A beautiful accident
Interview of Joshua Davis, Praystation by Ronnie K. Pirovino
July 8, 2021
This is Ronnie Pirovino and I am here with Joshua Davis at Anderson Ranch Arts Center. This place holds tremendous history for Josh, so before we get into your career and talk about the work that you have done, maybe you can mention a little bit of your time here at Anderson?
Josh: This is my 17th year teaching at Anderson. I think this place does has a special place in my heart because I grew up in Colorado. I’ve been in New York since ‘92. I’ve went to New York to pursue a career in art at Pratt. My first year here was 2002 with Mark Tribe, who at the time was part of Rhizome. We had done a collaborative class on that art- about using the medium of the internet to make artwork and Mark had his view from a conceptual standpoint and thinking of ideation and I was like the “okay, let’s bang a keyboard and actually make stuff”.
Ronnie: Since the birth of the internet, there has been a lot of creativity flowing through it. I would say you are one of the iconic image makers and aesthetic producers. Can you talk about your history with the internet and how it allowed you to flourish creatively?
J: Prior to the internet, you have to remember that the art scene was a very structured environment. “This is a museum, this painting is very old, please don’t touch it.” It could be a very passive experience. I started using the internet back in 1995 and I think Netscape 2 had just come out. And, really Ronnie, there was this epiphany, this sort of moment where I realized I was still a creative person, but the canvas has changed. There was this defining moment where I was in art school at Pratt and I was using paint, and I was striking that paint on canvas, but it was completely on accident that I discovered computers.
Once I started to tinker, I realized there was an entire new medium that had never been embraced or touched or seen before. Not only was it a medium that I could interact with, but people could interact with from anywhere in the world. This was a monumental shift because if you think about it, when you’re engaging in traditional art, it’s about your position locally. So, you think about where you live and where you show work and eventually people hear about you. But here was this medium that as long as someone has a computer and a browser and an internet connection; your work can be viewed by somebody in Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo all at the same moment. There was this spiritual awakening – like holy shit. Nothing like this has ever existed before.
R: That’s really exciting to have been at the onset of a whole new media and a whole new platform of communication – using tools that were unlocking your creativity in ways that you may not have even imagined prior to those moments. So, what does code and what does the notion of interaction and what does the ability to communicate your creativity through all of this mean to you?
J: It’s funny because I did this series of painting when I was at Pratt where I was very interested in this idea of something being part of the process that I didn’t have inherent control of. Matthew Barney had done a series of work called “Drawing Restraints” where he would restrain himself in unusual position and he would have to make art within that predicament, so you’re sort of putting yourself in an environment where something is not normal. With these series of paintings, I was interested in this idea of, ‘how do I execute something as part of the work that I don’t have control over’? So, when I was doing the paintings, I was doing things like putting them in my freezer and seeing what would happen to the paint and the canvas. I would bake artwork in the oven and see if I could execute a process where something would happen – whether it would be the paint bubble because of the heat or cracking because I was using oil paint and the resin would dry at separate times. I was interested in manipulating and I was essentially inviting chaos, something I couldn’t control in the process.
So, when I started using computers, you can only be as creative as the tools provided. Ultimately this was a desire to start programming because I was unhappy with the tools I was provided. I wanted to be able to say, ‘I want to do things this way’ but the current tools on the market don’t allow me to that. That is how I got into programming. And once I got into programming, I started to learn about how I could execute some of these random processes. It meant I could use programming in a way, where I could present programming with, these are the colors you can use, there are the forms you can use, these are the constraints about where you can go and the scale you could be.
In my mind, I am thinking about all these things that can create the spark of creativity and I have to run the program to see what happens. And if something does happen, I have to take the role as the critic and decide if what the program has constructed is interesting or is something wrong? If I run it 10 more times, would some other random thing happen that would be more interesting. And so that excitement of using something where I’ve got inputs – whether that the public or programming that’s making decisions, means I am constantly surprised because the program decides to do things that I may not have intended. Now imagine me writing that program and running it thousand times and getting a thousand different variations of something. For me it was really exciting to literally have a 26 year career on wanting to be surprised all the time. What kind of input are we going to use? What kind of programming are we going to use that’s going to generate that unexpected moment? That beautiful accident, and that is what I am constantly chasing, that unexpected beautiful moment.
R: And that leads us to discuss the direction your work has taken from the beginning as being informed in some sort of dialogue with not only the computer but with the element of chaos and element of surprise, but also with an element of curation. And all of this being part of a pursuit that has taken you in a lot of different directions. Can you talk about some of the highlights that you have had in the pursuit in your work up to this point and where you want to go in the future?
