Katja Novitskova Predicts the Future of Human Vision


Alexander Burenkov

Katja Novitskova’s exhibitions “Eyes of the World” and “Random Forest” at the MGKSiegen (Germany) and Temnikova&Kasela (Estonia)  

This month, Amsterdam-based Estonian artist Katja Novitskova has unveiled her first monographic museum exhibition in Germany, titled “Eyes of the World”, at MGKSiegen. This exhibition is her largest to date and provides a comprehensive overview of the artist’s work over the past decade. Concurrently, Novitskova has also presented “Random Forest”, her first solo gallery exhibition in Estonia, hosted at Temnikova & Kasela. This exhibition addresses the themes of computational and biological mutation, machine vision, and world-building, and coincides with the mushroom season in the Baltics.

“Eyes of the World” at MGKSiegen marks the remarkable artistic journey over the past decade of Katja Novitskova, born in Tallinn, Estonia in 1984. Her trajectory has taken her from a realm of positive techno-optimism to a dark, dystopian critique of our species. As a leading figure among the post-internet generation of artists, Novitskova delves into the dynamics surrounding post-digital images manipulated by algorithms and their constant circulation between the online and offline worlds. Additionally, she engages in ambitious research within the realms of biotechnology and technologically mediated visual perception, encompassing both micro and macro planetary scales. Despite her absence of formal artistic education, Novitskova, a maverick in her own right, represented her homeland at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017 at the age of 33 with her project “If Only You Could See What I’ve Seen with Your Eyes”. Her academic background in semiotics at Tartu University, coupled with studies in graphic design and digital media at the Sandberg Instituut, as well as her foundation in the new media at the University of Lübeck, have significantly contributed to her unconventional artistic approach.

Over the past decade, Novitskova’s artworks – featuring penguins, polar bears, sloths, leopards, rhinoceroses, marabous, belugas, flies, and especially worms – printed on flat aluminum Dibond plates, have prolifically populated the art world. These pieces captivate viewers with their vivid colors, the inherent cuteness of animal imagery sourced from the internet, and their ironic commentary on animalistic themes in art history, spanning from Hieronymus Bosch to John Baldessari and Salvador Dali. Beyond their glossy, photobank-style appearance, Novitskova’s works encompass a deeper layer: an extensive exploration of the nature of images, their anatomy, underlying currents, competitive circulation within the tumultuous realm of online content, and shifts in human visual perception driven by attention economy. In her early-career projects, Novitskova sought to unveil the rules and patterns of natural selection in the virtual content realm and the highly competitive art market under the new digital reality. To the digital images consisting of massive populations of info-matter roaming the earth, she applied cross-species studies of gestural communication, sympathetic response, theorization of interspecies communication, and the very concept of species itself in the 21st century, including the emergence of new life forms in the digital sphere. These early projects envisioned an impending economic expansion marked by the rise of unseen species whose agency could not be predicted due to the high specificity of the new ecological reality.

Novitskova’s meticulous exploration of the agency of images and animals hinted at the complexity of future robots. She posited a kinship between animals and humans, considering them united byproducts of earth minerals. Her sculptures – adorned with bits of flies, flowers, bugs, and other living species petrified in clear polyurethane – view animals as a form of technology. Novitskova not only celebrates their far greater complexity compared to anything humans could construct but also analyzes and deconstructs their technologies of appeal and aesthetic beauty. By creating kinetic and robotic sculptures resembling new man-made living forms, she blurs the line between organics and mechanical devices, gadgets, and self-regulating living bodies. The intensity and intricacy of nature, or any living species perceived by the artist as a living machine, remain unparalleled in human-made designs and surpass any laboratory-created biotechnology. However, these new frontiers of colonization remain hidden from our view. While the world’s attention is focused on NASA, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic missions into space, a different kind of colonization is unfolding within our bodies and among other species. Novitskova’s focus has shifted from the exploration of outer space, evident in her early works on display, to the inner workings of the human body and the molecular level of surrounding matter. Human expansion now occurs not through global land conquest but through genetic manipulation as people colonize other species through industrial-level manipulation of animal bodies, forced sterilization, exposure to certain elements or chemicals, and decisions about the future of our bodies made behind the closed doors of biotech laboratories run by transcontinental corporations. Growth arrows – ubiquitous in business infographics, scientific images, and conspiracy theories – now accompany animal species in Novitskova’s works, thereby symbolizing the expansion of humans into every aspect of our reality on both micro and macro scales.

