Gray Area Incubator Artist Steve Piasecki Talks Art, Politics, and Pandemic

Black background with large “1991” blurred behind. Text says “And we are right back where we started from”
Time is Meaningless When Space Collapses (2020) by Steve Piasecki. 1991 refers to the Rodney King incident from that year, one of the first video-taped instances of police brutality in the US

Steve Piasecki is a multimedia artist in Gray Area’s Incubator Program. Since 2016, Gray Area has supported artists through the Incubator, providing them with studio space, resources, community, and public showcase opportunities. Recently, artists from this year’s Incubator cohort exhibited their work at the Gray Area Artist Showcase, which took place in a unique online gallery and continues to draw audiences from across the world. Piasecki’s piece from the showcase, Time is Meaningless When Space Collapses, offers a compelling commentary on how our experiences with the COVID pandemic have warped our perception of time.

In this exclusive interview, we got a chance to ask Steve about how his art explores the pandemic, and societal trends in our rapidly changing world.

Tell us about your background as an artist.

I moved out to San Francisco in the early 90s, and began doing a lot of nature photography in Northern California for a number of years. Concurrent with that, I started doing videos and visuals for live music performers with an event called Gays Hate Techno. So I did that for about five years, which branched into working with different DJs and bands here in San Francisco. And then I started doing installation work; in late 2018 I started doing stuff at Gray Area, got involved through the Creative Code Immersive program, and then eventually joined the Incubator. I’ve been continuing to create new work at Gray Area ever since.

A woman looks at one of Steve’s pieces from the Hive series. It’s a red square with kaleidoscope-like fractals of a butterfly
Hive (2020) by Steve Piasecki, exhibited at the 2019 Gray Area Summer Showcase.

What drew you to Gray Area, and how has your involvement in our programs influenced your art?

For me, 2018 was a big transitional year — the year my father passed away. I spent the first six months of 2018 traveling a lot, helping take care of him and dealing with some family stuff. When I came back, I was trying to figure out what to do with the next step in my life. I’d been going to Gray Area shows and events for several years prior to that, and so I was finally back in San Francisco and I was like, alright, my life is finally settled down and I can focus on what to do next. I saw that they had educational programs, and it was this moment where I was like, well I can focus on these projects and get involved. So I took the Immersive program because I wanted to have a place to work and develop projects, and Gray Area is a really great resource for that. From the different artists in the community to the different events that are held there, you get exposed to a lot of great ideas with a great group of people.

GIF of Steve’s project. Black background with changing white text that speaks to how time has lost its meaning in quarantine
From Time is Meaningless When Space Collapses (2020).

Your latest work in the Gray Area Showcase is called Time is Meaningless When Space Collapses, and explores the notion of how this pandemic has warped our sense of time. However, you offer a deeper commentary on how time can also be somewhat meaningless for marginalized communities when they see things like documented police brutality happen over and over again. Do you think this idea of time being altered in quarantine has played into the worldwide social justice movements we’ve seen recently?

We have a linear existence. We have an amount of space that we can run in or live in — you can change the amount of space you have, and then you change your perception of time. And then all of a sudden, boom, everybody starts having these very different experiences about what time actually means. And then we see this very horrific incident [referring to George Floyd’s death] that has mobilized national protests. I think a large number of people had the realization at the same time that like, wait a second, you know, how is this different than what happened in 1991 to Rodney King? It’s been happening throughout the course of history in the United States, where black people have been treated very, very horribly by the police and by the state.

You certainly drew inspiration from the pandemic for your piece. Indeed, it seems as though COVID has given rise to many dialogues on different aspects of society that we may be ready to reconsider. How do you think the pandemic has impacted society at large?

I think our society is going through a massive change. And I don’t think anybody really knows what it looks like at the moment — I hope that it ends up being something really positive. Large scale pandemics always engender massive social changes. You look back through history and you’ll see anytime that there’s been a disease or a plague like this, something major changes in the society. I kind of see the conservative movement collapsing in this country because they’re just insisting that this is a hoax, or that it’s not as bad as it’s supposed to be. So I think there’s going to be a very big fundamental political shift in this country.

