Episode 04: @Dante’s #Inferno in augmented reality & new views of art history
Artist, playwright and technologist Kat Mustatea discusses with Leonardo senior program manager Vanessa Chang her award-winning digital performance VOIDOPOLIS, a take on Dante's Inferno played out in New York City: born on Instagram, premiering his year in Augmented Reality, and culminating in experimental book form. Edith Doove reviews the book A History of Art History by Christopher S. Wood, newly released in paperback.
Related reading: "The Virtual Artist's Book as a Space for Curatorial Experiments: The Acropolis Remix Project" by Celina Lage in Leonardo journal vol. 54, no. 2 (April 2021): https://doi.org/10.1162/leon_a_01856
Leonardo Reviews is a scholarly review service published since 1968 by Leonardo/ISAST. It is the work of a dedicated team of editors led by editor-in-chief Michael Punt. Reviews are posted monthly at www.leonardo.info/reviews. Edith Doove's review of A History of Art History, including reference notes, is found at www.leonardo.info/review/2021/05/a-history-of-art-history.
Find A History of Art History by Christopher S. Wood at Amazon. [affiliate link]
Find all episodes of Between Art and Science at www.leonardo.info/podcast.
Kat Mustatea is playwright and technologist whose language and performance works enlist absurdity, hybridity, and the uncanny to dig deeply into what it means to be human. She is co-curator of EdgeCut, a monthly live performance series that explores our complex relationship to the digital, and a member of NEW INC, the art and tech incubator at The New Museum of Art in New York City. She has given a TED talk about puppetry and algorithms, and speaks frequently about the intersection of performance, art, and technology (at SXSW, The Pompidou Center, Ars Electronica, among others). Her plays have been performed in New York, Chicago, Berlin, and Oslo. Her most recent digital performance, Voidopolis, won the 2020 Arts and Letters “Unclassifiable” Prize for Literature, received a literary grant from the Cafe Royal Cultural Foundation, and has been exhibited internationally at TheGrid: Exposure / Ars Electronica Festival, ELO (Electronic Literature Organization), and the New Images Festival (Paris).
As a curator, writer and educator, Vanessa Chang builds communities and conversations about art, technology and human bodies. She is Senior Program Manager at Leonardo/ISAST. She holds a Ph.D. in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University, and teaches at California College of the Arts. Most recently, she curated Recoding CripTech at SOMArts Cultural Center, Intersections at Fort Mason Center for the Arts, and Artobots. She has appeared on NPR’s On the Media and State of the Art and her curatorial work has been profiled in Art in America and KQED Arts. Her writing has been published in Wired, Slate, Los Angeles Review of Books and Noema Magazine, among other venues.
Edith Doove is an art historian, curator, writer and researcher, specifically interested in notions of emergence and contingency, cross and transdisciplinary collaborations. She started curating in 1987 in Antwerp and worked as a freelance curator and art critic in Belgium until 2010 before moving to the UK where she became a member of Transtechnology Research at Plymouth University and attained her PhD in November 2017. Since 2018 she lives and works in France, currently in Rouen where she teaches at ESADHaR Le Havre-Rouen. She is a postdoctoral advisor with Transtechnology Research, a regular contributor to Leonardo Reviews, co-convenor of LASER Talks Brussels with Alexandra Dementieva and co-convenor of Currer Bell College with Jean-Louis Vincendeau. With her creative consultancy BUREAU DOOVE, which she started in 2014, Doove continues to develop a unique bespoke way of collaborating, working with, for and alongside artists and researchers.
Erica Hruby 00:14
You've found the space in art and science. I'm your host Erica Hruby. Thank you for joining us for today's episode, and I extend a special welcome to listeners who have found us via the MIT Press podcast. Today I am pleased to present a discussion between artists playwright and technologist Kat Mustatea, and Leonardo Senior Program Manager Vanessa Chang. Later Edith Doove reviews the book a history of art history by Christopher S Wood. Kat Mustatea's award winning project Voidopolis is a digital performance about loss of memory that was born on Instagram will premiere at the 2021 new images festival in an augmented reality format, and will culminate as an artifact in book form. Listen on to hear Vanessa Chang discuss with Kat the past current and future forms of this evolving work, and how performance and ephemerality of digital work can interface with the durability of print.
