A Field of Vision: An Interview With Nancy Burson
To coincide with Nancy Burson's recent NFT drop with Lobus, we decided to take a look into her cutting edge practice. Burson is no stranger to the intersection of technology and art. By the mid-1980’s Burson was known as the pioneer of facial morphing, ironically challenging the notion of photographic truth at the birth of digital manipulation. She has been interested in the interaction of art and science since the inception of her career as an artist and her work has been included in museums all over the globe: MoMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Centre Pompidou in Paris, LACMA, SFMOMA, Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, amongst many others.
Burson’s Inaugural NFT The Face Of Global Carbon Emissions, is up for sale on Earth Day, April 22. This NFT is composed of the top five heads of state of the countries most responsible for global warming. The composite image is weighted to reflect the approximate percentages of each countries’ carbon emission contributions to our global climate crisis. China (Xi Jinping), US (Joe Biden), India (Narendra Modi), Russia (Vladimir Putin), and Japan (Fumio Kishida). A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Clean Air Task Force.
These NFTs will be minted on Polygon.
We had Brittany Adames interview artist Nancy Burson over the weekend to discuss her artwork and upcoming NFT piece.
A lot of your pioneering work is about the digital manipulation of the human face. What inspires this apparatus?
When I first moved to New York in ‘68, the first exhibition and first museum that I went to was MoMA. They had an exhibition called The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, and when I walked in, the things that I related to the most were the things that were interactive.
I had these ideas that maybe the way to go for my work would be to do things that were interactive because I thought it was fun. I went to a nonprofit called Experiments in Art and Technology, which was Robert Rauschenberg’s organization, and they paired artists and engineers together. That was around ‘68 or ‘69, and they were new but were really great about finding [an engineer] for me who would be just the right person. This was very, very early in computer graphics. I went to see [the engineer], and he showed me a stylist, a pen, and a pad, and I thought: Why would I use that if I could use a pencil?
I then had an idea to create a machine to show people how they would look older. I asked him how we could do this, and he said he’d have to wait for the technology to catch up. He told me at a certain point—I guess this was around ‘76—that I should contact a Nicholas Negroponte at MIT. He worked for what was then called the Architecture of Machine Group, now called the Media Lab. It was a year when you can exactly pick up the phone and actually reach important people. Nicholas was crazy about the idea of doing this project. They had something that was one of the first digitizers. There was basically a camera on a copy stand attached to a computer, and we would put people under there for five minutes to scan their face, telling them to blink. This was the start of being able to digitize the human face—in just five minutes.
How do you structure your art process?
I feel like my source is what I’m doing, so in other words, the ideas aren’t really coming from me. I kind of follow instructions to a point, and it’s very complicated when you hear what to do. Everything in my work is attempting to show people how to see differently. I haven’t strayed from [this motive], but I think there hasn't been a greater mission in my life that hasn’t been fulfilled yet, and that’s what I’d like to do. I did some public performances from 2006 to 2011 all over United States and through England—and even one at the UN—and those performances allowed people to see energy and to see what I do. It’s not that there's any difference between what goes in space and what goes on around humans. It’s a very beautiful, bright world, and I think I’m here to introduce people to it.
What medium do you find yourself most drawn to recently?
I’ve been doing a lot of painting. I was a painter in college and always wanted to continue it, but there had to be a really good reason, mainly because I really considered myself a conceptual artist. I kept wondering for years what to paint, and then in the late 70s, I had some ideas about painting—they were afterimages that I saw in different light sources. They were very dark and a couple of them were in my retrospective at Grey Art Gallery in 2002. I really like those, but they’re very hard to see; they’re oil painted black on glass. They’re beautiful but subtle, like afterimages themselves.
I remember going to a couple of friends’ studios and asking them if I could just watch to figure out what I’m meant to do. And so I picked good artists to go to. I started painting five or six years ago again, and they were paintings made from words; I started painting and drawing both handed. I would draw over and over again the word “love” or “I love you” or even things like “success” or even a whole series of paintings I did called Time Is Nothing But a Rhyme. Those are paintings that are abstract but they’re only marked by the words repeating.
Several years ago, I started studying quantum physics, which for me is about quantum entanglement, which seems to be an expression floating around the art world these days. It’s interesting to me because when I see energy, it has to do with how I see energy. Quantum entanglement was something that I didn’t particularly understand: It’s really about two particles interacting. As physicists have found, the two particles can be very close to each other, or they can be half a world away, but they’re still communicating. For me, it’s kind of a hint that the world we are living in is really about determinism and acting as some sort of matrix that many physicists believe we’re in. I believe that’s the truth behind human existence and I’ve used my art to document the evidence of that. These paintings are actually made up of tiny sets of eyes, because for me the universe both watches and sees. The paintings on the videos are pulsing, and I’ve recorded a bunch of them as a living representation of quantum entanglement. It would be great to do some sort of an interactive installation with the paintings in the future.
