The Ukrainian artist Masha Batsii specialises in all forms of digital art – from 3D handbags to Instagram beauty filters, and without forgetting her loyal pet mascot Doubtful G, a digital-based praying mantis who always seems to show up throughout Batsii's creative journey. Self-taught in her 3D mastery, her mind-boggling designs make you wonder if they are real, or rather make you question the accepted assumption of what is considered real.
Now, Batsii spends her time on The Cave You Fear To Enter Holds The Treasure You Seek, a wisely-worded initiative combining experimental tech and fashion, bound to disrupt the status quo of both industries. We caught up with the artist to talk about her beginnings as an artist, her thoughts on the future of social media and her upcoming secret projects.
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Since this is your first time speaking to us, could you introduce yourself and define your practice?
My name is Masha Batsii, I’m an artist and the founder of The Cave You Fear To Enter Holds The Treasure You Seek (TCYFTEHTTYS). Ukrainian-born, living and working internationally. My work navigates between the worlds of art, luxury, fashion and tech. My only regret in life is not becoming a marine biologist.
How have you found the transition post-graduating from the Royal College of Art with a Master of Art in Visual Studies to creating digital work, from Instagram face filters to full-blown creatures, using a blend of Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and 3D graphics?
Like most new media artists, I am one hundred per cent self-taught when it comes to my skill set in 3D and VR. Traditional art education at the RCA taught me some things about critical thinking and a certain kind of dynamic but I definitely had to unlearn most of it, which, I guess, is what constitutes… an educational process?
Post-graduation – 2 years of underpaid work at a 3D studio and a lot of side hustling à la survival mode – for people like myself who didn’t come from money, there was no transition at all, you just get in the grind. The next step was going freelance, where I got to explore various corners of various industries and get a much wider perspective. Working for yourself, you learn to take direction, make mistakes and understand how different people and companies work. Jumping from project to project, most times with its own new dynamic can be quite arduous but it’s an incredibly valuable experience, a professional journey on steroids. Always finding time for my own work (often nights and weekends) was the key – utilising everything I’ve learned and transforming that into my own vision. Eventually, it was my own work that started appearing in the clients' decks and references, not somebody else's. Finally, after about 6 years post-graduation, I can afford to be more selective with projects, take longer breaks from freelance and focus on my own practice and my own business. 
One of your first creations I was introduced to was Doubtful G, the praying mantis with, as you describe, “many talents and fears also multiple sex organs.” How important is it to attribute personalities and identities to your creations? And how does that process work?
Doubtful G is my joy, my Big Buddha Cheese baby! For me, the possibilities of 3D and computer-generated images as a media come with the excitement for the creation of stories, worlds, emotions – as opposed to merely serving a stylistic purpose. At the time, I started doing guest shows on NTS radio and needed a concept for my shows so I created a digital partner for myself – their transcendent character and odd qualities are what helped me channel that part of myself through music and shape my shows into what they were. That and Big Buddha Cheese of course. The general theme of those shows was an exploration of the blurred relationship between a Human, Insect and Pot within contemporary society. DG is like an old friend who keeps reappearing in my work over the years, in different settings and formats depending on what’s up. It’s my mascot!
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Speaking of the creative process, where do you draw inspiration for your pieces? And how do they then come to life?
Lately, I’ve been obsessed with gargoyles. I get to look at them every day as I live in very gothic Central London. Different sources explain that their purpose is to either ward off evil or to actually remind us that eternal damnation is only a step away. I feel like almost everything in our culture has links to some primal mythology formula whether it’s anime, sci-fi, religion, fashion or even like, therapy. Mysticism and fantasy are such crucial parts of human genesis.
Anyways, what was I saying? I love gargoyles! And the secrets they whisper to me. And I love the infinity of layers of realities in everything. For me, the inspiration doesn’t come from any particular subject, I’m inspired by the way that all things are infinitely connected. It’s an ever-evolving fractal all around me and I myself am a part of it, all my movements are a result of a pattern but then the pattern is also a result of my movements.
You have used Instagram, Soundcloud and Vimeo to present your work. Have you found limitations, if any, in what these social media platforms offer to explore and showcase your work to its full extent?
I feel like almost every platform has gone through a very short window of being really really great (in the beginning usually) but is doomed to go to shit sooner or later. I’m curious to see what happens in web3 where things already feel way less rigid and hopefully much more responsive to the needs and wishes of different communities. If you look at the Maslow Hierarchy of (human) Needs, every form of social media we have at the moment, in my opinion, is mainly working at the Esteem level (‘prestige’/ ‘recognition’/ ‘status,’ etc). Personally and for my own business I would like to see platforms aiming at the self-actualisation level which is about becoming ‘the most that one can be’. It’s about achieving self-fulfilment through more fundamental development of self; creation, acceptance, giving, learning, transcending.
