Nathaniel Stern is an awkward artist, writer, and teacher who likes awkward art, writing, and students. He is a Fulbright, NSF, and NEA grant recipient, a Professor of Art, Engineering, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and an Associate Researcher at the University of Johannesburg. His art ranges from ecological, participatory, and online interventions, interactive, immersive, and mixed reality environments, to prints, sculptures, videos, performances, and hybrid forms. His current research projects include eco sculptures, prints, and installations, machine learning and Blockchain performance, new forms of sodium-ion batteries, and neurodiverse community building for the work force (among other things).
In this conVERSEverse with Shannon Chen See, Nathaniel talks about his poetry journey, what makes the blockchain a unique medium, and his hopes for Web3.
VV: Tell us a bit about your poetry journey before the blockchain.
NS: Both of my parents are English teachers, so my love of language and word play goes way back. In college, I studied fashion design and music, and was part of a ska-reggae-pop band where I was the frontman and sang and wrote half the lyrics. We were featured in Playboy Magazine as a “Band on the Brink”. Boy, were they wrong. When the band split, I moved to New York for a graduate programme in digital art. I didn’t have time to do music anymore, but started doing the slam poetry circuit.
I started thinking: what if we replaced the performance stage with the screen? And so I started streaming video poetry as early as 1999. I used Quicktime Streaming and Flash — mediums which no longer exist — to do character-based narratives and twists on Greek origin stories. For example, Hektor, the Fallen Hero, was very articulate but he never wanted to speak about the traumatic past, and so he was always dodging and weaving. Odysseus, my traveler, wanted to tell you about his journey, but he was a stutterer.
After a while, I shed those characters and experimented with several other mediums like interactive installations using body tracking and slit scan photography while scuba diving. I’ve also spent considerable time writing more academic works: the first book about interactive installation, the second about non-human affect and bodies.
Alongside my academic writing, for a solid 25 years or so, I engaged in performative networked art; these were often collaborations with Scott Kildall. We did one called “Wikipedia Art”, an intervention on Wikipedia. Like Wikipedia pages, it was an artwork that anyone could edit, as long as it followed Wikipedia’s rules, so you had to publish elsewhere and then cite back on Wikipedia. On the one hand, it was this beautiful art object that anyone could edit, but on the other hand it was this intervention into the power structures of knowledge to show that Wikipedia is just like every other knowledge base: mostly run by upper middle class white men. It exploded. Jimmy Wales – the Co-founder of Wikipedia – sued us for trademark infringement, and their lawyer, Mike Godwin – of Godwin law fame – called us trolls. It was incredible.
VV: How did the blockchain impact your poetry journey?
NS: Scott and I tend to look at relatively new technologies and intervene in them just as they hit the mainstream, ie. which platform is everyone currently talking about, but not really understanding. I saw the Beeple sale and I saw the Eminem “Without Me” video on Saturday Night Live, and I said, “Shit, we’re here”. I called Scott immediately and I was like, “We need to fuck with the blockchain”. Initially, we naively thought of doing a really negative intervention because we had the same mainstream interpretation of the blockchain as everyone else – cartoon monkeys and money – but since we take our artist practice seriously we started by doing research.
Rhea Myers reviewed my first book back in 2012, so I reached out to her saying, “Hey, R, tell me about the blockchain,” and we spoke for about an hour and a half. That conversation really accelerated my journey down the rabbit hole.
As we dug deeper, what Scott and I found in the blockchain space was some really earnest, interesting communities doing experimental work, wanting to leverage this very libertarian capitalist system to do very socialist, anarchist things.
My first project in the NFT space was with Scott Kildall, and heavily informed by Furtherfield, an organization pushing art and tech for eco-social change. I’ve been lucky to be a resident at Furtherfield and to have done three shows at their gallery. Scott and I worked on a project called “NFT Culture Proof”, a community-based participatory performance where everyone writes a story together, but the text itself is stored on-chain. Everybody loved it; nobody used it. Everyone talked about how cool it was, and in the end it just didn’t sell. The cheerleader in me wants to say, “Oh, it’s ahead of his time”, but I also might just not completely understand how the blockchain functions.
Perhaps the best outcome of this project was stumbling on theVERSEverse and meeting Sasha, Ana, and Kalen. We were looking for crypto writers to collaborate with us and write prompts for the daily stories, and reached out to them to participate, so we all ended up working together on this.
VV: How did you get involved with theVERSEverse?
NS: I had started playing with AI thanks to Anne Spalter. She had a show here in Milwaukee where she spoke about AI art, and that same night I went home and signed up for Google Collab and started coding with AI.
