Chun Hua Catherine Dong: “My body is a material for my art”

Pau Waelder

Chun Hua Catherine Dong, Meet Me Halfway – part 1, 2021

A performance and conceptual artist whose work spans different media, Chun Hua Catherine Dong successfully navigates the space between an artistic practice characterized by the physical, bodily presence of the artist in the same space and time as her audience, and another one based on the mediation of digital technologies and a distributed and almost immaterial existence. Dong has taken her performance artworks worldwide, combining action with documentation in the form of photographs and videos that often become artworks on their own. She is also exploring the creative possibilities of VR, AR, and Artificial Intelligence in a series of artworks that are still deeply rooted in her research on gender, memory, identity, body, and presence.

Dong has exhibited their works at The International Digital Art Biennial Montreal (BIAN),  The International Biennial of Digital Arts of the Île-de-France (Némo), MOMENTA | Biennale de l’image, Kaunas Biennial, The Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne in France, Quebec City Biennial, Foundation PHI for Contemporary Art, Canadian Cultural Centre Paris, Museo de la Cancillería in Mexico City, The Rooms Museum, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, DongGong Museum of Photograph in South Korea, He Xiangning Art Museum in Shenzhen, Hubei Museum of Fine Art in Wuhan, The Aine Art Museum in Tornio, Bury Art Museum in Manchester, Art Museum at University of Toronto, Varley Art Gallery of Markham, Art Gallery of Hamilton, among others. She is represented by  Galerie Charlot in Paris.

The artist recently presented the artcast Meet Me Halfway, which collects four videos from her multi-channel VR video installation that explores the perception of time and space in virtual reality and the inability to return to the present from searching the inner world.

Experience Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s immersive VR spaces in Meet Me Halfway

Chun Hua Catherine Dong, The Lost Twelve Years (2015)

As a Chinese-born, Montreal-based artist, the issues of identity, culture, belonging, and distance are present in your life and your work as well. In our globalized world, these issues can sometimes be overlooked, or else exoticized and clichéd, even demanding of an artist with a mixed cultural background to address them. Would you say that there is still a dominant Western perspective on multiculturalism, and if so, how do you address it in your work? 

This is a very interesting question. I can’t speak for others, but it’s natural for me to explore these topics. Living in a different cultural context often prompts questions about one’s identity.  If I lived in China, I would probably never feel the need to deal with these difficult issues. But I immigrated to Canada a long time ago. I need to reconnect with my roots because I feel that something that nurtured me has faded and been forgotten. It is important for me to renew it from time to time. I addressed this issue in my earlier performances. For example, in my performance The Lost Twelve Years (2015) I use a Chinese teapot to pour ink over my head and a squirt gun to shoot ink to my heart and head, which are actions that force me to remember who I am.  

“After living as a «living sculpture» for a long time, I came to the conclusion that it is wise to keep life and art separate.  Now, I state that «I use my body as my material in my artwork» rather than «my body is my artwork.»”

Your body is a key element in your work, both as “the body of the artist”, representing you as an individual and your personal experiences, and as “a female body,” addressing issues of the representation of women in a patriarchal society. When you conceive your performances, how do you weigh these two possibilities?

As a performance artist, my “body as an Asian woman” and my “body as an artwork” frequently change. When I first started doing performance, I considered performance as an attitude, and that “life is a performance, performance is life.” The two were inseparable; thus, my life was always in a performance/artwork mode, or “living sculpture” mode. But I realized that I was quite weary of being my own artwork. It is also harmful to one’s mental health and sanity because the concept “life is art and art is life” could mess up your life. After living as a “living sculpture” for a long time, I came to the conclusion that “Life can be a performance, but performance is not life—at least, not my entire life.”  It is wise to keep the two separate.  Later, I use the statement that “I use my body as my material in my artwork” rather than “my body is my artwork.”

Chun Hua Catherine Dong, Skin Deep (2014-2020). Photographs with Augmented Reality

In your work, we can find on the one hand a direct approach to the body, naked, as a canvas or an object, and on the other hand the body veiled by masks and disguises. What do you find more interesting about playing with the different levels of displaying and hiding the body, maybe also seducing or unsettling the viewer’s gaze?

This is a very interesting question. Yes, there were naked bodies in my early performance work. For me, the body is a blank canvas, and any type of clothing or even makeup can give “identity” to it. Perhaps viewers perceive me as vulnerable when they see me naked, but I don’t feel that way. Being naked doesn’t challenge me but rather challenges the viewers. The power of the naked body in performance art lies in its rawness, it’s a pure form of art. Anyway, who isn’t born naked?

“For me, the body is a blank canvas: any type of clothing or even makeup can give “identity” to it. Being naked doesn’t challenge me but rather challenges the viewers.”

In the digital world, physical distance, the presence of the human body, and even identity tend to be blurred or seemingly erased. For instance, your work Meet Me Halfway is strikingly different from your performance work in both aesthetics and the presence of the body, yet you have incorporated your body in the form of camera movements. How do you navigate the differences between an immaterial digital environment and the materiality of your performances?

Meet Me Halfway (2021) was created during the pandemic. According to reports, many Asian people were attacked in public places during the pandemic. I was afraid of going out. If I had to go out, I wore a big hat and mask to cover myself because I didn’t want to be recognized. This situation subconsciously influenced my work Meet Me Halfway, which is why my body is absent in this work but just camera movements.  I became interested in VR during the pandemic as well because I discovered that VR can help me to escape from reality. VR space is less political, at least, you won’t get physically attacked. You can build your own virtual world in VR and visit it from time to time whenever you want. It is interesting that you mentioned immateriality in the digital environment. Actually, performance art is often regarded as an immaterial practice as well. Because of its immaterial nature, it is very easy for me to shift my practice from performance art to digital art.

Chun Hua Catherine Dong, Mulan (2022)

Following with the previous question, Mulan addresses gender identity through a folk heroine placed in an underwater landscape. What seems at first a scene of pure fantasy contains numerous symbolisms. How would say that a viewer immersed in this VR space can connect with the message you want to convey? 

Gender is an important component of my work. Mulan (2022) was inspired by Beijing Opera. You are right. “Mulan” depicts a pure fantasy scene because Beijing Opera is my fantasy. I used to dream of wearing the Beijing Opera costume and performing on stage when I was little. But Beijing Opera is a form of high art, not many people have a chance to access it. For me, art provides a space for asking questions and discovering; I’d be very happy to see that people have questions when they experience Mulan, such as, “Why Mulan? Why are there two Mulan? What outfit does Mulan wear? What are the names of the sea creatures surrounding Mulan?” If people ask questions, they will find answers.  Sometimes I realize that I am more interested in how viewers feel and think about my work rather than telling them what my work is about. Viewers’ different interpretations enrich and expand the artwork itself.

“I am more interested in how viewers feel and think about my work rather than telling them what my work is about. Viewers’ different interpretations enrich and expand the artwork itself.”

The mise en scène is an important element in a performance, which in your work translates to carefully set up photographs, installations, and VR environments. What is the role of space in your work across the many different media you use?

Mise en scene is a stage. Most of my works are staged. In performance, “mise en scene” can be in any place, including public, private, virtual, or imaginary spaces. Camera frame is a type of stage too because activities must occur within the frame in order for the camera to capture them. If we apply this concept to traditional art, a plinth is a stage for sculptures, and a wall serves as a stage for two-dimensional artworks.

Chun Hua Catherine Dong, Meet Me Halfway (2021). Four-channel VR video installation. Exhibition view at Foundation Phi.

You have stated that you initially wanted to become a painter, but found that performance was more expressive. Yet there is a painterly quality to much of your work, particularly in photography and digital art, besides the use of paint in some of your performances. Which would you say is your approach to painting nowadays? 

Yes, I wanted to be a painter before. But painting has its own limitations because you work in a two-dimensional space, and you must sometimes wait for it to dry before applying another layer. Performance is an expressive medium, I never wanted to go back to painting after I fell in love with performance. My work does have painterly quality, I guess it is because of my painting background. Regarding how I approach painting nowadays, I think it is VR drawing/ painting. It doesn’t limit you in a 2D space like traditional painting, but rather you work in a 3D space. When you draw a line in VR, it is a 3D line, and you can zoom in and out to see your drawing/painting in 3D perspective, which fascinates me.

“I approach painting through VR. It doesn’t limit you in a 2D space like traditional painting, but rather you work in a 3D space. When you draw a line in VR, it is a 3D line, and you can zoom in and out to see your drawing/painting in 3D perspective, which fascinates me.”

In your recent work Out of the Blue, you address your childhood and feature a teddy bear character that has been present in your work over the last three years. Can you tell us more about this character? You frequently use 3D printing techniques to create sculptures, why have you chosen this technique over more traditional forms of modeling and sculpting?

The teddy bear is a symbol of childhood.  With its eyes closed, the bear refuses to look at the world, rather prefers to dream. In my digital art practice, I began with AR and VR, and then 3D printing. It is very natural for me to use 3D printing to make sculptures because 3D printing is a type of digital fabrication. 3D printing is also a practical choice. Traditional sculpture requires a large studio space and special tools, which I don’t have. On the other hand, 3D printing doesn’t require much space; simply having a table or a desk at home is sufficient. Traditionally, 3D printing has been used to make molds or prototypes for further work. However, I embrace its rawness. I use 3D printing as the raw material for my finished artwork, with no additional touches such as sanding or painting. The unpolished raw nature of 3D printing fascinates me because it captures the essence of the technological and digital process, demystifying how artwork is made.

Chun Hua Catherine Don. Solo Exhibition: At the Edge of Two Worlds. TRUCK Contemporary Art, 2022

You have recently started experimenting with AI, first in the photographic series For You I Will Be an Island, and lately creating animations of what appear to be underwater creatures. Can you tell me about your experience with this technology? Which are your objectives when using AI programs? How does working with these programs differ from your VR and 3D animations?

I like AI. For me, AI is more than simply a tool; it’s like having an assistant. I understand that people have concerns about AI. I completely respect that. However, as an artist with limited resources and financial assistance, AI helps me save time and money when creating artwork.  For example, in For You I Will Be an Island (2023) I printed 23 pieces of 2.5 m x 2.5 m AI generated graphics; I can’t imagine how I would do this without AI. I could paint 23 pieces of 2.5 m × 2.5 m paintings, but how long would it take? Or I could use photographs, but where would I find such locations to photograph? I probably can find them if I have the financial freedom to travel around the world to look for them, but how long would it take?  Now AI is able to create animation and 3D objects, although it is not there yet, it is still very exciting. Animation and 3D modeling are often very time consuming and costly. If I have a budget, of course, I prefer to work with creative people, but if I don’t, AI is a good way to go.

Chun Hua Catherine Dong, For You I Will Be An Island (2023)

As we are starting the year (in the Gregorian calendar, and soon the Chinese New Year), it begs the question: what are you currently working on, and which projects do you have in store for the coming months?

Thanks! I am very excited that the Chinese New Year is coming soon. This is the year to celebrate the dragon. I am currently working on a public art project with 35 video displays at Place des Arts in Montreal. I am also working on an upcoming solo exhibition at Galerie Charlot in Paris in April. And I will participate in Montreal’s International Digital Art Biennial (BIAN) in May.

“If I have a budget, of course, I prefer to work with creative people, but if I don’t, AI is a good way to go.”

An invitation to contemplate existence: the art of Ali Phi

Pau Waelder

Ali Phi (1987) is an Iranian born new media artist and creative technologist currently based in Toronto. In 2013 he founded Nullsight, a collective of artists and programmers based in Toronto that curates and supports events linked to digital arts and music. The artist’s practice addresses architecture and spatial elements, both metaphorically and physically, creating interactive media that explores the relationships between geometry, patterns, light, and poetry.

In his live performances, he blends generative and time-based materials with sound and computational elements, providing unique collective experiences through data visualization. His visual art installations and performances have been showcased at renowned international venues and events, including Ars Electronica in Austria, Mutek in Montreal, and Art Brussels in Belgium.

Phi has recently presented a selection of artworks from the project Agnosia in a dedicated artcast on Niio. In the following interview, he elaborated on the concepts and processes behind these artworks and in his experience as an artist living in-between different worlds.

Experience Ali Phi’s immersive landscapes on your best screen

Ali Phi. AGNOSIA 4, 2022

Can you tell me about the inception of Nullsight? How do you combine curation, performance, and software development in your work?

I founded Nullsight with the goal of promoting like-minded artists and cultivating the market for new media and digital arts. This eventually led to joining a new media arts festival in Iran and directing it in the following years. Following the festival’s success, we continued to curate exhibitions both online and in real in Iran and Germany, as well as supporting other events in the field.

Upon relocating to Canada, Nullsight evolved into an art collective focused on creating and providing resources and toolkits for artists. Many of these products stemmed from the code I developed for my own artistic practice or in collaboration with fellow artists. Our aim was to transform these products into user-friendly tools accessible to a wide range of artists. We are guided by an ethos of open-source sharing, as much of our work is inspired by tutorials and shared code from fellow artists. This led us to establish an online platform for sharing these products.

Our upcoming projects are geared towards integrating the latest technology and are shaped by feedback from fellow artists and users. We are committed to keeping all resources updated and accessible to the public, ensuring even those with limited coding knowledge can employ them in their creative processes.

“I believe in giving back to the community and supporting the next generation of artists.”

The underlying motivation for sharing these resources is rooted in my own experience of self-guided learning. I believe in giving back to the community and supporting the next generation of artists. Making these assets available serves as an educational resource and empowers other passionate creators. Additionally, participating in performances deepens my understanding of concepts and allows me to stay connected with the vibrant community of new media artists, inspiring fresh ideas for future works.

Ali Phi. AGNOSIA 4, 2022

You have been an active member of the digital art community in Tehran. Can you describe how this community is working today, and what opportunities are there for Iranian new media artists?


It has been years since I’ve been away from Iran and the media art scene there, but I have seen that some of my students and fellow artists are continuing their practice in this field. They participate in small exhibitions in Iran, international exhibitions, and hold workshops to spread knowledge. Unfortunately, due to financial issues, sanctions, and governmental problems, the TADAEX festival stopped at its eighth edition back in 2018, and we couldn’t continue organizing it in Iran. However, I’ve noticed that many artists and volunteers from TADAEX have started studying in universities in North America and Europe, and they are still continuing their arts journey with notable achievements.

