Steve Lambert art, etc. Sat, 23 Aug 2014 21:46:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Generator Projects show Sun, 10 Aug 2014 00:13:57 +0000 The New York Times Special Edition will show at Generator Projects in Scotland.

Opens 5th September 6th to 28th September, Thurs-Sun

Generator Projects
25/26 Mid Wynd
Dundee, Scotland

Curators: James S Lee & Daniel Bruton with Holly Keasey

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On The Cover of Chronogram Magazine Sun, 03 Aug 2014 17:22:09 +0000 My work is on the cover of the August issue of Chronogram – a Hudson Valley, NY based art and culture magazine.

On The Cover: Steve Lambert

By Iana Robitaille

read the article here

Steve Lambert On The Cover of Chronogram Magazine photo

Sand Ocean Sky – The Commons

If there’s one thing Steve Lambert learned as an undercover security agent at Stanford University’s bookstore, it’s that anyone—a history professor, a freshman’s dad on Parents Weekend, an ex-felon—can try to steal a pen. After each incident, he would sit down with the offender and discuss the attempted theft often born of some psychological conflict, according to Lambert. The meetings tended to end constructively: “Maybe today can be a turning point,” he would suggest.

Lambert retired his badge years ago, but conversation remains at the core of his work. The artist/activist creates public pieces that ask viewers to consider their value systems as consumers. Advertising is a frequent subject. “I consider myself ‘media-agnostic,’” he says. “I use whatever material will work best for me.” For Lambert, this is signage; he critiques advertising using its own methods. Sand Ocean Sky—The Commons is one of a series of arrow signs Lambert fashioned and photographed around Los Angeles. The signs are witty—one reads “No Trespassing” outside of a gated home, another “You are Still Alive” beside a large cemetery—and consider how we perceive and value public space. Lambert also fights advertising with software—his web application Add-Art replaces online advertisements with art.

For Lambert, his work isn’t about feeding a message to his audience. It’s about discussion and exchange. “[In college] I would see art in galleries, stuff that looked fun to make, but not so fun to look at. It was great when I realized that art could be whatever I wanted it to be.” The desire to make art “fun” for both artist and audience has created works that require interactivity. Lambert’s piece Capitalism Works For Me! True/False is a giant traveling scoreboard, with two buttons inviting passersby to agree or disagree. It looks and feels like a game show: bright, colorful, competitive. But Lambert is more interested in stories than scores. He recalls one man who voted false in Times Square: “He was so frustrated with the broad inhumanity of economic inequality that all he could do was cry. For the piece to cause that kind of profound response felt like an incredible achievement far beyond what I ever expected.”

In 2008, Lambert collaborated with the Yes Men on The New York Times Special Edition, distributing 80,000 fake copies of only “best-case scenario” news across the country. “The point,” he says, “wasn’t to make all of those things a reality, but to enjoy walking toward them.” For Lambert, walking is talking. Lambert occasionally sets up a table with a hand-painted sign that promises, “I will talk with anyone about anything. Free!” The mobile table has proven popular; Lambert says discussions have run the gamut, from weather to Native American agricultural techniques. Whatever the subject, the artist wants to walk and talk with you.

Steve Lambert currently teaches in the New Media Program at SUNY Purchase and works from his studio in Beacon. Information on his work and upcoming exhibitions can be found on his site:

video by Stephen Blauweiss

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Now We Are Alive Sat, 02 Aug 2014 17:41:15 +0000 Steve Lambert Now We Are Alive photo

19 in x 12.5
Printed on 140 weight French Paper Co. paper
Letterpress printing by Horwinski Printing
Edition of 180 with 5 APs.

The first 113 of the edition are in the “Celebrate People’s History: Iraq Veterans Against the War – Ten years of fighting for peace and justice” portfolio

Statement for IVAW portfolio

A key part of Iraq Veterans Against the War, one that could be easily overlooked, is the spirit of the membership. Nearly all of the members, at some point in their service, went about their lives not knowing if they would be alive within a week, a month, the next year, much less today in 2014. In addition to this profound uncertainty, many witnessed or were involved with death and destruction first hand.

