Seattle-based artist Dylan Neuwirth has carved a distinct path in the world of digital art. Of course he’s not the only artist to represent his thoughts on the digital age through non-digital, physical objects. But he’s made his unique mark using the archaic element of neon to meditate on the complexities of our world.
Neuwirth’s work combines instant gratification with esoteric exploration. A thread of thoughtful, electronic paganism runs through much of his creations, but he is careful to avoid alienating a wider audience. This is best illustrated by his most famous work Just Be Your Selfie, which, when installed in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square, seized the zeitgeist to become a populist sensation. People flocked to the suspended neon to use it as a backdrop for their own selfies. This natural response at once obscured and enhanced the deeper meaning of the piece and led to conflicting emotions for the artist himself.
I spoke to Neuwirth about this “meme moment,” his delayed introduction to digital culture, and his expansive plans for the future.
Now, 2012, Neon, glass, two transformers, GTO, supports, stainless steel, 72 in. diameter x 2.5 in. Photo: Nathaniel Willson © 2012
Christian Petersen: What was your first experience of the internet?
Dylan Neuwirth: Watching The Terminator on VHS, realizing that everything I read in Neuromancer would come true and that Deckard was definitely a replicant.
CP: What made you decide to start using the internet/digital culture as inspiration for your art?
DN: I consider myself a posthuman contemporary artist trying to decipher the complexities of life in the 21st century, so the internet has become vital to me. But since I spent most to all of 1995–2011 trapped in an alcohol- and drug-filled black hole, I missed out on its early evolution.
When I got sober, I had to start completely over. It was kind of like coming out of the ice, and there was this burgeoning digital culture happening that I could only explain by remembering the sci-fi movies and comics I grew up with. Since I had nowhere else to go, I dove headfirst into it and connected with all these different artists all over the world through social media.
Not only did I get the feedback I needed for my work, but I was able to realize more about who I was and each shaped the other symbiotically. Without Web 2.0 this wouldn’t have been possible, and I feel like my work reflects this both in its aesthetic and conceptual approach.
CP: What did you do creatively before you started to focus of digital culture?
DN: Figure out ways to stay drunk and high forever until I killed myself—it’s amazing how resourceful your out-of-control artistic ego can be.
Isolar, 2016, Argon, glass, nickel, galvanized steel, GTO, one transformer, concrete block, extension cord, 24 in. x 12 in. x 72 in. Photo: Nathaniel Willson © 2016
CP: What’s the significance of mostly expressing your interest in digital culture through physical, sculptural objects instead of digitally?
DN: You can’t render presence.
CP: If you had to state it in simple terms. What are you trying to express about digital culture in your work?
DN: I’m trying to visualize the nature of existence in a world where data measures everything but never reveals the extent of the spirit.
Interface, 2015, Neon, argon, glass, nickel, acrylic, GTO, two transformers, aluminum, 36 in. x 36 in. x 30 in. Photo: Nathaniel Willson © 2015
CP: You use a lot of neon in your work—what do you think connects that medium to the digital world?
DN: Neon is the forebearer of the device you are reading this on. Its discovery, as well as the four other noble gasses that share the property of illumination, led directly to the development of both the vacuum and cathode ray tubes. The vacuum tube arranged electrons in basic patterns generating a dependable memory storage system while cathode tubes illuminated early glass screens. These essential components were used in the first computers and forever changed the way we store and see data.
So, without the archaic technology of neon, we wouldn’t have the seemingly ubiquitous idea of presenting illuminated information behind a glass barrier. And we all know how important silicon (glass) has been in the development of digital culture, technocratic capitalism. And we certainly wouldn't have developed the ubiquitous display-dependent culture we live in today.
My piece Interface from early 2015 is a direct invocation of this. It’s a silicon molecule created with neon, argon, and glass suspended on an aluminum pallet. All of this is in a massive custom crate that resembles an interstellar hard drive like Kubrick meets Apple. In one composite form, it’s the history of the discovery of the medium, its trajectory into the digital and ultimately its ascension into a transcendent object emanating a universal occult power.
