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Dmitry Volcov (in the middle) and Anton Belov (right)

“Science art is an attempt to humanize science” 0

A conversation with Dmitry Volkov  (SDV Arts & Science Foundation)  and Anton Belov (Garage Museum of Contemporary Art) before the presentation of scholarship winners of the Art and Technology program in Riga

A team of representatives from the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, namely its director Anton Belov and senior curator Ekaterina Inozemtseva, recently visited Riga. They came to attend the final presentation of the 2016/2017 grant scheme in science art on the topic "Art and Technology" run by the Museum in cooperation with SDV Arts & Science Foundation (created by SDVentures, an international investment holding). The holding invests in online services related to social discovery, and its office in Riga is located in the center of the Old Town, in the Dome Square. In this office, a pop art exhibition of high-tech art titled SUPERCONDUCTION was held a couple of years ago: the company organized it to mark the opening of its representative office in Riga.

The co-founder and ideologist of SDV Arts & Science Foundation Dmitry Volkov told Arterritory about the background of the presentation: "The integration of technology and art is one of SDVentures' corporate values. We have always wanted people who work at our company to be familiar with contemporary art; and they can also take part in it. We have always been thinking about how to combine people who specialize in technologies with people who are creative. One of the options is to create an "art residence" in Riga which would be either permanent or related to certain programs and events. We chose the second option and found Garage which is an ideal partner. In Russia, this museum facilitates innovation in art. Its team knows this sphere very well and is entirely open to unusual suggestions; it also reacts to them more quickly than traditional institutions. We approached them when they were beginning the preparations for their annual scholarship program. We managed to fit in with it logically."

Initially, all three scholarship winners of the Art and Technology program – Russian artists who received support during the year – were to present their works in autumn 2017 in Riga. This actually took place. The audience was varied: Latvian curators, artists and art critics, and participants of the international project RIXC ART SCIENCE FESTIVAL who came to Latvia and who specialize in the relationship between art and technology on a permanent basis.

The MetabolA.I project created by Ippolit Markelov's team 18 Apples presents numerous experiments with bioprinting which make it possible to see the development of cells and their unique natural structure. 

The media artist Natalia Egorova presented the "Marsiy" interdisciplinary project which is a complex bionic structure that models the biomechanics of a bird’s vocal organs. The philosophy of the project is based on an ancient Greek myth about Marsiy, a satyr who learnt to play the flute and mimic the sounds of nature so well that he was able to outdo even Apollo in a competition. As part of the  grant scheme, the multimedia artist Sergei Kasich  focused on improving the whole range of his ideas. FingerRing is one of the most impressive ideas; this is a technology art project in which a person becomes a multichannel mixer. When a person touches the audio input and output channels simultaneously, his or her body becomes a "conductor", enabling "manual" control. This provides a new approach to electronic music and an interesting opportunity for you and your body to be directly involved in the creation and production of sounds. After Sergei Kasich, Ippolit Markelov who is a representative of BioArt, a relevant technological  art movement, was given the floor. This movement is inspired by the philosophical, social and environmental consequences of genetics, molecular biology and biotechnology. The MetabolA.I project created by Mr Markelov's team 18 Apples (which includes a molecular biologist and an IT developer) presents numerous experiments with bioprinting which make it possible to see the development of cells and their unique natural structure. During reproduction, colored stem cells produce intricate patterns and become works of art created by nature and artificial intelligence without the involvement of the artist.

Prior to the presentation of these three projects and the subsequent discussion, we talked to Dmitry Volkov and Anton Belov about the Art and Technology program, high-tech art and its prospects, all while drinking a large cup of green tea. 

Dmitry Volcov, Anton Belov and Ekaterina Inozemtseva during the presentation of scholarship winners of the Art and Technology program in Riga

Is this really a program for Russian artists?

Anton Belov: Russia has its own process in art which does not always coincide with global processes. It may be ahead of these processes in some respects, and in other respects it may very much lag behind. As an institution, we aim to occupy some infrastructure niches in order to solve the main problems. It may be somewhat easier for an artist to survive in Riga; however, it is impossible for him or her to earn a living from art in a large Russian city. There are no funds and institutions that would guarantee an annual income, a minimum amount necessary for creation. Since 2012, we have provided general purpose grants, and now we have specialized programs in spheres such as science art and land art.

Dmitry Volkov: Incidentally, I have seen the first Russian "art residence" in Gridchinhall. This is an entirely "non-institutional" story. Sergei Gridchin has become a successful businessman, but he very much wanted to be involved in art. He built a country house near Moscow, but he realized that it was lacking something, and built a huge exhibition hall with a studio upstairs. To make all this work, he began to invite artists who lived there and held exhibitions for a period of time. This was also an attempt at not only combining business and art at the level of collecting, but also in terms of organizing something like living together and cooperating.

A.B.: Yes, Sergei Gridchin and the artists communicate every day. It is a very interesting project; there are many important points, despite its modest scale.

