For this Minneapolis artist, the Internet isn't just a way to show his work. The constraints and abilities of sites like Instagram, Vine, and Flickr are an intrinsic part of the art itself.
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Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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The Minneapolis artist thrives with the Net as his gallery, with each site's limits actually helping to drive his creativity. A steady stream of posts infused with his clever, humorous, skewed view of the world's ordinary objects have helped show that Instagram can be more than pseudo-artsy snapshots and Vine can have more depth than a six-second selfie.
Davis shared the story of his online oeuvre in an interview with CNET's Stephen Shankland.
Shankland: Your artistic skills aren't limited to digital publishing, but it seems you have a particular affinity for it, or that it gets your creative juices flowing in some way. Is that true? Davis: Flickr was my gateway medium back in 2009. I participated in a project called Make Something Cool Every Day in which I created a piece every day for 365 days. The process of having to come up with an idea and execute it daily was challenging and refreshing but it also helped me become reacquainted with how I used to make art when I was a kid.
Spontaneity is a big part of how I create. While Flickr is great for sharing photos and experiences, it has a bit more breathing room when it comes to sharing and uploading. Instagram, Vine, and other social hubs are a bit more in the moment and immediate. Spontaneity is a key ingredient. I also like that they come with limitations. Having limitations and parameters can make for some great work.
Wait, how does that work? Wouldn't an artist you want more freedom, not less? How does a constraint actually help? Davis: I like to have a challenge. Vine comes with a specific space to play in. I think the challenge is to create something that changes the shape of that space, pushes it out and makes it something else or at least makes it feel like something different and interesting. It's easy to see limitations and parameters in platforms like Vine as something that constrains creativity, but I think it can help focus creativity. Hopefully this makes for more impactful and original work.
So Flickr was a gateway drug? What got you hooked on Internet publishing? How did you show your artwork before? Davis: Yes, Flickr was the first social site that I used to share creative work on a consistent basis. It made me realize that I could create a piece, post it, and people would actually engage with the piece much like they would in a gallery but even better in that all of their thoughts and comments are recorded. I had posted a couple of projects up on Flickr before I started my daily project, but it was the daily project that showed the potential of Flickr as a powerful way to share art...A lot of people are still discovering my work through those original Flickr posts. I still get about 1200 visits a day.
You make it look effortless, but you said you shot hundreds of photos for the "Keep It Real" piece. How much work typically goes into one of your creations? I know that's hard to generalize, but I'm looking for some idea for folks for whom an art project is one minute on Instagram. Davis: It depends on the idea and sometimes on the spontaneity of the idea. Sometimes it does take only a minute if the stars align. There are times when an idea will appear quickly in my head and if I have the material needed to bring it to life, I will do so and it will only take a few minutes from concept to execution. Other times I will have an idea rolling around for months and it's just a matter of planning to see it through to execution. Usually this means I just need to find the time to gather supplies in order to execute.
For example, currently, I know that I need to pick up a couple of frozen pepperoni pizzas at the store in order to create an image I've had in my head for months now. The actual execution of the idea once I have the pizzas will only take about a half hour to create. I often ask my wife to pick up odds and ends for me when she's out. When I'm actually executing, there are a lot of things that factor in to whether or not the piece is working. The background, the lighting, the angle and various subconscious things that are hard to explain. Ultimately I try to create exactly what I see in my head and doing that requires thinking about every little detail. When the images match, it's done.
You've got me intrigued. Can you tell me about the pizza idea? Davis: Ha -- I haven't made it yet. In my head I think it will look nice. But it may not. Sometimes I make something and quickly realize it isn't working.
How long does it take you to get the feel for a new publishing medium? Davis: I like to get a good grasp on the purpose and see how people use the medium. When I first downloaded Instagram, I took a couple of shots, but didn't really engage with the app at first. I don't mind photos of cats and pictures of what people are eating, but I wanted to try something different. Creativity is exciting for me because I am always in pursuit of an original thought. These digital mediums are just vehicles to get to those thoughts. I get excited when I can show people something unique.
Do you feel like you've elevated the medium? Do you have any indications you've got others to move beyond cat and food pictures? Davis: Predictable pictures are important because they help give a unique image its impact -- something to measure against. I think it's important to keep the medium interesting.
How do you decide which sites to use? There are so many, and presumably more to come. When something new like Vine arrives, do you get giddy with excitement or do you get stressed out about having another mouth to feed? Davis: I get excited about anything that can help me show people how I like to see the world.
Well, then, do you get excited about follower numbers on these social sites? Do you check how many fans you have and get insecure if the number isn't growing fast enough, or get a charge when something goes a bit viral? Or do you just create the art you like and let the chips fall where they may? Davis: It's nice to know that there are people who are interested in the things I make. When I first started getting more people following my work, it felt like there is was an expectation for me to make something. But I tend to make my best work when I make it for myself first. I think it's important to post work when I'm excited about a piece and have something to share, not because it may be an expectation.