Then they come home. Somehow, still alive. Sorting through various issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, physical pain, loss, and unknown mental struggles, but they are back. And somehow, still alive.

In my interactions with IVAW members I’ve seen how life itself feels both unexpected, and respected in a way I can barely imagine. Living is an opportunity. Today is bonus. IVAW members have been through war, survived, and been given more days to walk on earth. Then chosen, with their extra-innings, to work towards peace and justice. To end war. Not all are able to wade through these feelings, reflect upon themselves and existence, and reach the same conclusion. This spirit of growth, humanity, and vitality is to be celebrated.

– Steve Lambert
July 2014

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Today We Are Alive Thu, 26 Jun 2014 19:05:02 +0000 Today We Are Alive
Kitchener, ONT
Part of the CAFK+A Biennial

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The Public Energy Art Kit Wed, 25 Jun 2014 00:43:16 +0000 The Public Energy Art Kit illustrates complex energy concepts for everyday audiences. It is a large-format printed compendium of 14 posters on tackling climate change, energy inequality and fossil fuel dependency.

I helped develop the concept along with Post Carbon Institute, helped select the artists and write the materials inside, designed the cover, and created a series of 3 posters for the kit.

Watch the video

See the Public Energy Art Kit

See more at

Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo

The Public Energy Art Kit in the world

Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photo

Portuguese Translation

Steve Lambert The Public Energy Art Kit photoVisit the site

The Public Energy Art Kit has its own site with more information at

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THE END Mon, 23 Jun 2014 17:52:52 +0000 Steve Lambert THE END photo Steve Lambert THE END photo

Series of 8 Second Videos
(appearing in context of 8 second advertisements)
Yonge and Edward Streets
Dundas Square, Toronto Canada

I’ve got another new work being exhibited up on the billboards of downtown Toronto on PATTISON Outdoor’s largest downtown video board located on the corner of Yonge and Edward Streets, just north of Dundas Square. Dundas Square is the equivalent of Times Square in Toronto and the area experiences more than 100,000 pedestrians daily.

The work will be featured in rotation throughout the day on the Yonge/Edward video board, with one of the videos screening approximately every minute across the 60 foot wide video display. The clips that make up The End are from closing “The End” titles various classic, lesser-known, and educational films.

The ads being played on the boards show fantasies of youth, leisure, romance, and power that also, apparently, will never end if you continue to buy the product. I can’t end advertising in Dundas Square permanently with this art project, but I can end it – in my own way – for about 8 seconds.

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VisitSteve on Instagram Thu, 08 May 2014 23:24:19 +0000 I found a picture of the air balloon that instagram uses to model it’s filters on wikicommons – not the same photo, the same air balloon. Then I successively posted it to my instagram account applying each of their filters.

(It’s hard to explain a joke.)

Steve Lambert VisitSteve on Instagram photo

Steve Lambert VisitSteve on Instagram photo

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Kickstarter Block Party Wed, 23 Apr 2014 18:38:59 +0000 Steve Lambert Kickstarter Block Party photo

I will have a photograph in the Kickstarter Blockparty art show.

Saturday May 3, 2014 | Noon to 6pm
Kickstarter HQ | 58 Kent St, Brooklyn NY
Rain or shine

Our inaugural art show includes a survey of work by artists who have used Kickstarter for every thing from public artworks, experimental publications, exhibitions, iPhone apps, new institutions, monographs, documentary films and newsprint editions.

Featured artists include: Marina Abramovic Institute, Marshall Arisman, Jeremy Bailey, Amanda Browder, Seth Indigo Carnes, Heather Hart, Steve Lambert, Ligorano Reese, Mary Ellen Mark, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Mike Perry, Leon Reid IV, Richard Renaldi, Phil Stearns, Swoon, Howard Tangye, Spencer Tunick, Saya Woolfalk

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Creative Time Reports: Is Capitalism Working for You? Mon, 07 Apr 2014 22:35:01 +0000 From Creative Time Reports:

Capitalism works if you’re willing to work hard.

