Last week, on November 7, 2015, at arebyte gallery in London, visitors had the opportunity to see the closing of South African artist Nelmarie du Preez’s first solo exhibition, Autonomous Times, in which the artist has imagined a future where humans and autonomous, potentially ‘dangerous’ artificial creations might need to share living, adapt to each other, and learn how to trust one another. Inspired by DIY cultures and the changing landscape of labour, Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film “Modern Times” and the aesthetics of George Miller’s 2015 film “Mad Max: Fury Road,” du Preez’s video work and installation greeted visitors with a performative approach to (wo)man-machine relationships that, much as her previous work, explores feelings of fluctuating trust in technology, ourselves and each other. Her 2013 body of works Loops of Relation is a reinterpretation of a series of iconic performances by Marina Abramović and Ulay, as the artist performs alongside her robot. The robot playing Ulay can also be interpreted as a subtle critique to the masculinized culture of corporate technology, or the set of desires and fetishes it feeds. Throughout her residency at arebyte, however, du Preez has actively engaged a discourse on labour today, creating a dangerous assembly line where robotic arms – constructed by altering pre-existing ‘safe’ designs for robotic arms found on open source maker websites like thingiverse.com and Github – need to be ‘tamed.’ The apparent failure of the machine to feed lunch in Chaplin’s film was interpreted by du Preez in a series of explosions that, while inspired by “Mad Max: Fury Road” and its aesthetic realm, relies not on CGI but, as the artist says, HGI – human generated imagery: “Instead of learning how to make CGI fire, I enlisted my family to create HGI – human generated imagery, by triggering lighters and spraying flammable substances or pressing the button of a smoke machine.”
The cinematic contradictions between real and fake, the critical look at how humans imagine and innovate future, and the fragile balance between technology and human interaction do reveal a somewhat “schizophrenic” relationship with the “unruly” DIY robots, as the artist explains, but there is also a sense of mimicry and irony that accompanies “the suspense between trust/violence, danger/intimacy, fake/real and, finally, self and other.” A sense of randomness and temporariness also informs du Preez’s artistic discourse, while coding, with all its confinement to rules and regulations, becomes, as the artist says, an imaginative space. Here, improvisation and surpise can help one negotiate a common language, but they can equally address renewed understandings of (artistic) identity. Like in Abramović and Ulay’s Relation Works, du Preez and her robots negotiate the boundaries of gender in an indeterminate space of intimacy that obscures both actors/agents. This, however, is not so much the “REST ENERGY” that Abramović and Ulay referred to, the third hermaphroditic force they created together but existed independently of them; it is rather a chance agent that seeks to liberate both artist and the machine from the limits of language and binary constructions. It equally attempts to subvert conventional divisions between subject and object, still informed by governing metaphysics and positivism in the Western culture. Chance agents enable horizontal and holarchic relations that can help one construct renewed relationships with the world and reversed paradigms that question binary iterations. In Nelmarie du Preez’s work, mimicry and parody also contribute to the sabotage of cultural constructions, allowing one the “freedom to create independently” and, with this, a reinformed sense of potentiality and trust.
At the closing of the exhibition at arebyte and before the artist’s participation at Home Works 7 (the multidisciplinary forum on cultural practices curated this year by Frie Leysen, Bassam El Baroni and Christine Tohme, that opens today in Beirut and will be opened until the end of November, 2015), we spoke with Nelmarie du Preez in an exclusive interview that you can read below.
Sabin Bors: I would start by asking you about the way you arrived at the topic of human-computer relationships in your artistic practice and the way you relate to this topic in general.
Nelmarie du Preez: I think it started off quite pragmatic. In 2013, I decided to pursue an MA in Computational Arts at Goldsmiths in London, which ultimately challenged and heightened my relationships to computers on various levels. Having to undergo intensive training in various creative programming languages, I ended up spending time with computers and electronics more so than with actual humans – not out of choice, but simple obligation. Dealing with this intensity, I began to question what was occurring in my life and how this ‘thing’ was mediating and dictating my relationships. However, upon my arrival in London, I placed a great deal of commitment to finding a ‘practice.’ I didn’t want to be consumed by the medium of computing and lose sight of my artistic voice, which had become quite performative and somehow always involved the ‘other.’ While doing this course I was also at the beginning stages of exploring the use of my own body in my work. At the time, Marina Abramović and Ulay, who somehow were able to investigate relationships through the body in a very simple and precise way, fascinated me. Their work inspired me to create my own artistic collective where I could construct a computer as my performance partner/other. In the end, it became my task to think, present and develop this partner as an equal actor. How can I make these computers, screens or robots perform as willful actors and agents in my work? At some point, this became easier to navigate as their distinct materiality naturally leads or directs the way that the performance or work will evolve into – and in some instances even dictates the process.
