Thomas C. Chung: a departure from childhood innocence

Pau Waelder

Chinese-Australian artist Thomas C. Chung has embarked on a lifelong artistic research that he is developing in well-structured phases, each one characterized by an exploration of different techniques and approaches to human experience. He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of New South Wales’ College of Fine Arts in 2004 and has had a noteworthy international artistic presence in recent years. Chung has been a representative for Australia in several prominent international exhibitions, such as the 2nd Land Art Biennial in Mongolia, the 4th Ghetto Biennale in Haiti, and the 9th Shiryaevo Biennale in Russia. Currently, he is exploring the realms of psychotherapy as a means to deepen his artistic inquiry. 

The artist presents on Niio three pivotal works from his ongoing second phase, in which he leaves behind a narrative focused on childhood innocence and enters the adult world with a series of more sober, meditative artworks. The landscapes that form the collection “As Far As I Could See…” introduce a deeper reflection on the human condition, not without a hint to the magic and surreal aspects of children’s imagination. 

Experience Thomas C. Chung’s dreamlike landscapes

Thomas C. Chung. “As Far As I Could See…” (I), 2023

In the following interview for Niio, Chung discusses the motivations behind his work and dives into his second-phase artworks, which have recently been exhibited at the Chinese European Art Center (Xiamen, China) in a solo show titled The Sea That Stands Before Me…

Your work has evolved over the last decades following a “lifelong narrative” determined by different phases. The first phase was characterized by crochet sculptures, installations, and an overall playful aesthetic, while the second-phase works present a very different approach. It may even be hard to recognize the work of the same artist in these two phases. How have you dealt with this transition, and what has been the response to it?

I’ll be the first to say I was nervous about the different phases I had conceived – I figured it might be too hard for others to accept, especially with the small but loyal following I had built. Over time, I understood that as long as the work was fascinating to myself & others, it didn’t matter what shape or form it took as long as the creativity was there. I clarified this by using new techniques each decade, approaching the chapters within my Art by splitting them into various methods that correlated with the story I wanted to tell. The 1st phase was all handmade, tactile, labor-intensive & filled with food motifs as avenues for expressing a child’s obsessions & dreams. This 2nd phase speaks of the departure from childhood & the realization that life has to progress beyond our comfort zones so that we can understand the totality of our world. 

I had a lot of interests as a child & wanted to grow up to be so many things, one of which was as a children’s illustrator & author. But Art chose me instead, so here I am, creating a different type of story, saving that option for later. 

Thomas C. Chung’s solo exhibition at the Chinese European Art Center extends to Sedition and Niio with the presentation of a selection of artworks.

You have expressed that, in your work, you aim to see the world through the eyes of a child. How do you convey this idea without being perceived as childlike or superficial? Which is the underlying concept that grounds these artworks?

It aligns with how I interact with people these days in a direct yet open & gentle manner without overthinking the consequences. If others don’t appreciate it, I try not to let it matter. Everyone has their view or way of life. My artwork may have previously been seen as naive, which at times bothered me. I knew as a conceptual artist, my practice would be a lifetime’s work that would encompass the narratives of my inner child. The artwork titles are a hint to what it is they see & are presented to the audience as an observation of their journeys while exploring the world. To produce this lifelong story, it was always my vision to create a giant storybook-like body of work split into chapters, set within a contemporary art context, emphasizing the importance of patience, empathy & curiosity, where human beings have the ability to control what it is they feel or see.  

Thomas C. Chung. “It Was Like Seeing A Fallen Rainbow…” Exhibition view at Galerie pompom

Your video artworks are characterized by a slow tempo that suggests a relaxed observation. In our times of limited attention span and an overflow of media content, would you say that we need to take more time to observe our surroundings? In your opinion, does art create this space for observation or is it also caught in the spirit of fast-paced consumption?

That’s quite a complex one to answer. And that is a great question. I value the time I take to see the world unfiltered from electronic devices & media. Much of that is due to my not being attached to technology as early as others may have been. For example, the very first mobile phone I got was when I was 34 years old; I remember even thinking what a selfie of myself looks like. 

Until then, I spent a significant portion of my life turning up early to meet friends or acquaintances (if they were over an hour late, I would leave), keeping promises that I had kept & looking at the sky to tell the time. 

Art has always been a good reflection of our times, like a visual newspaper that begins & starts intriguing conversations before leaving it to others to visit, fulfill, react, or enjoy. The fast-paced consumption of our current world is an accurate indication of that, with the growth of digital art increasing among the masses.

Thomas C. Chung. “As Far As I Could See…” (II), 2023

You are studying to become a psychotherapist and draw inspiration from this knowledge to create your artworks. Do you intend your artworks to visualize or reflect upon states of mind, or do you wish them to become therapeutic objects, sparking certain emotions or thoughts that might have a healing quality?

This one made me think – thank you for that. My intention as an artist is to engage with everyone, but whether or not it connects with others is something I can’t control. Delving into the mental health field as a future psychotherapist, the purpose of whatever I create – however the audience receives it – there’s no right or wrong answer, just an open story. Food & landscapes have always intrigued me in this particular way. Some people love certain aspects or locations, while others dread it. Some people love a specific type of food but not others. No one person has the same reaction to different things & that’s what is so fascinating to me, to see life through the eyes of another human being.   

When I create, I have a particular concept & narrative for it, but ultimately, if the audience would like to enjoy it without any background or story, that is also up to them. Viewing Art, like watching any movie, reading a book, or tasting a special menu, is very subjective. 

“I’ve purposefully given artworks a title that invites an audience in…much like an open door to a gathering or party.”

You have mentioned your role as storyteller. How do you guide the narrative, from the title of the artwork to its description and the story that unfolds in it?

I’ve purposefully given artworks – particularly new bodies of work – a title that invites an audience in…much like an open door to a gathering or party. I grew up in an environment where Art was rarely seen as a necessity, so I knew the task for an artist was to be as engaging as possible – if not with their personality, then at the least with their artworks. Often, the title reveals a lot to the viewer & this should always be considered. 

Once the artwork has been created & the title carefully selected (I have a list of names for potential artworks), it unfolds as an individual experience. Once invited, I leave the guests to wander around to enjoy the ambiance of it. 

Thomas C. Chung. “As Far As I Could See…” (III), 2023

You are exploring “emotional landscapes.” Coincidentally, this is a term used by the singer Björk in her song Jóga, in which she refers to being puzzled by emotions and undergoing a healing process. Is this how you understand your exploration? Or is it more of a distanced observation? 

Oh – how wonderful. Thank you for this observation. I’ve been a big fan of Björk for many years, especially when I was younger…yet I never put the terms together like you did. I love this connection. I know the words ’emotional landscapes’ popped into my artistic practice at a time when I noticed how viewing one place or space brought out differing reactions & sensations in others. A lot of this stems from my studying in psychotherapy, where no one situation is identical, although similar when answered by participants or clients. For some, this exploration could be seen as somewhat distanced yet intimate. The space in front of us isn’t necessarily a gauge for how close one feels towards something. 

“These artworks point to a departure from childhood innocence, but also to longing for the past in a way that color cannot achieve.”

The series of artworks you present on Niio address the ability to find hope during times of hardship, which is something that everyone can relate to. The aesthetics and elements in them point to a more sombre, even melancholic atmosphere. Would you say that these artworks represent a coming of age, leaving aside the innocence of childhood and confronting the hard truths of adult life?

