Encounter Between the Virtual and the Material

A conversation with Danish artist and writer Amalie Smith on the occasion of her solo exhibition ΜHXΑNIKOΣ at ALMA Gallery in Riga, as a part of the Riga Photography Biennial Off-Year 2017

Lizete Riņķe

Amalie Smith. ΜHXΑNIKOΣ
ALMA Gallery, Riga
Through May 19, 2017 

Danish artist and writer Amalie Smith (b.1985) has been busy – she has published six hybrid books, and on April 20th, her seventh book since graduating from the Danish Academy of Creative Writing in 2009 will be released. Right after finishing the Danish Academy of Creative Writing, she began to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, at the School of Time-Based Media, and graduated with an MFA in 2015 with a video installation titled Eyes Touching, Fingers Seeing – an image and text collage about the relationship between vision and touch in the context of touch-screen technologies.

Amalie Smith. Eyes Touching, Fingers Seeing, 2015. Installation view from AFGANG 2015 Charlottenborg Kunsthal

In fact, Smith’s intention was to study at both institutions simultaneously as she was admitted to both, but the schools did not permit that. She now admits that the task of combining both would have been too exacting. Nevertheless, she has continuously worked across different disciplines and media, employing photography, video, text, installations and sculpture in her work – working on visual art while writing and, and writing while working on visual art. Amalie Smith has already attained noteworthy recognition for her work in the fields of writing and visual art, including for her previous novel Marble, published in 2014. Following year she was awarded the Danish Crown Prince Couple’s Rising Star Award.

I met Amalie Smith in Copenhagen for a conversation prior to her solo exhibition at ALMA Gallery in Riga, which is part of the Riga Photo Biennial Off-Year 2017.

My first question reflected what had aroused my curiosity the most when learning about Smith – What was her motivation to work in both fields?

I don’t see both fields as isolated. I was forced to choose in terms of education, but when I am interested in a certain subject or matter, I try to approach it from as many different directions as possible. For me, text and images are two main ways of doing that; they supply and challenge each other, and open up the space in between. I also like to continuously try out new media because I feel that when I master a certain media too well, it becomes a kind of routine for me – it makes me insensitive. It’s like when you travel to new places, and write or film somewhere unfamiliar – it makes you more alert; you discover something new.

Which media did you start working with initially?

That’s a difficult question. It probably started with making books. Back in school, I was writing texts and making illustrations, and I was challenging the shape of the books by folding them etc. The book has always been very important for me; it’s a medium that I turned to very early, as it connects text and images, but it also assembles knowledge. Many of my projects were about gathering as much knowledge as possible about a certain subject, though not in a scientific way, but more in a kind of abstract and subjective way. There is no place for the subject in the science; its not grounded in your body.

Amalie Smith. Touching the Interface, 2016. Aaby Library, Aarhus

So, your point of departure in your work is your subjective perception of the world?

Absolutely! I quite often use “I” in my writing, not because it is necessarily about me, but more generally because we all can refer to it no matter where we come from. My book Marble, among other subjects, is about the process of writing. I was on a residency in Athens at the Danish Institute while I was working on the book, so my starting point is this journey. I was interested in the subject of colour in antique sculpture; therefore, it was evident that I had to go to Athens.

You are particularly interested in antique art. Where does your interest for the subject comes from?

I was visiting the library at the Glyptotek Museum in Copenhagen, and they had only a small selection of books on the subject of colour in antique sculpture, although that’s where you should be able to find the most information about the subject. Before this, on a trip to Cuba, I found a photo of these sculptures, which was from the Glyptotek. And it was around that time that I found out that the antique sculptures had originally been painted in colours, and I was shocked. We have this image in our heads of white antique sculptures – of the perfect white marble, which represents more of an idea than the actual sculpture; it is a representation of an ideal upon which our Western culture has been built. That is why it is so surprising to see these sculptures in colours, and which look more like what we would today define as kitsch, such as garden gnomes and waxwork shows. I am interested in the history of these sculptures, what happened to them, and why we perceive them as we do.

I have always worked across different media, trying to eliminate the boundaries between different categories. Therefore, for me, these antique sculptures represent a point before the different media were divided into categories – before there arose the ideals dictated by the Academies: that sculpture has to be white, and that painting is two dimensional. The antique sculptures were multimedia: they were concurrently paintings and sculptures; sound was also involved, and they had scent, and they participated in processions with songs and music and so on. It was the time before art was put into museums. The question is whether these antique sculptures were even intended as art. The limits between art, arts and crafts, and ritual were much more fluid.

Amalie Smith. Touching the Interface, 2016. Aaby Library, Aarhus

Do you also think about the interactive aspect in your work?

I had an exhibition at a public library in Aarhus where I exhibited my graduation video together with sculptures made of green phenolic foam, which is usually used for floral decorations – it is a material that is very sensitive to touch, so you leave marks on it when you touch it. They pretty much invite people to touch them, although there was no sign telling visitors whether or not they should do so. My intention was that they had to seem inviting for viewers to touch. However, I had also used Japanese plastic food models for the sculptures, and unfortunately, after a week all of the plastic food had been stolen. That was certainly not something that I had predicted. It tells me a little about the different factors that you have to deal with when you approach this field.

