The fact that all things, including humans, appear to be essentially disconnected from their material substance, is one of the defining characteristics of our contemporary digital age. This ghostly set of circumstances is the outcome of ongoing, mostly invisible, forces of abstraction constantly in action that we can retrace in the ever-present digitalization of more and more aspects of experience. Consequently, as living beings, we are now confronted with a structural divide between the substance of things and their virtual double. The digital realm has now expanded and infiltrated all of our social spaces, leaving us in a situation where there no longer seems to be an inside or an outside. This has led to an increasingly inevitable deeper analysis and frequent reconsideration of the relationship between humans, space, and technology and their manifestations.
A new and ever-changing world can seem awkward because the interpretation schemes that we have painstakingly developed in the old world are no longer suitable for interpreting the changed reality, and if it is true that we can no longer count on our reassuring routines stabilized during the span of a lifetime, it is even more real the impossibility of functionally interfacing with a new world without the availability of new ideas on which to found it – and the lack of images to represent it. How to represent the presence of absence then? In a time and space that seems to demand the neutrality and erasure of the world and wants everything to fall back into the indifferent screen in which nothing is affirmed and only tends to the intimacy of what subsists in the void; a vacuum that suggests the menacing proximity of an “outside” as the background on which reality continues to affirm things in their disappearances.
Ours is indeed the age of abstraction; it’s the reality of not being in the real. The existence of contemporary man is desensualized and now lost in a prevailing paradigm of selfhood, competition and radical individualism that through digitalization has created a social order in which the self is experienced as private and separate from – the self and – the others, and in which even social essential communal dimension has been negated.
Pieter Schoolwerth’s research reflects the destabilized process of identity construction in an age characterized by increasingly abstract social relations, he investigates and experiments with the effects of generalized abstraction on representations of the human form and the space that bodies occupy. Through a rigorous analytical system, Schoolwerth manipulates language, form and space to create his own set of altered “realities” that exist in the space between thing and thoughts, and not necessary only between virtual and real – what Pieter Schoolwerth enacts is, in fact, not a critique of digitalization but rather an ontological investigation into being-in-the-world and all its implications. Schoolwerth’s works are complex compositions that combine pictorial, sculptural, drawn, printed, painted, and computer-generated elements. The concept behind his research is premised on the idea that our physical bodies are gradually dissolving, becoming lost in the digital vortex that generates an abyss of isolation rather than authentically connecting and uniting people with the world.
As our bodies dissolve, a two-dimensional copy of our presence is all that is left behind as a trace of our existence. Pieter’s works, on the other hand, do not merely intend to expose the fallacy of a made-up digital world; rather, the artist investigate the space that exists in between the two worlds and attempt to evoke how inseparable the digital and real selves have become, while documenting the body’s resistance to evaporation. The body, which has always been the territory of social control and regulation, intersections and exchanges, now takes on an even more radical centrality. Traversed by processes of identity redefinition and overthrow, the evolving body is a fantastic hybridization of the organic and inorganic, of biological matter and microprocessors, in a contamination of flesh and technology that simultaneously empowers and dissolves human beings.
Language itself (the most dominant and universal rule system governing thought and behavior) is de-structured nowadays. In the age of computer-based communication – which relies primarily on written words and codes – the body can disappear, along with the gestures that reveal the variations of the communicated thoughts. This distance creates an environment in which a priori there is no need for the physical presence of the interlocutors —basically promoting a mode of communication based on an underlying incommunicability. Therefore, there are no more meanings but only signifiers , which pierce and subjugate us, making us succubi of something we cannot control, even though we delude ourselves that we can.
The virtual cites life, the virtual cites the body; it thus inevitably refers to something else – as the body physically disappears and does not exist except as something other than itself. This material and ideal transfiguration thus occurs from a splitting – an internal split allowing for a kind of de-personalization and the creation of a new (non)-being outside of the self (or its illusion). We live in a time that invites one to lay down the social and civic will and consciousness of things and offers as an alternative the inviting possibility of “not-being” and thus not-being subject to any kind of abuse, not-being the object of anyone’s occupation, not-being the victim of criticism, and so on omitting. Thus, the “present-absent mask” frees us from the burdensome discomfort of being, in a magic of fading that becomes habit – but, it is an increasingly immaterial and inorganic condition of a mimesis traced of life.
