Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti
Eleonora Brizi in conversation with Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti about their artist journey, approach to art & tech, and recent projects from On View to I'd rather be in a dark silence than a limited edition tech wearable from the artists' Privacy Collection.
Dejha Ti & Ania Catherine (Photo credit: Daniela Skeyki)
On December 11, 2019, it is a cold morning in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when I have the pleasure of meeting with Ania Catherine & Dejha Ti at the lovely J+B Design, a Japanese showroom and cafe.
Eleonora: I am very happy to be here with you today and I wish for this interview to be more of a conversation. You are two fantastic artists with a very special take on digital art.
Could we consider your art to be a sort of “social experiment”? I think about the "On View" project: was it unique or have you also worked on similar experiences?
Dejha: Thank you, excited to be sitting down with you finally! Yes, much of our work does. The social experiment feeling is probably due to how in our work often the "normal" gets interrupted just slightly–whether it be through performance, spatial design, or voice commands– revealing its absurdity. The other thing is that our work is conceptual but also very multifaceted in its execution requiring thousands of decisions. And while every decision basically has a thesis behind it, our projects have a framework and opportunity for unknowns. This is because the agency of the audience comes into play, and that defines the experience for them, for others and the outcome of the work.
So, no matter how intentional and detailed we are...
Ania: and we’re very detailed...
D: ...we are just as submissive. Certain behaviours and surprises emerge out of this approach.
A: Definitely, I mean when creating experiences, it is crucial throughout the process for us to consider the potential reactions of the audience. I don’t mean asking “will people like this?” but more just imagining what people may do in certain situations. We almost have to anticipate and predict their responses—for example how they would feel touching a certain surface, or how to use subtle cues to guide their movement within a space—since you are trying to create a world that people are going to inhabit and feel: it isn’t solely about doing what we want. This is one element that makes a work feel like a "social experiment". Like Dejha said, there are always unknowns. On many occasions people interacted and participated in ways that we could never have predicted. That is where the completion of the work manifests: in the way that the audience moves, what they do, how they feel, and the choices they make, and
E: It’s almost like you need the audience.
D: Yes, exactly. It's common thread in our practice. Audience-participants are required in order for our work to “work”. For instance, in the experiential nightlife pieces we created for LACMA's VIP Party during Art Basel Hong Kong weren’t obviously interactive or begging for your participation...
A: It felt like a party.
D: Definitely. And our performances came to life when people encountered them, the environment prompted certain behaviors. The “interactivity” became invisible. Guests couldn’t tell what was them just partying and what was "the art".
A: The Touch Me flower wall for example. We did not expect people to wait in line for 30 minutes to stand in front of it and pose with hands in red gloves, but that piece took people by surprise and it was cool to see the guests have so much fun trying to figure out if the arms were prosthetic or real, some even tried to bite the performers' hands!
D: That's right, so bizarre. And even though the work was within a party context, our goal wasn’t just to help guests have a good time, there was this undercurrent of socio-political thinking or feeling. The theme was around a central female character, and we made the choice for her to be powerful and stoic, instead of a hot expendable for the guests.
A: Especially in this kind of vintage vibe, the women would be expected to be silent, demure, sexy eye candy that all the men consume. We flipped that gaze on its head and the lead character was dominant, she held all the power in the room. She stood in this glowing box above everyone, smoked her cigarette all night looking bored. Occasionally she would leave the box, walk up to someone in the room, stand in front of them and make eye contact for a few seconds, then blow smoke in their face. The piece was called She smells smoke. It was very interesting to see how the crowd responded to her. People seemed to love having smoke blown in their faces, they stood in complete awe of this tall, dominant, confident woman. We were definitely happy with that response. Maybe they will start being in awe of those women in their everyday lives.
D: Haha, maybe. Cici (the performer) wore a costume that also reflected this power. In addition to being over 6 feet tall in heels, she wore a dress designed and made by our friend, brilliant artist Amanda Maciel Antunes, and the dress had a particular bird on it that represents the powerful feminine in Chinese culture. Also, the collar on the dress was in a style typically only found on the clothing of emperors; women would never appear with that kind of collar, so there were many subtle design elements of that performance that came together to paint the picture we envisioned.
A: That’s a good example of how even if we’re creating something that’s not directly about a certain political subject, that our politics and views are always woven in there.