The exhibition at MGKSiegen follows a circular route and employs a cyclical mise-en-scène, with thematic rooms decorated in various styles and illuminated by lights of various colors, thereby creating a looping narrative. The exhibition commences with the iconic early penguin sculpture, “Approximation I”, a digital print on aluminum from the artist’s first exhibition at Berlin’s K-T-Z gallery titled “MACRO EXPANSION”. It culminates with a variation of the work called “Birds of Paradise” in the form of images of the same penguins processed by neural network algorithms specifically created for this exhibition. The original penguin image from the “Approximation” series was sourced from classical National Geographic-style images, serving as a potent visual signal identified by the artist. Novitskova enlarged and transformed it into a physical sculpture, aiming to activate viewers’ emotional responses. This project vividly illustrates the artist’s persistent emphasis on the abstract nature of the images she works with. To her, penguins are simply arrangements of colors and lines that we recognize as penguins – raw materials for triggering our emotional responses, which must be dissected and subjected to impartial analysis.

Over the years, Novitskova’s artistic language has evolved, gravitating towards what curator Nadim Samman recently coined in his book as a "poetics of encryption". This trajectory has taken her deep into the paranoid abyss of the Technocene, resulting in a perceptible darkening, both metaphorically and literally, within her work. The artist is increasingly abandoning traditional exhibition lighting in favor of experimenting with shadows cast by her kinetic sculptures and animatronic creations. The orchestration of light, coupled with the use of aluminum panels deliberately marked with artificial damage (in order to bestow upon her artworks the appearance of spacecraft hulls marred by natural meteoroids and human-made orbital debris), combined with the application of silver nail polish to conceal the weapon-like qualities of her handcrafted clay sculptures, as well as metallic spray used for wall graffiti, culminate in a distinctive fusion of the artificial and the handmade. Novitskova’s work conjures a gloomy, futuristic dystopia juxtaposed with archaic deep time. Certain rooms within her exhibitions appear intentionally stylized to look like prehistoric caves adorned with rock paintings. These installations transport viewers to a new post-historical age, one that may emerge in the wake of a nuclear apocalypse. In such a harrowing scenario, should humanity endure, people would be tasked with rebuilding civilization from the technological ruins of modernity. Novitskova juxtaposes prehuman nature with the grim prospects of the post-Anthropocene era, but instead of drawing inspiration from picturesque mountain hikes and communion with other living species, she finds her muse in the bustling discourse of subreddit community chat channels and professional scientific forums. Her background in semiotics informs her discerning decoding of the signified meanings underlying signs within contemporary visual culture across a spectrum of projects. Through her work, she consistently questions the reliability of scientific data as she subjects widely disseminated scientific narratives to critical examination.

The exhibition at MGKSiegen revisits one of her early pieces, “Spirit, Curiosity, and Opportunity”, which features an ancient marabou stork stranded on a desolate Martian landscape, broadcast in low resolution on a flat-screen monitor. However, the footage, intriguingly, was a live recording streamed from the basement of the Berliner Zeitung building, where the K-T-Z gallery had originally displayed the work. A room-sized reconstruction accurately reproduces the Martian terrain in a precisely staged setting, complete with printed cut-outs and strategically positioned rocks, all juxtaposed against meticulously sourced NASA rover imagery. This imagery, captured via a small MacBook Pro camera, was then disseminated across the gallery floor through Wi-Fi connectivity. Novitskova’s intent here isn’t to propagate conspiracy theories but to encourage ongoing critical reflection and to challenge all imagery that remains beyond the reach of the human eye. Whether it’s acquired by Mars rovers, Voyager 2, or through microscopic lenses, the artist maintains that all of science ultimately comprises a constructed narrative. She scrutinizes the marketing tactics and clickbait strategies employed to secure funding for scientific research and academic publications. Her conclusion is that modern science doesn’t solely emerge from objective discoveries but often results from haphazard and impromptu decisions made by private corporations motivated by personal financial interests and influenced by prevalent sci-fi narratives entrenched in popular culture.

Novitskova’s relationship with research carries a paradoxical nature; it doesn’t constitute research-based art but rather poetic and abstract art characterized by subjective commentary on observations and scientific breakthroughs. In her own words, she states, “I feel that complex scientific data and patterns can only be discussed in a non-linear and intuitive way. I create associative images and interpretations of data as a personal response to scientific discoveries, which I engage with as an amateur, lacking a systematic grasp of the fundamental principles of science. I believe that these images will inevitably acquire rational significance in due course. For me, the priority lies in these images functioning at a visual level.” By redirecting our attention towards concealed knowledge and image production typically operating beyond our immediate perception, Novitskova compels us to concentrate on the dystopian forces that often govern our lives surreptitiously. Her work aims to catalyze public discourse on these matters. Drawing from post-digital sensibilities, ecological visions, and digital data systems, Novitskova’s collages, intricate installations, murals, and cut-out sculptures seamlessly fuse scientific and poetic methodologies.

