Sean Capone is a multi-media artist based in New York City who creates simulated vistas, with a focus on pattern and decoration. Working in video, animation, and large-scale digital projection, Capone uses evolving motifs to explore themes of reality and illusion, beauty and decay, and the passage of time. We spoke with the artist about his creative process and his investigations of site-specificity in the digital age.
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First steps into digital
Digital video and animation is something I picked up very early in my undergrad years. After making the rounds around the school’s painting & sculpture programs, I became immersed in a new department ‘Video Art/New Genres’ headed by multimedia artist Jim Pomeroy.
Jim was one of the few professors there who really engaged contemporary art and issues around technology, media, performance, and the like. He built a very scrappy program around a handful of Amiga 2000 computers and 8mm video editing decks. It was there that I first started exploring digital cel animation, digital video capture and compositing, audio software, and primitive 3D animation using programs like DeluxePaint and the LiveBoard — the same software that Andy Warhol used when he was promoting Amiga computers. In fact, I have just recently converted my old VHS work tapes from that period over to my digital archives. But before you ask — no one will ever see that work again!
My education was grounded in the pre-Internet age of digital production, more of a kitchen-sink aesthetic spawned from the conceptual multi-media practices of artists from Jim Pomeroy’s generation, the 70s-80s era of video and performance artists and the early 90s era of digital photographers, hackers and theorists. The technology being limited as it was, most of these ideas could only be hinted at rather than formed fully, using traditional means and cheesy tech to comment on digital culture metaphorically. I’m thinking of Max Headroom here, to cite one example of what I consider a foundational inspiration. I think I’m trying to continue this legacy although I have more sophisticated means at my disposal, technologically speaking.
Video and Projection
With video art, there has always been the issue of its status as an ‘art object’. Should we consider it as a kind of painting? Should it be presented like a film, or hung on a wall like a photo, or installed like a sculpture? Is it a limited edition ‘print’ or a node in an flowing media stream? Where exactly in or around the video does one find its ‘authenticity’, its meaning?
My choices of works for Depict were inspired directly from the eras and movements of modernist painting, from from geometric proto-abstraction to AbEx to Pop. There is a quote I keep close at hand, from filmmaker Robert Bresson: “Nothing is more inelegant and ineffective than an art conceived in another art’s form.” I find this sentiment to be more of an interesting challenge, actually, rather than an admonition, to the degree that digital art is first and foremost created through synthesis and computation, systems constructed and reproduced infinitely within other systems. It is unclear whether today’s images belong to material or virtual reality. The digital counterpart to an item of decor such as a swatch of wallpaper would of course be the computer screensaver — and an animation that reads like a painting is more like a Turing Test, striving to convince us of its authenticity in a cloak of material allegory.
I am interested in the history of atmosphere and phantasmagoria and special effects on an architectural scale. Animated environments, while visual, more fully engage the sensory bodily awareness of the viewer. These are the oldest tricks in the book, actually. “A distracted attention is more attuned to mood than to particulars, more inclined toward the generation of feelings and emotions through filling the air with special effects in fluid spaces,” as critic Helene Furján wrote.
These days, we have video billboards, projectors, and machine locomotion which allow the city to cinematically emerge before us, but historically speaking, grand-scale civic and religious architecture has always been an architecture of sensations, designed to immerse our attention and bodies narratively within mythology, social rituals, and volumes of unfolding ornamental space.
I have always worked in the design and fashion worlds, so I draw inspiration from things I learn while producing commercial projects or fashion films. Media art meshes naturally within the framework of pop culture and collaborative arts like fashion, filmmaking and motion graphics, so I incorporate the languages from those disciplines into my own program. In fact, I often remix or appropriate my own commercial work into my personal work, although I’m not sure if it’s cheating to call it “appropriating” or a “readymade” since I’m swiping it from the source — myself — instead of allowing it to filter through the cultural channels of discourse first.
I use algorithmic plug-ins within existing frameworks like Maya or After Effects that allow for certain functions like particle generation, L-Systems for plants and organic effects, or realtime 3D rendering. I think of these plug-ins as a kind of material. I’m not interested in generating systems just to see the result or to marvel at beautiful digital chaos. I push and pull and apply multiple effects on top of those systems to get them to work within a visually composed entirety (say, to create a ‘paintbrush’ or ‘drip’ look) — or glitch them out to see if it introduces something interesting and unexpected I can work with.
This is why I called my last body of work of 30+ looping animations the ‘New Paintings’ series — I wasn’t trying to be glib. Rather, developing production techniques using these methods allowed me to create videos that felt more ‘real time’ and spontaneous, like painting on canvas, more process-oriented. I was getting seriously bogged down with the slowness of making video art, so developing that work really re-invigorated my whole studio process. I’m a terrible film-maker in the traditional sense, I don’t like to storyboard or plan out every shot. I much prefer to improvise and these generative effects allow me to introduce a kind of material-ish randomness into the work and a literal infinitude of choices and directions. Having said that, every effect is carefully crafted once introduced and decided upon, and fixed into a final rendering…when viewing my work, you are looking at an unvarying recorded piece, obviously.
With video art, there has always been the issue of its status as an ‘art object’… Where exactly in or around the video does one find its ‘authenticity’, its meaning?
I tend to work better with a brief. The ‘New Paintings’ series was a commission, so it had some parameters and themes that helped me organize goals that I could stick to over the course of thinking about and working on 30+ pieces simultaneously. Other pieces are designed for specific spaces and installations, such as the original iteration of ‘Camera Rosetum’, a six-channel projection on the vaulted ceiling of the Manhattan Bridge Archway underpass in DUMBO.
But I have always thought of my work as ‘scalable’. So I was able to apply the generative/looping/abstract methods used for the ‘New Paintings’ and for Depict, and create a three-part narrative work inspired by creation mythology for the ‘Garden of Eden’ show I was invited to participate in at the Museum of Biblical Art.
The resulting piece, ‘1000 Paths (To The Divine),’ is still quite abstract but has clear scene transitions, a start and an end; the evolving abstractions seemed like a suitable way to explore mythological motifs and symbols without being literal. I am happy to show the full version of ‘1000 Paths’ for the first time since the exhibition here.
My newest body of work is taking quite a radical turn back into ‘slow’ production, which uses scripted texts, spoken word performance, and motion-capture 3D avatar software. This work is entirely self-motivated and has no home or end-goal yet. But I felt a growing need to explore the presence of a personality, of a performing human body, in my work. I have always been a writer, but as I said I am not interested in scripted ‘film making’, in acting or documenting performances.
With this work (loosely called the ‘Troll’ series) I am able to develop these crazy poetic texts and perform character improv, and the 3D animated avatars allows me a non-embarrassing, carefully crafted distance from my real world self. Similar to how we perform our identities everyday on social media, but it’s more like ventriloquism for me, in a way. The tone of this work is similar, in the sense that I am trying to create more of an atmosphere, not a narrative. So viewers can tune in and tune out of it at any point without losing the plot, although there is a built-in response reaction to being addressed directly by a talking head on a screen that seems at odds with the aesthetics of ambience.
Sean Capone is a NYC-based artist working primarily in the mediums of video, animation, and large-scale digital projection, presented primarily in the context of public art and immersive spaces which incorporate the moving image into the built environment.
Collect a selection of Sean Capone’s “New Paintings” video series on Depict here.
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