Interview with artist-duo: Operator
Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti are an award-winning experiential artist duo who founded their collaborative art practice, known as Operator, in 2016. Their new work, Human Unreadable is currently exhibited in HEK’s exhibition «Exploring the Decentralized Web – Art on the Blockchain» until the 12th of November 2023. Human Unreadable is a three-act experiential work of art in the genre of long-form on-chain generative art. They developed an on-chain generative choreography method, and then used the motion data from the dances to generate images. These were sold as NFTs on the Art Blocks platform. The first 100 collectors of the series will register their acquisitions on Operator’s website and automatically generate a second token–a choreographic score that will be performed live. Human Unreadable brings the body into blockchain art and blockchain art into the body. The current installation at HEK showcases their technical process, a sample choreographic score, videos of 32 movements behind the choreographies and three of the Human Unreadable outputs as prints.
Isabella Maund: Who are Operator and what story lies behind your name?
Ania Catherine: Surprisingly few people ask where our name originates, so that is fun to start with. Much of what informs how we approach our work and the identity of Operator is influenced by our individual backgrounds. Dejha’s background is in human-computer interactions; she’s a technologist and studied multimedia. She’s been making installations, immersive, and interactive works often using physical computing, a mix of conceptual art and innovative interfaces for over 15 years. This was her “sweet spot” before we met. I have a background in choreography and performance art. So, I grew up training in dance but later began to reject working within the framework of dance. It can be quite conservative and limiting, so I opened up my practice to more broadly use the body as a medium to make conceptual work. This included performance art, movement-based films, site-specific improvisation, and then Dejha and I started working together, bringing all these elements together: Human and computer interaction, performance, conceptual art, and immersive environments.
IM: It’s an interesting mix of backgrounds, plenty of overlap but also very different environments in many ways.
Dejha Ti: There are a few entry points to arriving to the word and container of Operator. One is that we are quite obsessed with the imagery of the early telephone operators, which were these women managing huge machines. They were sitting together in lines, with these specific choreographies and niche skill sets, literally connecting society. The images of early telephone operators, which are powerful and also aesthetically beautiful, remind us of the role that women have had in the history of technological innovation. However, to this day there is still a distrust of women in technology and the idea that women and technology are not compatible. In actuality, the word computer was originally used to describe women who were doing computing. So, “operator” calls us back to these early days when women and technology weren’t seen as antithetical to each other. Whether it is in the early days of programming where women were literally the first computers, the story of Grace Hopper who won the Computer Sciences “Man of the Year Award” (yes, a woman was named “Man of the year), or people like Hedy Lamarr who created frequency hopping, on which modern-day Wi-Fi relies. Women have always been involved and contributing. Unfortunately, people still need to be reminded. Another thought behind the name is that oftentimes our works need to literally be operated. I’m not sure how much you were physically around during the installation of Human Unreadable at HEK but I think it is fair to call it an operation.
IM: I did have some insights into the installation process, like Dejha putting up the documentation and drawing graphs and structures onto the walls. It was definitely very involved. A big focus of this work, and generally with the Privacy Collection, is this idea of bringing the human body back into contact with blockchain technology. Where did this idea originate from, and where do you see that the body is missing in blockchain technology?
AC: That’s a really good question. Regardless of how technical our work gets, the human is at the centre of what we’re making. At the very beginning, I remember scrolling through many of the platforms, and the thing that stood out to me, as a choreographer, a performance artist, and someone who thinks about the body all the time, was: Where is the human body? It was really shocking that I could scroll for 10-20 pages on a platform and never see the human form. And I thought that it was 1, surprising, and 2, something that we could really try to bring into that world in a meaningful way. Our physical realities, whether I’m talking about the human body or the planet, are no less real just because technology is moving so fast and taking up more and more of our attention. We are still embodied, we still look with our eyeballs, we still type with our hands, and we are still sitting and getting bad posture. It was a feeling of knowing that we needed to not forget about the body. We knew we wanted to keep working around the subject of privacy, because it takes on a whole new life when it comes to blockchain, but while we’re talking about privacy, we also want to keep bringing everyone back to the body within the Privacy Collection.
IM: How does privacy play a role in Human Unreadable?
DT: Anyone who is a proponent of blockchain will emphasise the qualities of transparency, accountability, and immutability. These are key characteristics of blockchain. Regardless of whether we are talking about Web2 or Web3, the fact remains: people selectively share parts of themselves online. We’re always curating, selecting which parts of ourselves we expose and those that we hide. In Human Unreadable and in every lot of the Privacy Collection, we have focused on the tension between privacy and transparency in blockchain technology. Mainly asking the question: how do people hide within transparent systems?
IM: Human Unreadable, as I understand it, was very technically demanding, and there were a lot of custom builds working with p5js. With a piece that is so technically complex, what was important for you to consider when exhibiting this work?
