Jason Nelson is a digital and hypermedia poet and artist, whose work playfully—and, at times, subversively—extends and re-shapes definitions of poetry, image, sound, and interactivity. He has a Master in Fine Arts in poetry and a Ph.D. in interface and digital writing, and teaches at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.
His work, which he affectionately calls "creatures," includes Vholoche (2007), an artwork that renders weather data as visual images, and Cryptext and NomenCulture (2015), interactive artwork/game hybrids that viewers/players manipulate via giant touch screens.
Currently, Jason is in Norway on a Fulbright Fellowship. He sat down to chat with us about technology, creativity, and the artistic possibilities of driverless cars.
TOM BIHN Crew: How would you describe your artistic work?
Jason Nelson: This is always a tricky question to answer. Sometimes I roam into academic waters, using all the proper terminologies and appropriate references. But I prefer to think of myself as a digital creator, as an artist and poet who transforms all manner of technology into interactive and wondrous creatures.
So imagine if Dr. Frankenstein had combined the technical wizardry of the Mario Brothers with the strange writings of James Joyce and then coated it in a healthy dose of sketchy, messy Basquiat.
In essence I build curious creations from code and devices to reach into the back of people’s brains, and remind them that the surreal world is a lovely place in which to play.
TBC: While recognizing that the distinction between interactive/static art isn't always clearly defined, how has creating interactive art influenced the way you think about static art?
JN: In some ways I am envious of artists working with paper and canvas or stone and metal. And in other ways I feel horribly sorry for them.
Before I describe those two counter-points, let describe why I create interactive works. When I birth a digital creation I truly want it to be alive. I want it to respond and breathe, to coax the reader/player/explorer into pressing and moving, into thinking and reacting.
Additionally, I want my creations to mimic or reflect and reject or relate to how I experience the world. Despite our calendars and schedules or various categorized methods for understanding and ordering the world, our surroundings and societies and cultures are alarmingly messy and erratic. They continually change, improve and devolve. And interactive works allow me to build those kinds of messy wonders into my work.
Back to the first part. I am envious of traditional, “static” artists because their work will last beyond electricity, beyond changes in technology. One of the little-known difficulties in being an interactive artist is that our works often become obsolete within a decade. And by obsolete I don’t mean no longer interesting or beautiful. But rather they can become non-playable, un-openable due to changes in operating systems, or browsers, or devices.
And yet I also feel sorry for them, because I am able to play with sound, explore movement, tussle around color and texts, combine code and devices, robotics and game-play. My creative brain is continually eager to wander down new digital paths. So I could not imagine being locked into one or two or three media or mediums. Change will be the end and birth of all my digital creations.
TBC: Some of your pieces require thinking in unusual ways, such as re-imagining written words as spatial objects. What are some of the challenges of creating art in a digital environment?
JN: Working in the digital playland, certainly when exploring art and poetry, means a forever process of experimenting and rethinking the context and usage of any technology, from code to device. The result is that much of what and others create are truly “world firsts.” Of course, these aren’t those grand and newsworthy firsts like “the first people on Mars” or “the first woman to win the US presidency.” And instead it might be something as simple as “the first person to put poetic text and abstract art into a zombie game engine” or “the first person to create a death narrative generator.”
This means there isn’t a giant history to learn from and rail against or rethink. There aren’t centuries of techniques to emulate or a general cultural acceptance to revel under. Instead digital art, and particularly my brand of interactive art, tends to be always experimenting, always attempting or at least stumbling into new territory.
And while that might sound like a good thing, it isn’t always. Sometimes that forever new, and forever experimenting, can mean a lack of masterpieces, a lack of truly eye weeping, heart sinking, mind blowing creations. So the trick is to stay close to the experimental roots, while also attempting to change the human condition, even in the smallest individual way, through our creations.
TBC: What role does play/playfulness have in your work and/or artistic practice?
JN: As you’ve seen/read, I’ve been repeating the word “play” or synonyms thereof to such an extent that you might think of me as a VHS player stuck on repeating the shortest movie in the world.
This is going to sound morbid. But stay with me. When we die—or rather, right before we die—if we are lucky enough to be able to reflect on our lives, we will largely remember those moments of play. Unfortunately, for many or even most, the idea of play has been firmly attached to games, sport, or childhood. And any other usage of the term implies something negative or trivial, such as “stop playing around!”.
With my work I hope to change that notion, to transform the idea of play to everything we do, starting with poetry and art. I see no reason why the idea of play shouldn’t be more powerful than how we view work or art. To me, other than love, Play is the most powerful act a human can do.
TBC: Do you have any tools that you consider indispensable to your work?
JN: I know this might seem like pandering. But my backpack, my laptop bag is truly an indispensable item. I seem to work anywhere and everywhere. As I travel heaps and prefer to work outside rather than indoors, I need a portable studio, a creative place I can carry with me no matter where I go.
Let me give you an example. Currently I am in Norway on a Fulbright Fellowship for creative art and digital writing. So yesterday I went exploring and found myself on a nearby fjord. And as I had my laptop, various input/output devices, headphones, a blanket and some food/water, I was able to set up my portable studio in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Oh, and contrary to what some might think, I also carry a pen/pencil and paper. Batteries always die and yet the brain still wants to create.
TBC: It seems like your work resists the traditional binary of artwork and viewer, with the work sitting there passively to be consumed just as passively by the viewer. Why is interactivity important in your work—and, more generally, in everyday life?
JN: I am really glad you asked this question. Note my lack of sarcastic tone implies my gladness in genuineness. Well, there is always a bit of sarcasm in my voice, even in the most serious of moments. But I am glad you mentioned the notion of passive consumption. Let me explain.