For me, not only is neon the first digital medium and elemental source code for our digital world, it’s an ethereal force from which all symbolic meaning flows.
Lazarus, 2016, Neon, glass, copper, aluminum, enamel, GTO, two transformers, extension cord, 48 in. x 4 in. x 72 in. Photo: Nathaniel Willson © 2016
CP: What are your thoughts on the difficulty of monetizing digital art? Are your sculptural objects a reflection of that?
DN: To be honest, if I wanted to make any money, I definitely wouldn’t make sculpture and without a doubt, would never work with neon. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
CP: You’ve recently worked on some larger scale sculptures. What is the unique appeal and challenges of making larger work?
DN: It's just the way I think. Working on a large scale and seeing ideas stretched out to their logical extension makes sense to me. In many ways, I feel like my strongest talent is project management. Because really, that’s what it takes to execute large-scale works while keeping everything else rolling in your life. It’s also a result of my intense day job work and travel schedule. I’m completing projects across the globe while doing what I do for my personal career in my “free time” since I also have a teenage son and an amazing wife. To be clear, it’s a full and beautiful life, but it’s also super hectic, so I feel like I’ve developed a unique studio practice to keep making this kind of work.
Trylon I, 2015, Galvanized and stainless steel, aluminum, argon, glass, nickel, GTO, four transformers, 36 in. x 36 in. x 240 in. © 2015
CP: Your Just Be Your Selfie neon achieved a universal meme-like popularity. What was that experience like and how do you feel about it in retrospect?
DN: I will always be forever in debt to everyone who supported me on that life-changing project, those who enjoyed it, and the City of Seattle for commissioning it. That being said, it drives me insane: I hate that piece but also love it. Maybe it’s more like I hate it way more than I love it, but will always respect it. I've learned more from that one piece than anything else I’ve ever done, but it was an extremely complex pill to swallow.
I’ve never made something where I felt I lost and gained so much in the process. It was a crash course in Public Art 101, from the initial power supply issues to fixing it the four times it got broken, to dealing with an incredibly diverse set of community reactions as it became more like a social media sculpture than anything else exploding across the web. It was like a single that explodes in popularity, and everyone knows you for that, but the rest of the album is much different, much more complicated, and it’s hard to move on without all these preconceptions about you or the kind of artist you are.
It was completely awesome but overwhelming, and I walked away from that experience a bit beat up, broke, and looking for a way out. I think I spent the later half of 2014 figuring out ways to escape being the “selfie guy,” however I could. But this process led me to make one of my favorite works, and I don’t care for much that I make in retrospect.
Absolute Zero, 2015, Neon, glass, stainless steel, aluminum, GTO, three transformers/concrete blocks, power strip, extension cord, 84 in. diameter x 2.5 in.
Photo: Nathaniel Willson © 2015
Absolute Zero debuted in early 2015 in a locked gallery with zero viewing hours and no opening. You could only see it through the double tinted windows or if you messaged me on Facebook and I gave you the key code to get into the space. If you did that you got what I intended: an entirely private viewing experience about love, loss, and silent contemplation in a world where being connected is the most disconnected feeling of all. It was my version of a Rothko’s Chapel and the most divergent work I could have ever made after Just Be Your Selfie.
In the end, you never know what will happen with anything, so you just have to do it and see what happens. I’d be psyched to have another go at Just Be Your Selfie and use an enormous red neon line to edit out the “YOUR SELFIE” part, so it said “JUST BE” instead. That’s where I’m living these days.
CP: The tech business community has exploded in Seattle in the past few years. How do you think that will affect the art there?
