Thoka Maer (Lisette Berndt) makes tiny, exquisite stories in GIF form. The medium doesn’t always lend itself to evoking complex emotions, but Maer’s work does just that: she infuses genuine, relatable feelings within a few simple looping frames. With vignettes chronicling everyday life and observed human behaviors, the work is sometimes happy, sometimes sad—often both at once. In 2011, Maer started the popular Tumblr page “It’s No Biggie,” where she dryly illustrates small, daily frustrations familiar to us all.
Last week Maer exhibited in the group show Flatland: A journey of many dimensions with Mana Contemporary, where she was a resident in the BSMT New Media Program in 2016. The exhibition set up shop in five Downtown Miami storefronts featuring works by artists who “imagine new perspectives of ‘reality.’” Maer’s contribution brought her GIF work into three dimensions. She spoke with me on the occasion about blurring the lines between her careers as artist and illustrator and pushing her GIFs into new, offline territories.
Christian Petersen: How would you describe yourself?
Thoka Maer: Female. 166cm tall. Good with pencils. Problem solver. Ideas. Precision and detail. Could be a little more social. I love nice people.
CP: What were you like as a child?
TM: My mom says that I was as annoying as I was the best child to have :) My grandmother says that I always kept myself busy with things and that she could leave me play by myself for hours. My dad would probably say that I was quite ok. I hope I was a good friend. I was an only child that wished for siblings every day. I loved to draw and sing, roaming the forests. I was quiet and extremely shy. I still am, but a grown up, better adapted version of that. I don’t think that anyone expected even something remotely close to what I do and am now. I was supposed to become a florist when I was 16. But I rebelled, finally.
CP: When did you first recognize yourself as a creative person?
TM: Very late. I think that lack of value for creativity in the place I grew up in made it hard to understand and see myself as such and also actually live it out.
CP: What did computers mean to you when you were growing up?
TM: Nothing pretty much. They were all locked away. Inaccessible. I was conditioned to think that computers aren’t for girls. I had my first own computer when I was 21. Every new venture I’ve taken on it since has felt very threatening every time, until I actually started doing it, realizing that I love it and am pretty good at it, too.
CP: When did you first recognize computers’ creative applications?
TM: I do animation/projection work mostly. So none of my work requires coding but animation software, Photoshop, etc. I started using that just when I applied for art school. We had to explore a lot of things that I would have never attempted to use on my own, like Processing and After Effects.
CP: Do you think your upbringing in communist Germany has influenced the art that you make?
TM: Probably, but I couldn’t say how exactly. What it has definitely shaped is my perception and the meaning of art and an ability of finding my place in it. Art in the East German world only had a practical purpose that also always had to conform with the political view points. An artistic, individualistic kid didn’t really have a place there. They didn’t want anyone to excel, be better than anyone else.
Everyone was supposed to be the same.
CP: What were you early memorable experiences of the internet?
TM: Chatrooms. I wanted to talk to people from as far as possible.
CP: What is the continuing influence of the internet on your creativity?
TM: It stresses it out.
CP: Do you remember the first animation you made?
TM: Yes. It was a pink rabbit hopping along the train tracks inside of an abandoned subway station in Berlin.
CP: Can you talk a little about your use of white space?
TM: The white space developed a lot through a desire of having my illustrations or GIFs look more organically on the internet. Most websites have a white background. Without breaking in the borders of the image file, they look more like a natural part of the environment they’re living in.
CP: You made a book called Almost Exactly - A Paradox Compendium. Where does your interest in paradoxes stem from?
TM: Paradoxes to me are infinite stories that never stop telling themselves. They have this universal beauty that’s so captivating and inescapable.
Panel from Almost Exactly - A Paradox Compendium.
CP: You started your Tumblr in 2011. When did you first realize it was becoming popular?
TM: Classmates of mine in Uni started using Tumblr and I was only mildly interested in the beginning until I realized that it’s actually a great tool to liberate yourself from all that artistic self doubt. I just started putting out my work on Tumblr to set an end point to their creation and move on to the next thing. My main Tumblr is still thokamaer.tumblr.com which I have since 2009 I think. “It’s No Biggie” was the one that eventually got popular.
