Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos is an internationally exhibited artist whose work explores the current state of human interaction and communication within the specific conditions engendered by our latest technological advances. She often appeals to the past in order to argue that basic human desires, skepticisms, and questions persist through time and in response to particular historical circumstances. Esmeralda’s work demonstrates that questions of meaning and translation, for example, remain in spite of the seemingly immaculate nature of our current communication technologies. Our conversation begins below after we speak about the changes that occurred in my life after I got my first smartphone, and all of the various functions and tools that can be compacted into one device.
NJ: I’ve been reading 24/7 by Jonathan Crary. Are you familiar with it? At the end of Chapter 3, he talks about how experience is now defined by dives in and out of two different modes of experience – one physical, the other virtual. I thought of one example of this sensation – Let’s say you are on a subway going somewhere and you’re mindlessly scrolling through your phone, checking your social media, etc. you have a seamless experience…
EK: It’s a challenge. I was meant to be alive at this moment in time because I am someone who is constantly bored. I have to do five things at the same time. Boredom is extremely painful, but it’s sometimes the necessary process for creativity. There was this show at the Guggenheim – Fischli and Weiss – two artists who have been collaborating for decades. To me, this whole show was a celebration of boredom because you could really picture these two men hanging out on their couch, maybe getting a little bored, and saying “Hey, why don’t we put some stuff one on top of the other and see if we can keep it in equilibrium and photograph it.” “Oh yeah, good idea!” These great works only happen if you allow yourself to be on the couch staring at each other and not your phone. It’s hard now to put ourselves back in a state of boredom, where our minds are going to create something.
NJ: So what do you like to do to encounter that boredom? How do you start your creative process if [boredom] is something essential?
EK: As strange as it may sound, I don’t feel that I really create the work – I feel more that I remember something that existed before me. One day, I cross the street, I hear a sound that reminds me of a poem I learned back in high school, an article I read in the New York Times a year ago, or a glossy page in a magazine I saw in the nail salon last week… and suddenly everything fall into place and makes sense… a least for me. So that’s how my creative process works. My daily job is basically to absorb – it’s to be exposed to everything and anything. Maybe what I don’t find useful today, in five years, will come back to me in a very meaningful and unexpected way.
To give an example, I was in Miami at the De la Cruz collection last December and I saw a work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres that was made of a stack of white paper that had the words “Somewhere better than this place” printed in the middle of each page. When trying to take a picture of it to post on my Instagram, the shadow of my hand holding my phone appeared over the white paper, covering the artwork and placing a wall between me and the piece. This image marked me. Four months later, I had a residency in Tehran and when starting a new project there on cultural clichéa and our relation with the Other in the digital age, this image came back to me and lead to a whole body of 150 photographs where I placed that exact shadow of top of photos of Persian cultural stereotypes I took when exploring the city.
NJ: That’s interesting because it sounds like so much of the creative process in your practice comes through the physical experience of a place. So, you’re saying you are walking around and seeing neon signs or maybe even just the shadow of yourself taking a [picture]…
EK: My work is not about technology. The work is about human language and communication at a time when technology is everywhere. I mean, my mom types emails. So email is no longer a technological advancement, it’s everywhere and everyone uses it. My work is really about us, how we are human within this new world, and how technology is affecting the core elements of what makes us human – speech, language, communication, the conveying and receiving of meaning. I am interested to see how these elements have persisted through time and how they have evolved, or how they have been totally transformed and challenged by technologies.
I’ll give you an example – writing and memory. This is a theme I have been working on for the last two years now. Writing was a fundamental change in the history of mankind. It was not a evolutionary progress. It was a transformation of the way the brain works – a cognitive transformation. You don’t need to remember things, but where things are. Plato criticized writing heavily because he thought that when you shift from an oral tradition to a written tradition you become less critical and weaken your memory. But it turns out that writing was a pretty good thing actually [laughs].
This technological revolution we are now experiencing is the second biggest transformation in human cognition because we are building a shared, externalized human memory online and are create a new “techno-language” to express our thought.
My work is really about challenging the obvious like a five-year-old kid would do and challenge the fundamentals of what make us human, and seeing how technology is affecting these fundamentals. If my mom uses a technology, then it’s like a phenomenon – it’s part of society, it’s not a trial. It’s there to stay, you know? [laughs]
NJ: [laughs] Because it’s gotten all the way down to your mom…
EK: Exactly – If she managed to figure it out, this technology is going to stay for a long time!
NJ: Something that popped into my thoughts right in the middle of your response – I wanted to ask you how you actually viewed your practice. Because it seems to me that you are interested in marking these moments of change, right? You are noticing language is changing and you are making work that responds to how language is changing.
EK: Hmm…I don’t know if it’s marking. I have two elements that are really fundamental to my practice. The first one is that I don’t create form. I appropriate. I work as a translator. I just translate personal stories and gestures into a different form. I detach these stories from their owners so that they become an exposure of human nature. That’s really important to me. I never have a white canvas. Everything I see and use [is] something you are familiar with visually – things that are part of our cultural background and heritage and often transcend different cultures. The second thing is that my work doesn’t say anything. My work asks questions. I am just placing the viewer in a situation with something that is familiar but is [also] a little unfamiliar. In my bodies or works 15 Pairs of Mouths for instance – I invite people to cast their hands mimicking the way they are texting, or as we should say “speaking with their thumbs”. I display them on a pedestal. They look like hands of broken statues from Greek antiquity displayed in a museum. That’s a very familiar code that we recognize. They’re hands, we all have hands. What are they doing? They’re texting. Then you look at your own hands [and ask], “Well, what is my own gesture while I am texting? What does this gesture mean ? Is it speech or writing?” [My work] is really about asking questions.
NJ: So what does the connection to Greek sculpture provide [in Fifteen Pairs of Mouths]?
EK: I believe that there is a human nature – there is something that we carry on. I can’t explain it with Darwinism or religion. I think that there are common human features that are found in common human needs. The need to speak, to communicate, to be social – these are elements that persist and transform. So I like to place all that into a continuity because we are human, have been human, and human nature with its burdens remains – the idea that we are going to die or the idea that languages are always going to make us misunderstand each other are still here no matter how much far technology brings us. You can go back to God and the Tower of Babel. These are sufferings and problems that you can trace backward. I feel like connecting this [texting] gesture to Greek antiquity is interesting because it places them into a continuity of human gestures, and [it also] questions time. By that I mean I want to continue my project with hands through the years. I have more than forty hands now. I cast some in New York, some in Tehran, some in Paris, and I think the gesture is going to evolve as technology evolves. So this reference to the past reminds you that this gesture – this fact of texting that seems so contemporary – will one day look as obsolete as the weird gestures of Greek statues. So the reason why I often refer to the past is because of my background – it comes to me. My heart is Greek and my mind is French, so I’m going to use visual elements from Greek antiquity.
NJ: The point you made about there being some sort of essential human nature that you can trace through time and that you think technology can help us articulate…
EK: It’s not about “help.” Technology and its evolution, it is a phenomenon so you can’t say help or not help. You can’t say good or bad. It is.
I’ll go back to the example of Plato – he was horrified by writing. He was like, “This is horrible – this is going to destroy our brain.” My work doesn’t say positive or negative. It’s not assessing. Progress is a phenomenon. With the evolution of technology there will always be someone at anytime who will criticize it. If you look back at texts even from the Middle Ages or even before on language, you always find a scholar complaining about how language is getting poorer and oversimplified. The same complains you hear now, right? Human always had this very complicated relation with change and technological progress – you can see it even more now –because we adopt it but we are afraid of it at the same time. We love it, but then as soon as there is a reason for skepticism, we are going to go and quote 1984 and say “Oh the end is here.” So there is a very complex relationship of fear and love.
NJ: I’m looking at these Rubik’s cubes next to me [Twist Again]. I remember reading about these on your website and the idea that it’s not about trying to solve a puzzle – there’s not a correct way to do it. In this way, it’s more about…
EK: You can touch them.
NJ: Oh good, I really wanted to [picks one up]. As I am spinning this Rubik’s cube – where the colors have been replaced by flags of various countries – I’m not trying to solve anything. Or rather, there’s nothing to solve.
EK: Now we are both transmitters and receivers of information. We cannot change geopolitical frontiers. But, what we say digitally can, to a certain degree, affect and transform the face of the world. We are now connected more to each other based on our interests and not based on our geographical locations. With Twist Again, I give the viewer the power to switch the compositions of the Rubik’s cube with his hand and say, let’s say “I am going to put France close to Greece”. What’s important is this idea of movement – you, holding the Rubik’s cube, flipping through it, and then observing how obsolete this old rigid way of seeing the world map is. It’s like a puzzle that goes between order and chaos and empowers you to play with it.
NJ: I like that the cube’s appearance is guided by the whims of the person manipulating it as opposed to their desire to try to solve it. I’ve actually never solved a Rubik’s cube before, but I’ve been told there is a very specific way that you do it – you follow a kind of pattern or formula. No matter how messed up the cube is, there is a step by step process that allows you to work it out. If your Rubik’s cube was a puzzle that had one specific, correct end-formation, you would have to use this particular logic, algorithm – this particular way of thinking – in order to solve the puzzle and create the desired formation. But you’ve taken this rigid logic out of the project…
EK: The rules.
NJ: Yeah, the rules are gone.
EK: Because who dictated the rules? We are living at a time where we have moved away from the “one to the many” format of information distribution, and now we are in “many to many” schemas. We are all receiving and emitting.
NJ: Can I ask about these blue dots?
EK: They are the sea [laughs].
NJ: Oh…of course they are the sea [laughs]. Well, on this embarrassing note, we can probably wrap up. Thank you.