Katja Novitskova

Interview by
Adriana Blidaru
Issue 34 – SS 19

Looking at bio-technology and genomic landscapes, the Estonian artist emphasizes the revelatory tension behind the apparent emptiness of the desert, and the overall desertification of life as the only real trend today.

ADRIANA BLIDARU  Your exhibition “If Only You Could See What I’ve Seen With Your Eyes,” created for the Estonian Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennial in 2017, traveled to the Art Museum of Estonia, KUMU (“If Only You Could See What I’ve Seen with Your Eyes. Stage 2”) in 2018, and then to London’s Whitechapel Gallery (“Invasion Curves”) later that same year. How did the exhibition and its subject evolve through these iterations? Did any other interests or directions develop out of this body of work?

KATJA NOVITSKOVA  Every time I have an opening where I present new works, I feel they are not ready or not quite where I want them to be. This opportunity, to have one show travel between very different venues and countries, allowed me to develop the work towards what I imagined it to be in the first place. With each exhibition that you mentioned, I focused the work more and added new elements. One of the main works, the baby swing installation titled Mamaroo (dawn chorus), will actually be shown again this year.
For me, the whole project was about creating an environment, an intense installation where works act as central or ambient elements of that environment, all pointing to certain topics or moods, all simulating some sort of pre-existing tropes of places: a horror movie set, a lab, a traditional art exhibition, a theatre stage. But I still don’t think I’ve gone far enough. I’d love to make it more intense, sort of an “amusement park” type of intensity, but I don’t really have the resources to do that, and I’ve also gotten pretty tired making these massive shows. Some part of me wants more, and the other just wants to make more wall pieces for the next few months.

AB  You are collecting a lot of visual and numerical data that you overlap in order to create these “landscapes of information.” Because you are using a lot of scientific facts, your work speaks to and of our current reality, but there are also some elements that push your work into a more speculative or even science-fiction realm. Can you address the relationship and tension between nonfiction and fiction in your practice?

KN  I like to use existing things, be it images, words or objects, and re-assemble them in ways that perhaps open them up to a new purpose or meaning, which is what a lot of art that deals with appropriation does to a certain degree. What I find interesting, though, is also generating a speculative projection: how do these things outline the possible futures, or render the past in a new light? For example, I’ve been using these mechanical contemporary baby swings as bases of sculptures. What I find fascinating about them is that they hold something from the “past” (a simulation of a motherly pouch, an animal body), something from now (a consumer product that substitutes human behaviour with tech), and something from the “future” (a speculation on robotic agency). So for me, this somehow feels right, to work with things that are able to collapse time like that. When there is a whole group of these baby swings dressed up in weird resin membranes and plastic feathers, it all of a sudden becomes haunting, and it signals “science-fiction.”

AB  You often emphasize the human through its absence. Can you tell me more about where you situate the human in the environments you’re creating?

KN  At the beginning of being an active artist, I decided to use less human representation, because I noticed that as soon as there is a face of a person, the work quickly becomes very much related to the social, and the socio-political; there is more at stake when you use someone’s likeness as material (since almost all visuals I use are “found”). So basically, I decided to present the human element as the invisible structure that activates the work (through the attention that the work receives), or to emphasize the human within the things that I appropriate (as most images and objects are traces of human activities). It is almost like this Einstein gravity thing: it is everywhere and it folds space-time, but you cannot directly look at it. I started to use mainly the non-human—representations of plants, animals and potential AI—as my “material,” but for the purpose of amplifying their agency in relation to the human “gravity,” not just exploiting it. Again, in case of the baby swing sculptures, they have a brand name on them “4 moms” that screams human property, and the floating resin works with short phrases of them are someone’s poetry.

AB  You often use the desert as a backdrop on which these non-human elements operate. I was wondering how much metaphorical weight this specific landscape has in your work. How do you see it connected to our current condition, and to your use of non-human representations?

KN  An image of an “empty” desert landscape can be seen as something akin to a default 3D landscape within image-generating softwares or digital environments. It is this generated Cartesian space with three axes, a viewing angle, material textures, sky gradients and a horizon line. With something like Mars missions, the photographs and the digital renders of them are often interchangeable for our understanding of Mars as reality. There is something deeply weird about seeing a robot in the desert, or any object for that matter. It always looks like it was copy-pasted into the landscape somehow. For me, this tension seems revelatory, as if it strips away whatever is placed into the desert from its “civilizational” excuse for existence. An extreme example of this would be the nuclear bomb tests of the 20th century in the US, Australia and USSR that were often performed in deserts (copy-pasted into the landscape, tremendously hurting the “invisible” native populations). The desert maybe reveals that a lot of these things imported into them shouldn’t exist at all. I somehow attempt to deal with this through the levels of the visual narratives.

AB  You mentioned using poetry earlier; I was actually going to ask you about the use of text in your work. In the context of your practice, one can think of this scattered text as natural language processing, but it does sound more like a poetic investigation. If it is poetry, whose poetry is it?

