Talk to me: Eva Papamargariti + Theo Triantafyllidis in dialogue on the entanglement of human, machine + nature

, 31 May 2017

“As we continue challenging nature, nature will keep challenging us back and this dynamic relationship, this exact moment is, from my perspective, one of the most productive, uncanny, dangerous but also fascinating conditions,” says Eva Papamargariti in an email chat with Theo Triantafyllidis about their exhibition Obscene Creatures, Resilient Terrains. Currently showing at London’s Assembly Point, running May 12 to June 17, the collaborative show explores the intersection between landscape, nature and technology.

Eva Papamargariti + Theo Triantafyllidis Obscene Creatures, Resilient Terrains (2017) Installation view. Courtesy the artists + Assembly Point, London.

Both artists work with digital technology and and animation. London-based Papamargariti here presents mixed media installation ‘Soft Bodies, Invincible Critters I-IV’ of fabric prints, laser cut and etched fluorescent acrylic, as well as HD video projection on black sand ‘Precarious Inhabitants II’. Los Angeles-based Triantafyllidis exhibits three-channel screen video ‘Seamless,’ with sound design by Diego Navarro. The individual works enter into a dialogue that, as the press release describes, “traverses the landscape, observing it with the curiosity of an explorer, oscillating between omniscient distance, and near-erotic detail.”

In response to AQNB Editor Jean Kay’s question “where does humanity (and technology) start, and where does it end?” the pair expand on the ideas that have shaped and informed their practices in dialogue with each other, with the evolving idea of co-habitation at the root of their conversation.

Eva Papamargariti: The main idea of our show is exploring the ongoing interaction between nature and technology. This interaction sometimes is becoming apparent and sometimes is quite subtle, almost as being implied. I believe the connecting mechanism of these conditions is the way we permute the role of human in our work. I find it very intriguing, the fact that in your work [‘Seamless,’ 2017], Theo, the human doesn’t exist at all but the viewer somehow obtains the role of the observer, we slowly become part of your constructed landscape because in a way it feels that our gaze activates it – almost as we are looking at an object.

Eva Papamargariti, ‘Soft Bodies, Invincible Critters I-IV’ (2017). Detail. Courtesy the artist + Assembly Point, London.

Theo Triantafyllidis: Yes, the piece feels like an enclosed ecosystem, the way it is cut off from its environment, despite its scale, gives it the presence of an object. The idea for this piece came to me when I tried google earth in virtual reality for the first time. It was kind of a sublime experience for me. I remember when Clement Valla was talking about the “Universal Texture,” seeing Google Earth as a huge patchwork of satellite imagery stitched together to create a texture file the size of the earth.

In the new version of Google Earth, each tile of the map was photographed from multiple angles and through the use of photogrammetry was made into a relatively accurate 3D model. The way you navigate and manipulate this 3D model in VR totally changes your relationship and perception of the earth, you feel like the whole planet is an object, but on a different scale. Going back to the piece, as you said, it is the gaze of the audience that activates the landscape and defines it as an object. In your video there is a narrator, that seems to mutate and change throughout the piece but also is perhaps the only human presence that we can directly perceive. 

EP: Indeed, this voice is some sort of remaining indication of human presence. It’s a voice that contains multiple voices, different tones and genders, changing its tone and pitch. It’s almost as if it tries to prove that humans exist because their voices can pose questions that demand answers from the opposite side – the other (invasive) species/inhabitants. They are observing their behavior, feeling threatened but also curious to understand the spectrum of the ‘otherness’ of their existence. The first-person narration is a core element of the videos and the laser-cut acrylics that I use on the installations. I would say that through it, I am trying to unveil this kind of entanglement that exists between technology, humans and nature on one hand, and on the other hand, I aim to create a dynamic dialogue between these ‘actors’ as they are all part of an ongoing balancing game, where no hierarchy can be revealed. But in mentioning the idea of ‘actors,’ I can’t help but think about the way that machines and animals interact with each other and their surroundings in your piece, and how these interactions get altered or repeat through time, as we are able to observe certain changes in your landscape the more we look at the screens. I feel that time is important parameter in your work, not only in the way that it becomes a central factor of these encounters on your enclosed ecosystem but also because it defines the way the work communicates with the viewer.

Eva Papamargariti, ‘Precarious Inhabitants I’ (2017) Video still. Courtesy the artist + Assembly Point, London.

