Steven Watson In Conversation With Tim Roseborough

SW: Your current work is unlike any that I know. Perhaps that is my lack of knowledge.

So I want to ask you some questions. Of course, questions are easier than answers, and answers are always provisional and fluid.

I would describe "A Puzzling Display" as an interactive quiz / game that does not rely upon a physical venue. It is dependent only on the Internet. Do you think there are other models for what you are now doing? And were there predecessors for what you are doing?

TR: Given the collapsing of distance and fast flow of information that the Internet facilitates, the notion of a closely associated "movement" of artists is not as viable as it was in the past. That said, there are other artists, including Aaron Koblin, Rafael Rozendaal, and artists affiliated with the Rhizome new media organization that are exploring new avenues of expression as I am.

Increasingly, I look outside art history for inspiration. The closest precedent for "A Puzzling Display" is the world of technology and "geek" culture, specifically the MIT Puzzle Hunt." For more than two decades, students at MIT have competed to solve challenging puzzles with cryptic clues. The clues ultimately lead to a prize hidden on campus, and the first team to find it wins the game. I am impressed by the inventiveness and intellectual curiosity that goes into the Hunt, and I sought to ingrain that in my own puzzles.

My work follows paths laid out by the avant-garde art of the late 1960s and 1970s. Setting aside the fact that the term "conceptual" has become practically meaningless through overuse, I am attracted to the movement's particular concerns with the de-materialization of art. Our current digital culture allows the "material" and the "non-material" to co-exist, even within the same entity. For example, when a speech or poem is inscribed within a computer file, it is ostensibly immaterial, viewable only on a screen of some sort. Concurrently, that same writing can be printed on a tangible medium such as paper. Digital technology facilitates the re-purposing of media elements, allowing the producer to present the same idea in physical and virtual environments. Today, the artist can have it both ways. To me, re-purposing is a fairly recent development in the possibilities for progressive art, and I intend to explore it. My recent projects have both "online" components that are viewable on a screen, and "offline" objects such as prints and sculptural elements like laser-cut forms. All of these materials originate as computer files.

SW: You present a responsive quiz that is based on visual acuity, cognitive attentions to codes, and art historical knowledge. I am at the upper end of your responders, but it was difficult for me to answer the challenges. I like challenges. Do you want to reach out to many who find contemporary art too challenging? Do you want to create in a mirror-like fashion the current art hermeticism (an art work of frustration in a new medium?)? Who is your intended audience?

TR: I almost exclusively had the "Art World" in mind when creating "A Puzzling Display." Half of the puzzles require a solid knowledge of art and its history. It is true that constructing the puzzles was an exercise in mirroring the many expectations heaped upon the contemporary artist. Artists are expected to have accrued the proper degrees at the proper schools in proper time, and have proper knowledge of the work that has come before them. I don't see as many of these requirements levied against other players in the current institutional system. Who else must rely so much on their résumé as a badge of worth and merit, but the artist? The knowledge of critics, curators and gallerists seems assumed and supreme. This situation is, in my opinion, the reverse of what it should be. I sought to turn the tables and say, "Can you pass my examination?" And, of course, I want my audience to — dare I say it — be entertained and have fun.

SW: Getting beyond the gallery system is very interesting. How do you think of this in what you are doing?

TR: As an artist, my perennial endeavor is to expand my audience. The more senses I can touch, in a pluralistic sense, the more souls I can reach. I cherish the reverence and singular focus of the gallery environment for the way it elevates the act of looking at art to a semi-religious experience. At the same time, the gallery has a way of restricting the enjoyment of art to a very particular context that is at once intimidating and exclusive. I liken it to the manner in which organized religions can be rapturous to insiders and repugnant to those outside of the circle of knowledge and ritual. I am interested in taking that ecstasy of art engagement into new corners of everyday life. As has been proven since its inception, the Internet facilitates the broad sharing of information and experience, which is an apt vehicle for my artistic goals.

SW: Your work is both about visual play and poeticizing imagination. What is the importance of play and imagination in the Internet world? How do you try to create poetry / visual / art /media in the work you do?

TR: I like to think of play as poeticizing experience. At its highest level, play — like poetry — can distill a particular notion or concept into a purer essence, thereby giving insight to under-noticed phenomena. Play is an area in which we can experiment with expansive and more fulfilling models for the way we live.

My work seeks to play with history, language, knowledge and cultural norms, creating opportunities to examine existence in an experientially inventive manner.

SW: On that note, even without the viewer’s knowledge that your visual vocabulary includes a writing system you call Englyph, many of your artworks are intriguingly code-like. I could tell that something was happening besides the abstract forms I saw. Help me understand what you are doing, and how it relates to this idea of puzzles.

TR: Englyph is my new method of writing Latin alphabet-based languages. Essentially, I have created a set of fonts and arranged them in a way that resembles hieroglyphs: Hence, the "glyph" in Englyph.

The fact that Englyph is a code of sorts for the uninitiated inspired my thoughts about ciphers and puzzles, which led me to phenomena such as the MIT Puzzle Hunt. And since Englyph is language-driven, I took the language from the puzzles I created and gave them a new, "abstract" look by translating them into Englyph. The project comes full circle, in that way: Puzzles begetting codes begetting puzzles.

Dr. Steven Watson is a cultural historian, writer and curator. Watson has written arts features and articles for, among others, Artforum, Art In America, The New York Times, Vogue, Newsday, The Village Voice, and Art and Antiques. In addition, he has curated exhibitions for the National Portrait Gallery and consulted on curatorial projects with the Whitney Museum of American Art. He has written books about the first American avant-garde, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Beat Generation. His most recent book is Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties.