Arshake releases today the last of four parts of the interview between Victoria Vesna and art historian Dobrila Denegri, currently Art Director of the Torun Center of Contemporary Art (Poland). The interview has started in 2005 and continued throughout time as far as today, on different occasions, between Rome, Los Angeles and Torun. In this dialogue, Vesna recalls her pioneering projects which were carried out at a time when «database aesthetics» were pretty much a visionary phenomenon and the role of nano-technology was not as a recognized as it is today, moreover when into the artistic sphere. In the last part of the interview, she talks about some of her recent projects, such as Blue Morph and Hoz Zodiac. Her research pushes forward the analysis of organizational structure of data, examined along with the way they shape language, how they direct the communication processes. She detects morphological elements that are common to different species while monitoring and studying the metamorphosis processes. Yet, again, science and art are intertwined with cultural factors. Furthermore, Vesna recalls the beginnings of her famous collaboration with nano-systems scientist Jim Gimzewki that started back in 2001 (still in progress), as well as the ones more recently established with neuro-scientist Siddhart Ramakrishnan and evolutionary biologist Charles Taylor. The first part of the interview was published on Arshake April the 3d, 2014, April the 10h 2014, April 24, 2014.
Dobrila Denegri: Towards which perspectives have all of these projects led you? Could you say that there is a core subject which you developed and which you would continue to further?
Victoria Vesna: Twenty years ago, with Bodies INC, for the first time I experienced the impact of the audience on my work by creating a piece that invited them in. Watching the unexpected interaction helped shape the concept and further develop and enrich the work and this changed the direction of my creative process. I see my work now as a long distance runner, that evolves with time and is in dialogue with the audience. For instance, one of the latest versions of the Quantum Tunnel compelled the audience to lay down and experience their bodies as weightless and infinite. I now see an entirely new dimension to the piece that will be considered the next time it is installed somewhere on this planet. Each cultural environment brings in a different response and adds a quality to the work and allows me to take it to another level.
Also, I have shifted to think of many of my artworks as long-term commitments that will continue throughout my lifetime and assume a life of their own with the web extensions. One piece that started me thinking this way is Water Bowls: moon-sound-drop-oil. This installation has an online component and working on the piece made me hyper aware of the serious issues we face with water. I felt that as a solo artist I am only a drop in the water and started expending out to others working in this area with an online component and even curated a show in your museum for the first time in my life! The physical / virtual connection is pretty much the glue of everything I create now and in the center is the audience as the performer.
«Audience as performer» is certainly the red thread that interconnects your works from the time of Bodies INC. till now, but there is also a new element that I find interesting and more dominant in most recent projects. You seem to be entering more into the realm of nature, taking as a subject-matter elements from domains of biology or zoology. I recall one of your first works when you moved from NY to California in the early ‘90s: Another Day in Paradise, which was about surveillance but also about «artificialness» of nature. The installation consisted of three palm-trees which looked perfectly natural, but inside they were preserved with silicone, just as were many palms in the public space. Now, with totally different perspective you are again working with motive of nature and living beings. Maybe the project Blue Morph is a kind of bridge from the works did for «Nano» exhibition and these more recent ones. Could you tell me how it all started? How you started to work with butterflies?
Actually I never thought that I would be working with butterflies, neither did Jim Gimzewski, with whom this project has been developed. It happened almost by chance! But it was a consequence of his previous research which became very important in scientific circles and also generated our collaborative project Cell Ghosts. It was about the sound or vibrations of living cells. Jim was recording the movement of yeast cells, but even though he was extremely excited by his work, for me all his graphs were totally uninteresting. Data on this level need not be visual and since he already knew a bit about me, he asked his student at that time, Andrew Pelling, to output the data into sound and accelerate it so that it becomes audible to the human ear.
Perhaps this is a good example of how scientists may profit from workng with artists as this research – now sound vibrations of living cells — became really big and popular, with numerous features in the press such as «LA Times» and science journals. The fascination with this spanned from hard science to popular culture and at one point he got a call from a woman who asked if he ever recorded sound of transformation of chrysalis into the butterfly. Of course he didn’t, but first out of courtesy, and later from curiosity he started working occasionally with caterpillars that this woman sent him. The more he worked, the more it was becoming challenging because it was not easy to record sounds nor vibrations, and only when he understood that he should cover the chrysalis with a nano mirror-plate and hit it with laser, the results started to come out. And it was stunning for both of us: incredible sounds and visuals. Sounds of transformation are so ancestral, so organic and archetypical and very dramatic – change does not happen gradually but in intense bursts. I wrote a lot about it.