This series with Niio is particular in its aesthetics & I chose a black-and-white palette to illustrate this story. I’ve always found the limiting of colors to be very intriguing. I love to watch vintage movies because they have a very special quality. Sometimes, it can feel melancholic, while at other times, it can feel deeply romantic. These artworks pointed to a departure from childhood innocence, that’s for sure, but it also alludes to the longing for the past in a way that color cannot achieve. I wanted to insert an intangible without stating something obvious so people could have their journey & time to think for themselves.

Kian Khiaban: building a space of peace and clarity

Pau Waelder

3D motion designer and visual artist Kian Khiaban has had an outstanding trajectory since he graduated from UCLA in 2015. Working early on with fellow artist Refik Anadol, he has closely collaborated with him in some of his studio’s most spectacular projects and is now part of the team at the world famous Sphere, a groundbreaking spherical screen with 580,000 sq feet of LEDs. Khiaban’s artistic work focuses on nature and abstraction, conceiving art as a way of addressing human emotions and engaging in healing processes.

The artist has recently presented a solo artcast featuring five artworks in which he creates fantastical landscapes that depict different emotions. In the following interview, he dives into what these imaginary spaces mean to him, as well as his creative process and his views on the current state of digital art. 

Dive into Kian Khiaban’s Emotional Landscapes

Kian Khiaban. Floater, 2021.

How did you get started in 3D animation? What interested you about this particular aspect of digital creativity?

I started doing 3D when I was thirteen. I got introduced to it through anime forums, actually. In the anime forums, every user would have their own design, which they called a signature, and they would teach people how to make their own signature. So through this I got introduced to Photoshop and 3D, and then when I went to university, I already had a whole portfolio of still images. They weren’t animations, they were just art. There I started to learn how to move the things that I had made. At UCLA I met Refik [Anadol], who was a grad student. He was using Cinema 4D, a professional 3D modeling, animation, simulation and rendering software. It was a good match between us, because we were both heavy C4D users, and then at some point Refik had an exhibition and I offered to help him, so we started collaborating and I worked my way up into his company and was part of its early establishment. This was around 2015, when I graduated.

“The way we worked [with Refik Anadol] is that he gave me a lot of freedom, maybe throwing an initial idea, and then I would go crazy with it.

You have created numerous animations for the studio of Refik Anadol. Can you tell us about your creative process within this context? What have you contributed and what have you learned from this collaborative practice?

Working with Refik mainly consists in that he would come to me with an idea, especially a visual idea and would say: “this would be really great if you can make something like this.” I was very good at iterating, so I considered myself, especially at that time, a remixer. I created a lot of the visuals of the projects we were doing at his studio. For instance, we had a project called Infinity Room. Refik said he had the idea of a room with mirrors on the top and bottom. So I experimented a lot, I did the sound design for it, made some animations, and gave it a particular character. Then Refik added some visuals onto it. In some projects he would take the lead, while in others I did for particular things. But the main characteristic of the way we worked is that he gave me a lot of freedom, maybe throwing an initial idea of what he was looking for, and then I would go crazy with it. Sometimes the project would develop in a totally different direction, but always with this ongoing conversation between us.

Kian Khiaban. An Open Heart, 2021.

On the other hand, I have also learned a lot from my commercial work, where I am given a style frame and I work on that, building an entire animation, and remixing it. I’ve gained a lot of technical knowledge and benefited from working with a team, which is something I love because it brings me multiple perspectives that widen mine. I would say that I’ve been lucky because in these jobs the clients have trusted me and given me a lot of freedom, and even allowed me to have some of my personal themes in my work. What I learn in my commercial work I later on apply it to my personal work. Working on one of these projects for eight hours every day, you get to experiment so much, and so I often develop things that seem perfect for one of my pieces, and then of course my personal work also inspires what I do for different clients.

“I love working with a team because it brings me multiple perspectives that widen mine.”

Currently I work at the Sphere in Las Vegas, in R&D and building the animations, and this is a very challenging type of shape because it is seamless. And you know, 3d animators don’t design in a seamless way. In addition, the form has to be a spherical camera, so there are a lot of little things you have to adjust for. But to be honest, I’m good at coming up with a lot of ideas, and then making things a bit prettier with each iteration. That’s what I do.

3D motion design by Kian Khiaban at the Sphere, Las Vegas, 2023.

The animations you have created have been displayed in very large installations and on the facades of famous buildings. How do you work on them when considering such a large scale, and an interaction with architecture?

The process starts by making a 3D model or a miniature of the building, because you need to be able to feel what you’re doing. If we don’t have the possibility of building a miniature version of what we’re doing, we do a VR version, building the space in 3D and then applying the projection. That gives you a starting place to experiment. But besides that I like to first consider where the building is located, in what city, what kind of environment is there around the building, what form does the building represent, and so forth. Then I try to build on top of that, but it depends on the project.

For instance, in WDCH Dreams, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, there was the almost impossible task of mapping the shapes of Frank Gehry’s building, for which they had had developers working for years. We used 42 large scale projectors that were able to display 50K resolution images. We used the entire facade as a screen, applying the visuals I created to a 3D model in order to adapt to the undulating shapes.

Kian Khiaban. Long Walk, 2023.

Your personal work is often characterized by an interest in nature (real or imagined) and mesmerizing visual effects in which light has a critical role. What attracted you to creating these fantastic worlds and the lively activity that takes place in them?

I’ve always liked hiking a lot. When I was a kid, there was this one place I went to that brought a lot of peace in my mind. When you go into a natural setting by yourself, it becomes a way of finding yourself because you’re getting this new clarity and simplification. You can actually hear your own thoughts, and to me that is very relaxing. So I like nature because it has that healing quality of bringing clarity, lowering the volume and allowing a space for reflection.

As for the dream-like quality of my work, I believe it is related to who I am. I was a big daydreamer as a kid. I would play out scenarios a lot in my head, and I also spent many hours, year after year, in front of the computer. Playing video games and searching the Internet took me to a distant place, away from daily reality, and I think what I do now is a more sophisticated version of that. I’m building this space for myself to bring me peace and clarity, the same way when there was chaos around me, I could go to a video game and be taken into that fictional world.

“I like nature because it has that healing quality of bringing clarity, lowering the volume and allowing a space for reflection.”

In the artworks we now present on Niio, a common denominator is the depiction of emotions through digital landscapes. What do you find interesting about representing emotions in this way?

Maybe I should talk about why I always have a light in the center of each artwork. I don’t want to impose my intentions on the viewer’s interpretation of the artwork, but I think it is worth explaining this. The light represents the hope of getting out of a hard situation, the objective you try to follow to achieve that, and that makes you very focused. I feel that what has helped me survive in my chaotic environment all these years is being really focused. The light obviously has other meanings, it can be the sun, that so many civilizations have praised as a God, or the light that people having near death experience say they have seen in a pleasant field, and that has brought them the most peaceful feeling they’ve ever felt in their life. So what I mean is that these artworks are for me a way to express something personal, even intimate, in a more abstract form. For instance, one of my latest pieces is called Adrift at Sea, and it refers to the feeling of having to choose among different values and not being sure what to pick, which made me feel a bit lost.

Kian Khiaban. Wisdom, 2020.

Despite this personal connection with a human experience, there is generally a lack of human figures in these landscapes, why is that?

I want it to feel lonely. It’s that feeling I get when I go into nature, there’s no one around me. But it is not about loneliness: I can think of having people there, but it would change the whole dynamic of the piece. It can become about them, and I am not interested in representing people in these landscapes, which would take you into figuring out what they are doing, but rather to express a feeling that you can only experience looking at this landscape where there is no one else but you.

“These artworks are for me a way to express something personal, even intimate, in a more abstract form.”

From your perspective as an artist involved in acclaimed large scale projects, what is your opinion about the current perception of digital art? Do you think it has finally become a widely accepted form of contemporary art?