When I moved to New York I also started working on an incredible commission that came through the Creatr program at Tumblr. It was a collaboration with a fellow Creatr Sam Cannon, a photographer who shot the United States of Women Conference at the White House including the Obamas, Joe Biden, Oprah Winfrey, Patricia Arquette and so many more. I was working from NY, laying animations over the photos and all of that happened live during the event. The group show Flatland, which was curated by Grace Franck and hosted by Mana Contemporary during Miami Art Week, means I am again with my group of fellow Tumblr GIF artists.
United States of Women Summit, Collaboration with Sam Cannon
CP: Why did you choose the name “It’s No Biggie”?
TM: It has a tiny undertone of irony or sarcasm in it. It started out as this blog with miniature stories about daily mishaps. The loop of the GIF made telling those stories so much more pleasing since it lets the story escalate in a way. And “It’s No Biggie” because it’s just tiny stuff that shouldn’t bother us but, if we’re not in the right mood, can also be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Plus they’re tiny.
CP: When and why did you adopt the artist name Thoka Maer?
TM: I think around 2009/10 probably. And that was also for liberation. I realized that my artistic self has different intentions than what’s required from me when I work as a commercial illustrator. Thoka Maer is easier on compromising with clients’ needs where as Lisette is really just my very own self, who as an artist has very different, personal intentions. She just works for herself and doesn’t need publicity or anything.
Illustration for artist panel at Mana Contemporary
CP: When did you first understand that there were commercial applications for your art?
TM: It actually happened the other way around I would say. First there were the GIFs which I made for fun. Those turned into commercial work and from there I went to art.
An interesting experience on that road was a panel that Traceloops, Zolloc, Julian Glander, Sam Cannon, and I did as a part of our [BSMT New Media Program] residency at Mana Contemporary. Mana invited us as a group of GIF artists with different backgrounds to develop a spatial art show, taking the GIF into the three-dimensional work. The panel was to introduce us to the traditional art world. All of us more or less perceived ourselves as artists in a way, even though we apply it for commercial work. Some people in the audience though didn’t really accept that approach as a valid path to art, which was interesting and surprising to us. We might have proven ourselves worthy of the art world now. Hopefully :)
Illustration for Kiblind Magazine
CP: How would you describe the relationship between your personal and commercial work?
TM: It’s very fluid now. The line between my identity as Thoka Maer and Lisette Berndt has become very blurry. This interview is kind of a proof to that since I, until recently, would have never talked about me as Lisette in that context.
CP: What question do people ask most about your GIFs?
TM: “Which program do you use?”
CP: You were in the group show Flatland: A Journey of Many Dimensions during Miami Art Week. How did you become involved with it?
Through the residency program at Mana BSMT that was founded by Grace Franck. We started in August 2016 and originally the residency was supposed to go on for six months, ending with a big group show. Which happened. Our final show Surface, in January of 2017, impressed Mana so much that they decided to take us all to Art Basel. Since then, Grace has invited more new media artists like Pablo Gnecco, James Clar, Alex Czetwertynski, Freeka Tet, and more to the residency program. They are now part of the show plus a few more artists, who are just taking part in the show like Dave&Gabe or Andrew Thomas Huang.
CP: Can you tell us a little about the work you have produced for it?
TM: Based on the original challenge Mana gave us, of taking the GIF into the 3D world, I basically took that literally. The work I’m showing here is a further development of my piece for our show Surface in January. It’s an installation of five suspended planes of plexiglass with dream-like animations reprojected on to it. The animation plays with the illusion of depth, enhanced by the levels of projection surfaces, creating a transient experience of space and time.
Installation in Flatland. Photo: On The Real Film
CP: What particular challenges were there in making this work?
TM: It’s a very big but also extremely delicate piece due to the plexiglass. It also requires an intense amount of precision to get everything straight and lined up since each plane catches only parts of the projection to create this spatial experience.
CP: What else do you have coming up?
TM: I want to develop further as an artist for sure. This experience with Mana was eye-opening regarding new opportunities. It opened this previously unknown door to me of what else I want to do with art off the computer screen, outside of the internet. I’m looking forward to 2018!
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 selects a Web Artist of the Week.