written by Maria Vogel
Gabriel Barcia-Colombo is a mixed media artist whose work questions technology’s effect on humans’ relationships to time, memory, and death. His work has been shown in spaces as diverse as the works themselves, from Fulton Transit Center in NYC, to LACMA, and now even on Spotify for the platform’s first ever digital book. We sat down with Barcia-Colombo recently to discuss his unique approach to producing art and the ever-growing reach of technology today.
Collections, memorialization, and the act of leaving one’s digital imprint for the next generation is a theme you revisit in your works. When did this idea come to you?
I think I’ve always been a collector of things. Since I was a kid I had very strange collections. In 2004/2005 people started to really get into social media and started making their own collections of their photos and their friends. I saw that there was a crossover between how we look at natural history and the way that people are collecting people today. Instead of looking at scientific specimens in jars I thought, “Why don’t I put people in jars.” That’s what started this whole journey into collections and memorialization.
When you started out, could you have imagined where the digital and social media presence would grow to today?
I had friends who were not artists constantly taking photographs of each other, documenting their entire lives. I thought it was interesting and must mean something. Also, the pervasiveness of media – you can document something and show it right away after you document it, that’s really interesting to me. That has its roots in how video art was started. That’s why I think video art and digital art is going to be the next big revolution, in terms of art sales and everything.
Your background is in video art?
I went to film school in CA. I’m from LA originally. I moved out here and went to grad school in this program (NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) and now I’m teaching here.
Did you set out to be an “artist’?
No, not at all. I was going to be a music video director and animator. I did some of that in LA for a little while and then got really angry about how the film industry was going. It’s just a business in the end – although art is the same way (laughs). I felt like there’s more freedom in art for me. Also, the film’s that I was making were not tradition films and I went to a very traditional film school. Out here I had more freedom. I came to New York in 2005 and there was an interesting digital art scene just starting up. That was really fun to me, it was sort of like being a part of this movement.
You use very technologically advance methods to speak about technology’s effect on humans, is this the most effective way to convey your point and do you think these messages could come across effectively in a different medium?
I think its an effective way but I’m not sure it’s the only way to get these ideas across. I try to make work that’s not really about the tech itself. I don’t use the newest things that are coming out. For me, it’s more about the message behind it or the concept. I don’t ever start with the tech; It’s more of an image that I want to paint or make. For me the tools are projectors and computers, rather than paintbrush or ceramic. It’s not because I can’t paint; For me it comes naturally to craft something digitally and get it out into the world some way.
You mentioned your background in video. Do you create your own programming for your works?
I do most of it myself. There are some things that are too advanced for me and I hire people to help me out, but I primarily make all of it myself. All of my early stuff, it was all me on my own. It’s hard to keep up with technology sometimes so I have to work with people who are even younger than me, my students sometimes.
Can you speak more on the process behind creating a work and where your inspiration comes from?
For me it just starts with an image, a dream or something. You have this image of what you want to do and figure out how to make it happen. If there’s coding involved in that then there is.
When someone views a work of yours is there something you want them to walk away with?
It depends on the work. With the “Hereafter Institute,” it was a really contemplative piece about death. People walked away from that crying. I’ve never gotten so many emails after viewing a piece. It inspired a dialogue about death. I like people to think like “Oh, that’s a beautiful work but there’s also a concept behind it.” There’s definitely a conceptual through-line with all those pieces, so hopefully people know my work. Maybe they don’t see visually that it’s made by the same person sometimes, which I think is kind of a risk that I take compared to other artists. But there is a conceptual line that runs through it which I think is more fun to make than painting the same thing over and over again.
What do you think defines the emotional response to digital art? Is it stronger or different than responses to other types of art?
I think digital art is in a weird place right now because people assume you need to have a knowledge of digital work to understand it. There is a bias against it that exists primarily because it’s hard to sell. I think it’s a lot related to money and scarcity and the idea that it can’t be scarce because it’s digital. That’s a really backwards way of looking of it and I think that’s going to change coming up soon with new technologies that will make digital art scarce. If you have a record of everyone who has owned that artwork and can transfer it, it becomes just like any painting. I think as soon as this happens, digital art will enter the mainstream art world eventually and maybe overtake parts. (laughs)
Is there a work that holds the most meaning to you that you have done?