Vanessa Chang 01:16
Hello, this is Vanessa Chang. I'm a Senior Program Manager at Leonardo and today I'm delighted to be joined by Kat Mustatea, an artist who's here to discuss some of her work with us. Kat welcome. Why don't we begin by you telling me a little bit about yourself and your artistic practice.
Kat Mustatea 01:38
I would say most of what I do currently involves some mode of live performance that is in some way, mediated by cutting edge technology. That would be the short version of things I tend to write lays and come from theater. But I also have a background in theoretical mathematics and worked as a software developer, both those things tend to come to the forefront of what I do.
Vanessa Chang 02:03
So we're here today to talk about your project Voidopolis. It's work that I first encountered last year and on Instagram as a series of Instagram stories. So I'd love to hear you tell us a bit more about biopolis. And how you're reimagining the project through augmented reality.
Kat Mustatea 02:23
So I started avoidable lis last summer, around July 2020. With the idea that I was going to retell my own version of Dante's Inferno, which was really about wandering around through New York City in the middle of a pandemic, I think it was an off the cuff decision, I erased seven years worth of my previous Instagram posts, in order to sort of make my Instagram feed kind of space, a kind of a stage for this to unfold. And I think it was a way of also like creating a break with the past because I felt like whatever was happening, it had forced us into this completely different mode of of being enough telling stories. So anyway, I started posting on Instagram, and the images that I create are both stock photography. So I create the imagery by taking stock photography and wiping away the humans. And I create the text by using only words that don't contain the letter E. So both those things are obviously involve something missing, which is where I think the story is what I think the story was really about the loss and the way that loss unfolded over time last year. And then I you know, this, this idea has kind of like taken hold and develop in thinking about how the story would unfold, I realized that this was a story for right now. And that it would need to disappear at some point. And that need had to do with the idea that, you know, maybe this is a story that doesn't I intend to the story all along to be something that I was going to wipe away eventually, that I was going to just delete. But then in thinking further about that, I thought, well, maybe there is a mode of cataloging this. If this were kind of an exhibit, how might How might a catalog for such an exhibit? how might I preserve something of this project for the future. And the thing that made the most sense was to create an augmented reality book of the material, both the text and the images. I like the idea of a book that really is a bridge between a physical object and the digital origins of the project to begin with. But the thing about augmented reality is that it's an additive process, you know, you have reality, and then you're looking through an app and adding some additional layer there, but I felt that this project would opolis in particular was very much about loss. And so I started to think about how an augmented reality book format speak to that idea of you loss. And the idea for a Voidopolis book in augmented reality is that the book that you see the physical object contains both images and texts that are garbled that are not decipherable, you see the traces of something there. And when you look through the app, you are able to sort of decipher both the images and the text. But those images and texts are only decodable for a short time. And so each time that you read this book, you trigger the images and tack, they decay just a little bit. And then there's a point at which that decay becomes fully realized. And you can no longer activate this book. And so you're left with this garbled object.
Vanessa Chang 05:43
That's so fascinating, you know, you began by talking about how your work is primarily performance mediated by technology. And, you know, it's a trope of performance studies that the interesting thing about performance is that it disappears, right? That it's ephemeral. And so you've transformed both Instagram and a book, which is, you know, as about a durable material object as they come into a disappearing object into performance platforms.
Kat Mustatea 06:13
And I think the whole time I've thought of this project as some, at least in reference to my performance past. So I thought about the story unfolding, even my Instagram feed being a kind of a stage. And then the book also, in a sense, being a kind of tiny stage on which the story unfolds for a time.
Vanessa Chang 06:38
Yeah, and I suppose the reader and the text are both performers, in some sense, would you say?
