'Technologies of Lived Abstraction: Future Present' - Monica Tolia Interview

Immersive installation / performance Future Present by Monica Tolia, at Ugly Duck London
© Monica Tolia

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Today 12th April is the public opening of the much awaited show ‘Anamorphic Waves’ (11th – 14th April) by Ugly Duck at their stunning London warehouse. The Private View last night was a real success as the venue was packed with an enthusiastic crowd that loved the show. This free-entry exhibition, curated by Géraldine Atger, explores how digital interfaces and technological tools are reshaping our personal, professional and ecological relationships, and how they have modified our view of love, sexuality and gender.

During this three day group exhibition, the audience will discover more than 25 emerging artists from UK and Europe whilst exploring Ugly Duck’s Tanner Street location, formerly a victorian factory. ‘Anamorphic Waves’ presents a collection of diversified works including interactive light sculptures, brain wave prints, video art, virtual gardens, artificial intelligence, alternative universes, musical machines alongside many other creative investigations

Right at the top of the warehouse the public is up for a real treat, as they can loose themselves in the installation/performance piece ‘Technologies of Lived Abstraction: Future Present’ by visual and performing artist Monica Tolia, which extends across the whole of the loft floor.

American artist Monica Tolia came to London to study a Masters in Fine Arts at Goldsmiths, which she completed in 2018. ‘TLA: Future Present’ is the fruit of her creative journey and experiences at Goldsmiths, working with a brilliant team of developers and dancers.

Immersive installation / performance Future Present by Monica Tolia, at Ugly Duck London

Using machine learning as its foundation, the piece addresses questions of how the algorithmic and the notion of a quantified self are creating “soft architectures” impacting the construction of movement: in both an interior and social way. The performers wear biosensors that read the data produced through their movements (muscle tension, orientation, speed, etc.). Their data is translated in real time by neural network algorithms, producing a constantly moving and mutating light sculpture projection. It is the visualised form of their data, an abstracted “data self”, acting as another body in the space. It moves and dances with its human subject, and the performer responds to the unpredictably abstract outputs produced by the predictive algorithms. Both human and machine are engaged in a complex and constantly evolving positive feedback loop.

Over the course of the performance, the dancers engage in various choreographic scores that produce new readings of, and transition between states of solipsism, narcissism, competition, mania, eroticism and collectivity. The performance unravels from its seemingly slick futuristic entry point, referencing that this illusion of the dystopic future is actually more present than we realise. The algorithm predicting what it thinks the subject will need or desire in the future based upon its present data analysis, and bringing those future potentials into the present.

We catch up with Monica to talk about her work, the creative process, and her views on the likelihood of a much talked about AI armageddon.

In your practice, you work with many people, not only other artists/performers but also programmers. How easy is it for them to understand your vision? How do you delineate co-creation from collaboration?

There’s something both beautiful and disturbing about the tensions that exist between disciplines and people. Not everything translates, or not fully anyhow, and that’s the challenge I set up for myself and my collaborators. Of course there’s a vision, but my vision is the process we set up together, and what happens through the diverse and conflicting interactions of dance, electronic music, programming and art. For me, that’s the work. Setting up entropic situations, and paring down moments from those experiments.

While I was doing my MFA studies, you would repeatedly hear how we are here to influence each other and there was a lot of big talk about collectivity and collaboration. But down the line you realise how in reality, the culture of institutions and artistic practice are so neoliberalised to promote individualistic thinking and doing. Arguably this structure might be what you are calling ‘co-creation’. Collaboration involves something different. It’s about being extremely self-aware of the differences
between the people involved. This is where contemporary dance comes in for me. It has taught me about the minute difference that exists within myself on a day-to-day basis, and recognising that in others as well. And you can really see the impact you are having on another when you are dancing with them, and how a change in touch, pressure, intention changes the whole dynamic in an instant.

A collaboration must take place to get somewhere together, and we determine the power structures. Open source thrives on this aspect of collaboration as well, which is how I gravitated towards programming. I sort of stumbled into computing by accident, but once I was there I was completely captured by these guys and how welcoming and supportive they were.

