Snow Yunxue Fu interviews Chaz Evans

-Where are you from? How do you become interested in art? And especially digital art?

I grew up in different places: Minnesota, Michigan, California, and a couple others. I’ve now lived in Chicago much longer than anywhere else so it feels most like home. I first started to focus on art after taking an art history survey when I was studying abroad in Edinburgh. There were two lecturers and the one who covered Rococo to Impressionism was a compelling art history stereotype who sounded like John Cleese. He decoded the political and cultural context bound up in images with a performative flourish that got me hooked. I think my interest in digital art began when I was spending too many hours in the day staring at Windows XP and tried to think about operating systems and productivity software in the same fashion that my art history lecturer looked at Millet.

-Where do you receive your training in art and technology?

I did two degrees at University of Illinois at Chicago that kind of supported each other. I started there in an art history MA, but was also taking studio classes in what was then called the Electronic Visualization program. Once I finished the art history coursework I started UIC’s New Media Art MFA and kept studying. I was learning about software to support my writing, but also writing to support a software-centric art practice. On paper its broken into two degrees, but the experience flowed together as four-year theory-practice program. Through the whole process I was also working at Gallery 400 as a Graduate Gallery Assistant and I often was responsible for A/V and tech concerns for exhibitions and events. I was often practically working through the issues I was dealing with in coursework in the context of gallery practice. I think consuming a lot of television, cinema, and video games throughout my life was and is also an important kind of training.

-What are some of your favorite artwork in history?

I am an admirer of John Baldessari’s Baldessari Sings Lewitt. I remember stumbling on it in the screening room that was in the contemporary section of AIC years before the modern wing opened. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I found it paradoxically hysterical and banal and I liked how it was directly dealing with a historical source through a new medium. I tried to get friends to come back to the museum with me to check it out and the one who did wasn’t into it. I made my own version of it in 2010 called Evans Dances Baldessari Sings Lewitt where I made videos of my dancing to Baldessari’s songs and the audience could choose what dance they wanted to see by clicking an on-screen menu.

-What are some of your favorite Contemporary artwork?

I think Cardboard Computer’s ongoing project Kentucky Route Zero is deeply fascinating. Its not yet complete, but the parts of it that are available are challenging, gorgeous, confusing, hilarious, heartbreaking, really fun, and very historically informed. Everything you want in a piece of media.

-Who are the artist(s)/teacher(s) that influence you the most?

I had a theatre teacher in my undergraduate studies named Chad Eric Bergman. His classes centered on a theme of staying honest and present in a given moment which carries over from theatre to interactive media. Sabrina Raaf, Daniel Sauter, and Marlena Novak were all important influences on me while studying at UIC and continue to be.

-What drives you to be an artist?

Being an artist means I can decode meanings of all kinds of cultural material, but also recode them in such a way that expresses my own position or contribution to a subject. I want to contribute to discourses and have willfully long and engaged conversations. I think being an artist is one the few job descriptions that allows this, but then again there really is no set job description for an artist which is also quite nice.

-What are some main concerns do you have conceptually in your art practice?

One main goal is to engender discussion on how emerging technologies are not the purview of engineers or computer scientists, but are instead a huge swath of contemporary media that is embedded with cultural subtexts and political valences; similar to any other type of creative media. I think this point is easily made in with video games, but I don’t think artists, art historians, media scholars, and other kinds of humanists have yet deployed all the tools we have for understanding what ideas are being expressed through games. The point is less obvious when looking at other kinds of computational media like operating systems, productivity software, or mobile apps because there is still an attitude that they are things of utility, but I believe a lot of assumptions and values are expressed through these more banal kinds of software and its important to understand what those values are. Furthermore, I think the approach for understanding emerging media and technology doesn’t need to start from scratch but greatly benefits from historical research and comparison. I try to search for continuities between new media and historical precedents by way of analogy or transposition.

-What was the first body of work that address this issue?

One early data visualization I made that deals with these issues is called The Naked Internet. Its a visualization of my own web browsing history done in the style of Guy Debord’s psychogeographical maps of Paris. Instead of going on a derive of Paris, I did an internet derive. The goal was break my normal internet movements and instead discover unexpected psychological associations with web space. The project was similar to the Baldessari piece in that I tried to apply a historical reference to a software-based work.

