Digital Nostalgia is a series of interviews with artists whose works playfully use imagery found from the early days of the Internet. Their aesthetic not only draws from the pixelated symbols and graphics of this era, but also from the relics of pop-culture from those short-lived days of the 90s and early aughts. These artists celebrate our strange youth.
Growing up in the ‘90s and early aughts, I have extremely specific (and fond!) memories of what aesthetics were like during the early days of the internet. It was a time when more was more, pixelated and grainy graphics were somehow good, anime was starting to become mainstream (case in point: “Pokémon” and “Sailor Moon”) and, of course, there was the infamous and unforgettable aesthetic of Lisa Frank. Graphics at the time were simultaneously bad and good. My love for early internet culture reaches its highest peak in the work of E.C. Miller, as every pop-culture image and icon from that short-lived time comes colliding at full force in their work. And this collision does not happen at random. Miller’s aesthetic is deceivingly disordered, as each composition manages to stay full to the brim and jam-packed with imagery, yet remarkably balanced for our consumption. The artist has meticulously calculated chaos within their work, one that combines stacked imagery with design.
In Miller’s work, the blend of stickers and shapes collaged and duplicated creates an effect like that of a Magic Eye image—replication that nods at our collective over- saturation and image overload. Their collages are steeped in the spirit of DIY, celebrating the process of makeshift creation, as the work brings to mind memories of sketching in the margins of your notebook, taping your disposable camera photos in your locker, and building your own online blog through makeshift coding.
E.C. Miller is an artist, designer and photographer living and working in Chicago, IL. In this interview, Miller discusses their background in photography, the disorienting nature of image consumption and the current internet culture that influences their work.
This interview was originally published in Create! Magazine Issue #30.
Collaging is something I remember doing often as a kid growing up. Was this the case for you? How did you express yourself as a kid and how has that changed?
I started drawing at a very young age because it was my favorite form of escapism during church services on Sundays. My earliest creations were always oriented around cartoons, people and animals. When I was a child, I was very much an illustrator, however, my creative interests expanded when I got into high school. Due to the rise in popularity of content sharing platforms like Myspace, Flickr and YouTube, I became obsessed with lens-based media like photography and videography, which I would inevitably study in college and graduate school.
Despite pursuing my education in photography, I have always identified with a multidisciplinary practice, as my preference to work across different mediums has been consistent throughout my life. Even while pursuing an MFA in photography, I found myself creating installation and sculpture rather than two-dimensional photographs. Working in collage, I have been able to unify my various formal interests into a relatively contained format.
What was your journey like arriving at your current style/practice?
A combination of conceptual, practical and financial aspects have influenced the form of my current body of work. When I finished graduate school, I was creating installations that were conceptually focused around the ideas of artifice, mediation and consumer culture. Leaving my program, I no longer had the resources or facilities to continue to produce large-scale artworks in three dimensions, so I turned to making things that could be photographed that then later would be dismantled or destroyed.
Creating installations forced me to consider the viewer’s relationship to the scale and context of my artwork. Acknowledging how art viewership had shifted from sardine- packed gallery openings, selfie-machine art fairs, and Insta-worthy museum exhibitions to solitary screen scrolling, I found it to be important to create work that was visually accessible but also had contextual fluidity. I wanted my work to be able to coexist within both digital and physical spaces. So, relying on my knowledge of photography and editing software like Photoshop, I began altering my own images to create my very first collage pieces.
I am obsessed with your collage work. Can you talk about the eclectic imagery that can be found in each piece? Where do you source the images from?
The haphazard nature of the aesthetic of my collages was born as an unconscious means to visualize the overwhelming nature of, and bombardment I felt from, unrelenting image consumption. The main source of imagery has come from my personal archive of photography that I began making when I was 16. Over the years, I have added in additional imagery from vintage magazines, instruction booklets, natural history journals, food packaging, video games, screenshots, stickers and other physical objects like keychains, small toys, dead plant matter, animal bones and anything purchasable from the internet that epitomizes my sense of indulgence.
My shopping carts have recently included:
- 100 pc ‘90s cartoon vinyl stickers
- 100 pc flatback charms shaped like candy, sweets, and flowers
- LED Mushroom Charms
- Set of 15 large-sized paint markers
- Holographic flame decals in various sizes
- Multicolor punk spikes and studs for leather, 24mm
- 36" pink rainbow colorful dolphin inflatable
I would describe the aesthetic of your collages as “chaotic early internet”—but in the best way! What inspires your aesthetic?
As I mentioned previously, my initial interest in image making began when I started to engage with media sharing websites like Myspace and Flickr, later Tumblr and Instagram and now TikTok. Since I was a teen, I have been deeply impacted by the influence and growing uniformity of visual culture.
A favorite piece of mine that will always be a source of influence is “Grosse Fatique,” which was created by the artist Camille Henrot in 2013. The video piece acts as a visual collage of disparate but interconnected material layered onto one another. The footage mimics a desktop screen as each clip is shown captured within its own viewing window. The piece was created before I was actually considering the visual excess that was taking over my daily life. Now, two years into a pandemic, I feel this piece still has a particular relevance as it can be easy to slip into an unconscious state—literally drowning myself in visuals to quiet anxious thoughts.
