INTERVIEW WITH BEN GROSSI
Q. Have you always had an interest in making art? Have you always been interested in making digital/video art?
A. Since I was a young kid have have been invested in making. I have always loved using my hands to build and craft things, finding a satisfaction in the labor. My first experience with art was illustration, drawing my friends as cartoon characters… things like that. Eventually my interest evolved into a passion for drawing, and eventually simple woodworking. At roughly the same time, I was introduced to shooting and editing video through skateboarding. My friends and I would make skate videos and upload them on YouTube, a practice which introduced me to social media and probably sowed seeds for the concepts that I now explore in my work. I wasn’t very invested in making video work in the studio until partway through undergraduate, when I realized that I was under utilizing a skill set that I already had.
Q. Can you tell us about what your process is like? Do you work using an archive of images, videos, and sounds, etc.?
A. When making video work, I usually begin by amassing a large quantity of raw material— video and audio clips and images— in loose relation to my subject, often using online video converters to download appropriated content from YouTube and other streaming sites as well as taking screen captures while using various applications (Google Earth, most recognizably). A lot of play takes place in the initial editing process. Images are mixed and matched; visual information is erased, conflated or isolated in either calculated or entirely arbitrary ways. Most frames of the final work will have passed through several editing programs, a process which allows me to spend time with each clip and assess its parts. This allowance for play and experimentation (namely the quicksand-dirty smashing together of loaded imagery rather than working from an outline or storyboard) permits rich new meaning to arise. While stitching together the work, I will fill in the gaps with additional content, reaching outside of the original collection of source material to build bridges, or to finish punchlines. It’s a dynamic and engaging, albeit sometimes unpredictable, way to work.
Q. Your practice moves through different ways of making - either in video, installation, or sculpture - but the general look and theme of the work seems to stay consistent. Can you talk about your main conceptual interests in your practice? Do you believe different approaches in making can heighten or change those interests?
A. I’m interested the effects of mediation and abstraction on our experience of the world. Rapid changes in the methods through which we interact with the world around us— and each other— as a result of the near ubiquity of Internet and mobile devices have transformed our social and political landscape in unprecedented ways. While these technologies have granted us a degree of autonomy (the ability to create, disseminate and experience content in a way only previously accessible to those in power) we are forced to reconcile our own expressions with the limitations set forth by those whom provide us the platform on which to enact them. We sacrifice privacy for access, degrees of individuality for compatibility. My work explores the minimalist aesthetics of user interfaces, the invisible sprawl of infrastructure, and the constant struggle between corporate power and individual autonomy in the digitized world. Typically, the form each individual piece takes is in relation to the subject. Over the past few years, finding ways for object-based and video work to commingle as an installation has proved to encompass the different angles from which I approach these somewhat broad concepts by allowing individual pieces to speak to one another. Most pieces can’t stand alone, the lack of context has them fall flat. UNLIMITED is the first strict video work—to be viewed alone in a “screening” sort of way— that I have made in a while. It’s context online, existing within the interface of a viewer’s browser, existing a video hosting site and in the same frame as a viewer would experience the types of advertising which the work points to… it’s a new equalizing space for the work to be put it. Definitely opens up my thinking to web-based projects in the future.
Q. The pieces such as Data Centers (2017) in which you use Google Maps almost operate as digital entropic landscapes. The landscape begins to breakdown or become other-worldly and surreal. It brings to mind Robert Smithson’s work which takes parts of a physical landscape into the gallery and divorces the place from its materiality. Our own experience of being out in the physical world has been augmented by using technologies such as Google Maps to navigate. It separates us by creating an interface between us and the physical terrain. Can you speak about your process for making these types of pieces and how you see them functioning in regards to landscape?
A. Landscapes, in terms of pictures, often allow the viewer to project themselves into a depicted space in a rather passive manner. Data Centers, as well as my BFA thesis work, Location Services (2017) turned this notion on its head by using spinning images of composited digital landscapes to disorient the viewer, activating their place in physical space as a vantage point in the depicted space. This muddying of the distinction between the depiction and the real relates to Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation and his assertion “the map engenders the territory.” That is to say, the representation of a thing creates our context for our understanding of the thing itself. This is especially true in the case of maps, which are used to navigate unfamiliar places: they must be relied upon in order to find one’s way. To an even greater degree, a tool such as Google Earth creates a dynamic, detailed model which serves as a proxy. In this vein, these digital landscapes function in my work as a metaphor which bridges the real, the interface, and the representation. I’ve never really considered the relation between these pieces and Smithson’s work, but I am absolutely interested in that displacement. Much of what I was considering when working on Data Centers was how often physical infrastructures which the Internet relies on are dispersed from our immediate access, by chance or by design. The physical stuff that drive the Cloud becomes abstract, as inaccessible as the name for the system suggests. I’ll have to look into this more.
