In Conversation with Nate Sloan
Time of Publication : 20:49 - 4/7/22
Maria Dragoi: I really wanted to speak to you because I’ve been following your Vitruvian Grimace page for ages, and I've kind of interpreted that page as almost a more ambiguous version of all those affirmations pages that you see. For me, it’s really interesting because it really makes you think of social media and the internet as this massive kind of echo chamber - which can be good and bad simultaneously, can be reassuring but can also be quite strange.
Nate Sloan: Yeah. The the affirmations pages, I'm sure that’s in my thinking around things. I mean, those kind of pages often have this very alien, or inhuman quality that I think is very interesting to encounter.
It does feel like there is this endless recombination of the same kind of ideas - maybe it's a different picture behind it - but yeah like some vague Inspirational quote just continues to float around but with different fonts over a different sun set.
M: It's like a semi ironic extension of all those kind of very Tumblr, Pinterest, photos that were around in 2014 that saying ‘just girly things : going to the beach’. It is weird how much we love to see ourselves regurgitated back at ourselves.
N: Definitely. I think the the permanence of an Instagram post or of a digital image, is something that drives a lot of the page. A lot of the posts are from group chats I'm in where and I have this sense that I'm trying to do memorialise, or enshrine, little ephemeral bits of chat into something more permanent, but I mean, it's still very impermanent. It's just an image on Instagram. The subject of the images I play with is also mostly from the Western Art historical Cannon. So I think there is that idea of trying to put something my friends said, maybe as a throwaway line, in dialogue, or in juxtaposition with a Renaissance painting or Baroque engraving or what have you.
M: I think there's something really odd that happens when you strip something of its context and it becomes a snippet. Your work is both image and text ripped out of context simultaneously. We're always warned that context is key, that you can't understand something without context, but at the same time, lack of it can more easily facilitate this almost subconscious collective understanding. I guess it’s a sort of unburdening.
N: Definitely, I've always been drawn to making connections between things. I studied Latin in college and I remember taking Italian lessons and seeing how it was all connected behind-the-scenes. I do think there’s, at the level of repeated symbol and archetype (which is a word that has a lot of baggage), these repetitions of ideas over time - but then there's also the epiphanic capability of humans to force connections where there aren't any, right? I'm interested in that as well, the idea that the internet simultaneously erases all context while also giving you the tools to immediately call up that context if you want to.
M: Yeah, I'm a painter and my work deals with exactly this kind of pseudo-archetypal granting meaning to stuff that doesn't necessarily have it, but also could very much have it because of that granting. I think that the internet and digital culture plays a really interesting role in that because rationally it's the tool that should have done away with that tendency because it automates categorisation - and yet if anything it's magnified it.
I think what happens to humans when they're pummelled by relentless content is they do the same thing that an AI system does - they pattern seek. We put things together that are not necessarily meant to be together, but by virtue of this being done it births a potentially false dialogue, which may or may not indicate a collective subconscious. It's just a really odd process of meaning creation.
N: It’s the flattening effect of the internet. In some ways, it's a reduction to put a Renaissance painting on par with an image of Wojak, but I think there are pros and cons about that, because in bringing something of great artistic and art historical value down to the level of just another image to circulate on the internet you lose some of the context, but I think you also reinforce the continued relevancy of a whole Western cannon that I think is increasingly seen as obsolete and of no interest to most people.
M: It’s also the virtue of the meme format, memes are incredible because they are this bottom-up (as opposed to trickle down) platform for very intense, political or philosophical ideas, and they can help in doing away with the elitism that I think is what drives a lot of people away from the Western philosophical and art historical cannon. So I think for me what's really interesting about the page is literally the formatting of it.
I guess when I first messaged you, I was speaking about the idea of ephemera. Instagram is a very paradoxical platform because everything that goes online is there forever, and that's the permanency we spoke about earlier, but at the same time when you see something in your feed it's kind of what I call an ‘apotopic’ or transient space that is completely impermanent.
N: Yeah. I even go back and find images that I had forgotten about or, had kind of just gone through me. I'm still kind of thinking about the best way to archive or collate the individual images at some point.
The choice of formatting is something I really think about, particularly the square aspect ratio and capital impact font, which is ‘viral’. It streamlines the ability for these images to circulate.
From the very beginning I never wanted to pay any attention to asserting ownership or trying to nag re-posters into into crediting me, because it's completely antithetical to what I think the platform is for.
