Pussykrew is a new media duo consisting of the multi-disciplinary digital artists Tikul and mi$ gogo. Originally from Poland, the two met while studying in Dublin and since then they have blazed a trail across the world creating groundbreaking, mind-melting work. Each piece overwhelms the eyes with intense, addictive richness and hyperreal detail.
Despite the gleaming perfection of their art there is something truly anarchic about Pussykrew’s opulent visions, which is no surprise given the artists’ sci-fi influences and the self-taught, DIY ethos they developed growing up in Poland. Sometimes things aren’t always what they appear to be: a rich seam of dystopian darkness might be lurking just beneath the liquid, glossy, golden surfaces. Their distinctive aesthetic has been in constant demand since winning the “Artist of the Year” award at London’s 3D Print Show in 2014, and while they have already achieved a great deal, it feels like Pussykrew are only gaining momentum.
Following a recent, productive stay in Shanghai, they now find themselves in Los Angeles. I caught up with them to talk about their formative years in rural Poland, the privilege and luxury of technology, and their sci-fi inspirations.
All images courtesy of Pussykrew
Christian Petersen: When did you meet and why did you start working together?
Tikul: It was over a decade ago. It seems so surreal but we are still here combining our creative forces. We met for the first time at the breakcore party in Dublin and then again at a short film festival where we got introduced through our mutual friend. We became friends and soul mates and then lovers and collaborators. We always had a great connection and shared many inspirations. Our very first conversation included discussing photo shoots from the polish magazine FLUID and Natacha Merritt’s Digital Diaries, but it was not that obvious that we were going to collaborate. We never actually planned to work together, it just happened spontaneously when we were working on a short film in Dublin and gradually we dived into more serious collaborative experiences and the number of projects we were doing started to increase. We’ve been working together and traveling the world ever since under the Pussykrew alias and it feels like our fruitful collaboration is still driving us.
CP: How did you become interested in using computers to make art?
Tikul: We both “converted” from analogue to digital. We experienced the shift and the rise of so-called “new media.” When I was young I was mainly into drawing and painting, I never had a proper computer or any access to digital tools until I left my home and started to become independent in my early twenties. During my BA studies in Poland (I was studying fashion design and fine arts) I started to get interested in digital media when it was fairly “new” and started following sound and visual artists that were using digitally oriented tools. I realized that I was interested in many aspects of art and creative practice outside of the fashion design bubble. At that time I didn’t have a chance to create any serious projects as I didn’t really have an environment that would encourage me and offer any extensive possibilities. After graduating, when I moved to Dublin, I did a short “new media” course but it was more oriented towards graphic and web design. I could grasp it more seriously when we both moved to Newcastle to study digital media at Newcastle University in 2009. I got introduced to a whole spectrum of inspiring tools like physical computing, visual programming, and many other areas of digital media that later affected my work in Pussykrew. We never took a 3D/CGI course though—we are both self-taught. I have this super curious nature that makes me want to try everything that I can reach out to. I like to evolve and constantly try out new stuff; most of the time I feel like I’m really limited by the existing material conditions.
mi$ gogo: When I was, like, six or seven I got my first computer which was Amiga 500 with a 1MB RAM extension. I was mainly playing Giana Sisters but had one program for animation. At that time I had problems understanding the principle of keyframes so I got discouraged. I grew up in a small village and there wasn’t really an infrastructure or anybody who could help in developing my interests. Also all the software was in English, which was another obstacle for somebody who was just starting primary school. At that time many of my friends, or their parents, were getting PCs. So if somebody got a more powerful machine we would hang out at their place playing Prince of Persia or eventually Duke Nukem. Since I was small I wanted escape from the valley I was living in. I was reading a lot of gaming magazines, watching movies, and listening to techno (through watching Demoscene productions) when I was pretty small. I think it was all a bizarre mixture at that time. I remember reading about Ghost in the Shell when I was ten and seeing it later in somebody’s house who had got a copy on VHS.
“...technology always had that feeling of liberation and a possible better future. A future somewhere else other than my hometown.”
All in all I wasn’t lucky with computers. I got my first PC when I was 12 but it broke down pretty quickly; I got my first laptop when I was 19. At high school I was mainly using other people’s computers or just using internet cafes. I edited my first videos on two VHS decks with an Amiga 500 connected to an analogue mixer. I remember once I edited video on my dad’s laptop but it didn’t have CD burner so I had to do a cam version of my edit and record it to VHS tape and send that to festivals. I got my first digital camera when I was close to 18 but nobody had a computer with firewire so it was only possible to digitize everything via USB and edit on friends’ computers.
I think shortly before I moved out from my parents’ house my younger brother got his first PC which helped a lot because it actually had a firewire card and I could install a cracked version of Adobe Premiere 6.5. Then me and my friend made our first music video, which is still somewhere online. Basically, technology always had that feeling of liberation and a possible better future. A future somewhere else other than my hometown, which was pretty grim for somebody who couldn’t really fit in. When I was going to high school there was a huge wave of skinheads flooding the city due to football team advancements in the league so it was easy to be harassed. The only window to the world was really the internet cafes.
CP: When and why did you first start experimenting with 3D?
Tikul: When we were at university we’d been shooting a lot of live action on video as we had access to some good equipment. At that time we did some work that combined 3D and live action for a small video installation. We’d also been experimenting with interactive 3D graphics and visual programming for live visual performances. We were both always fascinated by serious video art, framing skills, tight editing, and cinematic artistry—making each video still look epic, whether 3D or live action film.
