Martina Menegon is an Italian new media artist and educator currently based in Vienna, Austria. Her art explores “the instability and ephemerality of the human body as well as the alienation from physicality in today’s digital age, questioning the gap between real and virtual, flesh and data.” Menegon’s expression of these ideas range from uncanny scenes of endless, undulating fleshy figures to far more personal depictions of her own digitally distorted physical form. Her work reveals the ever-evolving relationship between all of us and the inescapable digital world, as well as a complex, autobiographical representation of one artist’s journey through it.
I asked Menegon about her history of using computers to make art, the origins of her fascination with the human body, and the difference between selfies and self-portraits.
Martina Menegon, Virtual Narcissism, 2016–ongoing, Various multimedia installations
Christian Petersen: What were your earliest memories of computers?
Martina Menegon: Some years ago my mother was a graphic designer, often freelancing, so as far as I can remember, we always had a computer at home for her to work. Me and my brother were allowed to use it when she didn’t need it for work. I remember once I wanted to clean up the desktop and somehow I trashed everything (including the Macintosh HD icon) and the computer never started up again. It was terrifying and I must admit, back then I blamed my little brother (shame on me!).
CP: When and why did you first go online?
MM: I honestly cannot remember. It must have been early and probably just because it was finally possible to go online at home. My earliest memory of going online is during my first year of high school, when I opened my first blog where I was writing and posting pictures everyday (back then I was very much into writing little poems or short texts). But I already knew how to use the internet so I must have been online way before this memory.
Martina Menegon, I’ll Keep You Warm and Safe in My People Zoo, 2016, VR installation Sounds by Stefano D’Alessio
CP: When did you first think about computers as a creative tool?
MM: I guess it always was for me. My mother’s computer only had software she needed for work (Illustrator, Photoshop, etc.) and she also installed for me and my brother the amazing “Kid-Pix.” I was always playing and drawing and creating with it since I can remember. I always treated computers as creative tools somehow.
CP: When did you start to experiment with 3D?
MM: It was in 2008 during my study in Visual and Performing Arts at the IUAV University in Venice. I followed a 3D animation class where I learned how to model and animate and render in Cinema4D. It was such a fun experience, and I never stopped working with 3D since then. I think I even repeated the class just for the fun of it.
Martina Menegon, Splits Are Parted, 2016, Interactive installation, sounds by Stefano D'Alessio
CP: How and why did the human body, and your own body, become such a constant theme in your work?
MM: I think it always was. I can’t say why. I think many different aspects and events of my life brought me to focus a lot on the human body: growing up as a synchronized swimmer, going to art school, experimenting with some performance art, studying performance and interactive art in Venice, being in Second Life, etc.
In general I am quite a shy person, always scared of exposing myself publically. This is way I rarely ended up performing in real life. But for some reason, exposing myself in a digital realm does not bother me much. Maybe the only challenge for me is at openings, where people watch or interact with my 3D-scanned body and I am next to it. I sometimes try to blend in with the gallery walls :-P
Martina Menegon, Virtual Narcissism (making of), 2016–ongoing, Various multimedia installations
CP: How has the digital age changed our relationship with the human body? How do you think the digital age has changed your relationship with your own body?
MM: I will not speak for others, but for me, the digital age gave me the possibility of exploring my body in many different ways: through audio, photo, videos, slow-mo, 3D, etc. It made it possible for me to augment and expand the relationship I had with my body. Sometimes I think it’s my body that changed my relationship with the digital age: as I am more and more anxious in memorizing its changes and visualizing its data, I feel the urge to explore different techniques and tools.
CP: Do you think Virtual Reality will distort this relationship even further?
MM: I think VR is going to create another way for us to relate to our body and it is not going to be necessarily a distortion, just another form. And I am definitely interested in exploring this.
CP: Your project Virtual Narcissism feels very autobiographical.