TT: In this piece, the actors have less agency over their actions than in some of my earlier works. Here they seem kind of unaware of their environment, endlessly trying to understand, explore and navigate. The random encounters between different species are the moments that are of interest. As the animal population and autonomous robot population encounter each other, they have these nonviolent moments of realization of each other’s existence but also they are unable to fully comprehend the extent of their potential interactions. What is interesting to me, was comparing the way that we train robots to navigate in real-life situations, having an inside-out array of sensors, compared to gaming AIs that have more of an outside-in knowledge of their environment. They are by default aware of the whole ‘level,’ but we have to take away from that awareness and restrict it (field of view, senses etcetera) in order to make their behaviour feel more realistic. In your work, you are also talking about species navigating new environments, but perhaps on a micro-scale and with more invasive strategies.

EP: Yes exactly, an important part of the videos and laser-cut acrylics is exploring the invisible and visible processes that are related with invasive species and the alterations that they bring to non native ecosystems. It is quite interesting to me, the movement of these organisms to unknown territories and the mechanisms they develop in order to survive, the way we as humans deal with this but also the way scientists talk about it using terms like ‘invasive species colonies’ for example. Or even the fact that they have become in the recent past part of trade transactions illegally through internet platforms like amazon and ebay. I feel that these dynamic imbalances can speak literally and metaphorically about the way nature and its inhabitants develop sometimes aggressive techniques and concealment tactics to protect themselves or to dominate over others, from a micro to a macroscale. Also a lot can be said equally about human’s position and action in relation to these processes and even more about the effects that human absence or intense observation and interference might or might not have upon them.

TT: In return, humans, through technology, are creating new ways to monitor and control nature. For instance, micromanagement and gamification techniques have been applied to crowdsource the termination of such invasive species (like the fish population in your video, ‘Precarious Inhabitants I’), or satellite imagery used to monitor forest growth and deforestation patterns on a global scale. I have been particularly interested in these emerging systems. One could argue that our network of imaging devices (satellites, drones, Google Street View vehicles, lidar scanners, phone cameras, etcetera) are continuously working outside the boundaries of our urban environment and are attempting to describe or surveil nature. I am also interested in the idea that these systems are close to becoming realtime and autonomous, opening up the possibility of an interaction system with nature.

Theo Triantafyllidis, ‘Seamless’ (2017), w/ sound design by Diego Navarro. Video still. Courtesy the artist + Assembly Point, London.

EP: At the same time, bringing to mind this network of imaging devices that you mention, we are observing more and more how technology and its artifacts are adopting a biomimetic behavior. Micro-robots that function like flies, mosquito drones, robofish and machines that look like dogs; carrying GPS systems and onboard sensors, reaching places on earth and the sea bottom that the human eye cannot reach. They can even communicate with each other, extrapolating even more the idea of animal mimesis. We are standing in front of this paradoxical condition of an endless sampling, recreating, reassembling, copying and extending of natural and animal operations. It is quite interesting, we keep creating counterparts in order to exceed the previous counterparts. In that process there is also an emphasis on the idea of co-inhabiting, symbiotic mechanisms between animals-machines, human-machines, human-nature-animals-machines that bear resemblances, existing and trying to co-inhabit the planet. I remember this video where a dog barks on a Boston Dynamics quadruped robot dog, at this moment, we see a completely uncanny but quite intriguing ‘dialogue,’ and series of gestures unfolding between those two ‘actors.’

TT: This is the kind of uncanny relationship that I find fascinating too. I was exploring this kind of animated nonverbal communication that emerges in these situations in my piece. I was laying out this scenario, where these bio-mimetic robots and wild animals are set to co-inhabit a landscape of limited resources, and thus have to continuously negotiate the boundaries of their habitation. The two populations, of robots and animals, start off unaware of each other’s existence, but each time they stumble upon each other, there is a moment where they face each other and are somehow startled, both by their resemblance and by their inability to describe the other on their own terms. These moments hint at the possibility of coexistence of the two populations, but also the possibility of an emergent system of collaboration between the two. Meanwhile, there is an underlying hierarchy of scale and management of resources that they are trying to overcome. In your piece, this hierarchy breaks and the boundaries between robots, human and animals become blurred.

Eva Papamargariti, ‘Soft Bodies, Invincible Critters I-IV’ (2017). Installation detail. Courtesy the artist + Assembly Point, London.

EP: True. On the video, the human voice asks one of the critters ‘Are you dangerous?’ and the critter replies: ‘Not more than you are (…) Me and you are connected. We exist simultaneously — I am not inferior or superior.’ So, indeed as you said Theo, for me it is more a question of how these ‘actors’ co-exist in their continuously altering habitats and the range of interactions they are putting themselves through, rather than who prevails in the end.**

Eva Papamargariti and Theo Triantafyllidis’ Obscene Creatures, Resilient Terrains exhibition at London’s Assembly Point is running May 12 to June 17, 2017.