Tucked away in a Williamsburg studio, multimedia artist Scott Kiernan has for several years been creating an artistic corpus wherein words and found images—both still and moving—get funneled variously through analog or digital technologies, often back and forth between the two. The works find output in various media and tools—videotapes, algorithms, cassettes, cathode ray tubes, projectors, and printers, just to but name a few from Kiernan’s panoply of approaches.
In addition to projects created under his own name, Kiernan operates E.S.P. TV alongside Victoria Keddie, a “nomadic TV studio” that, through various broadcasts collaborations, televises media art. Kiernan also recently directed a music video for Brooklyn duo Xeno & Oaklander’s track “Marble,” in which they “perform the labor of producing their own image” in a television studio. The studio, as Kiernan told NPR, is an image itself when made visible by the studio’s own lens.
What's apparent in visiting Kiernan’s studio, packed as it is with vintage audio, video, photography and print equipment, is that that are no set patterns. Kiernan regularly accumulates new tools to work with, allowing him to freely follow what is inarguably an electronic muse. The work usually begins with a concept that comes about by meditating on a found image, a turn of phrase or the way a word sounds, and so on. Kiernan then takes whatever media approach best suits the work.
“Material things have a process of entropy and these immaterial things just change,” he adds, comparing physical objects, hardware and analogue media to computer software. “I work a lot of times with found images and other older things and kind of ping pong between them and try to play with that relationship.”
Kiernan points to the recently finished book project titled Upland as emblematic of this ping-ponging approach between analogue and digital. Created in collaboration with Ethan Miller, it uses found image and headline pairings as they originally appeared in The Upland News (1969–72), a newspaper circular from the small Southern California town of Upland, with a hefty coupon section in the back, small-town stories, and the reportage to match.
With Upland, Kiernan and Miller sent the circular through an immaterial process before bringing it back into the material world again as a printed art book. The two did this by disfiguring and destroying The Upland News with Google’s Newspaper Project, which did the work for them with its compression algorithms and the physical speed of bulk-scanning fragile newsprint material.
“It creates these visual collapses of foreground and background,” says Kiernan. “This paper stood out because of how odd and pointed the pairings were on their own when you removed them from the context of the news story.”
“We assembled it by placing the captions in a list and forming a loose narrative of this place, Upland, as seen through this particular lens,” he adds. “The images then fell in line as they originally appear with the captions.”
Monday Night Madness
In another recent work, Late Metal, Kiernan creates something of a poem—in palindrome and anagram—for a time when he says consumer technology will have eroded speech. What is great about Late Metal is that it’s not only entrancing as poetry, but as sound and video art. Words appear on screen in an antiquated, analog way, with Kiernan giving them a sense of psychedelic motion, while electronic drones and other sounds percolate in the background.
Kiernan did a lot of work on Late Metal at Signal Culture, an experimental video lab in Owego, New York. Kiernan compares it to the legendary, now-defunct Experimental Television Center, but insists it is very much its own thing.
“When I first got in there, I saw the wobbulator, which bends a tube television’s images on an x-y-z axis through electronic impulses,” he says. “The first thing I thought was, well, I want to see text on there. And then since images can be doubled back on themselves or bent on these axes, they should be palindromic or anagrammatic.”
To input the words onto the wobbulator, Kiernan keyed them into a type generator. The visuals are a combination of found images Kiernan manipulated and ones he created live in his studio. To create the final product, Kiernan tweaked the wobbulator’s electronic impulses until he got what he wanted as far as depth and motion.
But not all of Kiernan’s work is so notably analog. Back in 2009, he created the video CG CAT, in which he had a computer algorithm recite the letters of DNA strands (ACGT), then combined each with video of hands doing the American Sign Language symbol for each letter. Kiernan says that the computer didn’t actually recite the letters, but instead tried to read them phonetically as words, creating a “frantic double helix of sound, sign and human hands.”
To listen to CG CAT is, in a very strange way, to trip out on sound. And, as Kiernan points out, the gestures and computerized voice start to seem vulgar—that is, once the viewer and listener begin to lose themselves in the multimedia experience. This byproduct of hidden meanings is a bit like the cut-up texts and audio recordings of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, who Kiernan considers critical influences.
As one might imagine given the various modes of artistic output, Kiernan has several works in progress. One of them, inspired by Howard Rheingold’s Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology, will take Kiernan into the world of immersive reality.
“True immersion seems like one thing where by its very nature would erase language,” Kiernan says. “The work I'm piecing together is a multi-channel video which pairs this with excerpts from early 1990s statements and treatises about ‘cyberspace.’ They claim an immateriality, denying the existence of bodies mostly for reasons of retaining control of information. The pairing of the two streams of text though is providing interesting juxtapositions.”
Kiernan is also working on a series he calls, in a tongue in cheek fashion, “Action Paintings”—large inkjet prints on paintable, extruded vinyl wallpaper affixed to canvas. The wallpaper is a “paint splatter style” and the imagery printed on it is culled from found AP images of protesters being hit with water cannons.
Click here to see more of Scott Kiernan’s work.