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RECENT ARTS, sensing through the screen & the skin

Interview by Agata Kik

Recent Arts is a project by Valentina Berthelon and Tobias Freund, whose combined artistic practice embodies the synergy of art and technology, going beyond the disciplinary divisions of realising reality. In their live audio-visual shows, manipulating sound and image, they borrow from the latest scientific findings and new technologies while taking advantage of art as a space for subjective expression and questioning.

Combining an emotional and intellectual understanding of the Earth, what Recent Arts point to, is the underlying connectedness of all the processes of our perception of the world. Even though devoted to theoretical research, their works also emerge from everyday functioning since, as they claim: ‘without the involvement of the body in sensing and acting, concepts wouldn’t be there’.

One of their previous performances, titled The History of Darkness, could be described as a voyage through scientific images and perceptions that people have had of the universe. Mixing images and experimenting with sound, the show collapsed different timescales and histories of thought. Traversing through historical depictions of the cosmic, this project gave the audience a chance to recognize the evolution of human awareness and deduce how dramatically the contemporary mind differs from what it was previously. Apart from this celestial narrative, the show was also a way to highlight the fact that imagination is one of the tools men have used to connect to the environment.

Their latest project, titled Skin, a series of videos with improvised dance, vividly contrasts with the duo’s previous works. Rather than derived from the cognitive, it is entirely devoted to the affect, a return to the body, as a way of knowing and communicating with the outside world. Recent Arts admit that their own or their collaborators’ live physical presence on the stage has the power to directly influence their audience and create the dynamics that digital media fails to generate.

Moreover, by contrasting written language with the affective power of music, the duo reaches their viewers both intellectually and emotionally, influencing their psyche, generating free associations, combining the unconscious with conscious reasoning, and turning their shows into holistic knowledge events. While matter can always be reduced to digital data these days, new technologies alter the old, creating new ways of interacting with the environment.

Even though contemporary cybernetics, with data generated on gigantic scales and the infinitely-expanding cyberspace, are often out of human control and understanding, the virtual world opens up new possibilities for developing our relationship to the physical reality, data constituting a mere extension of the human body. New technology can serve as a tool in deepening our being in the world; however, when used to help capitalistic progress gain in speed, it can only result in the feeling of disconnectedness from the present.

When thinking about the here and now, Recent Arts admit that the contemporary climate is characterised by ‘time over space’. Recent Arts practice also opens the gate to the spiritual world through their works, which rely on digital devices. Electric waves, sonic reverbs, energetic vibrations of matter, and Recent Arts show how technology has the ability to pave the way to your innermost self.

As an artistic duo under the name Recent Arts, you co-produce audio-visual shows whose ideas you mostly derive from science. What is your collaborative process behind approaching scientific findings?

It is clear to us that culture is a “whole”; it’s a space where art, science and technology mix and evolve together, a process in which the development of one affects the others in some synergy. For us, Art should be a space of permanent questioning, of subjective interpretations and possibilities not found in any other discipline. We try to invent new ways of seeing and expressing ourselves, and to do this, we take inspiration from the world surrounding us, the latest scientific findings and, of course, the new technologies.

We need to intellectually and emotionally understand the Earth as an interconnected system, and when you understand that you are profoundly connected with everything you observe, a feeling to go beyond the divisions of disciplines emerges.  Scientists do their research, decision-makers do politics, writers make stories, and artist work with aesthetics in the creation of new meanings; we all describe a different aspect of reality, and this is why we should all learn from one another to build a better future. We hope that our creations will affect us in a good way environment in this sense, art and science are two great engines of culture and sources of creativity.

Is it your own bodily experiences or rather in-depth theoretical research?

I guess that our approach to science comes from theoretical research but also from our body experiences. The concepts that guide our thoughts are not just matter of the intellect but also influence our everyday functioning, the structure of our concepts, what we perceive, how we move around the world and how we relate to other people,  and vice versa, without the involvement of the body in sensing and acting, concepts wouldn’t be there.

One of your previous projects is titled The History of Darkness. What is this ‘darkness’ that you try to explore, and how do you manage to bring it to light through your art practice?

“The History of Darkness” is a performance that takes you on a trip into a universe of astronomical images, so we could say that the darkness that we talk about refers to the “Universe”. We take the audience on a journey that highlights the style of scientific images but also the perceptions people have of the universe.  

“The Universe” is a concept that humans created, resulting from many centuries and layers of assumptions and thinking about what surrounds us. When we experience the world with our senses, we only perceive a tiny fraction of the whole, but so many things are happening on another reality level. Even though the universe can’t be defined comprehensibly, we try and learn a lot in the process. This human capacity to imagine possible universes is our best tool because it helps us to synchronise with our environment.

Visual representations of the universe, going from ancient woodcuts of the Earth’s creation to hand-painted illustrations, offset prints, photographic images, to Hi-definition visualisations of galaxies, have the power to show stages of our evolving self-awareness as humans. They can be seen as tools in the history of science, just like a telescope or a wheel. Over the centuries, our understanding of the Universe has changed dramatically. As we all know, the development of science and human knowledge never stops, and new discoveries and theories are constantly breaking down our old beliefs to build up new paradigms.

The History of Darkness is our attempt to represent some of these thoughts through a narrative experiment. We highlight the beauty and simplicity of low-fidelity material by using images created without the technological tools available nowadays (we use old photographs, drawings and diagrams of the cosmos taken from old astronomy books), and we combine this material with personal views and with some contemporary concepts of theoretical physics that fascinate us. The sounds are not based on concrete musical structures but rather on experimenting and improvising.