Kat Mustatea 06:46
Yes, definitely. And I think I do like the idea that in this kind of a book, you the audience member are doing something active to to make the performance happen? Yeah,
Vanessa Chang 07:01
that's great. It's really kind of using the affordances of the medium to make this interactive encounter between something that that is interactive in a different way. Anyway, your project uses augmented reality to then reimagine what a book is book lovers, lovers have the object of the book that is really cost its heft, its weight tactility, materiality is central to its meaning and really, its charm, you know, at least that's how books are for me, right? There's, there's something you can really touch and feel. And so one of the I think that's one of the chief characteristics that really book lovers get priority over digital texts. And your work is really toying with that distinction in really interesting ways. And I think this connects with some of the larger attentions, that augmented reality reality artworks can really play on. So how do you understand the impact of AR on material reality? material objects? How might you describe that interplay of reality and simulation?
Kat Mustatea 08:07
Yeah, that's a great question. You know, what's really lovely about augmented reality and virtual reality as well as can do so many things that don't exist in the real world. So you can have a whale fly by in the clouds, that to me that possibility feels like an invitation to not try to simulate reality, but to to go beyond it, right. But in this case, the idea is if you are doing something like transposition of reality to simulation, how might you like pick a scale that you can proportion that you might change? So in this case, we do know that paper decays that books are going to decay over a very long period of time. So I just picked this particular relationship of time sort of accelerated it, and thought, Okay, well, there's decay, but let's, let's really, like make it happen within a few readings, as opposed to over the ions that it would take a book to, to decay,
Vanessa Chang 09:10
right? You're kind of playing with get a scale of temporality here. And it's interesting, too, that the invitation is to return to the book several times to accelerate that that something that you're trying to do to invite different forms of being with the text or, you know, why is it that kind of return that you're trying to invite here?
Kat Mustatea 09:33
I want to be realistic about what someone's attention might be. I've had friends comment on this, like, oh, what does it mean that I have to sort of like pick a quiet moment to really experience this book? Because it'll go away? And I have to really treasure that moment when I read it. And the answer is, yes, you that that is exactly what you should do. And I hope that that is what happens in the experience of this book. That it it Feels precious.
Vanessa Chang 10:01
Sorry, it sounds like I mean, what what I think is really interesting here is that you're seizing, making a claim for attention in an economy of distraction. I mean, it's interesting that it's born on Instagram, which is the ultimate venue for like next, like, like, like, when you've not created this artifact that you're like, No, you have to carve out this moment in time and sort of be co present with it in this moment.
Kat Mustatea 10:24
Yeah, I mean, you don't have to right it's your choice. But I hope that it does create a some sense in which you might direct your attention differently than you would to a regular book. I think that just comes from my background in performance. In general, I think that in a theatrical context, you do think very deeply about how you direct a viewers attention.
Vanessa Chang 10:49
I mean, I'd like to see if we might make a bridge now between your work in this book, and they're kind of interventions AR can make, you know, into material objects kind of broadly. So I think, to me, one of the really interesting aspects of augmented reality, and once more compelling character characteristics is its capacity to instill ambiguity in the environment. I was really struck once when I was talking to some AI artists, and they talked about how even you know, we often talk about AI as being something that's very visual, but even something like a sound walk really can change your experience of the environment, and what have you how you might understand that aspect of it and shaping your artistic deployment of AR,
Kat Mustatea 11:35
I've heard a couple of amazing sound walks, I have to say, and they do relate, I think something about the intimacy of the sound does something to to change your perceptions. In my case, in thinking about ambiguity, for me, that means you know, you allow deliberately multiple interpretations of of what reality might be, I like ambiguity a lot as a strategy as an artistic strategy. But I also like to pick what those possible interpretations might be. So I like to pick 235, however many and really think deeply about how to objects or experiences that have this hybrid nature, where it might have characteristics of one and characteristics of another. So in the case of this book, I'm thinking about it as well what part of this thing this experience is book like, and then what part of this thing or experience is performance, like so I the actual objecthood of the thing is very book, like of course, will have binding and pages and you can leave through it. So that's book like the fact of its ephemerality of it's a relationship to time and to your attention, that feels performance, like, and so in creating something in between, I think, I think that creating hybrids like that allow ambiguity to write.
