels Compressionist images. Nathaniel would make custom imaging rigs by attaching battery packs to desktop scanners, rigging them to his body and moving through different landscapes.
Nathaniel’s experimental and ingenious project spanned over a decade, taking him and his imaging rigs scanning over hedges, through parks and streams, and wading through lakes and waterfalls.
He even spent three months learning to scuba dive with his equipment, to take his compressionist observations underwater. He and his team built five different sub-aqueous systems, and Nathaniel dived with three of them at three different sites.
Thanks to Nathaniel’s uniquely unusual method of capturing these “melty, slit-scan images,” the thoughts and questions they stimulated were beyond what Nathaniel could have ever planned. He was viewing the interrelationship between his body, technology, and the world around him in a wholly new way. He had found a way to visually represent affect.
Nathaniel began to wonder, what if the landscapes that he had been surveying had their own, unprocessed responses. Could there be some kind of nonhuman affect? And if there was, how might it express itself in an environment increasingly tampered with by human activity? This exploration manifested itself in what is perhaps Nathaniel’s signature work thus far, and the centre of his NFT collection launching on Quantum Art, The World After Us.
The title of the series is inspired by the book The World Without Us, which explores the progress of planet Earth if humanity were to go extinct. In The World After Us, he explores how biological life and the waste that humanity produces would intertwine in our absence.
“If matter can move and think and feel,” Nathaniel asks, “what if it’s not just the plants that retake the planet? What if the digital materials themselves started to incubate and fester and spread?”
The World After Us is Nathaniel’s representation of what such a future would look like. For him, that future is neither blindly optimistic, nor some post-apocalyptic dystopia. “I wanted to imagine a space that is full of garbage, but life finds a way, because it always does,” he explains. “What might that cyber-natural future look like?”
The collection falls into three categories: old appliances reclaimed by plant life, fossilised phones and laptops, and devices repurposed into tools. Contemplating the future of our tech-driven society, Nathaniel’s images recontextualise our relationship to these quotidian items.
“How can I change my relationship to this thing?,” he muses, asking both of himself and the viewer, “How do I understand it, no longer as this object of beauty and utility, but also as garbage.”
Art is just one platform through which Nathaniel pursues these aims. A self-professed “Jack-of-All-Trades”, Nathaniel co-founded the climate action startup, Eco Labs, and sits on the Board of a battery company seeking to replace the lithium ion with the much more plentiful sodium ion in the battery-making process.
However, for Nathaniel, art provides the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to inducing systematic changes to our attitudes on waste. Nathaniel quotes his friend and collaborator, the soil scientist Johannes Lehmann: “I can tell you how to solve climate change, but we need artists to make everyone have the will to make that difference.”
“What the blockchain has afforded me is that I get to live in both worlds at once.”
— Nathaniel Stern
Nathaniel’s appreciation that much of that will could be inspired by the blockchain required a 180-degree change in perspective, from contempt to admiration. Indeed, he intended to make a “critical and negative work” about the blockchain with longtime collaborator Scott Kildall.
However, when Nathaniel and Scott began their research, their opinions swiftly changed. “We came to it and we were like, oh shit, there's something there,” he explains. “Yeah, there are crypto bros, but there are also really earnest people who want to leverage its power.”
Nathaniel recalls finding the work of artists and writers in the blockchain space, such as Simon de la Rouviere, and future collaborators Rhea Myers and the AI-collaborative poet Sasha Stiles. Their opinions on the blockchain firmly changed Nathaniel and Scott’s perspectives, who decided to instead create a work celebrating the blockchain, starting Nathaniel’s web3 journey in earnest.
“We need artists to make everyone have the will to make that difference.”
— Nathaniel Stern
To him, the NFT ecosystem provides a space for experimentation that had been eroding in the face of demands of galleries and museums, and more akin to the Net Art days of the 1990s. “I would just make something, throw it up, get feedback and see what happened,” he reminisces.
By contrast, whilst a gallery would support his work, all experimentation had to happen behind the scenes. In providing Nathaniel the means to sell and distribute his work directly, web3 lets him pursue his true interests.“What the blockchain has afforded me is that I get to live in both worlds at once.”
Top of mind for Nathaniel is a longstanding desire to archive his work, which the blockchain enables for a digital work far better than any gallery. Though he does not fully buy into the concept of the blockchain lasting forever, he does find the concept of permanent immutability on the blockchain to be “a beautiful idea.”
“The blockchain is already a promise we can’t possibly keep,” Nathaniel says, as he ponders what forever looks like, and beyond. “But I think that putting our trust in the trustless and timeless is itself beautiful. And romantic and cynical, and problematic and hopeful all at once.”