Or so I’ve been told by countless people across the United States when showing Capitalism Works for Me! (True/False), a 20-foot-long sign with flashing lights and a scoreboard. People passing by can publicly decide whether capitalism serves them well by pressing one of two buttons: True or False. From Times Square, with its giant flickering billboards, to a small arts venue in Cleveland, the answers I receive have varied, but the score is often close to even. Most people struggle to decide, and many list numerous reasons why they vote the way they do. Some of these make more sense than others.

Of all the myths about capitalism, the notion that “capitalism works if you’re willing to work hard” is the most stubborn.

Why ask? Capitalism is woven into nearly every aspect of our lives, yet it’s rarely subject to substantive conversation. The nightly news may take as its focus “the economy” or “jobs,” but capitalism is the economic system that dare not speak its name. If we’re to move forward as a society, capitalism needs to be up for serious discussion, honest evaluation and, ultimately, systemic change. Having this conversation is not easy, as I’ve discovered. Capitalism is often discussed – even dismantled – in academia, but not in terms that make sense to non-specialists. Meanwhile it is rarely examined in popular culture with the depth and complexity it requires, so encouraging people to personally evaluate it doesn’t necessarily lead to a profound intellectual conversation.

The purpose of Capitalism Works for Me! is to prompt a cognitive struggle in a down-to-earth, humorous way. However, people usually first react to the piece by falling back on the comfort of abstractions and repeating popular myths. For example, the true/false dilemma is much easier to resolve when the only alternatives to capitalism are presumed to be failed communist dictatorships. It’s also much easier to pretend that the only “true” definition of capitalism is the kind of free-market extreme idolized by thinkers like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek but never seen in the real world.

My job is to disrupt this pattern. Over the three years that I’ve been presenting Capitalism Works For Me!, I’ve learned to redirect the conversation from such oversimplifications. Generally we move on from knee-jerk reactions within a couple of minutes to have profound discussions about how economics impact people’s everyday lives. But the notion that “capitalism works if you’re willing to work hard” keeps coming up. Of all the myths about capitalism, it is the most stubborn. I started to wonder why.

When you think about why people succeed, working nights and weekends comes to mind much more readily than factors we have little control over, such as a stable home life, place of birth, neighborhood poverty levels, family income, access to education, health, a supportive partner, tax breaks, local infrastructure and regional environmental protections. These are some of the conditions that sociologists consider when studying economic mobility. They make a lot of sense, but they’re not the first things on people’s minds if they’ve spent years burning the midnight oil to get where they are. Nor do they make for a heroic story.

The idea that folks may not get what they deserve – that our culture is not a meritocracy – can be very threatening.

In general, it’s uncontroversial to point out that hard work is not the only reason for success. It gets a little more difficult when you’re standing in Times Square opposite a stern, white-haired, white male Vietnam War veteran on vacation who is slightly irritated that capitalism is being evaluated at all. So rather than try to explain what privilege is at an abstract level, I bring up someone else I met. “There was a person here a few minutes ago who agreed that hard work is important and who wanted to work but was forced into retirement because he became ‘overqualified’ when a new company took ownership at the factory where he worked. What do I tell him?”

And the white-haired man softens, shrugs a bit and tells me, “Hm, yeah, that happens.” Because it does, and it’s happened to someone he knows. He thinks for a moment, his energy returning, and adds, “I would tell that person not only do you have to work hard, you also have to work smart – if you can stay abreast of the changing business climate and adapt to current conditions, you’ll be OK.”

I’ve always found the formulation “work hard, work smart” disturbing. When you invert the expression, it implies: if capitalism doesn’t work for you (that is, if you’re poor, out of work or have a demeaning job), it’s your fault. To put it more bluntly, you are lazy and stupid.

As I’m figuring out a polite way to say all this, the man offers a concession.

“There is a problem with greed,” he admits.

We arrive at another pillar of the mythology: If there is a problem with capitalism, it is with the greedy few who occasionally foul up the system for the rest of us.

Now we have the complete legend. The system works. If you work hard and you’re smart, you can get ahead. But the greedy few are a problem.

At an individual level, this belief system makes sense. After all what adult doesn’t think she works hard? Who doesn’t think he’s smart? Who – besides a few real-life sociopathic Gordon Gekkos on Wall Street – actually thinks greed is good?

