James Hoff is a New York based artist whose self-taught practice is reflective of the digital advancement in the arts and the influences of his creative environments. Inspired primarily through his exposure to artists’ books and the non-profit art world, Hoff found his calling in using these books as a way to learn from and connect himself with the art world. Hoff works creatively with viruses and syndromes, inflicting these digital forms of information across all media. His creative endeavors stretch from installation, music, print, and painting and his conversations with each represent our relationship with the growing digital and computer-based culture of communication.
Hoff’s relationship with the artist books that generate his inspiration and research led him to create a non-profit organization called Primary Information devoted to the pursuit of international artist dialogues through sharing books and publications. Approaching its tenth year in practice, Primary Information has since expanded itself across the world in publishing and printing books new and old.
Tell me a little bit about yourself, such as how your relationship with art began and what you are currently working on.
I came to art in a roundabout way; mostly through artists’ books and day jobs in the New York’s non-profit art world. I wanted to go to art school, but couldn’t afford it so I got a job working at a organization called Thread Waxing Space and later Printed Matter. I began publishing and making books at night; it sounds romantic in a way, but it wasn’t. I am fascinated by the idea of the book as a cultural space and more generally as a distributed form, and this latter fascination still runs through my work with painting and music. Syndromes, computer viruses, ear worms, etc; all those parasites that travel through channels of communication and trade are starting points for much of my current work.
In the fall, I began working on a new series of paintings that are made from printed circuit boards. Basically, I’ve been travelling to state parks to photograph nature that is cell phone free or rather, work free, non-sites of production. It probably comes as no surprise, but they are becoming increasingly difficult to find. I then etch these images into the copper laminate, using silkscreens and ferric chloride. They’re called useless landscapes.
I am fascinated by the idea of the book as a cultural space and more generally as a distributed form
So by not going to art school, how have you trained yourself to critique your works and challenge ideas with media and information? And was it difficult finding the right exposure to other artists and art movements?
It wasn’t too difficult to be honest. Working with artists and their work directly made it easy to learn. In New York, it’s never hard to get a critique — more difficult not to get one! Printed Matter, in particular, is very inspiring and offers easy access to art history/movements to anyone. It’s an amazing resource for the self taught.
How has your artistic language developed digitally by advancing the media of paint and print?
Primarily I’m interested in how one can reconcile traditional art forms within a world that is increasingly consolidated through digital platforms and tools. I’ve never been into computer art necessarily, but at this point it would be hard to make the distinction, since modes of artistic production are increasingly computer centered. With new types of communication, always comes new illnesses and much of my project starts there with these illnesses. In the case of the digital that would be computer viruses and my work with them is an attempt to push these parasitic forms out of digital distribution and into offline networks, the art gallery, the club, etc. Of course, in order for them to do this they must hide in plain site, which is where genre comes in. The paintings must operate inside the language of their designated medium so I chose historical abstraction as the mode through which to distribute them. With music it’s been a few different genres, but mostly dance music.
Explain how you explore the aesthetic of glitch art in your visual work.
To be honest my intersection with glitch art is really coincidental and I never set out to make it. I appreciate it and the large community of people that make it, but it’s never been an interest as an aesthetic or working mode for me. I came to it out of necessity while working through the relationship of the computer virus to communication networks and to visual art and sound.
How do you expand this same concept to your installations?
Not all of my installations have the same concerns but I’ve made a few installations by applying a virus to a digital image of a gallery wall and then cutting out the virus or glitch from the physical wall in the space. I’ve worked on and off with some architects and programmers to affect 3D forms but I have not gotten any results that I’m super satisfied with. Some day we will infect architecture with computer viruses—that’s the goal.
In conjunction with being a visual artist, you are also a musician known for applying glitch to audio by infecting computer viruses and capturing the digital voice of chaos. How does this relate to your visual work?
The great thing about tools of artistic production being consolidated to digital platforms is that that working modes can be applied across mediums. The work I do with music and computer viruses comes from the same process/concepts as my work in the visual field. I see them as one in the same. They operate differently in the world of course and part of the fun is watching work mutate and spread according to its own logic without any control from its producer. Music is particularly good at that; painting not as much.
Your work is based heavily in the digital field allowing it to be shared and experienced across various media and settings. What is the importance of having your work accessible to the public?
I think all artwork should be accessible to the public and I also think it’s artists’ responsibility to help the public understand contemporary art. For me the challenge of dealing with formal or conceptual concerns in the studio is attempting to connect them to phenomenon outside the myopia of contemporary art. Working with computer viruses, and in particular stuxnet and skywiper, are my attempts to do just that.
I think all artwork should be accessible to the public and I also think it’s artists’ responsibility to help the public understand contemporary art.
How does your work inform the public of the creative advancements available through digitalism?
It’s hard for me to say and in some ways I feel like the general public is better informed than most artist of creative, digital advancements. All popular forms are digital at this point. What is lacking in these digital forms, all too often, is lasting or interesting content and that is something that I think artist can help with. The ideas and aesthetics of the art world are often tapped by pop culture with little or no acknowledgement to the original artist; we are mere fodder for a larger, sterile, culture industry. With the advancement of digital distribution and the breakdown of old-guard publishers, music labels, movie studios, etc my hope is that the artists and their vision will enjoy the success that is usually only afforded to pop culture.
What cultural influences have aided in the development of your work?
Artists’ books! I’ve been making and publishing artists’ book since 2000. The history is rich and despite the seeming ubiquity of the book form, it is constantly evolving. I love the idea of taking an artist project that is niche in nature and then distributing it into a cultural form that anyone can recognize. The books travel, get lost, and end up in surprisingly places. Some of the rarest artists’ books on my shelf were picked up on the street at used books stalls for just a couple of bucks.
Would you say that you also use artists books as a research tool in your creative practices? If not, what kind of research do you practice?
It would be hard to discount the influence of artists’ books on shaping my work. I’m very much engaged with the medium, though I don’t consider it research necessarily. I have been part of a very fluid conversation with many thinkers/practitioners in the arts as well as academics, although I don’t have any clear cut methodology or delineation between practice and study—for me, they are two sides of the same coin and it’s hard for me to say if I make art in order to do research or if I do research in order to make art. It’s all one big soup.
Tell me a little bit about Primary Information and what led to its creation.
Miriam Katzeff and I started kicking around the idea of Primary Information when we were both working at Printed Matter in 2001. I was slogging it out in the grant department and she was working in the archive of the Guerilla Art Action Group, which was at Printed Matter. It was a far more exciting endeavor and I was secretly envious. We kicked up a conversation about GAAG and how much of a shame it was that their one book (published in 1978) was no longer in print or available to artists or students. This problem was not related to that group but rather to a whole generation of artists’ books and we decided to try and change that. Fast forward to 2006. I had just edited an anthology of Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayers 0 To 9 and an anthology of Aram Saroyan’s minimal poetry for Ugly Duckling Presse but felt the need to start something new. There was momentum around the idea of facsimile publications at the time so we started Primary Information shortly thereafter and published our first book, an anthology of Real Life Magazine, in 2007. Since then we’ve published 50 or 60 books, some of which are facsimiles and some which are new books by contemporary artists. We are approaching our tenth anniversary and we just hired our first full time staff member, so I guess we’re here to stay.
Last modified: February 15, 2016