Is interaction an aspect that you consider in your work with touch-screen technologies?    

It’s a complicated subject. I sometimes feel that you can have a more profound experience of a work when you don’t have a multiplicity of choices – it makes you impatient when throughout the whole thing you’re supposed to be interacting and participating in something. It is difficult to create the same tranquillity around the work. It’s just different when you watch a video or a film or read a book – it has your focus for that moment. Writing has probably affected me. A book can have your attention for many hours – there is no media in art that commands the same degree of attention; 20 minutes in front of an artwork at an exhibition is a long time.

Amalie Smith. Michanikos, 2015. Installation view from EXTRACT at Gl. Strand in Copenhagen

Do you think that today’s technologies affects our ability to focus?

Definitely! I am sure that today’s telephones also interfere with our reading experience, so even books are affected. Therefore, it is important to insist that it takes time to experience a work of art.

The subject of what technology does to us is thematically implicit in my works. My work on touch-screen technologies reflects on how we experience the digital space – how we become a kind of extension of the technology, or the technology becomes an extension of us – what exactly is it that happens in our encounter with the screen. To some extent, my video installation Michanikos, about the Greek sponge divers, is also a work critical of technology. In the beginning, the use of industrial diving suits made it possible for Greek sponge divers to dive deeper and to stay under water longer, and thus to access new resources; but they also were the first to experience decompression sickness.

Technology opens up new fields, new landscapes...the Internet is also a kind of landscape – it can reveal some frightening consequences, but it also connects people and expands our world. Nevertheless, as with the Greek sponge divers, digital technologies can potentially have an effect on our bodies that we haven’t yet understood. New possibilities arise every time new technologies emerge, but they also tend to have some side effects that we only find out about later on. I am not against new technologies; I am very interested in them, I use them every day, and I couldn’t live without them, but it’s just important to keep in mind what this does to us.

You seem to be constantly looking back in time in your work, with antiquity as a sort of leitmotif. Do you feel, in some way, that you don’t belong in the present?

I definitely belong in the present; I think we are living in a very interesting time, but it’s just very stupid not to learn from the experiences that the history of human culture offers us. If we don’t do that, then we become poorer. History is not linear; there are some ruptures, and things are often taken out of their context, so it is good sometimes to go back in time and see them from another point of view, as with the antique sculptures. I just think it is a huge resource for inspiration.

Amalie Smith. Michanikos, 2015. Installation view from EXTRACT at Gl. Strand in Copenhagen 

You are preoccupied by the materiality of colour and different materials, as in your book Marble, but you also work a lot with contemporary nonmaterial media…

I am always interested in the material presence of things and how they materialize in space – as with books, for example: the text is something virtual, but the book is also something material. It’s the same with my video works, even if they consist of pixels. I have tried to give my video installation Michanikos a physicality in space by hanging the video screens on ropes, so they lean back a bit by putting weight on the ropes. I have focused on the physical presence of the video in the space, and together with the viewer. I am always interested in the encounter and intersection of the virtual with the material.

What is your work process – what comes first, text or images?

I can’t say that something comes first. It’s usually a certain subject that captures me; either I read something interesting, or I have an interesting experience, or I become fascinated by something in the real world...something that surprises me, such as these antique sculptures. And when I begin my research, I am always amazed at how many other directions the subject can go in. Text is an important tool for me; it’s a way of structuring my thoughts, but I always do it in a dialogue with images – I am always out filming, or photographing, or collecting images from the Internet. Text is, for me, a link between the different disciplines.

Amalie Smith. Touching the Interface, 2016. Aaby Library, Aarhus

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a decoration project at a secondary school in Copenhagen. The school is entirely based on digital media; for example, there are no books. There is also a strong focus on inter-disciplinarity and collaboration, so the school is built in a very open way, without classrooms. I was asked to create a digital work for the school, and it was quite a challenge for me because I had to figure out how to create a digital work that could run for 10 or 20 years, just in terms of the technical side of it. Therefore, I tried to reflect on the basic idea of what is digital. I came across a punched card machine, which was the very first computer and based on the punched card system, and the first industrialised weaving technique. Joseph Marie Jacquard invented at the beginning of 19th century an automatic loom, which used punched cards. It made the production of textile with complicated patterns cheaper, but it also created a revolution among textile workers because half of them lost their jobs. In a way, it was the first digital technology – it created patterns based on a code, which is also similar to the way a computer reads an image in pixels. So I decided to create a digitally woven tapestry for the school. The tapestries will be made at a place called Textile Lab in Holland, and where the whole process is digitalised. Thus, my project points back to the origin of the computer – the material aspect of the origin of the computer, and to the future – with machine-learning algorithms which potentially threaten to take many jobs in future because now machines are able to think by themselves instead of having to be programmed. With my work, I am trying to show that we are somewhere in-between in this process, and which is happening very quickly. In a way, the work will showhow artificial intelligence understands and sees the world, and hopefully, it will create a foundation for a reflection on digital media – which is something that we still lack.