Generally speaking, it is much more respected than before, partly because of the NFT boom. However, NFTs also brought negative associations, with purely financial speculation and lack of quality. On the other hand, 3D animation is now much more popular because it is widely used in advertising. Another thing I find that is more present in digital art is this blending of fine art and commercial creativity, which is pretty much connected to what Andy Warhol did, or now Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons, for instance. For someone like me, who works with commercial projects as well as my own artistic practice, this is quite interesting, and to be invited to a fine art exhibition as a digital artist is something that the 13-year computer gamer in me finds really amazing. Digital art is definitely becoming art. It should have happened 20 years ago, but it’s okay.

“I think Niio is great. I feel that you have a deep appreciation and understanding of art.”

How do you see a platform like Niio contributing to this popularization of digital art?

I think Niio is great. I’d say that’s why we connected so well early on, because I felt like you had a deep appreciation and understanding of art. And if you’re guiding this platform, you’re gonna take it in the right direction. The way the artwork descriptions are written, the way everything is laid out, is the way a gallery would lay it out. I also value that the artist’s opinion, or vision is involved in the process. I’ve been approached by other platforms, but I didn’t say yes to a lot of things because I felt like they were mainly a business. Too much of a pure business approach to art. And I think that what you all are doing at Niio is really what the artists are trying to do.

Kian Khiaban. Lone Night, 2021.

Laura Colmenares Guerra: fractured landscapes

Pau Waelder

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #3, 2023

Over the last two decades, Brussels-based Colombian artist Laura Colmenares Guerra has carried out a consistent body of work in the form of interactive audiovisual installations and live performances. Her work is characterized by a research-based practice that requires long processes and interdisciplinary collaborations, focusing on the difficult relationship between our industrialized societies and the living ecosystems we are a part of. Since 2018, Laura is engaged in a series of artworks exploring the environmental impact of neo-liberal extractivist practices in the Amazon basin. 

Niio is proud to present a series of videos from this recent work, that illustrate her conceptual and aesthetic approach to this subject. In this exclusive interview, the artist elaborates on the production of the Rios Trilogy and the key elements of her artistic practice.

Explore Lagunas by Laura Colmenares Guerra, a narrative around the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing.

In your work, one finds a growing interest in the concept of landscape, from a more general or abstract perspective, to the specific region of the Amazon basin. Can you elaborate on your interest in landscape as a concept? Has the change of landscape from Bogotá to Brussels contributed to your ongoing reflection?

The concept of landscape holds a pivotal position in both my research and artistic practice. My master’s thesis was dedicated to the exploration of landscapes within video games, and ever since, the notion of landscape as a means of structuring our perception of the world has remained a constant presence.

“Western societies’ relationship with nature is characterized by distance and objectification.”

The concept of “landscape” finds its origins in the Dutch term “landschap.” The etymology of the word “landscape” can be traced back to the 16th century when it was used to describe paintings depicting rural scenery, defined as a “painting representing an extensive view of natural scenery”. This meaning occurs at a time when distance observation from a fixed and dominant position is the symbolic form by which reality (perspective) is measured. Perspective allowed the modern individual to become a contemplative observer, establishing a distinct separation between the subject and the object observed from a distance. This conscious acknowledgement of distance transformed the relationship with the environment into a reflective and contemplative one. It implies the need for a conceptual apparatus, category diagrams, and concepts that make this experience possible. This dual perspective, characterized by both distance and objectification, fundamentally shapes Western societies’ relationship with nature.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #4, 2023

A certain tension or equilibrium between control and spontaneity can be found in your work, for instance in the use of cartography, data analysis, and 3D scans as a form of capturing the landscape, as opposed to introducing audience participation or creating live performances where there is more room for the unscripted. How do you feel about the notion of control, particularly in relation to our environment and the natural systems around us?

My work involves a range of processes, transitioning from analysis, tools and methodologies from other disciplines to more speculative and experimental procedures. I enjoy being in control as much as I enjoy surrendering it. As a result, my creations often exhibit multiple layers, occasionally presenting significant contradictions.

“My goal is to provoke questions rather than provide answers”

For example, in Chapter N.2 of the Ríos Trilogy, I fragment the territory of the Amazon Basin with hydrological parameters. Yet, I know that the fragmentation of ecosystems is one of the key problems when preserving the connectivity between biomes. I prefer to maintain a sense of ambiguity, allowing the viewer to approach my work from various perspectives. My goal is to provoke questions rather than provide answers. Likewise, when I grant control to the audience, I willingly surrender it myself. This aspect of my creative process is deeply intriguing to me.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Ríos Trilogy. Installation.

You carry out your artistic projects through long term processes of creation and transdisciplinary collaborations. Can you briefly walk us through the main phases in one of your projects, the time frame, and comment on how these collaborations arise and develop?

I enjoy writing, even though it can be extremely painful; it’s essential to my work. I’ve never published, but I have a collection of texts that I write through the creation process of each piece. I keep track of all the versions as a way to keep track of the ideas and strategies that lead me to give a specific form to the work. Most of the time, I start from a basic or simple concept. In the case of the Rios Trilogy, it all started from the #AmazonFires. The day I started researching this hashtag, I would have never imagined that I would be engaged with this research for five years (and counting). Now finished, the Ríos Trilogy seems like a solid three-chapter project, but when I started, I was not sure what would be the final output. 

“Experimenting implies pushing the limits of media or techniques, so I always have to make sure I work with experts who feel comfortable engaging in experimental methodologies.”

Once I feel a concept is solid enough, I decide to give direction to it and see how to make it evolve into an artwork. Often, the next phase implies finding experts in the field to start grounding the ideas into possible outcomes. That process includes budgeting and finding subsidies to pay the people involved in the project, to pay myself and to find the money to realize the ideas. I define objectives, yet I generate a framework in which the process can permeate the outcome. Collaborating with people from different fields is extremely interesting. The process always includes experimentation; often, many failures happen before the final pieces come to life. For both the experts I collaborate with and for myself, experimenting implies pushing the limits of media or techniques, so I always have to make sure I work with experts who feel comfortable engaging in experimental methodologies.

Laura Colmenares Guerra directing the shooting of the underwater video sequence in Lagunas.

I often spend more time than I’d like dealing with administrative and production tasks, which can be frustrating. I sometimes have to hire people to do part of the work, but I also give myself enough time to do aspects of the work that I don’t want to delegate. For example, the porcelain 3D printed sculptures of Chapter N.2 of the Ríos Trilogy. I took pottery lessons for over a year while, in parallel, experimenting with the 3D printer in my studio. It took me around two years to achieve the results I had in mind. Many failures and doubts often accompany the process. Still, it is extremely satisfactory when you start having good results, and suddenly, you look back and see how much skills and knowledge you’ve learned in the process.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #5, 2023

You also work as a VJ and have collaborated in numerous live audiovisual performances. How does your experience in this field inform your installations and videos in terms of the process, dynamics, and aesthetics? What is the role of sound and music in your work?

Sound and music have consistently held a central position in my works, although it’s only recently that I fully embraced this passion. Throughout my journey, I’ve collaborated with musicians, composers, and record labels, yet I never quite ventured into creating music myself. However, in 2023, I decided to delve into this realm independently. Techno music has been a steadfast companion throughout my life. It was my gateway into VJing in the past. This year, I made the leap into DJing and have been sharing this passion with my son, as we’ve spent the last few months mixing together. We’re preparing for a duo project set to be released in 2024. Simultaneously, I’ve been quietly immersing myself in the study of electronic music production; I might share some of my own compositions with the public in the coming months.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Variations of Dissaray, 2016

Your work involves both installation and video as well as sculpture and VR environments. What drives you to choose one format/technique over another for each project? In the Ríos Trilogy, for instance, we find data visualization and analysis as well as 3D printed sculptures and a VR environment; how do they complement each other?