The inorganic body thus prefigures itself as a simulation of the self. A double/shadow, the vision of a representation and the cultural presentation of this vision. In Schoolwerth’s work, the invisibility, the layering, the removal from the image reflects our distance from the contemporary world; with his original research (from language to figuration), the artist experiments with new forms of documentation and representation of the disappearing “body”. An example can be traced in the internal and fragile dynamics of splitting and removal in the lives of Schoolwerth’s characters, who are there as a hinted form of representation that tends toward the invisible. Pieter Schoolwerth’s elaborate creative process combines different techniques and mediums and moves between digital and gesture in a mode of representation that literally photographs a changing world, in its visible and invisible implications – bodies, space, and time – as an analogy for the simultaneity and frenetic movement of the digital age.
Pieter Schoolwerth lives and works in New York. Since graduating from the California Institute of the Arts in 1994, he has exhibited internationally with notable solo shows at Thread Waxing Space; Greene Naftali; American Fine Arts Co.; Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York; Gallery SKE, New Delhi; What Pipeline, Detroit; Capitain Petzel, Berlin; Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. His work has been included in group exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, CT; The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Sadie Coles, London; 303 Gallery; Gavin Brown’s enterprise and Petzel Gallery, New York. / Schoolwerth’s work is in the permanent collections of the Pinault Collection; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The Aïshti Foundation, Beirut; Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig; Denver Art Museum, and The Phoenix Art Museum.
Schoolwerth is the founder of the minimal electronica record label Wierd Records in New York and also hosted the Wierd party series of weekly live/dj nights at the Southside Lounge (Brooklyn) and Home Sweet Home (Manhattan) from 2003 to 2013. Wierd released music by 42 bands working in the genres of minimal electronics, coldwave, and noise, and produced over 500 live music, DJ, and performance art events internationally –
We are talking animals and at the same time we are “spoken” by a code that precedes us. It molds us as human beings and initiates us into an unseen dimension of nature, which is constantly evolving. In a changing reality, where sovereignty belongs to words, in the non-place of language, the man in-the-world shapes himself. Thus, the use of words becomes an act of identity. So, starting from the premise that the assertion of an essence translates into existence, there is the urgency in man to refine the ability to juggle the vortex of language to increasingly question and update its form, in an attempt to illuminate the narrowness of language and the “inconvenience” it causes. Thus, beginning to experiment with an alternative or more, man seeks to fill a void, shaping an existence: his own. Consequently, it becomes possible to think of a reality in which the grammatical and spoken normalization of certain words makes clear the representation of reality and at the same time affirms its total existence. After all, reality is immersed in an eternal becoming, and so is the language that describes it continually renewed. With the dynamic power of words, it is possible to perform real actions. Indeed, words do not crystallize in the non-place of language, but rather tear through the imaginary canvas and reach us into the tangible world of the real.
One of your earliest projects was the creation of a new alphabet, a mix of existing letters creating new characters, that allowed you to write more than one word at the same time and led not only to the creation of new words but also new creatures and to the production of an actual book in these characters that later led to the creation of a sculpted bestiary. It is actually the story of new creatures born from language and a sculpted bestiary of hundreds of little golden creatures whose unique names you recorded on several tapes with a cassette recorder: “Thee Space Between” a new allegorical cosmology in audiobook form. I’m really fascinated by these works of yours from the early 1990s and your experimentation with language, which you deal with almost de-humanizing it a certain way, since this language cannot be spoken by a human being.
Starting from my reflection, can you tell me more about these projects and what these themes represent for you?
The early 1990’s were a wildly exciting time where I was in school at CalArts, it felt like a paradigm shift was happening on campus as the stridently Marxist-feminist faculty was clearly hellbent on tearing apart tired commercial, object-oriented models of artmaking by the usual suspects, in favor of dosing us all with the recently translated, dizzying vortex of Post-structural philosophy and queer theory, and it felt like they were starting history over in a way. The art deparment’s curriculum was among the first in the country to embrace cultural studies and identity politics, and there was a tightly networked portal between the students and the underground music and club culture in LA during a peak moment when the goth-industrial, BDSM, Acid House, and tattoo-piecing subcultures around Club FUCK!, Helter Skelter and Amok Books in Hollywood all met. Many anarchic discussions around identity formation were in the air as a result – both in the classroom and the hedonistic late night sublevel beneath the school where we partied after classes taught by the likes of Charles Gaines, Leslie Dick, Lane Relyea, and of course Michael Asher’s legendary twelve-hour marathon Post Studio seminar every Friday – which felt like an bunker of intellectual outsiders.