KN  I think it is poetry, but it’s not mine. I see text in the context of these recent works almost as an archeological artifact, or as trash. These texts are circulating the world long separated from their original context and purpose. Maybe some of it is very recent, and some of it is thousands of years old, it is hard to say. What I do is screenshot or save phrases I find in scientific articles or weird online phrase generators and mix them all up. When these phrases come together, they present these chains of meaning, like broken chains of DNA in a damaged sample. Maybe they were all part of one poem before, or maybe they are miles and thousands of years apart. I find this way of working with text productive, because I can capture a certain meaning without needing to make a linear manifesto out of it.

AB  Let’s talk about some of the elements and texts that appear in this spread that you’ve created for KALEIDOSCOPE. Can you tell me more about some of the elements that you chose to include?

KN  Since KALEIDOSCOPE approached me with the specific topic of the desert, I had to think how that might apply to what my work is focusing on at the moment. As I am more and more engaged with bio-technology (for example, thinking of genomics as an extractive, neocolonial industry), I had to think of the overlap between that and the common associations that come with the word “desert”: sand, camels and other stuff. I did a bit of research and stumbled on hundreds of articles about Gene Deserts (nothing to do with environmental desert, but rather a part of genetic research), Genomic Landscapes (actual landscapes that are associated with certain genomics), and about how, beyond oil and other mineral resources, a ton of it is related to the genetic information carried by the non-human inhabitants of all the world’s deserts—and that information is part of a potentially trillion-dollar industry. “The Relentless Expansion Of Human Spaces” overtly captures that the desert, if anything, is just a new surface area on the planet for “us” to colonize, this time with a new technique. So then I took these words and meshed them up with phrases that came from a machine learning or computational context: “Catastrophic Forgetting,” “A Novel Approximation Algorithm,” etc. The connection is, of course, that the new type of expansive industries all use algorithmic calculations for mapping the terrain, be it land topologies or the genetic makeup of creatures that inhabit them. The word catastrophic has this almost visceral meaning…

AB  That’s very interesting. I was thinking about these micro/macro algorithmic calculations, and how important scale is in your work—how it alters so dramatically from depicting microorganisms to depicting elements of outer space. On one hand, I see how it is mapping the world we are living in, but, on the other hand, it also emphasizes the kind of nonlinear time that we were mentioning earlier.

KN  Yeah, I think I am just unable to make a linear argument! Everything is so connected in multidimensional ways, and it is so hard to capture that. I really try to connect things that seem impossible to connect due to scale or degrees of separation, but I’ll do it in a way in which only art can: from a chameleon catching a worm to genetic research in one jump. For me, the poetry happens in the moment when this works: when both sources, micro and macro, join in a new plane. I know this jump doesn’t succeed every time, but I try.

AB  In your practice, when you use the vastness of data and data visualization to depict the world as a whole, it is impossible not to think about how this information is ultimately a quantifiable resource that has been exploited for human interests. Although this is obviously implied in your work, it is still left as an open question. What are your intentions with using these sources? Are you hoping to disclose a different way of accessing the world, or are you hoping to surpass the human way of seeing altogether?

KN  I think, for me, one aspect of including lots of infographics relates exactly to what you are asking: their meaning is inaccessible to most people (and I don’t expect people to understand them all), but give it to a computational mind hooked up to the Internet, and it “recognizes” the drawing very easily. So I like that the graphs become almost abstract drawings/markings to us, but they can be potentially clear phrases to “someone” else. And that perhaps goes to other connections in the work, although even I don’t know in what ways. What I am trying to do is somehow combine patterns that are created by various techniques and agencies into some kind of maps of our present and potential moment. Mapping is perhaps the core here, but again: non-linear mapping, mapping that is also aware of its limitations. More and more, I’m intrigued by low-resolution mapping, where most information is just pixel noise, and yet it is legible to someone somewhere. I am also curious how these new modes of accessing the world (not just visually) will affect art overall.

AB  As a researcher of some of the most recent “trends” in our evolution, what’s your prediction regarding the biotic crisis?

KN  Yes, “Biotic Crisis” is another core phrase from this latest period of my work. There is this new initiative in the world that was announced at Davos called “Global Genome Initiative.” It’s a “philanthropic” project that will attempt to process genomes of every living species on Earth and preserve them for research and possible resurrections in case they go extinct. What perhaps this project points to, more than anything, is that biotic crisis will become a big business. The companies that get big through that might trump Big Pharma (assuming they are not the same ones) in scale and power because, of course, it will all go back to humans again. Environmentally, I really don’t know, this 20ºC in February in Europe is terrifying. The only real trend, I guess, is the overall desertification of life.

Katja Novitskova (Estonian, b. 1984) is an artist who lives and works in Amsterdam.
Adriana Blidaru is a writer and curator based in New York. She is the editor and founder of Living Content.
All images courtesy of the artist.

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