We started our 3D adventure properly when we moved to Berlin. We produced CGI visuals at the Berlin Music Week in 2012 and then a video mapping installation at Platoon Kunsthalle. This switch was mostly caused by the boredom of using cameras and getting inspired by 3D tools. We felt quite limited doing DIY live action pieces. 3D gave us more possibilities in terms of constructing the scenes and the aesthetic, but we wanted to keep our passion for conceptual art and cinematic film work in the CGI environment. In a way, we wanted to combine these aspects. I think at that time more people started to play around with 3D; it simply became more accessible.
mi$ gogo: There were a couple factors—we got desktop computers which could render slowly but still faster than our laptops; we didn’t have easy access to resources like camera gear nor studios and we were always experimenting with graphics for live performances. To be honest, it was much easier for us to produce 3D content than anything else at that time so we dived into it.
CP: How did growing up in Poland influence your creative philosophy and aesthetics?
Tikul: I never really started to properly create in Poland. I was not really connected to any digital media scene and I don’t really think a serious new media scene existed there at that time, it was more dispersed through different creative communities. I existed more within several communities of friends that were making visual art and music and were super into art house cinema and independent film. When I was studying in Dublin there was a nice community of people, from several media departments, that dealt with digital media and other disciplines. I remember experiencing my first digital media exhibitions there. Right now the digital landscape in Poland is much more interesting and offers more possibilities. More people are exploring digital tools but the character of it is a bit different than the scene in the US for example.
I think growing up in Poland was okay, but it never gave me extensive creative perspectives at that time. We are both from small towns. We were raised in an environment that could not offer us a lot and was a bit harsh. We both felt limited in terms of creative possibilities. That’s why we probably both decided to travel to explore some other places and follow the creative path and build the possibilities that we were missing.
“We were raised with a DIY ethos. Sometimes people get more creative when they face limitations.”
I am glad I was born in Eastern Europe though. It has that specific edge, roughness, depth, and some kind of melancholy and omnipresent decadence that comes from a complex history. Amongst creative communities in Poland there has always been an intense emphasis on intellectual values, knowledge, individuality, serious critical contemporary art, art history, and philosophy, which I don’t follow completely but I consider it a very good base for creative work. It was a bit like the opposite of the very “western” type of vibe. We were raised with a DIY ethos. Sometimes people get more creative when they face limitations. I think all these experiences are visible in our works, even subconsciously.
Mi$ gogo: From what I remember there was a community growing mainly from academia: teachers who were coming from a video art background and students, like me, who wanted new tools and new possibilities. It was a small scene but everyone knew each other. I think “interactive” was a big word back then. There was a Macromedia Director, Adobe GoLive, early Flash, Max/MSP/Jitter, Pure Data. Who remembers interactive QuickTime movies or QuickTime VR photo stitching?
CP: You were recently in Shanghai and you’re now in Los Angeles. How has traveling specifically influenced your work?
Tikul: It just happened that we changed our living environment quite often. Most of the time it happens quite spontaneously and it’s related to our projects, work, or studies. Moving around also generates a lot of challenges but we’ve learned to face them. We gained a lot of skills through the years, on how to organize the move, get rid of our belongings, and how to travel with one suitcase. (It’s funny when I think about my first move to Dublin, with basically one backpack and no funds—it still kinda happens.)
We are constantly shifting and trying to live our “physical lives” without boundaries, keep it as fluid as possible with no bonds to any particular place. I never wanted to settle and always dreamed of being a nomad, to be able to change my surroundings often. A permanent, stable lifestyle routine always scared me. Having a working studio and equipment to work on is cool—this is probably the only thing I need. We’ve lived in many different places around Europe, and recently in Asia. I don’t think any particular physical space affects our work, as we are mostly living online.
Shanghai is visually amazing. Some of the areas with the hi-rise-crazy architecture, feels like the city of the future. It’s a huge, extremely busy metropolis. We love this aesthetic. LA seems totally opposite: slow, relaxed, like an eternal summer spa full of nostalgia over the 60s, a weird vintage vibe, soothing landscapes, and lots of gloom in between these glossy hills and dark skid rows. Despite its light summery vibe, LA seems quite dark. The contrasts that we see on a daily basis are shocking. It is also full of great possibilities and has amazing networks of interesting people, visual artists, filmmakers, technologists. Accessibility to creative options (and to the internet) is more open.
“...many things are simply not accessible for many talented artists out there...Making art can be a luxury.”
Mi$ gogo: I think at this point we live totally online and our physical presence just determines how well organized we are in terms of logistics and project production. Other than that, for many years our main place of inspiration is the internet. If it were up to us we would just do everything over the web. However, in some instances other people need our IRL presence.
CP: Do you ever feel limited by the technology you use to create your art?
Tikul: Yes, all the time. Every time we try to create something we try to raise the level and produce a more complex work than the previous one. And working within the technology field is very much related to the amount of money and resources you have and access to the latest devices. I’m not saying that only resources define creative work but sadly, in this field, it is an important factor that helps to achieve creative freedom. We are aware of the possibilities out there and usually we are upset because we do not have access to the latest gadgets, and better software and hardware possibilities that would greatly improve our work. It’s a constant struggle, trying to figure out the balance between the quality of the outcome and available resources. We both usually feel disappointed with our own creations, yet in this case being critical towards each other is quite motivating. It can be used to drive you to make better work.
Probably most of our peers are not aware that our projects are made in quite extreme conditions. They are brought to life only through our determination, sacrifices, and hard work. That would not be possible in any other time and space. Like I said before, sometimes limitations make you more creative and inventive. We really value the experience, learning curves, and DIY skills over anything else.
I actually feel like using technology and having access to all these great shiny new tools is a huge privilege. Some people take it for granted; they seem to not understand that many things are simply not accessible for many talented artists out there, who don't really have a lot of backup and are being swamped by harsh realities and cannot even afford the equipment or education. Working with technology costs money and requires a certain framework. Making art can be a luxury.
CP: Are there specific things from the sci-fi genre that have have informed your work?