One of my first efforts in this experimental atmosphere of 1991 was to create a new alphabet – which consisted of each of the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet combined with every other – this allowed me to write words that denoted two signified objects simultaneously. I sculpted a cosmological bestiary of hundreds of tiny golden creatures that I multi-track-recorded the spoken names of on a cassette recorder, which when played back, two words superimposed on top of each other, narrated an allegorical tale of multiple-meaning-production in audio book form, entitled Thee Space Between. I saw this book, designed to be read privately along with a cassette tape, as a way of realizing a delirious, libidinal space of paradoxical being wherein identity was fluid and multiple, and speech could only be articulated only by ghostly machines.
The concept of “dimension” and especially that of an “in-between space” of freedom that carries with it a generating force and so on, returns often in your production. What the space in between – objects, continents, human beings, virtual realm and reality, etc – represents for you and what are the possibilities in it?
Many of these early works came out of a compositional process I developed that conflated the analytic methods of early conceptualism with the il-logickal vernacular traditions of the Occult and Witchcraft in the US and England I grew up entrenched in as a teenager. I would start with a restraining system – a set of self-imposed rules I would apply to a familiar body of information – such as the alphabet, a map, or rigidly defined categories of creatures or people, which would function to explode and open up weird possibilities while generating a visual narrative. I was trying to find a method that bypassed binary thinking in favor of a much more free and psychedelic mode of being – in hopes of discovering a slippery, humorous shadow space between things, devoid of the traditionally controlling imperative of word’s need to have clearly denoted meaning. I thought this might allow for identity to no longer feel like a prison we’re born into, but rather a malleable persona we create of our own will.
I wrote several more audio books, and a series of action videos, and accordant multi-media installations in this spirit. I proposed a utopian re-edit of the architecture in a grocery store down the street from my house (which tok the form of an ontological proof for 686 impossible food products – a delicious trove presided over by a cryptic cuisinary subculture of kids), reformatted the NY subway system by swapping in the menu from the fast food chain Subway, and redesigned the map of the United States to form Thee 83 Altered States ov Americka, in 1996.
Works such as the Altered States brought the my rather cryptic occult conceptualism into the familiar space of pop culture, in the crucial years around the birth of the web and digital space. I proceeded to combine all states in the continental US with the same number of letters, and measured out the spatial midpoints plotted around their borders to inaugurate and rename these ‘altered’ stated using my lexicon from 1991. The end result was a cycle of works that remapped Americka into a swirling compositional mandala installed in a chapel-like hallway, illuminating a new apocalyptic American mentalscape which could only function to get one completely lost…perhaps a sentiment I was feeling in my early 20’s.
There is a logical, almost algorithmic, coherence in your work that in my opinion binds with an invisible thread all your production since the beginning, no matter the difference in style or medium. To what extent is there a common thread among your works? What are more in general the themes that move your art?
Looking back now I do indeed see my desire to create under imposed rules as staging the feeling of living amidst the abstract forces and invisible tyranny of today’s algorithmic imperative. It’s hard to remember decades ago but there was a genuinely utopian hope in the early years of the web – Silicon Valley tech nerds and early counter-cultural message boards such as The WELL both presented us with a Leftist fantasy that the internet would become a democratizing force to dismantle capitalism by enabling a peer to peer sharing economy and a tool to build communities. Within just a few years web real estate was privatized and this optimism slowly faded, as our lives splintered into awkwardly performing a new digital avatar online each day in addition to inhabiting our physical bodies. I was fascinated with differently each of my friends personalities felt through texting and emailing thank they did in person, and had a sense of how performative communicating from a distance was soon to become.
My interest in representing this destabilizing of the body which began in the early 00’s as our lives migrated online led me further into figurative painting – and after a period of rather baroque realism, I began integrating digital technology into my process. In projects like Your Vacuum Sucks (2014-15) I began to consider the question of how can I represent this new invisible self we navigate remotely, and how can an antiquated medium like painting provide the once-removed feeling of virtual space? This theme of reality being composed of multiple, vertically-oriented layers running in parallel is a thread, as you mention, that has been there since the beginning in my work. Initially it was through systems and the shadow space of language play beneath the narrative, and later (in projects such as Model as Painting [2015-2017]) it quite materially became a model to represent the infrastructure of the image networking the digital world.
