The interview with media artist James Clar took place in his studio located near the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City, October 2013. In this candid interview, Clar shares his progress as artist over the past eleven years, experience in Dubai, how his life sculpts his art, his take on technology and he discusses copyright issues.
Photos of Clar’s works (except for the one taken in his studio) are courtesy of the artist.
We are sitting at your studio now. Can you describe your daily routine here?
It depends on what I’m working on, large scale installations or smaller self-contained works. Things can be pretty fluid. I’m usually working on 2 or 3 pieces at once. I have to order a lot of materials, so depending on when they come in I’m allowed to work on a particular piece.
For larger scale works or installations, they tend to take a long time and have a lot of coordination. So they can take half a year or a year to materialize.
I’m here 6 days a week, from around 10am to 5pm.
So you try to keep the regular hours like in a day job.
Yes, absolutely. I think it’s important to keep things structured, especially when you are on your own schedule.
Is there any project that you are working on right now?
And then in a couple weeks I’ll show at Istanbul Contemporary Art Fair, then my solo exhibition in Barcelona at the end of November. December is Miami. February is Arco Madrid. March is Armory New York and Art Dubai.
Wow, how do you manage?! I know you are very prolific. Just by looking at your site, it’s amazing how much work you are doing. But really, how do you do it?
Well, I got into a high output mentality while at ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program, New York University). I’d use the assignments that were given and try to approach them to create final pieces. I’d just work within the confines the teacher gave us and see if I could make a finished piece with it.
I try not to pause too much when making work, or maybe I get anxious if I’m not creating.. The work I do is really a timeline of what I’m interested in or exploring at the time.
When I graduated from school my budget for creating works was really, really minimal.. After having graduated from ITP I didn’t even have an apartment, I was just staying at a friend’s place.
In New York?
Yes, it was Bushwick at the time. But not how Bushwick is now, there was nobody there. I’d literally eat one meal a day and save the money to busy acrylic, resin, or other materials. Then at the end of the week I might have enough to produce a small, raw concept.
So you had a starving artist period!
Yes, absolutely! I don’t even think things got stable until 2 – 3 years ago. It took a long time to narrow in on a path and get stable. In fact, I wouldn’t even have called myself an artist until a few years ago, because even though I was impulsively making a lot of pieces, I didn’t understand how it could become a profession.
Did you do something else besides?
I had two jobs in the last 11 years (since graduating from ITP). One was working at digital advertising agency, R/GA, for 3 months, and the other was working in architectural lighting. I did this in Dubai for 1 year and that’s what brought me there originally. This architectural lighting firm knew about the work I was doing from my website and invited me to come out to propose ideas for the hotels and public spaces they were working on.
We (Clar and his wife) had been moving around a bit (New York, Tokyo, Memphis, and back to New York) when this job presented itself, so I figured why not? This was back in 2006. We had heard a lot about Dubai so we thought we’d see what it was about.
How was it?
Working in architecture lighting was interesting. It was definitely a learning experience. All my work colleagues really went to school for architecture lighting… and you know we went to school at ITP, which is like a…
Yeah, it was completely an experimental lab.
Red Burns visited Dubai once and I was telling her about the experience working at the architectural lighting design firm. I said, “You know, at ITP we are taught to think differently. To use materials, but not necessarily in the ways they were meant to. And that’s great for developing new concepts or new systems, but it put me at opposite ends with my colleagues at the firm. They would say ‘No you’re supposed to use this light this way’ or ‘This lamp must be used this way’, etc.”
But actually it was a learning experience for me, because I started learning about lux levels, how to read architectural diagrams, and how to put together proposals correctly for architects and clients. So even though it was a tough situation in that none of my experimental works got approved by the clients, I learned a lot of foundational knowledge and procedure.
I think these commercial experiences.. including R/GA, I learned a lot from them, even though they could be difficult. Some people are great at work politics. I’m not especially.
At architectural lighting firm, was it common to find someone like you, who designs lights but who also has knowledge in engineering?