Sabin Bors: Your most recent project, Autonomous Times, is a continuation of your previous series Loops of Relation, a body of work inspired by Marina Abramović and Ulay’s performances, but it moves away from your earlier works. I really like the title Loops of Relation, because it involves something more than repetition – it shows that relations do not exist, they are practiced, negotiated and exercised. Will you continue to work along this new line or is it just a different expression you explore for specific reasons?
Nelmarie du Preez: I very much enjoy playing with rules and testing their boundaries, which is what I think the word ‘relation’ is defined by – a set of rules or a script that can be manipulated/tested. But more so, relation points to degrees of intimacy. For myself, I want to think of a world that revolves around the search for intimacy. I find myself wondering how and why we innovate new technologies and my conclusion is often that we are searching for ways to be intimate, to reach and understand each other, to touch each other. So yes, maybe that search is what causes the kind of repetition that you are speaking about, but it is of course also a question of power, which indicates a potential for failure. To me, failure and trust feed each other and, in that sense, technology offers rather fertile ground to explore these ideas. There are always some imperfections in the mechanism that might take over at some point, which will change the rules of the game that we are practicing. Levels of trust are constantly in flux and the potential for failure is always present. So my work seeks to navigate and reveal the thin tight ropes that we walk in relation to each other and the things we create.
Sabin Bors: It is interesting that you’re aiming to establish new relations with the robot as the other, and I am curious to know whether you see these as relations between equal actors. You previously mentioned your intention is to program the robot so as to re-establish a trusting relationship between (wo)man and machine, which involves a certain degree of inequality. In most of your works you tackle issues of gender and identity as social constructions, and I am curious how do you see gender ideology as reflected in human-machine relations. Furthermore, do you think there are specific differences between man-machine and woman-machine relation?
Nelmarie du Preez: As mentioned, my work seeks to create an equal standing between myself and the technologies that I use. I am gaining trust in it/them as I go along and I train myself to explore the materiality in such a way, that it is somehow able to participate in the making and conceptualizing of the work. So there is certainly a need for equality in the way that I work and maybe this is related to my own struggles with how my work is perceived once it is known that I am female. The other day, I was reading an article about a documentary called “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII.” In the documentary, they apparently explore how a group of women were recruited by the US military to carry out large numbers of calculations that would help to create accurate ballistics tables and predict flight paths for bombs dropped from airplanes. The film goes on to explain the great value of their work during the war and begins to emphasise how women are generally viewed in relation to such technologies. The feminisation of the labour force had many causes and effects and I can only imagine what these are in relation to the way that we continue to develop and use new technologies. So maybe yes, there is potentially a difference in how we used to think of the human-computer relationship when splitting it into a gender binary, but I am rather happy to think that those differences become less pronounced and less interesting as time passes and our perceptions change. Whenever I am building a robot, I do not feel aware of my gender at all. I simply do it… and I simply enjoy it.
Sabin Bors: You also made mention of a more imaginative insertion of our relationships with the technologies we build. Could you please detail on this? What could be the social, political and relational stakes of such insertions?
Nelmarie du Preez: There is a certain kind of playfulness in the way that I relate myself to the technologies that I perform with. But I think the degree of playfulness varies depending on the amount of confidence I have in what I am doing with it. So my imagination shifts in relation to the trust I have in myself and whatever it is that I am building a relationship with. At some point, there is a kind of mockery that occurs while I attempt to mimic human relations. I am wondering and searching for the socio-political implications of mimicry – it suggests a parody, which I think Mikhail Bahktin elaborates on when he says that it involves a certain subliminal world of gestures and that parody attributes a set of values to what he thinks of as unmotivated actions. It creates a game open to embarrassment, where something/someone might lose and be ridiculed in some way. For me, there is something quite interesting and imaginative to explore within this idea of mimicry that occurs inside our channels of communication, motivated or not, ridiculed or celebrated.