I consider myself an idea-based artist rather than a medium-based artist. That means that even though installation is a constant in my work, the components included in the installation work are subject to change from one piece to another. My main creation tool is 3D, but 3D can be used in many ways, from printing to VR, animation, still images, augmented reality, etc. I like combining techniques and tend to incorporate material and non-material elements. Each media has its language. I explore paths to generate dialogues between different media.

“I consider myself an idea-based artist rather than a medium-based artist. My main creation tool is 3D, but 3D can be used in many ways, from printing to VR, animation, still images, augmented reality, etc.”

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #1, 2023

As a Colombian, I imagine that you feel a closer connection to the exploitation of natural resources in the Amazon basin in neighboring Brazil. How do you see the societies in the Northern Hemisphere, and particularly European societies, react to this issue? Do they see it as a remote problem? Does your work aim to bridge this gap of awareness? 

The glaring disparity between the Northern and Southern hemispheres evokes strong emotions in me. I am profoundly critical and sensitive when it comes to this issue. Growing up in Colombia, a country tormented by civil war and influenced by the United States in its perpetuation, I realized at a young age that in the realm of geopolitics, the wealth of some often rests upon the suffering of others. I adopt a critical perspective towards European politics, despite the veneer of democracy; beneath the surface lies the pervasive corruption of democratic processes, fueled by ruthless corporate lobbying. What Indian activist Vandana Shiva aptly identifies as ‘the corporate control of life’ is responsible for the spread of neoliberal globalization, international trade policies, unchecked environmental exploitation, the privatization of natural resources, and the patenting of biological material. I undoubtedly address these problems through my work. 

“Despite the veneer of democracy in European politics, beneath the surface lies the pervasive corruption of democratic processes, fueled by ruthless corporate lobbying.”

Lagunas addresses the issue of fracking within the different extractive practices that currently poison the natural environment. Within the context of your ongoing exploration of the landscape, why did you choose fracking as a subject? Why did you choose the Chingaza Natural National Park in Colombia as a source of some of the images in this project?

Burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) represents the primary driver of global climate change, responsible for more than 75% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90% of carbon dioxide emissions.

As we approach the shortage of conventionally accessible fossil fuel reserves, hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, has gained greater prevalence. Fracking entails fracturing reservoir rocks by injecting toxic fluids at high pressure and keeping the split (the fracture) open by placing sand or similar in it. This process carries significant environmental repercussions; one of them is the contamination of the water sources in the subsoil of the Earth. In addition to the already evident pollution of the atmosphere, we must weigh the duration of fossil fuel extraction and our readiness to confront the consequences of polluting underground water sources on Earth.

“We must weigh the duration of fossil fuel extraction and our readiness to confront the consequences of polluting underground water sources on Earth.”

Lagunas delves into themes of water contamination, water scarcity, death, and memory. These concepts interweave within an interactive scenario featuring computer-generated imagery (CGI) combined with onsite images captured at Chingaza Natural National Park in Colombia, as well as underwater footage. Through these landscapes, I aimed to create an atmosphere that evokes both prehistoric and futuristic elements.

I selected Chingaza Natural National Park as the backdrop for this project due to the unique characteristics of its ecosystem, known as ‘Páramo’ in Spanish (for which there is no precise English translation). ‘Páramos’ are ‘Neotropical’ high mountain biomes in South America. They are primarily characterized by the presence of giant rosette plants, shrubs, and grasses. These giant rosette plants play a crucial role in capturing atmospheric water, which then travels through the soil, accumulates, and nourishes underground water systems. ‘Páramos’ ecosystems hold immense significance, notably in the formation of the rivers that comprise the intricate water network of the Amazon Basin.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #6, 2016

You state that the interaction between the audience and the installation aims to create a direct implication of the viewer in the processes that are described in this piece. Can you explain the type of interaction you chose and how it creates this implication?

When I incorporate interactive elements into an installation, I seek out devices or objects that I can modify/hack to serve as interfaces for the audience. These interactive devices are chosen based on the potential of mediating the experience for the visitors. Such is the case of Lagunas, in which I created an interactive interface by hacking water industrial valves with optical sensors. The spectators interact with these valves, which recall the gesture of opening the water tab, as well as that of operating a steering wheel.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Still from Ecdysis, 2023

You filmed the landscapes of Lagunas in Chingaza and have also participated in an art program at the Brazilian Amazon, from which emerged Ecdysis and the Ríos Trilogy. How was your experience of working on site and the collaborations that emerged for these projects?

I enjoy working onsite. Immersing myself in the very landscapes I’ve researched from behind a computer screen enriches my perspective significantly. What I find most rewarding, though, are the human connections forged during these journeys.

“In the upcoming month, I will embark on a new project centered around the chanting traditions of the Amazon People.”

In the upcoming month, I have an exciting journey planned to the Amazon, where I will embark on a new project centered around the chanting traditions of the Amazon People. Collaborating closely with the indigenous communities, we will explore sound and experiment with various methods of visualizing sound frequencies. It’s the first time I’ll work directly with communities, and I look forward to having a direct dialogue with the guardians of such an amazing and important territory.

Aaron Higgins: The landscape has it all

Pau Waelder

Artist and researcher Aaron M. Higgins holds BFA and MFA degrees from The Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Art at Indiana University. Higgins delves into time-based media as an artistic medium, employing lens-oriented capture methods, digital layering processes, and interactivity. His artwork has been showcased both within the U.S., including cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York, and abroad, with features in Korea, Sweden, and the Netherlands among others.

Higgins recently presented the solo artcast Memory Palaces on Niio, featuring a series of artworks in which the artist draws inspiration from microscopic images of the human brain, as well as those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, to create alluring, surreal landscapes. In the following conversation, he reflects on the relationship between his digital media work and his background in painting, as well as his connection to landscape and nature.

Bring Aaron Higgins’ mnemonic landscapes to your screen

Aaron Higgins. Memoria, 2017

You have a background in painting prior to your digital media practice. How did you move from one medium to the other, and how does your knowledge about painting inform your digital work, which is at times deliberately painterly?

My undergraduate studies were in Painting, and my graduate studies focused on Digital Media. I found working with Digital Media somewhat intuitive and picked things up relatively quickly. I think my strengths lie in how I compose and composite imagery in my work. A lot of this is similar to how I think about composing a 2D rectangle, but with time-based media I am also considering how the composition moves and changes over its timeline. As with a drawing or painting, I consider how the eye might move around the image, or how space is constructed within the composition of the image. I also want something for the eye to sense, or feel, as it relates to the surface, so I think a lot about visual texture, and compositing methods that yield a ‘painterly’ quality. I guess in some ways I am trying to work against the sanitization of the screen-based image. In the same vein, I am also subverting the ‘digital’, or ‘machine’, and attempting to reimplement ‘the hand’.

“In some ways I am trying to work against the sanitization of the screen-based image and attempting to reimplement ‘the hand’.”

There is an interest in landscape in your work, from the documentary-style images of Tallgrass to the surreal environments of Mnemonic Passages. What do you find in landscapes that is interesting for your work?

The landscape has it all. I try to maintain a connection to the landscape, in my life and in my work, although it’s not necessarily front of mind. Most of my earlier work, painting, focused on painting in the landscape, as well as still-life, which I also think of as landscape. I’ve always been fascinated by nature, after all, we emerged from mother nature. To me, there is something spiritual in connecting with and observing nature, of being immersed in the landscape. The landscape can be so many things, a prairie, a memory, a body, a mind, etc. In my early interactive works, the Splitting Time series, I suppose that I am thinking of time, and the image itself (what the camera sees), as a landscape and reorganizing its pieces into abstract compositions. In a sense, everything is a landscape of sorts. 

