Brian Knep, 41, a Boston media artist, paints with his computer. He has perfected his technology to interact with the viewer, which has brought him an impressive amount of critical success since 2004. Just this month he scored the New England Art Award for new media for his interactive installation Exempla at Tufts' Koppelman Gallery that addressed choices that we as humans make. In speaking with Knep one is immediately struck by his intellectual athleticism and the gentle humor with which he views his work.
He is one of those rare birds whose left side actually talks with the right side of his brain, managing to negotiate the “coolness” of technology with the “soulfulness” of art.
"My earlier pieces were about wounds and healing but going forward I am thinking more about acceptance. I am optimistic that people will come to understand where we are, accept it and then will be able to go forward."
Trained as an engineer, Knep brings a new set of tools to art making but remains suspicious of technology, always seeking to straddle that narrow divide between art and science. He looks off into space while forming his thoughts, composing them as he speaks.
"Science is about predictability and control, dealing with uncertainty and fear. The flip side of that is acceptance. We rely on technology a lot but there are other ways of being in the world that we lose sight of. Ask the hard questions, deal with the unknown, work with uncertainty."
Perhaps the uncertainty of not knowing whether a work has intrinsic value? Or, the conflict between the perennial funerals for painting (and traditional art making) and his love of standing in front of one? Will technology and self-referential social media hijinks passing as art have the timelessness we demand of great works? Is timelessness relevant in 2010?
Knep thinks about these questions a lot and hopes that artists will investigate the whole world, not just the art world. Despite the cutting edge technology he has mastered, his standards for what makes art successful, are surprisingly retro. The man carries a sketchbook containing drawings, notes and numbers in his shirt pocket that he makes marks in as he speaks.
"This is a great time for deepening self-expression, for honing your craft, for meditative thinking. For me art is a catalyst to do the hardest work I can do. What fascinates me about acceptance is how do we, as human beings, accept that we're going to die, how will we accept loss, change, pain?"
He does not claim to have the answers to these very big questions, but one of the reasons he makes interactive art is because he wants the viewer to think about them too, to address their need to ask. He is not particularly wedded to interactive media “just because it is now expected,” and wants to make “good graphic work” that would include non-repeating videos and still images.
Knep is keenly aware of the next generation of techno-savvy artists coming up and is somewhat concerned that they may be too fascinated by technology and will not question, will not “dig deep.”
“I always sketch things out first before reaching for the computer. I use it as a problem solver, not as the creator. I am on Facebook, people friend me but I am not interested in posting, in following, it feels like a dead end because there is no self-expression in any meaningful way. It is a sad commentary that people need to connect this way. It is not real. This is what science can be.”
Brian's installations take up a lot of space, need maintenance and would best be owned by
institutions/hospitals/government spaces, but so far he has not sold any. It bothers him that no private collectors own his work, as the interaction in a private setting might liken it with painting. He wants to continue the dialogue, as it were.
“Maybe I’ll design an iPhone app.” Sure, but will it ask hard existential questions?
All images are courtesy of the artist.