E: During the last of my six years in China, I finally made it to visit Lugu Lake, in the Yunnan province. That is probably the last matriarchal village in the world and you enter through the sign: “Welcome to the women’s kingdom”. It was very difficult to get to visit a real house where these women of Mosuo minority still live. The way it used to work – since now many of them moved to the big cities and the tradition is slowly disappearing – is that all the girls live on the first floors with the most powerful woman of the family: the grandma. When they reach the age of 18, they can have their private rooms upstairs. At night, they go out in the village to dance and when they meet a man they like – or vice versa – they touch their hands under the palms of their hand, as a code for showing availability. If the man returns the gesture, she will go home and wait for him in her room. The guy will come and will have to climb to reach the window. He needs one knife to open it and one hat to be left outside as a symbol that the woman is taken. In the morning, he will have to leave through the courtyard, so that the grandmother will see who that is, but he won’t have any rights on his potential children, who will be raised by the women and the men of the woman’s family. I just wanted to share with you another story of powerful feminine in China.
But let’s go back to you: how did this all start?
A: I’ve never heard of that, super interesting. Our story… well at the beginning, we first liked each other’s works on Instagram, a very modern to-be-love story. And we thought that we should meet up and start collaborating, maybe creating choreography and combining it with the kind of immersive environments that Dejha was doing. We decided to meet and we did, we were both in LA. That night we had a great discussion, and were planning on how best to collaborate and then she started hitting on me. She offered to cook for me. And this was January 2016. We started dating two weeks later and I moved in after a month. In December of that year we did our first collaboration.
E: So first came love!
A: Yes, but also I think from the beginning love was rooted in our shared love for art.
D: True, the first time we met up in Venice (LA), which was solely to talk about art and see if there was any room for collaboration, it was all about sharing references: “have you seen this film, have you watched this lecture, this person speak....”?
A: Literally, we were at the bar and we had napkins full of homework that we gave to each other. Therefore, even from the beginning this romantic connection was very much based in being obsessed with art and knowing that the other would appreciate the books that we have read and the movies that we have watched. It was always love wrapped up in appreciation for her creative ideas and taste. That was at the core at the romantic part.
D: The second time that we met up, we had this big sketchpad—which I don't even know why—and in that way everything, since day one, has been creative R&D, challenging each other at the extension of what art and writing we have seen in the world.
Not too long after, late 2016 in LA, was our first collaboration called Line Scanner. We rigged a Roadster 20K to a lift about 9 meters in the air and faced it straight down towards the floor. I was in Resolume mapping and triggering animations that I had created on top of Ania who was improvising movement. We were actually shooting some stuff for our friend’s Christmas rave. And when our DP stepped away, Ania and I just kept rolling and improvising (unrelated to Christmas). I later edited this together on a 4hr bus to NYC. So, unlike most of our work, it was completely unplanned and kind of an accidental creation.
A: Yes, Line Scanner was very spontaneous and it ended up screening in festivals around the world.
Line Scanner (2016 Los Angeles), Dejha Ti and Ania Catherine
E: Can I ask you how you monetize your art?
D: Good question. It’s tricky, because there still is not a very cut and dry method to “owning” or “buying” an experience, and that has been the primary medium we’ve been working in.
A: The structures that exist right now are still sorting out exactly how to deal with the experiential work we are doing. It’s all exciting because we are really dealing with non-traditional and often physical-digital hybrid formats, but as Dejha said, tricky in terms of monetization up to this point.
D: For us (so far), monetization has taken the form of one-off commissions from cultural institutions or brands. But in a permanent or long term installation, there could be a scenario involving a percentage of ticket sales. Experiential and immersive artwork tends to be quite expensive and time consuming to produce, so models like that would make the practice more sustainable.
A: Aside from that though, we have been working for the last months on creating some limited edition wearables as well as objects created from reclaimed material from our installations. It is really fun to consider creating something that can be owned, something that someone can live with in their home, almost as a creative constraint.
D: I agree. It becomes a site specific work, in the sense that we build off the intention of someone having it in a home or on a body. It is a very different and interesting context to create for. Also, we are beyond excited about the first piece from our Privacy Collection debut at Renaissance 220.127.116.11!