Immersive installation / performance Future Present by Monica Tolia at Ugly Duck, London

Tell us about your process, from conceptualisation to production

I was reading Gilbert Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Even though it was from 1958, it’s still feels relevant philosophically for how we can uncover healthy relationships with technology. In the contemporary moment there’s so much fear and anxiety about automated technologies threatening human agency, and on the other end of the spectrum there’s the sometimes unrealistic propositions of posthumanism. I think when I was developing ‘TLA: Future Present’ I was in search of reconciling these tensions in a critical way.

As a dancer, the most powerful shift that occurs is when you are physically moved. I think people who don’t work with their bodies in such depth are unaware of the forces that move them, or don’t think about it so much. For me the question of what makes me move, or what prevents me from moving is deeply political. I’m not sure I have ever gotten over my own anxieties around performing and what it means to perform, which is a vulnerable act. I become hyperaware of each moment where I had power and where I lost it, and to whom. Emotionally it’s difficult. Everything I do, my ideas, how I choreograph, how I work with others is driven by this emotional sensitivity.

The amorphous form and movement qualities of the light sculptures in the performance are generated by neural network algorithms reading data off of wearable EMG sensors. It was developed through conversations with dancers Phoenix Tanner and Marlen Pflueger about bodily energy and thinking about data translation as out-of-body energy. Then we would talk about the “real” self, data self, performing self, spiritual self… as well as this new body entering the scene, that is, what we are currently calling “artificial intelligence”.

We all have a field of energy around us, what Rudolph von Laban called the kinesphere. It’s that invisible space defined by the length of your reach, and can be a great source of power when you learn how to mobilise it. The projected light form became a representation of that, as well as a barrier, a coping mechanism to what it means to be subjected to the hyper-visibility of being watched/surveilled. In real life, we don’t visibly see another’s boundaries. So much conflict happens through failing to recognise these boundaries, both physically and emotionally. In the state of the world we live in, where data penetrates nearly all aspects of our lives, we willingly perform intimate details of ourselves on social media, and people engage in aggressive interactions online that they wouldn’t in real life… we are more unbounded than ever. And automation exacerbates that by showing us only what we want to see, further affirming our own solipsism. That conflict is what I’m drawing out in the performance work.

Immersive installation / performance Future Present by Monica Tolia at Ugly Duck, London

How does the audience typically respond to your work? What is the most common feedback that you get?

The reactions are surprisingly instinctual and impulsive: creepy, sexy, and everything in between. Like with most art performances, you have people who just hang out and watch and are hesitant about engaging. Others get more bold: aggressively taking photos, provoking behaviour, etc. One time, a guy forgot himself enough to actual sniff a performer’s sweat soaked garment. And then there are those who are apparently moved and we invite to cross the boundary, to dance with us, or we go to them. I don’t shy away from the use of eroticism in my work. In fact, it’s perhaps the main reason so many odd behaviours are triggered. It’s integral to who we are as humans, and we are so shut off from it because of how we are socialised with technology at times. I want the audience to forget where there are. They enter a highly technological space, but then that becomes subverted through the performance and interactions.

Scientists are debating the ultimate role AI will play for humankind, some anticipating apocalyptic consequences. What is your personal view of the future role of AI in life and in art?

I think artificial intelligence as we currently know it is somewhat of a fallacy. Working with programmers, you quickly learn that these systems are architected from the point-of-view of their creators. They are doing what the programmer wanted it to do. If an apocalypse were to happen, it would be to man’s own credit rather than the computer.

“Outsourcing the discussion of our impending destruction onto artificial intelligence seems a distraction from the real issue in my opinion: that being the incredibly uneven distribution of wealth and power between the technocratic elite and everyone else.” – Monica Tolia

Where do you get your inspiration from when creating a new piece?

I am inspired by the people I work with. So much of what I do is about interaction, and where things meet each other, and then things develop from there. Rehearsals are the best part of the process. Ideas you thought would work don’t, and things you never even thought of in all the preplanning and conceptualisation emerges.

Where would be the ideal places to show your works?

I’ve shown in galleries, clubs, museums, and now a former Victorian warehouse. Each has its benefits and challenges, I try to adapt the work to the context of where it’s shown.

What are your artistic plans in the near future?

Look out for us on 22 June at Chalton Gallery for ArtNight 2019!

To find out more about Monica Tolia’s work, visit monicatolia.com. Follow Monica on Instagram!’

Technologies of Lived Abstraction: FUTURE PRESENT’ is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

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