MM: Virtual Narcissism is definitely autobiographical. It started as an experiment and ended up being an ongoing project, based on my digital archive of 3D-scanned selfies. In real life, I am generally a very shy person: I feel very uncomfortable being photographed or filmed. When I am alone I am of course less self-conscious, and it’s virtually sculpting those moments that interests me the most at the moment.
Martina Menegon, Virtual Narcissism (making of), 2016–ongoing, Various multimedia installations
CP: What do you think is the difference between a self-portrait and a selfie?
MM: When I 3D scan myself, I never really think ahead about what kind of pose or where to sit. I usually plug in my Kinect, open the software, and it gives me 10 seconds to find a pose before the scan starts. I want to be as spontaneous as I can, given that a scan takes a bit longer than a photograph to be done. The results are untouched; all my Virtual Narcissism scans are uploaded as the software puts them out. There is no selection. All my scans are going to be uploaded in my Sketchfab account. So if we stick with the common distinction that sees self-portraiture as a representation of a person and a selfie as an insight into a person’s life, then I should consider my work as selfies. But I am not sure this distinction is valid anymore.
CP: You regularly collaborate with certain artists. Why is collaboration important to you and your work?
MM: I always loved collaborating with other artists, I think it is a great way to grow artistically as well as share knowledge. I am very fond of this. I never hide my process in art making—I believe in sharing. I guess this is also why I love teaching. Of the many collaborations I do with artists, two are regular and very important to me and my art. One is with Stefano D’Alessio, with whom I create interactive installations and some performances. Even when we work separately, I regularly ask him for support in programming or audio design. My collaboration with Klaus Obermaier started back in 2010, after I took his Max/MSP workshop in Venice, where I learned how to create interactive tools for art practice. It was an important event in my artistic career, a major turning point. His works have been influencing me since then.
Klaus Obermaier, Stefano D’Alessio, and Martina Menegon, EGO, Interactive installation, 2015
CP: Tell us about your experience playing Second Life?
MM: Second Life has been and still is a big and important experience and influence for my art. It was the first place where I experienced tridimensional glitches, the frustration of being stuck in a wall, having an arm passing through my body, etc. It was also the place where I started socializing, as I had a little shop where I was selling clothes and furniture. I was part of a design community that created amazing artistic events, and I was always trying to go to art performances and installations there as well.
I was a Second Life resident for almost 10 years, and the only reason I am using the past tense is because I somehow destroyed my poor virtual me for an art project: I wanted to record the result of me attaching everything I owned in Second Life to my avatar (thousands of different hair styles and colors, clothes, shoes, animations, furniture, houses, etc.). I somehow overloaded the system and my avatar started changing, then transformed into a white cloud, and then the software crashed. Since then, whenever I try to open Second Life, the app crashes. I tried some solutions I found online but nothing worked. I will try to contact the Linden Lab soon, because I have to admit, I miss being in Second Life.
Martina Menegon, Ouch!, 2014
CP: How is the new media art scene in Vienna ?
MM: I have to admit most new media works I see here in Vienna are mainly in university exhibitions or small art spaces. In general I have the feeling there is not really a community here for new media, yet. But I guess it’s just a matter of time. Just before Christmas, for example, at the Angewandte Innovation Lab (AIL) there was a very nice exhibition, The Age of Experience, featuring among others The Legible City by Jeffrey Shaw and a great work by Ip Yuk-Yiu, S for Sisyphus. I have to say I felt almost “at home” while visiting.
CP: What do you have coming up in 2017?
MM: Apart from exhibitions and teaching, I will definitely keep working on new developments in Virtual Narcissism. I am currently working on a VR version of it, struggling around with some intricate scripting in Unity3D. I plan to play around with some augmented reality projects as well, as soon as the VR one is done. In general, I will keep working.
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.
(Image at top: Martina Menegon, I'll Keep You Warm and Safe in My People Zoo #2, 2016, Video loop. All images: Courtesy of the artist)