Vita Eruhimovitz is an Israeli artist currently living and working in New Jersey, whose work is inspired by her background in computer science and bioinformatics. Vita's concepts behind her work are based on artificial intelligence and her fascination with human-object relations. She explores these topics through different mediums such as sculpture, painting, drawing and interactive art. Each idea seems to find its own media, all of which are sure to challenge, educate, and engage her audience.
A: You seem to have made working across different mediums work for you, I have heard mid career artists and art educators talk about the importance of honing in on one media and perfecting your skills at it. I am wondering if you had struggled with this idea and how you made it work for you.
V: I’m still not sure whether I made it work for me yet. I have heard the same opinion quite often, never liked it and still don’t believe it has to be true. Right now I am working to establish a sustainable cross-media practice and I hope that soon enough I’ll be able to say that working in multiple media from the very beginning worked for me. It surely is easier to focus on one medium, both in logistics of the work and when presenting myself as an artist, but this just isn't the way that I work. My art is really more idea based and every project finds its own medium and material. This way I can work on the same project in video performance and sculpture at the same time and for me, it cannot happen otherwise.
A: I am curious as to how you developed the form of the Wobbly-Bots for the Chatting Room installation. When you sketched out these forms did they stay true to your sketches or did they sort of form as you were making them?
V: It’s interesting that you are asking this! Usually my work takes form as I am making it and ends up being very different from the initial intentions. However this project ended up very similar to my first sketches except for the foot part. The foot became much more sculptural and cartoon-like than I intended at first. Otherwise, the structures were really consistent with the way that I planned them, which is pretty unusual for me.
Wobbly-Bots are robots that resemble some sort of playful creatures. Each bot has a microphone,speaker,sensor and small computer inside. They are designed to engage in conversation with the audience and once the viewer has walked away, the Wobbly-Bot will continue to have conversations with the other Wobbly-Bots.
A: The foot part is so interesting, how did you come to that form and does it have a specific meaning behind it?
V: Yes, definitely.When I made the first Wobbly Bot with a minimalistic foot structure I felt like its form wasn't communicating enough on an emotional level. It felt almost as if I could have put a computer instead of the sculpture. I wanted to make the bots more creature-like, more of beings. The domain of cartoons and animation was the middle ground between a cold conceptual work and representational art, which I wasn’t interested in. The feet forms resemble Mickey Mouse feet. They are just humorous enough and just likely enough to evoke sympathy in the viewer, while still remaining in a fictional domain. I imagine that one day I’ll be able to make the Wobbly Bots bounce around the room on their feet. I’d really like to see that.
A: Your Chatting Room installation seems to connect with your Human Mediated Machine Conversation performance. Did the performance happen organically while you were in the process of creating the installation?
V: Only after completing the installation I have realized that this project began four or five years ago when I was thinking about interaction between semi-organic creatures. At the time I made small sculptures of these organic-shaped worm-creatures that had box megaphones as their heads. I wanted them to use sound to conduct a nonverbal communication. At that point it wasn’t clear to me where exactly I’m going with this idea, so I sat it aside and after a while forgot about it. Much later I met Cleverbot (a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users over the internet) and was inspired by it. The idea of multi-directional communication between entities evolved and began to grow layers of meaning. I was thinking about our relationships with smart devices and other commodities, human-algorithm society and so on. I began to plan an installation where robots would talk to people and to each other. While I was working out the technological part of the installation, I noticed how interesting the act of mediating chatbot speech is, and the performance was born as a result of my experimentation.
A: Do you feel like that happens a lot in your work?
V: Yes. I am constantly closing circles revisiting my past interests and ideas. I often lay ideas aside for years and then find them again through new forms, areas of expertise and gained contexts. Closing a circle this way always adds a different level of complexity and is very satisfying.
A: Did you study art in college or are you self-taught?
V: I had a long and somewhat awkward path to the point that I am at now. When I finished high school my parents insisted that I do something useful with my life. I didn’t have any strong opinion in either direction and pretty randomly enrolled in school for computer science. I ended up not liking it much: it felt too far-removed from the physical world, and so I continued with my master’s in biotechnology hoping to combine programming with biology. For my master’s thesis I was working on a simulation of genetics of a population evolving through generations. This was my first encounter with the artificial life concept. I enjoyed this kind of work, even started a PhD, but soon enough realized that this is still not the right thing for me. I quit, left Israel, travelled and worked abroad searching for my calling. It was while living in Australia when I started to make art on my own and at that point I knew that l have found it. Eventually, I went back to Israel, started art school, and after my third year there I started realizing that things that I knew about computers and biology were really influencing what I was doing on the conceptual level. My last undergraduate work: the “Ears Mouse” dealt with biology, genetics, and artificial life. I realized that not only did I want to make representational work dealing with these topics, I also wanted to actually make the artificially-alive things. I taught myself some basic electronics and started working with physical computing, so my background in computer science definitely helped. As to my background in biology, it often inspires me, but I’m not sure if it necessarily helps: I don’t use any of my knowledge in the field in practice. Still it allows me to think about my topics of interest more broadly.
A: So at some point there was definitely a learning curve?
V: It's been a lot of learning and unlearning. Gaining skills and information and then putting them aside; learning something else and then realizing that the previous thing is actually relevant; going back and picking it up, doing new work with the old things that I have previously abandoned. I feel that I’m constantly moving on a kind of spiral that becomes more and more interesting and context-bound.
A: Did you start to work in 3-dimensional form in Australia or is that where you started to paint?