We’re also going to be looking at the implications for the environment, because now we’ve actually seen what it takes to really reduce greenhouse gases. So there’ll be conversations around that, and conversations around what social justice means. When your economic system is suffering in this way, and your medical system is suffering in this way, there’s going to be a lot of big deep fundamental shifts.

As art so often does, your work frequently verges on the political. Do you find that your art is deliberately activist?

There are moments when there are specific messages that art can help amplify. The problem there is that it gets close to propaganda and advertising. And so there becomes a weird line between art, propaganda, advertising, and advocacy. I worked in digital advertising for years, and there’s a very specific line there that I’ve always tried to be very conscious of. There’s a drive to do something at one time, and then there’s a different drive to do something else at another time. I’m always responding to what compels me to take action.

GIF of Steve’s project. Black background with undulating colorful dollar signs. Changing white text criticizes social media.
GIF of Steve’s project. Black background with undulating colorful dollar signs. Changing white text criticizes social media.
From Time is Meaningless When Space Collapses (2020).

Your piece takes a highly critical view of technology, in particular social media and mass consumerism. In a world where the two are so ubiquitous, how do we begin to dismantle these problematic systems while also being so reliant on them?

We have a very intense relationship with technology — we’re in love with it. We’re seduced by it. And a lot of malevolent actors are able to manipulate that to their own benefits, to their own end. I believe that skepticism is always important for people in any society, between the rulers and the people. Technology makes it really easy to manipulate people, but we’re so reliant on our technology right now to maintain human and social connections and to run our economy and businesses.

When I was first in college, I was studying political rhetoric when the Fairness Doctrine was removed from the FTC. It was removed by the Reagan administration, and it required any broadcast that was in the public interest to be truthful and balanced in providing both sides of any given argument. Essentially now newscasters can lie to people, so there has to be some kind of national conversation about how you set a standard.

This isn’t the first time you’ve done a project that scrutinizes social media and technology. Last November, you debuted an installation at Gray Area called the Magic Mirror. What was this piece about?

Think of Snow White’s magic mirror, but it was a computer monitor with reflective material on it. I sat behind a curtain and actually drove the interaction. So people thought that they were talking to an AI, people thought they were talking to a computer, but they’re actually talking to me. They would get messages about, you know, how they shouldn’t trust the mirror because it lies. The mirror loves you, but not as much as you love it; social media is ruining you. You know, messages like that. So the idea was to convince people that they were talking to an entity that they thought was technology, but it was really a person.

The Magic Mirror (2020) by Steve Piasecki, exhibited at the 2019 Gray Area Winter Showcase.

Your work often tries to bridge the rift between the virtual and the real. Appropriately, your piece was recently displayed at the Gray Area Artist Showcase, which took place in an online virtual recreation of the Grand Theater. What did you think about this virtual gallery as a space to display your art?

From my experiences when I was originally doing VRML work — virtual reality modeling language, which was a very early 3D VR standard for the web — we have definitely evolved and gotten to a better place with these sorts of things. Unfortunately, technology cuts off part of the experience of social interaction, and I think we still have that issue with these virtual spaces. There’s something about the fact that it’s online, that you’ve muted some part of the experience, and I don’t know what the actual solution for that is.

We’ll just have to kind of wait and see how we push this forward in the future. I mean, I would hope that once the pandemic’s all over we go back to how humans are supposed to live. When we do, we might have some type of AR glasses or other device that can superimpose virtual worlds or computer generated imagery on the real world, and we won’t be limited to being in front of our computers to explore virtual spaces.

Steve Piasecki is a bay area artist working in photography and video. His influences and inspirations come from dreams, visions, somatic experiences, and nature. His photography has been published internationally.

Born in Iowa, Steve studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received a BFA in photography and computer graphics in 1992. He has lived and worked in San Francisco since 1993.

Steve’s piece Time is Meaningless When Space Collapses is still live on our virtual gallery in New Art City. Check out Steve’s website and Instagram to stay updated on his latest work. To read more about the Gray Area Virtual Showcase, check out this article.

This article was written by Sam Silverman, Editorial Intern at Gray Area.

Gray Area is a 501(c)3 Nonprofit applying art & technology to create positive social impact. #grayareaorg #creativecode