Yet at a global level such thinking immediately falls apart. The 85 richest people in the world hold as much wealth as today’s “other half” – 3.5 billion of the world’s 7 billion humans. Who thinks that’s a fair system? Who believes that Indian farmers and Bangladeshi factory workers aren’t working hard? How can it be acceptable that anyone, let alone 2.4 billion people, lives on less than $2 a day?

The moments when myths were vehemently defended were simultaneously frustrating and fascinating. Thoughtful conversations often took quick, unexpected turns for the worse. When two young women on a lunch break from their office jobs wondered why so many people vote “false,” I told them about a young man from the Bronx who said he had applied for 10 jobs without receiving a single response. I could see them trying to make sense of this, before they got angry and began to blame the man for applying for jobs that were out of his reach. “Why doesn’t he just apply for fast-food jobs until he can find better work?” they wondered. It was depressing to hear these white-collar workers attack a person they hadn’t met and make assumptions about his mistakes rather than question a system that can be so difficult for those actively seeking work.

I continually reminded myself that those who forcefully defend capitalism do so because they feel threatened. As much as we mythologize bootstrappers, economic mobility remains low in the United States, compared to most countries in Europe, while income inequality is soaring. These are facts, but the people I talk to are not arguing facts. They are hanging on to their hopes, holding on to stories they have been told about the American dream. Capitalism creates wealth and distributes it to those who deserve it. Work hard, work smart and you’ll be OK.

Challenge these ideas, and you unsettle a critical notion that keeps us going: we want to believe we’re totally in control of our lives. In my experience, all but the most arrogant will admit that they got where they are in part out of luck – but if one speaks of the privilege of coming from a particular class, race or social environment, it challenges many people’s sense that they have free will. The idea that folks may not get what they deserve – that our culture is not a meritocracy – can be very threatening.

Rather than face systemic injustice, it’s far more comfortable to find a rationale (any rationale will do) and a target for blame. The unemployed person hasn’t tried hard enough, or her standards are too high. The rich person has a skill for business we just can’t comprehend. Saying otherwise is more than a challenge to the economic system; it threatens our sense of agency, our belief that we can improve our own lives and our confidence in who we are and who we can be. It’s much more reassuring to believe that capitalism works and that if someone fails it’s that person’s fault.

My favorite response to the sign was from a 17-year-old high school student in Boston. She said: “Capitalism can’t work for everyone. If it did, it wouldn’t be capitalism.”

Fears of failure, of losing control and landing on the wrong side of capitalism fuel an absurd idea of what it means to work hard. When I spoke with one woman about “hard work,” she laughed when I defined that as a 35- or 40-hour week. (I admit, by starting at 35 hours, I was baiting her.) Her idea of hard work was her own 70-hour week. If she divided her labor hours in two, she and another worker could each make a decent full-time salary and have enough time off to live fulfilling lives. Instead of work being a means to an end, for many, work has become life itself. Our culture sees the ramifications as normal: overemployment for some, unemployment for others and stress for everyone.

I’d rather we work less, spread the work around, enjoy time off and live complete lives. With more free time, we could build a more robust democracy by engaging with the political issues that affect our lives and organizing more participatory structures to make decisions in our communities. If there’s anything threatening to capitalism, it’s that! It’s convenient for capitalists to have everyone else thinking they don’t work hard enough and that any ill fortune is their own fault.

This is the trap of asking the question “How is capitalism working for you?” While the personal focus helps people avoid abstractions and regurgitated talking points, it also steers them away from the systemic problems of capitalism in the same way that they are encouraged to avoid thinking structurally about the economy every day. Luckily, Capitalism Works for Me! provides a visual cue for a return to that bigger picture. Those who press the “false” button see that they are not alone but are among hundreds who feel that capitalism does not work for them. Those who vote “true” also see that they are not alone but that just as many people are disputing the effectiveness of a system that is rarely called into question. The discussion doesn’t end once the person makes a choice. How well can capitalism be working when so many say it doesn’t? Can the “false” voters, who held the majority in Times Square, all be lazy and stupid?