Your Vacuum Sucks began with a film I made with my partner Alexandra Lerman in which the lead character was erased from the image. I thought of this figure as providing a model for the human body as present through being absent. The film was composed in two layers – wherever my body appeared in the top layer we erased it and filled the space of the empty silhouette with a different take of the same shot from a moment just before or after – so this protagonist now depicted two separate moments in space and time with one body. The function of this corporeally-lost subject (as occurs on social media) was to feed back the images of the people he is speaking with to themselves…you post a selfie, and it comes back to you with comments and likes. This film was presented in a multi-media labyrinthine installation, which resembled the fantasy space of a television production set, accompanied by paintings, drawings and assemblage sculptures that unfolded through a series of three shows.
If I had to find a general ethos that guides and lives below most all of my work over decades I would say I have a romantic tendency to search for freedom in overarching systems of power and control, in order open up spaces in the world for people to connect and Wierd new possibilities of life to arise in the process. Throughout this entire period you’ve asked me about thus far I maintained a parallel life in music, which is best represented by my record label Wierd Records and weekly live music night the Wierd Party (2003-2013).
Wierd was in a way a decade long work I made in collaboration with a large group of friends in New York to build a tightly knit underground community that bought people together in a moment when the digital was beginning to tear us apart. By the early aughts the VST laptop performances in clubs had come to look and feel disembodied, like someone checking their email onstage, and the only other alternative (for the non-hip hop or metal fan in Brooklyn) was the self-deprecating irony of early indie rock which felt equally detached in a quite different way. We began staging debaucherous parties in small bars and clubs where we DJed forgotten obscure minimal electronic and coldwave bands from the 1980’s – and drew a line in the sand to require bands to use analog gear with no playback and DJs spun vinyl records. Many of us saw analogue synthesis as an organizing principle to organize a new social body in the night.
Automelodi @ Home Sweet Home NYC / Wierd Records April, 2009. Video: Jimi Patterson
© Pieter Schoolwerth / Wierd Records
PIETER SCHOOLWERTH AND ALEXANDRA LERMAN
Your Vacuum Sucks 2015
HD, color 16:9, 39 mins.
A film by Pieter Schoolwerth and Alexandra Lerman /
Featuring (in order of ‘appearance’) Nate Young, Pieter Schoolwerth, John Olson, James Baljo, Madeline Hollander, Dean Bein, Anarexia Hurls, Mike Caiazzo, Alanna Higgins, Amina Oliveros, Dave Castillo, Contessa Stuto, Judy Schoolwerth, and Blake Rayne. Music by Nate Young (Wolf Eyes), Soren Roi (RØSENKØPF, Nothing Changes NYC), and Jonathan Canady (Deathpile, Angel of Decay).
Special Effects by Maria Beliaeva and Alexander Chertok
Sound Mix by A.J. Tissian, The Wave Lab NYC
In the layering of possible worlds within your work, in “Shifted Sims” for example, one seems to witness a real layering of the sense of being (present) and not being (there). Your modeled avatars, are set against the actual human figure, simulating it between distance, estrangement and displacement. The digital space they inhabit is essentially a space of “freedom,” in which one can choose the level on which to situate himself; even the space itself is precisely layered on different levels, with no real hierarchy that often takes into account the dimension of the human figure in relation to objects, surroundings, etc.- it is rather a vertical layering in which each level is equally abysmal depth and superficial. This simulated space is configured as a space of dimensional meanings and at the same time dynamic, engaging, experienced, perceived as real. It is evident again how visible and invisible, real and virtual mingle in space and are complicit with each other, emerging in and around the individual in an intersection of trajectories in which each visible is involved in the invisible (real/virtual) in a simulated and lived space that the viewer makes his or her own, perceiving it as real in the ongoing narrative – on the other hand, our reality nowadays is also a strategic life simulation computer game in which everything is allowed.
In the social era of the invisible visible, how do identity affirmation and the concept of invisibility coexist? And especially taking into account that the virtual is always incorporeal, to what extent does the deconstruction and removal of the human figure in your work relate to these themes and reflect the contemporary human condition from the real to the virtual realm? Could you please talk about the concept of invisibility as a way of being according to your point of view? Can you tell me more about the Shifted Sims series and also about Rigged?