If you follow the wave of repost, shitpost, accounts - I was really thinking about this idea of just pure circulation, not doing it for any kind of personal brand exercise or audience building. It's just about juicing these things to flow through the network. That appealed to me very much as a philosophy of of posting. That’s a very grandiose pretentious phrase but yeah. *laughs*
Of course there’s always the draw of “oh maybe if I get enough followers, maybe I can monetise this”, or maybe this can lead to other things, which definitely enters my head from time to time, but I try not to let that override the initial impulse I had to start the page.
M: It reminds me of pre mass individuation, before the idea that the writer or artist was this lone genius, there was a massive wave in the Early Modern period of stuff getting published without authorship, and it was the same with paintings. They’re still constantly being misattributed, or we don’t know if it’s really the work of some anonymous studio assistant. ‘Shitpost’ pages are sort of a revival of this idea that content can just be content, and it can be detached from this one deified creator, and there’s something really valuable in that.
N: The first kind of art history I studied focused on the subjects of the ancient world, so already there is no conception of authorship in the same way. Image makers are treated as craftspeople, and images circulate with no attention paid to the artist. I’m really attracted to the idea of a cultural system, or vocabulary of images, that is totally disconnected from some single genius artist, who probably never really existed. I see image sharing platforms as being able to fulfil that human need much more successfully than any kind of contemporary art world.
M: It’s also like what you were saying before with the square format, capital block text - that is absolutely an established visual language, and it's a visual language that works on the internet.
I wanted to ask whether you’ve ever thought of having those images be physical, and as a further comment, what do you make of this new wave of ‘meme art’, specifically in painting?
N: Well, their reason for being on the internet is because most of the images I use already exist as physical objects in some other form that people can go see in a museum. I don’t think moving them to the physical would fulfil them in any way, the idea that there would be some completion by them being made tangible is superfluous, nothing is really gained.
M: No, if anything it would decrease their accessibility, I think. It would be commercialising something that ought not be.
N: I've thought at times I would like to get an old-fashioned slide projector, the ones that have to put physical slides in in the clicker and make a really satisfying noise when you change over the image. That’s maybe the only way I would bring these memes into the physical space. I really liked it when I was getting my master’s, the format of the lecture with images advancing through a slide deck, with a speaker using them to justify their points.
M: Yeah, that’s a nice way to think about it, because it acknowledges that you can't just kind of take it from the internet and plop it into a gallery. The format itself has to change, and the voice of a speaker accompanying it makes it an immersive experience, it would be good with a flat AI reader. It might also be quite nice as a book?
N: Yeah, I’ve thought of that, but there’s some images around copyright and legality I’d have to look into - a lot of images I use are in the public domain, but I’m sure some are not, so that might be an obstacle.
M: Maybe those issues around legality would also be a part of the piece itself, no?
N: Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree that it is all specifically about appropriation. I think we all have a claim to this cultural heritage, which is, of course, produced by patriarchal systems of oppression and capital - specifically with the images I use it’s more to do with feudalism and maybe the proto-capitalism of the Early Modern period of papal domination. So, although I don’t want to work with a Western Canon that is exclusionary in a lot of ways, I also don’t want to shy away from acknowledging the problematic aspects of history. I think about John Berger’s idea of infinite reproducibility. These images are open for re-interpretation and re-appropriation by anyone to make any kind of point they like.
M: It’s like what we were saying earlier - the only way for these images to continue to be relevant is if people, especially people outside of the canon are able to find a way of engaging with it now it’s lost its original gleam. The fact the Western canon has ended up being memed is absolutely fitting for what it is. It’s quite excellent.
Looking at the text of the images you create, there’s a very cryptic quality to it - can you walk me through the thought process of that?
N: I wasn’t really taught English Grammar, I learned grammar by taking Latin, and it’s been the backbone of my thinking about how language is structured.
M: Oh wow. I took Latin for a while as well, and I think when it comes to making links across time and cultures it’s sort of the perfect vessel to do that, it’s almost algebraic.
N: Yeah, absolutely - I think its history as forming the vernacular of so many foundational texts also forms a big part of my interest. There’s this current fascination with religion and spirituality that has many different kinds of manifestations, but there’s this nostalgic reactionary desire for some kind of right and true answer provided by the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, in attempt to recapture a past which never existed in the first place.
That desire is generated by our own contemporary circumstances, and there’s a complete ignorance of the openness of the Greek and Latin languages to multiple interpretations and a fluidity of meanings. There’s something attractive about the impossibility of trying to recapture an era with a completely foreign, ambiguous reality.
