Nicer Tuesdays September was an event of two halves. As the evening drew in, we took shelter from the rain in Oval Space to welcome photographer Turkina Faso and illustrator Alec Doherty to the stage before the break. Before Christie Morgan, founder of Pitch Studios and artist Ben Cullen Williams joined the stage.
The first half was all about the past; about nostalgia and memories and how creative work can allow you to reflect on these. For Turkina, this manifested in a talk about her ongoing work with her younger sister and how the pair use photography to capture moments that will live forever. Alec, on the other hand, constantly draws on his adolescence in his work, using it to come up with themes but also to dictate his style and restless approach to creativity.
The second half, however, was very much about the future as Pitch Studios shared a project imaging a virtual gap year in an entirely digital world. Closing the show was Ben who took us through his work with Wayne McGregor and Google Arts and Culture’s AI tool, posing questions about how we continue to define beauty as AI becomes ever-more integrated into our lives.
Photography is a time machine
Taking us on a ten-minute look back at the last ten years of collaboration with her sister, first to take to the stage was photographer Turkina Faso. Having worked for likes of Mulberry, Vogue, Wonderland, Schwartzkopf and many more, it was a huge surprise to hear that Turkina started as a medical student, a subject she studied for two years.
Having left after that time to study journalism in Moscow and “find herself”, it was during these studies that she began experimenting with photography. At that time, she told us, they were no bachelors or even short courses in the medium and so she took it upon herself to pick up a camera. “I was doing experiments, and a lot of mistakes probably,” she added. On a trip back to her hometown, Turkina took a photograph of her younger sister Alice, who was eight at the time: “I didn’t know what to photograph but I had her as a great model.” As the siblings have such a large age gap – Turkina is currently 31 and Alice 17 – this initial interaction prompted a decade-long collaboration but, most importantly, allowed the sisters to find common ground, something over which they could connect.
Turkina explained: “It’s a really personal thing and photography became a friendship tool as well.” The pair took items from their grandmother’s wardrobe, their parent’s basement and bought items from second-hand shops in their hometown and used these props on the shoots they’d concoct. Together, they’d recreate memories – real and fake. Turkina coined the term “magical realism” for this process as, because she and Alice used them, “simple things became really special.”
Over the past ten years, Turkina and Alice have completed commercial and personal jobs together and, this year, held an exhibition in Vichy to mark a decade of collaboration. She concluded by telling us: “Photography is a time machine… it’s really powerful.” While Turkina can’t go back to her teenage years, or her hometown as it was when she was a child, or see a family member again who’s passed, she can “recreate a moment again and again in a photograph and I can enjoy that forever.”
Being restless as a creative can only be a good thing
Continuing the theme of childhood memories was Alec Doherty, an illustrator and artist based in London. Originally from Darlington, Alec’s talk focused on a common theme of his work: adolescence. This, he told us, comes out not only in the subjects of his work but in his style and approach: “There’s a sense of mischief and rebellion in there.”
A constant throughout Alec’s creative career has been a restlessness. “Like a teenager, I’ve got a short attention span,” he explained. Having started off studying graphic design, before getting a job in the industry, he realised it wasn’t for him and so quit. It was around that time that Alec’s pal started a beer company called Partizan Brewing and asked him to do the labels, marking Alec’s first real job as an illustrator. He’s now been working with them for seven years, “and they deserve an award for that.” From here, Alec set about becoming an illustrator with a defined style but “I didn’t find it satisfying and I got bored of it,” he told us. So he began experimenting with the medium, moving into the 3D world of sculpture and jewellery.
Validation that this kind of multifaceted creative practice pays off came when Alec received a commission to create a giant wall hanging out of wood and metal for the Olympic Park in Stratford. “This was an affirmation for me that I was doing positive stuff. It was changing perceptions of what people thought I could do, and also changed my perception of myself,” he explained. “I love this ambiguity of what it is I actually do.”
