Sterling Crispin (b. 1985) is equal parts artist and engineer. His background in both the arts and sciences reflects in his work, which beautifully synthesizes the two worlds. An advocate for technology, his work is an accolade to its advancements, while simultaneously exploring the philosophical questions and human anxieties that exist alongside them. We were excited to interview him in his Los Angeles studio before he made the move to New Mexico.
Can you talk about your survival cubes? How did you form the idea for them?
The concept formed around 2012, when everyone seemed to be focused on the Mayan Apocalypse and the impending end of the world. It was in the air. Even rational people were asking themselves, “What if the world really does end?” So I started thinking about how this converges with accelerationism and the technological singularity -- hyper exorbitant visions of the future. Every speculation of the future is grandiose. It's never, “Well not much will happen and it will just continue as it has been.” Everyone predicts things like the ice caps are going to melt, all the cities are going to be underwater, the equator of the earth is going to be uninhabitable, A.I. is going to replace all of the jobs... It's all really spectacular narratives of the future. The art I’ve been making recently is a reaction to that. It takes hold of my existential anxieties, and press them into these objects, so I can take a step back and look at them.
I made the Self-Contained Investment Module and Contingency Packages as a kind of tongue and cheek statement, playing into and critiquing the market forces and fears embedded in the art market. There is a zombie formalism movement of artists focused on making paintings that look good above a couch. Its like pokemon cards for rich people. In relation to that idea, I made this bitcoin mining computer-sculpture playing on our hopes and fears. Just by owning this sculpture you are literally investing in a speculative digital currency, not just speculating in the art market. The sculpture generates literal value, and might pay for itself overtime. Or like an art invest the piece might accrue value later, and you can sell it and make a return on your investment. But if things go wrong the sculpture is filled with all these objects like nanotechnology water filters, so you can take the sculpture apart and use parts to survive. There's a 10,000 organic seeds, dehydrated food bars..these are all playing on collapse narratives and fears of potential investors.
Can you explain the bitcoin mining component of the piece?
So Bitcoin - (I'm not an expert in bitcoin) the thing to know is there’s something called the blockchain, and it is basically a public record of all the bitcoin transactions that have ever occurred. It is very transparent by its structure. In order to earn a fraction of a bitcoin, you have to solve a very complicated cryptographic math problem, which basically verifies the authenticity of all of these transactions.
These calculations are really complex and so you’ve got to use a fast computer to do them. And the more bitcoin that gets rewarded for this activity the harder it gets to generate a bitcoin, hence scarcity and value like any traditional commodity. And every transaction has to be verified by the cloud. So if you had a basic computer running in the beginning of all of this you would have made a lot of money because there weren't many transactions. Now it's harder. The computer inside of the sculpture is called an application-specific integrated circuit. It is a computer designed only to do one thing, and do that one thing as fast as it can. The bitcoin PC installed in the sculpture was one of the faster ones available on the market when I paid for it, about $400. If you let it run for a month, it might pay for its own electricity. But things move so fast I doubt it could do that now. The whole system has scaled up beyond an average person’s ability to participate. There are huge data centers all over the world full of machines owned by the 1% running 24/7 generating bitcoin. We can’t compete with that.
Can you explain your ‘totems’, N.A.N.O. , B.I.O. , I.N.F.O. , C.O.G.N.O. ?
Each totem has 100 shares in a company representing four different industries: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and the cognitive sciences, which are the four pillars of the technological singularity. Through buying the sculpture, you are literally investing in the essence of these technologies and kind of casting your vote for that future. I have microcomputers that monitor the stock exchange rates, so you can see if your investment is gaining or losing value (and it's also one of those early web 1.0 visitor maps.) The sculpture is tracking itself. I realized while making this piece it's unlikely that someone is going to buy all four. They are huge and cumbersome, and so I wanted to incorporate the fact that they’d probably get separated into the form and content of the work. So if (hypothetically) you owned one in Miami, and are looking at this apocalyptic terminal and its tiny world-map, suddenly another one might come online somewhere else in the world. It's almost like they’re these elemental bodies for the spirits of technology, but also just giant Bloomberg terminals. Do you know about those?
No, What are Bloomberg Terminals?
Michael Bloomberg made a huge fortune in part by renting out these specialized computers that have access to his financial network, and you have to pay something crazy like $5000 a month to have access to the terminals. It is a stock trading platform. But there’s also this Craigslist for the 1% built into it. People sell Ferraris, boats, and helicopters on it. And you know that you are only dealing with other rich people because it's $5000 dollars a month to rent out this computer.
Where does the inspiration for the design come from?
The main structure is made of aluminum server racks that are meant to have web servers inside of them. I wanted the work to be ornate and beautiful, representing the four industries of the singularity, but without being too visually literal. So I went on Google and took huge screen shots of the grid of images that comes up when you search those four key industries. Then layered the images on top of one another and started to abstract them into ornate patterns that could be laser cut.