Aaron Higgins. tmsplttr. Interactive video animation. Video still.

Since the landscape is a cultural construct, as Alain Roger has suggested, which roles do fiction and narrative play in your landscapes?

That’s an interesting question. As I mentioned in my previous answer, the landscape holds endless metaphoric possibilities. The landscape often serves as a placeholder for something else. In many ways we project our own values, ideals, and biases on the landscape before us. Artists do the same in their work, and the viewer does the same in experiencing the work. I try to leave room for this to occur. In the Tallgrass series, for example, the work is representative of my experience in the tallgrass prairie landscape. I want to share that dynamic, interactive experience with the viewer. In doing so, however, I am weaving a lot of fiction. The imagery is highly composited, creating something other than reality. Maybe a collage of reality… creating an ideal, but there is also a more universal narrative that is superimposed on the work transcending any information gathering, documentation, or individual experience.

“The landscape often serves as a placeholder for something else. In many ways we project our own values, ideals, and biases on the landscape before us.”

Tallgrass: An Osage Reverie: interactive HD video animation series (installation view)

In the Mnemonic Passages series, the imagery is completely invented, but I use actual video in my compositing process. In this series, particularly, I am using webcam footage of myself (working on things in front of my computer) as textures that wrap the 3D forms (memoryforms). This adds the hint of subjective imagery inside, or across the surface of these forms. It also helps to create a sense that these forms are flickering with information. In this way, as with other works of mine, there is an element of self-portraiture to my work as well as landscape.

Regardless, the process usually involves taking photo imagery and creating something ‘new’ with it. 

Aaron Higgins. MemoryForm (1), 2017

In the Mnemonic Passages series, you depict memory palaces as organic, and somewhat otherworldly spaces instead of the rational, neo classical buildings we are used to imagine. What drove you to choose this type of image? 

With the Mnemonic Passages series, I suppose I am really thinking of the memory palace as the mind. I was thinking of the biology of the brain, the intricate architecture of neurons and synapses, etc. But, also as a place, a landscape, where memories are stored. These memories take form and shape within our minds, building the landscape of our experience. Of course, as I say in my statement, I am inspired by imagery from the scientific research and study of the brain, but also imagery from the research and study of our cosmos. The cosmos might be a ‘superlandscape’, if you will, that I see as a metaphor for our mind, or accumulated experience and knowledge. As our experience and knowledge grows, so does our picture and understanding of our cosmos. 

“The cosmos might be a ‘superlandscape’ that I see as a metaphor for our mind, or accumulated experience and knowledge.”

 Aaron M. Higgins. Moonrise with Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, HD 1080p interactive video animation (video still)

Where does your interest in memory stem from?

I guess my interest in memory stems from ideas related to your previous question. Our memory and experience, our culture (a form of generational memory) forms our identity. Like culture, a memory is a living thing that can change, bits are added, bits are taken out, we fill in missing bits to keep the landscape (trying to be consistent with my metaphors, here) cohesive and making sense. Neuroscience is also very relevant these days with new groundbreaking discoveries in how our minds work seemingly happening all the time. The same could be said about the cosmos and what we are learning from the James Webb Space Telescope. We are literally looking back in time at the earliest galaxies that formed in our universe, amazing stuff. 

Aaron Higgins. MemoryForm (2), 2017

You speak of creating meditative experiences through works that you patiently build layer by layer. How important is that meditative aspect in the making of the artwork, as your own experience, and then in the final result, as the experience of the viewer?

I really believe the work and craft that goes into something adds to what is communicated to the viewer and their experience. Craftsmanship is an important part of the process, always. One of things I love about painting is how meditative the act of painting is. There’s a lot that I find similar in my creative process with Digital Media. For one thing, the work evolves over time, and you have to be open to those changes. An idea I start out with is not always the same as what I end up with. I, too, evolve and change throughout the process and find that my interests lead me in new directions. The work sometimes has a will of its own, too, it seems, whether it be the nature of the tools, or limitations of the software or hardware (or myself), it always seems to be a negotiated process. Beyond that, choices are made as things progress that depend on what has happened up until that point, until the work is resolved. I try not to labor too much on these choices and let the work tell me what to do, if that makes any sense, and being in an open, meditative state tends to help with this process. It can be a challenge, though, when your computer crashes, or render times get unbearably slow. 

Aaron M. Higgins. astrocyte, HD 1080p (32:9) video animation, 2:00 loop (installation view).

As far as the viewer experience, I guess I am sort of imposing my preferences and communicating what I want my work to be in how I present it. However, I do want the work to be disarming, calming, and perhaps to create a sense of wonder and awe. When I think of my time-based work, I often think of paintings, as we discussed. I think of viewing a painting as something that happens over time. The painting is always on, always there to be received. As it is experienced and one is immersed, the more that is discovered, it changes. The context within which a work is experienced also has an effect on the experience. Is it on a screen, a phone or a television, is it projected? In what space is it, a private or public space? I try to apply these ideas to the presentation and structure of my time-based work. All of my work seamlessly loops and is always on, there is no beginning or end. It is there to be experienced at viewer discretion, for 30 seconds, 10 minutes, or an hour, or more. It’s there when you want it, for as long as you want it. In that sense, I do not want the work to be annoying or overbearing. I want it to be tolerable, I guess, not seizure inducing. 

“I want to give viewers the space to experience the work on their own terms, as well as allow space for the viewer to discover new connections with the work the more they experience or interact with it.”

Yet, I also don’t want the viewer to ignore the work, I want them to be engaged. I don’t want to impose too many parameters on the viewer or make it a chore to experience the work. In this sense, I think a lot about control, and the relationship between artist and viewer, viewer and art, etc. 

Control then becomes a subject I explore as it relates to life, my experience, the creative process, etc. I try not to exert too much control, especially on things that are out of my control. I know I’m getting in the weeds here… But, I guess, this goes back to the landscape, haha… and the process having its own sort of evolution that involves the artist and the media and letting that process occur without too much interference. I want to afford the viewer the same opportunity in how they experience the work. 

To quote Caroline Lavoie, from an article titled, ‘Sketching the Landscape: Exploring a Sense of Place’, “An object or person does not exist in isolation, but through relationships with its context. These relationships support a necessary state of being…”. 

Tough question.

Aaron Higgins. Mnemonic Passage, 2017

You have expressed your interest in incorporating the viewer into your work, through interactive installations. How would you compare your interactive work with your films and animations in terms of their concept, production process, expectations, and outcome?

So, I think, picking up where we left off in the last question… I am interested in introducing more randomness and perhaps an element of surprise to my work and how others experience it. Something that is always on, and loops endlessly, runs the risk of becoming monotonous. Adding some randomness and unpredictability can thwart the monotony, and keep viewers engaged. This also speaks to the landscape, self-portrait concepts, as well as the viewer/art/artist relationship, and how things change over time. 

In the ‘Tallgrass’ series, for example, the viewer would trigger events in the landscape: lightning striking, the sun setting, moon rising, bird calls, different poses and movements, etc. For each scene, a clip from a library of audio clips with variations of bird calls could randomly be paired with a video sequence of a bird singing. Motion sensing cameras trigger events as viewers move through the space. This adds slight variation and randomness in experiencing the work, so that experiencing the work again would almost certainly be different in variation and sequence of events. To me, this more closely resembles my experience in the tallgrass prairie, where things are the same, but different each time I visit. 

