5 questions to Katja Novitskova
In the exhibition “Perspectives of a Collection” Estonian artist Katja Novitskova (*1984 in Tallinn, lives in Amsterdam) is not only presented with a work from the Marta Collection, but also as one of four female artists to be proposed for a further acquisition. Thanks to a private donation the work “Approximation (Biobanks)” can now enter the Marta Collection as the latest work.
The work consists of a three-dimensional aluminum display. It shows the mirrored image of a flamingo from which blood is being drawn. The birds frame an ornament of different colours, reminiscent of bio-chemical images, a Rorschach test and a fantastic creature all at once. What is the background to these pictorial elements?
The image of the flamingo comes from a new article I came across that reported an increasing use of biobanks in species conservation. Genetic and other biomaterial from animals is collected and stored to be used in research and possibly future conservation efforts. This can be seen as a contemporary re-iteration of a concept of Noah’s Ark where the flood is the rapid catastrophic loss of biodiversity happening at present time and the ark is the network of biobanks (and other conservation efforts). In case all flamingos will die off in the wild in the near future we will still have an option to genetically re-engineer them into life, albeit a new synthetic version. Of course, this brings us to many narratives of ‘man playing God’ and their repercussions. In my work flamingo bodies held by human hands in lab gloves form a physical arc. The graph in the middle of the work is a logo of one of these biobank centres that I found to be intriguing as it is basically a version of a tree of life, an abstract graph that says so much with a few simple lines. The face-like figure in the middle of the work was generated using an AI algorithm that created image-versions of my previous work in the same series as “Approximation (Biobanks)”. The eyes and face emerged from within the algorithm, they were not in the source material. The synthetic visual recombination of a digital artwork points to the possibility of similar recombination of the genetic material stored in biobanks. The results of that will be varied and unpredictable, but one thing is clear: they will all have a trace of human agency in them. All these three layers merge into what I call an approximation of a certain potential within our current moment, something more complex than can be directly explained.
Since 2019, we already have the installation “Pattern of Activation (Mamaroo, Mania Phase)” (2018) in the collection. Its central element is an electric baby cradle that seems to have transformed into a being somewhere between robot and alien. What is this all about?
Back in 2014 I wanted to make a robotic sculpture, because I was interested in the idea of motion as a form of attention grabbing and affective signals. I wanted it to be simple, primitive even. I quickly discarded an idea of trying to get one of those robotic arm factory machines or one of those anthropomorphic Japanese hospitality robots. I was looking for something more ambiguous. By accident I came across mommy vlogging channels on YouTube that published a lot of videos rating various baby products. I saw several versions of these electric cradles and other baby contraptions that visually reminded me of something biological: a large bird or insect, a kangaroo pouch, a flower bud, etc. Once turned on, they were swinging and rotating in simple hypnotic motions, buzzing like the wings of a bee, some had sounds of water, heartbeat and birds chirping built into them. This really sparked my creativity, as they were a strange mix of simple machines and something nurturing with a trace of non-human. I ordered a few of them and proceeded to make a series of sculptures using the cradles stripped of any soft materials they usually come with (like seats and pillows) as a base. Instead of these soft elements I created resin membranes and decorated each sculpture with a series of synthetic elements, and eyes made with small red laser tags, giving each sculpture a certain unique character and assumed sentience. I wanted them to exist on the threshold between an artwork, a real robot and a synthetic non-anthropomorphic creature — an approximation of something I think artificial life in the future could be actually perceived as. The fact that they emerged from a consumer product designed to care for human children added a vague trajectory of nurturing and incubation as a bio-mechanical process, that becomes quite grotesque once we remove some familiar human signifiers. The baby cradles brand Mamaroo became my preferred ‘canvas’, as the cradles are built with the best quality and have a really clear egg-shape at the centre of the machine with a neck and eye-like structures stemming from it.
In general, your work deals a lot with the relationship between humans, nature, technology and science. What are the main questions guiding you?
My work is often categorised as dealing with sci-fi concepts in regard to nature and technology, but I generally only create things from elements that are part of our reality today — be it phrases, images or physical objects. I think my main two approaches are reflected in the titles of my series: “Approximation” and “Pattern of Activation”. I see my artistic intuition as a kind of a filter organism with specific settings browsing through information and reality, where I’m picking up certain signals with my antennae. I am tuned into the topics surrounding the transformation of life on Earth (and beyond) in response to the expansion of human presence and capabilities to interfere with our environment. I approach these themes by reading and looking through a lot of digital content, that I perceive to be an active mirror of this transformation. The images and words that trigger my interest and capture the climate crisis, AI or bio-technological breakthroughs are collected into folders as findings. My works are basically like weather reports based on these findings. Approximating certain forms hidden between various data points and creating visual patterns, activates certain feelings and narratives between art and the viewer. The work is not made from a very rationally researched position, nor a purely self-expressive, but rather a post-subjective one I would say. So, I don’t assume a full understanding or don’t want to send a clear message regarding my research. I am more thinking about how and who will be able to see my work in the future, having an algorithmic nonhuman viewer in mind, which in itself becomes one of the guiding questions regarding art today.
While planning the exhibition, we became aware once again that there are many works in the collection that date back to the museum’s founding period in the 1990s and 2000s and play with an aesthetic of the self-made, building materials, etc. In comparison, it becomes clear that your work comes from a different environment. It is characterized for instance by technical and polished surfaces and a media aesthetic. We often refer to the term postdigital. How do you feel about that? Is it useful or meaningful to you?
Actually, I would say that the so-called postdigital art uses a certain kind of bricolage approach as well, the aesthetic effect of what you call ‘polished surfaces’ is what masks this similarity. The difference between the 1990s and the last decade is perhaps that we also see contemporary hi-tech, digital or corporate elements as materials to be deconstructed and reconstructed into something new. The materiality of the Mamaroo sculptures is very much a soup of found elements, like a melted result of a strange shopping session: we have silicon fish baits, a baby cradle, some toy robotic bugs, etc. The process of melting together is emphasised by the resin membranes and synthetic clay. There is a similar logic behind the more minimalist looking photographic cutout sculptures, in this case the soup of elements is happening within the dimension of the image. The decision to produce them as cutout display stands comes in contrast with the potentially arbitrary visual signal — I take an image out of its online context (with millions of other options easily available) and scale it up to a monumental scale. I see it almost as a joke. So, to conclude, I think there is sometimes a misconception about postdigital art’s slickness, because it reuses certain tricks of contemporary commercial design or media formats. At its core I think it still carries a lot of the artistic do-it-yourself messiness so much associated with artists throughout any era.
One topic of our exhibition was also the question of how the Marta Collection should and can be further shaped in the future. The first thing we wanted to do was to strengthen the position of women artists. Conversely, what does it mean to you when works pass into (museum) collections?
It’s an honour for my practice to be recognised as something important, I think this is the main message of art being acquired by a museum like Marta Herford. I always have to question whether I am able to communicate with my work, whether it has any meaning or value beyond my own interests. And the feedback that I receive both from museum visitors and a team of professional curators and art historians is really reassuring. To my knowledge museum collections of contemporary art are still heavily dominated by works of male artists, so this inclusion also has an angle of an achievement against such odds.
The artworks of Katja Novitskova are on view in the exhibition “Perspectives of a Collection” until 15.01.