There are also communities whose safety or physical needs haven’t been fulfilled – whether it’s poverty or war. There are no social platforms designed for those kinds of human needs, and that’s crazy to me.
For the past few months, I’ve been watching Ukrainian people use social media to successfully fundraise for a satellite, military equipment, creating evacuation groups, food groups, free psychological help groups etc., all to help Ukraine overcome the Russian invasion. So far, people mainly use Telegram or Whatsapp, sometimes Instagram and manage to achieve great results, but it’s all incredibly clunky and not adaptive to this. Instagram sends Ukrainians into shadowban, and neither Whatsapp nor Telegram are really that safe anymore. It’s kind of fucked that the only social media we have is essentially for entertainment and on top of everything it isn’t even mentally sustainable.
By posting a mix of casual Instagram posts – like selfies with your dog – and digitally-enhanced images, you are blurring the borders of what is currently defined as reality. Do you think the use of Mixed Reality is where social media is headed?
Social media has been headed there since the beginning of the Internet in a way. As long as you are in a space where anybody can disguise themselves, it’s kinda silly to assume that anything or anybody on there is fully real. Having said that, what is real? The disguises we choose for ourselves speak volumes about who we are so, in a way, we’ve come full circle – magical and cursed!
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The prolific use of FaceTune and other beauty editing apps has exploded within the last decade or so on Instagram, creating a false and unreachable beauty standard. On the other hand, you are defying that notion through your own beauty filters, notably through your digital nail practice started during the Covid lockdowns. Would you say your transparent approach to online beauty enhancements create a healthier, more playful environment on social media apps?
The desire for camouflage is totally understandable – more so, it’s normal! The (rhetorical) question is; by blowing up your lips or blurring your skin, are you really camouflaging yourself, or are you actually blowing your insecurities wide open and out into the big mean world? I know I’m digging may be way too deep here, but sometimes I feel like there’s nowhere to hide, really. However we try to disguise ourselves, we give ourselves away just by doing so. You can learn a lot about someone by watching where exactly they are being evasive. Going back to the ‘transparent enhancement,’ I think you are definitely onto something here: it’s basically like fighting fire with fire. “I am enhancing myself because of the inexplicable yearning to transcend what I am” as opposed to “I don’t want you to know that but I wish I was prettier.”
One of the most fun things when it comes to beauty filters and digital fashion is being able to create a digital version of ourselves and express our identity to its wildest extent, just like dressing an avatar in a video game. Yet video game-based avatars have largely been criticised for their exclusionary nature, more often than not only including white characters and Euro-centric features. Do you think advancements in AR will help close the inclusion gap?
It’s no secret that the gaming industry (as well as 3D/design/and pretty much any other creative industry) has been white-male-dominated for a long time (still is) and we are dealing with the ripple effect from that which has really stretched out culturally. Our growth as a society is what will help to close the gap. Accessible technology is definitely important, but so is accessible education, and just in general the continuous structural changes in the fabric of our communities as well as our minds.
While your art has been displayed in galleries – such as the Saatchi Gallery – it is also widely accessible on the Internet. Do you believe that digital art will eventually take over physical art, abolishing the classist and exclusive nature associated with the art world?
I wouldn’t want to draw a line between the physical and digital the physicality of art can be super important, whether it’s creating or experiencing it. The whole art gallery world on the other hand is definitely in need of a big ass revolution! I actually struggle to find joy or inspiration in those clean white rooms. I find the whole format quite repressing, be it the old invigilator lady shushing at me or just the draining pretentious energy coming from the well-dressed white boys with drinks in their hands – the whole thing is outdated. There are definitely some movements and attempts to do things differently, but it’s still quite far behind, there is a long way to go.
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Could you elaborate on this?
I love the idea of unlabelled art – the kind that doesn’t announce itself, it may not even look or sound like anything ‘art.’ Our own behaviour can be art (Kanye West), our choices, our stories – even our boring jobs!  Art is about flipping the pattern, adding a small change to it as opposed to just rotating it passively. As much as abstract as it sounds, you can apply it to anything. Talking about a canvas, a billboard or a TV ad or a plane seat brochure can potentially be an amazing art vessel because it reaches wide and far. I hope to see more of the merging of public, street, intervention, installation and experience art, performed on deep, meaningful and non-gimmicky levels. Digital art can face the same issues of exclusivity just as easily, no thanks to algorithms. I think whether physical or digital, it’s important to not have your head in your own ass, and always try to reach outside of whatever bubble you are currently in.