Images of the wings of Blue Morph were amazing too, because there is no pigment, just nano-structures that make us perceive this wonderful blue color. That was the starting point for the work Blue Morph which really evolved as a surprise. It is as if the artist and scientist are there to manifest the idea wants to come into existence and we serve that need with our experience. This work combines the experience and musings on the impact of future science with my earlier work that is performative and networked. The Blue Morph generated a whole new ritualistic dimension that connects to the radical shifts we are experiencing globally – it is looking at how nature metamorphosizes and puts us directly in that vibration. The true hybrid of art and science is magic and I am committed to manifesting that and helping usher in the new century that will be radically different from the industrial age which is still holding its grip on us.
Do you collaborate only with Jim Gimzewski or there are some other scientists with whom you are making artistic projects?
I collaborated recently with a few neuroscientists – Mark Cohen on a performative piece, Brain Storming that I also perfomed with Constance Hammond in Marseille. This work was instigated by David Familian, artist and curator of the Beall Gallery of technology and art where he presented the decade long collaboration with Jim. It continues as all my collaborative work with scientists – these are all long term friendships and dialogues. At the moment I am working on two different research projects, one with a neuroscientist – Siddharth Ramakrishnan and other with evolutionary biologist Charles Taylor and his team. Interestingly, both projects are dealing with animals and also emerged out of dialogue.
I have been collaborating with Siddharth for some time now on a piece called Hox Zodiac which has been presented in different occasions in Hong Kong and Taiwan. He was interested in doing something with a hox gene, a gene which all living beings share – it is what keeps all of us beings on earth with two or four legs, two eyes and so on. I was so inspired and amazed: humans, elephants, snails, or any other living being have that one gene in common but it was a challenge for me to find a way to convey this idea is spans practically all living beings! But when I got an invitation to show my work in China, the project just took off naturally – I immediately thought of the chinese zodiac. Chinese culture relates strongly to the zodiac and to its 12 animals/signs — I would say more than we relate to astrology in the West. For them zodiac is really full of complex symbolic connotations, which of course was very interesting for us from a cultural point of view. But what became even more important moment was when I realized that half of the 12 animals in the circle are actually used in scientific experiments, they are laboratory animals. So, this work aims to expand the idea of the zodiac – our identification with animals – beyond the symbolic and include awareness of how much are we benefiting and how much damaging the animal world with our researches. Hox Zodiac is again very interactive and involving piece, where audience is invited to assume the animal and in China it worked marvelously: public would become one with the work, they would perform it and make it «theirs». There is a point when for them it’s not important anymore if there is an artist or scientist behind the piece and who she/he is. As an artist, I find this point when public is identified and emerged in the work the most interesting and in those moments – the more absent and anonymous I am, the more successful I consider the work that emerges.
Hox Zodiac is a work in progress, as is research in which I have immersed myself for more than a year now, together with the team of evolutionary biologists led by Charles Taylor. They are working on the project of mapping communication networks of the birds – not for mating or territorial mapping but for communication, understanding their language – which is something truly fascinating for me. Linguists are part of the team together with biologists, and they are working on relations between language structures, referencing to Chomsky and others. I am now meditating on how to translate all this incredible research into an artwork, and am inspired after all the field work, all the recordings and experiments that I have been witnessing and doing with them. I can feel how my sensory perception of bird sounds in the environment has sharpened in an incredible way. My concept now is to create a piece that inverts the idea of interactivity – you enter an empty space and only start experiencing the piece when you stand completely still…. So far I have taken many photos of bird wings, placed them under the microscope, and am planning to use these images along with bird’s eye view videos recorded by drones… I want people to experience the magic of stillness and to notice how we edited out the bird songs with all the technology… Too much noise – visible and invisible – surrounds us and it is a battle to find time to go slow and think.
Even though net-space and networking are integral part of your work, you always laid strong emphasis on the physical experience and on the sensory perception, didn’t you? Octopus Mandala is very much in this line too. How did this project start and will you continue with it?
I was invited by curator Marc Paley to be a keynote artist for 2013’s edition of «Glow» event that takes place in Santa Monica every two years. It’s a huge public manifestation inspired by Parisian Nuit Blanche and last edition happened on September 28th – just for 8 hours, from dusk till dawn. After looking around to see what location may work, I asked him if it would be possible to do something on the ferris wheel that wasn’t available previously, because of different safety issues. To my surprise, he said – «if you want it, it’s yours!». At that moment I was excited but also frightened, asking myself what have I put myself into? You know, the Pacific Wheel is a kind of LA icon, it’s everywhere, in so many movies, it’s such eye-candy and certainly the most difficult place for making the artwork. But I was attracted by it – maybe because it’s where Buddhist monks dispersed sand from the Nano-mandala after the show in LACMA, or maybe because it’s something I’m seeing daily, when driving from my home in Topanga to UCLA, something that I always associated with an image of mandala, a circle of life, a Buddhist wheel which has the same 8-pointed structure, also common in nature. For a while all I had were just fleeting thoughts until I started getting on the wheel to ride with many of my collaborators and friends-artists. I rode a few times with Mark who kept asking what I was planning to do and I really did not know which probably made him nervous for a bit but he trusted me to come up with something and I am grateful for that. It was a really difficult challenge for quite awhile, but it started taking shape when I realised that the gate to the Santa Monica peer, facing the ferris wheel, is shaped like a large octopus. Suddenly all the pieces connected for me: the octopus, which has 8 tentacles, is actually a biological mandala and it led me on a whole journey through a variety of symbolical connotations that it has in different cultures.