“Adding some randomness and unpredictability can thwart the monotony, and keep viewers engaged.”

My life experience, my interrupted or failed plans, my unexpected successes and victories, all the predictable and unpredictable events… This sort of ‘passive interaction’, allowed in ideas of control vs chaos which made the work feel more alive and real to me. Back to the prairie, when I would hike in the prairie and see an animal, they didn’t act as though I wasn’t there, they responded to my presence. 

In turn, this extends to the viewer, who in some cases was literally incorporated into the work, i.e. Karmic_Lapse, and altered the work by viewing it. As it relates to the artist/viewer relationship, the work is completed upon experiencing. That is to say, work is meant to be shared with and received by a viewer, an audience. That is when a work comes alive, not in my mind, but the mind of the viewer. We can relate this back to the Lavoie quote, “an object (or person) does not exist in isolation, but through relationships with its context.”

Aaron Higgins, Karmic Lapse. Interactive video animation. Installation view.

In relation to your code-based work, you speak of a “collaboration” with the software. How do you balance control and randomness in these projects, and what would you say that you have learned from the machine?

I enjoy how these questions are threaded together, these are really good questions. First, I am not much of a coder, but I use After Effects java-based expressions, visual coding languages- connecting inputs to outputs, I used to use actionscript, that sort of thing. To answer your question, though, the machine, its operating system runs on code, the software runs on code, I implement code, etc. It’s all doing things for me, in a sense. I mean, I tell it what to do, but I don’t completely understand how it’s doing it. So, in that way it is a collaboration, I guess. But, as far as balancing control and randomness, there are serendipitous things that occur throughout the creative process. I try to let these things occur, even push the process, the machine, to catalyze their occurrence. These are moments where something unexpected, something random occurs that adds to the piece. There’s a lot of experimentation involved, trial and error, but it’s a sort of dance seeing where things go and knowing when you’ve gone too far. This applies to painting, as well, there are some tools, like the palette knife, that can offer great control, but also, if used in a certain way, can create randomness in the application of paint to the surface. It further removes ‘the hand’, so to speak. 

“I guess my background in more traditional media is keeping me grounded, and I am not quite ready to let the machine take over.”

Aaron M. Higgins. astrocyte, HD 1080p (32:9) video animation, 2:00 loop (video still)

I’m not sure what I’ve learned from the machine. It’s constantly changing. It’s a great tool and allows for infinite possibilities. But it can get old, too… Sometimes I feel that things have been homogenized to a degree, and things all start looking the same. I see a lot of that in AI art, especially. I guess my background in more traditional media is keeping me grounded, somewhat, and I am not quite ready to let the machine take over.

Yusuke Shigeta: pixel art and the history of image making

Pau Waelder

Japanese videographer Yusuke Shigeta (1981) has developed a body of work consisting of screen-based and multimedia installations for art exhibitions and museum shows. A Graduate from the Tokyo Graduate School of Film and New Media, he works in animation and has recently become involved in the NFT market, where he finds an additional channel of distribution for his work. 

His animations are characterized by the exploration of pixel art, with the depiction of complex scenes in the style of low-resolution graphics that became popular with video games in the 1980s. Far from simply using an aesthetic that has been revived in opposition to the dominance of hyperrealism in digital imagery, Shigeta explores pixel art as a form of finding new visual experiences in a world saturated with images. He connects this digital technique with the history of image-making, reinterpreting traditional Japanese paintings in painstakingly detailed animations (despite their pixelated look) that are as imaginative as they are respectful to the source material. 

The artist recently presented on Niio a selection of his latest work under the title Pixel Landscapes. In this exclusive interview, he explains his interest in pixel art, traditional painting, and cultural influences in our globalized society. 

Discover Yusuke Shigeta’s pixel landscapes

Yusuke Shigeta. Tatsuta Road Kamenose Picture Scroll -龍田古道亀の瀬絵巻-, 2023

You have expressed your interest in working with pixel art from your memories playing with the Nintendo Entertainment System (popularly known as Famicom) in the 1980s. Would you say that the pixelated graphics from this time gave more room to imagination than current high resolution 3D graphics?

I was indeed born in 1980, and I belong to a generation that was greatly influenced by the Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom) during my childhood. Many pixel art artists also have a background in gaming. However, I personally didn’t have a particularly strong interest in games. Of course, I consider games to be a highly influential and significant cultural medium in the present era of expression. Nevertheless, the reason I started creating pixel art was merely a coincidental choice while experimenting with various artistic techniques.

I hold great respect for the pixel techniques nurtured within gaming culture and have learned a lot from producing pixel art. However, I see my work as reconstructing pixel art in a context distinct from games, expanding it into new forms of expression.

Considering the nature of expression, I believe it’s crucial to think about the differences between 3D computer graphics (3DCG) and pixel art. Much of 3DCG aims to replicate photographic techniques and, more fundamentally, the functioning of the retina. On the other hand, pixel art is closer to primitive paintings or symbols. The 20th century witnessed an exploration of optical visual experiences through photography, cinema, and 3DCG, but now we are starting to feel a sense of stagnation. I believe that alternative visual expressions can provide us with new possibilities for visual experiences.

“After photography, cinema, and 3D, we are now starting to feel a sense of stagnation. I believe that alternative visual expressions can provide us with new possibilities for visual experiences.”

It is commonly said that pixel art is “cute.” Would you say it is cute because it is imperfect? How does this “cuteness” come into play in your work, for instance when depicting a historic battle or a scene from daily life? 

I believe the reason for the “cuteness” of pixel art lies in its “sense of size.” Pixel art feels cute because it appears small. However, this is quite peculiar because digital images do not possess a physical size. Whether an image is considered large or small depends on its content. A whale would be considered large, while an ant would be considered small. So why does pixel art evoke a sense of smallness?

I think it’s because of the lack of detail. When humans create something very small, the size of the tools or hands comes into play, inevitably resulting in less intricate details. Therefore, when we encounter pixel art with reduced detail, we intuitively perceive it as something small. Although pixel art is a pure digital form, we perceive a sense of materiality in it. That’s why I believe pieces like my Sekigahara-Sansui-zu-Byobu exude a kind of exquisite beauty akin to delicate craftsmanship.

“Pixel art feels cute because it appears small. However, digital images do not possess a physical size.”

In your pixel art animations based on traditional Japanese paintings, how much do you replicate from an original composition and how much do you create on your own? Do you feel constrained by the traditional norms of composition or does the use of pixel art liberate you to create according to your own rules?

When basing my artwork on traditional Japanese paintings, I adjust the layout to fit the screen, add elements, and sometimes make minor edits. However, my primary objective is to faithfully and modernly reinterpret the original artwork. Beyond the artwork itself, I gather various literature to research the historical background, actual landscapes, and surrounding ideologies of the depicted era. As Japanese people, we modernized significantly through Westernization, becoming an advanced nation. Therefore, exploring the Eastern classical way of thinking in the present offers a rather fresh experience.

Yusuke Shigeta. Sekigahara-Sansui-zu-Byobu, video installation, 2021.

There is creativity involved in translating traditional art into pixel art from a technical perspective, but there is also the fascination of rediscovering lost Eastern ideologies and interpreting them in a contemporary context. I am of the opinion that engaging with Eastern classics through my creative work is a highly stimulating process, providing me with numerous insights and ideas. Furthermore, I believe it enriches the viewer’s experience by establishing a connection between the viewer and classical art.

“In Japan, we modernized significantly through Westernization. Therefore, exploring the Eastern classical way of thinking in the present offers a rather fresh experience.”

