Southern Digital: Justin Wood

Published April 24th 2024
By Joe Nolan

"Frontlines," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

In his new series, longtime Number art critic, Joe Nolan curates a dialog with digital artists from across the region. Nolan and a wide-ranging group of digital creators talk process, projections, pixels and the importance of place in the liminal expanses of digital art.

Justin Robie Wood is an interdisciplinary artist and curator utilizing technology to create new experiences. His work has been exhibited internationally in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the mediums of Projection Mapping, Screen Paintings, Video Sculpture, Painting, Installation, Video Art and Virtual Reality.

Joe Nolan (JS): One of the things I'm most interested in about the digital art space is its overlap with traditional art. I'm always drawn to those brackish borders between categories or mediums. I know trad artists who are actually hostile about crypto and NFTs and the digital marketplace, if not digital art in general. So I love talking to traditional artists who have that digital art vision and are making breakthroughs in the space. Did you start out in traditional art?

Justin Wood (JW): I went to School of Visual Arts in New York, where I was studying painting. I was painting mixed media collage paintings and I was playing with friends' bands.

"Powered by Memes," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

"Ghosts," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

JN: What’s your instrument?

JW: I was playing drums at the time. I couldn't keep up with the rehearsal schedules and everything so we had to part ways. But a friend of mine said, “We really would like you to just stay helping us with visuals.” And at that time we started doing projections at the shows, and it was very remedial – like using DVDs and things, and just mixing stuff. And then I realized, “Well, there's got to be something more to how people do this.” And I sort of delve into that whole world of learning about the technology of how you do live visual mixing and all that stuff. And that's around the time where I started discovering projection mapping and was seeing videos on YouTube of these huge museums and things with projections on them that were kind of just like blowing my mind how they would all kind of fall apart and come together and all that.

"Adventure Galley," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

"Abcessed," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

And I was really interested in that because the people that were doing that were also the people that were doing a lot of live visual stuff. Back in those days, when you did projection mapping, you would start with a photograph of the structure you were going to map, and then you’d have to kind of calculate your your camera lens and your projector bulb and like calculate the distance and all that stuff to like match that with the photograph to design your video. You couldn't really adjust all that much back then. It was a very technical process. So I decided to try to projection map one of my paintings. So I photographed one of my paintings, and then I projected that photograph on top of it and applied some real time effects. And the whole thing came to life. This is about 2010. I just started merging, video and technology into everything that I did. I went full into kind of projection map paintings and then doing transparent paintings over LCD screens – so it's backlit with video to have more of a kind of a portable object. I continued to do music festival installations for some bands I was interested in. I was doing this kind of hybrid sculpture that also functioned as like a shade. The first time that happened by accident. People were using them to piss next to or have sex inside of – it was mayhem. So for future iterations I decided not to enclose them, but design it so people can use them for shade during the day. And then at night it becomes a sculpture.

"The Decline," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

JN: It’s funny because your more recent work happens in these totally remote-seeming spaces.

"Let Your Mind Conjure Up Old Ghosts," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

JW: I was living in the Florida Keys in 2017 when we got hit with Hurricane Irma. The eye of the storm came right through where we were living. It obliterated the place. So when we came back to kind of fix up the house and recover everything – it's cliche to say, but it was like an atom bomb went off. Every tree was knocked over. It was visually mind-blowing. And I was seeing all these structures and these houses and all these things that just looked really interesting to me. And so I thought, “I want to start projection mapping this stuff.” So I would use my projector, attach it to the car battery and do these pop-up projections every night on all this different destroyed stuff and piles of debris and things like that. I was sort of putting that stuff out there and people started catching on to it. The Miami New Times did an article about it. I got interviewed on NPR about it in New York. So it was a way to sort of keep the storm recovery in the public consciousness in a very small way. Then I sold some photographs of that at the time. As far as projection mapping, people were looking for video. So I never thought of it as a photography project. I ended up creating an installation out of that project that was pitched to the Spring Break Art Fair in New York. So I gathered up the debris and wreckage and stuff from the hurricane and basically recreated it in a gallery setting. It was kind of nuts to drive a U-Haul full of hurricane debris into Times Square in New York and put it up in a gallery. That fair is geared towards people that are doing installations and digital, and more cutting-edge kind of stuff. It always happens during Armory Week, which is like Art Basel for New York City. That project led to doing more and more of installations. I moved up to New York for a couple of years shortly after that, doing a lot of projection mapping installation projects, as well as the projection map paintings and pure digital video art as well.