In terms of the future of new media arts in Iran, I believe the community and the new generation are incredibly curious and creative in this field. With the easy access to information and tutorials nowadays, it’s much easier for them to learn and continue coding. However, one challenge is the accessibility of hardware and devices, again due to sanctions. This has been an issue for the past decade, as finding investors or convincing business owners, galleries, institutes and industries to invest in such festivals and programs has been challenging. Unfortunately, I’ve seen that most of these events have been canceled or put on hold. However, I’m aware that certain organizations are still trying to keep their hackathons, labs, and gatherings going, pushing boundaries by participating in international festivals and online showcases.

“The community and the new generation of Iranian new media artists are incredibly curious and creative in this field.”

As for recommending Iranian artists, it ultimately depends on their passion and how they feel. This was the same for me and my fellow artists. Today, I know it has always been the passion for creating and presenting, which was the main reason for starting the festival in 2011. We didn’t have a platform like that back then, and one of the primary goals of the festival was to create a platform where we could showcase our art, receive feedback, teach others, and educate the community.


Ali Phi. AGNOSIA 2, 2022

You have stated that your work starts with music and then visual elements come into play, inspired by the music. How would you say that this approach has shaped your work?

Starting with sound and music is an essential part of my creative process. Sound, being such an intangible medium, offers a highly imaginative experience. It allows me to draw inspiration from everyday sounds, turning them into motifs that blend various cultural influences, moods, and vibes. This dynamic component, when integrated with visual elements, creates a holistic experience. The visual aspects act as an illusion that complements the overall presentation of the artistic work, particularly when synchronized with the sound. The architecture of the venue is crucial, especially for installations. It sets the stage for the entire experience. Whether it’s a traditional stage or a non-traditional presentation space, the approach remains consistent—surprising the audience with carefully crafted lighting, high contrast visuals, and a blend of different elements.

In my performances, I aim to engage the audience in a self-reflective experience. There’s no predefined narrative; rather, it’s an invitation for the audience to immerse themselves in the currents of the experience, interpreting it based on their unique perspectives and their natural flow.

“In my performances, there’s no predefined narrative. It is an invitation for the audience to immerse themselves in the currents of the experience.”

During the production phase, I begin with conceptualizing ideas and envisioning the sonic and visual environments. Music becomes the canvas on which I shape the overall sonic culture of the work. Then, I introduce visuals, focusing on synchronicity and refining details in the audiovisual material. This iterative process helps create a cohesive and immersive experience. Depending on the performance, I might experiment with the sequence of scenes, responding to the energy and vibe of the audience, ensuring each interaction is distinctive. Given the generative and real-time nature of the work, I design each scene with controllers mapped to specific parameters, essentially performing them like an instrument that orchestrates both mediums seamlessly.



Ali Phi. SHYM, 2016. Real-time Generative Audiovisual Installation. Yassi Foundation, Tehran, Iran

Can you elaborate on the influence of Iranian culture in your work? How important is it to you that the references to Persian traditional arts are identified with your work?

The majority of my work’s concepts draw inspiration from a special era in Persian culture, dating back to the Achaemenid dynasty. It was an era focused on bringing a sense of heaven to earth, rather than solely anticipating a better future after death. This ethos gave rise to the rich arts and crafts of Persian culture, as well as the creation of Persian gardens, which are marked by their distinctive architectural and garden design. Even neighboring countries recognized this cultural heritage. Many of the poets I followed from that era were also scientists, well-versed in fields like astrology and medical sciences, weaving their knowledge seamlessly into their poetry. The educated individuals of that time saw no boundaries between disciplines; rather, they saw a harmonious integration of heart’s desires, intellect, and art. 

I find deep inspiration in these timeless connections between different mediums and how they coalesce in a civilized society. Western culture has often compartmentalized these aspects, but in Middle Eastern culture, they were integral parts of a whole. For instance, the Arabic word for art, “fan,” is synonymous with technique. This convergence of mediums was evident in ancient civilizations, and it greatly inspires my work. Having visited these sites since childhood, I’ve developed a profound connection to their sacred geometry and the masterful artistry of those who designed and meticulously crafted them.

“The educated individuals of the Achaemenid dynasty in Persia saw no boundaries between disciplines; rather, they saw a harmonious integration of heart’s desires, intellect, and art.” 

In my artistic practice, I incorporate Western and cutting-edge technologies, merging them with the enduring inspiration I derive from that era’s concepts. Ritual music, a genre characterized by its complex and sometimes challenging sounds, is a vital component. It’s deeply intertwined with the life cycle of the singers and musicians. In traditional settings, musicians must attain a certain level of mastery to be permitted to play specific instruments. These are ancient and organic facets of confrontational art that continually fuel my creativity.

In my practice, I remain steadfast in adhering to these foundational ideas and approaches. They are like hidden threads woven into my work, not immediately conspicuous but discernible to those familiar with the culture. These elements serve as the underlying spices that infuse depth and meaning into my creations.

Besides these cultural references, it seems telling that visually your work is characterized by what you have described as “cities or environments out of time and space.” What does this timelessness bring to your work?

The concept of creating “cities or environments out of time and space” has always been central to my artistic vision. I perceive each piece as a fragment of a larger whole, evolving and taking shape over time, akin to pieces of a puzzle. I aim for these installations to serve as a contemporary format, rooted in origins and influences from the past, yet projecting a timeless and futuristic utopia. In engaging with these works, viewers encounter not only art and its meanings, but also an invitation to contemplate existence itself.
The essence of my creations lies in providing a digital realm for audiences to immerse themselves in, encouraging them to engage with, observe, and even co-create. This interactive dimension is paramount, as it empowers individuals to embark on a personal journey of introspection and self-discovery. 

When conceiving a piece, I approach it as if I were an audience member myself. I design the space, infuse it with ideas, and often perceive it as an extension of the viewer’s experience. This involves creating a framework, coding, and incorporating various mediums, effectively transforming it into a dynamic entity capable of receiving input, generating responses, and facilitating a creative exchange. Ultimately, this interplay with the work serves as a conduit for individuals to explore and connect with their own inner landscapes.


 

“The essence of my work lies in providing a digital realm for audiences to immerse themselves in, to observe, and even co-create.”

You have said to find beauty in error, would you say that glitch interests you mostly by its aesthetic qualities, or are you interested in the fact that glitch “captures the machine revealing itself,” as Rosa Menkman describes it?

I find a deep fascination in witnessing failures and glitches in various types of working machines or systems. Regardless of a machine’s intended functionality or design purpose, I see beauty in its operation. However, glitches and errors hold a special allure for me. They represent moments where designers and creators didn’t anticipate certain issues, and the resulting visual anomalies are, in my eyes, incredibly captivating.

Glitches, whether they manifest in the physical world or appear in digital spaces, have an inherent aesthetic quality that I find compelling. The unexpected patterns and distortions that emerge, whether in the texture of a physical object or on a screen, are visually intriguing and often breathtaking. This fascination extends to coding and programming as well. Many times, glitches and failures have served as a wellspring of inspiration for me, igniting the creative process.