Alec finished his talk by showing us his most recent, in-progress work, a project which again sees him returning to his adolescence. Taking memories of formative moments in his life, he’s been working in a new style yet again, creating childlike, spontaneous paintings. As the project moves forward, he hopes to turn to his friends’ memories into works in this style, and so has been collecting voice notes, emails and scraps of paper from them with the aim of exhibiting the work sometime next year. And while he might be destined to be a perpetual teenager, Alec concludes, embracing this restlessness and learning from it is what’s helped him develop his work thus far.
Collaboration is the key to success
Up behind the podium after the break was Christie Morgan, the founder of Melbourne-based Pitch Studios and its newly-developed creative lab Pitch Portal. She introduced the studio to the audience: “We like to work with new technologies to achieve interesting, new and innovative results.” This often sees Pitch working with emerging technology to take a further look at how humans connect with each other in our digital world. But, importantly, Christie added, “We have a collective mentality with everything we do.” In practice, this means Pitch Studios remains a fairly small core team, but has connections across the globe who helps it complete projects.
One such project which demonstrated this model was Virtual Gap Year, produced in collaboration with IAM. The short film, which is full of vibrant pinks and purples and features a computerised voice over, explores the theme of the IAM Weekend 2019. Essentially, it looks at how all of us who use the internet are connected and therefore we’re all citizens of the same place: Earth. Pitch Studio’s film, therefore, took these ideas one step further, subverting them to explore a global concept: the gap year.
Having decided that film would provide the simplest form of storytelling for such a complex concept, Pitch put out a call on Instagram for collaborators from across the globe. “We believe that collaboration is the key to success,” Christie stated, “We wanted the artists to explore the theme and what it means to them personally.” Once SmiskoAckerman, Lorna Pittaway, Twomuch Studio and Polina Zinziver were selected as collaborators, each artist put forward ideas to Pitch for how they felt the notion of the virtual gap year could be visualised. “We didn’t want to keep the process rigid, we encouraged everyone to get a bit weird,” Christie added. The result is a film which subverts the stereotypical ideas of what a gap year is, looking at it from the perspective of an entirely digital world where the transmission of data is transparent. Ultimately, it’s a work which fully embodies Pitch Studios’ ethos of collaboration and which delves into the topics it finds most interesting, examining how communities exist online and in the digital space.
What can AI teach us about beauty?
Ben Cullen Williams is an artist who splits his time between London and New York. His practice is largely rooted in sculpture but he also works with photography and film, all to interrogate our physical world and try and make sense of the spaces move within. Forming the basis of Ben’s talk last night, however, was a recent collaboration between himself, Wayne McGregor and Google Arts and Culture. Titled The Living Archive, the project began as an AI experiment between Wayne and Google Arts and Culture to develop a tool for choreography generated by movement. And Ben was brought on to use that very same tool to output visuals for a live performance in Los Angeles.
“As part of the tool it captures the dancers’ movement, analyses it, and then extends it in real-time,” Ben explained. “At the start of the project, it was outputting movement as stick figures… My first question to the Google team was simple: If a computer was to dance, how would it dance?” He continued: “As humans, we have a body and physical structure that allows us to express ourselves in only one set of ways…. on this project, where we didn’t need to, why would we restrict ourselves.” These revelations kick-started a process of thorough experimentation, utilising the raw code spit out by the tool to generate visuals. Whereas, of course, some of it wasn’t the most attractive, Ben made a conscious decision not to “edit out the ugliness and jerkiness to make it feel authentic and real,” in line with the fact that AI has no bias towards beauty. In turn, he mused, we should interrogate our own definition of beauty as we continue to work more and more with these kinds of tools.
For the live performance, these visuals were displayed on a large LED screen. “I felt it was important for a strong technological presence to be on the stage, almost like a part of the computer had been ripped out and put on stage,” he explained. What was most impressive about this element, however, was how it acted as a digital insight into what the dancers were doing on stage. Ben concluded by profession what a learning curve this project has been for him. It’s changed the way he looks at the world and allowed him to understand that “it’s only through interrogating new technology that we can understand its place in our world.”