By Maya Hristova & Katažyna Jankovska
Throughout history, artists have sought to represent urban space from a broader perspective. Historically, new ways of seeing and available technologies have evolved alongside each other to influence artistic language and pave the way for novel ideas and experiments in a photographic as well as in a broader sociocultural sense. In the aftermath of the first mechanized war, artists of the new avant-garde such as El Lissitzky and László Moholy-Nagy turned to photography as one of the most effective tools for describing the dynamic metamorphoses that were taking place at the time. Yet unseen perspectives and architectural patterns started evolving through abstract photographs, photograms and collages, which put radical visions into practice.
In the early 1920s, while Lissitzky was planning his horizontal skyscrapers, Moholy-Nagy famously coined the term "New Vision", a concept that later turned into a cultural movement. As well as attempting to perceive the outside world through the lens of a camera, this cultural movement advocated the use of a variety of technical practices in photographic expression.
From that point on, the tendency to combine technologies that were meant for non-artistic purposes to support artistic research evolved even further, unfailingly coming back in new forms and approaches.
Today, as the digital becomes increasingly embedded within the physical, annotating reality requires new concepts of space which reflect upon this recent openness of borders and shifts in human perception. As a civilization, we need to yet again reorder our hierarchies of understanding space and develop further the means by which pre-existing man-made structures function within this seeming lack of boundaries. One such way of reimagining architecture is by superimposing digital content onto the physical space. In practical terms, this means contemporary artists are able to explore alternative narratives about our built environment through the use of combined imaging strategies, and are seizing the opportunity to reinterpret and augment existing architecture without physically altering it.
In their photogrammetry-based project "City Studies", Dalia Mikonytė (b. 1986) and Adomas Žudys (b. 1988) employ a range of visual tools such as photography, 3D architectural models and glitch art, notably coupled with synthetic sounds by composer Pijus Džiugas Meižis. In their experimental practice, the artistic duo are exploring new possibilities for interaction between real and virtual artifacts in familiar urban contexts. Žudys, who predominantly works with 3D graphics and design, has been making stencil art since his youth, while Mikonytė is a photographer and researcher with a focus on integration and contextualization. One of her early projects, "Analogophilia" (2015), dealt with "arrival and survival in a resort town during the off-season". Her latest work "Bust" (2018-ongoing) uses medical imaging to explore and visualize human corporeality.
Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that approaches such as gamification and visionary interaction with the urban environment, along with themes of human survival, are all reflected in their collective work "City Studies" (2016-ongoing). In its various parts, the project presents the viewer with seemingly endless meanderings through the known and unknown cityscapes of a number of European cities, including Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipeda, and the towns of the Curonian Spit, Cesis in Latvia, the Blekinge region of Sweden, and Cararra in Italy. It all started in 2016 in Siauliai during the new media festival "Enter", where they launched the first part of the project focusing on Vilnius, Šiauliai and Panevėžys – the one which you are presented with as part of this exhibition. The final result includes combinations of uncommon and beautiful sights from the urban landscape, which are scanned with the use of photogrammetry and eventually transformed through a variety of software programs. These programs create digital artifacts through short term algorithmic errors – called "glitches". As part of the creative process, these glitches add a tangible layer of dissociation, thus transforming the subjectively observed into an architectural experience of a new nature, one beyond human needs and logic.
"These glitches expose the limitations of planned architecture which is what fascinates us. Since sensation is an integral part of experience, we want to bring attention to different and emergent ways of how we experience our cities together with technology."
Mikonytė and Žudys’ project clearly demonstrates how the combined use of visual practices and their application can provide artists with an inexhaustible variety of tools to think, reimagine and propose alternative environments. In doing so, they are able to radically challenge existing relationships between architectural monumentalism and the way in which it shapes social interaction.
The technique of photogrammetry, which emerged along with the invention of photography, was originally used to create topographic maps by collecting photographic data, measuring and visually interpreting various patterns of the environment. Today, the same method applied to selected fragments of the city allows for the design of three-dimensional objects and ultimately for the translation of physical into digital space. In "City Studies", Žudys and Mikonytė apply the technique as a first step in their process of creating a new virtual environment – one exploring the interplay between human and technological means of perception. By modifying the city’s fabric into a virtual and dynamic structure and adding a digital dimension to it, they are able to create a mediated space consisting of both material and immaterial matter.