“Glitches, whether they manifest in the physical world or appear in digital spaces, have an inherent aesthetic quality that I find compelling.” 

In both the physical and digital realms, I derive a sense of wonder from encountering these deviations from the norm. Even in nature, there are instances of glitches or anomalies, like unusual formations on a rock or unexpected patterns in a natural setting. These occurrences seem to defy logic, existing in a way that shouldn’t be possible, yet they persist and assert their presence. For me, there is nothing more beautiful than witnessing or experiencing these unique moments in life.

Both as an artist and interaction designer, you have experienced the growth of the open source movement. What have open source tools brought to your work, and how do you see this trend evolving in the context of the growing domination of AI systems?



As a self-taught new media artist and creative technologist, the open source movement has played a pivotal role in shaping my career, particularly in terms of technique. The wealth of resources provided by the open source community, including tutorials, libraries, videos, and other online materials, has been indispensable. Most of the libraries I rely on, whether in JavaScript, Python, or tools like Touchdesigner, are products of dedicated individuals freely sharing their knowledge. This ethos underpins a significant portion of my creative work, and I’m immensely grateful for the existence of this culture.


“The wealth of resources provided by the open source community has been indispensable. I’m immensely grateful for the existence of this culture.”

Regarding AI, I personally don’t perceive any hindrance or threat to my artistic practice. As long as I have creative ideas and the desire to bring them to life, I’ll continue doing so, with or without the assistance of AI. That said, I am deeply intrigued by working with AI models and algorithms. They represent a new frontier for me, akin to a different type of glitch or anomaly that can aid in expediting the creative process. At times, these AI tools introduce unexpected elements or challenges, akin to the price we pay for their existence and utilization of resources. Yet, much like any technological advancement, I view them as a new material to work with, and I’m enthusiastically open to exploring and experimenting with various devices and beings in the digital realm to bring my creative visions to life.



Ali Phi. ENFE’AL 1, 2023

You have described the use of AI algorithms in Agnosia as “a digital creature that takes over the atmosphere.” It is interesting that you see AI as a “creature,” how would you describe your creative process when working with AI systems?



Working with AI systems in my creative process feels like a dual jam session with another person. Especially in my performances, it’s as if I’m playing and interacting with an instrument or player that I’ve brought to life through code. I navigate through the real-time occurrences and reactions of the patch, which unfold in front of the audience.
Incorporating AI libraries into my work serves as a means to provide an extensive platform, offering a range of sensors, libraries, and AI models that infuse a new layer of dynamics into the overall concept. 

In the case of project Agnosia, I utilized an EEG brainwave interface. The data gathered in real-time was then processed and translated through a trained library, ultimately shaping the deformation of particle systems and point clouds. From my perspective, there’s a seamless continuity between the raw electrical data sourced from my neurons through the headset and the way the AI library processes this data in order to generate meaningful patterns, both sonically and visually. In essence, it all serves as a malleable material for me to explore, extracting reactions, establishing boundaries, and crafting a meaningful interplay that manifests in sound and visuals.


“Working with AI systems in my creative process feels like a dual jam session with another person.”

Enfe’al is based on the audiovisual performance Maqruh, which evokes liminality and is divided into seven phases of the formation of an entity. Can you elaborate on this narrative? What does this notion of evolution bring to the artwork, the performance, and the experience of the viewer?



Enfe’al is one of the scenes within the Maqruh audiovisual performance, which is typically presented in a live performance format. The piece is composed of seven distinct sections, collectively exploring the concept of makruh—a term from Middle Eastern terminology denoting a detestable act that falls in a gray area between forbidden and permitted. These sections together trace the cyclical journey of an entity through phases of passivity, avoidance, constriction, conformity, elevation, expiry, and revival.


While my work draws inspiration from Middle Eastern cultures and motifs, it goes beyond mere representation. There is no explicit storytelling or directional guidance for the audience. Instead, there exists a comprehensive concept that unifies the different segments of the performance. It endeavors to establish connections between these seven phases, creating an immersive and cohesive experience.
For me, this concept mirrors a broader theme in the creation process. It reflects a point of uncertainty, like standing at a crossroads where decisions need to be made, but the outcome remains uncertain. This sense of uncertainty and decision-making is a recurrent theme in my interactions with the code I write and in the process of crafting installations. It revolves around determining the best approach, weighing the possibilities of success or failure, and ultimately making a choice. 

In crafting my work, I follow a consistent pattern of infusing ideas rooted in the culture I’ve grown up in. I delve into intricate details and motifs, transforming them into a canvas for generating code and A/V content. This process allows me to integrate cultural elements with the technical framework, resulting in a unique and immersive experience for the audience.



Ali Phi. AGNOSIA 6, 2022

Agnosia refers to processes of memory and incorporates your reaction to your own recollections, AI algorithms, and glitch. What led you to work so introspectively, with your own memories, and brainwave data?

The concept behind the project Agnosia emerged from my deep-seated interest in architecture, particularly my fascination with the intricacies of spatial geometry. I noticed a recurring pattern in how our brains process spatial information, like the way robots operate at storage warehouses employ similar principles for efficient navigation and routing. It intrigued me how certain locations could evoke distinct sensations and memories, yet the precise triggers remained elusive. I became captivated by the interplay between architecture and the spatial formations that contribute to this phenomenon.

In industries like robotics, this process is utilized for navigation, but what sets humans apart is our capacity to record and experience these feelings. This aspect, however, is often overlooked in industrial applications. I sought to delve into this unexplored territory, aiming to introduce a live feedback loop that could simulate and evoke sensations based on the random associations AI algorithms can generate.

To achieve this, I embarked on a process of recording various natural and man-made locations, feeding them into a software system that could recreate these spaces using EEG data obtained while I immersed myself in these environments. It was akin to the software acting as an extension of my senses, generating new spaces based on the data it received through my eyes. The resulting information was then fed back into the system, applying deformations to create these synthesized spaces.

“Agnosia integrates my introspective exploration of memory recalling processes, brainwave data, and architectural influences, creating a unique, immersive experience.”

While I’ve presented some of the scenes and processed videos as static representations, the core of the project lies in its dynamic nature. The main patch serves as a generative art engine, fueled by pre-recorded EEG data from my performances. This could be presented in real-time, with the EEG device attached to my head, continuously generating new visual spaces based on my gaze and cognitive responses. In essence, Agnosia integrates my introspective exploration of memory recalling processes, brainwave data, and architectural influences, bringing them together through the interplay of an AI “creature” and glitches to create a unique, immersive experience for both myself and the audience.

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.

Antoine Schmitt: coding movement

Pau Waelder

Paris-based artist Antoine Schmitt describes himself as a “heir of kinetic art and cybernetic art,” aptly indicating the two main aspects of his work: the interest in all processes of movement, and the use of computers to create generative and interactive artworks. With a background as a programming engineer in human computer relations and artificial intelligence, his career spans almost three decades and is characterized by a combination of interactive installations, process-based abstract pieces, and performances. He has collaborated with a wide range of professionals from the fields of music, dance, architecture, literature, and cinema. He also performs in live concerts and writes about programmed art.

