Never be denied © 2011 Willie Shaefer
Do social networks impact people negatively?
Willie Schaefer (BFA, Graphic Design and MFA, Computer Art) feels strongly that staying online can negatively impact relationships, work and our lives. His recent series on internet and social networking addiction is at the forefront of academic and artistic representation of growing trends towards the digitization of human relations. He talks with us here about how we might define “computer addiction”, and the trends towards disconnection from the real world that he notices in university life. Your comments, feedback and opinion about internet and social network addiction are welcomed!
Technology addictions: Real or not?
ADDICTION BLOG: First of all, your work deals with a very real, but unrecognized danger to people: internet addiction. What do you think about the American Psychiatric Association (APA)’s questioning of behavioral addictions such as video game addiction, internet addiction, or computer addiction as diagnostically credible addictions? Can you tell us what you think and know about this compulsive disorder?
WILLIE SCHAEFER: I believe that most people are hesitant to talk about technology based addictions since most of us use said technology as a large part of our jobs. I have to constantly check my e-mail for work. Is this an addiction or merely an part of my job? If defined as an addiction can I give my boss a doctor’s note excusing me from checking my e-mail? Not likely, but I do feel like this is one of our issues with the classification of these addictions. Additionally, most of these technologies are relatively new, so I think more research will be done on them in the future.
Some say that online addiction isn’t really addiction at all. It’s a change in the way that humans interact. I don’t know if I agree with this, but I do understand where they are coming from. To me addiction is something that interferes with your life. It’s painful for you and those around you. Digital addiction can do this. It happened to me in the past. I would pass up food, sleep, and real world friendship to keep my online friends happy. I have known people who lost jobs due to online addictions. I have known people that have lost relationships for the same reason. It is my hope that we won’t shy away from these subjects in the future because I see this becoming more and more of a problem.
ADDICTION BLOG: It seems that portrait photography is at the base of each digital image that you create. In other words, it seems as if each image starts as a portrait. Is this true? How well do you know the people who are at the “base” of each image about addiction? Are these stock shots or do you have training as a photographer? Do you take photographs of people who are true addicts or are you photographing people who pose and model for you?
WILLIE SCHAEFER: They all started as images taken from social networking sites. I am a photographer as well, but I didn’t shoot the photos in this series. The images are made up of people that I interact with in daily life as well as online, so I would say that I know most of the subjects quite well. Each person was picked based on conversations that I had with them where they made some of statement that sounded, to me, like something I would have said when I was highly addicted to the internet.
ADDICTION BLOG: Metaphorically, what’s going on with the references from the digital world?
WILLIE SCHAEFER: The pixel is this great representation of our digital jail cells. Pixels are these little pieces of data that bind all images together and can look like a prison of circuitry if manipulated in the right way. Much like the internet. It holds us all together, but it has also become a jail. People are becoming slaves to social networking. We are trapped behind grids of pixels and waves of wifi. The real vision of a person is fractured. You are your profile picture. You are the manipulated image that you post on a server somewhere that represents who you really are.
ADDICTION BLOG: I’d like to learn about your creative process, as I find your art to be complicated, layered, mirrored and deep. What do you start with? Have you formed an idea for how a piece will emerge before you start or does it develop as you go? How long does it take you to complete one image? And when (if ever) do you know that a piece is finished?
WILLIE SCHAEFER: For this series, I started with photos taken from profile pictures on social networking sites. I began with an idea of the person I’m looking at, an emotion about the person that I want to express, and a story I want to tell. From there I start to rip the image apart. It’s kind of a hard process to describe, but imagine taking the parts of a digital image that we don’t want, noise, pixelization, etc, and bringing it forward. After that I start to work with the color of the piece. I use the color to hint at, what I think are, the thoughts and feelings of the individual in the piece.
The work does develop somewhat as I go, but I almost always have a mental sketch that I’m working from. The time really varies from piece to piece. Sometimes I feel inspired and I can produce a piece in several hours. Other times I really agonize over something and it may take me weeks to finish the piece. Most pieces just feel finished. That being said, there have been pieces that I have worked on, felt were finished, then retouched years later.