J: Sure, I have had a really great career and a lot of different directions. Technology has been involved in a way where it has pushed and pulled me in two different directions. In the beginning, the canvas was the web. It was a computer that sat on your table and that was my canvas and it existed over the internet. At the time, I was doing two things. I was working on these projects where I was teaching myself interactivity, teaching myself ways of moving things, and teaching others how to interact with the art. Doing that meant that a lot of people took chances with me and said ‘hey would you mind collaborating with this person or this brand to do this experience’. For me, that was exciting. I really enjoyed those because those were more chaotic constraints. The idea of working with a brand and using these colors and forms, was just another challenge.
I’ve had 26 years to be pushed and pulled in a lot of directions and then quarantine comes and I’ve got a choice – what is my choice? Am I going to do the work? Or fade away? So, I spend a year in quarantine learning new things. Looking inwards, looking backwards at my career and asking, ‘what am I excited about right now?’ I really spent this year looking inward about how I am communicating animation, communicating form, communicating expression, communicating a feeling so now I’ve come to a new crossroad. I’m really focusing on myself and looking inward at my artwork and finding a way where I can continue to do this and participate in the art community in a way that is exciting and fulfilling for me.
R: That is really interesting because looking at your work and where it is going today, in NFT format in particular, I find it fascinating that I can tell it is your work. I find it fascinating that there is a consistent line.
J: 26 years of image making and 26 years of making artwork and I have people asking me “where is the old stuff?” And I’m like, maybe we’ll get to it but now there’s this new thing and I am expressing myself in a new way. In a lot of ways, I can look back at the 26 year and say wow, what a journey. I can see how I branched out from one thing to another thing – to collaborating with brands, to collaborating with bands and to now be collaborating with myself. So NFTs has been this real look inwards and it’s been this way to say, I am going to communicate this new thing because I am IN this new thing. It’s funny because people will say “why haven’t you touched your back catalogue?” And I say, well my back catalogue existed in a specific period of time for certain reason, and this is something new, so I am going to express myself in this new way…and back catalogue, we’ll get to that when we want to get to that. But right now, I’m on a new path. I’ve walked through a new door.
R: And the work shows it. It’s really phenomenal. Everything that you have been doing is really inspiring and tremendous in terms of quality. You are really doing stuff that is evident in the work that you are enjoying it and that it’s almost a new day for you.
J: It’s mediation to be honest. It’s funny that I say that because some of these pieces are really crazy, but I find peace in that. I find peace that I am creating these things that make me feel a certain way, that make me imagine in a certain way because I’m not using things that are typically representational, I’m using a lot of stuff that is abstract. They are about setting a mood, it’s about almost ASMR mediation practice. I want people to sit with this stuff and imagine that they are somewhere else and experiencing some spiritual consciousness.
R: There is so much in the work that is very compelling. From the visual aspect to the experiential aspect. I feel that this is a new stage for you, and you have reached a new level of being able to articulate your vision and the NFT format is really enabling you to fully exploit your potential.
J: The other thing I find fascinating that I’m doing with these NFTs is that I’m trying to explain to people that the thing they are seeing is a moment in time. This is almost like timed based media. You are witnessing a recording of a very small window. And that window is the life moment of that program. 15 minutes earlier it was probably different and 15 minutes later, it’s moved onto something else. The funny thing is that if I’m rendering something for 30 seconds, I may have lived with that work for weeks and watched it for hours. Only to get to those 30 seconds that I deemed interesting enough to encapsulate as an NFT. Then I’m saying, okay we have arrived at this moment, also give me some snapshot and some memory of this moment.
R: Let’s wrap up about the pieces you are releasing with LGND. Essentially, these are going to be your first editions. I am curious to hear your thoughts are with what you are communicating and what would you clue into the folks that will be looking at your pieces and using their imagination and experiencing them. Where would you direct them?
J: I think it goes back to 26 years ago, where I decided to embrace a medium where everyone could have had a seat at the table. Now I’ve done a few NFTs, the last with Christie’s and it is at a certain level where not everyone can come to the table, so I think the thing that excites me the most with LGND is that I am able to produce work that I am very passionate about. Aesthetically it is some of the best work I have ever done, and I am letting everyone have a seat at the table.
R: That’s great! I think that is the spirit that is fueling this new arena, this new sector and I think it’s going to be a very interesting way to bridge the work into the art world that is the more traditional art world, which I think it’s eminently going to be your next move forward.
J: Yes, definitely. I am ready to walk through that door. It is where this path has taken me from this past year, sort of a departure from the past and I’m excited for where things are going.