Schmitt’s award-winning artworks have been exhibited internationally, in prestigious venues such as the Centre Georges Pompidou and Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and world-renown festivals Sonar (Barcelona), and Ars Electronica (Linz). A selection of video recordings from his generative works have been featured in our curated art program, including the artcasts Unvirtual Art Fair (Paris) and Possibles, which was exhibited at the ISEA2022 Barcelona Symposium. The artist kindly answered a series of questions about the concepts and processes behind his work.

Antoine Schmitt and Franck Vigroux. ATOTAL. Audiovisual concert, 2021

From your early works to the latest installations, there is a constant interest in the relationship between the artwork and the viewer, and more generally between a human and a machine, that often become intimate, connected to emotions and to physical proximity. What do you find interesting about this strange relationship between an individual and a machine, or an apparently sentient entity?

Programming has always been for me a means to approach reality, by recreating it. I consider programming as a radically new material, in art and in general, because of its active nature: programs are processes embedded in reality and can react to it and act upon it. This specificity allows me to recreate programmatically aspects of nature that interest me. One of the most complex entities in reality (known so far) is the human being. Many of my artworks stage a programmed artificial entity that embodies a deep aspect of human nature. These artworks act for me as mirrors for the viewer, a way to question deep human mechanisms or ways of being, like desire, curiosity, language, conflict, gravity, etc… not forgetting that humans are also animals, and are also bodies in space. 

This approach also allows me to reflect on the way we humans are programmed, by laws, evolution, society, etc… My artworks are, like deep science fiction, very much fueled by philosophy, physics, metaphysics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc… Using programming to create artificial entities, more or less intelligent, more or less sentient, but all embodying dynamic aspects of human life, allows me to focus each artwork on a specific concept or aspect of human nature. They are forms of living caricatures that are all the more effective.

“I consider programming as a radically new material because of its active nature: programs are processes embedded in reality and can react to it and act upon it.”

Your work is characterized both by its interactivity and the generative processes that bring it to life. What do you find most interesting about these two types of processes, the one carried out by an autopoietic generative artwork and the one carried out by an interactive installation?

All my artworks are active and exist in real time, i.e. the same time as the spectator. Some artworks are not sensitive to the real world, they are not interactive, they live their life in their own universe, and we watch them like we would watch a strange animal in an aquarium. With these artworks, the main link between the audience and the artwork is through empathy. By projecting oneself in the existential universe of the artwork, the spectator recognizes and feels the situation. It is the same process as with movies and books, with the additional dimension of the real time: with realtime artworks the spectator knows, or feels, that what happens happens here and now. It is not a recording. This gives a different dimension to the empathy, like when watching a live performance which also happens here and now.

Antoine Schmitt. Systemic. Interactive installation, 2010

With interactive artworks, I usually want to question the behaviors and inner mechanisms of the audience themselves. It is the actions of the viewer which are the artwork, I create the dynamic situation in which the viewer is immersed and I orient it so as to highlight and question certain deep ways of being. For example, the Systemic (2010), Lignes-mobiles (1999) and La chance (2017) installations draw dynamic arrows on the floor in front of passers-by to question their intention. In Psychic (2007), a text on the wall describes the movements and intentions of the spectators in the exhibition space (“Somebody is coming”).

I tend to adopt a minimalist approach: I don’t use an artistic dimension (color, figure, interactivity) unless it is mandatory for the artwork. So I don’t use interactivity unless the artwork’s subject is the spectator themselves.

“In my interactive installations it is the actions of the viewer which are the artwork, I create the dynamic situation in which the viewer is immersed and I orient it so as to highlight and question certain deep ways of being.”

Since the beginning of your career, you have collaborated with performing artists, among which composers such as Vincent Epplay, Franck Vigroux, and Jean-Jacques Birgé, performers such as Hortense Gauthier, and choreographers such as Jean-Marc Matos and Anne Holst. How did these collaborations take place? What have they brought to your own work and your creative process?

I have two different approaches to performance, whether I’m on stage or not. When I work with professional performers who use their body and actions as their main material, we craft situations where the human entity is confronted to an artificial one. This allows us to precisely stage the encounter and focus precisely on certain aspects, which become the subject of the performance. The situation usually centers on the concept of an encounter with an “other” and on the modalities of dialog. In Myselves with Jean-Marc Matos, it is about exploring various modes of dialog like imitation, fight or fusion. In CliMax with Hortense Gauthier, it is about finding mutual pleasure. In these setups, the mirror effect happens between the performer and the artificial entity rather than with the audience. The audience is watching the encounter. The artificial creature becomes an actor of the performance, in the spirit of performance: taking risks in a staged delicate situation. 

Antoine Schmitt and Hortense Gauthier. CliMax (Préliminaires), 2018

When I am on stage, I usually play live images, using a videogame-like visual instrument that I program myself and that recreates a specific abstract though consistent live universe, while the other performer plays live music. We are in a situation of semi-improvisation and we create an audio-visual temporal exploratory journey around a specific theme (the birth of shapes in Tempest, the cohabitations of multiple timelines in Chronostasis, totalities in ATOTAL, flows in Cascades, etc…). As a performer, I appreciate sharing the energy of the present moment with the audience, especially while being delved into an artificial universe and struggling with it, which the audience can feel.

Antoine Schmitt. Generative Quantum Ballet 21 Video Recording, 2022

Besides the performing arts, another strong reference in your work is scientific research: you often mention theories from mathematics or physics as the conceptual ground for your pieces. What does science bring to your work? How do you build a bridge between the scientific method and your creative process?

I am very sensitive to the deep and strong laws of the universe that math and physic theories can give us, as they allow me to both approach our reality and imagine other possible realities. What is interesting with these laws is that they are programmable so I can recreate them using programs, thus focusing on deep mechanisms, to stage them or alter them. For example, in the Tempest show, I created a universe containing many of the forces of our universe but also invented forces, thus opening the doors to parallel universes.

I often say that science and art are interested in the same subject : the crack that exists between reality and our abstraction of it. This crack is our curse as human beings. Animals do not feel this pain but as soon as one has the gift of abstraction, the distance between what we abstract and what is, is the source of all mental suffering. Science tries to close that crack by explaining as much as possible through theories and language, more and more precisely, even though it is an impossible task (as was demonstrated in the 20th century by the scientists Heisenberg and Gödel). On the contrary, Art delves in the depths of the crack, exploring all its modalities, playing with all the emotions that stem from it. And the narrower the crack, the deeper it is.

“I often say that science and art are interested in the same subject: the crack that exists between reality and our abstraction of it.”

The aspects of your work that we have previously addressed all point to a main subject which are the processes of movement, as clearly highlighted in your artist’s statement. These processes are explored in a wide range of contexts, from the quantum realm to urban societies, and among different actors, be it people, bodies, or particles. Why are these processes so important to your work, and which of these contexts is more rich, engaging or interesting to you?

I think that I’ve always had this abstract approach to reality which can be synthesized in the question “why does it move like this?”. I started with a rather scientific approach through my studies as an engineer, and when I decided to become an artist, I continued to explore this question in a different way. It is an analytical approach, a way of looking at the world, and a way to question it. I frankly appreciate all the dimensions of it and will continue to explore them, but I think that the strongest and the ones that give me the biggest satisfaction are the most abstract approaches, the ones that are the most remote from reality and still apply to many aspects of reality, existing or perceived. Black Square (2016), where a flock of white pixels try to enter an invisible square and bounce on it thus revealing it, can lead to multiple interpretations. It is a fundamental delicate situation. 