How do you see your techniques and/or modes of intrigue shifting with each new project? Or is it mostly all in alignment?
For me, it’s really all in alignment. I hear what to do, and so that’s how I understand, at this point, where my ideas are coming from. I have guidance and am clairvoyant, and so these are the tools that I’ve used to access my ideas. By the 90s, things were very clear about what I needed to do and how to do it. I really think that everything an artist does and that everyone does, in fact, is destiny. I believe in scripts, but in any case, that’s just my belief.
A lot of your work like the Human Race Machine, “There’s No Gene For Race” billboard, and other public artworks serve to speak of diversity as an integral way of life. How do you conceptualize global unity through these varying mediums of art? What does global unity look like energetically?
What global unity looks energetically is that many other people are capable of seeing what I do. When you see what I do, then it changes your perception of faith and what faith is, and what God and/or the universe is.
How you are conceptualizing diversity in your most recent work?
I think it has to do, again, with seeing and seeing differently. That’s why I’m really keen on more work that has to do installations and paintings and things of that sort. I’d also love to make those kind of things into NFTs. I don’t even know the technology well enough to know how it would work, but I just will.
In what ways do you see these evolving technologies enhancing and/or manipulating truth? Do you think there are limitations?
You know, tech is very complicated. I came into the tech world in all innocence, but what I think is shocking to me now is that there’s people or companies who you can buy faces from to sell products on your website. This is not something I ever imagined. And even my relationship with AI and identity and everything that’s been done in terms of law enforcement was not also something that I ever really imagined.. Maybe I should’ve—I don’t know, but I wasn’t thinking like that. What we were thinking is that we got this technology down, we could make movies with actors. It was very early, and we even had a version of Snapchat with an interactive, cumbersome setup we called photomakers. Photomakers lived and died one year in the 80s. It was used on Valentine’s Day at a mall in Staten Island so people could put their faces on hearts. We also had more imaginative backgrounds where you can become the Mona Lisa or Statue of Liberty.
And how is today’s technology impacting your art right now?
I think energies are fascinating. It’s an opportunity for people who don’t know my work to collect it in a certain way in a whole different community. I think it’s great—it opens up possibilities for artists and I also think this was a totally appropriate place for me to land because it is about artist ownership. It’s really important for the artist to continually reap awards for their ideas.
How do you cultivate your audience?
I’m really open to speaking through any platform that I can; I’m new to the platform and it’s a new language for me that I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be. Everyone’s very young and dynamic, and they’ve got it down, so all I can do is learn from the experts. I really wanted to put The Face of Global Carbon Emissions out there because I think it’s a great way to put a human face on the problem. It’s five different men and it’s weighted to the approximate percentages of each country’s carbon emissions. First is China (Xi Jinping), which has twice as many as anyone else; the United States (Joe Biden); India (Narendra Modi); then Russia (Vladimir Putin). This is humanity’s biggest problem, and I think at this point people do understand how severe and serious it is, but it’s not getting anywhere.
I hear you’ve created an NFT that’s being released on Earth Day. Can you talk more about it?
It would be great to see the humans get out there, see it, and think about it. We’ve got to get together, and we’re not it. That’s where Lobus comes in. It’s an artist ownership platform, and you can see the morphing as it is now.
In 2018, TIME published your thoughtfully compelling composite image “Trumputin” as their cover. Can you speak about the political interface of your artwork?
The Helsinki summit in mid-July 2018 was the first time that we really understood that Trump was in Putin’s pocket; it was an unbelievable moment where suddenly we had a president who was undoubtedly in alignment with a dictator. How could this be happening? [The cover] was kind of an answer to that moment in time.
I see morphing in a different way. I don’t do it that often anymore; I really only do it because there’s a good reason for it, but mostly I feel that behind me in the pocket of physicists, where my studies are. I really don’t believe humanity is responsible for any of the problems that we’re having right now. I do believe that there’s an intelligent matrix that’s always controlled humanity and that’s what I hear and what I see. And for me, seeing has always been believing. I always see a lot of energy around people, and I see it very clearly, so I just don’t think we’re responsible. Humans were born with mirror neurons—our empathetic source that’s place in our brains. I don’t see it anywhere right now. People are wondering what’s going on and I keep saying: People are not responsible. I just hope that there’s a time that it stops and that we move on.
What are you working on right now? Where can our readers see, hear, or read you?
There was a whole series of images that I painted and worked through, so there’s drawing and painting, and those I think will be my next NFTs. I’m trying to find a way to have a broader spectrum of visibility. There’s a documentary filmmaker making a short film about my work, which will be shot soon, so I’m hoping that becomes a bigger film. It will come out sometime this year. If it’s meant to get out there, then it’ll get out there.
About Brittany Adames:
Brittany Adames is a Dominican-American writer. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured in Palette Poetry, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Cosmonauts Avenue, Rust+Moth, TRACK//FOUR, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Brooklyn College.