Back in the 1950s, French theorist and writer Guy Debord, one of the leading figures of the Letterist International (the revolutionary alliance of European avant-garde artists, writers and poets), introduced the concept of "dérive" – a tool for examining the city by wandering around and freely reflecting on the changing cityscape in "small groups of two or three people who have reached the same level of awareness". The art of dérive included unplanned journeys with incidental interactions as a method of understanding how urban environment affects human consciousness. Among others, their practice was understood as a process of documenting, remapping and trying to elaborate new trajectories and layers of perception, while creating a personal and subjective topography of the city.
Similarly, for Žudys and Mikonytė it is all a high wire act between allowing for the unknown to materialize itself and applying artistic intuition to produce a well-researched vision of the city’s potential. While feeding the photographs resulting from their photogrammetry scan into a software, they let the technology determine certain scales and angles for the creation of 3D models. This acceptance of chance finds expression in their final use of glitch elements, which, applied within their documentation of the familiar, become a deliberate part of a new structural aesthetic. Glitch reveals the complex relationship between human and technology. It proposes no hierarchies, no agendas, and can therefore be regarded as a true type of machine art, independent of human intent. So, the question is, to what extent is the final version of the work controlled by the artists?
"We choose the places we explore and photograph intuitively, but when making the final work, it is us who compose the original pieces into a new whole. We allow for the collected data to be transformed to some extent, but if the glitched object becomes distorted beyond recognition in case of reflective surfaces or when there aren’t enough photographs taken, we reject it. We're looking for a balance between not so glitched as to be beyond recognition, but not too orderly to be boring."
Based on subjective and personal experience, Žudys and Mikonytė’s work becomes a complex reflective vision of the urban environment. Here, different parts of the city collide in an unexpected fragmentary manner to form a new whole – a collage of testimonies of the city’s architectural history ranging from Gothic churches and baroque towers to concrete Soviet buildings and glass skyscrapers. "We started with our hometowns, because these cities are the ones we experienced most vividly, whose maps and meanings we know better than any formal theory. We wanted to look at them through different – digital and spatial – means, to see something familiar from a new perspective." While layering these digital and material realities, the artists simultaneously explore a new level of photographic potential – one that partially involves nonhuman vision or, as artist and theorist Joanna Zylinska puts it, one that "slows down time and can teach us humans to look at ourselves and our environment differently."
Additionally, the horizontal, disintegrated perspective of the city further implies a lack of hierarchies, as it is opposed to our usual experience of architecture as stratified; as a representation of social order, one that was built with the long-lasting purpose to reflect human power. Technologies are not familiar with human needs, which is why there is no architectural logic to these creations. The vision presented in "City Studies" looks so bizarre and unfamiliar because it involves elements not created by the human gaze or designed for humans; it presents the technological gaze instead. While architecture is sublime and eternal, the glitch is unexpected and temporary. And how interestingly they combine; this human-nonhuman interaction, this symbiosis of human and technology, becomes a collectively-generated vision of the city in which the artist has the possibility to alter existing spaces in a way they would not be able to in the real world.
Just as with the situationists, this disposition offers the viewer the possibility to wander through the rearranged cityscape and wonder at the multidimensional nature of space, while at the same time providing them with insights into the history and development of urban space. Moving through this discontinuous structure, you might start to feel somewhat melancholic. A surreal mix of representations of the past, in the form of architectural footprints from different ages, offers a sort of retrospective view on human civilization. There is no living soul in this city; one notices only traces of human presence – street signs, billboards, graffiti-scarred walls. It makes the viewer imagine a fulfilled dystopian scenario of human extinction – after all, most dystopian scenarios take place in urban spaces. And again, as in the beginnings of photography, the gaze is formed by what the technology allows. As Mikonytė and Žudys explain,
"Technology does not always manage to capture people. With this project, we focus on the architecture, objects and materiality of the city. We neither try to capture nor to avoid people in our scans, but the traces of people moving through the city left on buildings is a welcome addition to our works."
In his work "De l'architecture" (1776), Jean-François Sobry stated: "a city without walls is not a city." That is, cities have defined boundaries. However, the vision proposed in "City Studies" is more than what is regarded as a traditional city. In this figurative scenario, strict city contours are blurred, thus forming surreal and ephemeral patterns, suggestive of urban space as a constantly mutating, permanently pulsating being. It is a limitless area transcending any boundaries of space and time, providing the possibility of endless journeying. This hybrid of the digital and the physical, between human and technology, reality and fiction, past and future, highlights the hidden dimensions of space and our potential for transformation to the point which makes one wonder – what if we live in a world where everything is simply a construct of the mind?