The Tatsuta Road animation was created for the Kashiwara City History Museum. Can you tell me a bit more about this commission? How does the pixel art reinterpretation of traditional painted scrolls bring the history and aesthetics of this art form closer to a present day audience?

This artwork is in a traditional Japanese painting style, but there were no original illustrations available. It was created based on partial illustrations and texts, with supervision from history experts.

In the modern world, academic disciplines have become specialized and fragmented, but originally, knowledge was a comprehensive system. While specialization is unavoidable for the precision of academic pursuits, I find this approach somewhat restrictive. Personally, I appreciate the old notion of comprehensive knowledge, where different fields stimulate each other. Aesthetics, in particular, has the potential to connect various disciplines and can provide us with new inspirations.

Yusuke Shigeta. Sekigahara-Sansui-zu-Byobu -関ケ原山水図屏風-, 2021

Sekigahara-Sansui-zu-Byobu is exhibited as a “folding screen” made of several digital screens. With its combination of history and traditional and digital art making techniques, it seems a perfect embodiment of Japanese culture. Can you tell me more about this work and how it has been received? Was it challenging to reproduce the original work, applying crowd simulation techniques?

Sekigahara-Sansui-zu-Byobu is currently on permanent display at the Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum. Until 2022, Japan hosted an international media art event called the “Agency for Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival,” where my work received recognition. This led me to join the “CULTURE GATE to JAPAN” cultural promotion project. In 2021, several media artists were invited to create works based on the traditional cultures of different regions in Japan, with the plan to exhibit these works at Japanese international airports to connect with inbound tourists. Unfortunately, the project couldn’t fully achieve its goals due to the pandemic’s impact. However, “Sekigahara-Sansui-zu-Byobu” received significant attention from both domestic and international audiences, especially through social media. The creation of the “Tatsuta Road Kamenose Picture Scroll” was inspired by the Sekigahara article, and currently, I am working on another “Sekigahara-Byobu” commissioned by the Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum.

Furthermore, in this artwork, I used HOUDINI software for crowd simulation, employing it in an entirely unprecedented manner, which gained recognition at HOUDINI conferences and SIGGRAPH. Collaborating with a specialized team, who are also a collective of media artists, was essential for the production using HOUDINI. The background for this connection can be traced back to the “JAPAN MEDIA ARTS FESTIVAL” mentioned at the beginning.

Yusuke Shigeta. A Shore A.M./ P.M., 2021

A Shore AM/PM is a totally different type of animation that focuses on daily life in the present day and the passing of time. Can you tell me how this work came to be and how you chose the setting and the scenes that are part of it? 

A Shore A.M./P.M. is a series depicting the landscapes of the town where I live. I have been living here for almost 10 years and have always wanted to create pixel art of this place because I truly love it. However, most of my previous art presentations were in physical spaces such as galleries and museums, and I ended up producing many large-scale installation works. Amidst this, the pandemic emerged, leading to the cancellation of many exhibitions that relied on in-person interactions. Simultaneously, the rise of NFTs prompted me to start working on a series of animation pieces focused on online showcasing.

In this artwork, I experimented with pixel art techniques that involve depicting familiar landscapes, creating variations with changes in time, and utilizing multiple resolutions while maintaining the same composition. It was intriguing to see the reactions on social media, where many people recognized the scenes as their own town. Some even connected with distant memories they had forgotten. The abstracted pixel art has the power to evoke the landscapes of the viewers’ own memories.

“The abstracted pixel art has the power to evoke the landscapes of the viewers’ own memories.”

Your work often involves installations with large projections, immersive environments and playful interactions with visitors. How do you conceive your work in terms of the space and of the interaction with viewers? 

Many video works incorporate a temporal development known as “exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution.” However, when these works are projected in exhibition spaces, the narrative design doesn’t always function seamlessly. This is because many viewers may join in and start watching from different points in the sequence. To address this, I focus on designing the overall temporal experience of the artwork. Sometimes, I embed various playful elements within looped videos or include gradual unfolding of events. As the progression of the experience depends on the viewers themselves, I believe creating artworks that actively engage the audience is crucial. In that regard, pixel art with its “cuteness” and “room for imagination” proves to be highly effective in accomplishing this goal.

Yusuke Shigeta. Video installation for the Yokai-Bon festival, 2020

Your screen-based work can be presented in large projections, installations, folding digital screens, and also via streaming on any screen now on Niio. What do you think about this flexibility in displaying your work and reaching new audiences?

I studied graphic design in my undergraduate program at university. After that, I joined an animation company and later pursued a graduate program in media arts. Currently, I am involved in various areas, such as pixel art, NFT, and teaching at an oil painting university. I believe this diverse career path truly represents who I am, and I still feel like everything is happening in parallel. I have faith that the new worlds and people I encounter will always provide me with fresh inspiration.

Learn more about Shigeta’s work in this video interview by Toco Toco

Carlo Zanni: e-commerce, identity, and the epic of our times

Pau Waelder

An early practitioner of net art, Carlo Zanni is among the first artists to explore the nascent opportunities for the online art market and reflect on how the web would impact on our sense of identity and privacy. With a painter’s vision, he has seen in the development of online platforms and graphical user interfaces a space of visual compositions in which the computer desktop becomes a landscape, and everything in it is a fiction. 

He has also developed new forms of storytelling through web-based projects such as the “data cinema” trilogy: The Possible Ties Between Illness and Success (2006), My Temporary Visiting Position from the Sunset Terrace Bar (2007), and The Fifth Day (2009). In these online films, he combined a pre-defined narrative with data collected in real time from the same users who were watching the film, or from a distant webcam, or from different sources describing the social and political conditions of Egypt. 

Carlo Zanni, The Fifth Day (2009)

Explore Zanni’s data cinema artworks

Embedded in his work as an artist, his research on alternative models to sell digital art has led to pioneering yet unrealized projects such as P€OPLE ¥ROM MAR$ (2012), an online platform dedicated to selling video art and fostering a community of creatives based on shared revenue, or ViBo (2014-2015), a “video book” aimed at facilitating the sale of video art at affordable prices in unlimited series. He collected his experiences with these models in the book Art in the Age of the Cloud (Diorama Editions, 2017).

Niio is proud to present two selections of artworks by Carlo Zanni: Data Cinema Anthology, which brings together the Data Cinema trilogy and an additional artwork, and Save Me for Later, a code-based artwork recently presented at Zanni’s solo exhibition Accept & Decline at OPR Gallery in Milan. In the following interview, the artist discusses the artworks presented in this exhibition, which can be visited until April 28th.

Carlo Zanni, Check Out Paintings, 2022. On view at OPR Gallery, Milan.

In this latest series you have come back to painting as a medium, after a long career focused on web-based art, but you keep exploring the same subjects. Can you take me through the main ideas in the Check-Out Paintings?

This cycle of paintings is part of a long-term investigation of the social and psychological role of eCommerce in our society. It stems from the memories of the eCommerce check-out pages: a final destination we all are funneled to, in every online buying process. The check-out pages of eCommerce sites represent a highly symbolic limbo that precedes the dopamine rush where we all hope to find shelter. A form of addiction, but as shown during the pandemic, also a lifeline. 

“Our identity bounces between the happiness for buying, and the sense of guilt for having bought.”

Buying online is both a sort of pursuit of happiness as we have been taught by our society, both a way to escape reality, procrastinating any possible confrontation with ourselves. Our identity bounces between the happiness for buying, and the sense of guilt for having bought. Between the satisfaction of an increasingly frictionless, user-friendly, fast, and on-time experience; and the anxiety, and also the shame, for what this transient fake happiness often entails on a social, work, and human level for thousands of people: directly (shifts and working conditions, small local businesses), and indirectly (tax evasion of mega-corporations and environmental impact).