DN: The conversation between art + technology was an early West Coast phenomenon, and it’s getting louder in Seattle right now. Egregious amounts of new tech money are being pumped into the region and redefining the Pacific Northwest cultural sector with it. I feel like artists have more avenues to fund new work from commissions, calls for public art are being redefined, and collaborations with tech companies are popping up, but it’s still always for a specific audience. It would be refreshing to see more diversity and gender balance, but that’s a common problem in tech-related industries across the globe. I’d like to hope that what's happening in Seattle will not only defy that stereotype but break it wide open.
Synthesis III, 2016, Aluminum, brass, plywood, plastic, water, plants, two pumps, fluorescent light fixture with two bulbs, three extension cords,
60 in. x 60 in. x 60 in. Photo: Nathaniel Willson © 2016
CP: What are your more general thoughts on the new media/digital art scene there?
DN: Julia Greenway is killing it with her new media gallery Interstitial. She maintains a sense of import/export with her programming by bringing in artists from all over the world; the installations are super smart, and she has a knack for bringing the best out of local talent. Through her, I recently got exposed to fresh young artists like Lu Yang, Jueqian Fang, and Mario Lemafa.
Weston Jandacka’s project space Glass Box is a critical venue for experiencing new media-based work. He’s consistently showing artists at every stage of their career that I’ve never even heard of working in all kinds of bizarre ways. He’s also a mind-blowing painter—his latest Kanye kissing Kanye in oil on canvas is transcendent.
I’m also into a series of projects that seem to take place only on Instagram by an artist named Potential Dust. He’s got a very arcane way of handling the digital medium, and it seems to be centered around magic, astrological connections, and travels through the void via the roots of trees and broken RCA cables. It’s a dark yet visceral reaction to a world overrun by data.
NOT-A-HOLOGRAM.MMXVI from Not a Hologram, 2016, Virtual experience for Oculus Rift with Grant Kirkpatrick and Fritz Rodriguez © 2016
CP: You decided to take this year off from making art. What provoked that decision? What’s next?
DN: Being super burned out and full of big questions that I had no answers for. Who do I make this art for? Why? More importantly, why do I work with neon? I desperately needed perspective on just what the fuck this all meant.
I’ve made ten expansive bodies of work in the past five years, and maybe one or two of these were any good, but for me, they're like a series of concept albums. It begins with getting sober in 2011 and culminates with the end of the world in 2016. Along the way, I got internet famous making a gigantic neon meme, dealt with the guilt of racial violence, feelings of entitlement, self-loathing, and privilege. I also discovered some secret lore about the history of neon, got married, and brought my work to Art Basel Miami.
It’s a lot to digest and even though I feel like I look and listen very hard at my work, my body told me I needed to process all of this. My wife and I went to Bali to swim, lay in the sun and visit temples. When we got back, it became immediately apparent that a file was running in the background the entire time we were gone.
In 2017 I’m hoping to present a long-gestating body of work titled Metanoia that plucks work from across my career to tell an autobiographical story, but it’s in no way a retrospective—it’s just a story. Here’s the statement for it:
When I was eight or nine, my mom’s second husband gave her a custom made neon sign illustrating her name in red cursive letters. It hung above the door between the family room and our avocado green-tiled kitchen with ripple glass windows overlooking the woods. It’s where I first saw Blade Runner on a small black and white TV and heard “Space Oddity” on college radio. Where I told someone I loved them over the phone with no idea what that meant.
The sign was in a special place, and I could always turn it on by pulling a brass chain on the transformer hidden in a cabinet by the stove. Across from this was a counter and sink under which my mom stashed her bourbon. It could get complicated in my house. The truth was very fluid, and nothing seemed real. But I always knew I could escape my sense of confusion by turning on the neon sign.
That didn’t mean things got better; it just transformed the room.
Now, it’s all about assembling this sprawling multi-platform work to present it as one cohesive and impactful package. After that, I’m going to learn to surf offline.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he selects a Web Artist of the Week.
(Image at top: Just Be Your Selfie,2014, Neon, glass, two transformers, GTO, aluminum supports, 300 in. x 6 in. x 36 in. Photo: Nathaniel Willson © 2014. All images: Courtesy of the artist.)