It’s not too common. Generally speaking, architecture lighting is about providing an environment with the proper light levels for what its use is. In fact, a lot of times the lights should be hidden in the architecture and not distract from it. This is what I learned. However, there were moments when we were given options to explore, and that’s when my colleagues would ask me a lot of questions. And I’d be like “Yeah sure, you can use the temperature data to control the colors for the façade of the building.” Things like that. It was definitely a different approach than what they thought.
The way I remember you is through 3D LED Cube from ITP. Now I see your work here and it is completely different from that. At one of your previous interview, you also mentioned that you transitioned from micro-controller based LED light design to more florescent light for a aesthetic reason, right?
Yes, it’s for aesthetic reasons. LED lights still have this dotting effect that is really distracting to me. Fluorescents have a clean, linear light that I can control.
I try to keep things really minimal and purely visual. I can’t erase the dotting of LED stripes, but if I wanted to, I could make a fluorescent have a dotting effect. So at the moment I just have more control over it. I’m happy to upgrade though as soon as that changes.
You used to do more of interactive designs. Are you planning to do interactive works with florescent light?
Not really. When I was at ITP I had just come from Film/Animation in undergrad. So I was trying to create animations that were controlled by different data sets, such as sound and video tracking, then just let that control the frames of animation. This was definitely an approach to developing a visual system.
However, later on in Dubai, I understood that what I’m moving towards is art and it’s close to sculpture because it’s material based. So I started moving into this idea of objects that exist and encompass the idea itself. It doesn’t require active interaction with it. The artwork is already finished as it is. The idea is solid and it exists on it’s own.
It’s really interesting to hear that from you because I remember you and your work from ITP. So, you don’t miss the interactive element in work?
Hmm, not really. Although, who knows, I might add an interactive element to a work in the future. I just think it’s not important to make that the focus.
Actually, moving back to New York I’ve started to experiment with video, and I haven’t really been doing that since undergrad. Although, I think it’s all related, light works and film/video.
In your recent work “Turbulence” though, you used micro-controller and a motor. Is that another direction you’re looking at, though it’s not interactive?
It’s not interactive. It’s definitely dynamic though.
I think thematically I’m often concerned with the shifting notions of identity and nationalism, through globalism and technology. This definitely came about while in Dubai. Things there change so quickly, it’s like concentrated globalism. I often thought that Dubai, how it is now, could not exist without the internet. But also, I felt like the issues they were dealing with were what other people were dealing with globally. It was just exaggerated there. So I’d observe these effects and make work from it.
It really sounds like you got a lot of influence and met with big turning points in Dubai.
Yes. Although I hated it there at first.. The first year was really tough. I just thought the city wasn’t right for me. People don’t like me because of how I look, they don’t like my work, they’re just not used to it. So we were definitely planning on moving back to New York after the first year, end of 2007.
But then, about a month before we were going to move, Kanae (Clar’s wife) said “I heard they started Pecha Kucha here. You should try and present your work.” So I did. The art scene was really just starting at that time, and the core group of people were at that Pecha Kucha (Traffic, Rami Farook, The Third Line, 9714). Afterwards they said, “James, don’t leave. We’ll help you out and start exposing your works.”
After that it was a complete shift in involvement. A city’s experience is largely based on the friends that surround you, and I’m lucky to have met them there.
But you didn’t directly work with a media art gallery after that, did you?
No, no. There is no media art gallery there. At the time there were only around 3 galleries, now there’s a couple dozen. And those early galleries were really starting to develop a ‘Middle Eastern’ contemporary art scene at that time. So they wouldn’t represent an Asian American who happened to be in Dubai. They wanted to build the local scene, so that meant Middle Eastern or of Middle Eastern descent.
I was with Rami Farook and Traffic. He gave me studio space and I’d make works. At first it was more about limited edition design, but as his interest in art developed so did mine. We went from doing contract work for Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi art fair one year, and then the next year to actually being an exhibitor. I did a solo at Art Dubai 2010 and then a split show with Abdulnasser Gharem that fall in Abu Dhabi.
You mentioned that your work is not necessarily about technology now, but you are a very technical person, and you definitely play with technology.
I mean, I’m into technology and how it affects people on a personal and cultural level. But I don’t think I concentrate on technology like an engineer or a strict ‘new media arts’ person.
I’m trying to push things more conceptually.