A: Can’t believe it. It’s such a departure—in terms of medium, not subject—from what we normally make and working with Barbara Sanchez-Kane on this has been a dream. The Privacy Collection is kind of an appendage project to subjects we explored in On View. We’ve gotten to the point that the devices we rely on to connect with each other, are listening and tracking us in an attempt to predict, and ultimately alter our offline behavior. It’s beyond an issue of privacy. It's erosion of free will. It's a psy-op.
On View was shortlisted for The Lumen Prize 3D/Interactive (2020) and ADC Award Winner for Experiential Design (Digital Experiences + Responsive Environments) (2020)
On View (2019), Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, Commissioned by the SCAD Museum of Art
Privacy Collection, Dejha Ti & Ania Catherine (2020)
D: The Privacy Collection is a series of wearable technology that both comments on this reality and does something at the same time. The pieces exist somewhere at the intersection of conceptual art, fashion, and function. We have a full collection in the works now. Ania and I have been fans of Sanchez-Kane for a while and when we approached Barbara about collaborating on this with us, she was very into it. It's really a lovely match. As you know, the first piece debuting in the Rome show is called I’d rather be in a dark silence than. It’s a black trench coat with pockets lined in military-grade signal blocking/isolating fabric. If your device is in the dark pocket, you can’t be tracked, traced, listened to, or notified. It also protects from contactless identity theft. For example, passports, credit cards and most items in our wallets contain RFIDs. Although we don't see the coat as a longterm solution, it serves as a reminder, every time you put it on, of the need to rebuild our digital ecosystems and the ethics within it.
I'd rather be in a dark silence than (2020) Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti - Limited Edition of 25
A: An interesting aside: the specific fabric we sourced for the coat is typically used in law enforcement and digital forensics. When purchasing it online we changed the shipping address from U.S. to Mexico, and the manufacturer said it was “out of stock”. We had to have it shipped to us in the U.S. and then ship it to Mexico to get to Barbara. Similar fabrics were “in stock”, but none of the lab tested and military-grade options were available. Definitely peculiar, and by that I mean suspicious.
Oh, going back to the devices listening to our conversations, we think it’s going beyond the well known “I talked about going on vacation in Greece and then an advertisement for a hotel in Greece came up in my feed 5 minutes later” stuff, but actually ideas and concepts that us, and several other creatives we know including Barbara (Sanchez-Kane), have had and talked about in detail, and then seen that idea executed by a larger company...
D: Yes, it's gone beyond the mood board and “inspo” problem. What was a referential creative economy is now taking the form of creative surveillance. Works-in-progress are embezzled through extractive technologies before the artist has a chance to birth the work.
A: That’s a whole other interview but something we’re thinking about and currently researching, related to this project.
D: It definitely is. Anyway, we’re thrilled to have the limited edition coats available through MoCDA.
E: There are artists who sell certificates of authenticity about experiences. Maybe Blockchain could be a solution.
D: Exactly, there are definitely ways emerging but it feels like the last 2 years we’ve been solely focused on producing so we probably haven’t spent as much time as we should have trying to make it sustainable or thinking about the logistics around or strategies for monetization.
A: Probably to our detriment, but we’re getting better.
D: Haha this is why we’re happy to know brilliant people like you and Serena!
A: I second that. What I love about the digital art, art+tech, community generally, is that there really doesn’t feel like a sense of competition. Everyone in this very international ‘scene’ is passionate, searching for answers, creating solutions, sharing ideas, helping each other out, assisting others on their endeavors. Even when we make statements or do talks that challenge norms or ask difficult questions, it is always met with interest and appreciation. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a community that felt that way. It’s really unique and I believe in it for that reason.
E: This takes me to another question that I wanted to ask you. I really liked when you were talking about digital art during the panel at CADAF Miami. You mentioned that when you say “digital” everyone is expecting huge immersive videos or similar stuff. When you asked if the audience would expect this, I answered no. I don't necessarily expect an experience—might be because I am in the digital art world—instead I would think more about an actual art piece, like a “Meural” digital canvas with art inside. But your point of view on this is very interesting because with your art, people might sometimes think that there is nothing digital there. And this is the point I would really like to stress in this conversation.
