Constant Reinventions: Interview with AES+F

This interview was initially published on the cover of XIBT Contemporary Art Magazine, Berlin in digital format on January 2022.

A video still from TURANDOT project by AES+F (video set design for opera, videoinstallation)

AES+F is a global collective of four artists with studios in Berlin, and Moscow. Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, and Evgeny Svyatsky first formed conceptual group AES in 1987 in Moscow, turning into AES+F in 1995 with the arrival of Vladimir Fridkes. The collective is widely known for its digital tableaux painstakingly constructed by manipulation of countless high-resolution images of real people, but the artists also work in photography, painting, and sculpture. Their surreal way of engagement with the themes of morality, boundaries, visual cliches, identity have resonated with the audiences worldwide through diverse projects. AES+F has been numerously presented at the Venice Biennale (2007, 2009,2015), at numerous festivals and in over 100 solo exhibitions around the world. In this interview the collective discussed a few important aspects of its visual practice including working with the notion of stereotypes, shifting historical paradigms and deconstruction of our realities.

NM: In your interviews you comment that contemporaneity and capturing it in digital format is of an enduring interest to you and is important your practice. What are the main characteristics of the contemporaneity in 2022 that you will focus on in the next projects?

AES+F: We are planning a major new project in 2022 that will interpret contemporaneity through the Odyssey, one of the most famous and important literary works of Western civilization. Our main concept was to research a literal coincidence of the basic myth with urgent contemporary issues, such as ecological, social, political, etc. We conceptualized the project before the pandemic, but as it turns out it deals with many themes that define our post-pandemic reality.

NM: As for pioneers in digital art it is probably interesting for you to see the ongoing explosion in this field. How do you feel about it and where do you see it going? Do you feel yourself challenged to reinvent yourself once more?

AES+F: We are of course very interested and follow the developments of the field.  You could say we are even a bit neurotic about constantly reinventing ourselves, but it is important to us that technology follows concepts, not vice versa. We feel that the explosion of the digital is not accompanied by an equally explosive reinterpretation of reality at the moment.

NM: Nature of your work and its medium makes your digital artworks global. What role does a local and historical context play for you? Did the fact that you met and started working shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union influence your early works? Do the historical shifts find their ways into your digital pannos through allegories, metaphors, archetypes, or human faces and figures you select?

AES+F: The fact that we started working after the collapse of the Soviet Union is determinant of our worldview. Everything that seems unchangeable in fact changes very quickly, and observing the changes in society and culture produces the main content of our work. In terms of the local and global, Russia doesn’t fall out of the global processes, but is in fact a place where some of the global conflicts and changes are felt much more sharply. In regard to your last question about historical shifts finding their way into our work through allegories and archetypes, the answer is of course they do.

NM: Your works are full of people of idealized proportions with glowing faces, pictures of health and tranquility. In a way these attributes provide the people you portray a connection to XIX century European classicism. Do you specifically choose these types of glamorous, idealized Renaissance-like archetypes? And why?

AES+F: We work with people who exemplify social and cultural archetypes or cliches – a “poor old man,” a “wealthy young woman,” a “corporate board member,” etc. This is the “raw material” of our work. What you describe about people with idealized proportions relates not to the external features of the models, who are very diverse, but to their internal state, their calm expressions and alienation from one another. The feeling of metaphysical isolation from reality is what positions these in relation to classical European painting. 

NM: Violence looks monotonous and routine in your works. Is this an ironic way to see how low human beings could stoop? How desensitized we are to the pain of others or there is a more positive message to this?

AES+F: It’s not about how low humanity can stoop, it’s more about reflecting the glamourization of violence in the media, which is also its routinization. We deconstruct the way the media portrays violence in its attempt to make it beautiful and entertaining, although repetitive, and in that sense it is not about human nature but the nature of media. Now, whether the media portrays human nature or not, we couldn’t say.

NM: Finally, I wanted to touch on Witnesses of the Future. Islamic Project form 1996-2003, when you sent out postcards across the world as your way of responding to globalization and  illustrating how open borders could create new striking realities. If you were to revisit this project today, in our post-pandemic reality how would you have changed it? Not necessarily in terms of the Islamic imagery, but in terms of your view of the interconnected world and its visual cliches.

AES+F: We would say that Allegoria Sacra, Inverso Mundus, and Turandot 2070 in a lot of ways illustrate the post-pandemic reality, sometimes literally. A great example in Allegoria Sacra (2011) is the setting of the suspended airport where all flights are grounded. Another example is the micro-world made disproportionately large in Inverso Mundus (2015), rendered as giant pulsating microorganisms descending from the sky. In Turandot 2070 (2020) the masses worship Turandot’s virtual avatars, in a surprising way coming ahead of the hysteria over NFTs and the global acceleration of the adoption of virtuality.