Reflecting on the artist’s career over the past decade, Novitskova’s visual universe, which remains perpetually receptive to fresh scientific discoveries spanning an array of fields – ranging from astrophysics to molecular biology and biogenetics – appears somewhat insular and self-contained. Notably, recognizable images from one project seem to traverse to the next, continually forging new connections and intertextual hyperlinks that weave past endeavors into a multifaceted meta-narrative. One such prominent narrative thread revolves around protein structures. Initially surfacing in 2009, these structures have only recently taken center stage, prominently featured in her solo exhibition, “Microbial Oasis”, held at Kunstfort Vijfhuizen in Amsterdam. Here, the artist reimagined PNGs and JPEGs sourced from the Protein Data Bank, an online open platform housing scientific models of proteins, enzymes, and virus configurations. Through her work, she posits the tantalizing prospect of generating novel biological forms through coding. This visual continuity can readily be attributed to the artist’s fixation on the phenomenon of evolution itself. In a manner mirroring the natural world, where nothing emerges from the outside, and all materials undergo transformations to give rise to new life forms, Novitskova’s artistic endeavors inherit and draw from one another. They borrow symbols and images from the past, subjecting them to both organic metamorphoses and toxic transmutations, akin to the mutations experienced by biological materials under the influence of environmental factors.

Novitskova’s ongoing exploration of machine-generated aesthetic material, with its innovative pattern recognition capabilities and unique modes of perception, has recently led her to integrate neural networks into her artistic production. Following her 2022 solo exhibition, “Soft Approximations”, at K-T-Z gallery, the artist has embarked on a fresh series of works delving into the creation, dissemination, and transformation of digital images as models of living entities through algorithmic approximations. In her most recent creations, on display in the final gallery at MGKSiegen, Novitskova continues her interaction with modeling software, resulting in a collection of digitally rendered synthetic forms. She harnesses the power of neural networks to reinterpret her earlier body of work, commencing with digital images and transmuting them into sculptural pieces primarily fashioned from aluminum, synthetic clay, and polyurethane. The artist collaborates with artificial intelligence as a co-author, which processes vast arrays of images harvested from the internet and scientific forums, as well as reimagines the artist’s previous works into novel, chimera-like sculptures. For instance, “Soft Approximation (Looking Glass Deers Kissing 03)”, cast in polyurethane resin, has been wryly christened by the artist as “the kiss of zombie Bambis”. Their appearance and form result from the intricate digestion of authentic images that have undergone multiple stages of translation across various computer programs. In one of the cut-out sculptures specifically created for the MGKSiegen exhibition, the entwined deer figures are accompanied by side panels featuring edited images sourced from scientific papers that elucidate how AI algorithms identify animals within a dataset. Yet, at the core of this imagery, as is always the case with Novitskova’s art, lies the emotional connection between these two creatures.

The various iterations of these deer-kissing sculptures, alongside a novel body of work co-created with AI, are showcased in the artist’s inaugural solo exhibition in Estonia titled “Random Forest” (running until November 12, 2023). The title draws inspiration from one of the fundamental algorithms employed in machine learning – an ensemble learning method used for tasks such as classification and regression. This algorithm operates by constructing numerous decision trees during the training phase. Random decision forests, as opposed to individual decision trees, address the issue of overfitting to the training set and generally deliver superior performance. However, it’s worth noting that their accuracy falls short of that achieved by gradient boosted trees. Returning to her homeland of Estonia, the artist embarked on a dual exploration. On the one hand, she drew from her personal experiences of traversing the forests, recalling numerous walks through these wooded realms and her discoveries therein – such as a deer skull, animal bones, fossils, mushrooms and lichens. On the other hand, she chose to satirize a contemporary art trend particularly prevalent in the Baltic and Scandinavian regions in which artists exhibit a pronounced fascination with mycelium, mosses and mushrooms.

Novitskova interprets these natural elements through the lens of her art, manifesting them as glass sculptures resembling both ordinary mushrooms and mutant mushrooms transformed into red arrows reminiscent of financial infographics. These sculptures, aptly titled “Soft Approximation (Fungal Growth 01)” and “Soft Approximation (Fungal Growth 02)”, stand upon tree stumps as part of the exhibition. An additional layer of ironic commentary accompanying the exhibition is the press release, which features a poetic poem about a random forest. This poem, however, wasn’t penned by the artist but rather by ChatGPT, adding an intriguing and whimsical counterpoint to the overall presentation.