-How do you come to become interested in the discourse of New Media art, and especially in art game?

Video games are crucially important to the wider conversation about new media and computational art because they are the most culturally recognizable genre of software production. I wanted to focus on video games because they fill out the very expressive side of the spectrum of studying software in a humanist fashion. That said, I think its pretty important to understand genres of software production outside of games to culturally situate them. I think I started feeling this way after playing We Heart Katamari for PS2.

-How do you think your work is related to more traditional media like painting or sculpture?

Without understanding other media I wouldn’t have the necessary points of comparison to culturally situate games, software, or any kind of emerging media through a historical perspective. It’s difficult to make any quick sweeping statement about software relates to other media like painting, but feel I often find more connections between different disciplines than irreconcilable differences. In this way an interdisciplinary perspective is very key, and also good for making sure I don’t burn out on any one thing.

-How has your art practice maintain or change in the past years?

My work in the past often involved me as performer. It still sometimes does, but I think over time I found different ways to make a work performative and/or participatory without using my own physical presence as a material. I like performing though, so I might end up moving back in that direction. Who knows? The kinds of performances I did involved a lot of gear, which is problematic for certain spaces so that probably has something to do with it.

-What do you think about the importance of craftsmanship in your artwork, especially dealing with the technology?

If were dealing with form and concept as a dichotomy, I’d say I’m pretty concept driven. I think its more important to find a meaningful connection between a tool or technique and the idea at hand than to go vertically into the technical nuances of a certain tool before I know what I’m going to do with it. On the other side of this, technique is still very important: more often than not the thing needs to work and disseminating technical knowledge is one of the important jobs that computational art can perform. But really, dividing form and concept is a language exercise of convenience. They are really the same thing; they are often separated to help break something down in order to understand it better. Still, extended technical exercises can make me antsy. With code-driven work, if its meaning is bound up in its technical expertise there is the danger of following the same logic as tech start-up culture, or the history of software production as it is received in an unproblematized sense. I think if were dealing with software in an art context we have the opportunity to operate under different logics and goals, and I wouldn’t want to miss that opportunity.

-Are you thinking of a specific audience or people when you are making your work?

I often try to make sure a piece has multiple points of entry. That is to say, there are a number of ways to engage with the work and I am happy with any of them, or other ways that an viewer/participant decides on their own. For example, with Evans Dances Baldessari Sings Lewitt, if a viewer wants to engage with the historical conversation between conceptual artists and various media, that is great. If they simply think that watching some guy do a bunch of dances by himself is compelling or amusing that is also great. When it was up at Evanston Art Center there were a bunch of kids at the opening who danced along. That was also great. In general I’d rather be open to different points of entry and to any manner of audience member than to make assumptions about the audience and build a project in relation to that.

-How has your teaching experience been influencing your practice as an artist?

Teaching new media is great because so many research questions are unresolved and a class can become a laboratory directly contributing to a larger conversation, rather than the kind of class where the instructor is supposed to deliver this set canon of knowledge in a one directional manner. Instead, since the field is always changing preparing for courses means I am always researching. I present current important developments, terms, ideas, and tools, and then charge students with coming up with their own proposals for how to address contemporary issues of culture and technology. Getting to hear these new proposals and ideas from students is a real privilege. Being a part of feedback loop like this keeps my relationship to the field evolving.

-How does your other practice like writing and running a gallery inform your practice as an artist?

In keeping with the way I studied at UIC I still write to support making artwork, and make artwork to be able to write better. Doing research and writing gives me more subject matter to make artwork about. Learning how to use software tools and dealing with them in a practical way has a huge impact on what you can argue and how you can support those points through writing. Through running VGA Gallery I’ve been able to reach out and make new relationships. I like to think that by doing events and presenting work of game artists other relationships have formed between people that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Contributing to the community and infrastructure around games is as important as exhibiting the work. It informs my own work because I get to situate myself as one node is this system of ideas and relationships which is pretty crucial when in comes to participatory media. It doesn’t work in the kind of solo-author-artist concentrating in the vacuum of their own studio model. I need the feedback and energy of working with others, and I think the same is true for those I’ve had the privilege to work with through VGA.

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