The fragility of human existence

“My work mainly depends 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. Wars, social injustice, natural catastrophes have marked people, reshaped regions – the fragility of human existence.”

Alexandra Dementieva main interests focus on social psychology and perception and their application in multimedia interactive installations. Her videowork integrates different elements including behavioral psychology, developing narrative using a ‘subjective camera’.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by your saying something about your background?

Alexandra Dementieva: I spent my childhood with my grandfather, who was a scientist, a biochemist to be more accurate, and he had very particular ideas about children and their education. His respect for human beings and their cognitive capacity, whatever age they are, was sincere and unshakeable. He questioned me about nearly everything, hence I had to manage to provide him with and a clear and weighty explanation of why I intended to do one thing or another.

Most of the time we lived in a dacha (a country house where many Soviet people spend their holidays) that was given to my grandfather by the research institute where he worked. The wooden house was surrounded by a large, uncultivated garden where we conducted our experiments, which included planting pineapple trees (until the moment the neighbours started to complain about this “forest”), and sometimes carrots and radishes. There were not many children, so I was surrounded by many scientists: mathematicians, biologists, chemists etc. who used to visit us, especially during the summer months. I spent long afternoons with them, and many evenings around a table listening to their discussions about science and its possible applications to industry and agriculture, and particularly on research about space travel.

As result, when I was three years old, I was already ecologically-minded. I invented methods on how to stop my great-grandmother wasting too much water (she was babysitting me to help her son). I plugged all the taps in the sinks tightly with children’s plasticine. After everything had been repaired by the plumber, I promised that I would seal everything up again if she did not turn off the water on time.

At the age of four I had my own theory about the origins of the universe, and began to prepare my trip to the cosmos, learning about the constellations and determining which direction to take. Mars was first on my agenda.

I don’t remember whether ‘cosmism’ was clearly mentioned in the adults’ conversations, but its main ideas dominated my thinking – about the search for man’s place in the cosmos – space colonization, the interconnection of cosmic and terrestrial processes, the need to measure human activity with the principles of the integrity of this world, and radical life extension by means of scientific methods.

My grandfather dreamed of seeing me as his follower in biochemistry, but my problem was that I needed to imagine, as a picture, all the processes, and then to draw them. At the end he gave up, saying that he was not a painter who needed to depict all complicated matters on paper.

After few different attempts at chemistry, biology, architecture and journalism, I decided to turn to the art field. I began to paint at an early age, sitting close to my grandfather who was always busy, either writing or reading. Later I followed painting and drawing classes, and it transpired that my skills in this field were not bad.

Alexandra Dementieva: Yesterday Flowers

RB: Have there been any particular influences on your art practice?

AD: Science, psychology, moving to live in another country, cinema.

Although I continued to pursue my painting practice, I could never quite rid myself of the desire to analyse things scientifically. Ultimately not only did this become the subject of my work, but also how they can be perceived by the viewer. What attracts his/her attention. Why this or that subject/colour is pleasant and why the other is not. What can affect – or even change – a person’s mood. Simultaneously I was reading a lot of books about biology, and became increasingly interested in psychology, especially group behavioural psychology and behaviourism.

I was shocked after reading an article about Stanley Milgram’s experiments, which focused on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. It completely changed my art practice from art object to installation, giving the spectator a main role inside of it.

My move from Soviet Russia to Belgium gave me the possibility to explore other tools like video and computer, and most importantly, I discovered art movements and artists about whom I had never heard at all (or just a little bit when living in Russia).

I was fascinated by the work of Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman, Jeffrey Shaw, Fred Forest, Stelarc, Bill Viola, Gary Hill, and many others.

Another source of inspiration for me is the cinema, the work of film directors like David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci, Toshio Matsumoto, Hiroshi Teshigahara … and particularly science fiction movies. I continue to go to the cinema regularly, and watch at least 3-4 films on a monitor every week.

Alexandra Dementieva: Yesterday Flowers

RB: What is the underlying focus and vocabulary of your work?