Something else that I have been influenced by are the objects and ideas we classify as kitsch and the feeling or desire to access nostalgia through those objects. The podcast “Invisibilia” recently had an episode on nostalgia, and why at this particular moment in time we are facing a massive desire to turn to nostalgia and the things we liked years ago. An interesting quote from the podcast said that, “Nostalgia is the place between the certainty of the past and the uncertainty of the future.” These ideas inform the subject matter of my collages. I use nostalgic objects and imagery to visually relate to my own experiences and feelings growing up during a post-internet era in America.
Documentaries by journalist and filmmaker Adam Curtis have also recently grabbed my attention. Curtis’ works piece together archival footage that cover decades’ worth of global visual history, which are juxtaposed with contemporary music by the likes of Aphex Twin, Nine Inch Nails and 2Pac to divulge concepts that generally center the consequences of the ideologies that different elites have imposed upon society. The projects “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and “Hypernormalisation” were particularly impactful and I have been annoyingly pushing all of my friends to watch them.
Are your collages made digitally, physically or a combination of the two? What is your process like?
I never set out to create one finished piece while I work in my studio. My process involves a combination of physically and digitally working, sometimes in tandem.
My most frequent activities are material gathering and mood boarding. I have a permanently set up foam core board that I pin photos and objects to—a means to create sketches with the ephemera until I see some kind of relationship forming, often planning, ruminating and sitting with materials for weeks or months. I find the engagement from those singular elements can drive an entire piece forward.
I’ll then use my digital camera with softbox lighting to record parts or entire arrangements that were constructed onto the board. I also will use a scanner as an additional means to capture and manipulate materials. Then in Photoshop, the lighting, color and saturation of the digital files are corrected and proceeded to be collaged together.
These steps can be recycled as many times as I want to before I will consider a collage to be finished. Once the file is complete, I dismantle the arrangements and store the remains for future projects.
What initially brought you to Chicago? What compels you to stay?
Growing up in the suburbs of Nashville, I had been attracted to the idea of living in cities. I knew I wanted to go to art school for college and had become familiar with Columbia College from a portfolio review I attended with some friends who were going to a slightly better-funded high school in my county. At the time, it was more affordable to stay in Tennessee for college, so after I finished my undergraduate degree at Memphis College of Art, I decided to apply to graduate school—Columbia College being my top choice due to the reputation of their MFA photography program.
The first couple of years out of graduate school made me question whether I would stay in Chicago. It was difficult to form a creative network, as nearly all of my peers relocated shortly after the completion of our graduate program. However, after dedicating some time to meet and work with other creatives living in the city, the community is what has kept me here. I think most creatives living here can acknowledge that the affordability of the city in comparison to New York or Los Angeles, while still having access to jobs and resources, is why we have decided to make a commitment to Chicago. I feel that I have more flexibility to do what I want to with my time and energy when paying my bills is not a constant point of focus.
What other artists working right now are you excited about?
The people who inspire me most often are the creatives I have in my personal network here in Chicago. My friends are some of the most talented people I have known and I am lucky to be close enough to their exploration and processes that they inevitably rub off on me.
Muizz Ogbara is someone I connected with upon completing my graduate program. He is the creative director and part owner of a brand called Escro for whom I have been helping to create branding visuals and seasonal editorials for the past six years. As a multifaceted designer and artist, Muizz is one of the few creatives I have worked with who is constantly thinking beyond what is usual or expected. His aesthetic and color palette is so incredibly dynamic and exciting, I cannot help but see his influence show up in my own work.
My friend and fellow photographer, Justine Tobiasz, works as a media archivist for WBEZ in her day job and in her off time has been creating screen-printed posters for monthly parties at a Polish-owned bar in Avondale called Podlasie Pleasure Club. She has been producing them herself in her studio on the near westside of the city. I have always been a fan of Justine’s photography. She captures scenes of her life in a way that feels so deeply personal, intimate and relatable. Her posters share that same intimacy in the way they resemble and evoke a similar personalization to that of DIY punk show fliers. Seeing Justine work across multiple disciplines and attach meaning to her work with a personal and cultural history has made me want to look further inwards and find what that is for myself in my own work.
During the pandemic, I reconnected with my friend Christina Daniel who is an artist, designer and tattooer working in Chicago under the name daggerfingers. They have an illustration style that I really respond to, consisting of striking, bold line work that has natural imperfections which heighten the charming qualities of the subject matter. Christina was my first-ever internet friend who I met on Flickr while we both were living in the South as teenagers. Serendipitously we both ended up in Chicago working within similar industries. It inspires me to have a lifelong friendship that was forged from shared interests that centers creativity. This year, they tattooed my fingers, so I am fortunate to be reminded of their influence whenever I work with my hands.
Is there anything you’re working on or that you have coming up that you’d like to share with us?
I was recently hired in the field of commercial image retouching, which has allowed me to look at digital pixels as the raw material within the canvas of the photograph. Looking at Photoshop files in this new way has pushed me to consider more techniques that have further changed my relationship to file manipulation. While at the same time, in my studio, I have intentionally been drawing, painting and collaging without the use of digital interventions to pave a route forward in my formal process.
Conceptually, I have begun creating images that explore my recent diagnosis as someone with ASD and ADHD, and how that has shaped the way I perceive myself, my work and the world around me. I recently completed an accordion-style book that explores this topic. The entirely handmade book consists of 36 unique spreads of drawings, paintings and collages that document the year as I arrive at my diagnosis and grapple with gender dysphoria.
Overall, I feel like the time I have been able to afford looking inwards is enriching the ideas behind my new artworks. This year, I am planning to produce more objects that relate to the new concepts I am investigating, in addition to expanding upon the idea of “collage” and what forms that could take.