ARTIST PROFILE: Jennifer Steinkamp
The artist reveals what it’s like to be a new media pioneer
By Rachel Wolff
Comprised of whirling virtual trees, swaying lariat-like strands of flowers, and kaleidoscopic streaks of pure saturation, Jennifer Steinkamp’s digitally animated video installations are tech-enabled dreamscapes. Her works entrance, enchant, and utterly transform gallery walls, architectural relics, and unexpected doorways; they’ve lined the catwalk of haute couture fashion shows, and they’ve made Steinkamp herself nearly synonymous with the term “new media art.”
A pioneer in the field, the Los Angeles-based artist and professor in UCLA’s department of Digital Media Arts has seen support for computer-derived work grow tremendously in the past few decades as new media increasingly permeates our daily lives. But equally important to Steinkamp is the way that her work lives in its given exhibition space; she was influenced in this regard by California Light and Space artists such as Robert Irwin and James Turrell.
Steinkamp has also managed to imbue her ethereal, largely abstract works with subtle commentary and narrative. Jimmy Carter, a 2002 projection of colorful flowers tossing and turning in various directions as if being uprooted by the wind, was her quiet protest of the war in Afghanistan; in Fly to Mars 3, created two years later, tree branches bow and contract as if trying to launch into flight. “I thought it would be fun to make a tree that’s trying to fly to Mars,” she says during a phone interview, “since it would sort of be impossible…”
As both an artist and a professor, Steinkamp is uniquely qualified to muse on the new media art’s past and present. We asked her to tell us where it’s been and what has recently caught her eye.
Would you say your first love was art or tech?
Sort of half and half, more or less. I was always kind of blazing my own [trail], especially in school. I would do all of my assignments with the computer, no matter what they were. Even drawing assignments. But I do think that media artists who are successful emphasize the art more than the technology.
How would you characterize the evolution of new media art?
Well there wasn’t a lot of it [when I started out] and there wasn’t a lot of support. It was also pretty cost-prohibitive for artists to get into it so you really had to find a job and work with somebody else’s computer. Today, computers have become more powerful and accessible and more affordable. And people are coming up with amazing ways to work with them. To me, it’s still really untapped. There’s just so much that can happen. And that’s why I really enjoy it—it’s sort of like these endless possibilities.
What are some of the most exciting trends you’re seeing among young artists working with new media tools and techniques today?
A lot of students are making art with games, and that’s a territory where you have to be pretty advanced technologically and understand a lot of different aspects of what you can do with a computer. And then also what it takes to make a game, and how to create interaction in a game. I think that’s a territory that’s going to be really great.