Digital fine art & internet addiction
ADDICTION BLOG: It seems clear to me that your talent, medium and work are unique. Graphic art from the computer is amazing, especially when it’s moving and complex like yours! I am fascinated by the “electric fluid” sense that I get from these images, and as a viewer, I am left with impressions of pain, cyclic patterns, shadows and hidden or deep problems. So what is the intention behind these works? Why did you create a series about addiction? What inspired you to go deeper into its meaning and explore the issue?
WILLIE SCHAEFER: I created this series for two reasons. The first was a way for me to deal with my past addition to the internet and the second was to explore my students’ addiction to social networking. During my teenage years I often found myself taking care of my social needs with online interactions rather than interpersonal ones. In an average week I spent more time interacting with the machine than I did with other humans. I managed to break away from this. I still use my computer and love it, but I no longer rely on it as my sole form of human contact.
Recently, I have noticed that my students are suffering from a similar issue. I come in to class and instead of talking to each other they are posting to social networking sites about their thoughts and feelings. They are spending more time with the machine and less with each other. You are your profile picture, so I started taking these profile pictures and dissecting them to show some of the pain, confusion, and technology the lives below the surface of online interactions.
ADDICTION BLOG: To explore the interaction part of your work, what do you “call your work”? What niche does it fit in? And how is your work best viewed? Online? On a wall in a gallery? What’s your preferred medium for viewing, and how large are these images when you reproduce them?
WILLIE SCHAEFER: I use the term “Digital Fine Art”. It’s a really broad term, but I think it is the best definition of what I do. I am also a graphic designer, but this really isn’t graphic design. It serves a different purpose. It’s no longer about selling a product, it’s all about an idea, an expression.
Generally, I produce my work as one off digital prints on canvas. I show the work online and in digital formats, but I do like showing physical pieces of art in a gallery setting. The work is usually between 34x22in and 17x11in, but I have produced digital prints as large as 8x4ft. If I were rich, I would love to combine the two formats. Stills on digital flat screens with slight interactive elements or video projections on to canvas pieces, but cost is definitely a huge factor in this field. Imagine if you were a painter and your brushes and canvas cost $8,000. It would be pretty hard to make a painting.
ADDICTION BLOG: Are there online groups or ways to connect with other software based graphic artists? What’s the scene like? Very techie? Competitive? Nerdy? Can you tell us a little bit about the culture of being a computer based artist today?
WILLIE SCHAEFER: There are quite a few online groups for digital artists. The problem is that they are mostly geared toward the student artist rather than the more established artist. Instead of focusing on a digital art movement, most of these groups would rather create fan art of their favorite Japanese animation or video game. That’s fine and all, but not really what I’m looking for when I want to connect with other artists.
I find it very difficult to be a digital artist. The field is full of traditional artists who think that digital is an easy medium. They produce work that is sophomoric, but they have established themselves as painters and sculptors and what not, thus they get shows. I have no problem with mixing traditional and digital arts, I just hate it when a traditional artist says it’s easy and then makes work that any twelve year old with a copy of Photoshop could create. In addition to this, there are a lot of graphic designers that are doing really cool prints, but they aren’t really doing art. Their work is visually appealing, but I feel it lacks the content needed to be truly artistic. All of that being said, I think there is a very small group of people out there doing amazing digital work at the fringes of the art world. Most of us are nerdy because we have been raised by the computer. Kind of a modern version of what Nam June Paik said about the TV raising children in the 60’s. Sadly, I don’t think we are as connected as we should be.
ADDICTION BLOG: Finally, I’d like to touch on the technical process for creating your work. Is your work 100% computerized (I do see some hints or references to manual manipulation thoroughout)? What cameras and software do you use? And did you need extensive technical training before you started?
WILLIE SCHAEFER: The work I do is 100% on the machine. I have been trained as a traditional fine artist, so I use some of those techniques inside of the software I use, but it is all made with a mouse. My work is created in Adobe Photoshop and when I shoot photos I use either a Sony Cybershot or a Cannon DSLR. I’ve been using Photoshop for about thirteen years now and I used Paint Shop Pro for about three years before that. I’ve been training in the digital arts a majority of my life. I have a BFA in Graphic Design from the University of Tennessee, and a MFA in Computer Art from Memphis College of Art.
ADDICTION BLOG: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
WILLIE SCHAEFER: I really appreciate this opportunity to speak about my work. Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me!