Tikul: We both grew up in the 90s, films and music from that period had a great influence on our future work: the early days of cyberpunk, rave culture, techno, hardcore punk, internet exchange, brutalist and hi-tech architecture. Movies such as Blade Runner, Strange Days, Videodrome, Tetsuo, B-movies, and a big bunch of Japanese and French art house cinema. Also, experimental fashion, music videos, pop-culture, and technology. All these elements mixed together definitely shaped our sensitivity and are probably still subconsciously appearing in our work. This is also what connected us and made our collaboration stronger.
I think we are both really fascinated with the future and curious of it, especially the technological aspect. We also have this acceptance of wherever it will take us, which most people don’t have.
Mi$ gogo: I think sci-fi informed my life. There is nothing else I was drawn to that much, so I think it is quite natural that it is visible in our artwork. Starting with early, gory Cronenberg films, Robocop, and Terminator. Alien was one of the first sci-fi movies I ever saw—I was maybe five. I remember my parents were always hiding VHS tapes of movies I shouldn’t watch but the next day when they were at work I was always finding them and watching them alone. They were often dubbed in German or ripped from foreign channels via satellite dish. I was reading gaming magazines where there were pages dedicated to anime and cyberpunk. I remember during the first wave of VR, in the town where my grandparents lived, there was a place where you could put on a helmet and play Wolfenstein or Duke Nukem and it totally looked like it was from Lawnmower Man. I think I was quite scared because I really thought I would be sucked inside or that I would feel the pain because of the in-game injuries.
Also as a kid I was blown away by the ReBoot TV series, which was so futuristic in 1995. It’s just funny that all of these experiences form an image of the future from the past. Without the internet it would not have been possible for me to be exposed to all of this. Watching a progress bar of loading websites with 10kb/s and reading about Oval’s experiments with glitching CDs, insect music done by Autechre, or Pan Sonic building their own instruments. For me it was always part of the future world and I was just curious about what might be ahead of us.
CP: How do you think your work has evolved?
Tikul: I feel that although our reach, tools, and possibilities shift and change, our projects evolve and become more complex and richer. But our worldview, approach, and the concepts behind our work stay similar. I’m not sure if this is visible for everyone else who is watching our work. People sometimes get confused by the broad spectrum of it, but for me it is quite clear. I can see our practice as a bigger, interconnected network and a mesh of occurrences focused around similar themes. Themes like gender fluidity, synthetic-organic mutated bodily landscapes, destruction/deconstruction, post-apocalyptic doom, aestheticized sci-fi tech utopias, sensuality, sexuality, liquid substances, and concrete nature.
CP: Why do you think there is a rapidly growing intersection between new media art and feminism?
Tikul: Along with the democratization of technologies we see more communities embracing digital arts and another wave of cyberfeminism. The internet and digital tools can be seen as a utopian environment that gives you freedom from social constructs such as gender. Technology can be used as a vehicle for the dissolution of sex and gender as well as a means to link the body with machines.
Many women (including myself) see the internet as a liberating, vital space for sharing online resources, learning new media tools, and then using the technology to gain power in contemporary society. I believe empowerment for women can also be achieved through the knowledge of new-media technologies, at the same time creating more opportunities within that community.
It’s a bit disappointing that the space in media (as well as new media) is mostly occupied by western, white, upper and middleclass artists. Feminism cannot be defined by one perspective. There is certain lack of understanding of what issues other women have to face on a daily basis. Hopefully this dialogue can also include more discussion about the existing systems of discrimination and computing technologies, so that other marginalized groups can become part of it. By being more technologically proficient, we are able to engage with the existing institutions and challenge these systems.
I wish there were more role models from the tech-art scene in the mainstream media. There should be more open and accessible inter-media spaces that would encourage ladies from any community to explore technology and its creative possibilities.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he'll be selecting a Web Artist of the Week.
Now an accomplished pre-teen, VOLTA returns this week for its twelfth year in the Basel art fair line up. From June 13–18, under the domed roof of the city's Markthalle, the fair for "new international positions" bringstogether nearly 70 galleries stemming from 21 countries.
We're always grateful when we can consume art with context—especially at an art fair. Thus, in partnership with VOLTA and GalleryLOG, we're pleased to share this advance look at the processes and inspirations of five emerging artists. Consider these mini-interviews—packed into two-minute videos—a crash course into some of the great new work to look out for at VOLTA12 this week.
Born in Tel Aviv and based in New York, journalist and visual artist Avital Burg (presented by Slag Gallery, Brooklyn) re-contextualizes art historic tropes of portraying charged interior spaces with experimental techniques and sociopolitical undertones.
Subject of Escape Route, a solo exhibition at Bronx Museum of the Arts, Jeffrey Spencer Hargrave (presented by Ethan Cohen New York, New York) filters art history through Black history and queer identity, manifesting a refreshing directness and witty honesty throughout.
Fanny Allié (presented by Fresh Window, Brooklyn) engages outlines of the human form—from collage to emotive neon installations—to question our relationship to our bodies and social movements, as well as the intrinsic memories contained within and in our absence.
Kevin Bourgeois (presented by Causey Contemporary, New York) assembles At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a site-specific and interaction installation that furthers his investigation and critique of unseen policing and social fragmentation within "The Cloud" of anonymous, ephemeral contemporary culture.
Lado Pochkhua (presented by Project ArtBeat, Tbilisi) takes on post-Soviet identity in his draftsman-quality renderings of Georgian aristocracy, a decidedly "old-school" approach that highlights both technique and time period.
In a culinary world populated by stars, Ferran Adrià is the uncontested sun, the center of the universe. The Catalan chef who started off as a dishwasher at Barcelona’s Hotel Playafels, joined the El Bulli kitchen staff at 22 and only eighteen months later became head chef. From 1994 onwards, the year the restaurant received a substantial investment, El Bulli’s reputation as a place for experimentation grew. It held three Michelin stars and ranked first in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for a record five years.
