Matt Nish-Lapidus on Art

“It’s in the relationships between the things that the meaning emerges, rather than in the individual components themselves.”

My guest today is Matt Nish-Lapidus. Matt is an artist, musician, researcher, designer, and educator based in Toronto. Besides creating art and music, and doing design work, Matt also teaches at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. In this conversation, we discuss the role of art in our evolving technological and cultural environments.

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Show notes

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Jorge: So, Matt, welcome to the show.

Matt: Thanks. Happy to be here.

 Jorge: For folks who might not know you, can you please tell us about yourself?

Matt: Yeah. I sometimes these days refer to myself as a recovering designer. My original background, educationally, was in fine arts and specifically in new media art. And then, over the arc of my career, I found myself working in interaction design and very interested in the intersection between humanity and various types of complex technology, as in networks and computational technology.

And I did that for about 15 years. And towards the end of that period, I found myself more interested in the types of questions that felt like they were better answered through my art practice than they were through my design practice, and the kinds of questions that also didn’t seem to be that interesting to other designers or to our clients or to potential employers or partners.

So about five years ago now, I left my job and decided to focus more on my artistic practice, which includes music and sound art as well as technology-based arts of different types. And in September of last year, I actually started my MFA, which is a Master of Fine Arts, in Studio Practice at the University of Toronto, which I’m currently pursuing on top of other things that I continue to do, like playing music and work with other organizations.

Media Art

Jorge: Folks listening to the show might not be familiar with the term “media art.” How do you define that?

Matt: So the most basic way to understand it – in the highest level, probably – is that unlike painting or traditional photography or other types of sculpture – you know, other types of traditional arts – media art and new media art were emergent practices that specifically dealt with new types of mass media originally.

So, it was artists working with televisions, with video, with different kinds of sound and broadcast technologies. And then over the course of the last couple of decades, became artists that work with the internet or with computation, and different kinds of network technologies, and think about them from an artistic perspective, which is usually a critical perspective or thinking about the impact that they have on people or the way that people relate to them and the new types of relationships and new types of affects that they create.

Jorge: So, it’s art that uses technologies, especially like communications technologies, as its medium? Is that the idea?

Matt: Yeah, as its medium and often as its topic. So, we make art about the technology is sometimes using the same ones. And the practice goes back to the late fifties, but really in some ways is now the dominant practice in contemporary art.

Jorge: Can you name some examples of how you would experience new media art?

Matt: Yeah. I mean, if you’ve ever been to a contemporary art gallery or museum of modern art, whether it’s the SF MoMA or the MoMA in New York, or the Tate Modern in London, a lot of what you’re seeing would be in this category. Artists who work with light, who work with sound, work with video projections, interaction in different ways… You know, a famous example from the early days of media artist Nam June Paik, who worked a lot with televisions and his work was both about television as a cultural object, but also as a medium and as a material.

The Role of Art

Jorge: We’re recording this in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020. And I have to mention that the context that we’re, that we’re speaking in, because we are accelerating our move to interacting through technology. And you and I are talking right now through Zoom and I can see you. So we’re having a conversation, and it’s perhaps too soon to know, but I’m wondering what role does art play – especially, you know, this new media art that you’re talking about – in a world in which we’re increasingly interacting through technology. Perhaps the question is more broadly, it’s like, what is the role of art?

Matt: Yeah. So, it’s an interesting question and it’s one that’s been asked by artists and philosophers for many, many years. And I’ve been thinking about this lately. In the fifties – it might have even been in the sixties, don’t quote me on the date – a German philosopher and media theoretician, Theodore Adorno, wrote an essay in which he asked, how do you make art after Auschwitz? Like, what is the role of art in a world where something as horrible as the Holocaust could happen? And how do you as an artist deal with that, and still see beauty and joy and the sublime and all these different things, when our understanding of what’s possible in the world is so fundamentally changed and so terrifying.

And I think there are a number of similar questions that we can be asking ourselves right now. Before this outbreak, the big question on a lot of people’s minds was a similar one, which is how do you make art in the Anthropocene? If we’re witnessing a period of, like massive global scale change and devastation this like slow train wreck, what is the role of art and how do you continue to make art in the face of such a massive and often depressing and serious thing.

And I think like the pandemic that we’re currently trying to figure out raises a similar kind of question again, just like what is the point of art and how do you make it and what do you make it about when our understanding of what’s possible in the world has fundamentally changed.

When there’s a new thing, a new object that exists that didn’t really exist before. There’s a school of philosophy called New Materialism and a kind of well-known New Materialist, Jane Bennett, talks about these things as what she calls assemblages. And an assemblage is like a network of heterogeneous actors that all have different kinds of agency.