I also wrote software to generate thousands of variations of the Ethernet cable compositions in the sculptures, and printed out a bunch of the variations that looked the most like faces. Then I spread the prints out on the floor and tried to figure out which combinations of faces looked best together. I do that a lot. I’ll have an idea for something physical and write some code to shortcut the process. Because imagining every possibility of where the 30 ethernet cables could go in order to look like a face sounded incredibly tedious, and also obviously something a computer could do much faster. So why not just write a software that will do it for you, and then follow the instructions you made for yourself? But then of course these instructions have to meet the real world and there’s always resistance to the blueprints, so the design changes. The cables actually have to bend over each other, the zip ties pinch them and it changes, you’ve got to be flexible and open to interpretation throughout the process. It’s still a poetic process, just accelerated by computers.
You brought up existentialism before. What is your relationship between technology and spirituality?
I think that as human beings we are tool users. And so technology is just a part of what we are, not just a lifeless external thing. I see people and technology as one system. But also technology is almost a second level of evolution, an emergent phenomena. So it's both a part of us and outside of us. It’s our other and ourselves.
Are you afraid of singularity?
I think people are afraid of anything that is beyond their control. And it seems out of control when the cellphone you are holding now is 250,000x more powerful than the computers that brought people to the moon. And by that rate, in 2020, technologic growth will bring us a computer as powerful as the first iphone that’s the size of a red blood cell and, in 2045, $1000 worth of computer power will be as powerful as all human brains combined. And who know what that is going to do to our society, our government, our bodies. This fear stems from losing control, but if you follow that logic, the world must be a very scary place. Because it’s actually all out of our control. As much as people are paranoid about the Illuminati controlling the world, they are equally afraid that of not being able to control it. I’m more worried about global warming, that we won’t have access to food or water - that California farming industry will collapse and people will starve to death. That is a very real, potentially imminent future we are stepping into that is way scarier than smarter computers.
This is all very gloom and doom.
I'm also interested in beauty and creating beautiful things and having a sense of poetry and giving back to you the viewer. Even if you didn't know this whole narrative, I want to create something that gives to your senses and not just be an essay object. I think it’s political to be interested in beauty, and real beauty, not the cheap kind.
What is beauty to you? How does it relate to symmetry?
Simply put, things that are revealing something about the rhythm of the world - and nature does that really well. Go to a museum and look for the most beautiful thing you can find, and then go on a hike..there’s no comparison. Heidegger says that “Beauty is truth setting itself to work” and I really resonate with that. Beauty isn’t something that varies from person to person, that’s attractiveness. I think beauty is objective. It’s a truth outside of yourself that you observe and draw nearer toward with action and perception. But I don’t think we can make things that are actually truly beautiful, just we can get closer and closer to it. If you’re walking down the beach and you find some shell that just really grabs your attention, and you think that it’s really beautiful, you can probably see some organizational rhythm of the world expressing its way through the form of this shell. And I feel like symmetrical objects are doing that (and all that facial analysis of beautiful people), and it always comes down to things being harmonious.
Man is constantly is trying to replicate nature.
These (See images) are kind of doing that in a way. I had different approaches where these are really smooth and then I applied this fractal offset to try to make them look more natural, but I really like the weirdly too-smooth digital looking thing, where the objects are not trying to fool you. It's heading towards something natural but stopping at that uncanny point where it's not really quite right.
Are you still working on your mask series?
I'm still showing them a lot but not making new masks. I said what I needed to say with them, and it is a good thing to move on to the next project. I've shown them a lot in Europe, and I am still showing them there, but I haven’t shown them in the states much.
Have you ever bought one of those survival packs for hiking?
I've bought a lot of them, but not for my own use. Only for sculptures. But after thinking through all of this stuff I do have something by the brand Lifesaver. I have one of their straws in my backpack.. Doing research on paranoid people kind of makes you paranoid.
What residency are you at right now?
I'm the artist and resident at DAQRI, an augmented reality company. I went back to graduate school because I had read all of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity books, and thought, “Wow, I want to actually do this stuff instead of making metaphors about it all day long.” DAQRI allows me to do that. It almost gives me the freedom to make more exploratory or metaphorical artwork that lives in an aesthetic realm because (through the residency) I am constantly engaged with technology and resolving my need to make working systems.
Where do you fit on the spectrum of technologist vs. artist?
While I was getting my M.F.A., I was taking all these technology based classes and ended up taking a third year and getting a M.S. in multimedia engineering, programing for virtual reality, audio engineering, drones, 3D printing, that kind of thing. It’s a weird position to be in. Engineers don't trust me because I'm too much of an artist, and artists don't trust me because I'm too much of an engineer.
It's interesting to be making technology heavy art now because media art is spread out across all of these cliques - there’s the European media art conference kind of circuit and SIGGRAPH, more research and programming heavy stuff and then, on the other side of the spectrum, there's people making post internet art, gifs, memes, and social feeds as artworks. There's a large spectrum that spans from Warhol to Alan Turing and the two worlds still don’t really mix. And then there’s places like Deviant art that's obviously a massive database of digital art but basically shunned as outsider art and never discussed as far as I know. I was labeled as a post internet artist for a while but I’ve taken a lot of that art off my website now and stopped exhibiting with that crowd. I feel like I’m still operating in some similar spaces actually, but I’m oppositional to the ironic trend that's saturated a lot of what people call post internet art now. I think that irony is really destructive both personally and culturally and I hope it’s a dying trend.
Are there a particular scientists you'd like to work with?
Institutions like Singularity University or the Machine Intelligence Research Institute should have artist residences. Boston Dynamics. I would love to have a budget and time to work with them.