The octopus is also fascinating animal for evolutionary biologists because it has eyes which are almost identical to human, and evolutionary speaking it’s million years away from us. It is very interesting for neuroscientists too, not only for its intelligence, but for its structure: the brain is actually whole body and when it gives command, the tentacles becomes independent. So for me it was such a great motive to start thinking about embodied intelligence as opposed to the idea that intelligence is just residing in the brain and metaphorically it has lot to do with the idea of collective intelligence, too. So the Pacific Wheel, which is just a machine, in this way became merged with the biological which is now biotech; that’s where we are going now: towards merging between biology and technology. Content-wise, this became very important, but I still had to find a way to produce an artwork out of all of that.
I started working with one of my students on program that would create light patterns -in the shape of octopus- using 386.000 LED lights that are positioned on the Pacific Wheel. We did it in a way that it would change color each hour for the time of 8 hours of the lasting of the Glow event. Most important for me though was not the structure of the Wheel, the machine, but the people who are riding in it. Everybody always speaks about the wheel and rarely mentions the people in the wheel – and that’s where I wanted to start: putting the focus on the experience of the people inside. So, based on my experience with the Blue Morph, I designed «octopus-crowns», which people could wear and play/perform with. In order to test this idea, I organized a happening in Marseille, with the Grande Roue, inviting many of my friends and collaborators from the IMÉRA residency. This turned out to be really successful, so I decided to make it really networked on the larger scale, involving various collaborators and friends from art and science world.
After Marseille The Octopus Mandala was performed in New York, Coney Island with video artist, Ardele Lister; than it went to Seattle for an event organized by Siddharth and his students, than to Sidney in collaboration with Lea Kannar and after that to Vienna, with Gil Kuno who performed a solo. So prior to Santa Monica Glow event, we had already set of collective happenings in different parts of the world, adding to this project that element which is crucial for my work: involvement of people both physically and through the net. Interestingly, the piece was performed in Chicago a few times after the «Glow» which signified a full circle as this was the place where George Ferris installed the first rotating wheel with people at the World Fair in 1893. At that time, it really was an unbelievably exciting experience for people – movement and machines were new in the social sphere. Now we are so used to machines that it is really meant for children so it took some time to figure out how to use this ‘ready made’ and reimagine the experience and perception of the wheel. It was actually a madness for me – I worked obsessively with a whole team for eight months on a project that was live for eight hours only!
Now, when I look back I see that from early works like Bodies Inc. or N0 Time until today it was the same kind of effort taking shape in many different ways to do the same thing: create an experience in the physical space that extends out to the networked space – that is not just a virtual idea but is an extension of the physical space. So as an artist I am «designing» the set, providing with concept, context and aesthetics, but then the work becomes something that should be experienced and shared among people. When the audience «takes over», as an artist I can make a step back and release the work, because it’s not about me – its about creating an experience that presents another point of view for a little while – and that is basically what art is all about. As an artist I have the opportunity to use techniques, concepts and aesthetics to create something that will help expand senses and perception of reality in a way. When this happens I feel that I am fulfilling my purpose and I know that it was worth all of the effort.
(cover) Victoria Vesna in collaboration with Jim Gimzewki, Blue Morph, 2007-present, wing detail (1) Victoria Vesna WaterBowls, 2006-present (2) Victoria Vesna in collaboration with Jim Gimzewki, Cell Ghosts (3) Victoria Vesna, in collaboration with Jim Gimzewki, Blue Morph, 2007 – present, installation view at the Beall Center for Art + Technology, UC Irvine in 2012 (4) Victoria Vesna in collaboration with Jim Gimzewki, Blue Morph, head (5) Victoria Vesna, in collaboration with Siddharth Ramakrishnan and Charles Taylor, Hox Zodiax, 2009-present (6-7) Victoria Vesna, Octopus Mandala, 2013, project conceptualized for the Pacific Wheel premiering at «Glow» Festival (2013), Santa Monica.