Over the past several years I have come to rethink what I thought of a decade ago as our split dualist mode of being (living in a visible, corporeal body while ‘performing’ a virtual avatar in parallel) and now feel we’re living in an augmented reality – our presence in the world is still split between our in-person interactions and our activities in the ether but we bring the knowledge we gain of others’ platform performances to our physical interactions with them in order to form an idea of their being. So I now think these two realities are codependent and inseparable, and as a result it’s literally impossible to go offline. The fantasy of ‘logging off’ has become a class privilege most working people cannot afford, and the idea of analog I once saw as a potent antidote to the pulverizing abstraction of the digital now feels more in keeping with the artisanal lifestyle production economy. I often worry that the traditional model of ‘direct painting’ (applying an inert substance by hand to a support with no mediation) is also out of sync with a world where now we live remotely, and indirectly – and unless painting can adapt to find new forms to depict this feeling of being alive now it too will become another symptom of elitist craft-centric nostalgia.
My efforts to find new contemporary, indirect forms for painting recently have involved engaging the worlds of simulation games and constructing my work in CGI. Needless to say the tragic consequences of Covid caused us all to contend with the reality of becoming-invisible in an urgent way. When the lockdown happened in New York I began to feel I was navigating a simulation of a life I previously lived, from a distance. As I put on a mask each morning I got to thinking how we hide behind the profiles, text messages and group Zoom chats we now had to endure daily, and considered how painting might be able to represent this contingent body controlled from afar?
The imagery in this Shifted Sims is sourced from screenshots of The Sims 4, the strategic life simulation game in which players navigate an avatar body – a hollow shell they construct from the ground up and perform though. After collaging a selection of found screenshots from players in user forums, I pulled the space into 3D by composing a sculptural relief model of the image, which I photographed. I then digitally embeded the Sims imagery back into the model and shifted the screenshot to be slightly askew – this caused a doubling effect – each body is closely followed by an empty silhouette, like a specter. This seemed like an appropriate manner of depicting an augmented body in conflict with itself.
Composing through models for years led me last year deeper into the vast world of animation software. I first learned about 3D around the beginning of the last election cycle in the US – when both the far left and far right were telling voters that “everything is rigged.” I soon discovered that a rig is also the name given to the skeleton of a 3D character – which comes with a set of controllers hidden beneath an outer layer of mesh – a grid giving form and shape to the body which is wrapped with texture files to create skin, hair, and clothing. Seeing as 90% of mass media imagery is made with CGI now it’s safe to say it’s the dominant visual language in the world, so it seemed a timely challenge for painting to contend with, and compose through.
Rigged was a two-part show in Berlin and New York earlier this year in which all of imagery was constructed with 3D models I purchased online (through sites like Turbosquid and CG Trader), made available by artists all over the world – not unlike the way musicians sell their tracks today. This often late night buying frenzy turned into a series of stream of consciousness compositions that mirrored everyday one stop shopping, and the transactional landscapes of Tindr, LinkedIn, or AirBnb. I became interested in taking the models apart – to actually peel the mesh off of the rig – and dramatize the separation of a person’s public persona from their private interior life. The faces, as I began to portray them in the Sims project, are enhanced and enlarged with gestural passages of paint – I was thinking about how we apply AR filters or face swap snapshots, and icons of our heads often stand in for our entire bodies.
After I finished the paintings I worked together with my friends Phil Vanderhyden and Aaron Dilloway (under the collaborative authorship of PuppetWarp) to animate each painting’s 3D file to come alive in a loop of video with a full musical soundtrack – these now exist as NFTs which mark each physical painting on the blockchain. This splitting of a painting into a material and non-material entity seemed quite appropriate to my longtime effort to depict the human body fraught with the same conflicted sense of itself.
What are you working on at the moment? Future projects?
I’m currently working on Rigged part 3 I’ll present in Madrid next February. This iteration of the show will take as it’s lead character a humanoid form inspired by, and anthropomorphizing, a stain that appeared on the ceiling of my bathroom in my apartment – which I soon learned was caused by my upstairs neighbor’s leaking bathtub. Concurrently, and for the past two years, I’ve been making an animated film with Phil, tentatively entitled Supporting Actor – about the private internal life of a chair. This project began from the idea of making a porn film without humans or sex – so I’m quite confident it’s sure to be a weird forthcoming year indeed!