AC: This was a huge challenge for us, but the kind of challenge that we love. There are many processes that take place invisibly, a huge amount of information that could be presented, so when deciding how to exhibit it, we will always consider who the audience is, where their interests lie, and how deep their understanding of blockchain or on-chain generative art is. While the Human Unreadable printed artworks could be shown alone, we did think it was important to highlight how involved the human body was throughout the process. It’s not decoration or just an object in the works, it is the medium as well. Most of the digital / generative art that has been taken seriously seems to be quite cold and often leans into modernist design. There were women in the very early days of digital art who were more interested in embodied explorations of technologies, and that work hasn’t really aged as well in terms of value or recognition in comparison to cleaner, geometric, disembodied forms of generative art that seem to dominate art history and still dominate the market now. We wanted Human Unreadable to do the opposite, break all of the rules and still be a market success to prove that there’s value to the qualities that people might be scared of, or that people think are incompatible with digital art or generative art. We embraced and invited chaos, the female body, emotion, warmth, vulnerability, sensuality, and irrationality into long-form, on-chain generative art.
IM: So, would you say that the accompanying documentation of the process when exhibiting Human Unreadable will always be a part of how that work is shown?
DT: I think it helps, because if you just show the three prints, then it’s really easy for people to say, why and how is this blockchain art? This could just be collage. Since the release, we have spoken with a variety of different audiences, and we’ve realised that it is really helpful for people to be walked through it and have visual representations of how some of the technical processes work. We want to minimise the chance that people feel like the work isn’t “for them” just because they don’t understand the ins and outs; in HEK for example that’s why we created experiential touchpoints for audiences to use analog/physical means to get glimpses into the connections between the performance, the wall diagram, these choreography cards, and the printed artworks.
AC: Since the HEK show is a blockchain art exhibition, we really wanted to take the opportunity to show people how movement, the visual artworks on the wall, and blockchain all came together in order for the total work to be what it is.
IM: How did you approach the transformation of choreographed movement into the stillness of an image?
DT: It is funny. Very early in the process last year when we were speaking to someone about Human Unreadable, they said “so these works will be moving?” and we both in unison said “no, they’re still.” They seemed confused. We had never really discussed between us whether they would move or be still, but we both had assumed they would be still. I guess that’s counterintuitive considering the artwork is about human movement, but that is the way we knew it needed to be.
AC: Fast forward a year later – a few months ago we went to Sicily for our anniversary and visited this volcanic island called Pantelleria because we have a deep love for volcanoes. I promise this is relevant. We went to this beach full of volcanic rock; there is no sand on the entire island. There was one section on this beach that had these lines that were leading into the ocean. The rock formations captured the movement of lava flowing, as if the movement had frozen in time. We were like, “Oh my god, it’s movement hiding in a still image!” It’s an absence alluding to presence, seeing not the movement itself, but the result of movement that happened before. That’s exactly what we wanted to do in Human Unreadable. It’s about the movement hiding in the image, the chaos of the human, the movement of the human, the emotion of the human, and the messiness of the human, hiding in plain sight.
IM: Now that you mention it, it’s true that we see this captured movement everywhere in the landscape around us, a clear example being the mountains here in Switzerland. Thanks for sharing; it’s such a beautiful way of contextualising this. The topic of the messiness of the human reminds me of your interview with Right Click Save, where you mentioned there is a vulnerability hash in Human Unreadable. Can you tell us more about this?
AC: The whole Privacy Collection is site-specific, and when people hear this they think of a room or physical space, but there is also cultural site specificity. Each lot of the Privacy Collection is an answer, a mirror, or our version of something that is dominant or popular in shaping crypto art or the crypto scene more broadly. Longform on-chain generative art has definitely dominated the crypto art market, so we asked: how could we work within this very rigid format with all these rules, norms, and expected aesthetics, and explode it from within?
What we were thinking of, especially in terms of privacy, is that the word “reveal” is very loosely thrown around. Everyone says it: “I revealed my piece”. On platforms, you literally click “reveal” to see the piece you minted. The way we were feeling was: when you reveal something, that means that something was previously hidden. If you reveal something then there was a point when you didn’t want that thing to be known. We asked ourselves, What makes it risky to reveal something? What we came up with was vulnerability. What is really at risk if I have a red square, you have a blue square, and he has a green square? Where is the vulnerability? It didn’t feel like there was much at stake despite using the loaded language of revealing–and without saying it, hiding. So, vulnerability was something that we identified as missing.
AC: We decided as a conceptual move to make vulnerability a feature in Human Unreadable, to make it something people look for. I ranked each movement in the library on a scale of 1 to 5, from “not vulnerable” to “the most vulnerable”. It turned out that vulnerable sequences are rare in the collection, this was not by design but definitely was a pleasant outcome. If something is rare, then it becomes more valuable. In that way, we are almost collaborating with the market to increase how much people value vulnerability in longform generative art.
IM: How does control play a role in the context of long-form, generative art?
AC: Control is a very interesting subject because there are a lot of discussions about what you control and what you don’t control. There is a wonderful artist who goes by 0xDEAFBEEF who recently pointed out that it’s a pretty major assumption that artists are ever really in control, so this false spectrum of complete control to complete release has much more nuance than the conversation often implies.
