Stewart Smith’s Quiet Critiques

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For Stewart Smith, defining what he does may be the hardest part of his job. He once told an interviewer that he “navigates between art, code, and design,” but speaking from his home in London, he admits, “I think that’s just me putting a label on things that I want to do anyway.” Smith, 29, has filled the last few years with these things: His visualization of world viticulture appeared in an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last fall; two other digital pieces, “Windmaker” and “Exit” (a collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro), are currently on view in “Talk to Me,” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; and all the while he’s been operating his punningly named design house, Stewdio.

Smith, who moved to the U.K. from New York last year, spent his teenage years in Connecticut and cut his teeth on design while working on his fanzine, Tweed, in the late 1990s. “If now it’s art, code, and design, back then it was music, politics, and DIY,” he says. Somewhere amid the glue sticks and Xerox copies, he learned that the presentation of his ideas could communicate just as much as what was inside.

After receiving his M.F.A. in graphic design from Yale (“I spectacularly did not fit in”), Smith began producing work that showed both a sense of play and a quiet critique. “Browser Pong,” for instance, enlists the flotsam of the internet―pop-up windows―in an homage to the classic Atari game. Meanwhile, “Windmaker” subjects web content to the weather conditions of a particular location. Try reading The New York Times’s home page on Mt. Washington, once the world-record holder for wind speed, and John Boehner’s grim face bounces around the screen alongside the newspaper’s logo. It’s as if Smith pulled up the anchor of corporate identity and quietly sailed away into the night.

“iQuit,” which he describes as “a one-liner, a wisecrack,” borrows Apple’s slick template but uses it to perform an act of negation. “With just a few clicks,” it promises, “the iQuit website will email your desired party a polite but firm resignation letter, constructed on the fly just for you. No configuration necessary. Perfect for quitting any sticky situation.” It certainly seems to be a jab at the shiny, happy aura of productivity surrounding Apple, though Smith says that wasn’t his intent. “I don’t think I’m making a statement about brand identity,” he says. “Which is a bit unfortunate, because I’d like to at some point. But to say I’ve dwelled on it and produced some informed, pointed response just isn’t true.” Whatever we might read into his work he ascribes more to levity than political intent. “I actually don’t like postmodernism when it comes to visuals,” he says. “But my sense of humor is so influenced by the nineties and things that are about pastiche that, whether I want it to or not, it makes its way into my work.”

His projects increasingly seem to abandon some of that lightness. “Exit,” influenced by Paul Virillo’s theory that humanity is defined by migration, quite beautifully but earnestly renders the movement of people into lights. With his frequent collaborator Robert Gerard Pietrusko, Smith is currently putting the finishing touches on a data-visualization project that examines the art world itself. Set to appear this fall in a show at the ZKM gallery, in Karlsruhe, Germany, called “The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989,” the piece “explores the art trade’s dramatic explosion around the end of the Cold War.” For the project, a panoramic animation that employs geolocated data, not unlike “Exit,” Smith and Pietrusko created a database of art-world trends in both financial and cultural capital. Smith says that the work explores “the growth of the major auction houses around the world, commercial art fairs that emerged from or were sometimes inspired by major biennials, and the creation of new art ‘regions’ for profit.”

“I think there’s so much potential there,” he says. “The foundation we’ve had to build―databases, content-management systems, methods for building narratives from these observations―we think that has a much longer shelf life. No one else has the kind of data [ZKM] now has for biennials.” He’d like to make the information public as a research tool. His focus on the financial apparatus of the art world seems to have a bite-the-hand-that-feeds quality, but Smith describes the project as a scientist might: It’s a “particular globalization story.” Smith is hesitant to answer questions of intent, a reaction to his zine days. “I’ve grown sensitive to artists and designers making big, unfounded claims,” he says. “I used to do this a lot when I was younger, and now I’m very embarrassed by it.” It could explain why Smith gets so excited about these newer data-visualization projects; the rigor of the research speaks for itself, while leaving the project open to many possible interpretations and uses. Meanwhile, he’s focused on the work. “In my own spare time even,” he says, “I’m just producing things, and I can’t really help it. I can’t even stop it.”