“Once It’s Printed, It Becomes Real”

Estonian artist Katja Novitskova is searching for areas where humans, machines, and the environment intersect. She considers the nonhuman intelligence of animals as a model for artifcial intelligence (AI). Novitskova scans our chaotic reality for meaningful patterns as if she were a biological search engine.

Peter Hossli (Text) Katja Novitskova (Fotos) 08.09.2018

Katja Novitskova, are you a dog person or a cat person?
I’ve lived with a cat, and I’ve never lived with a dog. So I guess I’m a cat person.

What was your cat’s name?
It was my roommate’s cat. It was a Russian name, and meant “The Bomb of the Year.”

Why don’t you have a pet now?
Because I travel so much. I’ve basically left my apartment in Berlin. My boyfriend is supposed to be there but he’s not. So all my plants will die.

What remains is your art, which is characterized by images of animals. What attracts you to animals?
They are awesome. All living creatures are mysterious. And interesting. Yet they are taken for granted. If you look at them, they are just the craziest things. For me, watching an animal, whether it’s a y or a mouse, is more exciting than watching a movie. The earliest form of art was the depiction of animals on cave walls. That is what I refer to. There’s mystery in the depiction of an animal form.

What characterizes an animal?
Its raw life.

You’ve said a frog is more complex than an iPhone …
… that’s obvious, isn’t it?

A frog can’t order a car from Uber.
But the frog is alive, it has its own character, its own interests and life choices and emotions. An iPhone doesn’t have all that. It’s just like a stick.

A blue dog was photographed in India. Its fur had changed color due to toxic pollution. Why is this image on the cover of your book?
A lot of things come together in this picture. I like it because it is hilarious. It is also very telling. The blue color is the consequence of industrial pollution. Humans cause the pollution. Everything that is going on in the world is told in one image. What happened to this dog is happening to everybody else. The dog is a mutant, an adapted creature, and a nonhuman intelligence agent that likes to be around humans. It is part of us, but at the same time something different, something on its own.

Algorithms have nonhuman intelligence, animals don’t.
Artificial intelligence sounds like a far-fetched concept, but at the same time it’s banal, because it’s all around us. All animals have some form of intelligence that is nonhuman. If you want to comprehend AI, I think it’s best and it feels way more natural to look at a creature that is different to humans, like a smart bird, or an octopus. When we think about the future of AI, we can comprehend the reality of it by just looking at animals.

Like primates that are closely related to us?
I study both, those that have more kinship with us, like apes, and those that are farther away, like the octopus. I look at a lot of the lab animal issues – fruitfies have memories, a tiny little fruit y has a life. But an AI algorithm is just so much simpler.

You say that in order to see our future we need to study animals. But isn’t the future digital technology, controlled by AI?
It’s both. You cannot understand one without the other. You cannot understand AI without understanding animal intelligence. You need to be open to the concept of nonhuman intelligence. You have to include all living creatures in it and break the idea of human supremacy. The science of AI will benefit from looking at other nonhuman intelligence.

You see animals as way more emotional than technology. But you also study primitive life forms such as microbes and insects.
There is no clear line, nobody knows where emotion starts or stops. There is no hard line between intelligence and non-intelligence, between human and animal. Long before there were humans, there were emotions.

So you’re looking for emotions?
Only psychos and sociopaths don’t look for emotions; everybody else is looking for emotions. I hope I’m not a sociopath.

The blue dog is also a funny reference to the art scene.
When I saw this picture, I was immediately reminded of a picture of Pierre Huyghe’s, of the dog with the pink leg. The dog’s name was Human. I thought the blue dog is the real-life version of that work of art. Reality is always more intense than fiction.

Is it reality? You only saw images of the blue dog. They could easily have been digitally manipulated.
I’m not sure at all. But the news was real, it felt real, it could have been real. I saw other stories that were saying the same thing. The blue dog is easier to visualize. If you read that every single drop of water has tiny pieces of plastic in it, that’s more terrifying, but it’s also much harder to visualize.

In your book you also show the dog in natural colors and in black and white.
I need to manipulate images to be allowed to use them. I fictionalize everything. It’s not fake news, but an interpretation.