My favorite response to the sign was from a 17-year-old high school student in Boston. She said: “Capitalism can’t work for everyone. If it did, it wouldn’t be capitalism.” This is where the conversation needs to go: why do we settle for a system that fails so many?

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No Longer Interested Tue, 01 Apr 2014 23:29:37 +0000 Originally published on A Blade of Grass’ Growing Dialogue.

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Steve Lambert No Longer Interested photo


I’ve worked to strike the phrase “I am interested in” from my vocabulary. It is not easy. For years I have heard fellow artists explain their practice beginning with:

“I am interested in notions of…”

“I am interested in the intersection between…”

“I am interested in questioning…”

I searched for the phrase “I am interested in” in connection to “artist statement” and was embarrassed at how far reaching this crutch phrase is among my peers.

Here’s some examples from the search, pulled in the order of the search; names removed to protect the guilty:

I am interested in creating places where people have a sense of being connected – of being a part of something larger.

I am interested in painting as it helps me remember.

I am interested in, how the male is represented and constructed in culture, with all its stereotyping pictures and its suppressing mechanism.

Hang around artists long enough, especially when they are talking about their work and you will hear this opening phrase over and over and over again.

As noble as the artist’s projects may be, the “I am interested in” preface is maddening not just because it is grammatically inaccurate — like a pet peeve around misusing “literally” or “ironically” — or because it’s another cheap method artists use in puffing up their descriptions of themselves. No, “I am interested” culturally isolates artists, obscures their goals, and handicaps their ability to act in the world.

If you’re a doctor say, “I’m a Doctor.”

When artists introduce topics with “I am interested in,” it’s needlessly vague. Let’s look closer at the examples from earlier:

I am interested in creating places where people have a sense of being connected – of being a part of something larger.

That certainly is interesting, but I would ask this artist; are you interested in creating places where people have a sense of being connected, or are you actually creating those places?”

I am interested in painting as it helps me remember.

Again, are you interested in painting, or do you, more simply, paint because it helps you remember?

I am interested in, how the male is represented and constructed in culture, with all it’s stereotyping pictures and it’s suppressing mechanism.

And again, are you interested in how males are represented, or are you working to change it?

Saying you’re interested is hardly descriptive. Are you interested or are you studying? Or researching? Or investigating? Are you interested in a method or testing it? Are you working within it? Or playing with it toward some end? Or moving towards something? Or fighting for something? Or defending it? Developing? Changing? Destroying? Building?

There are so many better words, why list interests at all? Everyone is interested in things. An artist’s interests are just as inane or compelling as anyone else’s. When asked to describe you and your work, starting a sentence with “I am interested in” and making a list, or restating the “tag cloud” from your blog doesn’t do that well.

Everyone wants to know what you’re doing.

Let’s imagine I meet a woman at a party and ask “so, what do you do?” She answers, “I am interested in the body, healing, and science, and how those intersect within institutions and the public.” Fascinating right? But why not cut to the chase and say you’re a medical doctor? In the non-art world, people talk about what they do. Describing what you’re doing instead of your interests moves the conversation forward. It’s more clear.

Why be so forthright? Because artists are already too cloistered off from the rest of our culture; isolated in elite institutions, appreciated by small numbers, and/or segregating ourselves in confusing social difference alone as some kind of admirable attribute. Around 45 years ago John Berger disparagingly called this phenomena the needless “mystification” of art. If we want to change this, and we should, we need to speak clearly in a language people can understand – not by adopting academic language for institutional appeal or trying to cover over our insecurity with pompous nonsense.

To make art and show it to the world is a generous act. Art is not just for the artist (that is called art therapy), but also as a means to participate in the broader culture and move it forward. To do so, we need to take seriously how we communicate to audiences through art, and in how we talk about our work.

Artists aren’t interested, they’re building reality.

You may wonder, why shouldn’t an artist be a little vague and leave some mystery to the description of their work? And so what if an artists uses language inaccurately – we all do it. (I admit, after years of effort I still have a difficult time avoiding “interested” in my speech.) And who cares if the language is a little imprecise, we’re talking about artists, not writers – what’s the harm?

Because it changes the work we make.

