Interview with Katja Novitskova
Gene McHugh: Walking into an exhibition by Katja Novitskova, there's an initial feeling of fun and pop. Cute animals, sexy bodies, upbeat graphics. However, under that pop surface, there's a sober-minded investigation taking place about large-scale topics such as the evolutionary basis of human culture. Can you discuss what initially drew you to the theme of evolution and human culture?
Katja Novtiskova: As somebody who initially studied cultural semiotics, graphic design and bits of new media theory for a degree, I’ve been attempting to find and angle of useful insight into human visual culture for a long time. My first artist project, a book titled Post Internet Survival Guide 2010, was a way of scanning trend- and art-making processes at the frontier of online technologies in relation to the notion of what it means to be a human being in the 21st century. What I soon realized is that media and art theory I was exposed to were not enough to fully grasp what was going on: there was a need for another kind of analysis. The vast amount of visual artifacts created online, the selection and attention-based filtering of them, the birth and demise of trends and formats — were all inviting an evolutionary framework. To account for the contemporary visual culture one would need to understand the material infrastructure we humans have been creating for it (from mineral mining to silicon-based chips and data centers) and the deep reasons why we’ve been doing all those things (ultimately having to do with bio-material morphogenesis of our bodies and our social structures).
What's the relevancy for art audiences to understanding culture through this sort of evolutionary lens?
I think our increasing understanding of patterns (not just visual patterns, but also socio-ecological and behavioral), pattern recognition and processing is going to be behind a major shift in how we see the world. Pattern processing is a term that originates in Artificial Intelligence research, but its wider meaning suggests a general mechanism of interpreting reality based on statistical analysis. As creatures with eyes and brains, our cognition and vision are inseparable, and we’ve been evolving for advanced pattern processing. Looking at art history and aesthetics from the perspective of art-making as pattern-making, a lot of new knowledge could be gained. Computational tools and what is called big data are revealing nonlinear regularities in the chaos that is human evolutionary genetics, human history, contemporary demographics, art and fashion trends etc. This doesn’t mean a loss of subjectivity, I think almost the opposite is true: intuition is an advanced form of pattern processing, and I myself usually fully trust it. When I make work, intuitive choice always wins over strictly ‘conceptual’.
In your artist statement, you say that you "engage with certain ‘attractive’ formats and assemble them in ways that render their evolutionary origin." What are some of the strategies you've used in your work to do this type of rendering?
With the cutout sculpture series Approximations I take online images of various animals and produce them as shimmering aluminum advertisement banners. Animal forms, especially ones with eyes and facial expressions display visual patterns that activate certain primal reactions in the viewer, charge them emotionally, weather they know it’s an art-work or not. For me the work is not just the sculpture but the smiles and stares, the nearly automatic smartphone snapping, the archaic ‘posing with a trophy’ photo-op behavior that often coincides with the work being exhibited. For me the sculpture is something that triggers all these behavior patterns. It is very obvious with small children.
A few years ago, you invited me to contribute to an anthology you produced called Post-Internet Survival Guide. Although the book was somewhat ironic and maintained the veneer of a contemporary art project, I believe you were, in fact, thinking of the book as a "survival guide" of sorts. By looking at one or two examples, what, for you, are some of the more important ideas about the interconnection between Internet technologies and culture that haven't yet been well understood in culture?
The very vastness of the web has a potential to re-articulate our understanding of human culture, including art. In the beginning of this interview I mentioned how working on PISG 2010 pointed me towards and evolutionary and materialist perspective on all things human. There seems to be a greater lack of ecological self-awareness in relation to Internet and technology. So here's what we have: Internet is fueled by attention of billions of people and fossil minerals, it is very visual and social; human attention is a material thing, it is a scarce resource everyone is competing for, it drives industries; attention is an evolutionary mechanism; images are material carriers of attention-grabbing intensities that are evolving in our culture; human preference for attention-grabbing and social-status signaling patterns is leaving actual geological and environmental footprints on the planet at the expense of other species.