D.V.: This is not completely our case, because high-tech art is a sphere where it is difficult to achieve results by simply going to a beautiful and comfortable place and working for a month or six weeks. Resources matter. In this program, we support very complex and expensive projects. If our artists needed canvases and some oil paints, everything would be much simpler. However, for science art projects, salaried programmers and design engineers are needed; BioArt requires a team of geneticists and a laboratory. Thus, hopefully, the things which we have already implemented, i.e. financial support during the year, participation in a relevant conference and communication with experts in Riga, will develop into something more serious, such as a residence of a higher level, in the future.

Multimedia artist Sergei Kasich, one of three scholarship winners of the Art and Technology program

Dmitry, it seems to me that you are concerned about the interest in science art both from a corporate and a philosophic point of view...

D.V.: I believe that fundamentally new things emerge only in an environment where there is a mix of cultures or different creative techniques. The mix of contrasts is needed to engender something new. Moreover, in our world, science has a great reputation, but with... a kind of dehumanistic touch. "Now they will break it down into elementary particles, and the secrets will fade." It will be like in a laboratory: the world like a herbarium with no hassle and without any human values. Science also acts as an executioner of potential human values. From my point of view, science art is clearly an opposite trend; it is an attempt to humanize science. It focuses on scientific achievements from an aesthetic perspective. Here we see a hint of the Renaissant concept about the human being as a creator who deals with painting, poetry, astronomy and anything else at the same time. Now we need something like that, these people, this type of outlook.

Anton, do you see Russian science art as a separate system or part of the global technological and conceptual context?

A.B.: It is not a part of the global context, because its history has not been described and retraced yet. It is clear that such arts develop more intensively in the US or other countries with more scientific opportunities. MIT has an individual department studying the combination of art and technology. It is hard to chase after them. They have a whole industrial machine in this sphere. In Russia, it is the first time we are facing this issue, and we are not developing media art, for example.

But there is a challenge: art is changing. If we do not participate in this process, we will turn into "handicraft makers" who just produce souvenirs for tourists.

Sergey Kasich and our other candidates, as well as applicants who did not pass, prove that something is going on, but at the moment it is random and uncontrollable. That's why this annual scholarship program and the residences are so needed... What's more, connections with higher educational institutions that have a scientific capacity are important, and Garage has close at hand the Institute of Steel and Alloys with its prototyping center where anything can be "printed". They own a 3D printer model which has only three copies in the world. And now they are interested in relationships with artists and their ideas. For example, now they are working on a device which reads the thoughts of patients affected by apoplectic attacks which leave people unable to speak. Scientists try to normalize their Intellectual process to understand what they are thinking about and what they want to tell others. Indeed, an artist can think of the next stage or level of using such a device and come up with an unusual application that scientists have no idea about.

If we look at the whole picture, Russia is an underperformer and, on the other hand, a leader. Many other countries bear the burden of a responsibility they can't escape. But in Russia, intellectual people are emerging constantly, and they are ready to try to shift the gears.

This is reflected in different ways. And there are no key pillars or figures of authority in contemporary art. Conceptualists are our last key pillars. That's all. And all the main conceptualists have left Russia: Kabakov is in the US, Pivovarov — in the Czech Republic, Bulatov — in France. We don't have any key pillars in Russia, you can do what you want without any judgement. Enter the market, set yourself as a leader and just do it. I think it is a perfect situation. It gives unique opportunities.

D.V.: Let's imagine if the well-known glowing rabbit project had been done in Russia... They integrated the gene that makes jellyfish glow into a rabbit's DNA. A normal little animal was born, the only difference was that it glowed. In America, environmental groups started a whole campaign and claimed that the artist had ruined the rabbit’s life. They tried to take the rabbit away... I don’t suppose we would see a protest like that in Russia. Maybe nobody would even notice it...

A.B.: Or they would order the whole lot for a farm in the Far North, "The polar nights are long, and we need to see our rabbits in the dark." (Laugh.)

D.V.: Yes, I don’t think we would see many objections.

A.B.: We didn't hurt the rabbit, he just glows... What more do you want?

The presentation of interdisciplinary project “Marsiy” by media artist Natalia Egorova

As for science-art, sometimes people say that it's hard to determine and differentiate art from ingenious amusement. On the other hand, they see the escapism of artists who don't face society’s problems and soar beyond the clouds. What is your answer to this?

A.B.: …They are entitled to have such opinions. I think that artists who work in such peripheral, contiguous areas are always affected by double cross-firing. In this case the academic field can show its academic scepticism, and the art side may not refer to it as its sphere.

D.V.: The borders of art are always very unclear at the periphery. Who can ultimately state whether it is art or not? Partly, a museum which claims, "It is included in our interests, it is art." Partly, collectors who acquired this product as art. Partly, the audience that visits these exhibitions and performances or does not. So, we have three established authorities. But even if all three of them do not define it as art, it does not mean it will not become the main masterpiece of its century in 20 years...