"Telstar," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

"Transmission," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

JN: Were you in New York during the pandemic?

JW: Covid shut everything down and we were living in Queens and it just seemed like the world wasn't going to be the same on the other end of it. And I didn't want to stick around New York City while everything was closed. So my wife and I decided to get a truck and an RV trailer, and I put my studio and everything in storage. And then we spent the next two years just traveling the country. I think a lot of people noticed NFTs around early 2021 where things were kind of blowing up and you had the huge sales and Beeple and everything. I was traveling and thinking, “Wow, there's this whole thing emerging and I don't have to be in New York City. I can be anywhere.” There were definitely multiple points where I'd heard about NFTs and stuff leading up to it. Very early on, I heard about people trying to solve that scarcity problem for all of the digital art and video art. Then there’s this whole blockchain thing going on, but it was like nobody really took it seriously. I started minting things that were like digital animations, 3D animations – doing loops and stuff like that. I actually created a pseudonym to kind of put things out so it didn't destroy the reputation that I had built within certain circles in New York and everything. So I worked like that for a little while, just kind of experimenting and trying to build relationships. And there was so much going on back then and so many people flooding in. It was just really hard to get visibility or to make sense of all that.

"Totem," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

JN: It was like the whole Wild West vibe of the crypto space suddenly influenced all of these burgeoning creative projects. It was super exciting, but also super chaotic. Artists and curators cranking out work and networks and communities, and investors and collectors buying things up just as quickly. It felt like some trends only lasted for like a week before the whole space was on to something else. That's also when I started trying to map the Venn diagrram between traditional art and these new digital personalities and spaces.

JW: While I was traveling, I was doing projections across the landscape, just trying to keep momentum going with the same sort of idea of the hurricane projections where I would do these installations out in the world and then use that as kind of material that I would then bring back for future gallery shows. But then I started thinking, “This stuff could be perfect for NFTs.” The idea was that doing these videos could be a medium where you can actually capture and sell these experiences that way. NFT photography wasn't a thing. The photographers that were getting into the space were kind of doing animations and trying to do stuff that fit with with the other digital art that was going on. Slowly that kind of blossomed and still photography really took off in the fall of 2021. When I got back at the end of my first trip, I decided to put out a small collection to see what would happen. It was just the photographs I'd taken of projections on various landscapes and rock formations and stuff like that. I put it out bit by bit and it started to sort of pique people’s interest and they started collecting them. Chikai Ohzama, he bought one of them. He's a big collector in the space. He was somebody I had on my radar to kind of get their attention. So that connection kind of made me feel like I was on to something with this photography project, and I decided to do another trip and focus on this as the travel. The first time I was kind of just checking out cities we'd never been to before, just seeing the whole country. And this time was like traveling specifically for interesting areas – structures, ghost towns, rock formations – areas where I know there's weird looking stuff. I just went wild for about six or seven months where every couple of nights I was doing this and learning photography at the same time because I’d never really had a professional camera. I was also learning that as I was going.

JN: Learning it at night!

JW: Yeah! I was only shooting at night. It's all spontaneous. I’d do a recon drive during the day and when I'm there, I'm just kind of improvising, moving things around, trying different visuals and just kind of seeing what happened, especially early on. It's the most fun I've ever had in my life. I was crawling around in the dirt and being on cliff sides and all this stuff and creating these monumental installations for myself to capture photographs. That in-person experience, for me, that's the piece. I saw it as kind of connection to the earthwork artists: using the land to create something that is much bigger than anything you could do in a museum or gallery, and experience that for myself. Just looking at it was like blowing my mind every couple of nights. The photographs become the artifact of that experience. But, that sculptural presence of the actual installation, that's the primary basis as far as I'm concerned.

"Waves of Grain," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

JN: Were you in the South? Some of my favorite images look like the Southwest. It’s hard to tell with the nighttime settings.

JW: I started in Florida. On that second trip, we kind of targeted Caddo Lake, which is on the Louisiana Texas border. It has a bunch of freaky looking cypress trees. Went out towards Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, which is like the second largest canyon in the country. From there, I went through an amazing area in northwest New Mexico. It's the most Star Trek looking stuff you can find in the country. Utah. Nevada. We did a good bit through Nevada at that time. And then this area in Kansas called Monument Rocks, which looks very Southwest, but it's just these couple little areas that have these really crazy limestone outcroppings in the middle of flat plains. So we did some stuff there and then the Black Hills in South Dakota.

JN: South Dakota is pretty otherworldly.

