Our contested presidential elections are still being decided, 30 times per second, in Siebren Versteeg’s Nearly Half, Undecided, Balanced, Perfect, Dead. One of 11 software-based works by Versteeg at Rhona Hoffman, it consists of an LCD screen showing a U.S. map with each state colored red or blue–though a random-number generator makes the colors change quickly, while a bar at the bottom charts the rapidly fluctuating election results. When you wear the 3-D glasses available on a nearby shelf, the map flickers even more dynamically, bringing the viewer’s experience “back into the body,” Versteeg says. For him, the piece points out the limitations of the electoral college and of binary oppositions like the two-party system. Those who believe the 2000 and 2004 elections were improperly decided may find his playful approach insufficiently critical.
Versteeg did some programming when he was 12 or 13, trying to get a computer to write music: since his early teens he’s played bass in one band or another. “I think my interest in music has a great influence on my approach to art making–live music is created and consumed in the same moment.” His art is similarly fleeting–it often takes you right to the ideas behind it. He didn’t use computers again until the mid-90s, in college, but by 2000 he was working as a Web designer and learning several programming languages. “The graphical user interface is a layer on top that enables you to work in a more intuitive way,” he says. “But that layer is only an abstraction of what’s really happening,” which is far more complex. “In their effort to simplify things for users, software manufacturers do quite the opposite, making it more and more difficult for people to manage things themselves. I’m inquisitive for the fun of it, but I also like to know how the things I rely on work.” Versteeg began making pieces that mirrored his efforts to understand computers, seeing in these attempts a parallel to the process of understanding art. For Enjoying Uncertainty, he wrote a program that searches Amazon for CD and album covers, plugging an ever-changing selection into a plasma-screen photo that shows Versteeg holding them. If you learn how the piece was made, it changes from a kitschy presentation of a show-off and his musical selections to an eye-opening look at music’s diversity–or lack thereof, in that the selections are mostly pop or rock.
Versteeg grew up in Connecticut near New York City but lives in Chicago now. His father is a metal fabricator who’s worked for such artists as David Smith and Claes Oldenburg, so Versteeg was aware of the conceptual aspects of art making from an early age. His friends didn’t understand that his dad was not the artist of the pieces he constructed–and the boundary between idea and substance is still a theme in Versteeg’s work. Like many children, he was obsessed with drawing spaceships, but he also created a set of interactive drawings, encouraging his friends to add more weapons or other spaceships or to make a spaceship explode. Long interested in math, he thinks there’s a false dichotomy between science and art: “Both explore why things behave the way they do.” An obsession with George Romero zombie movies led to reflections on the way computer logic both originates in and differs from human thought. After a year at the School of Visual Arts in New York, he was motivated in part by Chicago’s pioneering video art to move here to complete his undergrad studies at the School of the Art Institute, and he earned an MFA in 2003 from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Versteeg’s fascination with the Web is tied to his interest in testing the limits of logical systems. For Flash (“Flash”), he wrote a program that automatically downloads images described by the word “flash” from a popular public photo site. Another program brightened some of the images at the center of a grid he created, so it appears a giant flash has gone off. Often the photos themselves make the limitations of verbally describing a picture readily apparent: while in some of them people lift their shirts, and a few show flashes of light, many seem to have no connection to the word at all.
When: Through Sat 10/8
Where: Rhona Hoffman, 118 N. Peoria
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.