Introducing her work during a talk at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago in 2016, Pinar Yoldas lists among her research fields: synthetic biology, turbo capitalism, big data, CO2 emissions, nano medicine, climate changes, bio-accumulation, and post-humanism.
The list could be even longer, but the impression is that it might be faster to talk about her interests than to name all of her degrees anyway. Yoldas is essentially a researcher: an omnivorous and multidisciplinary one, with a fluid and osmotic thought, and, like all the people that live at the intersections, naturally allergic to rigid definitions. Her works are always the outcome of a thorough path of exploration and experimentation that has the power to turn the hot topics of science discourse into creative energy.
In all of her projects she aims at reflecting on how biological and ecological systems are impacted by culture and society, pointing out the side effects of a capitalistic and uncontrolled use of technologies. In order to do so, she makes use of every kind of technique: drawings, videos, installations, kinetic sculptures, digital technologies; her medium flexibility reflects the flexibility of her own mind. Yoldas’ portfolio ranges from works like Speculative Biologies (2008), a series of hypothetical genital organs designed as additional instruments of pleasure to enhance body sensations; to Distilling The Sky (2016), an installation that offers a deeper experience of air pollution to the public, distilling the smog from the air and serving it as a liquid; to the very last Artificial Intelligence for Governance, the Kitty AI (2016), a video message from the future where an artificial intelligence tells us about the end of the capitalistic society.
Dressed as a sweet kitten in a medium close-up, a 3D animation explains her rise to power giving a languid look, and assures that she will take good care of us: such a persuasive political speech immediately makes the public feel the urge to vote for that AI. Amongst emotional machines, eco-nihilism, and speculative anatomies Yoldas reaffirms herself especially as a master at projecting alternative futures that push the audience to start correcting them immediately.
Federica Fontana: Taking a general look at your studies and career, it’s clear that you started mixing disciplines from the very beginning: you earned a Bachelor degree in Architecture first and then a Master in Visual Communication Design, a Master in Information Technologies, a Master in Design Media Arts, a Certificate in Cognitive Neuroscience and so on… until your present research that is related to biological science and digital technologies. Where did this cross-disciplinary approach come from and what does “working at the intersection” means to you?
Pinar Yoldas: We could say that I had this attitude since I was a child. My father is a physicist and I probably inherited science inclination from him; at the same time, I started using a pencil even before I could speak and I had my first painting exhibition when I was only 5 years old. At that time everybody thought I would be an artist, but then while I was at high school – I think I was around 13 years old – I really got interested in math and science. Therefore I went to a special high school in Turkey which is accessible only to gifted students and where it’s really hard to get in, but I passed the admission exam and I spent three years studying scientific subjects. At that point I realized that I liked both, science and art, and I’ve tried to bring these two together even at that early age: I was just wondering how could I avoid giving up one or the other, because had I taken a specific path and become a scientist part of me would be dead; likewise: if I had become only an artist who just paints and draws, again: part of me would not be satisfied. So I was asking myself how I could think like a scientist and like an artist at the same time even before I knew about art science and digital art.
Federica Fontana: Do you consider yourself more like a scientist or more like an artist at the moment?
Pinar Yoldas: I’ve finished my PhD but I can’t really call myself a scientist; to be honest, it would be a little bit stretched to say so because I’m not running a lab, I’m not publishing papers and I’m not doing the work that a typical scientist does on a daily basis. I do surely spend a lot of time with the sciences by observing, reading, learning, but at the end of the day my output is considered more an artistic one. For that reason it would be unjust to real scientists that spend all their life doing science to call myself that way. Even in the art world there are a lot of people that do a bunch of art stuff and they’re like: oh I’m an artist too! I don’t like that either, so I just try to be modest and honest and I think that if you’re going to call yourself something you should be doing it and spending a lot of time on it. I can’t call myself completely a scientist or an artist, maybe one day, but for now I think I am more a kind of a hybrid.
Federica Fontana: Always focusing on your career: at some point you decided to move to the USA for further studies, what were the reasons for this choice?
Pinar Yoldas: I didn’t see a future for myself in Turkey anymore, the situation became too problematic. Even though I grew up in a very liberal and progressive family, as most of the Turkish families used to be super liberal, very progressive and secular, things were becoming tough and I didn’t see a clear path for myself. Then I basically followed my passion which was to gain more knowledge, together with the freedom to create. I just wanted to keep creating without being constrained. This is still difficult but I believe that I made the right decision, especially in my field. I think there are many good things happening in Turkey, now looking back there are a lot of media artists, a lot of young people who are interested in science, a lot of this stuff is happening.
However, I thought for myself I should spend some time outside and go as far as I can go to lose some kind of attitude, basically. I was back for the Istanbul Biennial and sometimes I go back and do talks, I do have connections but I spend most of my time in northern Europe and the States. Turkey is like the third place I have on my way. This is hard because I left everyone behind, my family is still there, I’m still in touch with them and sometimes I go back. The kind of knowledge I needed, for instance, in neuroscience or in the art & science research or in funding for art that is not necessarily commercial this didn’t exist in Turkey so I had to go.