And, looking at the pandemic through the lens of Bennett’s idea of an assemblage, you can start to see the agency of the virus as a political actor, as an economic actor, as a social and cultural actor. And for me anyway, that’s where as an artist, my interest in it lies, and where I think I can kind of grapple with our current situation is not saying, “okay, well what do we do when we’re all locked in our homes,” but saying, “what are the fundamental changes in the world that we can observe? What are the things we want to try to say or express about them or understand through making things?” And then, “what kinds of things can I make that help with that understanding or are cathartic or express an affect or give people something that I think they want or need given the kind of drastic changes that this is affecting on all of our systems?”

High Art and Popular Art

Jorge: When you say that, do you make a distinction between… I don’t know if the appropriate terms are like “high art” and “popular art”?

Matt: Like in terms of, like a museum and gallery art versus like television shows and movies and things like that?

Jorge: Yes.

Matt: Yeah. I mean, I don’t see a huge distinction in a formal way. I think good media, like a really well-made television show, for instance, that deals with these topics in a critical and thoughtful way, that’s based on research and, you know, does things like… explores the ideas through the medium that they’re working with. I don’t see that as being massively different than, you know, a piece of art that you might see in a art gallery, or in a museum.

 Jorge: I would also expect that the reach would be different as well, right?

Matt: Yeah. Probably considerably different…

Jorge: Yeah, it’d have a greater influence on the culture if it’s a movie put out by the Walt Disney Company, as opposed to something exhibited in an art gallery, no?

Matt: Yeah. I mean, the reach would be massively different. I think though even in those media that, for the reach to be at the scale of like a Disney or, you know, Marvel kind of thing, you’re having to make stories that connect with people in a certain way, which, I feel like often precludes you from doing the deep and difficult work of truly critically reflecting on a situation and expressing something about it. And when you see TV shows or movies that do that, they often don’t have those kinds of audiences.

Jorge: Yeah. The intent is different, right? Like one is a purely or mostly commercial product, whereas the other, like you’re saying, is more of an exploration of a way of being, an ideal?

Matt: A way of being, a way of thinking, a way of seeing and understanding things. I think when art is really amazing, for me anyway, it’s when something changes, like a piece of art can change the way that I see the world. It can change the way that I understand myself and see myself. It can reflect back to me a feeling or an idea that I’ve had but couldn’t express or didn’t have words for. And I think great art from every era, especially the modern era – which is, you know, loosely from like Impressionism on up – a lot of it is really about creating that kind of critical and reflective mirror and reflecting not just to the individual viewer, but reflecting on culture and on society and on the place and time where it comes from and reacting to things that are happening in the world. So, like, I’m excited actually to see how artists react to what’s happening now because in a way, that’s what art does.

The Market for Art

Jorge: One thing that I was wondering about is how does the market value art? I mean, we were talking about Disney, and we know what that market looks like, but I was just wondering someone who makes art for a living, how do you make a living?

Matt: It’s different in different countries, which is interesting. I mean, there’s a combination of things depending on the kind of work that you make. Some artists make work that you can sell, that people can buy and there’s an open market and you make a name for yourself, and the work goes up and down and value based on how collectible your work is or what museums want to acquire it or, or other things like that and that works for, I guess more and more kinds of media these days. Like it used to be that if you made installation or you made sound art or video, it was hard to sell that on like the art market. That’s becoming more of a thing. People will buy that stuff.

In a lot of countries, other than the US… So, in Canada and the UK and a lot of Europe, there’s a big public funding infrastructure for arts. So, in Canada we have arts councils at the municipal, provincial, and national level that provide funding for artists and artists’ projects in different ways.

There’s also regionally determined fee structures for exhibitions. So, if you get a piece of work into an exhibition and the gallery has funding, they will usually pay based on the agreed-upon fee schedule. It’s kind of like the actors’ unions? It’s not an official union in Canada, it’s called CARFAC. It’s the Canadian Artists…. some, I don’t remember what it stands for. But they set a kind of standardized fee schedule.

And so often when you submit a piece of work to a gallery or to an exhibition or to a curator, it’ll say on the submission, like we pay, you know, CARFAC’s scheduled fees, which are basically based on like how much experience you have and they have standardized fee structures. Those are the main ways.

The other one is commissions. So, a museum or a festival or a curator may really love your work and want you to make something new for their exhibition, in which case they’ll have a production budget and they will offer you some sort of project budget to make the work. And then at the end of that, either they own it, or you own it, depending on the stipulations of the contract.