The list of firsts accomplished by Adrià is extensive and varied—both in the kitchen and out. Among them, he is the only chef to have ever been invited by the art institution Documenta to be part of the show. The run of the 2007 edition saw an El Bulli outpost in Kassel—serving two guests per night—in a project that touched on the subjects of site-specificity and “the artistic disciplines which can not be inside a museum.”
Despite recognition on one of the art world’s biggest stages, Adrià doesn’t consider himself an artist—though his creative processes, production techniques, and even the language surrounding his work share some affinities. His brand of cooking is often labeled “molecular gastronomy,” although Adrià himself prefers “deconstructivist gastronomy.” He dissects foodstuffs and processes them to change their texture, taste, or both, then combines them in innovative and unexpected ways. He is famous for using scientific and technologically advanced methods, such as freeze-drying ingredients or using dyes. For El Bulli he created no less than 1,846 unique recipes—often explosive and extreme in taste. Rather than an eating experience, dining at El Bulli was a forty-course adventure at the frontiers of culinary sensation. One of his signature dishes, the “Spherical Olive,” or liquid olive, transports you through worlds both flavor and texture—oil, salt, sour, solids, liquids—within a flash of a second.
On July 30, 2011, El Bulli closed its doors. Adrià subsequently rented a former parking garage in a residential area of Barcelona and started elBullifoundation, commonly referred to as “the lab.” Here, the chef works with a large team of young historians, economists, botanists, artists, and other specialists on persevering his legacy. Using a signature method they call Sapiens, the team is mapping and analyzing all elements of gastronomic creativity—ingredients, tools, processes, and techniques—in order to uncover and unlock unused potential. It’s a rational approach to an intuitive phenomenon, which may also be used to understand other seemingly elusive creative practices.
Once in a while Adrià presents his findings in the form of exhibitions. Notes on Creativity (through July 7 at Marres, Maastricht) is one such an attempt to visualize gastronomic innovation through artistic means. On the ground floor, drawings represent the phase of conception—Adrià famously creates his dishes by drawing them. The first floor displays tools such as specifically designed cutlery and china, illustrating the production process. The dining experience, including restaurant architecture and the organization of staff, forms the end station.
For the first time, a month before opening Notes on Creativity, Adrià invited a group of international journalists to talk about his current undertakings.
All images: Installation views of Notes on Creativity at Marres, Maatricht, 2016. All images courtesy of Ferran Adrià and Marres, Maastricht. Photos: Gert Jan van Rooij
Edo Dijksterhuis: Why did El Bulli close and what made you decide to switch from being a restaurant chef to running a laboratory?
Ferran Adrià: El Bulli never really was a restaurant, not in the traditional sense anyway. It was closed six months a year and during the other six months we were only open at night. To have 75 staff members attending to 50 guests is not very conventional either.
But I guess that after almost 30 years we were getting bored. We were solidly booked years in advance and there was little room for further improvement. The period from 2003 to 2009 marked a peak for the restaurant in terms of appreciation and success, but creatively it wasn’t that interesting. And I got the impression people were getting a bit tired of El Bulli. It’s like Lionel Messi being awarded his fifth golden football—hardly any newspaper will pay attention, it’s become business as usual. We needed a new challenge, to go back to the situation of the early nineties when we didn’t know where we were going.
ED: How did you come up with the idea of a lab?
FA: When we decided to close El Bulli my brother Alberto wanted to start something new. Tickets in Barcelona is the result—a new type of gastrobar, offering an informal type of cuisine. I’ve participated in it but I didn’t want to be caught up in a kind of “new El Bulli.” I wanted to be free and spend some time reflecting on what we’d accomplished so far.
The entire restaurant concept is maybe two hundred years old. El Bulli has been around some 50 years, half of which with me as chef. A lot has been written about El Bulli—38 books, more than 14,000 pages—but maybe only ten people in the world truly know what it’s about. I wanted to analyze and document how the restaurant worked.
ED: What happens in the laboratory? It doesn’t look like a laboratory in the traditional sense, with test tubes and Bunsen burners.
FA: We don’t even have a kitchen here! Nobody eats; we only study, order, and analyze the creative process. I aim to decode the language of gastronomy, all aspects of it: the organization of the restaurant, the crockery used, the architecture, the personality of the staff. While running El Bulli I didn’t have time to think it through. We were working twelve-hour shifts, like efficient machines doing twenty things simultaneously.
ED: What is it you hope to uncover by sifting through thirty years of restaurant history?
FA: Ultimately I want to develop an international gastronomic language, a kind of physiology of taste. By using our self-devised Sapiens method we decode products, foodstuffs, cooking methods, techniques, and kitchen hardware. By identifying and classifying the basic building blocks we can uncover the vast culinary realm no one has ventured into yet. Up till now gastronomy has only realized a fraction of its potential. We intend to publish an extensive study, the Bullipedia, pointing out the possibilities.
ED: How do you present the laboratory’s findings?
FA: In the first year of operating the elBullifoundation we did an exhibition in Barcelona—the first in restaurant history. It drew some 700,000 visitors. The audience was enthusiastic but I learned that you can’t really exhibit the experiment that was El Bulli. Later, we made a much more accomplished exhibition at the Drawing Center in New York, which showed how dishes were created. In the past four years, our exhibitions—twelve up till now, the one at Marres being the latest—have been about the creative process. They include sketches for new dishes, designs for innovative cutlery, co-productions with architects like Norman Foster and Jean Novel.
ED: Are there plans for a more permanent exhibition of the elBullifoundation’s findings?
FA: Yes, there are. We’re now developing a location in Roses, on the coast, and will probably open to the public in 2017. The laboratory serves as a pilot project. At the heart of the museum will be the 1,846 dishes I’ve created for El Bulli. It’s kind of an autobiographical presentation. I’ve also donated my personal archive—some 15,000 documents—so in one hundred years people can still understand what went on at El Bulli.
ED: You were the first—and only—chef to have ever been invited to participate in Documenta. You’ve had several museum shows and are now planning your own museum. Would you say you’re a kind of artist?
