'Elusive', 'Ontological', and 'excitable': Petra Szemán's work in three words. Petra is a moving image artist working with animation and game-like immersive installations, whose practice is 'centred around instances in which real life can be experiences as fictional.' In her most recent project 'Vug', she teamed up with Durham University's 'Durham Digitale' and the Killhope Lead Mining museum in Durham. Amana caught up with Petra to discuss this exciting new project and other aspects of her pioneering digital art practice.
Amana Moore: First off, who are you? What do you do? How did you get to where you are now?
Petra: I’m Petra, a video artist working with animation and computer games. I grew up in Budapest, Hungary; came to Newcastle to do an art degree, and ended up loving it here. I lived in Japan for two years on the MEXT Research Scholarship, and ended up returning to the North East in 2020. I have a studio in Newcastle, and do the usual freelance artist song-and-dance of juggling approximately 500 small projects at any given point in time.
"I do the usual freelance artist song-and-dance of juggling approximately 500 small projects at any given point in time"
'Vug' (2021), video still, Petra Szemán
You did Fine Art at Newcastle. Tell me a bit about that... how do you think your practice has evolved through your time there?
I went to university with the intention of doing painting, not because I was particularly fond of painting as a medium over others, but rather I didn’t know I had other options. I hadn’t really received a formal arts education before then. You don’t get to choose your subjects in the Hungarian secondary school system like you do for A-levels here.
"It kind of feels like I stumbled upon this vast cavern and I’m just going through that and exploring all of its elements, but the end is nowhere near in sight."
In my 2nd year of university I signed up randomly for a workshop to do with moving image and Adobe AfterEffect software that was run by the amazing Kelly Richardson, and the video art just snowballed from there. It was in my final and 4th year that I started to get a proper feel for what I think has since become ‘my style’, and in the years since then I’ve just been evolving that and expanding on it. It kind of feels like I stumbled upon this vast cavern and I’m just going through that and exploring all of its elements, but the end is nowhere near in sight.
How would you describe your practice in three words?
‘Elusive’, ‘ontological’, and ‘excitable’. If I’m allowed a +1, then ‘trains’.
Tell me about your time in Japan. What did you do as a research student?
I was in Japan on the MEXT Research Scholarship, which is given out by the Japanese Ministry of Education and Culture. Through this I spent 2 years as a so-called research student at the University of Tsukuba. In practice this meant that I was developing this two-year project with an advisor from the media school there, and with access to the university facilities. It was ‘practice-based research’, which is what they call when your main output is artwork rather than a traditional written thesis. The scholarship was enough so that it would fund my cost of living, and I could save up a bunch for travelling within the country and getting new equipment for my practice such as a better drawing tablet. I got to work along my proposed research plan, which culminated in the four-part Monomyth: gaiden series that I’ve published part by part over 2018-2020.
'Monomyth: gaiden / Master of two worlds (2020), video stills, Petra Szemán
How do you think your time in Japan impacted your artistic practice? Do you think your work has been influenced by it?
There’s definitely a strong influence! Generally speaking there’s a lot of Japanese pop culture elements that play into my work, and while my videos don’t take place in any one location in the traditional sense, a lot of the background material I use is footage that I collected on my research trips while living there. These elements are then used as entryways into wider realms of reference that point beyond a specific country or place.
Your work is very digital-based. What is it about working digitally that you enjoy?
The ability to construct environments and scenes that are built up of so many different layers, uniting a variety of perspectives (both literal and figurative) in one image world. Gaining spatial awareness of realms of experience that I can’t access with my physical body.
"The ability to construct environments and scenes that are built up of so many different layers, uniting a variety of perspectives (both literal and figurative) in one image world."
How much of your work do you do by hand/manually and how much is made digitally?
I can’t really make this distinction, because most of my work is done manually via digital devices. I draw the character animation by hand, frame by frame using a drawing pad. I assemble scenes and make them move Adobe AfterEffects, which is just as laborious as working with any off-screen medium. If there’s 3D elements, I will sculpt them manually in Blender.
I do have a pen-and-paper sketchbook that I use for planning out how to compose scenes, as well as drawing storyboards and animation drafts for narrative-based videos.
On your website you describe your work as ‘Centred around instances in which real-life can be experienced as fiction.’ What does this mean? How do you negotiate the tension between fiction and reality in your work?
On a base level it’s referring to moments where the way you understand the world around you is directly influenced by fiction - this could be for example the act of visiting a location that you’ve seen on a film before. Your experience in that space will be overlayed with the viewing experience of it through the camera lens, allowing for a layering of perspectives. In my work I try to construct scenarios and environments where there’s a heightened sense of these layers - and then diving in deep and looking at the nuances of the multi-layered realms this process creates, and what modes of existence may be possible there.
'I want to steer clear of thinking of cyberspace as a radically ‘other’ realm, and hope to walk the line between dystopian and utopian frameworks'
The possibilities that lie within the animated bodies and avatars that populate virtual worlds, whether that be a video game or social media. Exploring the human perceptual system and its media environment at particular moments in time, and the kinds of selves, lives and worlds that are produced in the overlapping area. Rather than inquiring into their relation to the real, it may be better to ask what new territories may be opened up? I want to steer clear of thinking of cyberspace as a radically ‘other’ realm, and hope to walk the line between dystopian and utopian frameworks
The global pandemic seems to have accelerated the move online. How do you think this has or will impact the arts?