Vanessa Chang 13:02
It's interesting to it makes me think about the larger metaphorical work you're doing and layering. Dante is in front over New York City hit, there's this kind of literary layering, that you're doubling with this augmented reality that's kind of making your project operate in all these different, different kind of tears of reality?
Kat Mustatea 13:23
Yes, you know, I, like I said, I do like this strategy. So I do enjoy that in any given post. I'm trying to keep some kind of a balance between what is Dante inspired here, like, what really came from the inferno as a text? What, what came from my own observations of the world, or what's happening to me personally, and what came from what I understand to be New York City, and I try to keep that triangle pretty well balanced?
Vanessa Chang 13:54
Yeah, really a great project in so many ways. So now that you're creating an incarnating it in the world in this way, what are you most curious or excited about in terms of what it will become and how it might be received?
Kat Mustatea 14:08
Normally artists like you know, they have a concept and a project and there, it's pretty well formulated by the time it's put into the world. And this was nothing like that. This was a fairly intuitive off the cuff decision to start posting on Instagram, its development has been fairly organic, but it's been an organic kind of discovery of how what this project should be like, or how it should exist in the world. And the format that makes most sense for the themes involved, not usual process, I would say, I have been pretty surprised along the way. So all of this to say, I never would have imagined back in July when I started posting on Instagram, that I would end up some months later with an augmented reality, but
Vanessa Chang 14:58
it's the journey of the object and I guess This is this is the open endedness of interactivity and performance right as you invite other people into that unfolding of the the practice that you're making.
Kat Mustatea 15:12
But I think it's also just very practically a response to like the chaos and uncertainty of the past year.
Vanessa Chang 15:20
Right. Right. Do you feel a sense of urgency when in creating this?
Kat Mustatea 15:24
Yeah I have. And although that idea of urgency has itself become augmented along the way, I thought that I was going to be posting for I don't know, a couple of months, then I was going to get it out of my system. And it actually took me a few months to get through the story. And I think it was the right length of time, although that wasn't the length of time I initially thought was right for it.
Vanessa Chang 15:48
Cool. Well, thank you so much, Kat, for being with us today. Is there anything that you'd like to add about your work or your project or anything that's upcoming in your artistic vision that you'd like to share?
Kat Mustatea 16:01
Oh, well, I should mention that I will begin posting now a follow up to a Voidopolis which corresponds roughly to Dante's purgatory because we are now in the equivalent purgatorial of transition hopefully out of pandemic and I think there will also be eventually I don't know when a moment when we might call ourselves in the paradise whatever that might mean for us all as we have merged so I will be doing both of those narratives at some point so
Vanessa Chang 16:38
I'm very excited to see that unfold on Instagram well thank you so much for joining us today cat I'm so looking forward to seeing this object ensure the real and digital world I'm sure our listeners as well.
Erica Hruby 16:59
Kat Mustatea is a playwright and technologist whose language and performance works in the list, absurdity, hybridity and the uncanny to dig deeply into what it means to be human. Her most recent digital performance for Doppel lis won the 2020 Arts and Letters unclassifiable Prize for Literature, received a literary grant from the cafe royal Cultural Foundation, and has been exhibited internationally. visit her Instagram profile @kmustata. That's at k m u s t e a to see how Voidopolis has unfolded on that platform. As a curator, writer and educator Vanessa Chang builds communities and conversations about art, technology and human bodies. She has Senior Program Manager at Leonardo, the International Society for the art Sciences and Technology. She has appeared on NPR is on the media and state of the art, and her curatorial work has been profiled in art in America and KQED arts. More information about Kat and Vanessa including links to their work are available in the Episode Notes at Leonardo dot info slash podcast. If you're interested in learn more about experimental forms of publishing books and extended reality, I'd recommend you check out the article by Celina Lange in our current issue of Leonardo journal titled The virtual artists book as a space for curatorial experiments. The Acropolis remix project. In this article Lage presents her research on the concept of art exhibitions presented as virtual books. Her intent was to conduct theoretical research on emerging trends in art curation and virtual artists books, in addition to creating a digital art exhibition to be displayed in museums and other cultural venues. The research resulted in the creation of a hybrid augmented reality book titled Acropolis remix. Read more about this in Leonardo volume 54 issue to publish in April 2021, which can be read via the MIT Press journals website, Project Muse and various institutional subscriptions. for Leonardo reviews, here is Edith Doove.