FA: I don’t care for that label. But I do appreciate the way the art world has taught me how to look at things. Thanks to Documenta I could reflect on the concept of creativity for a year and a half. And the conversations with artists have changed my life.
I do think, however, that the contemporary art world is lacking someone as radical as Andy Warhol who can bridge the gap between the inner circle and the larger audience. We need a Steve Jobs of the art world. There is so much talent out there that goes unnoticed.
ED: Using the football analogy one could say you’ve been the star player in a world-class team for years and now you’re the coach. Would it be possible for you to step onto the pitch again?
FA: At forty, Cruijff and Messi can’t play anymore. I could be back in the game at fifty or sixty, if I wanted to. But I don’t feel the need to play anymore. My job now is to coach, to pass on my knowledge. And it’s quite a challenge, maybe the biggest in my career, to make explicit my ideas about creativity. And it’s exciting to see if the Sapiens method actually works, and that it’s not just some mad man’s theory.
This season, in partnership with ARTS.BLACK, ArtSlant is publishing a series of essays on security, guards, labor, and privilege in museum spaces. Find the first installment and an introduction to the series here.
I’d be lying if I said that I’ve always held a deep respect for museum guards. That I’ve reflected deeply on those who stand and sit for hours on end, thanklessly serving as the human buffers between the world’s greatest treasures and greasy fingers or forbidden selfies. The truth of the matter is, most of my interactions with guards throughout my life of visiting museums have been at best aloof, and at worst contentious.
This is perhaps the residue of growing up brown, adapting a strained relationship with those in uniform and being bitter at staff who constantly shadowed me at department stores as a kid. I sneered at guards who scolded me for taking photos, without any thought into the jungle of licensing policies that led to such rules. I rolled my eyes while getting my bags checked, without considering the fact that the person poking a stick through my belongings probably found no joy in doing so. I was a museum visitor, and guards were the debbie-downers getting in the way of my Instagram post. I was just as likely to think deeply about museum guards as I was about TSA agents or bouncers at the club.
These days, I work in museums and interact with guards on a regular basis, so my understanding has become more nuanced—but it’s certainly a nuance. I now watch visitors roll their own eyes at bag checks. They haven’t read the humanizing columns in The Times and Vice. They are unaware of Fred Wilson’s Guarded View, the portraiture series by Andy Freeberg and Alec Soth or the numerous other idiosyncratic exposés on museum guards that you become privy to when you’re a part of the art and museum bubble.
...I scouted for the perfect artwork to photograph—and the perfect guard to stop me.
But it wasn’t long ago that I harbored similar resentments for guards, going as far as to embark on an amateur and immature project for the “liberation of the museum experience,” whatever that meant.
I spent 2012 and 2013 traveling, often going to museums as my introduction to new cities and countries. At the time, “curator” was not a part of my job description or even my personal vocabulary, yet I saw museums as intimate crash courses into the histories and cultures of my new surroundings. After a few run-ins with guards, I began developing a photo series I called No Photos Please, comprising shots of guards in the middle of stopping me from taking shots (I warned you it was amateur). It became a sort of global scavenger hunt, and I found myself in museums throughout the world with my heart racing as I scouted for the perfect artwork to photograph—and the perfect guard to stop me.
Guard with Conspiracy Wall > ANARTIST by Fahrettin Örenli at Istanbul Modern, Istanbul, Turkey, 2014
No Photos Please was a cat-and-mouse game that only I was aware I was playing, but soon I began noticing the cultural differences between guards in different museums in different countries. Guards in Austria shot up quick, lens-blocking fingers. Guards in Japan slid beside me to whisper dismay in my ear. American guards shouted for the entire gallery to hear. In the National Museum of China (where friends warned me that I risked eternal detainment if I dared to shoot in the camera-forbidden room of Mao paintings) guards actually moved out of the way when they noticed they were standing in my shot. In the Philippines, all guards carried AK-47s. I did not attempt No Photos Please there. As my series grew, it became apparent to me how unique each guard was—that despite the uniforms, policies, and general silence that surrounded their roles, their personalities were embedded in their interactions with myself and other visitors.
It didn’t take long for me to realize how wack my whole project was—how it simultaneously exploited and trivialized people who were just doing their jobs. I stopped the series shortly after I began working at the Smithsonian, when I learned of recent strikes led by staff at the nearby National Gallery of Art and began following conversations such as #MuseumWorkersSpeak. Yet, I continue to be compelled by the fact that museum guards are cultural ambassadors hidden in plain sight. While curators and directors are imported from far and wide, guards are often locals. For visitors like myself, who love museums for being cultural portals, a mindful interaction with a guard can go further than an encounter with an art piece.
Museum guards are cultural ambassadors hidden in plain sight.
As museums reflect on their own evolutions, a deeper respect for the roles that guards play is vital for their becoming the forums for cultural growth and human interaction that are greatly needed. I am reminded of a time when I would come to a museum to sharpen my race theory in front of a Kara Walker installation, while not giving a thought about the staff hierarchies that resulted in the brown and black people stopping me from photographing it. I witnessed the art without processing it. As a curator, I think back on moments like that as a missed opportunity for both the museum and the visitor. Recently, the Broad Museum in Los Angeles has been applauded for its rethinking of museum guards as “visitor services associates”—some who have art history degrees and are ready to make restaurant recommendations. Although this is a novel step, it doesn’t solve the larger issue of the strained dynamic between visitors and blue-collar museum staff, or those tense moments when a guard has to remind you for the third time to wear your backpack on your front.
Museums are important because they locate value in our surroundings. We curate, contextualize and present what might otherwise be overlooked, discarded, or marginalized. This is manifested when it comes to art, artifacts, and stories—it’s our duty to reflect this internally as well. In museum board rooms and curating sessions we talk so much about how museum professionals need to dialogue with the public more, understand wayfinding and user experience, learn to interpret pieces to the public with less jargon and more personalized perspectives. These are considered the holy grail of museum innovation. They are also skillsets that guards have embodied since the birth of museums.