Sabin Bors: In a recent interview for Aesthetica Magazine, you discussed how we as humans are dependent on a fragile and rather illusive sense of trust: we trust our actions and emotions to reach the intended destination we’ve imagined for them, without ever fully acknowledging that these “trust exercises” are open for things to go wrong. Do you think it is possible to accommodate chance and randomness in a way that would inspire more meaning, responsibility and care in our lives?
Nelmarie du Preez: I don’t think the question is whether or not it is possible, because from my point of view we seem to do this everyday and I would like to think, even if it is just for myself, that I adapt and get more attuned to chance every time I encounter it. Again, the issue of trust is somehow linked to risk and real trust, true trust, accommodates chance and randomness as an opportunity. Trust somehow embodies for me a potentiality. Aristotle viewed potentiality as something that carries a kind of power, or a force that gravitates itself towards being actualized. Giorgio Agamben finds within Aristotle a “potentiality that conserves itself and saves itself in actuality,” which I interpret as a kind of potentiality that continues to live on even though it has been actualised. Then there is somehow no restriction or opposition that stands between potentiality and actuality – but the potentiality is almost reinforced in its actualised state. Within the idea of chance and randomness, there exists a kind of potentiality that challenges the way we experience and, as you say, accommodate things. For example, we do not simply experience sight itself, we also have the ability to experience darkness. It is only because we can experience this darkness that we become aware of the sensation of not seeing (the un-actualised state of sight) that we can say that we have the ability or potentiality to see. In the same vein, we have the ability to trust, but it is connected to our sense of distrust – the one is actualised within the other, but never loses its potentiality and chance or randomness somehow plays within those parameters.
Sabin Bors: to shout is a processual work in which you recorded yourself screaming at different intensities you then filtered through different algorithms to which GUI responds. By recording and shifting the pitch of your voice to a lower register, as a means to generate the GUI’s ‘voice,’ you reinterpret Marina Abramović and Ulay’s performance to explore the changing relationships we experience as influenced by various technological advancements. Their performance work is the expression of a certain contrast and opposition between their very own characters: the articulation of introversion, in the case of Ulay, and extroversion, in the case of Marina. How would you describe the relation between you and the robots – who is the introvert and who is the extrovert? How do you negotiate gesture and expression with a robot?
Nelmarie du Preez: I often think of myself and my robots as somewhat schizophrenic in that there is a kind of breakdown in our relation to emotions, thought and behavior and that when we perform it is almost a kind of withdrawal from reality. So it opens up a space for somewhat challenging negotiations between ‘bodies.’ Relation is embedded in any kind of moving thing and this movement is what negotiates the gestures and expressions, not only in the robot but also in me. More often than not, I find myself adapting to the robot and its movements instead of it adapting to me and my actions. But this does not create a split between introversion and extroversion. I find that this way of looking is something that I try to ignore and provoke at the same time. Yet I don’t find myself building my ideas about the robot around such binary thinking. Instead, I like to allow the robot to explore its own potential as fragmented, especially when placed in relation to myself.
Sabin Bors: Interaction with a machine takes the dialectics of relation to a different level than performance does. How would you describe the emotional charge of performance when performing together with a robot?
Nelmarie du Preez: I always find it a bit like a choreographed dance that still relies on improvisation when needed. There needs to be a certain kind of confidence within the potential for failure that allows for true improvisation. The robots are always surprising me in new ways and I always have to consider my reaction to it. Often, my reaction is the most revealing moment of the relationship and presents unpredictable results.
Sabin Bors: In performance, the body is actively involved in a confrontation with the audience. How do you perceive the audience’s response in what concerns your performance? Is it still an intersubjective relation that conditions meaning? Is it still a longing for completeness? How would you define “otherness” and “other-ing” in human-machine relational performance?
Nelmarie du Preez: I must say that, for some reason, I very rarely consider the audience response to my work even though performance immediately implies a kind of actor-audience relation. But my performances are far more cinematic than theatrical. They stand at a distance from the audience, because it is mediated and presented to them via a screen. Somehow this allows me to keep the intimate relation with my robot intact. However, in my recent show I didn’t perform anything live myself, but placed my robots in a vulnerable state by almost forcing them to perform live for me. I kept myself safe on the screen, but placed the robots in the space at a reachable distance from the audience. Though I guess I used them to somehow escape the audience myself, I also found it incredibly terrifying to allow the audience to get up close and personal with them. So there is certainly a level of intersubjectivity that both dictates and challenges me as a person but also the work.