AD: My work mainly depends 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. Wars, social injustice, natural catastrophes have marked people, reshaped regions – underlining the fragility of human existence. All these events don’t allow one to remain indifferent. They provoke thoughts and the urge to talk about and to determine our position as a citizen – even if they happened on another part of the planet.

Scientific discoveries that follow one after the other, technology that rearranges everything around us to become part of our quotidian, and also part of our body, of our “self” – its extension, its different prosthesis. It makes me think about a special type of social responsibility that arises only when a person realizes his/her close and uninterrupted links with civilization – with the humanity of the past, present and future.

The main form my work takes is that of installation, interactive video and sound environments. A special role always is given to the spectator as the main actor in the unfolding events. People are divided naturally into active participants and witnesses – the first type trying everything, searching for meaning or just being amused; the second type preferring to stay out of the field of action, and to observe others. Work doesn’t exist without visitors’ involvement.

RB: Your interactive installations engage with the viewer in a number of ways, sometimes in a sort of game or act. Can you say something about this?

AD: I love paintings, and I can spend a lot of time of contemplating them in museums or galleries. But in my own work I favour an action, even if it is insignificant and invisible. We are always in control of what we are doing, and directly responding in visual or sound structures makes us aware about what action can provoke.

Several years ago I was interested in the possibility of creating an interactive cinema experience for several spectators, proposing many possible versions of the development of the script. People love stories, and stories can not only help us to make sense of our lives and endow it with meaning, but also help make it understandable. My installation Direct Cut is a multi-user experience. It is like a game field, composed of ninety-nine interactive pads that trigger a movie projection on two screens.

Alexandra Dementieva: Direct Cut, Interactive video installation, 2005 (photo credit – Alexandra Dementieva)

Alexandra Dementieva: Direct Cut, Interactive video installation, 2005 (photo credit – Alexandra Dementieva)

In general, people are used to watching films sitting in armchair in the darkened hall of a classical cinema without the possibility to leave (without missing a part of the narration), or at home, where they can decide to stop the movie. But it is always an individual experience. In my work the physical presence of spectators was a precondition. Many people can take part in it, and the content was dependent on how they manage to communicate with each other in order to proceed. At the end of the day, I have learned that creating a film with many narratives without applying statistical control over choices is nearly impossible.

Elements of game lend the work a lightness, and help spectators to engage in the process without constraints. And as we know, some games can be very serious.

RB: How important is the individual spectator’s experience to your work, and what do you hope to achieve by their engagement?

AD: All of us act within some sort of a framework, which we cannot overcome. At the moment in which the visitors go a little beyond their comfort zone and begin experimenting, they assume the role of a performer. In this role the visitor is not only an observer, but is also a participant in an action. For me, this is more sensible: when we simply observe something, we find ourselves in a certain niche where we are safe and secure, and even free to imagine ourselves outside of any social contexts. When viewers become committed to an action within my installation, they begin uncovering themselves to others to a certain extent. Also, if they are actively involved with a work like this, there is more chance that they will think about what this work may mean.

Alexandra Dementieva: Breathless, Interactive installation, 2012 (photo credit – Evgeny Gurko)

RB: Can you say something about your work Breathless (2012)?

AD: I wanted to create a trustful representation of our society shaped by the omnipresence of the mass media, and two main motors of human activity “fear” and “desire” – in futuristic form.

The mass media is a significant force in the modern world, which reflects and creates culture. Communities and people are constantly bombarded 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”. 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 third cylinder functions according to the same principle, but instead of being connected to newsfeeds, it wirelessly measures the levels of noise and pollution on the nearby street.

Alexandra Dementieva: Breathless, Interactive installation, 2012 (photo credit – Alexandra Dementieva)

Alexandra Dementieva: Breathless, Interactive installation, 2012 (photo credit – Oleg Tatarkin)

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 illegible 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 involvement.

Alexandra Dementieva: Breathless, Interactive installation, 2012


RB: Can you tell us something about your project Sleeper? 


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