The members of the museum community who are most taken for granted—guards, volunteer docents, maintenance workers—are sometimes the only personnel that someone encounters during a visit. They aren’t merely mouthpieces for policies and content, they are literally the personalities of the museum.
Adriel Luis is a musician, curator, web+graphic designer, writer, visual artist, & educator.
(Image at top: Guard with Old Man on Death Bed by Gustav Klimt at The Belvedere, Vienna, Austria, 2012. All images: Adriel Luis, No Photos Please. Courtesy of the author)
Don’t misunderstand me: People are stupid in the ways that I am stupid. We are stupid in common: over-worked, over-tired, over-extended—distracted by 21st century life's whizzing communications, the decentralized self, and efforts to keep the barricades from being completely overrun by life’s ghoulish troubles. This being so, we possess precious little attention left to really know what someone's talking about who is actually sitting across the table from us or who just emailed us that text I/they want you/me to read or visit that exhibition we/they labored over. I bet even as you read this you've got a couple of texts messages and/or emails that are burning in your mental inbox. Maybe it's word back from the grant proposal you wrote five months ago, maybe it's someone you thought would never write you back (but maybe they did!).
We are stupid because we are lonely and estranged.
We are stupid because we are lonely and estranged. It's nothing personal, dear friend seated across from me. But of course that's just the problem: it is personal—intensely so. It’s personal and human. There is just no way I could ever really tell you how fucked my interior world is right now. Or: I could, but the terror of real-time rejection—the "no one cares about your problems" tough love reply—sends us scurrying back into our technological hole in the ground.
So we are stupid and it may very well be the case that we are stupid because our gizmos are hooking into our loneliness, self-doubt, and exploiting our rampant fears of rejection. Oh to be so Holy that we felt God or the spirits swirling in and around us so much that we did not crave that type of connection. But this spiritual longing otherwise subtle in previous generations may have taken its crude form today in flat screens, digital circuits, and the like. Still, I don't want to lodge yet another harangue against the internet and technology... How can I while typing this out on one of those gizmos, when I am myself a shameless scroller and poster to the much hated Facebook?
Instead, I'd like to ask what our shared stupor might mean for notions of taste. Given the choice between digital delirium and the chance to be a kind of Hume-ian/Kantian person of taste...I am pretty sure I'd elect for the former. Most of us have, because those Enlightenment era philosophers are, well, pretty embarrassing in many respects. Even if you grant Immanuel Kant's project its desire to create an aesthetic commons some modicum of cultural edification, it’s difficult to get past some of his notions of universality, beauty, disinterestedness, and pleasure. Pierre Bourdieu, while obviously useful for identifying some of the key problems of class structure in the field of cultural production, kind of leaves us a little cold and alienated. I mean, we do share interests after all. Cultural life turns out to be more than can be explained by a sociologist’s charts and graphs. I find that Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love is pretty instructive in breaking down the theoretical and aesthetic implications of taste. Wilson makes some penetrating insights into the phenomena of “cool,” which he describes as striking a fine balance between economic capital (money), social capital (connections), and cultural capital (knowledge). Still, even in Wilson's thinking, taste tends to be in conversation with something like power relations that are grounded in aesthetics.
Taste marks our individuality.
Giorgio Agamben’s thoughts on the subject of taste open new paths for thinking about what taste could mean without “taste-making”—how it could be a zone for thinking about what makes us human. After describing a series of entries in a newspaper's personal ads, where people seek other people through brief descriptions about their hobbies and tastes, Agamben writes:
In the attempt to deﬁne oneself through one’s hobbies, there comes to light in all its problematicity the relation between singularity, its tastes, and its inclinations. The most idiosyncratic aspect of everyone, their tastes, the fact that they like coffee granita, the sea at summertime, this certain shape of lips, this certain smell, but also the paintings of the late Titian so much—all this seems to safeguard its secret in the most impenetrable and insigniﬁcant way. It is necessary to decisively subtract tastes from the aesthetic dimension and rediscover their ontological character, in order to ﬁnd in them something like a new ethical territory. It is not a matter of attributes or properties of a subject who judges but of the mode in which each person, in losing himself as subject, constitutes-himself as form-of-life. The secret of taste is what form-of-life must solve, has always already solved and displayed—just as gestures betray and, at the same time, absolve character. (Agamben, "Toward an Ontology of Style," The Use of Bodies, 231)
As I understand it, Agamben is saying that taste marks our individuality. In a sense, like our quirky habits, what we are attracted to reveals something about who we are as human beings. Obvious enough, you say, but to think about taste as a way of accounting for humanity instead of locking us into a cultural hierarchy runs counter to notions of taste-making and returns taste back to its almost animal nature. We might even think of his formulation of taste as a practice of popular distinction. By popular distinction I only mean the ability to recognize particularity without resorting to social climbing of ladders. Rather than taste being about judgment, Agamben’s embodied formulation of taste could lead to the discovery of particularity and that type of discovery might prompt something like a connection that could withstand the onslaught of distraction I ruminated on earlier.
Let’s talk about a particularity then. Let's talk about taste. Let's talk about something real. Let's talk about art.
A photo posted by New Capital (@newcapitalprojects) on Nov 15, 2015 at 10:06pm PST
Let's talk about an alternative space in Chicago. Lets talk about the art of Rebecca Beachy and her project Inherencies at New Capital last fall. It was a show that actually left a bad taste in my mouth. Which might sound like a criticism but it's not.
Let me explain.