It seems to me that if artists try to visualize some scientific ideas, it is not art at all. It is not about representation or sales of scientific concepts. As I see it, science art includes the search for new mediums, a new "palette". Yes, we can paint with oil and a canvas, but why don't we paint with genes? Or create any objects from living organisms? This hypothetical "palette" is very wide and diverse. Of course, using this "palette" we can create both a piece of art and a banal thing.

Here one criterion is important. Artists often show us problems. But scientists, as a rule, provide us with explanations of phenomena. Art should discover a problem: a discrepancy or an unusual perspective that differs from others. It’s probably a kind of marker.

Ippolit Markelov during the presentation of MetabolA.I project created by 18 Apples

I just wanted to ask about the criteria of selecting candidates for the Art and Technology Program.

A.B.: Firstly, there is a well-balanced jury with judges from different fields who are able to form a reasonable conclusion. On the other hand, there are certain tendencies because technologies and some spheres are changing. For example, not long ago everybody dealt with encoding and software in science art . Now they study biological problems. If we see a space breakthrough, everybody will slip to space, small satellites, etc. So we should not forget about trends. An artist reflects current complicated and important processes, so he or she will work at things that have some connection with modern day. Even if it is an object from the past, it will tell us something that will make an impact on our future. There are some nuances that we can't describe or systematize. There are some formal features and a certain range of edges that you can't describe, but by using it you can make the right decision.

The sphere of assessment criteria in technological art may be connected to another important topic: what should our attitude be concerning pieces of art created by artificial intelligence – paintings, music, texts? How do we assess these things?

D. V.: I believe that to assess any work of art, we need to consider its background, all of the effort put into it. We discover that it has taken an artist 10 years to paint this picture, he or she did hundreds of sketches before finding the only right option. And we think: "Well, this must be a significant piece of artwork!" We view it in this context, in the context of the effort put into this work. But when we realize that this artwork was created in 30 seconds by an algorithm which used a certain number of energy units, we don't have this special attitude.

A. B.: Question – Would it then be considered art if this context disappears?

D. V.: Maybe there will be some other context. But I really do think that there is no fundamental difference between the results of creative activity of a human being and those of an algorithm. The algorithm can also explore some innovative ways, and before too long it will be finding those promising ways regrettably faster than a human could. Just as one day a calculator began to calculate numbers quicker and more accurate than people could, and a computer began to beat humans at chess, although there should be a lot of unpredictable situations which one cannot work out and foresee.

For example, Google is currently compiling a catalogue of most works of art. I have seen at a presentation, when upon a user request a search algorithm is able to select a piece of work...

A. B.: But it's just a search...

D. V.: And humans do the same searching too. It's just that we don't know how this mechanism is implemented in humans. That's why we think that with us it's different. But the algorithm is really the same. Only it's based on brainware , on a neural network, rather than on silicon chips.

A. B.: In this case, the meaning of a work of art might be lost. If you could create it at any moment, then you wouldn't need to create it or to have it... Then world variations become so huge that the number of insights that are happening to you through these quick computations and production becomes completely... It's like you are entering the nirvana of those insights. From a Black Square to a Black Square in milliseconds.

D. V.: Maybe so... Philosophers call this singularity.

But then maybe the perceptual speed will increase?

D. V.: Maybe the perceptual speed will improve. And there will be an everlasting influx of artworks into an everlasting savings box of perception.

A. B.: And everyone will be absolutely delighted. (Laughing.)

Ippolit Markelov and art-team 18 Apples. Mindcontrolled Mioperformance. 2015

Changes of not only technology, but also ourselves, evolution run by humans themselves – this is also an important subject for the kind of art we are discussing.

D. V.: Yes, many artworks in this sphere address the transformation of a human body. Artists install ears into arms, transplant the immune system of a horse into themselves, connect cameras to their organs – that is, first, use their own bodies as objects of art, and second, turn themselves into some kind of a human centaur. Today, all that exists as art objects, but I think that in the near future there will be models for everyday use. A person without these additional devices would simply be unable to survive, would become noncompetitive. And today, very timely, the artists are asking themselves and us: how do we feel about it, where are the possible limits, how far are we willing to go with this? Does it blow apart the normal private world of an individual where he or she is alone? For example, one artist had a microphone implanted and began to broadcast everything he was hearing onto the Internet. I mean, all those sensations that had always belonged to him become publicly available. And this makes people wonder about how our children will live or to what extent we are ready for this. Or what we should do to prepare ourselves for it. What risks we should prevent.

The artists in this case are conducting some sort of experiment on themselves, and society can watch. This is also one of the functions of science art.

But such projects won’t be presented at that session in Riga, will they?

D. V.: There will be one bio-project on ornithology. But there won't be any human centaurs. (Laughing.) In any case, for many artworks in this sphere one obviously needs a lot of resources available. And we have been able to do something for these guys, but we couldn't build a hadron collider for them. And they could really use it, I'm sure.