Antoine Schmitt. Black Square Video Recording, 2016

The signature element in your work, the pixel, is introduced in Le Pixel Blanc (1996). There, you describe it as “a minimal artificial presence… something that almost did not appear, but that still would be «there».” Over time, the pixel has gained more presence and become as much an object, a presence, and an absence, as part of a flow or the representation of an individual. How would you describe the evolution of your conception of this basic element and its influence on your work?

The pixel and the square are omnipresent in my work. I like my artworks to be minimal, like mathematical theorems. This naturally led to the pixel, the minimal visual element in the universe of the computer. A pixel is a small square, and by enlarging it, you get a large square. And like Malevich, I consider the square like the symptom of the human being’s power and curse: the ability of abstraction These two elements are the basis of most of my artworks. What I work on is their movement, relatively to the space around them, or relatively to the other elements. They are minimal but open to all the possibles, through their movements and the infinitely rich possibilities of programming.

“The pixel and the square are minimal but open to all the possibles, through their movements and the infinitely rich possibilities of programming.”

Your career spans almost three decades, in which you have explored many different formats of creation and distribution, from multimedia projects on CD-ROM, to Internet-based artworks, interactive installations, video mapping, screen-based pieces, software art, live performances, generative cinema, NFTs, and much more. What is your opinion on the way technology has evolved over these decades and how it has influenced art making? How have you experienced this period of constant innovation and obsolescence?

These have been very exciting years, for one because computers are more and more pervasive (we all now have a powerful computer in our pocket) and also because art made with computers is now widely accepted. It is therefore easier to create programmed artworks and to show them. The technology is more easily available, the distribution channels — in the wide sense — are numerous and the audience is listening.

On the other hand, technology is nowadays mainly used for advertising, surveillance, entertainment and manipulation of opinions, which is a social problem and has an effect on art made with technology. Many approaches build upon or react to these social dimensions, which are all needed and interesting but leave little room for the more conceptual and radical approaches. This may be true for all forms of art, but it is stronger with technological art as technology so much shapes our society these days.

Antoine Schmitt. FaçadeLifeGrandPalais. Generative mapping at the Grand Palais in Paris, 2016

What is interesting also is that I think that no new concept was really born in the field since Alan Turing invented the computer, the “universal machine”. All computer-based technologies are avatars of this unique concept. This can probably account for the fact that my artworks have not radically changed since I started. My work does not reflect on the social impacts of technology on society, nor are impacted by the various technological “innovations” and obsolescence. It is minimal so does not make use of the innovations toward more “power”, and it is rather rooted deeply in the concepts of the universal machine which have not changed : with a universal machine, all thinkable processes are programmable.

“Art made with technology often builds upon its social dimensions, which are all needed and interesting but leave little room for the more conceptual and radical approaches.”

You were already working with generative text twenty years ago, in The Automatic Critic (1999). What is your opinion about the current trend among artists to use machine learning models such as ChatGPT?

Although I am quite impressed by the quality of the interactions of users with ChatGPT (I thought that this level of quality would take more years to happen), the generative approach on these systems are in the normal continuation of the original concept of the computer. We are at the stage of imitation: these algorithms generate media that look like media created by humans, as the central mechanism of neural networks is pattern recognition and pattern generation, whether it is text, images, music, reasoning, etc… This is quite fascinating for users and it is similar to the caricatural mirror effect that I was referring to at the beginning. The art, or more generally the forms of expression, created by these algorithms in imitation of ours are a mirror to our forms of expression and thus question them.

But art is intention and responsibility. These two notions are still unique to humans. But maybe one day, we will be able to create an algorithm able to feel pain, express it with intention towards its fellow humans and take responsibility for it. There is no theoretical impossibility for this in the theory of the universal machine and I look forward to it.

In the meantime, as an artist, the most interesting aspect of AI systems remains for me the creation of biased algorithms which focus on some dimension of human nature, like Deep Love (2017) which answers all questions with “I don’t know, but I love you.”

Antoine Schmitt and Franck Vigroux. Tempest. Audiovisual concert, 2013

You entered the NFT scene in 2021 with Buy Me! a particularly conceptual, and generative piece. What has the NFT market brought to your practice? Has it influenced your production? Have you found new forms of creation or sources of inspiration, beyond its commercial dimension?

It took me some time to understand that the main new concept behind the NFT market boom was the perspective of financial profit, for collectors and for artists. This is the reason I created the satirical piece Buy Me! (2021), which embodies an algorithm desperately trying to convince its viewers to buy it, using language techniques inspired by advertising and psychological manipulation. It is a piece on the processes of marketing.

Apart from greed, the NFT market has opened the field of computer art to a new audience, which was really interesting, but I am eager to see the fusion of the traditional art market with NFT seen as a new way to buy and collect artworks.

Antoine Schmitt. The Fall of Leviathan. Interactive installation, 2021. Photo: Quentin Chevrier

You recently quoted the mathematical theory of catastrophes to describe the year that has begun and may bring sudden change, positive or negative. How does this year look for you? Which upcoming projects can you share with us?

I am very excited to start a collaboration with the DAM Projects gallery in Berlin. Its owner, Wolf Lieser, has been involved in computer art for a few decades and I look forward to working with him and his team. We will start with a solo show next autumn, with a selection of historical works and new artworks.

I am also very excited by two new live audiovisual performances, Videoscope and Nacht, with Franck Vigroux, which are in the making, and that will tour the world along with the existing performances (Melbourne, Gijón, San Francisco, etc..).

Marina Zurkow: aiming at the bottom of the iceberg

Roxanne Vardi and Pau Waelder

Marina Zurkow’s work explores the relationship between nature, culture, and society, focusing on what she describes as “wicked problems,” those issues that reveal our abusive interactions with the natural environment and our difficulty to understand it beyond our human-centric, capitalist-driven views of the world around us.

A transdisciplinary artist, she works with experts from different fields to create a wide range of artistic practices that includes video art, installations, and public participatory projects. Currently, she is working on the tensions between maritime ecology and the ocean’s primary human use as a capitalist Pangea.

Her work has been exhibited at numerous international art museums, as well as galleries, including Chronus Art Center, Shanghai, bitforms gallery, NY, FACT, Liverpool, SF MoMA, Walker Art Center; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Wave Hill, NY, and the National Museum for Women in the Arts. Zurkow is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, and received grants from NYFA, NYSCA, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Creative Capital. She is represented by bitforms gallery, and a fellow for Fall 2022 at Princeton University.

Following the release of two new artworks commissioned by Niio, we spoke with the artist about her latest work and her commitment to raise environmental concerns through her art.

Marina Zurkow, OOzy#2: Like Oil and Water, 2022

Many of your artworks, including OOzy2 and OOzy3, specifically allude to water as the main protagonist, and particularly the sea, which you have described as a “capitalist Pangea”. Sea life is both fascinating and mostly unknown to us urbanites. How do you use representations of the sea and sea creatures to address concerns about environmental issues?