JW: Yeah! And then if it's a state park or something that'll let you in at night, or if you're camping there, you can kind of have free rein to just wander around. So I stopped asking permission or getting like permits and things like that after a couple of interactions early on. I'm in a complete middle of nowhere. There's nobody around telling me I'm gonna disturb other people at the park, and there's nobody there, right? I never had any trouble. Nobody ever kicked me out or even said anything — most of the time they wouldn't even notice I was there. It's a project with a very light footprint. But I tried to find things anywhere. I was in Nebraska and we're staying next to this bean farm. And I just did a projection on one of these irrigation systems there. I was trying to kind of capture different flavors around the country. So it wasn't always just rock formations. Sometimes, maybe it’s just ghost towns. We went out to this place in Nevada. There's a Highway 50. It cuts across Nevada. They call it something like “the Loneliest Road in America.” And there’s this place called the Belmont Mine, which is incredibly difficult to get to. Our truck barely made it there. It's just this freaky, abandoned silver mine that had all these giant moths flying around. The environments are just crazy sometimes – very spooky and weird, and very remote. We were just trying to find those weird things out there that had kind of been left behind. It can be a little bit like time traveling in one of these towns.

"Source," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

JN In the springtime, my “sketchbook” is using a phone app where I'm making digital color swatches by scanning some beautiful leaf or some flower with my phone. The app is called "Color Wheel." It sounds so dumb, but it's really a great tool. I'll take that back to the studio and when I'm ready to get some paintings done, I can just go through my phone and see all these color palettes that I've collected. I literally collect them from my yard and my neighborhood. So the art is a direct reflection of my specific surroundings here in the South. Do you feel that your work has a particular connection to the South, or that you feel particularly connected to the South as an artist?

JW: The biggest connection would be my time in the Florida Keys. That was a little bit different than what you might think of the South.

JN: But, really, that's the most south of the South, isn't it?

JW: The southernmost! Yeah. But my work, it's incredibly informed by the color, the environment there. When I started to integrate video into my paintings, I was spending a lot of time looking at the waters there in the keys. I was just looking at the idea of something that's perpetually in motion, it’s evolving but not really changing. And there's no narrative to it. There's no story. It just kind of is. And that's what I wanted for video in my painting, because I wanted it to retain the quality of a painting rather than some sort of hybrid narrative-movie-painting thing. Projection mapping is sort of a fireworks show. There's a progression to it, there's the finale. I wanted the paintings to just kind of undulate. You would stare at them like you would a painting. Those waters were very informative.

"Taxodium," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood

JN: What was your process for developing the video paintings in those surroundings?

JW: Just working down there, the keys were the most impactful environment. I was always kind of going after those turquoises and blues and things like that water around there. I worked at a trade show exhibit company, my first job out of art school, And I was in print production, and they had these terrible printers that were always splattering ink all over the place. You have to redo the prints over and over again. So I started taking stuff home. And I love the way the ink is designed to not get muddy because it goes down into little tiny dots next to each other. So it has to dry quickly and not bleed. So when you kind of splatter it all over the place, it creates those moments onto itself – these little tiny rivers of color and little splatters and little things. So I've been working with that for a long time. For my translucent video paintings. I’ll build a wood structure to put it on, and I use adhesive-backed, polypropylene material that I get in rolls. And I'll just roll it out and I'll put out a garden hose to get some water on it, and then I'll kind of just splatter the ink around. And then I'll sometimes take a squeegee and run it across, or I'll just lift the material and let it run. That kind of thing. Then I'll take that, chop it up, make something with it, and then I'll paint into it. The ink absorbs acrylic paint. So if you paint white paint across it, the colors all just come right through. It gets muted and it changes. Very interesting effects happen with it.

I would work outside making collages, and the wind would kind of whip things around, and sometimes it would stick something to the canvas before I wanted it to, but “I guess that’s where it goes?” I feel the environment that way. That's where all of this projection work really started. Crawling around on the beaches there – definitely, my most photographed area, is the keys. And now being in Central Florida for a year, I'm in all this Spanish moss and different things. In these pine forests. I have to just adapt to where I am. There are rock formations here. I've been doing stuff at construction sites because there's an incredible amount of development going on here. And you have these sort of little mini desert landscapes that have been created here, and they have what kind of look like Southwestern rock formations, but it’s really just the pile of dirt that they're excavating. I’m calling it the Florida Badlands. It looks like it could be the Mexico desert if you kind of capture it at the right angle.

"Florida Badlands," digital projection mapping and photography by Justin Wood