Throughout her artistic journey, Novitskova has skillfully amalgamated diverse visual idioms and computational processes, drawing inspiration from the hidden realms of the light spectrum, nocturnal cameras capturing the heart of savannah state parks, the enigmatic depths of the ocean floor, the barren surface of Mars, intricate genomic landscapes, human gestures, machine vision, and various manifestations of non-human consciousness. The foundational image for most of the works showcased at the Temnikova & Kasela Gallery originates from a photograph discovered by the artist. This photograph was initially captured by an automatic night vision camera in the Netherlands, immortalizing a tender kiss exchanged between two deer. Additionally, prominent among the exhibited animal species are expansive synthetic clay creations, a part of the established “Earthware” series.

These sculptures depict albino deer, an antelope gazing at a wildfire, and a one-eyed wolf – each originally captured by automatic wildlife cameras stationed in nature parks across the globe, intended initially for scientific documentation rather than public consumption. Remarkably, the artist’s approach to research remains firmly rooted in the digital realm. She doesn’t venture into the field or embark on physical expeditions; instead, she conducts her investigations online. Novitskova meticulously indexes information within vast image repositories. For instance, in preparation for her video presentation at MGKSiegen, she selected over 10,000 images sourced from thousands of manually captured screenshots. The sheer volume of this imagery exceeds the capacity of human perception due to its rapid mechanical retrieval, surpassing the typical limits of our visual processing speed. This approach is instrumental in revealing fresh, distinct images with each iteration of a looped video. It represents an embodiment of intuitive contemplation regarding an alternative mode of perception. Through her art, the artist demonstrates on the tangible canvas of our retinas that AI observes and comprehends the world at a pace distinct from human cognition. In this context, AI emerges as a potential wellspring of novel poetic imagery, marking a departure from conventional modes of visual interpretation.

The recurring imagery of animals looking directly at the camera, inviting us to gaze back at them through these technological intermediaries, conjures the notion of “umwelt”, as delineated in the semiotic theories of Jakob von Uexküll and expounded upon by Thomas A. Sebeok in 1976. “Umwelt” encapsulates more than just the environment; it accentuates the world as perceived by a specific organism – a perspective intrinsically tied to an organism’s sensory faculties, which in turn form the basis for shared sign systems. These signs endow different organisms, and even individual entities, with diverse meanings about the world. In his 2019 exhibition at Serpentine Galleries, titled “UUmwelt”, Pierre Huygue delved into the potentiality of AI’s umwelt. The artist commenced by selecting a set of images and descriptions, furnishing them to an individual. As this person mentally recreated these images, their brain activity was meticulously captured via an fMRI scanner. Subsequently, this neural data was handed over to a deep neural network, which undertook the task of reassembling them, ingeniously amalgamating elements from its extensive reservoir of images. The exhibition presented the myriad attempts of this deep neural network to craft visual interpretations of human thoughts on large LED screens distributed throughout the gallery. Reflecting on his show, Huygue stated, “I don’t want to exhibit something to someone, but rather the reverse: to exhibit someone to something.”

In her endeavor to offer a counterpoint to the gaze of animals, Novitskova strives to construct an alternative technology-mediated emotional connection between living beings. This connection transcends the boundaries of scientific exploration and algorithmic computation, wherein AI serves as a mere tool. Amidst the gigabytes of machine-generated, impartial video and photographic documentation, the artist endeavors to discern the poetics of the visual realm and seeks to tap into the mystical facets of the irrational and the sublime. Each piece bears an additional layer – a human-like stick figure crafted by an algorithm drawing from a series of cave art drawings; a concise poem sourced from a scientific paper elucidating machine learning; or the inclusion of a red filter, further enriching the sensory experience. The experience of interaction that many contemporary artists have with artificial intelligence often proves to be uninspiring and remarkably uniform. This homogeneity becomes particularly evident during AI-themed exhibitions where one encounters a landscape of equally disconcerting generative images, as can be seen in the works of artists like Robbie Barat, Mario Klingemann, or the Obvious collective. Novitskova, on the other hand, presents her distinctive perspective on what it truly means to craft an original artistic statement within a world thoroughly permeated by pervasive computerization. By harnessing the capabilities of neural networks, the artist, who exclusively relies on using visual data rather than text commands, not only entrusts machine intelligence with the evolution of her artistic practice but also manages to forge a unique hybrid aesthetic that finds its roots in the lineage of her previous works.

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