First of all, I would say that one can think of the ocean in two ways: as a surface, and as a volume. The surface, which is what we mostly encounter as humans, has two functions: on the one hand, it is a surface on which we play; and on the other, it is a surface on which we transport goods, and this is what turns the ocean into a capitalist Pangea. 

This is a diagram of the ocean shipping routes. When I first saw this, it became extremely clear to me that this surface is actually a very solid plane of transaction, namely capitalist transaction. So that’s where the phrase “Capitalist Pangea” came from. Billions of years ago, in the Mesozoic era, there was one sea, called Panthalassa, and the land was a single landmass called Pangea. 

The other slide I wanted to share, which relates to the idea of the “Capitalist Pangea” is one I made for a talk on oceans, showing all the ways in which we see the ocean. We are capable of holding all of these buckets in our minds at once, and they remain in their silos to a great extent. The differences between thinking of the ocean as a site of plastic pollution, our fantasies of adventure, and 10 hour recordings of ocean waves you can find on YouTube to relax— those are all simultaneous identities that we assign to the ocean. 

This is my last slide to share: it is an image created by Donella Meadows, the systems thinker who devoted her life to ecology and is one of the authors of the report The Limits to Growth that nobody wanted to pay attention to in the 1970s and 80s, and that clearly showed that the planet can’t take unlimited growth, which is the fundamental tenet of capitalism. She was interested in using systems thinking to look beneath the surface, and offered this iceberg model in order to talk about change-making. As you can see, what is visible (and therefore  above the surface is tiny. The hardest thing to change is at the very bottom, the mental models. That’s the hardest place to get to. And honestly, I feel like if we can’t have an emotional relationship to the material of our planet that is at great risk, we can’t change the way we think about the world. And so anything like “don’t take a plastic bag,” or “get an electric car,” all the moral imperatives that are put on us, if they don’t come from the heart, they’re not going to stick, they’ll just be gone in the next election cycle –at least, in the United States. 

And so what I am committed to do with my work is to create emotional connections to this material and the ocean. Why the ocean in particular? Because it is so important! It covers 80% of this planet. And just the fact that we’ve named this planet “Earth” tells you something about human self-centeredness. Really, we are a planet of water. And even if it is such a cliche, it is true that we are made of almost the exact same composition as the ocean itself.

“There are many roles that artists occupy in terms of addressing environmental atrocities. I don’t feel like any one tactic is any better than any other. It’s all crucial.”

How would you describe the role of the artist in raising important concerns about climate change and environmental atrocities? Do you see a difficulty in balancing severe global concerns and aesthetics?

I would like to unpack this and say, there are many roles that artists occupy in terms of addressing environmental atrocities, ecocide, grief, climate change, and environmental connection-making. These roles range from explicit activism—getting people charged up to make change, to the subtler concerns that I was talking about: changing affect, changing the way we feel, changing the paradigm and the values in which we live. So for instance, it may sound oblique, but thinking about kinship across species is such a radical paradigm shift for most people. And that, to me, is one of the fundamental motivators for caring for the earth. So there’s room for everyone at this table, to participate in connecting people to the world in which we are interwoven. And I don’t feel like any one tactic is any better than any other. It’s all crucial. 

Regarding the second part of that question, yes I see a tremendous difficulty in balancing severe global concerns and aesthetics. Because the same things that make visuality potent, also make visuality impotent. The brain wants to categorize what it receives and put in boxes and dismiss those ideas that seem dangerous, depressing or disturbingly radical. Presenting an audience with an impactful idea will attract their attention, but it may also lead them to reject the idea because it is too disturbing and just move on. Our brains want to take a nap, and have a difficult time dealing with uncertainty. Yet, what we have at present is the tremendous force of geoplanetary uncertainty that, in many ways, we have produced. In this context, is visual art the right tool? I think there’s a lot of room at the table for these experiments. And you would have to be out of your mind to think that you, as a single individual, can change anything. We all have to contribute to making incremental changes. And this is very hard, because artists, myself included, have a big ego and want to feel like “yes, I am a changemaker.” But instead, I have to say, I am committed to change making, and I want to participate in that in whatever little ways I can. 

“I see a tremendous difficulty in balancing severe global concerns and aesthetics. Because the same things that make visuality potent, also make visuality impotent.”

I have been working in audio more, I just finished collaborating on a 30 minute immersive audio piece about the ocean, that is a radically different kind of experience. The audio sneaks into your psyche. And because nowadays we are used to audio guides, I can use this technique to pretty great effect. This has been an instructive piece for me to think about other ways to invite people into these complex, difficult conversations and to go places where the human body can’t go, like deep into the ocean, or doing things that are impossible for us, such as dissolving into little bits and getting eaten by a whale.

As an artist working in many different mediums from new media art to performance to collage, how do you see the role of video artworks differing from other artistic practices?

I would add that I also work with food, for instance, that asks you to put things in your body as a way of experiencing the world. Each encounter between public and material can be thought of as “ways of knowing” (or epistemologies), and my job as a collaborator, thinker, and maker is to work with people who understand their own media like technology or cooking in such ways that we can do the most we can with those media to connect people to concepts and experiences.

Marina Zurkow, Making the Best of It: Jellyfish (2016)

As for video art works, the way to connect with the audience is obviously through the visual (and aural) quality of the piece, its scale and its context. The images produce all kinds of relations that your brain is trying to make sense of. Some images remind you of others, or spark certain feelings. All of this process is happening neurologically, and because we’re such visual creatures and pattern recognizers, the invitation of looking is built in and seductive. In that sense I am particularly interested in the humorous, the quirky, because it disarms the viewer. The viewer leaves their defenses behind when they see something really enchanting, or funny. So in my animated films I often use elements that are somewhat funny or seem naïve, but they point to issues that are not funny at all.

“I am particularly interested in the humorous, the quirky, because it disarms the viewer.”

Another aspect that is important for me in connecting with people happens when the artwork lives in people’s homes. I like work that people live with, and get to spend long times with. Some of my works are really long, they go on for hundreds of hours, sometimes unfolding over the course of a year, so that when someone has the artwork at home they can spend a lot of time with them and see how they change. Even if the work is not very long, about three minutes, I think about the density and add many layers, so that the story is told in depth and not in length. 

Marina Zurkow, OOzy #3, 2022

Do you think that people react better to something they’re more actively involved in, or can they also have a profound experience of a visual artwork that they see at a certain distance?

These experiences are really different, and can be memorable for an audience in different ways. The food projects can suffer from exactly the same problems as the visual projects, which is the production of spectacle. I have only really been able to do one very successful public food project that was not elitist in costliness: a jellyfish jerky pop up shack on the UCLA campus that attracted 300 people to eat and talk. We provided a night market stall atmosphere, where people could sit and eat, and we interviewed many eaters in what was a really rich, two way exchange. For us as artists— my collaborators Henry Fisher, Anna Rose Hopkins and myself— this was a chance to have a real-time exchange and to create an offering that condensed into a snack some of the components of the tremendous risk of sea level rise. The video work does not have the same kind of immediacy: I don’t know what is happening with the work in terms of people’s reception. It’s a much more distanced experience for me. And at this point, I hesitate to understand what is so compelling about the work, or if the work really does move the mind at all. I really don’t know.

Your extensive career, among many other things includes your teachings as faculty member of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Could you elaborate on your views of the artist as educator?

