Saturday, December 4, 2010

INTERVIEW: Stephen Orloske Speaks with Steve Budington

An exhibit of Steve Budington's work entitled Homunculus is at the Firehouse Gallery in Burlington from October 29, 2010 through January 1, 2011. Budington, a professor of painting at the University of Vermont, was recently interviewed by Stephen Orloske for Vermont Art Zine.

According to the Burlington City Arts website,
In Steve Budington’s Homunculus, human bodies unravel, fly apart, and merge with prosthetic technology. Budington’s new body of work takes as its point of departure the neuroscientific concept of the “cortical homunculus”: a remapped image of the human form that scales body parts in relation to the degree of sensory input present in each area. In a radical redefinition of figurative painting, Budington’s imagery emphasizes embodied experience: the proliferation, or complete absence, of sensory organs; Gore-Tex in exchange for skin; and male and female genitals spliced onto the same body. From iPods to cosmetic surgery, artificial hearts and neuroplastic implants, our culture increasingly extends and enhances the physical body. Budington explores and questions how this next step in our physical evolution will transform our sense of self and our perception of the environment we inhabit.

Vermont Art Zine: People have been artificially tweaking themselves since prehistory. But before we can physically alter our bodies we must first possess the desire, the idea and the means. The promises of bioengineering and robotics make your figures seem not at all unrealistic, so what desires and ideas do you think are bound to proliferate? How might the human form continue to reshape?

Steve Budington: I can’t honestly say I know the answer to this question about what will happen in the future. In a way though, I’m asking similar questions when I make my work. Specifically, I’m asking what would happen if the body evolved at the rate of cultural novelty? What would it look like, and what might that imply about our subjective experiences? My works might be seen as a provisional answers to these questions.

In terms of "desire", what seems conspicuous to me in the context of our present culture is a deep ambivalence about the promises of bioengineering and robotics. Most people seem on board with the idea that advances in these fields towards health and healing are a positive development, whether we’re talking about helping soldiers with amputations, or curing diseases and mental disorders. At the same time, there’s a real fear related to using those same technologies to enhance the non-impaired body beyond its physical or mental limitations. This ambivalence seems like a richly imaginative space in which to work.

VAZ: Yet we have no qualms relegating our sense of direction to GPS, or our cultural tastes to Amazon, or our memory to a hard drive, etc… It seems we fear corporal alterations only because they make stark the ways the human condition is already being reformed. Do you think the anxiety is needless?

SB: If the anxiety produces a thoughtful consideration of pros, cons, and various potential outcomes, then it will be a productive anxiety.

VAZ: I guess that's the problem with anxiety and ambivalence: they do not make for thoughtful considerations, instead they make irrational ones. Your art seems to press the mute button on that anxiety and instead open the conversation up to what possible futures there might be. So what's your own relation to technology, especially when making art?

SB: I like this idea of "pressing the mute button" in my work - that's a great way of putting it.

In terms of my personal relationship to technology, evidence would suggest I'm not much of a "techy"; it's likely I prefer reading and thinking about technology more than using it, though it's certainly ubiquitous in my life as an artist and a teacher.

Painting of course, is a very old technology; colored mud on a surface. The limitations of this medium allow me to think in ways that are unavailable to me in most other aspects of my life. The paint interferes with my intentions and ideas, which at best leads me to unexpected ways of looking and thinking, and at worst to the failure of an image. The failure is often productive, however. I have not experienced this with digital mediums; I think because you can reverse your steps to get back to an earlier state, or completely delete something. Making a move in a painting, on the other hand, is more or less irrevocable. Even when you paint over something there is a residual physicality, if not visible pentimenti. In a painting, you have to commit to the result of your actions and forget about what came before it. I haven't found a way to do this digitally. Maybe it would be different if I were a programmer, but for now, I'm merely a user.

VAZ: Your figures often have many more organs than we're accustomed to: a head that's all eyes, or ears, multi-penile genitals, etc… The hype of the technological revolution is that life will be just as it is, but more intense. We'll have more pixels, more audio depth, more pleasure than we even know we wanted. So, do you think that's the case, or will these inventions actually restructure what a human is? And if so, does painting reveal anything about how?

SB: The "human" has constantly been reshaped by the demands and inventions of culture; The renaissance generated the idea of the humanist whole, which involved an individual perfecting themselves on all levels: mentally, physically, and spiritually. In this model, there was no separation between the "geeks" and the "jocks." By now, we've pretty much replaced that humanist model with models of specialization. Here, the idea of "perfection" is replaced by "optimization", the "genius" by the "specialist", and "essence" by "context dependence." These shifts in thinking and thier results in cultural production manifest on the physical body, whether it's through the extension of the body with technology, physical or mental training and re-training, prosthetics, or re-constructive surgery. For example, there is nothing particularly "natural" about today's hyper-trained athlete's body; it is the epitome of an optimized and context dependent specialist. Nor is there anything natural about becoming a specialist in increasingly minute subject areas. It is apparent that we live with excesses of specialized minutia situated within ever more specialized social contexts. As always, we're adapting ourselves with our minds, bodies, and technologies.

I think a painting is a great place to reflect on this; it's one of the few media that holds still for you.

VAZ: And now art is increasingly specialized and categorized and more of it accused of obscurity. Some call for a change toward mass appeal. I think the conflict between renaissance and post-modern ideals plays out in micro over this question, though you'll find enduring art in all camps. So how do you feel as an artist relating to the art world? Do you feel pigeonholed or freed by the new ways art is shared through technology?

SB: As an artist living in Vermont, I'm grateful that technology has created ways to share and decentralize artistic activity. What's more, artists now have the ability to practice in a wider variety of venues and locations, and they have a broader if not infinite range of materials and methods available for making new work. In this environment, there's going to be a lot of fantastic work, a lot of poor work, and the full spectrum in between. Because of this, artists, critics, curators, collectors, art historians and others have had to figure out ways of assessing what is or should be significant about a work of art and why. I love all of this discourse, theory and practice; it can provide new ways of interpreting and experiencing the world we're in, and this in turn can provide a catalyst for making work.

VAZ: What contemporaries have you been introduced to online? Any other artist or theory out there now you feel particularly drawn to, or at odds with?

SB: Steve DiBenedetto is a contemporary painter whose work I was introduced to in graduate school about 7 years ago. I saw his work online first and was not interested in what seemed like goopy, psychedelic doodling you see on college campuses. Seeing the work in person changed my mind completely, and I love his paintings from the early 2000's. I'm constantly being introduced to new work online, but I've never arrived at a meaningful experience or understanding of any art this way. You still have to see it in person.

As for artists that interest me, there are so many. Recently, I've been thinking about and looking at the work of Jakub Julian Ziolkowski, Kurt Kauper, Amy Sillman, Vermeer, Alexi Worth, and William Pope L., among many others. With theory, in the past few years I've been re-visiting the history of figurative painting in the 20th and 21st centuries, reading artists statements, interviews, and the works of relevant critics and theorists. A few that stick out to me; Benjamin Buchloh's essay "Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression," and Kathryn Hayles book "How we Became Posthuman." I also loved reading "Endurance," the historical account of Ernest Shackelton's antarctic expedition.

VAZ: An android from the future arrives on your doorstep with a replica of your body. "Only faster, stronger and eternally youthful," the android says. "We simply download your brain into this hard drive, upload it into this body and then voila! As for the old one," poking your belly, "easily disposed of." Do you accept the offer?

SB: No thanks. I like this flawed thing I'm in.