Kim Sikora: Your light drawing photographs are full of questions about your process. Especially after seeing that these were created in the 70s. Can you share some info on how these were created?
Eric Staller: New York City at night was an enchanting place for me. The plazas, bridges, parks and monuments, empty and eerily quiet at night, were dramatic stage sets waiting to be transformed. Transformed by my magic wand: the 4th of July sparkler. Late at night I drove around in a beat-up station wagon, looking for places and ideas to jump out at me. When the moment was right I set up my Nikon on a tripod and planned a choreography with light. One of the first light drawings was Walker Street:
Each sparkler lasted about a minute, so that was the amount of time I had to make the drawing. I would lock the camera shutter open, light the sparkler and quickly walk down the street, holding the sparkler at curb level, to complete the composition before the sparkler went out. I felt a strong sense of exhilaration, like running the 100-meter dash with a flaming torch! Getting the film back from the lab was even more exhilarating: it was magic, my presence was invisible! There was just this trail of liquid fire.
Suddenly I was drunk with the possibilities. I proceeded to outline everything for my photos: cars, trucks, streets, monuments. The energy was packed into one-minute performances. I worked through the night and although I was alone and even lonely, my romance for the city was sweet indeed. At dawn I would go to Fulton Street to watch the fishermen come in, or to the Lower East Side for the first hot bagels of the day.
My dreams in 1977 were taking the forms of fantasy architectures of light. … By then I found that a 10-minute sparkler was available on special order. I attached one to the end of a broomstick and, using my arm as a compass, scribed arcs overhead as I walked up the middle of the street.
The challenge now was to take it intellectually further with each photo; to wonder what effect this or that choreographic device would produce; and then, to be continually surprised by the result. For Lightubes I spun the sparkler on the end of a string as I walked toward the camera; then ran back and did it again.
I mounted 5 sparklers on a broomstick and held it vertically, at arm’s length for the 5-minute exposure Ribbon of Hanover Street It occurred to me more than once that these were performances with light. Crowds of curious garbage men, night watchmen, workaholic Wall Streeters and the homeless gathered to watch the lunatic with the blazing broomstick!
KS: We love your “urban UFO” series. (Especially when Big Bang Theory drops by the lab!). Have any of these pieces grown to become your favorite?
ES: I guess I would have to say that my Lightmobile is my favorite, as it was the genesis of a 27 year-long series of mobile public artworks. It has travelled the world and is the most widely understood and loved of the series.
The Big Bang Theory I built in Amsterdam in 1996 and since moving to SF in 2010 it has become my town car. I never tire of watching the double-takes, mouths falling open, people going: “huh, what the –?”
KS: In your writing about Fish-o-vision you say that you sometimes receive questions about “the alienation of being an artist in this material world.” Are there any works of yours that speak to this idea intentionally?
ES: All of these pieces ask more questions than they answer. I want to challenge people to think and feel, to come up with their own meaning, or to allow for the unexplainable. In fact, I can’t entirely explain where my ideas come from. They bubble up from my subconscious and it is often the idea that appears the most absurd at first that I become obsessed with and end up building.
KS: Artists in this city face some tough obstacles when it comes to creating the time and money to make new work. How do you manage your work and your time?
ES: Well, if you want/need to be an artist and also want to make a living at it, you might as well buy a lottery ticket every week as well! A lucky outgrowth of the Urban UFOs is my patented circular 7-person ConferenceBike, which I manufacture in Germany. There are now more than 300 of them putting smiles on faces in 18 countries.