I don’t really play favorites. I really enjoyed doing the “Hereafter Institute.” That was a really big turning point for me because it was performance art but also an installation. The installations kind of sit on their own but they’re also a part of this larger idea that I’m still exploring right now. I also really like making public work and sculptures. “New York Minute” was a really fun piece to work on with the MTA, doing 15 portraits of people was really interesting and working with super slow-motion footage was interesting too. That felt a little bit more filmic than some of the other things I’ve been doing. I like all of it. I’m working on some crazy stuff now that’s totally different. For me, I have to make different things to stay alive (laughs). As long as I’m having fun and making things that are interesting than I think it’s worthwhile.
Do you think these pieces that ask you to slow down and contemplate could have a home in another society? Do you think that we as Americans most need this message?
I think its relevant to a lot of places at this point. I think it’s the pervasiveness of digital media and phones and everything. Most of my work sells primarily in Europe, which is funny. I make it here but it seems to have a home in Europe. I think it’s a problem with people staring at their phones everywhere. I think it’s important, especially when looking at artwork, to think about meaning, the concept behind the work, to slow down and actually look at the work a little bit. We’re so used to just snapping something and moving on. I think my artwork addresses that to some extent depending on the piece.
Do you think that something like the “Hereafter Institute” or “New York Minute” could be put in a different context than where they were initially presented?
I think so. I’ve been talking about doing “New York Minute” in different cities. It’s funny because it was inspired by the crazy pace of New York but I think it applies to a lot of other places now. I recently applied to do the “Hereafter Institute” as a study in death in different cultures – to think about how people in Mexico, Nepal look at death. It’s very applicable to different societies and different cultures.
One of your goals in your work is to memorialize the digital lives of humans, posing the question “How is technology reshaping our relationship to death?” How do you want or intend to leave your life memorialized?
That’s something I’m working on now. I have this avatar of myself made of a 3D scan of my body which I make these crazy videos with. I can program it to do anything. I have this whole series where I make these bizarre animations with the avatar. I’m like a digital character now. I’m designing a new series of sculptures that are homes for avatars, physical houses that are designed to house your avatar. It’s a video sculpture you can hang on your wall but to me its conceptual in the idea that it’s like a retirement home for your avatar (laughs). Documenting my own self is interesting because I can live on as this digital asset now. This is all sort of my digital afterlife, being created here on Instagram.
Do you have a means of defining your success?
For me, success is being able to make what I want. I show with a gallery in the Lower East Side called Muriel Guepin Gallery. She deals primarily with my video sculpture work, pieces with projection or screen. The other stuff like the “Hereafter Institute” I do on my own, it’s not with the gallery. I work with grants for more experimental work that doesn’t fall under the traditional gallery model and do those shows on my own. That’s what I think of success—if I can do both things; things that interest me and things I do just for commercial reasons.
Is there a market for these works?
I sell my work in editions so there’s totally a market for it.
Do you see a larger consumer base growing from when you started to now?
Yeah, I think so. It helps to do things like Ted Talks and stuff like that because people become aware of my work more. When they see it in real life it kind of makes it more real to them and magical in a way. Art fairs are helpful for that reason. There’s even a market with the more experimental works like the “Hereafter Institute.” I’m in negotiation to sell one of those pieces to LACMA for their permanent collection.
Technology is changing every day – can you envision what your work will look like 10, 20, 30 years down the road?
I see digital art becoming ubiquitous, surrounding us in the world We’ve been hanging paintings but maybe there’s a way to hang digital work. I don’t know if it will be purely screen based. I think there are a lot of opportunities for augmented reality and all sorts of stuff like that. Maybe there will be a revolution against technology altogether. I like making pieces that have to be experiences in person with other people. So maybe, there will be no technology, I’m fine with that.
What’s next for you? What are you excited for?
I’m really excited about making some new sculptural pieces right now. Whether they’re inspired by capturing data in objects – I think that’s a really interesting idea. The homes for avatars idea, exploring this conceptual line in my work. I’m excited about doing more public work too: expanding on the stuff I did with the MTA and bringing it to other places. Thinking about the “Hereafter Institute” as more of an ongoing project, I’m applying for a lot of grants with that idea right now. Hopefully to bring it to New York and around the world and to think of more cultural relationships to death.