I don’t think you have to educate inside of academic institutions, I think you can educate in many ways, which goes back to my statement about “ways of knowing.” Art is always political, and it is also always educational. What I mean is that art will be teaching you something whether it intends to or not: it might be teaching you that art is decorative, it might be teaching you that art has cultural vitality, it might be teaching you that the oceans are polluted. Art is always engaged in communication, and communication is, essentially, the transfer of information. This information accumulates and sometimes opens up a new way people can think about things. And that itself is a form of pedagogy. I teach that way. I was lucky to teach in a program that was very “anti-lecture,” very participatory and dialogic. This methodology pushes you to think about ways in which you teach and how to facilitate hands-on, engaged learning.

“Art is always political, and it is also always educational”

Your commissioned works show a tension in the relationship between the natural world and humanity with a specific focus on consumer culture and technological advancements. Do your works also suggest a solution for this probing question?

I don’t have any solutions. The first thing you learn in systems thinking is, there’s no such thing as a solution, because the solution will only beget further problems. When you think you’ve solved something you go to sleep, you don’t worry about that anymore. So I’d rather have the opposite: opening up new ways of thinking about these difficult entanglements and producing more questions rather than answers. Questions persist in your brain, they haunt you a little bit. And then maybe they drive your inquiries into the everyday. So what if making people conscious is the most I can do? What happens then? I have been going through tremendous doubt of the efficacy of artmaking in the  last couple of years, and I am not on the other side of that yet, but I’ve been thinking a lot more about modest offerings of what change looks like and ways in which we can open up the world. A world of more inclusive ethics that would drive us to make better ecological and interpersonal decisions. 

“I can only claim to do a small bit and then it is up to everyone to change their mindsets and act.”

Still, as an environmental artist, you are expected to solve things. There’s a group of artists and scientists who say, “If we don’t make work that addresses really tangible ways of changing things, we are useless. How do you measure that? We don’t want to talk about metaphors. We don’t want to talk about mindsets, we want to make change, we’re in a crisis.” But I would also say, sometimes you have to slow down to move fast. Interestingly, the Rising Seas Jellyfish Jerky Snack Shack showed me the contradictions in this way of thinking about solutions. People who participated and thought of themselves as environmentally active students, who were doing environmental studies, still went downstairs to the vending machine and bought single serve plastic wrap snacks. It was like the snacks were a blind spot in their whole system of thinking about the world. So I can only claim to do a small bit and then it is up to everyone to change their mindsets and act. 

Patrick Tresset: “I thought that I could put back emotions using computers”

Pau Waelder

Patrick Tresset is an artist who explores a form of mediated creation in which his drawing style is transferred to a set of robotic drawing machines or applied to video footage to create artworks that are curiously algorithmic and spontaneous at the same time. He is also the co-founder of alterHEN, an eco-friendly NFT platform and artist community whose artists have participated in a previous artcast on Niio. Tresset has also presented his series Human Study in a solo artcast launched recently.

I had the chance to interview him in his studio in Brussels on the occasion of my visit to the Art Brussels to discuss his work and the series that originated from an exhibition in Hong Kong that he had to remotely orchestrate during lockdown.

After working as a painter for fifteen years, you decided to study arts and computational technologies. What drove you to become interested in computer science and programming?

Well, actually, I was already interested in computing, because my dad gave me a computer when I was nine years old, and as a kid, I managed to do some little things, and I got fascinated by it. I particularly remember this possibility of creating little worlds that would be autonomous. I studied computing, but back then it was business computing. And after that, I decided to become a painter, move to London… I think I was a painter for thirteen years. And in the meantime, computing evolved a lot. So I always kept my eye on it, and after some time I got back into computing. So it was not new, computing. And I had this intuition that I could do something with it, because I knew I could program. I could imagine things. 

As a painter, I had a creative block. It just didn’t make sense to continue painting. And also I had lost my spontaneity, everything I did in painting looked stiff, and unemotional. I couldn’t do emotion. Strangely enough, I thought that I could put back emotions using computers. I was always into doing those very spontaneous drawings, and so as soon as I got back into programming, I worked on drawing faces, from the beginning, and then there was the internet. Thanks what I found online, I kept learning and I came across the Algorists: Roman Verotsko, Cohen… well, Cohen is not part of the Algorists, so Verotsko, essentially. And I saw they were using pen plotters. So I bought myself old pen plotters on eBay. And I started to do drawings like that. I wrote those out on my own for two or three years, using scientific libraries and other resources. But I felt that I was stuck, and I knew that I needed to go further to achieve what I was looking for.

You have mentioned that you transfer your drawing style to the robots. Can you elaborate on this mediated process?

When I was doing my Masters studies, I was working on simulated drawings, and it’s only during the doctoral studies (I started a PhD that I never finished) that I did proper research. It’s a risky thing in computing, but mainly, we’re learning drawing, psychology, perception and things like that… motor control, and all those things. I really researched a lot. And all that influenced the program. But also at this time, I understood that a drawing system needed to be embodied, particularly since I was interested in gestural drawing. So the way I did it was that I simulated different processes that interact, with parts dedicated to low level perception, then higher level motor control, and strategy. 

The style of the drawing has never been forced. The style is a consequence of the characteristics of the robot. If you just change little parameter on in, or on the camera, or the speed of the app, that will be enough to give the resulting drawing a different style. So it’s really an interaction between the body, the character and the characteristics of the robot. My input is in there in that the technique that they have is a technique I used when I was trying to draw. There is detachment in a certain way, but it’s not so detached, because I am in the system –I programmed everything myself. 

So there is this weird thing with control, because in the beginning I have control, but then when the robots start, I don’t have any control. And that leads to an interesting form of spontaneity. For me it’s always fresh, but the problem is, because it is using humans, not everybody’s a performer. A lot of people do it for the portrait, and then during the process, they notice that it is not just a machine that makes their portrait. Here I feel that there is the usual problem of entertainment and art. That does not happen with the still life drawings, because the whole system is encapsulated in itself. It’s a different type of storytelling.

For about a year, you have created a new type of artwork by applying the drawing program to video footage. What led you to use this technique? Particularly since you were just mentioned the embodied creation of the drawings.

It all came about because of NFTs. I needed something digital to sell, to mint. And it started like that. I did some experiments a few years back with video, so I already had some ideas but it really came to be through NFTs. I wrote a program to extract a big interface over the program I use for the robots, that enables me to play with and create these animations. It was by necessity. But in the end, I explore the same themes, only that now I know better what I’m exploring.

Let’s talk about the exhibition Human Study you had in Hong Kong, back in 2020. I find it interesting how it was developed under lockdown, and how the animations that you have now presented on Niio reflect that particular atmosphere.

Yes, it was a very interesting process. The exhibition was planned normally during Art Basel Hong Kong, but obviously it didn’t happen because of COVID. They moved it to November, but still they didn’t get the authorization to open the theater. So, it was decided to carry out the exhibition without an audience, using actors or anyone who was around, so sometimes it was the technical staff and not actors. To me it was particularly interesting because I helped select the actresses and the actors, so it became something like a piece of theater. I had created a generative system to edit the video feed from the cameras, so while I was doing everything from thousands of kilometers away, I became the director of a performance.