Federica Fontana: Two months ago I saw your last video installation Kitty AI at the Alien Matter exhibition in Berlin during the Transmediale, so I have to ask you: what do you think will be the role of algorithms in the future? Judging from this work you seem somewhat skeptical, not so much concerning artificial intelligence itself, rather concerning the human ability of not being overwhelmed by it…
Pinar Yoldas: Yesterday I was attending a meeting for the cat and I was joking about this, I was like: I felt like I was the first voluntary artist or designer that the Kitty AI hired for her political campaign, so she’s kind of using me… But seriously, algorithms are everywhere and our lives are actually heavily affected by them, even at this moment, so it’s not something that is going to happen in a far future or galaxy, it’s apparently reality. I think that the first decision to make a film about this started when I realized that my personal life and my social connections and social relationships are impacted by algorithms. Then I was reading and doing research on affective computing which is basically a discipline that studies how emotions are processed by the human brain and tries to combine them with artificial intelligence, or projecting systems that can read facial expressions and recognize emotional reactions, or even to generate them too.
Then I found the research of Rosaline Picard of MIT, one of the pioneers in this field: she and her students started a company called Affectiva that create algorithms or systems that can read faces and recognize emotional expressions and they believe that this is going to be a part of our daily lives in the near future. So, thinking about this and also thinking about IBM‘s Watson, I wondered why we don’t take that technology in anyway. I am also interested in the way emotions are processed in our brain, because for the longest times there has been this dichotomy between Apollo, the stoic and rational ancient Greek god, and Dionysus the god of wine and emotions, ecstasy and pleasure: there is this a divide between emotions and rationality. Even as a woman, I’ve been thinking about how women are also pushed on the emotional side of things and they’re kind of prompted to be the more emotional ones and to make less rational decisions etcetera.
Then around the time I read this book “Descartes’ Error” by Antonio Damasio, which is basically telling the world that there is no way for a human being to make a decision without an emotional system in the background. So that was my a-ha moment, I was like: there you go, you can be emotional but make reasonable, rational decisions; you need emotions to process the world, so emotions are there for a reason. That brought me to my next field of study which is how emotions are processed in the brain, and from there how emotions are processed in the machines, and then we had this character, Kitty AI, which is an intelligent machine but also possesses an emotional intelligence. So it was kind of a long path, a convoluted, meandering path, and I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.
Federica Fontana: And probably this is the most impressive and also frightening part of your work, that the cat isn’t just a talking machine but has and expresses human emotions…
Pinar Yoldas: Yeah, I do believe it’s very important for us to realize how significant emotions are in our lives and now with algorithms and thinking machines this is something that is going to come up, that emotions are not just a human prerogative anymore.
Federica Fontana: Speaking about Kitty AI, some days ago browsing on Instagram I saw that you’ve posted a picture on your profile with some sketches of cat merchandising… Is there something new going on with this project?
Pinar Yoldas: Yes I’m trying to make money to make an app, in which several artificial intelligences are embedded, and that can talk to you in the form of Kitty AI. The idea is that we can talk with the Kitties just acting like us skyping now, maybe for a small amount of time. So I was thinking how to raise money for that and I’m trying to advertise this merchandising, in a sustainable way, not mass-produced in China, like phone covers, t-shirts, USB keys… I also designed a cute electoral poster with that cat! I just want this character to spread all over the world, maybe we’ll have something more like beauty presents, products, films, apps and so on; that’s how I envision the Kitty AI for the next year or two.
Federica Fontana: This is not your first presence in Transmediale, four years ago you joined another edition if I’m not mistaken. Can you tell us something about that experience and especially about the project you were working on?
Pinar Yoldas: The project is called An ecosystem of excess (2014), I’ve started working on it again many years ago, most of my projects last for a long time. This one in particular was about evolution and how we indirectly change the way evolution works, for example through mutation and through pollution. In the geological era in which we’re living, the Anthropocene, all the living beings and the ecological ecosystem are heavily impacted by technology and by the artifacts of civilization – including pollution – that are changing the environment permanently. One of the main examples of this process is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a site in the North of the Pacific Ocean made of tons and tons of plastics waste. Therefore, I thought to myself: life started in the Oceans 4 billion years ago, what if life had started now, what kind of features would emerge? It’s actually true that there are new bacteria in there, a group of scientists found out that new kinds of microbial organisms came up in this kind of synthetic ecosystem.
Then I basically imagined a new species, a biological species that emerges in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That was the project and I proposed it to so many different channels and institutions and artists’ residencies and none picked it; but then thanks to Kristoffer Gansing, the artistic director of Transmediale, I was able to realise it and exhibit it in the Schering Stiftung Foundation Project Space, after a year of work. That was my very first interaction with Transmediale but it turned out to be a very successful show ever since and it has been really a great journey.