How do you see the Internet changing art? I see examples every day of fascinating new photography, videography, illustration, and more. But although most of it seems to take advantage of the Internet as a distribution medium, it doesn't really seem to be part of the fabric of the service the way your Vine work is, for example. Davis: There will always be something new out there that artists can use as a creative vehicle. The Internet provides new tools to paint with. Vine is designed to work and be used in a very specific way. Like any tool used to make art. Touch the screen it records, let go and it stops. That in and of itself is different than a typical method used to record a video. Then there is a time constraint of 6 seconds. Everyone gets to use the same tool to make whatever they want to make, everyone adheres to the same constraints. Having worked in advertising for so long, I know that a lot can happen in 6 seconds of time.
There's never been a better era for photography, arguably, with digital SLRs and high-end compact cameras and camera phones. What do you take photos with and why? Davis: For a lot of my work and for taking photos of my kids I use a Nikon D3. I bought one in 2009 and really didn't know how to use it when I bought it. I suppose I still don't, from a technical standpoint.
But most of the time, I manage to make the picture look the way I think it should look. It's really fast and gives me a better chance at getting the right shot. I use the iPhone exclusively for Instagram and Vine. They keep improving the quality of iPhone images, but I think the current quality is fine. I don't use too many accompanying apps -- I like to keep things simple. VSCO Cam is a good app for people who like a more minimal approach. I also like Snapseed.
There's been a longstanding debate about how well suited iPads and iPhones and other new-era mobile devices are for creating content, as opposed to just consuming it. What's your thinking, especially given mobile-centric apps like Instagram and Vine? How much of your work can you just do with an iPhone? Davis: A lot of work. Regardless of what medium I'm working in, I always try to root my work in a strong idea and a strong execution. That can carry across any platform, and across any device.
How did you show your art before? Davis: The family refrigerator and a few galleries.
These free services are great, but can you convert your Internet fame into money? How do you make a living? Are T-shirt sales a suitable replacement for gallery shows? Davis: Because I've had a long career as an art director and creative director, I haven't thought too much about it. But I have had opportunities come along and I've been able to move into some different creative arenas, like editorial work and apparel design.
Where did you grow up, and do you think where you live shapes your art? Davis: I was born in Marietta, Ga., in 1972. I grew up in North Georgia, lived in a small town called Talking Rock. Later we moved around a bit due to my father's job. I lived in the Carolinas and Virginia but mostly lived in Georgia. I think where I've lived and the people who surround me have certainly shaped the way I think and create. There are lot of creative people in my family, artists and musicians who have all influenced me along the way.
Digital technology seems an integral part of your artistic expression, but a lot of your pieces don't require it. What do you think of purely digital art -- works that never had existence beyond pixels on somebody's screen? Davis: For me, I like to get my hands dirty and make art organically. It's the way I've always done things. I like to cut, shape, print, paint, and draw with my hands first and foremost. It's really the only way I can truly connect to what I am making. I think doing work organically truly helps me connect with work that is purely digital. It gives me a greater sense of composition and helps me connect to the meticulous details that are essential for execution. When I finished my 2009 Make Something Cool Every Day project, I exhibited the work at a gallery in northeast Minneapolis. Before the exhibition, the work only existed on Flickr. Just about all of the pieces were created organically and photographed, but everything was uploaded to the Internet. For the exhibition, I printed all 365 pieces as 5x5 cards and arranged the cards to reflect the shape of the calendar months of that year. I then printed 80 of my favorite pieces from the project, each in varying sizes to best reflect the life of each piece. Seeing this work go from a digital existence to real, tangible pieces was polarizing for me. I was just like anyone in the gallery viewing the work for the first time. I realized that this work is real and I was able to understand how much of an undertaking this project really was for me. This was the first time I was able to see how the project is really a visual diary of my year. Each piece marked what I was doing at that time, where I was, what I was thinking.
Who are some artists who inspire you today? There's so much online these days that I find it hard to stop clicking Tumblr links and 500px galleries. Davis: I like Thomas Heatherwick, Gregory Crewdson, Werner Herzog, and Gonzalo Puch, to name a few. I tend to be inspired by artists and thinkers whose work reflects an original voice and point of view. There are a lot of artists who simply regurgitate what they see and turn inspiration into plagiarism, both intentional and subconscious. As wonderful as the Internet is for inspiring and sharing, it can also perpetuate plagiarism.
What will art on the Internet look like five or ten years from now? Davis: I think the Internet will continue to unearth new talent in creativity, and the ability to share and perpetuate work will continue to increase.