The notion of ‘otherness’ is something that I explore in almost all of my works and the act of ‘other-ing’ is something rather interesting and revealing to explore within the human-computer relation. When speaking about ‘the other,’ it immediately refers and almost emphasizes the presence of the self. In my own work, I try to explore how the self continues to find, justify and constitute itself by means of the other. The self is in a constant search of how to construct itself and uses the other as a tool to do so. So it is almost easy to figure out why the human-computer relationship is an interesting space to explore these urges as we are always developing new technologies in order to construct, de-construct and re-construct ourselves. I find it a safe space to explore the notion of ‘other-ing’ in this way, but also a space where I can really think deeply about why we have this urge and how it can reveal things about our human-to-human relations.
Sabin Bors: Human-machine relations entangle a complex set of relations: notions of performance and social interactions are accompanied by issues of performativity, intelligence, interaction and reaction. But what I think is essential is that the body continues to resist the machine and creates tension in relating with it…
Nelmarie du Preez: Yes, this is a rather beautiful thought and touches on many of the nuanced ideas that I would like my work to provoke in an audience. There is a certain give-and-take or cause and effect in all aspects of relation that drives our decision making skills.
Sabin Bors: Socio-political identities stem from (regulated, constructed) relations between self and the other. Do you think that by dismantling concepts of gender or sexuality, we can destabilize socially constructed norms of creating identities?
Nelmarie du Preez: Yes, I think this is a given. I think art can act as a destabilizer in many of these instances, but what I find necessary in these discussions, or what I think creates the spark to dismantle things, is a certain element of humor. It’s a natural humor that offers a space for the ice to be broken. For you and me to relax and finally listen to each other.
Sabin Bors: Both in Loops of Relation and Autonomous Times, your robots avoid specific issues of technology to address the increasingly disjointed human relations. It is not technology as such that is problematic, but rather our use of it – the projection of our own control ideologies. Do you think user-generated robotics can subvert disciplinary paradigms?
Nelmarie du Preez: Oh, I think this can offer all kinds of subversions and I am very excited at its prospects. I think when we speak about problems with technological advancements – it implies a power relation that beckons the question of who has control. When you say ‘our’ use of technology is problematic, then my question is who is the ‘our’ in this equation and why do ‘they’ have the power to dictate responses/interaction to technology. Then again, user-generated robotics could implicate ‘all of us’ even as a collective or individuals, but it also carries the potential to empower and shift the boundaries of power.
Sabin Bors: It is interesting how you’ve searched for a synthetic expression of various ideologies as comprised in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 “Modern Times” and George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” They are both an expression of a machinic quest, underlined by the mythologies of their resolutions, but they function within radically different paradigms, in my opinion. Could you please detail your perspective on the two and how they informed your work during the residency at arebyte?
Nelmarie du Preez: Charlie Chaplin’s work became the very starting point of the conversation that I had with Nimrod Vardi, curator of arebyte. We were talking about interaction with machines and a certain element of violence implicit in the act, when he showed me a short clip from “Modern Times” where Charlie is taken from the assembly line and strapped into a machine that would presumably feed him lunch. Everything starts off fine, but very quickly turns into disaster as the machine malfunctions and frightens and hurts Charlie. There was something rather revealing in that comedic little sketch of the human-machine encounter as the scene also included a group of businessmen who wanted to see the machine in action. Their presence implied a kind of power dynamic and maybe also speaks a bit about our previous question. Who has control?