Federica Fontana: Some of the organisms you created for An ecosystem of excess are able to detect and metabolize plastic waste. Can you tell us something more about the making process of these sort of bio converters? Do they work for real or are they fake?
Pinar Yoldas: If with “fake” you mean that they are not living beings yes, they’re fake. It’s actually a very expensive and mighty cost to design and to realize microorganisms but it’s again on my to-do list, together with the Kitty AI mobile phone covers I want to make that too. But basically I’m a sculptor, I do things with my hands so I used polymer clay, pieces of plastics and some other materials and I created these artefacts. I’ve also used water and pumps so I can give them lifelike qualities so they would move and breathe a little bit etcetera; the system though was basically built with my own hands, it was just me sculpting.
Federica Fontana: Speaking about designing real microorganisms I have another question: most of your research relates to bio art but in that field artists act directly on flesh and organs, altering the genetic code and DNA sequences for real; for you instead the outcome is all hand-crafted (I’m also thinking about Speculative Biologies for example): to avoid wet media was a choice for you or are there other reasons?
Pinar Yoldas: This is an interesting question, I’ve been asking this myself a lot before too, and the thing is that the burdens and responsibilities bio artists take on aren’t functional to the results they envision all the time. What happens with art nowadays is that you make a work and it circulates into the media so it gets flattened anyway: it turns into a picture or into a paragraph, it turns into a blur, it’s compressed and it becomes its own representation. Take Eduardo Kac as an example: Kac did a massive and spectacular advertising campaign around the world for his GFB Bunny even before the glow-in-the-dark bunny was born, so the technology used was also made of the rumors that he ran a lab in Canada, or the story that can be read officially in his book; all these elements were interpreted differently by the people and the press. Then everybody wondered: Was it Photoshop? Was it really glowing? Was the bunny as bright and clean as it is in the pictures or was it not? We still don’t know, but at the end of the day he was able to raise all these questions around genetically modified organisms and he reached this goal of raising awareness and draw attention to the subject.
We see a different approach with tissue culture and genetic engineering in Oron Catts: every single project he made is made in the labs and it’s well-made, it lives and dies, everybody knows it’s real. But at the same time there are a lot of speculative design projects where one cannot ever be sure if they’re real or not, so there are different kind of approaches. Personally, being an emerging artist and not having any budget or access to the labs or to the tools I would need, I realized that there were many ideas I wanted to convey and I couldn’t really wait for all the suitable conditions for me to build what I want. At the end of the day all these creatures are transitory anyways, they show up and disappear; and I just want to convey a message, because that’s what art does.
That was the thing I was thinking about when I made my decision, but I am really interested in realizing my ideas in the real labs in the future and I am actually working on some projects right now. Also: I didn’t want to limit myself using the label of bio-artist. Again Kac has this rigid definition of Bio-art like you must work with blood, you must work with cells, and I know what this is about, I know how to extract DNA, and I’ve been in the labs. For me it’s not just sitting there and talking about this without knowing anything, but I’m going to choose a different path because my message is more important.
Federica Fontana: In your talk in Metabody Conference in Madrid some years ago you titled one of your slides “Human is dead, long live posthuman” as one of the possible titles of your presentation: do you agree with Stelarc when he says that human is obsolete?
Pinar Yoldas: That was a little bit more like a kind of a joke for me. Actually I just wanted to make fun of all the discussions around the post-human and about what they say that will happen to us… It was more like a provocation.
Federica Fontana: There are a lot of theorists and artists as well who predict a future in which the human beings will be able to recreate and manipulate their own bodies through their sole will, so in the future it will be possible for us to choose not just our look but also our shape, gender and race. What is your position, do you think that this is a process that we have to reverse somehow or do we have to adapt to it?
Pinar Yoldas: I think that we’re so ready to end history and the world, we’re so ready to bring an end to human, and this course is already going on. I think that adaptation is a process that is already happening but if you’re talking about designing ourselves: I don’t know about that honestly. I haven’t really made my mind yet about this. I’m thinking about this a lot and I’m totally in favor of designing babies or designing organisms, I think we should try and see where this path takes us, but at the same time there’s a part of me which is really doubtful. I guess that what I’m experiencing resembles what once also happened with the public perception of genetic modification and DNA: they are both exciting and scary. So that’s where I am, but I think I’m more open; I don’t think that we shouldn’t do anything like this or that we shouldn’t change anything, but at the same time there are so many consequences on doing something like that.
For instance, I’m thinking about genetically modified food and the case of Monsanto who did some genetic modified corn, and then it turned out that the pollen of this corn was toxic etcetera. Looking at the Earth we have to ask ourselves: are we really capable of understanding this system? No, not at all, we don’t know anything yet. So: we’re intellectuals, right? Then I’m all for playing and exploring, but at the same time I think that such decisions require a lot of education and a lot of reading, a lot of thinking and a really deep understanding of what life means and what Earth is.
Articolo a cura di Federica Fontana