Imagine if your Google searches existed as physical objects. Suddenly these searches wouldn’t just occupy a virtual queue but would become enlivened with a material presence. New York based artist and RISD professor Kevin Zucker considers how image and meaning change in their metamorphosis from the digital to the concrete.
Installation Magazine: How do you approach your art practice?
Kevin Zucker: My approach to artistic decision-making is more likened to the mentality of a programmer than the traditional approach of the artist. My work tends to align itself with the notion that concepts we once perceived as purely creative are actually about the the pastiche of existing cultural material.
Your work deals explicitly with technology but also explores the fragility and malleability of images, concepts, and theories once they are transmitted digitally. What curiosities lie at the crux of your practice?
Throughout my career, I’ve consistently used my work to translate or mediate between the digital and physical worlds. What happens when information, a model or proposal, comes into contact with the physics? What materials and tactile properties of analogue “reality” gets lost, gained, changed or distorted? I’ve been preoccupied with these questions for a long time.
Google Image Tragedy Studies implements a variety of mediums including acrylic, pencil, silk screen and inkjet on canvas. Items are arranged on a bookshelf steeped in multiple dimensions, and the paper resembles something like a blueprint or a graph. How did you achieve this effect?
The Tragedy drawings were made in a time when I was trying to create depictions of virtual storage through antique descriptive technologies such as linear perspective. The watercolor and pencil shelves are drawn on store-bought perspective grids that were used in architectural rendering before CAD made them obsolete, and search results were then inkjet printed in perspective, situating the images on the shelves.
What does this body of work seek to explore? What influenced your philosophic inquiry?
One aim of this project was to try to embody the encyclopedic quality of search engines, and these drawings tried to suck up and display all of the image search results for the word “tragedy.” I was certainly influenced by Douglas Huebler’s Variable Piece #70, the stated goal of which was to photograph every living person. This is an important feature of my own completist project: as any such project, it was predestined to endless failure because of the continually growing and changing nature of its subject. That project started a decade ago now, though, and art that takes image search as its subject has become so ubiquitous that it would be difficult to revisit.
Your recent exhibition at Eleven Rivington entitled No Hotel departs from virtual cataloguing and explores abstraction. What was the process behind this body of work?
The No Hotel exhibition was comprised of pieces constructed from downloadable three-dimensional SketchUp models of generic resort hotels; they don’t exist except within the computer. The information in these images is then divided into groups of pixels that double as streaks of rain, which make the melancholy landscapes only legible at certain distances, and not at all in reproduction (this is the abstraction that you mention.) The same meteorological effect that obscures the view also produces it; beaches, pools, hotels and trees are all made out of rain pixels.
Are there any underlying connections between the Google Image Tragedy Studies and the works in No Hotel?
What the No Hotel pieces might share with the Tragedy drawings is their curatorial approach to the reconfiguration of pre-existing material from an online database. In this case, though, that material is a set of models rather than images. The activity of the work is more than straightforward display, and the source is obscured by the rain or interference, at least until the viewer looks long enough for the non-photographic origin to emerge.
How has your role as a professor at RISD informed your practice?
Teaching at an institution where there are a lot of accomplished students forces you to think deeply about approaches to art making that you might not bother with otherwise. To be an effective teacher, you must be able help to students who are developing work that operates way outside of your own taste and ideological ranges. This has to have a positive impact on the breadth of your thinking. Teaching is also the fastest way to learn; whether it’s historical, theoretical, or technical, nothing forces you to digest material like teaching it and discussing it, especially when you’re working with students who are good enough to get you to question your own assumptions. Teaching provides opportunities to think about work and questions that are of personal interest without the baggage of (paranoid) narcissism that inevitably accrues when you spend too much time alone in the studio looking only through the lens of your own practice.