Time and Place

 Jorge: One of the interesting aspects of what’s happening right now is that time feels greatly accelerated. I saw a tweet just yesterday that said something like, “the last couple of weeks have been a really long year,” or…

Matt: Yeah.

Jorge: It feels like time has greatly accelerated right now and, conversely, it feels like place has become blurred. You are… I believe you’re in Toronto right now, right?

Matt: Yup.

Jorge: And, like I said, we’re talking over Zoom and, earlier this morning I was in a meeting with colleagues who are here in the Bay Area, but I experienced the interaction in exactly the same plane that I’m interacting with you now. So, you could be here for all I know, right? So, place has become erased somehow. And I’m wondering about time and place and new media and how new media, I mean, it has it in the name, right? “New” Media?

Matt: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because when that term originally was coined, it was in -response to existing media. So, it was trying to say, we’re not print newspapers, photography, like we’re not talking about those things. We’re talking about these new media, which are video and television. Originally it was those things, and then, computation. And I think time and place and the kind of collapsing of time in place has been a big part of the work of new media and media artists since probably the mid- eighties.

You know, there’s a piece I remember seeing by David Rokeby who’s a new media artist that’s been working since the early eighties with computer vision and computational space in different ways, where he set up a room with quadraphonic sound – so four big speakers – and then had a gallery – this was in Toronto – and had a gallery in Amsterdam, set up the same thing in their room. And then using very rudimentary digital video cameras from – this was probably in the late eighties, early nineties – movement in one space was translated to low frequency sound and the other space basically creating like airwaves. So, if two people were moving simultaneously in both spaces, they would actually feel the impact of the other person’s body as air pressure through sound? So already in those kinds of early pieces, they were thinking a lot about like, what does it mean to collapse space? How do we be physically present in different spaces?

I feel like we take a lot of this for granted these days. And it’s interesting because like this phenomenon we’re experiencing right now is really unique in a number of ways. But one of the most interesting to me is that it is global, like actually global. Everyone around the world is impacted by this in some way, and very similar ways in terms of like, isolation or lockdown or social distancing or these, you know, words that we didn’t even have in our vocabulary a week ago. And now, like, literally every human being on earth is impacted by this.

And I can’t think of another phenomenon that crosses those boundaries in the same way. But in my own practice and then thinking about, you know, art and the things that I’d be excited to see is in a time where the world feels like it’s been collapsed in on itself, and we’re experiencing this unifying, like, single event as a species, it would be really interesting to think about what the local differences actually are. Like, what does it mean to be in isolation in different parts of the world or in different cultures, or you know, in Italy, people were singing to each other from their balconies? I can’t imagine that happening in London.

So, even though we’re experiencing this unifying effect, there’s still going to be those like local cultural differences and uniquenesses that I think are so important to thinking about artwork and the way that art reflects culture, and is often so specific and so unique to certain places in certain times in the way that it responds aesthetically to localized events.

Experiencing Art Online

Jorge: You reminded me of something that I’ve noticed over the past few weeks, which is cultural institutions like museums announcing to the world that, “Hey, you know, that you can view our collection online!” Now, especially with so many people at home, who are looking for new things to do with themselves while there, they only have this little window on their computer to the world, right?

Matt: Yeah. Yeah! It’s an interesting thing to see since so many museums are so woefully behind in terms of digitizing collections and thinking about alternative ways of exhibiting work. Our experience of art and the way that we think about art, especially at the institutional level is so grounded in this physical experience of like, being in a place with a thing, or in a place for a performance or these very spatio-temporal experiences.

So, yeah, it’s fascinating to see what some museums are doing. In some ways it reminds me of the mid-nineties, late nineties, again when there was an explosion of like “net art” and artists working specifically with the internet as their medium. And so, like those works existed natively online and museums and galleries at the time were struggling to figure out how to present them in physical space. Like, how do we take a work by a net artist and put it in an exhibition at the MoMA? We didn’t know how, and they still don’t really know how.

And now we’re faced with the exact opposite problem, where they’re like, how do we get all of our paintings and sculptures and objects available to people somehow through the internet or through virtual tours or whatever it is that they’re doing?

Jorge: And these new technologies change our understanding of the work itself, right? When you said experiencing the work in a physical space, I remember the experience of seeing in person the statue Pietà, by Michelangelo. And that’s an artifact that when you’re standing in front of it, it has a certain volume because of the materials it’s made from, you know that it has a certain weight and you can touch it. But you can feel that, being in this space with it, and it’s very different to see it in photographs, which I had seen many photographs before I saw the real thing, but it’s a different experience. And I don’t know too much about new media art, but I remember in university looking at the work of Jenny Holzer.