A reporter needs to tell the truth. An artist is truthful. Digital tools make it so easy to alter reality. Can we still tell what’s true?
Every attempt at capturing truth is biased in one way or another. There is a bias in language, there are camera biases, political biases, emotional biases. There is truth. But every attempt to fully capture it fails. In order to understand what’s going on in the world you need to look at many sources.

Are your images truthful?
They stand for themselves—and they are a product of our time. The image itself is already an artifact that needs attention. I try to encapsulate its reality.

As a mark of our time?
Ten years from now maybe we’ll better understand what’s happening. Now it feels just overwhelming. Some of it is reality, like the graphs about climate change I use. But what it all means, what it will turn into, is hard to say. That’s why I change things.

Your art captures our time so people in the future can understand how the past saw itself?
Ten years ago, when I was still a student, the big conversation was about “peak oil,” the end of resources, and the resulting crash of all economies. It was a very simplistic idea, and the reality turned out to be so much more complicated. I’m an observer, I’m trying to capture things, creating my own little fictions that may have the possibility to predict something for the future.

Why do you use image recognition software in your art?
Since the origins of representation, the way the human hand makes a drawing, and how the eye recognizes the drawing, and then reads it as something else—all of that is based on the continuity of the line. Machine vision is different, it’s based on a translation of signals of light and a numeric code and recognition of patterns. I’m very curious about these algorithms trying to recognize and comprehend reality. At first it simply says, “This is light and this is darkness.”

How does that relate to your work?
It gets more and more complex. And at some point, I realized there is this whole section
of image recognition that is assimilating the silhouette of an object, its outline, and it looks exactly like what I’m doing with the cutout sculptures. I look at a shape that I find relevant, and then I outline it. This is exactly what this algorithm is doing. I’m not just looking in a scientific way at what is artificial or machine intelligence, but also at how it relates to my artistic vision, and what the similarities and crossovers are.

Do you follow global corporations that are creating divisions for artificial intelligence?
The beauty of machine vision is that once you’ve figured out how it can recognize a face or a picture of a leopard, you can train the algorithm to recognize cancer cells. It’s an adaptive strategy; you can move from art to medicine to military application. The algorithms can be adapted to each purpose.

What does it take?
All these big industries require image data; everything is based on massive visual databases. If you want to train your algorithm to recognize cancer cells, you have to have millions of images of tumors, but you also need people to train the algorithms. Image databases are a massive resource.

Can an algorithm create poetry or emotion?
Definitely. The poetry happens when we look at it. I see aesthetic value in what an algorithm creates. We have to include all these new regimes of image production into the discussion of what an image is, what representation is.

Publishing something online is like peeing into the ocean: it has practically no effect. You take pictures from this online ocean. How do you find them?
Based on my personal algorithm. You cannot do this rationally. This year it feels right to pay attention to the biomedical field. I’m also looking more at storm diagrams and storm pictures.

I don’t know. Two or three years ago I was obsessed with images from space and Mars missions. Now, I’m a bit less interested in them. I don’t know why. I just follow my instinct.

How do you proceed when something grabs you?

I look at all the storm images I can find, then I download them and look at them for weeks. I pick the ones that are the strongest. It first has to touch me, and then it touches other people. What I’m doing is so simple; it only works for this mysterious reason. It has to come through my system, all of it. I’m pretty control-freaky, actually.

You work with images that others have created. Are they your collaborators?

I’m intrigued by accidental artistic value. A scientific image has no artistic value, but for me, when I see it as having artistic value, then I feel very con dent in using the image. With journalistic images, I feel more careful, and I think I should just substitute that person’s voice with my own. But I have to contextualize it and make it into something new. This creates tension.

Is the Internet a free-for-all?
No, it’s not.

How do you deal with the issue of copyright?
In a very naive way. If I can download it, then
I download it. And then I try to make it into something of my own. That’s it. I’m not physically hurting anybody by downloading it. I’ve been doing this since I was 12. I was a kid growing up in Estonia in the 1990s; we were not going to buy anything legally off the Internet.

That is changing …
Yes, the Internet is way less free now than it was in the 1990s. It is becoming like a walled garden, there are two passwords to everything, and your music is now not on your device, everything is much more protected. And everything has a stamp. With blockchain things are even harder to find.

