“In general, really, a lot of the things that invisibly control the structures that we interact with on a day-to-day basis are corporate intellectual property,” Artie Vierkant said as we discussed his new works at Feuer/Mesler and Mesler/Feuer, on New York’s Lower East Side. He was talking about his “AN ON MO SA NS” works, which feature patented soybean seeds from Monsanto, but, looking around his studio in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, I could see what Vierkant meant. The designs for everything from Vierkant’s wide computer display to the cover of a Simon Denny book on his desk to his slightly worn sneakers belonged to someone else.
Vierkant doesn’t take intellectual property for granted. Since 2013, he’s been working on a series called “Exploits,” which has tested the limits of what can be patented or copyrighted and what qualifies as intellectual theft. For a show at Higher Pictures in 2014, Vierkant blurred and warped the Polaroid logo using Photoshop techniques. After Polaroid refused to grant permission for him to use the image, Vierkant had to put a veil over the works and the word “Polaroid” was redacted in the press release. While all of that seems decidedly analog, Vierkant is also exploring what it means to own images in the digital age. How can you lay claim to an image when all you’ve done is pull a picture off Google, abstract it in Photoshop, and then exhibit it as an art object? What does it mean to be an artist anymore when producing and copying-and-pasting are sometimes one in the same? Aren’t we all artists of some type at this point?
And, pushing that even further, what if you could use technology to own something that was alive? The answer to that, for Vierkant, began by moving into the “realm of the biological” with the “AN ON MO SA NS” works. “The sort of moral lines shift when you start dealing with patents for biological traits,” he said, “for things that are like genetic material—things that we’re only beginning to have technologies that can alter and control them [with], basically.”
The “AN ON MO SA NS” works are made with soybean seeds from Monsanto, a seed distributor that has generated controversy for using biotechnology to manipulate its products and then claiming ownership of them. (The whole GMO issue was never Vierkant’s concern, he said.) Vierkant ground the seeds up and fixed them in resin, displaying them in tall, rectangular cases like natural-history specimens.
Vierkant had to go through a whole process to even get his hands on the seeds. “You can’t go to the Monsanto website and buy online or whatever,” he said. “I had to speak with a seed distributor, which is a subcontractor of Monsanto. Then, when you do that, you have to sign what’s called a Technology/Stewardship Agreement, which isn’t really about the seeds. It’s about the patents that govern the seeds themselves, or the genetic patents that are contained within the seeds.”
Under the agreement, he also had to destroy the seeds so that they couldn’t be used again or be exported. With a touch of glee, he added, “A lot of conceptualizing their ultimate objecthood required a lot of poetic license taken upon the license of agreement.”
For Vierkant, the “AN ON MO SA NS” series is ultimately about what it means to be an author today. (An answer may lie in the series’ title, which, at a quick glance, looks like “ANONYMOUS.”) Vierkant explained that the problem of what makes an author goes all the way back to 17th-century England, when intellectual property was first conceived.
As new technologies get invented, those Enlightenment-era ideas are changing. Now it’s not just about who owns the rights to a work of art. It’s also about who owns the rights to organic matter, some of which may even be inside people. “This structure has evolved to not only be something that is about our understanding of ourselves,” he said, “but has also gotten to a point where it is being used to control how we are altering the planet itself, and also, I guess, ourselves, with the genetic bubble.”
Vierkant is also showing new pieces for his longer-running “Image Objects” series, which are on view at Mesler/Feuer. As in the past, these works each involve a series of jumbled, colorful frames, one laid on top of the other, that are made in Photoshop. In the new works in this series, Vierkant now uses install shots of his past exhibitions, which, for him, is already self-reflexive. He’s become known for manipulating the install shots of his “Image Objects” using basic Photoshop techniques, and then calling these warped, obscured, and abstracted JPEGs works unto themselves.
The amount of visual information in these new “Image Objects” is overwhelming because it feels like it’s shifting constantly. Everything is so unstable, in fact, that one “Image Object” has leapt off the wall and onto the floor—the second official sculpture in the series. (The first went on view this summer, as part of a show by the Public Art Fund in Manhattan named after Vierkant’s series.)
Each work seems like it’s on the verge of flying apart entirely, and it almost seems not to matter that the physical object exist at all. As Vierkant said, “The ‘Image Objects’ [are] in some ways meant to be photographed… Since I alter the installation views, in some ways the only representational images of the show are things people posted to Instagram in the last week, for example, which I think is interesting. It’s so much easier to search #ArtieVierkant on Instagram to find images of what the show actually looks like.”
Vierkant has his own ideas about each work’s hidden narrative. Certain photographs in the new “Image Objects” come from a show he did at the Westfalischer Kunstverein, in Germany, but most viewers would, of course, never know that. Vierkant doesn’t care. “It’s not supposed to be narratively interesting because I don’t buy into the idea of the grand artist mythos,” he said.
Normally, artists are forthcoming about their influences, but not so for Vierkant. “One of the reasons that I even started doing a product dealing with intellectual property is I believe so much that we’re the product of all the things we ever see, all the things we ever read about and decide to be interested in,” he said. “Actually, it feels good, at this point, to say that I don’t think, with these pieces, I was trying to do ‘blank.’”
And rather than caring about being important as an artist, Vierkant is more concerned with the work he puts into the world and what happens to it after he does that. “When you are the person making [the work], it’s hard to ever say, ‘This is different,’” he said. “But I think that very much, for me, these are methods of production that make sense right now. I think that, in both of the shows, in some way, what I’m chasing is having these objects which are actors in their own right.”