Artist Stephen Standridge Explores Dimensionality through Mixed Reality Art

As we venture into the second Incubator session of the year, we’re sitting down with some members of the program to discuss their work and their experiences here at Gray Area. First up, Stephen Standridge. Stephen creates under the name Form is Function, which also serves as a guiding principle in his creative process. His large-scale immersive installations are designed with meticulous attention to how an individual navigates his pieces, and each piece expresses that interactive process as the artwork itself.

Stephen will present his current works in progress at the upcoming Gray Area Artist Salon on October 16. Join us for a series of informal talks and conversation with artists from the Gray Area Incubator and the Experiential Space Research Lab.

The Gray Area Incubator offers artists a unique opportunity to work, collaborate, learn, and showcase in an exciting ecosystem centered around the intersection between art and technology. In addition to workspace, this program includes membership in a creative community, peer critique sessions, and public exhibitions at the Grand Theater.

Describe your background and what led you to Gray Area’s Cultural Incubator Program.

My background is as an illustrator. I basically studied how to paint, how to draw, how to do graphic production. I had a lot of experience in design, but I started questioning the tools I was designing or painting with.

For me, in those days, digital art meant using a computer to produce a two-dimensional work, whether that’s a painting, or a drawing, or even a website. It was very flat. I remember I was doing a painting and I wanted to create this three-dimensional space, but had no clue how. That started this quest in learning how different people were doing digital art, which led me to finding Gray Area.

I think one of the first events I attended at Gray Area was the Incubator Showcase, where I saw all these artists exploring different media and ways of using technology that were active, animated, and in motion; they were artworks that were actually using code and technology as a medium. I think that search for different ways of using digital technology for art led me here.

Tell us how you chose the moniker “Form is Function,” and how it describes your work.

There’s a phrase that stuck out to me as I was studying design: “form follows function,” which was birthed out of the need to establish design principles. That original statement stressed designing an object for an intended purpose. As a result, you get super efficient, beautiful chairs and teapots that are perfect for boiling. However, I think with the Digital Age, that has all shifted. The computer is a very functional tool that does basic tasks, and through these very basic tasks, it creates much larger applications. The purity of function is entirely gone because you have functions building up to much larger functions, and so, very practically, “Form is Function” describes the pieces I make. You can’t describe my art without describing the actual process you’re going through when you interact with it. It’s a very different take on that whole idea of “form follows function,” but it’s used in a much more abstract way. The forms of my pieces are the functions that each one does.

Describe the evolution of your work throughout your time in Gray Area’s Artist Incubator; where did it start, and where is it now?

I was just painting and programming websites before I got here, trying to make JavaScript solve all my problems because that was the tool I knew. Mark Heller taught one of the first workshops I attended at Gray Area, and it was all about how to set up a WiFi-enabled micro-controller that controls programmable LEDs. Being exposed to new ways of thinking through workshops here has shifted my work entirely. It’s made all these technologies seem more accessible, because they’re taught in a very functional way. Here, you learn a specific technology and work on a very functional project, instead of the usual “Here’s this abstract knowledge, use it somehow!”

Gray Area has exposed me to different technologies in a way that is very tangible and real, and it has also connected me to a lot of artists in the space. Working alongside so many other artists has caused me to reflect more on my ideas and those of others. It’s changed the dialogue around how I think about digital art.

“You can’t describe my art without describing the actual process you’re going through when you interact with it.”

You describe yourself as an “artist first, coder second.” Why make this distinction? How are art and technology both synchronistic and at odds with one another?

For me, my relationship with art and technology has been this constant ebb and flow, back and forth. The idea of “artist first, coder second” is the lens I find most helpful to create with because it allows me to think about the topics I want to explore in terms of that generative process of creating something from nothing. If I put on the engineer or coder hat, then it’s all about solving problems or working with the tools. You can definitely create art from either of those camps and play back and forth between the two, but I find that it’s helpful to constantly question what I’m trying to say and why I’m using certain tools, as opposed to letting the tools dictate what is being expressed.

How do you consider your audience throughout the creative process? What do you hope people gain from interacting with your work?

I have this concept that I am not that different from people around me, and people around me aren’t much different from me. I consider the audience in giving a different lens for exploration or reflection. I can create pieces with a very specific intention or message to convey, and feel that idea coming to life. But, unless other people see it as well, then it’s not there. The audience is really a check to see if my message is something that can be communicated. With these different intuitions like color, space, and time, there’s a subjective experience, and you need other people to check that subjectivity, and really tell you if people can walk away with a common feeling or idea.

Your piece for the Gray Area Showcase, “Crystalline,” played with human curiosity and allowed participants to explore visual caves in changing dimensions. Can you tell us a bit more about the process of creating Crystalline, particularly the mathematics and science that inform the art?

In the last two pieces I created for my aspect series, Inferno and Depths, I studied different projection techniques, both physical projection in terms of projecting an image onto a surface, but also mathematical projection techniques that enable me to render a three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional frame. Crystalline pushes that exploration much further. In both Inferno and Crystalline, I used a method called ray marching, in which you project a volume into a two-dimensional image. In Crystalline, I mix that method of creating a volume with creating planes. A blending happens between the planar and dimensional ways of reading a space, so this “in-between” space generates the visuals of the piece, as well as an exploration of how one transitions into the other.

How the 2D transitions into the 3D?

Exactly. And that’s pushed further with the actual projection mapping, where it is mapped to be projected two-dimensionally, and then throughout the course of the piece, it becomes three-dimensional.

“Being exposed to new ways of thinking through workshops [at Gray Area] has shifted my work entirely. It’s made all these technologies seem more accessible.”

What ideas or media are you interested in pursuing further in your artistic practice?

You know, with all this math, trigonometry, and linear algebra, I haven’t done a whole lot with lighting. Part of me wants to get into lights, shadows, and pearlescent surfaces. Another part of me wants to get into machine learning as a tool in order to utilize massive amounts of data to generate something. When I think of all the different ways in which digital is different than traditional mediums, large-scale and data seem to be two of the core elements.

What are some highlights from your involvement in the cultural incubator program? How has the incubator contributed to your success as an artist and educator?

I really appreciate working with the Incubator’s different cohorts. The Artist Salon has changed my life in a really good way, because it’s helped me think about how to describe my own work to other people. It’s a constant exploration of how I talk about my work and how I structure my process so that I can be open to criticism from other artists, which is a very different way of thinking.

This interview was conducted by Hannah Scott, Gray Area’s Creative Development Intern.

Photos of artwork by Mariah Tiffany; portraits of Standridge by Hannah Scott.



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Gray Area is a 501(c)3 nonprofit in San Francisco, CA applying art & technology to create positive social impact. #grayareaorg #creativecode