On first viewing I didn't “like” the exhibition—or to be honest, it bummed me out. The artist had an assortment of animal bones in various material states—boiled and semi-raw, configured like so many decrepit minimalist sculptures. Think Donald Judd in the bone-yard. The show also had an artist-built subterranean level which you could enter through a hole that had been cut in the floor. Underground there were standing pools of water, dimly lit alters with animal bones... the whole show had a sephlucar vibe; invoking: death, rot, and the bodily. Mourning.
A photo posted by New Capital (@newcapitalprojects) on Nov 15, 2015 at 10:08pm PST
It was not an easy show. But more than most, it was art that I had to contend with and ask myself: why did this trouble me so? And what did it mean that it left such a bad taste in my mouth? These were questions that nagged at me for a while and I wondered...how would I have reacted to this exhibition if it had not been installed in a marginal old warehouse building, but in a shiny museum space like the MCA Chicago... My sense was that taste and convention were skewing my reading of the work...and that my answer to my speculative "what if" was: Rebecca Beachy's exhibition was one of the most absorbing shows in Chicago last year and deeply resonant with the work of famed Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, whose work was also exhibited at the MCA last year and is likewise rooted in the bodily and funerary while dealing with political atrocities of Colombia. Salcedo's work is hard not to take seriously simply because of the authorship of the artist and the institutions that host it.
Doris Salcedo, A Flor de Piel, 2014, Rose petals and thread, 445 × 252 in., Installation view at Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and MCA Chicago. Photo: Kazuhiro Uchida
Context effects taste.
Seeing this condition from another angle, I am also reminded of On Kawara’s tour de force retrospective, Silence, at the Guggenheim in New York in early 2015. The exhibition was a revelation and allowed me to connect with the artist in a whole other way that I think very much has to do with the type of taste Agamben is describing. Until the Guggenheim exhibition I only really understood On Kawara’s work in relationship to the conceptual art canon, i.e. he was an “important” artist as portrayed in countless books, magazines, and internet articles. What I encountered in the Guggenheim was a life. This “form-of-life” (to borrow Agamben’s phrase) struck me on a visceral level. Kawara’s work is a far cry from the chilly conceptualist that I had been given to understand. Accounting for everyday, the I Am Still Alive telegrams, the hand-painted Date Paintings, and numerous other works, registered something more than the personal. In aggregate they reflected back a life. A life, moreover, that (at least for this viewer) could only begin to come into focus in this particular exhibition. Taste then might be rethought of as a phenomena that resolutely places us in the world—not as universal subjects who adjudicate culture but as particular individuals who literally have a taste for it.
Okay, so maybe a slight harangue about technology after all... Our slick gadgets and the hyper-capitalism that peddles them ad nauseam are sucking the life out of life. “Disinterested,” they are helping render embodied taste obsolete. The scary thing is—worse than death, rot, and bad taste—should we loose our sense of taste we very may well lose any real connection to each other...and while technology may offer us a kind of freaky-deaky disembodied cyborg immortality that might allow us a break from being stuck in our bodies and to float free through the global corporatized ether, we might inadvertently trade away bodily tastes altogether, both good and bad, for a life without life.
“Made hickory smoked salmon with rose and squid ink rice tonight... :)”
This is an email sign off I received from my fellow editor, Joel Kuennen, the other day. Touching base about what we’ve been making and eating is not uncommon for us; before taking on the challenges of running an art website, in fact, Joel was a sous chef. Amidst meetings about editorial strategy and publication schedules, we swap recipes for preserved lemons, and I implore him to send me transatlantic care packages of that lavender hot sauce he’s been fermenting (thanks, Joel—it’s about time for another batch!).
That we are publishing a special edition on food—on taste—feels natural and overdue.
The bonds between food and the arts are far too many to cover in this space. Just last week Laure Prouvost shared a fantastical meditation in The Guardian on her ideal “Last Supper,” imagining an epic meal involving pineapple hats, chasing pigs, and foraging for berries with her grandparents. It’s easy to envisage the scene realized in a forthcoming video installation from the Turner Prize-winner. The same day, a continent away, Bay Area chefs started serving up signature pork belly dishes in a month-long tribute to the “meat-shaped stone,” a priceless Qing Dynasty sculpture that, as advertised, is a piece of jasper carved to look like a hunk of pork belly. On loan from Taipei, the 19th century royal treasure is currently on view at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. For centuries, artists have looked to the kitchen for nourishment and inspiration—these days, chefs are looking back.
In preparation for The Taste Issue, I did some art-inspired cooking myself, getting my hands on the new cookbook from the studio of Olafur Eliasson. More than a collection of recipes, the book is a testament to the intimate relationships between nourishment, community, ecology, labor, and creativity. In the introduction, iconic Berkeley chef Alice Waters describes the studio as an “organism.” It is a social being, nourished literally and creatively by the communal rituals of dining.
Studio Olafur Eliasson has some 90 members, including dedicated kitchen staff, who prepare meals for dozens of people daily. Reading the cookbook, I couldn’t help but think it represented a different reality entirely from the working and dining conditions of 99 percent of artists. Last November I profiledStudio Cooking, a residency in which Los Angeles artists Arden Surdam and Meghan Gordon programmed a series of “meal events” to interrogate what artists eat while they’re working. Their inspiration? A vision of the artist cooking in her studio with little more than a rice cooker and a hot plate. When I caught up with the artists recently, Gordon reflected on the project: “By choosing to work with food, Studio Cooking was looking for a universal expression of artist labor—what work do we do as artists that cumulatively adds up to the art we make in its final form?”
She went on, “Everyone has to eat to continue making work, but some cook, some buy fast food, some share this task communally, some can pay others to prepare elaborate meals… these are very personal and political actions, which can provide a possible context for an artist’s work.” From Studio Olafur Eliasson to Studio Cooking, we find this organism, at once creating and consuming, its tentacles reaching out and touching on our bodies, our work, our politics, our environment. “When we cook, we both use the world and produce it at the same time,” writes Eliasson.
