In her work Katja Novitskova tackles the complexity of depicting the world through technologically driven narratives. By bringing together art and science to the level of nature, she brings awareness to the mediation and representation tools used to depict these realms. In her exhibition, Microbial Oasis, on view at the Kunstfort’s metal Genieloods in the summer of 2021, Katja processes her reflections on biodiversity, organic design, bio-databases, and hybrid molecular structures into an installation and new video work in the Kunstfort’s weapons arsenal. Editor of Kunstfort Journal interviewed her in the final week of her exhibition.
Masha van Vliet: How does the title of your exhibition Microbial Oasis frame and introduce your work?
Katja Novitskova: Microbial Oasis is a phrase I found researching the topic about pockets of life in extreme environments: like deserts, volcanos and possibly outer space environments. If life exists anywhere besides Earth it is most likely microbial and can be found in small locales similar to oases. Bacteria are the fastest organisms to evolve and as such they are used in laboratories all over the world researching fundamental mechanisms of genetic mutations and novel adaptations; microbial biochemistry is often extracted and used to produce industrial chemical agents like specific enzymes. In that sense microbial life is ‘mined for resources’ in the same way any natural resource is, and we can say that microbial oases are bio-goldmines. Looking at life as an economical resource has been one of the key interests for me in my work — be it for attention economies, biotech industries or computational technologies.
MvV: The images in the works you present in the exhibition at Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen are derived from a publicly available “protein databank” that consists of more than 10,000 images of proteins and viruses found in the human body. Where is this database normally used for and why did you choose it as the starting point for your work?
KN: Protein Data Bank is one of the most important resources for molecular models in various file and data formats, from images to 3D models. It is widely used in medical and research industries as a library of key elements of life. There is way more data on there than only the 12,000 images we used (this is just the amount we used for our algorithm). For me this database is a go to place to explore the intersection of biology and computation. I find the relationship between models and real life biological matter very important, as it kind of captures the main tension within and issue of computational technologies applied to the world outside: the model is always a mere approximation of the real thing. And so the datasets, the algorithms and formats we use are always bound by the limitations of the current understanding and technological resolution. And additionally, by our aesthetic sensibilities and ability to visualise something that is not fully possible to grasp. This question is fully explored within a field of biosemiotics. Using images available on Protein Data Bank I created a collection of synthetic protein and virus images. Their relationship to real life biology is speculative, they are a translation of a translation, a game of a broken telephone of life.
MvV: Because of COVID-19 images of viruses and other abstract processes have become omnipresent. Do you think the pandemic has learned us the hard way about the importance and urgency of processes such as immunology, that are not immediately visible to the eye? Maybe this could also help in our understanding of climate change. Or is this wishful thinking?
KN: I think maybe the ‘best’ thing that came out of the pandemic is awareness of how closely we are actually all connected all around the world, and the ecological dimension of that connection (through germs, genetics, and vulnerable social orders). I hope the daily news regarding various COVID-19 strains and the mechanics of various vaccine have indeed introduced many people to the contemporary scientific knowledge, process and the corporate reality of the major biotech companies.
MvV: I read somewhere that your aesthetics are influenced by: “Everything synthetic and contemporary and everything ancient and fossilised, visual representations of animals and biological structures and visual representations of data and abstraction.” You are interested in the visual representation of things that are often difficult to grasp for a more general public. What is it that interests you in these images and is it your goal to make these images more accessible?
KN: I think all these things I mentioned are crucial to understanding our contemporary reality, no matter how unaccessible it is to the general public. Our understanding of “visual representation of data and abstraction” today will determine how our societies will develop in the future. I think both amongst the general public and within humanities more attention could go into grasping the fast-changing matters of bio-politics, algorithmic technologies and ecological interconnectedness. I try to bring these topics into my work via mostly visual narratives hopefully affecting the viewer either consciously or subconsciously.
MvV: What is interesting is that your work revolves around things that are either too big, too small or too abstract to see with the human eye. And you almost never relate to things that we immediately recognise. What attracts you in this form of representation?
KN: I’m most attracted to uncanny and novel visual forms. My interest in modern technologies of vision and digital models of the natural world stem from the fact that these fields generate various previously unseen visual materials. These technologies map the frontiers of our knowledge about nature and technologies themselves, and as a result they expand our visual vocabulary of forms and kinds of images that are possible (from 3D protein modelling, to deep learning algorithms, robots on Mars, and cameras that capture non-visible light). Oftentimes, but not exclusively, these happen in dimensions that are either too big or too small for a human eye. On the other hand I find that art, from painting to VR, is also a source of this cultural novelty or unusualness. For me mixing the two makes perfect sense.
MvV: Can you tell us a little bit more about your working process. How do you start on a project, how do you do your research and how do you decide on the format for the presentation of your work?
KN: The method of working has been slightly changing over the years, but overall it has been a mix of solitary online research and digital sketching, studio practice and collaborations with other artists. Usually any project starts with me kind of making digital mood-boards and folders with associations of text and image that I think relate to the specific topic I’m working on. The texts and images are usually a mix of found material and my own sketches. Then I proceed to make visual sketches of possible works or exhibition design. I can make dozens of versions of one work before settling for a final option. During this stage comes the decision of whether I should outsource some parts of making the work, make it in the studio or invite someone to help me with it. For finalising the concept and an exhibition layout I love to be in dialogue with curators I’m working with or whoever is my most direct collaborator on the project. The best decisions and insights have come out of insightful conversations.
MvV: Your work is often related to Net Art. Yet, your works are made for a gallery environment, not a digital environment. Why do you prefer to display your work in a physical way, while the origin of most of your imagery is virtual?
KN: In the beginning of my artistic journey I was deeply inspired by art that existed online or was created digitally, especially through some sort of archival practices and appropriation (using found images, existing websites or text). I saw it as an exciting new possibility, where the enormous amount of media found online can be reconfigured into new narratives and forms. This new art closely examined the behaviours and platforms that were emerging online, as well as the new world that was reflected in them. While considering my contribution to this discourse I discovered that translating from online to offline media and existing formats like exhibitions can increase the estrangement of this reflection and basically be more formally and narratively expressive, more complex and meaningful. The other reason was rooted in socio-economic reality: the art world significantly skewed towards offline systems of presentation, distribution and funding. Having just graduated a Master’s programme I had to follow where the funding was. Currently we have entered a resurgence period of online art: due to the spread of NFT and blockchain technologies online art can be self-sufficient again. I have recently made a series of NFT artworks (project Mutagen) that were visually and conceptually related to my Microbial Oasis project. In contrast to the very material presentation at Kunstfort, these works remained purely digital, but with the capacity to digitally mutate on the blockchain.