In your work “The Rat Race”, I thought you kind of expressed your sentiment as a media artist that it is always a rat race. But in “Little. Yellow. Different”, you talk about finding happiness through technology. So, is this your approach to technology?
I love technology but I’m skeptical of it at the same time. It’s like you accept the change but that doesn’t mean you have to like it. That’s an underlying theme to a lot of works. My work is very visual and colorful, but it’s offset by themes that are a bit dark. It’s a bit like the newest technology itself, all shiny and new, but what is it doing to us?
Some of your works are about love or relationship. Can you talk about those projects?
Definitely. I’m just trying to make works that are personal. This is something that I try to do, and relates to my high output of work. The works that I create are a reflection of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences at the time. I think authorship is very important in fine arts. The works that are created should say something about the artist.
I think this is what sets me apart from other people who use light, such as UVA or Random International. Those are companies with many people involved so their work is often detached from any personal emotions because they come from a group.
My work is a timeline of experiences, my emotions, and where I’ve been. I think in the long run this is what sets my body of work apart from anyone else’s.
People still talk about how difficult it is to collect media arts, how it might be difficult to maintain the work after the collection. How do you deal with this kind of technical issues?
Yeah it’s hard. I think that might be part of the reason I moved away from interactive work. It breaks!
However, collectors are more and more open to media art or technology-based art. You definitely see artworks that use some form of technology in galleries nowadays. It just needs to be utilized in the right way and not just because it’s the latest technology.
Any comments on Rihanna’s music video “Rock Star”?
Yeah it’s crazy! My friend showed it to me and I thought it was pretty ridiculous. It also made me a bit angry. I mean, she’s rolling around with millions of dollars and her creative team just rips off ideas from artists. She actually ripped off David LaChapelle in another video of hers. I actually spoke with some lawyers about it. The problem is the copyright and the fact that I didn’t know about it until now because I was in Dubai when it happened… Anyways, it’s a learning experience. All my work is filed copyright now.
My stuff’s been ripped off before, 3D Cube was ripped off by Random International.. I mean fine, if you are a student and an artist influenced you, maybe you make a work that is similar. But at the stage where we’re at, you shouldn’t do that.
3D Cube was a really good learning experience. I was really young at the time and got a ton of attention for it. Pretty soon I started seeing all these copycats on the internet and it was really frustrating. I spent all this money on patenting it, but after that you have to pay for lawyers, you have to chase down people, and then get into litigation. It just became this whole negative path I didn’t want eating up all my time with. You have to ask yourself, is that what you really want to spend all your time doing?
So I decided the most important thing is to just keep making things. You have to keep evolving and staying ahead. I told myself “Don’t fall into this trap. Don’t let it suck you in.”
It’s interesting when you created 3D LED Cube it was very unique (I had never seen anything like that..) and now you kind of see it everywhere. There is a DIY kit on the web, let alone how to tutorials.
If Kickstarter were around when we were at ITP, I think things would be different. That would definitely have been a tool I could have used.
So, it was a different period of time when you created it.
Definitely. The online community and tools for producing unique projects is way more developed now.
I think the experiences with developing the 3D Cube actually pushed me further into the arts. I’m just not set up like a design firm. I don’t want to deal with clients who tell me “make it do this” or “change this color to that.” I’d prefer to spend my time exploring concepts and researching things. At least now, with the position I’m at, I can make whatever I want and it’s accepted how it is. That’s how art functions. Maybe I’m really stubborn! (laughs) But I guess we fall into what our natural inclinations are. The path that lead me to art was a long and winding one..
Is there any artists you are inspired by and want to share?
There’s a lot. What I love about the arts is how massive a spectrum it covers, literally anything goes. So depending on what you’re into, you’ll find someone covering it. It’s a continuous journey.
The artists that pushed me into light sculpture after film school; Jim Campbell, Dan Flavin, James Turrell, and Ingo Maurer. Plus reading a lot of Marshal McLuhan.
Some more contemporary artists I’m into lately; Christopher Wool, Carsten Holler, and Matthew Day Jackson.
Please share your upcoming solo show info.
<Data Packets> exhibition will be at Galeria Senda in Barcelona, opening Nov 21st, 2013.
– Interview by Inhye Lee