Although I live in Australia (well actually Norway right now), I grew up on the plains of Oklahoma; my grandparents were farmers. And I often heard people complaining there was nothing to do in Oklahoma, and they shuffled about moaning about the ever-present boredom their small farming town crushed down on their brains.
But really, what they meant was there was nothing to entertain them, there was nothing for them to passively consume. Most people are raised thinking entertainment is something that happens to you, where you sit and watch other people doing interesting things.
Mind you, I certainly am guilty of binge watching quirky science fiction shows like Eureka or Fringe. But I prefer to think the world is filled with adventure. You don’t have to go sky-diving or visit tropical vacation spots or roam through a museum to find beauty and adventure. Everywhere around us something fascinating, something worthy of interaction and exploration.
TBC: The title of one of your pieces, I made this. You play this. We are Enemies., seems tongue-in-cheek to some extent, but nevertheless illustrates one possible relationship between makers and users of art—in this case, as antagonists. In your opinion, how should makers and users relate to one another (through the interface of the work, in theory, etc.)?
JN: It’s curious. IMTYPTWAE was indeed a response to those who’ve played/explored/read my creations. Six months prior to making that work, I had created an artwork called “game, game, game and again game.” And amazingly that work went truly viral (a bit of a cliché I know…but absolutely true in this case) with millions playing and sharing the work. However, as my art-game was so strange and unexpected, the responses from the users was very binary, either hate or love. And reading through forums or comment sections or the tens of thousands of emails I received testified to these extreme sentiments.
And it struck me that in some cases, certainly when it comes to experimental art or even more so with digital artists who rethink interfaces and game engines, the artist is unintentionally (or often intentionally (smileface)) attacking the user’s understanding of how the world works. Games are, in the case of IMTYPTWAE, supposed to look and act in a certain way. And when an artist and/or digital poet rethinks the format, people can either fall in love with the new creation or spew forth with great disdain.
I should admit, at first these extreme responses scared me. But really all it meant was that I was doing my job well as a creator, reaching and changing how people interact with the world (or screen and mouse).
TBC: Do you have thoughts about if and/or how your work will be preserved for posterity?
JN: As I mentioned, this is one of the negatives of interactive digital art. However, if people really love your work, share it and write about it and remember it, then they will find ways to emulate your work for future users/players. Old Atari games are good examples of that. Long after they stopped selling Atari systems, people found ways to grab the code off thrift store-bought cartridges and then created small programs for others to play those games on their computers.
So I hope, one day, someone does that for my work when they can no longer run on everyday machines. Or, even better, they remix or rethink my work, borrowing from it and creating something new.
Having said that, I am somewhat comfortable with my work disappearing and existing only in books or articles. It just makes me want to create more.
TBC: With every technological advance, we find new tools and methods for creating art. What emerging technology do you think is poised to be instrumental in the "new media" of the near future?
JN: I think we have to be careful to not always be consumed with the New in New Media. Beautiful works can still be created with basic web code or remixing old films. And while the newest tech is seductive, it does not automatically mean an artwork has any power.
Having said that, I do kinda have an obsession with toying with ways to use whatever gadget comes around. So in my far-away dreams, or in the next few years, I want to tinker with mind-control interactivity using existing EKG brainwave controllers. Or I am pretty excited about large scale GPS works (note: I created a GPS based artwork last year , long before Pokémon Go!) extending across the globe. And paper-thin screens you can fold and roll up have some fascinating possibilities for digital poetry.
And I’ve been secretly devising ways to create digital art and writing for driverless cars. Imagine what kind of art you could create for people in a small moving box when they don’t have to pay attention to driving. A car covered in projectors?!
TBC: What's the weirdest thing you've encountered lately?
JN: It is difficult to really and truly be weird anymore. Indeed, "weird" is always a relative term. So I would say the weirdest thing I’ve seen recently is the way humans from these collective, following clumps in airports or transportation lines. I watched a group just follow each other down a dead-end hallway and stand staring at a maintenance door. And they stayed there for 15 minutes before realizing there was no reason for them to be there, slightly stumbling away to wait in some other unknown clump.
Although there are some rather strange abandoned tunnels in Bergen, Norway. Heavy metal gates guarding large rock holes in the surrounding mountains, and the wind picks up the curious sounds of some underground creature just waking.
TBC: Technology and poetry seem at first glance to have an uneasy relationship—an example of the cold and mechanical versus the emotionality of humanity. Your work seems to play around with that a little bit. Do you think that this characterization is shifting? Why is it productive to bring these seeming opposites into conversation with each other?
JN: Damn. These are good questions. Partially it’s our system of classification that is at fault. We need to label ideas, to shove them under smaller and smaller umbrellas so we can file them away and order them into seemingly sensible divisions. And yet what I and others like me create defies these kinds of labels.
Yes, there are certainly people who feel poetry should be narrowly defined, and anything beyond that nomenclature is “something else other.” But really technology has always driven literature, from the stone to the tablet to the cloth to the paper to the press. And in each step we altered how and what we wrote. So it’s an obvious and yet painful (for some) transition into a contemporary version of the book. How we create and imagine, how we experience and communication is increasingly happening through these devices we carry. So placing poetry in that space seems an obvious choice.
Digital poetry is comprised of many texts, not just words but sounds and movement, interface and interactivity, coding and image, video and algorithm. All these become critical texts to a digital poetry, vital tools for building wondrous poetic creatures.
TBC: Your work has taken you all over the world. What sorts of things do you like to do during down time in a place you've never been before?
JN: Explore, explore, explore. I like to try and find the strange in the daily, the hidden beauty each places tucks away. After all it is the hidden beauty that brings forth magic. So I head out without direction or intention and stumble into the yonder.
To interact with Jason Nelson's creations, visit his website.
Below: Jason's Brain Bag in Bergen, Norway.