Your audio-visual shows are somatic events impacting the entire physicality of your audiences, while you tend to incorporate body movement in your work. What is, in your opinion, the relationship between the human body and contemporary digital technology? How does the digital expand our relationship with physical reality?

The new technologies had a profound impact on human social relationships, and as the natural world is being modified by science and technology, we see the birth of new realities. Cyberspace is a place where the physical space has zero value, and as our experiences develop more and more in the virtual world, our bodies and senses are taking new dimensions. Within this scenario, the prevailing magnitude is “time over space”.  

Our bodies and identities are translated into information and images, but our ability to generate data exceeds our capacity to understand it. It is a big challenge for us to make sense of this information and for artists to explore the aesthetic possibilities of these databases and make meaningful connections with them.

On the other hand, not only our bodies and minds are translated into data, but also the physical world we are part of. Every corner of the planet can be expressed in coordinates, and it’s available to all of us if you have a GPS device. This virtual world composed of data is like an extension of the physical one and can serve as a tool to expand our relationship to the physical reality.

How does screen-based life influence the idea of being present in the world?

We think that screen-based life deeply influences being present at the moment. It is actually a paradox because even though it is fascinating how, through the internet, we can virtually achieve almost any desired place in the world or be present in many places simultaneously, we can easily lose contact with ourselves, our environment and the people physically surrounding us.  

Screens are very addictive and create a sense of disconnection from the present. Technology is a great tool that can be used positively or negatively, but in general, it is related to material progress and material progress by itself will never bring us happiness. We have to combine technology with our inner science to develop spiritual values (not referring to any religion but to human affection) and find inner peace.

Your new project, ‘Skin,’ also augments the electronic by involving live bodies in the show. What do you want to achieve by bringing embodied movement and live voice to your digital work?

With this project, we tried to do something completely visceral and emotional, unlike the previous audiovisual show (The History of Darkness), which was full of information and interpretations of scientific data. This time, both the music and the videos are focused on revealing human emotions, almost like a statement against today’s standardisation, perfection and technologization.

We wanted to recover the body as a communication vehicle and make it a tool for expansion. To achieve this, we decided to make a series of videos with dance and performance and use improvisations as our main source of inspiration.

We always liked to use voices in our previous works, so when we had the opportunity to work with Barbie Williams, we felt it could be very refreshing. A live singer on stage can communicate more directly with the audience, creating new dynamics in the show.

You have also produced a video called ‘Latex’, and the title of your newest project is Skin. What is it that interests you the most in this outer part of the human body?

Besides all its amazing practical functions like containing the body or being an interface between the inner body and the external world, the “skin” can also be seen metaphorically as identity. Personally, I fell in love with the idea of the body and the skin as an evolving map of our individual experiences, revealing through its imperfections and specific characteristics our own way through life. In our contemporary world, the skin has become a huge topic of obsession; the media invade us with endless images of perfect bodies and perfect skins and the desire to alter the skin to make it look younger grows.

On the other hand, and maybe as a contra-reaction to this, many people are intervening their skin with tattoos and piercings. Sometimes we use the skin to protect our identity, and some others, we look for a second skin when we feel that we need to protect or reinforce ourselves. Our video “Latex” used the idea of a second skin. The latex suit took away all traces of identity from the external body, leaving an androgynous being that delights with the movement and rhythms of its own body. He synchronises with his peers and his existence through a hypnotic dance.

Many of your visuals involve words. What is your idea behind using written language next to the disembodied sound? On the other hand, when working with live voice, how does the experience of your work change?

Texts are another way of communicating, written language functions in a different layer than music, but they connect. While text affects our intellect, music has this incredible and mysterious power to induce emotions, and we try to use this power to generate free associations between concepts and emotions. In our shows, we like to create stories, develop content, and sometimes even guide the audience into a particular moment in history or talk about certain ideas.

All elements in our performance; lights, videos, sounds, live voices and ideas (in the form of texts) should complement each other and give form to the atmospheres and concepts that we want to express.  At the same time, we aim to create an organic performance that is open enough to be interpreted in multiple ways.

How did your collaboration between the dancers and performers in ‘Skin’ look like?

We were lucky to find a great place to film called Medienwerkstatt, and we made most of the videos for the “Skin” project there. The original idea was to work with the concept of “body”, so we decided to make a series of videos with dance and performance improvisations. We chose several dancers and performers who sometimes were professional dancers and other times just danced as a hobby. We gave the songs to the dancers short before the shooting, and we met them in the studio to start improvising.

We would always record with 2 or 3 cameras to have different angles and do several shootings until we were tired or we ran out of studio time. For each video of the show, we had a basic idea, atmospheres, costumes, and colours, but until we were at the shooting studio, we didn’t really know what would happen because the dancers had complete freedom to express what they felt with the music. The flow of the moment and the dancers’ energy would define the video’s outcome.

What were the challenges of such a collaborative project?

The overall process of shooting the videos for the “Skin” project was very intense but super fun. Sometimes working on audiovisual projects like ours can be quite lonely in the sense of spending many hours by yourself in front of a computer producing and editing content.

This is why we were looking forward to working with all these dancers. More people mix up their ideas and talents into a common goal. I guess the biggest challenges had to do with the technical aspects of the project, like finding an affordable studio with the equipment we needed or filming most of the video using a green screen technic.

What is your enemy of creativity?

Tobias: troubles, thoughts.

Valentina: the stressy rhythm of today´s life  

You couldn’t live without…

Tobias: My family and making music

Valentina: My family, my friends, and right now, I couldn’t live without cooking healthy, tasty food.

(Media courtesy of the artists)
On Key

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