Alexandra Dementieva

New technology used in art is just a tool but very powerful

Alexandra Dementieva

Alexandra Dementieva is a multimedia artist who lives and works in Brussels. Her work mainly focuses on – and is influenced by – everyday life: the political, social and cultural events that occur and change our ideas and perception of the world around us. The idea of interaction between the viewer and an artwork, mediated by technologically progressive visualisation methods, lies at the core of her work. In her installations, she uses various art forms on an equal footing: dance, music, cinema and performance. Akin to an explorer, she raises questions related to social psychology and theories of perception. Her installations focus on the role of the viewer and her/his interaction with an artwork, and spawn ways of provoking the viewer’s involvement, thus allowing hidden mechanisms of human behaviour to be revealed.

I grew up in a family of scientists and, since my early childhood, have been reading popular science literature, becoming increasingly interested in psychology, especially behaviourism and group behavioural psychology. The latter was triggered by reading an article about the research of the American social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, which shocked me profoundly. His experiments were focused on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defence was often based on “obedience” – the claim that they were just following orders from their superiors.
It completely changed my work from art object to an installation / interactive video and audio environment, giving the spectator a main role inside it. It was long time ago, at the beginning of the 90s, and my intention to create interactive settings proved to be a very difficult task. To do this, I started to study different types of technical gadgets, like motion detectors based on passive infrared or ultrasound, and to teach myself computer programming.

My art work and its production processes are in a state of permanent transformation. I am following what is happening in our world. Today’s situation attests to disastrous problems – the war in Ukraine, climate change, loss of biodiversity and the mass extinction of species, accumulation of waste, and a society which suffers from increasing inequality. It forces one to reflect and to talk about it, to help us find our place, and our position as citizens. I feel a need to contribute to the solution or, at least, to reveal the issues at hand.

One of my first interactive installations ‘Game with Children’ was based on the impressions of the war being waged in Kuwait, when all information was on terrestrial TV, broadcast in real time, showing bright explosions in the night sky and listing military successes. It all looked like a totally virtual event, and media presentations made it impossible to comprehend what truly happened in the conflict. New technological inventions were used for overwhelming airpower and precision bombing, that gave an opportunity to American forces not to directly engage in combat.

Jean Baudrillard published three short essays about it in the French newspaper Libération and the British newspaper The Guardian between January and March 1991. One of them, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, gave a title to a book later.
The installation Game with Children (1997) invites us to reflect on modern ways to manipulate people through virtuality, which replaces reality. Are there real people or computer-generated characters behind it? The installation was shown (1998) in Fort Napoleon, which was erected at the beginning of the XIX century in Ostend, Belgium. The questions that were important to raise were issues relating to education, childhood, power, and virtual war.

In my work Breathless (2012), I wanted to create a trustful representation of our society, shaped by the omnipresence of the mass media, a significant force in the modern world, which reflects and creates culture. Communities and people are constantly flooded with messages from a variety of sources including television, the internet, magazines etc. These messages contribute not only towards helping publicise services and products, but also towards relationships, moods, behaviour, and a sense of what is and is not important.
The installation consists of three objects of cylindrical shape. One cylinder is linked up to an internet newsfeed that is tuned to words that relate to “fear”, and another to words that relate to “desire” – two important motors of human activity. A word, which lights up on a LED display on the top of the structure, indicates that the computer has searched for this word on the internet and, if it finds one, then only one line of lights will be lit up; if it finds two, two lines will light up, and so on. The light patterns of each object serve as an indicator of what is happening in the world, and how much attention to that event is given by mass media.

The third cylinder functions according to the same principle, but instead of being connected to newsfeeds, it measures wirelessly the levels of noise and pollution on the nearby street. Then, into each of these machines, I introduce a human intervention – breath – which breaks the mechanised cycle of predictability by making the light levels chaotic, causing them to go way up and down without any particular logic.

Ultimately, the work is about the fact that our mental constructs – the ideas on which this world is based – are not always correct. Often, they reflect a general tendency which is proposed by political and industrial elites, and transferred with a aid of the mass media to the general population.
In my installation, this complex but ephemeral reality disappears with our breath. At this moment, all the legible words on the luminous panels above the installations turn into insignificant signs. This happens only, however, when the viewer enters a cylinder and breathes into its anemometer. As soon as the visitor leaves, the initial cycle resumes because the system is ultimately stronger than the individual, but still there is the hope of making a better world thanks to our individual engagement.

Another of my works, Double Depths (2018), explores the possibility of reversing evolution and returning to the element of the ocean, proposing a week-long performance project.
The idea of this action is that we live in a world where nature is suffering under the pressure of humans’ different activities. Its consequences: fires, droughts, hurricanes, tsunamis – are extremely dangerous for the future of the Earth. It may well become uninhabitable for all living things.

Supposing that humanity will continue destroying the natural environment, I decided to propose an alternative way of living. It is a known fact that we (all living organisms) came out of the ocean. For billions of years of evolution, we have achieved a lot by turning from blue-green algae into people armed with a video camera, computer, smartphone… And now I (an artist), consisting of 70% water, am trying to return to my native element and to repeat routine banal ‘on the surface’ actions, that imitate our terrestrial life, in the warm, warm water of the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, among the fishes, crabs and sea urchins.

Seven everyday human actions, but performed at depth – cleaning the sea floor with a broom, trying to sit on a chair set in front of an underwater camera, trying to conserve reserve air, video recording and finding a friend. All attempts are unsuccessful, ending in a complete fiasco.

Scientific discoveries that follow one after the other, technology that rearranges everything around us to become part of our everyday lives, and also part of our body, of our ‘self’ – its extension, its different prostheses.
Internet blogs and social networks like Twitter, Facebook and others are replacing our way of communicating, eventually turning our communication into non-communication. Communication between people means dialogue. It is the ability to convince, to listen to the interlocutor, whereas short emotional phrases or images mostly represent a monologue, millions of monologues. In visual declarations, there are emotions rather than logic.
Image culture is increasingly crowding out textual discourse, impoverishing content, depriving us / it of sense.

It makes me think about a special type of social responsibility that arises only when a person realises his/her close and uninterrupted links with civilisation – with the humanity of the past, present and future.

Festival Life creates shared moments of audiences and artists, eye-to-eye

Double Depths 2018 screenshots © Alexandra Dementieva