Edith Doove 19:04
The history of art history by Christopher s Wood published by Princeton University Press, there was a time now about 40 years ago, when I was much more involved in the early theoretical aspects of art history. Inspired by a brilliant teacher. During my studies, I welcomed reading a history of art history just as a happy refresher of my knowledge of the subject, which however, left me largely confused. Princeton presents this book, which has now also been published as a paperback as an authoritative history of art history, from its medieval origins to its modern predicaments. And the first of its kind in English. as wood acknowledges himself in his references section The latter is not entirely true back at the time we used to Podro's the critical historians of art from 1982, although that didn't have the full scope discussing only Kant to Panofsky Wood does indeed a much wider job for which are antecedents in other languages such as Udo Kulturmann’s Kleine Geschichte der Kunsttheorie that was equally published around a time that I was studying 1987 and often would refers to his earlier Geschichte der Kunstgeschichte: Der Weg einer Wissenschaft from 1966. Another earlier example of a history of art history could be the art of art history, a critical Anthology, edited and with an introduction and concluding text by Donald Preziosi from 1998. I mentioned these examples to situate a particular structured way in which I became acquainted with the discipline being on top of that so called child of H. W Jansen, whose history of art originally published in 1962, but of which we studied the second edition of 1977 is described by wood as even handed across time and place yet keyed to the concept of the timeless and placeless masterpiece. Woods book has a different approach, structured in an introduction, 21 chapters and an extensive conclusion. His introduction sets the scene by sketching the broad setup of his history, starting with a description of the 14th century crucifixion altar doberan. Mecklenburg to demonstrate an art historians knowledge, he example doesn't have to surprise as good as a historian at the Department of German at New York University, and specialized in German art and literature. somewhat obscurely. This example is then followed by introductory sections on relativism, a section called a past of the dice that mentions a Anita Brenner, who was strictly speaking not an art historian, but an ethnologist, an anthropologist who never adopted the academic mentality letting would reflect that art history comes closer to art, when it opens itself to non art, a section on the origin of art history, on three modes of art history and on empirical scholarship. The subsequent chapters are dedicated to specific time frames, the first spending an amazing 600 years and only 10 pages between 814 100 of 100 years between 14 115 150 years between 15 170 5020 years for the periods when the discipline of art history truly starts to develop between 1750 and 1890. And finally, in chunks of 10 years for the period between 1890 and 1960, are actually most of the time alludes to architecture, or the space in which art finds itself included. cathedrals in all shapes and forms figure largely that wood who's mainly specialized in venison subject stops in 1960, is in itself bizarre, although he's mentioned further developments in art and art history in his conclusion, the first chapters initially promised to include world art history, when they make allusion to amongst others Chinese art, but this is not continued in a structural way. All in all, references are uneven, focusing possibly rather unavoidable mainly on Renaissance art, as this was the main subject of most art historical writing. Good mentions the first documented exhibition in castle of 1955. But stopping his main overview in 1960, prevents him from commenting more profoundly on the influence of the curatorial art history now mentioned, for instance Alfred H Barr and his influential insights on Cubism, and abstract art by his writing an exhibition nor hardly any mentioning of the ideas of artists, which are for the main part also limited to those of the renaissance of the modern period. The selection is largely limited to the usual suspects, Cezanne, Kandinsky and Picasso avoiding mentioning Duchamp altogether, although briefly alluding to readymades in a general way, this stands in huge contrast with another relatively recent publication. The critical reader wants to use constellations of art history and knowledge from 2016 that combines the voices of both scholars and artists, male and female. Another strange admission seems to avoidance of discussion of Benjamin's the work of art in the age of mechanical production from 1935, while referring to the discovery of cave paintings and its impact multiple times with unfortunately misses the insights on the important influence on modern art, as discussed by Maria Stavrinaki, amongst others during the conference deep time and crisis circa 1930. From 2018 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Munich