Q. Your work Unlimited (2018) mimics a kind of optimism that is common in recent advertising for new digital technologies. A relevant example would be the newest Facebook ad Here Together (2018), which addresses the recent problems the site is now publicly addressing. The work achieves a similar visual quality of an ad such as this by breaking down images into grids or repeated elements, which gives the viewer an initial rush of excitement, but ultimately feels shallow. Is this relationship relevant to your work? How do you see your work and advertising being in dialogue?
A. UNLIMITED (2018) directly reproduces the structure and pacing of advertising to create tension. Here the tension is not steady nor rewarding, rather it is a strange mix of eerie and clumsy: a double entendre, hollow threat, diffused at the wrong moment. The work points a finger to ads like this Facebook ad, or Google’s “Year in Search”: a yearly summary of the most popular queries, displayed in the Google search bar atop images of the years tragedies and triumphs, set to dramatic, percussion heavy music. Ads like these which paint multibillion-dollar tech corporations in an altruistic light can be moving, inspiring and ensuring, yet are indicative of how central to culture and politics these companies have become. Due to the fact that these tech companies design and own the ways we interact with the web, the oligarchs of these spaces, these types of ads can be difficult to distinguish from political propaganda.
Q. In a recent interview on NPR, science fiction author William Gibson said "The first people to embrace a technology are the first to lose the ability to see it objectively." New technologies and social media platforms are now produced so rapidly, and there is always a sense of optimism when introducing them to the public. They are branded as “life-changing”, but only for the good. These technologies have already proven to be life-changing, but there have been negative consequences that it seems weren’t fully addressed before they were released. Do you feel negative or optimistic about new technologies? Does this affect your work in any way?
A. Objectivity is a funny thing to consider in our current relationship with technology. I think that in our everyday experience of the most prominent “new technologies” being digital, portable/ wearable tech, our own subjectivities are linked to how that tech becomes introduced to us, how accessible it is to us to be used as a tool (rather than novelty) and how that tool becomes integrated into our daily routine & how this affects our relationship with others. Although some may claim to consider new technologies in an objective way before engaging with them, through embrace or critique, our individual view of tech is shaped by our social, economic, geographic and political contexts: and inevitably, the technologies which augment our experience of these spheres. That being said, my relationship with tech is complicated. I absolutely buy into new technologies. I own an iPhone X and a slew of Mac products. I use social media apps and Google Maps and G Suite applications that operate on cloud storage. I rely on these devices and apps to produce and disseminate my work as well as for personal use. They have become invaluable to me, as they have for many others, as tools to create and connect. To either embrace or dismiss new tech does a disservice to the ways in which innovation benefits us or grossly overlooks how complacency can rob us of our power, respectively. We are simultaneously dependent and unconvinced of a tool that we use to stay in tune and to locate ourselves in the world. We are unsure of where to place our trust, making us susceptible to that which cloaks itself in a look of neutrality. I’m interested in pushing around the artifacts of such uncertainty and vulnerability in order to produce something which reflects the look and feeling of this strange moment we find ourselves in: fleeting and fractured bits, cobbled together in some weird semblance of “now,” framed by stark white backgrounds and sleek metal alloys.
Q. What would you say your view of the future is?
Q. Do you have any new projects you are working on currently?
A. I’m working with a large archive of photographs I took while driving along the Dakota Access Pipeline last fall. I spent a month on the back roads of the Great Plains, traveling the route of the pipeline and taking photos where the pipeline crossed the road and of the artifacts left behind from the installation: displaced earth, color differentiation in grasses / crops that were planted after construction, gaps in tree lines. I’m interested in the way this region of the country— its landscape, history and socioeconomic structure became abstracted during the protests against its construction that took place in the fall/winter of 2016. I’ll be producing a body of work over the coming months in relation to this experience in addition to presenting/publishing the archive of photographs (in the thousands) in some capacity. Also, I’m moving across town in the next couple days. That’s a project in itself.
Visit Ben's website to view his work and learn more about him.