In The Taste Issue, writers dig in, ruminating on the big picture, and also the microscopic one. Nadja Sayej profiles a Berlin Biennale project where visitors are literally ingesting artwork. Artist Debora Delmar Corp.’s juice bar, MINT, speaks not only to the influences of celebrities and lifestyle branding on taste, but also to the global economic contexts embodied in the trendy products we consume.
Given these examples, you’d think taste is all relational aesthetics and social practice. But for some, like the founder of Soylent—a food product designed to be a nutritionally complete meal in beverage form—eating and cooking are perfunctory tasks. Joel Kuennen chats with artist Sean Raspet, who was brought on as a “taste creator” for the company. Raspet zooms way in, transforming food, and flavors, on a molecular level, before widening back out to consider the product’s implications from commercial and environmental perspectives.
Artists and chefs sit across a narrow table: As Debora Delmar Corp. and Sean Raspet make food as art, some chefs make art with food. Ferran Adrià is the only chef to have participated in Documenta, and he currently has an exhibition about his work and legacy. Edo Dijksterhuis gets some face time with the legendary Catalan chef, who reaches across culinary boundaries, describing his interdisciplinary project to map the elements of gastronomic creativity.
Of course taste is not just about what we eat, but what we see, feel, judge, experience. To round out the issue, Zachary Cahill chews on contemporary manifestations of taste, wondering whether our idiosyncrasies and aesthetic preferences reflect not only our social hierarchies, but our humanity, our very physical, embodied being. Can taste connect rather than isolate us?
As I was preparing “Tomato Soup with Cumin and Figs” from the Eliasson studio cookbook, some 3,400 miles away Joel was working on the gif for this issue. We chatted via Skype and I watched as he suspended a camera above his stovetop. Affixed to the makeshift rigging, illuminating the frying pan, was a small yellow light: a Little Sun solar lamp, made by Studio Olafur Eliasson. We laughed, hysterically, as he smashed eggs on the skillet, his failed experiments becoming breakfast. The sun, and our tastes, bringing us together.
Montreal-based video artist Sabrina Ratté makes stunning electronic environments that recall (or predict) an era where society has perfected a clinical, aesthetic beauty at the cost of fleshy emotion. That is not to say her work doesn’t inspire feelings. It affects you on a primal level because these places feel like they exist deep within our collective, aspirational unconsciousness. There is a calm spirituality and reassuring familiarity here that, ironically, often only serves to exaggerate the magical, alien unease.
I spoke to Ratté about her work, influences, and her use of electricity as an artistic medium.
Christian Petersen: What is the influence of science fiction on your work?
Sabrina Ratté: Science fiction has always been an important inspiration for my work. What first attracted me to this genre, in movies and literature, is the depiction of dystopian and utopian views of society, be it through radical social organizations, monumental architectures, and all forms of technologies. I am also interested by the idea of an ungraspable reality, where everything could be conspirations or hallucinations. As time goes by, I find myself being more and more obsessed by architecture, which is, in my view, another manifestation of science fiction. I recently visited some “villes nouvelles” (new towns) in France, which are the main inspiration for a new project. Les Espaces d’Abraxas in Noisy-le-Grand. L’Axe-Majeur in Cergy-Pontoise, and La Cité Radieuse by Le Corbusier in Marseille had a very powerful effect on me. It was physically and psychologically overwhelming. These architectures demonstrate to what extent an architect’s vision can have an impact on the life of so many, and how utopia can become dystopia when confronted with reality.
CP: Your bio says that "Electricity, as raw material” makes your work. Do you feel that that is the defining medium in the creation of your work?
SR: I like to think of video as a malleable medium with an ever-changing identity. Essentially, it is electricity that can be infinitely transformed. In that sense, my process consists of sculpting and altering electronic signals, in order to create specific textures, colors, and volumes. All the images I use are generated by a video synthesizer and other analogue equipment. This technique allows me to interact spontaneously and intuitively with the medium, so creation is an ongoing dialogue with my machines. Once images have finally emerged, they are then manipulated digitally in order to create more complex compositions.
Sky Lobby I & II, 2015, Diptych for The Wrong, Digital Biennial
CP: Can you talk a little about the balance between analogue and digital in your work?
SR: To mix analogue and digital techniques is a way for me to push further the possibilities of older tools and avoid falling into their nostalgic feel, while adding unique textures and vibrating luminosity to the digital aesthetic. I recently started integrating 3D animation in my work, which allows me to create more complex architectures and open many more possibilities in general. Learning a new technique is always a long process, and I am now experimenting with different approaches to incorporate analogue material into 3D environments.
CP: What interests you about creating virtual environments?
SR: Video is a way for me to translate the physical reality into a context where I have creative input; by sculpting the electronic signal into architectures, I create a parallel reality that recalls the existing one while expressing a personal perspective through formal choices. “Reality” is ambiguous: the physical world is intertwined with virtuality, be it cinema, internet, or simply subjectivity. To state that one reality is more “real” than another is a complicated matter. I investigate this fine line between the real and the illusory, and hierarchy between them.
SR:Le Révélateur is an audio-visual project with my long time collaborator Roger Tellier Craig, rooted in the tradition that combines electronic music and video. Roger’s vision drives the project, but we share common inspirations; through our respective medium, we both examine the complex relationship existing between individuals and various states of synthetic realities. We share a fascination for the dystopic poetry that can be found in capitalism and corporatism, its alienating effect and our tendency to resort to variable forms of escapism. Our latest album, Hyper, suggests a computer’s internal system, or the extent of the internet itself, where digital architectures and analogue signals are mixed together to create a space where utopia and dystopia become the same thing: a sublime nightmare. Our creative process is a constant dialogue between our video and audio, and we aim at creating an immersive experience where music and images are inseparable.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he'll be selecting a Web Artist of the Week.
(Image at top: Visites Possibles, 2014, Video still. All images: Courtesy of Sabrina Ratté)