DT: When it comes to control, I wouldn’t say that being vulnerable means being out of control. To make a work that is so incredibly messy, visceral, and physical was much more technically challenging than making something that looks simple and clean. I think that what’s going into the artwork needs to be risky, real, and, most importantly, honest. We believe strongly that what’s going into the work and what you are saying has to just be honest and raw, but it’s a delicate balance. Where the idea of control comes in for us, and where thinking, strategy, and the other side of the brain kicking into gear becomes extremely important is in the execution. As experiential artists we have two very different headspaces that both need to be aligned and very active. We are known for being really particular – and exercise a lot of control – when it comes to production, execution, and communication around our works. As mentioned before, they are operations and bad operations are never good experiences.
AC: I guess what we aim for is a highly curated, thoughtful, well researched, and controlled package of a raw, unbridled message.
IM: How do you think control and decentralisation come head-to-head within the context of the blockchain art scene?
AC: A huge benefit of blockchain, especially for artists, is the ability to own work that was previously not able to be transacted, whether it is poetry, performance, or digital art. The introduction of digital scarcity and ownership is major, and it should never be underestimated. Many artists who are doing very well used to work in the advertising agency world, where that was the only way they could pay their bills with their specific skills. That changed with blockchain and now there’s an element of being able to take more control of your artistic output and actually benefit from it with it being attached to your name, not as a work-for-hire-service.
In Human Unreadable, each of the choreographic scores behind the artworks are revealed in a secondary token and are publicly visible online. We like to say that the body is the original decentralised storage. The way that choreography has been passed down throughout history has been that someone learned the choreography from someone else, then became a teacher, and then taught it to their students. It is stored in the body. It is stored in physical memory. When these scores are available online, anyone can see them. The choreography is owned by the collector. They own that movement sequence and the motion data, which are stored on-chain. It says: This is my sequence; I can hire a dancer, have them perform it in my hallway, and say I own this piece; I own this artwork, which is so cool. However, in this example you have both ownership and decentralization. Anyone in the world who wants to look at and interpret that score can actually perform the artwork themselves. They can experience what it is like to feel those movements in their body. So, in a way, you have the best of both.
Screenshot from Ania Catherine’s Twitter/X
IM: Media and digital art has long been underappreciated and undervalued in the wider art market context. I think choreography is also very much falling into that same zone too. What kind of experience is it to bring both of these artforms into this context and give them new value in the art market?
DT: It is extremely powerful, and I have to say that we were, for a while, wondering how we were going to continue. The art market was unavailable for the kind of work I was making and the kind of work that Ania was making. Then combine that together, and it is like, “Great, we have really expensive art practices that need huge teams and a long time to make since they’re highly researched and conceptual because we are just extra, and then, in the end, no one can make money off this work.” That was the reality that we are facing in our mediums; it was just a complete nightmare when it comes to the financial sustainability of an art practice. On top of that, our work was about privacy and surveillance. So the normal companies that step up to pay for expensive large-scale digital art like Google would never touch us because we are making work that criticises them. Being able to figure out how to stay true to what we did while also integrating blockchain and the potential for an experience to become monetised, and now, in this case, for choreography and performance to become monetised, is something that we never expected. To be honest, if it hadn’t happened, Ania and I probably would have had to stop making work. It’s also interesting how the financial and market validation of what we are doing now is now actually opening doors in the contemporary art world. So, it has been very empowering to now be in a position where we are not jumping at any opportunity just because we are desperate to try and make it work. That used to be the case, and it got us into some really problematic, really exploitative arrangements just because we did not have very many options to do what we wanted to do. Now it is completely flipped. That feels good.
IM: It’s awesome. What’s next for Operator?
DT: In about a month, Human Unreadable Act II is happening, which is the secondary token/choreographic score reveal, which means that collectors will be able to reveal the underlying movement sequences that created their piece. In the HEK installation, there are prototypic samples of these tokens in physical form, which is the choreographic score printed on acrylic. These scores are then forever bound to the collector’s artwork in their wallet. So, the whole arc of the work is the slow recovery of the human, where the human is completely obfuscated in that initial NFT output. Then, in act two, you get a little glimpse of it by revealing the score, and act three is a live performance where the first 100 sequences of the collection are staged into an evening-length performance. We are speaking to several institutions right now, though it’s a slow process.
AC: It’s fantastic, just from a choreography and performance art perspective, to have all these collectors who may have initially just been on-chain generative art or even just NFT flipping now aching to see a performance because they own a portion of the choreography. To witness this level of excitement and anticipation to see dance–particularly when funding issues are making it very difficult for independent dance artists to create– is pretty emotional and gives me a lot of hope. Beyond Human Unreadable, we are working on the next lot of the Privacy Collection which is an experiential artwork, but I can’t say any more about it right now. It’s keeping us plenty busy. There are some upcoming speaking engagements as well.
Thank you to Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti of Operator for taking the time to share insights into their artistic practice and their work, Human Unreadable, which is currently on show at HEK in the «Exploring the Decentralized Web – Art on the Blockchain» exhibition. Come by until the 12th of November to experience their works, as well as a multitude of other international artists interactions with blockchain as a medium. We would also like to congratulate Operator on their success in winning the Lumen Prize in the category of 2023 Metaversal Generative Art!