How will this affect your art?
It’s not like being a hunter-gatherer, it’s more like going to the supermarket. Google just removed the search-by-image button— that’s how I did my work. Now I have to go back to a shady search engine, I have to go back to the underground. It reduces freedom, ultimately. I’m also very interested in the software that has generated the image, and the person who did it, and how it happened. It’s not only about the image, it’s also about the infrastructure, the architecture of that image.

Why do you think you were chosen to design Ringier’s annual report?

Everything I make is a report. It’s about the state of the world. With these reports, I can make a juicy little picture book. Long ago, I began with a little art book. Post Internet Survival Guide was a report. And I always wanted to get back to it and to push forward my practice.

You’ve created a book with 272 printed pages, an analog object in these digital times. Why even produce an old-fashioned object like a book—why not just load everything onto a USB stick?
Once it’s printed, it becomes real. It’s like a fossilization process. Everything is online but it can disappear in an instant. A book is a more durable medium. Paintings and books are valuable media. There is a value in their simplicity. Do you know a great way to understand artificial intelligence?

Tell me.
Buy a book about artificial intelligence and read it, just the words on paper. We need to create little
islands of meaning out of the chaos. The book is the perfect medium for this.

Each page in this publication has been given a complex number. Why?
Images and numbers are the same thing. You
can translate any set of numbers into an image and any image into a set of numbers. A telescope looking into space, or an MRI looking into your brain is translating light into numbers and into an image. There is a mystery to this constant translation process and the choices regarding the question: Will this be a number or will this be a line? If it’s a line, will it affect me as a drawing, or if it’s a number, will it affect me the same way?

On many pages, you add keywords like hashtags. One white page is inscribed with “white board,” “page,” “text,” “letter.” Why did you add this layer?

If you look at a book of photographs, you look at what’s in the photographs. You don’t look at the surface of the book, at the paper. In this case we also wanted to treat the book spread itself as a surface, as a canvas. So we wanted to include certain elements in the publication that trigger this awareness. You’re not just looking into something, but you’re looking at the surface of this medium.

Why did you work on this book with PWR Studio in Berlin?
Their designers are not just designers. They also have their own creativity. I’m only superficially aware of artificial intelligence. Hanna Nilsson and Rasmus Svensson at PWR are actually able to code all this mysterious stuff. I trusted them to create their own little algorithms to translate my content into something mysterious, something unpredictable.

So the book was a collaboration?
We’re like the parents. Hanna and Rasmus
are the algorithm parent, and I’m the content parent. Together we’ve made this mutant
child. What ends up on the spread was not a conscious choice. It’s how the image material was processed by the little tricks they made.
I gave them this stuff that comes from my research. They made a meat grinder, and we ground everything through it, and the result was this book. We could humanly still adjust it at the end. It’s a collaboration between us people and these little machine things.

Sounds a bit like the new strategy at Ringier: people make content for this media company, computers analyze it and mine data from it that the company hopes to make money from.
It’s applicable in different fields. I’m not trying
 to be super innovative. I’m just trying to capture this logic.

Estonia is the most technologically advanced country in the world.
That’s what they say, it’s the national propaganda.

Your art is strongly influenced by the Internet. No other country in the world is more online than Estonia. Does this make your art Estonian?
No. I’m a product of my time, my generation. I was born here in Tallinn, and that makes me an Estonian artist.

You were born a citizen of the Soviet Union. What’s left from that period of your life?
In our kindergarten, we had a portrait of Lenin on the wall. When the Soviet Union collapsed, I was in first grade at school, about seven years old. So I was like the last child of that strange period. What affected me, as well as a lot of people in Estonia, was not the childhood in the Soviet Union, but what happened after the collapse. There was a major economic collapse. Much worse than the collapse of the euro or what is happening in Greece. Although I was very young, I saw the collapse of a country. That made me resilient. A lot of young people in Western Europe feel that they are having it worse than their parents. For me, the trajectory is a bit different. It is hard, it may get harder, but it is still far from how bad it was in the 1990s.

You’re an Estonian citizen of Russian descent, and you live in Berlin and Amsterdam. Where is home?
Home is where my next opening is. Tallinn is my home in the most basic sense. I became an artist in Berlin. But I haven’t settled down in a specific place yet.

What do you like to look at?
That changes all the time. I like to look at the world. I haven’t had a day without a deadline for a long time. So I don’t really look at things just like that. Maybe next week I’ll go to the cinema to see a movie. Maybe.