I don’t think it’s possible to make sweeping statements about this, since not all art is suitable for online display, nor does it mean that just because something can be shown online it will be necessarily as effective.
A definite positive impact I think is that it has really forced us to reconsider and restructure gallery spaces, especially to do with accessibility. I really hope that there will be lasting changes as an effect of this that will result in galleries putting more consideration into who can access their programming and how.
"There’s a bit more room for play, because the standard white-cube-gallery-art-on-wall setup is less prevalent."
There’s a bit more room for play, because the standard white-cube-gallery-art-on-wall setup is less prevalent. Maybe there’s a larger push to create ambitious and experimental displays, since an online exhibition has to compete for the attention of the viewer against literally anything else that a person can do on/via a screen.
Tell me about your recent project with Durham Digitale, ‘Vug’.
Working on 'Vug' for Durham Digitale in partnership with Killhope Lead Mining Museum has been a great experience. It’s an opportunity to rework my practice within a context that’s unfamiliar to me, leading to the discovery of new perspectives. Vug - meaning cavity in a rock that’s lined with mineral crystals - sits at the cross section of a number of different worlds.
'Vug' (2021), video still, Petra Szemán
To me this cavity represents the intermedial space between seemingly contradicting narratives and realms. It’s the transitional act of leaving the overworld behind and descending into the underground, but instead of focusing on the act of going from one end of a binary spectrum to another, the transitional moment takes centre stage. It’s seeing your reflection while the screen briefly turns black between two episodes of a TV show. It’s what your avatar is up to in a video game while you wait for the loading screen - or the sense of disparity between your body occupying real space and the virtual representations of yourself online. While the rock appears solid, the inside is hollow, lined with crystals where each face reflects a shard of the world around it.
"Vug - meaning a cavity in a rock that’s lined with mineral crystals - sits at the cross section of a number of different worlds... I was hoping to create a landscape that centers the act of being between two places, untethered."
The mine elevator descends ad infinitum, existing in the space of an ontological crisis: Present or absent? Here or there? I don’t like to be overly forceful about what the work is setting out to achieve, but I was hoping to create a landscape that centers the act of being between two places, untethered. It was also great fun to get to collaborate with Sam Aaron, as he was in charge of the sound elements.
Have you done much other work with the local community and other local artists? Have you worked with Durham University before?
This was my first time working with Durham University, but I would like it if it could be the start of an ongoing relationship. I have done group shows with lots of local artists throughout the years however, and have shown work at the BALTIC alongside smaller galleries in Newcastle and the surrounding area. I’m also going to be working with a good number of local creative practitioners for an upcoming larger project I’m coordinating.
How do you think Durham university students could be more involved with the local arts community?
This is all impossible at the moment of course, but going to exhibition openings for anything that sounds remotely interesting to you is a good one. You get to look at art, have some cheap (or free!) beverages and snacks, and familiarise yourself with the artists and creatives who exhibit locally. It would be the best to have as many people of different backgrounds and interests mix as possible, facilitating diverse conversations and sharing resources. Sounds like a reality that’s so far away, doesn’t it - but hopefully soon.
Returning to your practice, what other projects have you been working on recently? How has Covid-19 impacted your practice?
I really enjoyed doing ‘To go off screen’, an online solo show with isthisit?. We presented the whole Monomyth: gaiden series, and it was set up like a point and click browser game. You had to navigate through various bits and bobs from my work to encounter the videos and parts of an interview I did with Bob Bicknell-Knight, the director of isthisit?.
"I think I was very lucky as a digital artist, as I was able to participate in loads of online shows and make new work for various online galleries, without having to compromise on major aspects of my practice."
I also had Jamie Sutcliffe write about my work in his essay titled ‘On Animatics’ published in the May 2020 issue of Art Monthly, which was a brilliant piece of text I always refer back to.
Covid-19 has had a significant impact on my plans, postponing and cancelling various projects, and even a master’s degree in Canada I had to turn down for the time being. However I think I was very lucky as a digital artist, as I was able to participate in loads of online shows and make new work for various online galleries, without having to compromise on major aspects of my practice.
What are your hopes for the next year?
I don’t want to be overly optimistic, as the pandemic has made a mess of literally all my plans, but my most ambitious hope at the moment is moving back to Japan in the Autumn.
In terms of work, I plan to keep working on various exciting commissions. Additionally, I recently secured an Arts Council Project Grant for a longer project to do with animation, which will involve a few other artists as well as a physical publication. I’m having a great time developing a new video for that, and I’m extremely excited to be co-editing the book with Jamie Sutcliffe.
And finally, a question we ask all of our interviewees: who is your favourite artist?
It’s hard to choose, but I would have to say David Blandy. It was his videos that got me started with video art.
You can find out more about Petra's work here
and you can check out her work in the online exhibition 'to go off screen' here
Interview led and edited by Amana Moore
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