Unlike early works such as DTP Icons Paintings (2000), here you do not look for a realistic representation of the interface, but rather create almost abstract compositions, why is that?

True, because here is more about inner feelings than simple representation. It’s not witnessing from the outside but feeling from the inside, then trying to show a glimpse of it, if possible, in the real world.  So the rationalist layout, typical of these pages, fades into memory, it turns into a dreamlike experience, into a psychological post-image, while some details of the transaction, such as measures, prices, and quantities, emerge from the background when one gets closer to the surface of the painting: they bring us back to reality.

The subtle color fields of these paintings make them very difficult to be mediated or “seen” online (e.g. on Instagram, or on a PDF), instead they open up and expand in front of the viewer when experienced for real. While our society continues to demand fast, easily communicable images, these paintings are slow, almost invisible, non-existent images, and they ask for something very precious: our time.

Carlo Zanni, Check Out Paintings, 2022. On view at OPR Gallery, Milan.

How did you achieve this faded effect in the canvases?

The color used in these works is acrylic mixed with water and in some cases acrylic medium. This way tones are soft and they mesh one into the other when seen from a certain distance, vaporizing the memory of the whole picture. I take advantage of the cutting plotter to write numbers and other “technical” details. I cut the letters in vinyl (negative) with a size that allows me to draw inside them with a sharp pencil without touching the vinyl edges. This way the sentences and the lettering look “straight” and “guided” from a distance, and handmade from a closer inspection.

“When you stick your nose onto the canvas, the work transforms from an abstract field into a condensed epic of our times.”

Formally speaking, the style of these paintings was born in response to a period of social isolation due to the pandemic, during which, as a balance, we have tried to mediate all the possible human activities: meetings, purchases, employment, leisure, study, culture… I felt the need to go the other way, working on something that could be only appreciated when seen in person.

If you want to find some roots, these works echo the mature practice of artist Agnes Martin, in the use of pencil and subtle water-based colors, but here all the “modernist” and “minimalist” values of the time are almost gone. So all the pencil details and most of the color fields are only visible when you stick your nose onto the canvas, and the work transforms from an abstract, almost white, field, into a condensed epic of our times touching themes such as anxiety, desire, happiness, fear, gender identity, pandemics, politics, tragedies, wars.

While the paintings look almost abstract, they also contain references to the present, as is frequently found in your web-based artworks, what role do these references play?

The paintings dig into our daily culture and politics, for instance by discreetly showing disclaimers referring to the current Ukraine war. (Since February 2022, many eCommerce added such disclaimers for multiple reasons: from giving updated shipping info to giving their support to the Ukrainians). I see these paintings as a vehicle for meditation, an attempt to temporarily alienate ourselves from this endless moment of upheaval and unrest; while being violently dragged back to reality when we get closer to the surface: they are a way to extract some time from our hectic lives to sense the delicacy and fragility of our body and the transience of happiness while diving into our time.

While they are very different artworks, I would point out to Average Shoveler (2004) as having a similar approach in terms of its meditative aspect and the connection to real life events. In that work, which was commissioned by Rhizome, I created an online video game in which the player controls a man who has to shovel the snow falling on the streets of New York. Each time he does, several images taken from CNN and other news outlets in real time pop up and disappear. Additionally, some non-player characters stop and speak out news headlines. The main character invariably ends up dying of exhaustion, unable to shovel the incessant amount of snow. But the game also includes some secret spaces meant for the player to relax and just observe the scene, distanced from the gameplay. In a way, these paintings also provide that distanced space of observation while having these subtle hooks to reality.

Carlo Zanni, Average Shoveler (2004)

Talking about hooks, you describe some elements in the paintings as “clickbait,” can you elaborate on that?

Yes, the dark dots and solid-colored shapes (lines, rectangles, circles) that appear in some of the paintings are what I call “clickbaits” for one’s eyes. Seen from afar these canvases look pretty white and empty, but these dots stand out and catch your attention. They work similarly to how advertising plays with colors, double meanings, and impressive images to stand out in a visually saturated landscape.

They also remind of the so-called “dark patterns”, which are interface design strategies quite common in e-commerce pages, that are meant to fool the user into doing what the vendor wants them to do, such as sign up for a newsletter, add an extra service, or choose the most expensive option among several choices. In my paintings, the shapes intend to lure you into looking closely at the painting and finding what it is actually about. However, I would say that while clickbait is content that over-promises and under-delivers, in my paintings I under-promise and over-deliver 🙂

Carlo Zanni, Save Me for Later (2022)

Save me for later (2022) is also an intriguing artwork in the sense that it is not what it appears to be, and it connects with a concept you have explored over the years, which is the computer screen as a landscape

“Save me for later” is actually a bot browsing Amazon.com, continuously adding products to the cart that is visible in the right sidebar. When the cart reaches its limit, it automatically moves products to the “saved for later list”, making room for the new freshly added ones. The bot embeds a floating window with the webcam stream framing me while performing. This repetitive and almost hypnotic performance, with apparently no beginning and no end, speaks of the type of procrastination we all carry out while browsing e-commerce sites, looking for products that will bring us happiness and make our lives better.

As with the paintings, the experience of isolation during the pandemic was key to conceiving this artwork, in which the computer screen becomes a landscape, a place of escapism and daydreaming. The performance is consciously slow and cryptic, and as it is playing out in real time, in the real Amazon website, the items that appear reflect our present time just as the subtle writings on the paintings take us back to the world we are living in. For instance, when I first ran the program, the bot frequently picked up COVID-19 self-tests, which at some point were very much in demand and right now are almost forgotten. 

“This repetitive and almost hypnotic performance speaks of the type of procrastination we all carry out while browsing e-commerce sites, looking for products that will bring us happiness and make our lives better”

I see this project also as a vehicle for meditation, an attempt to alienate ourselves momentarily from our daily lives and our anxieties (so the title “Save me for later”). And behind the activity itself, what you see on the screen that is apparently me browsing the Amazon site but is in fact an automated process carried out by a computer program, is an interesting exchange of data. Data collected by the Amazon site about this meaningless routine (constantly adding items to the cart without ever checking out), data displayed by Amazon about the articles on sale, data that is processed by Amazon’s algorithm to display new items related to previously selected products. 

See a two-hour excerpt of Zanni’s endless automated performance on Amazon

Data is for me what gravity probably was for Bas Jan Ader. “The artist’s body as gravity makes itself its master.” These mysterious words were used by Bas Jan Ader to describe his short films Falling I (Los Angeles) and Falling II (Amsterdam) when he showed them in Düsseldorf in 1971. He was playing with gravity, he was becoming gravity, accepting its outcome: failures, fragilities, spiritualism, poetry, meditation, ascension. 

I feel that I use data in a sort of similar way, accepting the fact that most of my works will cease to exist quite soon after their birth. By using data from media outlets such as CNN, tools from Google, data collected from users, and so on, I consciously open my work to a vulnerability as the price to pay for creating a work that is always connected to the present and fed by data that circulates online. Then, an API is changed, a tool is discontinued, and the artwork cannot exist anymore. Sometimes you can fix them, sometimes you just don’t want to do it. 

Other times you start again from scratch as recently I did with Cookie Portrait (2002-2022), a work about online identity and privacy that had to be rewritten when it was launched at OPR Gallery last year, 20 years after it was first created. This work is based on the same cookie technology that is used – for instance – for the internal session management of an eCommerce site and more generally for user profiling and marketing activities. This work reminds us that, in our online existence, we are made of data. The body is thus the sum total of your data, the artwork is a temporary and transient experience of something elusive, like our own existence is.