V: I painted a lot as a child but around the time of high school I put painting aside under my parents’ pressure. Later, when I was in Australia I had a lot of vague ideas for art pieces. These were probably ideas of installations but I didn't even know what an installation was at that time. So I started making sculptures and learning casting and molding from the internet. I made large, multiple part molds and poured resin in my living room (which wasn't a very smart thing to do). It was a process of self-teaching sculptural techniques and gathering materials. Some of the pieces I made worked, some failed, and then more failed but eventually I got pretty good at clay and plaster, molding, casting, working with resins, silicone, and so on. After about half a year of experimentations, I realized that I can figure most of it out technically, but I was missing the conceptual thinking which was harder to learn on my own. I went back to Israel and started art school for my undergrad again.
A: How and when did you decide that you wanted to create installations?
V: I did some installation in my undergrad, not heavy duty but some things with wood, plaster and chicken wire. I’m always tempted to work large scale and fill whatever space I have. Also, my work is often narrative-based and through it I create my own fantastic worlds. Building immersive environments that become parts of such world, feels as a natural outcome.
A: Do you feel like you can express yourself and ideas more clearly through three dimensional form than two dimensional?
V: Sometimes, but I’m not willing to set boundaries for my creative process. I love painting too and although I haven't painted much in the last couple years I’m finally ready to get back to it. Meanwhile I do a lot of drawing. Drawing is very intimate to me and as a medium it satisfies the personal aspects of my practice. The combination of drawing the private and the emotional and dealing with more general ideas through sculpture and installation feels balanced to me.
A: I am curious about the “Singing Lump” piece, is it part of an installation?
V: Yes, it is part of an installation called “Soon After”. I made this amorphous shape when I was working on a body of work that dealt with a fantastic future where people aren't present anymore and the objects and creatures that they created gained an independent existence and agency. Particularly I was thinking about bio-engineered creatures and their fate. What would happen to them after humans are no longer there to define them? Maybe they would go through an entropic process devolving into inertious amorphous lumps of living matter. I thought: what would this lump be doing all day? In a world that no longer inhabited by humans or animals, knowledge and abilities picked up at the cultural junkyard left behind by our civilization. It could have heard a single song played by some machine, picked it up and now just lying there and singing this song over and over again.
A: There was another lump in the “Soon After” installation that was on the floor, are these lumps similar?
V: Yes, I made a few of these, and they were all made the same way. Initially I had some different ideas as to how to install them but that changed so the one underneath the knives isn't singing it's just lying there.
A: Was the “Soon After” installation sketched out or planned?
V: No, this installation was pretty much improvised. I had multiple sculptures that all dealt with the post-human future idea: ceramic lumps, kinetic wall pieces, dancing knives, and a homage to Alba the GFP bunny (a genetically modified glow in the dark rabbit) inside a black box. At some point I got an opportunity to compete for showing in a certain installation space and I won the competition. I had some parts, the space, and one week to install. I went into the space and again making it into my own environment and the installation started to form. I was working with the space and in the space and seeing how different elements interacted with each other and with the space. It was a lot of fun because it was much more free and fast than a pre-planned process
A: So if your installations are part sculpture, do they stay together as one unit or do you ever break them apart and exhibit pieces separately?
V: Lately I have been thinking about how to make my practice more sustainable. I make design choices that make my installations more modular. The installations are made in pieces, they can be put together in pieces, the pieces are not necessarily dependent and can be exhibited as separate sculptures. The added value is that they can be reconstructed into different installations, so the work doesn’t need to be finalized at any time.
A: Could you talk a bit about the “A Painting Humming Itself” installation?
V: This piece was preconceived but went through multiple changes. For a long while I wanted to make an interactive painting that would look back at the viewer and interact. Also I was interested in reversing the roles of painting and space by creating a trompe-l'oeil: a three-dimensional illusion of a flat surface. While still exploring interactive environments I experimented with wall-embedded framed tunnels. In this work I knew I wanted the viewers to become essential to the piece. The rest followed intuitively. The final version of this installation was a single wall in a black room that you could approach from both sides. In a sense it was a two dimensional work with a front and a back. Some of the ‘paintings’ in the installation were active, others were not. There was a playful and somewhat deceiving element which confused the viewer: it wasn’t quite clear what to expect from each tunnel, which are interactive and which are not. When the installation was finished the amount of viewer participation was enormous and I really enjoyed it and learned a lot from observing people interact with my work.
A: Is the whispering dialogue something specific like a message that you wanted to get through to the viewer or a story that you read that you wanted to bring into the work?
V: The whispering itself was an intervention into an appropriated text.The new text revolves around several keywords stripped from their initial context, you cannot hear it completely but you can catch some of the words. Some cultural references do come through and evoke a different association in each viewer. The whispering intrigued and lures you to come closer, which ignites a chain of reactive actions. The text is an additional layer of meaning, providing a cultural-historical context.
A: Was the idea of having people participate in your work always your intention or did that come as you were doing more installations?
V: It’s more of a recent thing. It started to happen around the time when I was teaching myself interactive and kinetic sculpture. When I made my first interactive work and saw people's reactions I realized how important this is for me. I want to make art that is able to develop an active dialogue with the viewer, not only reactive but also interactive. I want the communication between the work and the viewer to change something in both.
A: Do you feel that you approach your work differently now, focusing more on how you can allow the interactions from viewers?
V: I am not exclusively interested in interactive objects but working with them made me more conscious about the viewer's experience. This consciousness caused me to engage in interaction design as a part of my work. Today if I am doing something that isn't functionally interactive I still see the objects that I am making as evocative objects. I adopted and appropriated the term “Evocative Objects” from Sherry Turkle - a very interesting author and researcher in the area of human-technology relations. Evocative object is her definition is an object that affects us by evoking a change in our mind: bringing up a memory,a feeling, developing relationship with us.
A: So interesting, thank you so much for your time Vita, it has been a great experience learning more about you and your work!
You can read more about Vita's work on her website.