in the context of the exhibition Neolithic childhood art in a false childhood circa 1930. And more recently, the exhibition Préhistoire, une enigme moderne, prehistory, a modern Enigma at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2019. wood duly mentions the late acceptance of women into the discipline, and refers to early female scholars such as Anna Jameson or Stella Kamrisch. But the history of art history nevertheless, turns out to be a mainly male business would thus refer to Molly Nesbit's the pragmatism in the history of art from 2013 but only in the references section, without discussing it more in depth only lists in it as one of the many books that have been important for him. Other eminent female art historians such as Svetlana Alpers, Linda Nochlin, Rosalind Krauss or Lucy R. Lippard, The first one of which notably wrote the game changing book, The Art of describing Dutch art in the 17th century, in 1983, are not mentioned at all. Instead, the focus is more on how the major art historians of the modern era Jacob Burckhardt, Aby Warburg, Heinrich Wölfflin, Erwin Panofsky, Meyer Schapiro, and Ernst Gombrich struggled to adapt the work to the rupture of artistic modernism, leading to the current predicament of the discipline, which edition is beyond question, and the scope of what is being discussed is certainly immense, but a more inclusive approach might nevertheless have avoided a missed opportunity. After having finished reading the book, I regretted that I haven't kept some kind of diagram to keep track of the continuously changing and often contrasting opinions on the standards by which art was discussed, either following fixed standards as during the Renaissance, through the pioneer in discussions of ghiberti and of course, Vasari, or according to the relativism of the 19th centuries, the pros and cons of historicism were the one was to prioritize form of content, the role of antiquarians the development from connoisseurship to scholarship, what was considered good or bad art or art altogether. This is not necessarily Woods fault. But it's easy to miss the wood for the trees no pun intended, due to his flowery style of writing, which is already apparent in the short indications for the subject matter of his chapters on the content pages. The most mystifying are possibly the concluding pages, especially those where wood seems to utter his frustration with academic art history since the 1970s. With the household Gods borrowed from other clients, the concept makers, the everlast thinkers are theorists without however, mentioning any concrete names, what to make, for instance of form histories were meta fictions that sustained the fiction of Gnosticism. Gnosticism is also the mode of the parabolic thinkers, the commerical nonconformist, demarc pick, marvelous, speculative libertarian theorists, often para academic or exiled to the margins of academia. The commerical or anti philosophical thinkers are mostly self authorizing, they have no clear expertise, they do not appeal to the real world, at cetera, or is this a reference back to Ghana in the introduction would indicate in its conclusion, how the art and the art world has changed with art is mostly much more ephemeral, often connected to protest and activism. That is certainly the case. At the same time, there's the speculative and political intermingling of the art markets with art history, as recently displayed in the Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi case, a history of art history does left me puzzled, which may be a quality in itself. It has certainly connected me back to my old love for art theory, and I will just definitely read it again. diagramming it along the way, while equally we reading couture among Nesbit poodle, as well as the female colleagues mentioned above. To put it into perspective. Although wood seems to speculate about an end of art history, for the time being, it is clear that art history or the history of art history keeps passionately rethinking and rewriting itself.
Erica Hruby 29:20
Edith Doove is an art historian, curator, writer and researcher specifically interested in notions of emergence and contingency cross and transdisciplinary collaborations. Leonardo reviews has provided scholarly reviews of books, exhibitions, videos, websites and conferences since 1968. Reviews are published monthly at Leonardo dot info slash reviews. Visit Leonardo dot info slash podcast for extended episode notes with more information about our contributors A list of all available episodes and links to the streaming services where we can be found.
Tinatswe Mhaka 30:07
Between art and science is a production of Leonardo, the International Society for the art Sciences and Technology. Our editorial director is Erica Hruby. Leonardo reviews editor in chief is Michael punt. production assistants by Tinatswe Mhakaw. Our theme music was composed by Wyatt Keutsch. Find out more about Leonardo, our publications and our programs at www dot Leonardo dot info
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