Matt: Yep.

Jorge: And, for folks who are listening who might not know Jenny Holzer, she worked a lot with words, right? Like she had these slogans that she presented in various ways. And after Twitter, I have never been able to look at her work the same way.

Matt: Yeah. It’s so interesting.

Being Relevant vs. Remaining Relevant

Jorge: You know? And I’m wondering, with technologies that are changing so fast, as someone who is working with art, how do you balance expressing the needs and perhaps if we can use this phrase, the “spirit of the time” with making the work stand up over time and have some kind of longevity?

Matt: Yeah, that is a very hard question. And it often comes down to the work having some sort of value beyond its technology. So, like with Jenny Holzer for instance, the words are an important part of her work, obviously, but so is the way that it’s presented. So, you know, she made these big LED signs with scrolling text in different directions and sculptures out of them. She did a series of giant texts that was projected on buildings. So, like the context of presentation and the way that the words were made into an object really changes the work. But then the words themselves, you know, for some of the pieces are maybe good enough words that they stand up on their own.

And so like, would Jenny Holzer’s words work as a series of tweets, would they have the same impact? Maybe, maybe some of them would, maybe some of them wouldn’t. And the ones that wouldn’t, probably wouldn’t because they rely on the context and materiality of the way that she presented them to create the meaning, of the overall piece.

You know, one of the things that I love about, being an artist and, and working on artworks, especially like contemporary artwork, it’s rarely a single thing. What we often are working with, especially what I’m working with is these like assemblages of things. And it’s in the relationships between the things that the meaning emerges, rather than in the individual components themselves. So, I also work a lot with texts, and I’ve been working a lot with texts over the last year or so, and the texts themselves, most of them I don’t think would hold up just as text or as poetry or as whatever.

I think they need the rest of the things that go around them – the other objects or the aesthetic treatments or the context of presentation – in order to become meaningful. And one of the things that’s interesting about this move to online that we’re being forced through due to the closure of institutions and isolation, is that, well, the museums struggled to figure out how to present work online that was never meant to be seen that way, and to change its context, which changes its meaning.

I think there’s massive opportunity in starting to think about how to make work targeted at this new context like that exists natively in this kind of distributed way, which is not a new thing. People have been doing that. There’s, like I said before, net artists and, lots of people who make art that’s targeted at the internet or targeted at different media platforms. But this feels like an opportunity for more people or more of us to start thinking in that way and start to really like push at the boundaries and kind of assumptions baked into the networks that we exist within. So that’s actually something that I find kind of exciting, and I’m starting to think about and work on.

Closing

Jorge: Well, that’s a fantastic place to wrap up our conversation, because my next question to you is, “and where can folks follow up with you to find out what you’re up to and is your art online in ways that folks could experience it?”

Matt: A little bit of it is. You know, having learned how to make websites in the mid-nineties at the birth of the internet, I’ve never actually had a website of my own, because I’ve never happy with them and I never finished them, or like I’ll finish part of it and then not put any content up.

So, I am working actively right now and taking advantage of this time to make a website for myself. So, you can find my nascent website with very little content, but I’m going to be adding more every day at emenel.ca. Emenel, which are my initials spelled out phonetically, is also where you can find me on just about everything.

I’m probably most active on Instagram these days, and I do post pictures of my work and work in progress on Instagram. And yeah, emenel.ca is my, it will be my website. It’s there now, but there’s not a lot of new content on it yet. I’m working on documenting some work and writing some stuff to put up there.

Jorge: And I want to make a plug for your music as well.

Matt: Oh yeah. Thanks! On my website there are links to my music projects. But I have, I have kind of three active projects right now. One is called New Tendencies, which is actually named after an Eastern European art movement from the sixties to the late seventies that was one of the first kind of computational art groups. So yeah, New Tendencies is kind of my more experimental music. I have a group called Soft Thoughts, which is kind of an ambient, soundscape kind of thing with two other musicians. And then I just started doing something I haven’t done in a long time, but I started making, kind of like old school, minimal techno again, under the name Ma, M-A, and that’s also on Bandcamp. But there’s links to all these things on my website, or you can find them on Bandcamp, some of it’s on Spotify, et cetera, but a lot of it’s not. A lot of it’s just on Bandcamp.

Jorge: Well. Fantastic. I will include all of those in the show notes. It was such a pleasure having you on, Matt.

Matt: Oh, I always love our conversations and I’m happy to talk anytime.