Saying you are merely interested in something is being non-committal. If I’m interested in something, I’m not necessarily taking a position on it, much less any action.

But most artists are not just passively observing. They make work that challenges our view of everything – from shape and form to concepts and beliefs. Most artists don’t stop at being interested, they are truly changing the way we perceive, think, and act in the world – thus changing our very reality – in deliberate ways. To believe any less continues to falsly undermine and diminish the power of artists and art in our culture.

By prefacing our own descriptions of what we do in the world with “I am interested in…” it positions us as artists at a safe and cerebral distance from the rest of the world. This follows a justification that academics, critics, and administrators use to explain their positions and their institutions because in these spheres keeping a critical distance gives one legitimacy. It’s also the outlook of a consumer browsing the aisles, taking an interest in a product, examining it and moving on. These perspectives have somehow bled over to become a dominant model for artists. While this approach may legitimize an academic, or entertain a consumer, it does not work for artists. It is disempowering and strips us of our agency.

When artists are describing their work first and foremost as “an interest” in a set of issues and topics, it’s more than an inaccuracy, it lowers our artistic ambitions and blinds us to what is possible. Going back to an example from my web search, if the artist has said they are “interested in creating places where people have a sense of being connected” then any exploration of that interest is a step towards success. For example, building a tree house, or drawing one, or simply reading and thinking about tree houses could be an expression of that interest. It doesn’t matter what the effort changed, how many people it reached, what those viewers believe as a result, or if there is an outcome at all because the goal has been set so low and can be achieved too easily. When we state our intentions so ambiguously we’re cheating ourselves.

When goals are stated explicitly, it brings a sense of clarity and purpose. Goals give you focus. When you articulate to yourself and your friends and family in concrete terms “I am going to complete the Bay to Breakers Marathon this year” that is fundamentally different focus than saying “I am interested in running.” The former means you need to start training and if you don’t, you know you won’t be able to complete the run. Whereas, if the most you’ve said to yourself and others is you are “interested in running,” you won’t accomplish much because you haven’t decided you aspire to anything more ambitious. It’s well established that focusing on outcomes and creating clarifying goals works for atheletes, businesses, communities, and us in our every day lives, and for some tragic reason we believe doing the same in an art practice is crass and limiting. By framing their work around interest, artists are unwittingly putting a ceiling on their ability to operate in the world.

The tragedy of “Interesting Projects”

Especially disappointing is watching how this unconscious handicapping impacts the art that gets made.

I’m most familiar with how this plays out in the media art circles of which I’m part. There’s so much new technology enabling art works that weren’t possible 10 years ago, sometimes even 1 or 2 years ago. The software and hardware itself is so novel it provides a layer of “interesting” distraction for the artist and audience. While a research fellow at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center I had to review reams of residency applications over the years that fell into this trap.

For example, take a newly introduced circuit-board based micro-controller, add some sensors, write a program that collects air-quality data, take it on a solo bike ride around a polluted district, throw in a little theory (maybe) and mix them together for an interesting project. Pretty good, right?

Or combine live social media feeds with a 3-D visualization of the earth and you have an interesting project.

Or combine any new technology with an ancient one. Run Twitter into a typewriter and you have an interesting project. Combine 3D video with stereoscopic photographs of the 1800s and bingo, you have an interesting project.

Or 8-bit graphics, or a Kinect 3D motion sensor, or a 3d Printer, with… anything, really.

I could go on, but I’ve already come dangerously close to describing work made by good friends… and myself.

Any of these examples could be the beginnings of a great, challenging, and world-shifting work of art, but when any creative person orients their work around an “interest” in materials, methods, or a few topics it’s all to easy to just toss them into a pot and stir it up for a while. Making projects that meet the standard of exploring an interest is fairly easy.

A prime charecteristic of Modern art was its interest in materials and processes. This was liberating a hundred or more years ago because it allowed artists to be free of the overarching concern with accurately representing their subjects. After photography, what was the point? With an emphasis on materials and processes whole new realms of artistic expression opened up. Well and good. But what came with this liberation was a type of elision: artists could think less seriously about what they were producing: what would it look like? what impact would it have? what was it supposed to do? Yes, some asked these questions, but one could also wallow around in the materials, enjoy the process, and only give an afterthought, if that, to what you actually produced and the impact it might have on others.