D: Yes, that is how we started our conversation at CADAF. The Mark Weiser quote we opened that presentation with, written in 1999, basically says that the multimedia devices of our time still put all their focus on the screen. On the daily, we are interacting most of the time with computers as computers. You know with tedious touchscreens, keyboards, mice, and screens. It seems that people are just as addicted to the screen in “digital” art as they are in their everyday lives. In our work we demonstrate that digital isn't synonymous with immersive projection, digital isn’t synonymous with goggles.
Like you said, in our work it can come across that nothing is digital. This approach falls inline with ubiquitous computing (or pervasive computing). Weiser describes it as something like: technology is embedded into the fabric of our world and becomes indistinguishable from everyday life.
E: The way you treat digital is very special. This interaction with the audience. It is almost digital art “eliminating” the digital part.
D: Well, eliminating or diminishing the obvious appearance of the digital part. We generally prefer that there's no virtual layer between you and the virtual world. When possible the interface is physical or unobtrusive. On View is more digitally advanced than previous works of ours that used immersive projection for example.
A: It’s interesting to us because projection mapping is actually a very old medium but it registers immediately as digital because of the expected aesthetics of digital art.
D: Right, your naked eye reads it as high tech but it's actually fairly low tech at this point. On View is the opposite, it looks low tech but it’s not. The entire experience is very natural looking, it's made of materials you normally encounter, like paint, dry wall, wood, ramps and so forth. But under the floors and behind the walls there is over 100 meters of fiber optic cable connecting a ubiquitous network of technology. We used TouchDesigner as a main brain to integrate real-time facial recognition, dozens of microprocessors, kinetic winch control, environmental sensors, voice commands, dmx light control and guest profile generation. The exhibition discretely tracks your actions as you move throughout. It recognizes your face, and constructs a data profile around you. The experience resolves in an area called the Golden Gallery which looks like a standard fine art environment containing a bulletproof art case and a security guard who is actually a performer trained to look bored and yawn occasionally. Anyhow, when you stand in front of the art case your image comes up. You are on view...but only to yourself. Your face is the only way to retrieve your image. The moment audience-participants saw their image, they were shocked, perhaps even disturbed. I think it is largely due to the technology being out of sight, so it came to them as a surprise. When this happens in real life it's devastating and a violation of humanity. On View is a closed system, so it’s quite innocuous and just serves as a warning.
Screenshot of On View's TouchDesigner Project File,
showing the network view of the 'Data Body' / kinetic room (2019)
Screenshot of On View's TouchDesigner project file wiring a guest's photo for real-time facial recognition (2019)
E: Should we find another word for “digital” art? I had this conversation with a friend who works in a very established gallery and she said: you don't call it “brush art”.
A: We never want people to look and be like “oh, digital art”! Similar to what your friend expressed with ‘brush art’, we like to ask, why is it always art and tech? We don’t say art and paint or art and clay, and in our opinion the best examples of art and tech are where you don’t think about the technology, it disappears into the work and you just experience art, the message, the feeling. The fact that it has a digital component is not the defining characteristic, it’s just that, a component, not the point.
D: Right. The technology is not the content.
A: People get so focused on the technological aspects and forget to think about the piece as a work of art, ask the questions that matter. It is almost like we’re calling each other on the phone and are so excited that the technology is connecting us that we forget to have a conversation.
D: Totally, we talk about this a lot, that we have to start expecting more, and holding digital art to standards beyond a fancy tech demo. An important question we always ask ourselves is, will this work still hold up when the technology is no longer novel? In On View we use facial recognition. It sounds impressive I guess, but it’s certainly more interesting in the context of the piece than it is as something that is possible in the world.
A: In a couple years (or less), when no one is impressed with facial recognition, On View will still have a message. The concept will stand regardless of the status of the technology.
D: Tech doesn’t age well, but concepts do.
A: Yes, and that is why we do not rely on tech as a message.
D: For me, it can be so poetic when the technology is hidden rather than the subject of the experience. I find the expected aesthetics of digital art very limiting. And by expected aesthetics I mean instantly recognizable as digital. When people think of digital art they typically think of lasers, AR/VR, headsets, projection, 3D animations—they just have that image. We intentionally made On View a pivot from that aesthetic: what do you mean this is digital art? We like that confusion. It also draws attention to the idea that computers are hiding around us all the time.
A: Right, people felt the results of the technology, rather than thinking about it. That’s what we aim for.
D: Yes, I agree. Visible tech (obvious tech) does not equal high tech. Usually it indicates the contrary.