Hunting for ghosts in the algorithms | Letta Shtohryn

TEODOR RELJIC speaks to Malta-based artist and curator Letta Shtohryn about ‘WhatDoWeDoNow?’, an online contemporary visual arts exhibition forming part of The Wrong Biennale platform, and whose online-only presence in some ways anticipated our participation at cultural events during COVID-wracked times

Letta Shtohryn
Letta Shtohryn

Tell us a little bit about your background and artistic practice. What would you say have been some of the most important steps of your career so far?

In my work, I use new media, sculpture, video games, archival materials, commercial goods and imagery. Being ceaselessly inspired by deception, I look for the origins of the real and the artificial, exploring the fine line between truth and myth-making. My practice focuses on our intertwined coexistence with the digital realm looking for a place for humans in a world that increasingly relies on automation. Often, my research-based practice combines the historical and the contemporary, looking for the interrelation between current technology and early (pre)industrial practices. My work is always gender-conscious: it explores gender constructs and gender representation, as part of my identity is being a full-time woman.

So far I think one of the most important steps in my career was showing my work, ‘Algorithmic Oracle’, in New York at Frieze art fair 2019 as part of a group “playlist”, and in Miami as a solo show, which was arranged by London based Daata.Art – a digital platform that commissions and sells video works. This exposed my work with video games to a wider audience and facilitated a number of collaborations. One of these was an invitation to participate in the Milan Machinima Festival, as part of Milan Digital Week that was moved online due to COVID and took place between May 25 and 30.

Another important step was creating the WhatDoWeDoNow? platform and curating the online and offline pavilion as part of the Wrong Biennale 2019-2020. Through this I have experienced the curatorial side of art-making, where I was completing a vision for the exhibition with the works of other artists. I felt I wanted to tell a broader story on the state of things in the interaction between the digital realm and the physical realm today and discover how other artists feel about these coexistences. Another important element in the growth of my practice are the grants that I have been fortunate to have been awarded since 2016, such as from Arts Council Malta, which have really boosted my practice and fuelled energy into my projects.

The offline version of the WhatDoWeDoNow? exhibition took place in December 2019 in Casino Notabile, Rabat. During the exhibition some works could be experienced in virtual reality, enabling an intimate encounter with the works while wearing a headset
The offline version of the WhatDoWeDoNow? exhibition took place in December 2019 in Casino Notabile, Rabat. During the exhibition some works could be experienced in virtual reality, enabling an intimate encounter with the works while wearing a headset

What attracted you most about ‘The Wrong Biennale’, and why did you think your approach was relevant when it came to curating their online show in 2019?

The Wrong Biennale works as a multidimensional network of pavilions and embassies. Anyone who has an idea to curate a “pavilion” makes the Wrong their own, creating a unique exhibition whether online, offline, or on a wifi router placed in public space, which people can connect to and view works on their devices. As I had created WhatDoWeDoNow? in summer 2019, I felt that signing up to curate all three options would be a way to extend the platform to four realms (by adding a VR environment) and to tell the story over these different modes of artistic experience.

The WDWDN Malta pavilion showed works by 26 artists and spanned across four “environments”. The pavilion opened with an online exhibition that was extended beyond the biennale’s November 2019 – March 2020 period, until June 1, 2020. After June 1 the exhibition of 26 works was archived on the Whatdowedonow.xyz website. Most digital artists don’t believe in the idea that scarcity means value, but rather in the idea of sharing as much as possible, which means that the same works were able to be shown in both physical and digital spaces. The offline exhibition took place in December 2019 in Casino Notabile, Rabat. During the exhibition some works could be experienced in virtual reality, enabling an intimate encounter with the works while wearing a headset. The final element of the exhibition were the WiFi routers. They enabled the works to be experienced 24/7 by anyone with a mobile device within the proximity of the pavilion by accessing the WiFi network of the pavilion.

The freedom of creating the show in multiple realms attracted me the most to the Wrong, but it was also an opportunity to share WhatDoWeDoNow?’s show with an even wider audience through media art networks and by adding Malta to one of the 160 locations globally on the Wrong network during the biennale.

Ephemeral Paradises by Enzo Piantanida
Ephemeral Paradises by Enzo Piantanida

How would you describe the selection of artists forming part of the show? What are some confluences and dissonances that characterise the way in which they responded to the exhibition brief?  The selected artists were telling a Unified story tackling various aspects but finding responding to the same concerns.

The WhatDoWeDoNow? pavilion explored the tension between the tangible and the digital. This cross-realm codependency leads to an entangled existence of both, merging into a singular reality in an energy-demanding world. In the exhibition, we looked at digital relics, future digital fossils, data flow, the body within the digital, conversations between nature and machines, and a place for human-ness inside an algorithmically customised reality.