Today, if you want to explore the world of high-horsepower technology combined with loose ideas check out The Creators Project. It’s the home of pointless yet clever mashups. Raphaël Rozendaal, who “doesn’t care if something is art… only if it is interesting,” combines modernist painting with flash animation. Or Martin Messier’s orchestra made of sewing machines. Or Gleithero’s project using songs, turned into computer punch cards, and then knitted into scarves. All of these are creative projects and indeed interesting, but they don’t transcend their own materials and cleverness because there’s nothing at stake beyond being interesting.

The irony here is that all this vague “interest” in high-tech materials and creative process, does do something. The Creators Project, according to their website, is “founded by a revolutionary partnership between Intel and VICE…” The purpose of the Creators Project is not to move culture forward and further great art, it’s mission is as a “showcase” of “artists whose works are inspired and enabled by new technologies.” The purpose here is looking and consuming – it’s to capture your interest as a viewer. It’s a matter of taste, but to mine, finding truly challenging art works is the exception. On the Creators Project, it’s wow and hollow spectacle over all else. And brand recognition for Intel and Vice.

Understand the high art world is not different. They just conceal it a little better due to who the work is interesting to; wealthy collectors. The idea that the purpose of your life’s work may simply be as a supplier of alternative currency and high-end home decor for the ultra rich is not something many artists want to confront.

We are more than interested, we are powerful.

While the field at large may have self-esteem issues around this, artists are the best equipped at shifting the perceptions, attitudes, and actions of the cultures they are embedded within. Unfortunately, propaganda and advertising have cast long shadows on these practices and there’s a natural reluctance to have any association with this sort of cultural manipulation. However while artists – creative people without an ulterior motive or corporate backing – have retreated, marketers and propagandists have filled the void.

If artists are going to change culture for the better, we need to step up and begin admitting we 1) have tremendous power 2) have largely not engaged it, and 3) handed over our cultural role to marketers and corporate-backed entertainers by default.

As artists we need to reclaim our agency and our position, articulate what we mean beyond being “interested,” and be clear with ourselves and others about what exactly we want to do. Whether it’s painting landscapes or avant-garde performance, challenging fundamental societal shortcomings or, sharing beauty through form and color, if we ever want to get anywhere significant with our work we need to take control, elucidate what we’re striving for in certain terms, and periodically adjust and calibrate those aims as we move forward.

Clarity in purpose is not clarity in art.

When it comes to art there’s some powerful myths about lives of artists that come into play. The “starving artist,” “the madman,” “the misunderstood genius,” “the navel-gazing recluse,” “the addict,” “the freewheeling dandy,” and there are others. These are not healthy models. Setting goals and making plans about your own life, much less your impact on the broader culture is not part of, and in many ways runs counter to, those myths.

Approaching other areas of our lives with intention comes quite naturally. If you’re over 25 and looking for a place to live, you have a budget, an ideal living arrangement in mind, a distance from the other key locations in your life you don’t want to be too far from. Planning out how and where you will live comes naturally. There’s room for the unexpected, but just “doing my thing and seeing what happens” will probably land you on the street. It wouldn’t be hard to find an artist with a detailed plan and vision for finding the perfect studio situation, but reluctant to put these same tools to work for their art. There are few helpful models, few coherent paths for artists that are empowering in this way, so it’s much easier to believe in the myths about libertine artists and not follow through with intentional thinking.

But these myths, combined with the “I am interested in” detachment, have subtle but strong disempowering effects. A smart person can infer by speaking with artists, reading a few contemporary art magazines, catalog essays, or artists statements that having lucid ideas about what you’re trying to achieve with your work, much less a connection to the audience goes against the grain. For art students who don’t read between the lines, it’s common to be told not to speak in such direct terms about their work. Or worse, told this is not art, or not what artists do.

The error here is conflating clarity in one’s purpose with clarity in their art work. Clarity in purpose is a great thing. Knowing who you are, why you do what you do, what you’re working on, where you want to go with it: this is highly personal and beneficial work that we all do as we grow. Having unambiguous goals for yourself, your work, and it’s role in culture – provides direction. With a point on the horizon to move towards, it’s easier to filter what’s important versus what is getting in the way.