Around this time, theVERSEverse founders realized I was streaming video poetry back in the 90s, and we started having conversations about me working with theVERSEverse. To be honest, I was apprehensive to get back to writing poetry, but then Sasha said, “Why don’t you try gen text?”
And that I felt more open to, because it felt like there was a co-pilot here, and I could play. That’s what artists do, right? The designer empathizes and the artist dumps the garbage bag on the table and sees what they can make. To me, AI is the garbage bag; it’s the non-human material.
AI is actually a nice progression to go from human bodies to non-human bodies to non-human thought. Once I started playing, I fell in love. Especially because as I started brainstorming, I realized that GPT3 could help me go back to my roots. It will know Hektor, and all my Greek characters from grad school because it’s been trained on 45 terabytes of text. So I set out to update these characters and try to get the AI to stutter, try to get the AI to perform these characters differently.
It all came full circle when Ana and I were brainstorming a collaborator for this, and I was like, “Oh, let’s fucking ask Anne Spalter. That would be so cool!”. Ana said, “Okay, here’s what we’ll do: let’s do spaceship twists on the concept because Anne loves space.” Anne said yes immediately.
It feels so good to come full circle like this now. Admittedly, I’ve found much more of a home in visual art and in academic writing, but I’m really enjoying finding these new ways to collaborate around poetry again. I imagine I’ll start writing my own without the help of AI again too, but right now I’m really enjoying these AI poems with Anne Spalter and the work I’m doing with Sasha in generative AI, poetry, and art.
VV: What makes the blockchain different from other mediums you’ve worked with?
NS: First and foremost, for me the performative nature of the blockchain inherently makes it a time-based medium. Especially with this AI work that we’re doing, we have to partner it with blockchain because AI moves so rapidly that everything we make needs to be time stamped to show that history and progression.
The first-ever public-facing thing I did with blockchain was to write an article on my website about conservation and what the blockchain affords because of it. The idea that, now that when you buy a work, there’s the potential for custodianship and archiving that didn’t exist before. I used to sell my interactive installations for peanuts just to get into a museum collection with the hope that someone would care enough to maintain it on a regular basis. It’s unlikely that they are or they have been. But when it comes to the blockchain — and this is where the forces of capitalism are at play — it’s actually a good thing that people are spending a lot of money on it, because that means they’re going to look after it.
Rhea Meyers and Simon de la Rouviere’s work really spoke to me early on when it came to the blockchain. The kind of conceptual, performative, platform-based work that played with both the meaning and the work and its implications. That being said, that’s not to devalue the work of artists who are just putting JPEGs on-chain, because I think that too is a performance like going to do a poetry reading.
I think we’re just beginning to understand the nuance to the different ways we can use blockchain as a medium. I’ve done things where I just had to update a flash poem, convert it to MP4, put them on-chain where the metadata of the work says “This is when this was actually made and this is how it was created”.
And then I’ve got stuff where I’m really glad I minted it as soon as I did. I was looking at AI bias and so I made this whole body of work called “Are computers racist?” and I insisted on doing it in one day because I didn’t want to craft too hard. I didn’t want it to make computers look racist; I wanted to show where that inherent bias lay on that day.
VV: What is your hope for Web3?
NS: Web3 is coming, and now is the time we can decide as much as possible what this future internet will be and look like. Web1 was the information age, Web2 was the buying and social media age, and Web3 is trans-dash-actional. The question is: do our trans-dash-actions have to only be monetary? Although capitalism does back it and it’s built on libertarian foundations, fighting too much with that is like fighting gravity, so how do we leverage it?
At Ecolabs — a startup I’ve co-founded with Sev Nightingale and Samantha Tan — we’re trying to leverage Web3 to reverse climate change. What does that look like? Well, one of the ways is to work with small farmers who it’s not worth it for large companies that do carbon sequestration to work with. Firstly, we pay them through Web3. There are no intermediaries; we can easily send them money. Secondly, whereas other companies have an outcomes-based approach, we are trying to transform farming practices forever. Instead of paying the same farmer each year to not cut a tree down, we front the cost and convert a farmer permanently to no-till and rotational crops.
Without this approach, they would’ve lost money for the first two years converting to a new practice, but in the long term they make more money because it’s actually better for their crops, and that sequestration can continue in permanence.
We’re also leveraging Web3 for the votes that govern our decisions as an organization: how do we decide who we want to work with? That’s where DAOs can help us make more decentralized, democratic decisions. It’s not perfect, but it’s still far more democratic and community-oriented than a company is. I’d like to see more action-oriented NFTs in the future that help communities self govern and self sustain.