Over the last year you, have created a series of handbags, which, at first glance, look as if they were physically captured alongside the other clothing and not a computer-generated accessory. With the advancements of digital fashion, the rise of NFTs, and the first ever Metaverse Fashion Week haven taken place earlier next year, do you think fashion brands will tap more into digital artists, such as yourself, to create their collections? How do you see the future of the fashion industry within a digital context?
Man those bags went viral! At first, it was just an experiment but I realised shit was getting serious when I had some pretty big celebrity stylists and their assistants email me with requests for a fashion loan, fully thinking the bags are real. I remember at the time thinking “Oh my God, what should I do about all that,” and a bunch of people were even encouraging me to start the physical production of the bags, which sounded like a very good idea at first.
I have to thank my vivid imagination for being able to skip forward a little bit and what I saw was Kylie Jenner’s Instagram post, her wearing my bag (without tags of course). I could almost feel the weight of that ‘Kylie Jenner’ marking on my brand and my self-esteem, the sense of belonging to the cohort of the ‘emerging but incredibly lucky’ designers. I heard the voice in my head telling me “You can’t stop now, you must make more of everything,” and just living that thought in an imaginary moment made me feel trapped and nauseous. I just don’t think that the world needs another handbag! Not saying it doesn’t need another ‘status object,’ because that will never change, but we can definitely evolve in the ways in which we signal about our status as well as what the status is exactly. How can I signal about my status without contributing to the brutal and destructive wheel of overconsumption? How can I redefine what my status is saying about me? What are alternative ways for me to earn the respect of my peers?
I can definitely see digital fashion being instrumental in facilitating those changes so I decided to set up The Cave You Fear To Enter Holds The Treasure You Seek, which is a  tech slash fashion slash research lab, a platform in which I intend to not only challenge the old ways of the physical fashion industry but also the speculative and impractical nature of digital fashion in its current state. Stay tuned!
An interesting thing I’ve noticed about your handbag designs is that you present in a variety of locations – not only on models but also floating above the clouds or by a mountain range. What does the decision-making process look like to you when choosing how your designs will be contextualised and where they will live? Is there a specific reason behind those creative choices?
In general, the intention is to always balance between the handbag being viewed as a fashion accessory versus a sculpture, an object of art. An elusive arm candy versus a modern gargoyle. A vanity vessel versus a sustainability token. In the beginning, those were subconscious choices but eventually, I started to really enjoy the confusion and the ambiguous and boundless space it was creating.
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Physical fashion is rooted in socio-political context and is often a reflection of past or current culture – just like digital fashion. Being Ukrainian yourself, you have designed a range of handbags using 3D scans of war ruins. Could you tell us more about this project?
The war in Ukraine was already a few months in when I was asked to produce an exclusive handbag artwork for Hymodernity, a new curated crypto platform launching its first collection at London Frieze gallery. I said yes but then quite quickly understood I was incapable of creating anything beautiful, my mind was completely infiltrated by grief and destruction. In a way, this ended up being one of my most straightforward works – I used my older bag design, blew it up and dismembered it, then placed it in the environment of 3D scanned war ruins captured by Ukrainian architect Sergey Revenko. It has a very simple message, which I think is best expressed by the poet Marwan Makhoul: “In order for me to write poetry that isn’t political, I must listen to the birds and in order to hear the birds the warplanes must be silent.”
At the beginning of the war, I had a dream where I was waking up in my parents' house in Ukraine, stepping outside the front door and realising we were surrounded by infinite silent water and fog, all over. I remember feeling terribly isolated at the time, very few of my Western friends came through with genuine solidarity or understanding. This work is about that too. If you can’t look at my pain, maybe you can at least look at my pretty bag?
Although work has not been a priority for you due to the instability and danger your country, family and friends are currently facing, which is one hundred per cent understandable and our thoughts are with you, what do you wish to achieve with your art in the future?
I see the purpose of art in assisting us past our restricting walls. By changing ourselves systematically, we are capable of changing reality – we are not just reflections of it, it can also be a reflection of us. I hope to be able to connect better and process the information from my ancestors. Like everybody else who originated from the Soviet Union background, I’ve been ripped off of my cultural identity and I need to catch up on that. I used to know more about Japanese culture than Ukrainian so it’s a huge priority for me right now to study everything I can about Ukrainian history, art and culture. I believe that connecting to my past is what will enable me to go full-scale into the future.
The other day I heard something coming from an older person that gave me a lot of comfort: “I am not here for long and neither are you – in the end, all that matters is how the path is shaped for generations to come, in which direction the world is moving forward.” (Shout out to my neighbours’ grandparents Ineke and Martin). There is a lot of grace and universal reassurance in these terms of thinking and it’s a necessary antidote to all things related to the fear of missing out; ‘fast art,’ and instant gratification.
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