M: I guess there’s also something to be said about our interpretations of those languages becoming less malleable to reinforce power structures who were perhaps becoming uncertain of themselves amidst a shifting social sphere. It reminds me of that bit in East of Eden, where the final meaning of a key word in the Cain and Abel story ends up being the very old Hebrew for ‘maybe’ - ‘Timshel’. The classic tale completely changes depending on what way you interpret this ambiguity.
Fast forward a few thousand years, we now have internet language. There’s something really odd that starts with the very early four panel memes - all these new signifiers emerge, putting asterisks around something implies an action, that sort of thing. Words on the internet have taken on an ambiguous quality that has resulted in multiplicitous meaning.
N: Yeah, is it the rate of information exchange? What is responsible for these developments in the use of language that are, I have to imagine, dependent on the technology around the moment of their emergence? Why did the same thing not emerge from people writing letters to each other? I definitely encounter that questioning in a lot of the language I work with or I include in the images.
M: I also think the reason we’re consuming this ancient Western canon in this internet-speak-ified way is because only a certain fraction of people will have the time and ability to sit down and read the original texts, its a very privileged canon to study as part of a higher education structure. How the consumption of that kind of material happens is quite an ambiguous thing.
N: I’ve thought a lot about that from the perspective of architecture as well, thinking about possession and mainstream ‘canons’ of the built environment. It’s like how the Trump administration wanted to use exclusively classical architecture for all federal buildings moving forward. One of the biggest aspects of modernist art and architecture is the rejection of arbitrary or superfluous forms - the Brutalist movement has attempted total obliteration of these things. I personally think there’s a fine line between doing away with aspects of classical ornament and complete rejection of larger forms that may have been identified with good reason. Noam Chomsky has this story about working in a Brutalist building, and there’s a whole narrative about how human creativity has given rise to the ability to have a room with only one circular wall that is the epitome of perfect use of form, and all these concepts from philosophers like Deleuze can be invoked about it, and yet you can’t put up a desk against the wall.
One of the trickiest things to extricate from ‘traditions’ is what techniques or forms of art have been arrived at because they are the most apt to host human ideas and functions, and what are the blind traditions that are copied over without good reason. It’s a question that is not resolved today by any means.
M: No, it isn’t. There’s a lot of Cyber-Feminist theory that talks about the problem of setting up a subcultural movement as a rigid, absolute opposite. Its definition again the mainstream necessarily indicates its dependence upon the system it is set up to oppose. Doing this validates the conventional system, and predicates a false binary that can be restrictive to real progress. I remember Camilla Griggers talking about how the ultimate goal for subcultural revolutions is to make themselves so seductive to the mainstream that they’re able to infiltrate it and work from within to redefine the boundaries and edges of culture. In that vein I think the only way to work with these antiquated concepts is not to see them as futile, but slowly work on picking apart what’s important and what’s not within them. And that’s very intensive labour, but it is necessary labour for the future.
N: The presence of the same ‘antiquated’ works can be given a completely different historical value through the creation of a narrative structure which can accommodate themwhilst recognising them as objects or tools of oppression. I think of the work of an artist like Artemisia Gentileschi who worked through the trauma of being sexually assaulted in her work in the early 1600s. Time and again throughout history there have been counter examples to the dominant narrative, and these desires for emancipation from the status quo are not themselves unique to our era.
The concept of re-evaluation, of these signifiers simultaneously being stripped of context and also freed by their loss to be re-appropriated, that’s probably what’s at the heart of what I’m trying to do. I’m also trying to square my own fascination with this classical nostalgia. I have to reckon with my own romanticisation of some wholeness of meaning that has been lost to a non-existent past. I don’t really know how that resolves. I’m ultimately unsure if my awareness of it absolves me, or is itself the answer, but in any case it’s certainly a desire that is not unique to me. Maybe it’s only in my corner of the internet but it seems to be felt very widely.
M: I think there’s absolutely a nostalgic death drive in everyone, whether that’s for classical culture, for a particular branch of Western philosophy - for anything really, for the 60s and 70s, for every kind of bubble of society there’s this nostalgic want, this unfulfilled desire, which becomes problematic unless the boundaries of it are analysed and redefined on a very active basis. You have to ask yourself why there is that desire, why there is that draw that you can never fully grasp. I don’t think it ever gets resolved, I think it’s a constant quest to collectively pick out as much meaning from it as we can, and that’s the best we can do really.
N: Yeah. Yeah. You hope that the act of unpicking can lead you to the next moment.