Clarity in art work – having one message that is unequivocally understood by most or all viewers – is usually terrible. Mystery, a little ambiguity, uncertainty, contradiction, multiple layers and meanings, these are powerful agents to be used and leveraged by artists.

But you need clarity in your purpose in order to actualize the power of mystique in your art. In this way, art functions like a prism. It is able to project layers of colors only when light is focused upon it. Clarity in purpose enables the spectrum of meanings and subtlety on the other side.

Even the most formalist, abstract painter can benefit from clarity of purpose. The main subject of their work may be light and color, but the purpose is more likely to; create a meditative or revelatory experience in their viewer, or to alter the viewers experience of reality, or to inspire deep contemplation and a basic recognition of emotions or our humanity. That kind of thing. The last thing I would advocate for is an artist like this to alter their course and start shoving a direct and unequivocal message down their viewers throats – make no mistake, this is not what I’m saying. But, they do need to be clear, publicly or privately, about what they’re striving toward and what their purpose is in order to come reasonably close to achieving it.

Beyond interest

Getting caught in the “I am interested” state of detachment is a rookie’s mistake. We’re drawn in to artmaking through an interest; an interest in the practice, in the sensory experience, and the magic of conjuring from inert materials. In order to begin, one needs to pursue those interests. But being interested is the first step, the bottom rung of the ladder. It’s the least you can do.

Eventually interests die off. They’re fleeting. Later in the experience of a young artist one must learn to sort through their collection of interests, evaluating and organizing as we gravitate towards the ones that resonate. As we grow, we also learn what matters to each of us the most. Eventually we have to figure out what we are not just interested in, but invested in. When you are invested, there’s more involvement and commitment. You have a position, an outcome in mind; a way you’d like to see things play out. Expoloration, experiments, and failures happen along the way, but a point to strive for remains.

Anyone who has embarked on some creative project also knows there is a moment when you need to commit if it is going to get done. Whether it’s personal drive or an external deadline, eventually you make a promise to yourself to see something through or feel an obligation to something larger. You’re determined to complete what you’ve started and you carry something into action. Then there is action. Getting out into the world and altering it in some way. You make a contract with yourself and then perform the deed. This is where things happen.

This is different than interest.

It’s scary

Committing to more than interest is scary; just like stating your big goals and deciding to take control is scary. It may feel too grandiose to say “I am going to make people feel interconnected through my sculpture” or “I will make paintings that cause people question their existence.” More importantly, everyone can see that this has not happened. They will know when you’ve failed. To avoid this one can play it safe and deal in interests: if your only articulated goal is to express an interest in a topic, then no one knows you’ve failed – not even you. How comforting.

Of course, if all you want to do is “wow” audiences with hollow spectacles, that’s fine too. But be clear to yourself and everyone else that you are an entertainer. As an artist you can do more, so make sure you’re making a conscious choice.

You don’t make great art by staying comfortable. Doing what is important is never comfortable. Stating your goals, expressing your dreams, and actively striving toward them through an art practice that threads its way into the broader culture is far riskier than pondering a few ideas and playing with materials in your studio. But at least you know you’re being honest about what you want. And with this honesty you can begin moving toward those dreams.

While setting a point on the horizon might give you direction, it does not make an easy path. Yes, artists have power – super powers even. But like Peter Parker learns from his Uncle, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Looking deep within yourself, pushing beyond your interests, getting invested in outcomes, making a commitment and taking action with your artwork – whatever kind of artist you are – feels much more high stakes.

It’s scary. It’s uncomfortable. And you’re without a doubt more likely to fail. But the only way you’ll get close to the experiences, the culture, the world you are striving to create, that point on the horizon, is through action. Interest is an important step, but only a first step. The way forward is doing.

Artists; find better words. Be honest about what you want from the hours and resources you pour into your practice, and push it as far as you can. Help make our every day culture something of your dreams. Because once you strike “I am interested in” from your vocabulary, suddenly things get way more interesting.

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