Two rectangular panels of burlap hang on the rear wall of Phillip Stearns’ art studio in East Williamsburg, and woven into each of them are unique networks of wires, connectors, light sensors, and miniature speakers.
“The whole premise of these things is that they’re shadow activated,” says Mr. Stearns (a.k.a. Pixel Form), 27, gesturing towards the burlap and wire installations. “So if it’s too dark they’ll make sound automatically. So if I just…”
He slides his hand in front of a light bulb that’s positioned in front of one of the burlap compositions, and its speakers emit a series of high-pitched, futuristic tones.
The crucial ingredient to Mr. Stearns’ works of art is audience participation. Much of his work is interactive—viewers can affect how his ‘electronic paintings’ behave. Two of the burlap pieces are light-sensitive, producing sound when a light source is obstructed. A third burlap installation incorporates sound sensors and LED lights so that lights flicker when sensors detect sound. Each of these works creates an energetic intimacy between the observer and the observed.
“As soon as you understand that you’re having some sort of effect on a work,” says Mr. Stearns, “You start to test your agency.” In other words, experimentation is always rewarding and quite irresistible.
Mr. Stearns grew up in Austin, Texas and did a stint at the University of Colorado Boulder and UC Denver, where he received a BA in sound engineering before moving to Valencia, California to complete an MFA in music composition at CalArts. The name “Pixel Form” emerged from the notion that a pixel can be blown up indefinitely—a realization the artist had while experimenting with digital photography in Europe several years ago. “When you get down to the pixel level,” posits the artist, “you’re at a sort of infinite resolution.”
Mr. Stearns was recently selected to be one of two Van Lier artists in residence with Harvestworks, a non-profit, Manhattan-based arts education organization dedicated to supporting technology-driven art. He will receive $10,000 to be used towards an expanded edition of a neural network installation. The project will include an education program in basic electronics focused on the applications of DIY hardware in network-based art, generative systems, and, of course, interactivity.
One of his most popular participatory installations, installed in the summer of 2009 at the Festival Internacional Linguagem Electronica in Sao Paolo, Brazil and entitled “15:33,” is a network of light bulbs and sensors in which the flow of light can be interrupted and redirected by the viewers who interact with it.
Mr. Stearns modeled the installation on biological and social networks, or, as he calls them, “real networks.” Each light bulb is part of a unit that represents a biological neuron, and each of these “neurons” is part of an equilibrium-seeking network of relationships in which the light bulbs are dependent on one another and are also affected by the actions of the installation’s participants. Stearns says he began to think about the relationship between “natural systems” and “human-made systems” after he had been working with electronics for a number of years, and his musings on the subject were part of the impetus for the “15:33” project.
The artist has explored ideas about the natural/human-made distinction in other works, such as a hanging electronic sculpture called “AANN: Artificial Analog Neural Network,” constructed in the fall of 2007. “AANN” is an attempt to accurately replicate a biological neural network. Constructed largely out of variously colored wires, it responds to light and sound, and includes elements that function like biological neurons. Mr. Stearns says the structure “is like a very primitive brain.”
“AANN” is an eerily hypnotic sculpture because it knows you’re there. It senses movement and registers voice, and responds with sparrow-like chirping noises and flickerings of light. Like “15:33,” it encourages you to consider the significance of the distinction between what is “natural” and what is “artificial” through its resemblance to something as human as the brain. The burlap installations, too, with their juxtaposition of natural fiber with wires and electronic devices, hint at that same idea.
“I’ve always been taking things apart. I’ve been kind of curious about electronics since I could wield a screwdriver, essentially,” he explains. “My dad had some parts left over from some do-it-yourself projects in electronics that he was working on. He’s a control systems engineer, so he had all this stuff lying around in the garage and I found it and brought these little resistors to him and I didn’t know what they were at the time so I was like ‘Which one’s better?’ and he says ‘Neither! They do different things.’” Mr. Stearns’ exposure to his father’s gadgets led to his work with circuitry, and eventually, he says, he started creating projects like his animated burlap installations.
But this circuit-worker has had many creative outlets over the years, and his interest in electronics has multiple sources. He pursued drawing and painting throughout middle and high school, and as a teenager taught himself to play the electric guitar. He became particularly interested in the effects that could be produced by using different kinds of pedals with his guitar, and was encouraged by a friend to think about the electronics themselves as instruments in their own right. He began to collect cheap motorized toys that he would hold over the guitar’s pickups so that he could hear their innerworkings. “From there,” he says, “I got into actually taking [the toys] apart and short circuiting them.”
What makes this artist especially fascinating is that his inspiration for creating electronic work is drawn from time spent working with seeds and soil. In 2007, he began gardening on a plot of land just north of Los Angeles, growing winter squash, zucchini, basil, tomatoes and a plethora of other greens and roots while holding a full-time job. His desire to garden sprung directly from the ambivalence he had started to feel towards the electronic devices he was working with.
Mr. Stearns began to see his circuitry materials, like other forms of technology, as being implicated in proliferating the idea that humans are separate from the world that surrounds us. Gardening became a means of reclaiming the human-world relationship. “Starting with hardpan soil and working it up to something that I could grow vegetables out of,” he recalls, “I realized that everything is alive.”
When Mr. Stearns moved to Brooklyn in February 2009, he received permission from the owner of a stretch of land upstate in Wappingers Falls to use one acre of their land to develop a garden. Making the three-hour bike-to-train-to-bike trip to the garden a few times a month, Mr. Stearns, driven by the ethic of owning one’s means of production, began to dip his toes into the world of growing once again. These days, he maintains a small garden at his home in Crown Heights and plans to work with the owner of the Wappingers Falls property to scale up production enough to sell produce at a local farm stand.
As with his gardening, there’s a DIY mentality involved in Mr. Stearns’ electronic work. He advocates for being an active producer rather than a passive consumer, and runs workshops to teach others some of the skills he has accumulated as a circuit-bender. He has taught at Solar One, a green energy arts and education center in Manhattan; NYC Resistor, a hacker collective in downtown Brooklyn; and has a number of classes scheduled at 3rd Ward, an artist space in Williamsburg.
The artist’s work with fruits and vegetables did not put an end to his work with electronic materials. Instead he uses his diversity of expertise to create work that tests our notions about nature and technology, and says, only semi-jokingly, that his work with electronics takes place partly “to understand the enemy.”
“I hold no illusions; these are incredibly damaging,” he says, holding up a resistor. “But the utility is that they wind up being part of a narrative.”