Out of 120 submissions, I have selected 26 artists from five continents – although I have never listed their geographical location, as their response to the brief was universally human, regardless of their location. The works had unity in their response and although some might have looked unfitting to one another, the visual aspect is not the only area where the story was told. I wanted to tell the story of global concern, anxiety and critical consideration of our relationship with the digital, whether it’s the body of colour or the trans body, or a human relationship via dating apps, but also with digital relics and digital materiality.

The show covers a few aspects of this relationship with the digital. Some artists like Enzo Piantanida, Ingrid Kristensen Bjørnaali, Victoria West and Ayşegül Altunok responded to the issue of nature, resources and the digital. Santa France, Redgrits, Eda Sarman, Vitoria Cribb and Enrico Dedin’s works looked at the post-digital body by paying attention to the physical within the digital, from the body of colour to out of body experiences. Another aspect of the exhibition was exploring digital materiality with works by JPEG Bolton, FBRZ VLL, Milos Peskir, Kornelia Remø Klokk, Mustafa Khanbhai, Erica Jewell, Bailey Keogh and Chen Varsano. Online spatiality was an aspect that Ivana Tkalčić, Julio Guzmàn, Mez Breeze, Noviki, Yvonne Libenson, Ultraglix worked with, each in their own way. Some artists are further in their career than others, but I feel their responses were unified and unique nonetheless. The aspect of human relationships was an area explored by quite a few artists, such as by Zander Porter, Ex.Icon, Sandra Araujo and Charlene Galea.

To place the works in the context and learn more about the value of the digital, one can read a text on ‘Post-Internet and the Value of Digital Formats’ by Doreen Rios, a curator based in Mexico City who also runs the platform ‘Antimateria Digital’. The text can be found here: https://whatdowedonow.xyz/Booklet-text-by-Doreen-Rios.

Aquatic Toxic Forms by Aysegul Altunok
Aquatic Toxic Forms by Aysegul Altunok

Given that the show remains online following the COVID-19 outbreak, which has led to the enforced closure of conventional museum spaces, how do you feel about it being ahead of this particular curve? Is it a case of something fringe and experimental suddenly becoming ‘mainstream’ in some ways, albeit by force majeure...?

For one, the online world has suddenly felt a lot busier over the past couple of months. I have noticed that people have started to use social media differently, in a way that it was used before social media took over – that is, to find things of interest and people who share the same interests. As for online platforms, I have noticed a much higher engagement with the website. People would arrive at WhatDoWeDoNow? not only via social media links but also via search engines, which signal to me that people are looking to experience art and art hosting platforms directly. In other words, they are visiting websites again.

The impression I get is that showing and selling work online has become normalised in recent times, which also contributes to the value of a digital object being raised in the eyes of the viewers.

It will be interesting to see whether this holds when the world reopens. Is the digital a temporary substitute for the physical, or will this experience of treating the virtual as the “real” last beyond the pandemic?

Interestingly, physical exhibition spaces have begun to finally push for arranging online spaces through which they can operate. But it’s at an infancy stage right now, as many of them seem content to simply recreate the white cube space online, rather than embracing the world where you can virtually show artworks on Mars and create really interesting chains of interaction, rather than just images of physical works in their existing collections. I hope the traditional art spaces embrace more the endless potential of the virtual, but do so while critically reflecting on the medium itself.

During the lockdown, there was another rise of interest in online native artworks – net art – that live online. I found that quite interesting, especially with Olia Lialina’s show at Arebyte, London that was just installed before the lockdown. Olia’s work considers structures of online worlds interpreted playfully, by placing parts of the work on various websites and platforms. In the physical gallery space, her works seem to gain a kind of second nature to their native online environment, which I find an interesting element of our time where the two realities balance out.

How do you imagine the COVID-19 crisis, and whatever comes after, will affect the Maltese visual arts scene in particular?

From what I’ve seen in the recent Emergency Grant results quite a few people found interesting ways of working with the virtual world in Malta. That gives me hope that with the access to digital tools and the shedding of a mental separation between the realities – or that one reality is more or less than the other – exciting things will happen in new media art locally. There are so many tools out there to work with as an artist, it’s a shame to limit oneself with a piece of purely analogue equipment, out of protest or insecurity. However, a lack of accessibility to technology can hold some people back. If more people had access to VR equipment and support with using it, such as courses that encourage us to experiment with such digital tools, more artists would be interested and would feel comfortable working with it. On the other hand, for the dedicated ones, there’s always accessible hardware and free software that one can use even without access to high tech tools, one can create artworks with a mobile phone. This pandemic has shown us that the online is real, so why not integrate this thinking into our art practice? The online world is of course occupied by corporations, but it is also free from institutional structures, allowing everyone to make an online space the way they want and to share it with others.

To experience the WhatDoWeDoNow online exhibition, log on to: Whatdowedonow.xyz and find it on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/whatdowedonoww

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