While I was on residence at arebyte in June, I began to build a few robots as a kind of reaction to this particular scene from Chaplin’s film. I treated the residency as a kind of assembly line, thinking of humans assembling robots that will assemble other things. During this time I went to see Mad Max in the theatre and was totally enamored by the visuality of the film. Afterwards, I realised that very little of the film was made with CGI (computer generated imagery) and that they were ‘real effects’ instead of the expected ‘special’ ones. It made me think so much about how entertainment has had such a great influence on the development of technologies and how we relate to it, but also proved rather interesting as a reversal. Ultimately, the film inspired the kind of actions that my robots would have. They ended up spitting fire, blowing smoke and shooting lasers, which was all produced as ‘real effects,’ to counter-balance the overuse of technology. Instead of learning how to make CGI fire, I enlisted my family to create HGI – human generated imagery, by triggering lighters and spraying flammable substances or pressing the button of a smoke machine. In the final film, the robots and humans are equally implicit in the action, but it is the robots that take center stage, while the visual effects and the magic-trick is only revealed later.
Sabin Bors: Like Loops of Relation, Autonomous Times reflects on issues of labour. Yet here the discourse is more engaged. By transforming the space at arebyte into an assembly line where you programmed robotic performance partners, you bring into question issues of labour, post-industrial complexes, capitalism, production – but also artistic labour. Furthermore, the question of technology and the digital age involves a critical discourse on immaterial labour. I would say that the assembly line you created reveals a situated space and involves a certain situated practice. How do you see artistic labour in this context?
Nelmarie du Preez: What I understand from the words ‘situated spaces’ and ‘situated practice’ is that it is fixed within a certain context, right? The current context is then based within a capitalist framework and this framework ignores the embodied nature of a lot of what makes art interesting and even possible. To me the body and labour are almost synonymous – my body is an assembly line constantly working to think, to act, to produce. But there is a kind of collective action that appears in our current reaction to the way that labour is changing. We collectively assemble things online, while at the same time extending our idea of the collective and our bodies to include pieces of technology, pushing for them to be autonomous actors in our economy. And so the tradition of artistic labour is changing rapidly as well – and it is somehow also enforced by our situated space that forces us to give up having a studio because we can’t afford it anymore. So we turn to our computers, in the small corners of a café, to find solace – to build a new studio/assembly line for our work.
Sabin Bors: Your approach to the changing landscape of labour is deeply rooted in DIY cultures, which often involve a discussion of the aesthetics of the ‘real’ or issues of amateurism, a critical relation between discipline and emancipation, issues of power and empowering. How do you, as an artist, relate to DIY cultures and how can DIY cultures inspire new artistic approaches?
Nelmarie du Preez: I think very simply, that being an artist requires a certain level of DIY-ness. We are somehow built that way and, in my case, it might indicate a search for total independence and ultimately control. The notion of DIY became a very important part of my most recent work Autonomous Times. Though the work features 9 robotic arms, I don’t think the work is about the autonomy of technology, but our continued search for autonomy in ourselves. The DIY, Maker and open source culture elicit a sense of autonomy – a freedom to create independently.
Sabin Bors: Could you please detail the role of coding in your work?
Nelmarie du Preez: I think that I approach coding very much like a theater director. Coding is a script – it presents a set of rules that come together as a kind of choreography when executed. Coding is a very imaginative space, but is confined to rules and regulations. What I find interesting and what I try to push in my way of making, is the kinds of tensions and boundaries that can be tested within that scope. Coding is almost always open to failure – to error, especially when placed in relation to hardware/mechanisms, and it is within that tension that there is a lot of space for improvisation and surprise.
Sabin Bors: In his PhD dissertation and several other articles on digital spaces and material traces, Niels van Doorn investigates, if I may quote one of his subtitles, “How matter comes to matter in online performances of gender, sexuality and embodiment.” His analyses show that far from being immaterial, disembodied or isolated from the physical conditions of everyday life, the internet is composed of “digitally material” spaces and artifacts containing a multiplicity of traces of the embodied users who shape them. This brings back issues of gender and sexuality, since they are constitutive of social interactions and cultural production taking place in the networked spaces we access on the internet. You previously made references to how people alter their personas using social media, so I am curious, in conclusion to this conversation, how do you see the relation between social network sites and identity performance
Nelmarie du Preez: To me, the relation that can be drawn between social networks and identity performance is that of intimacy or a search for intimacy, which almost always constitutes a certain level of performance. The material nature of networks has the potential to create hybrid zones for experimentation to occur and experimentation itself is often very performative. So these networks offer spaces to experiment with how we indulge and cultivate intimacy through the rules and tools of performance.
Interview with Nelmarie du Preez and presentation by Sabin Bors, curator and editor of the anti-utopias contemporary art platform, November 11, 2015.