Spanning 3D animation, immersive installation or moving image among others, Stine Deja explores ‘what if’ scenarios through her work. Usually using the absurd as a tool to ask questions to the audience, the Danish-born, London-based artist reflects on contemporary society’s issues like the commodification of wellness, the possible emotional relationships between humans and non-humans (or between two non-human entities as well), or the blurring boundaries between reality and fiction. In this interview, we speak with her to deepen into her work and dive into the fluid space her artistic practice finds itself in.
Stine, you started studying design and then shifted to a more ‘fine arts’ career. However, your artistic practice is in-between these two categories. How would you define what you do for those who don’t know you?
I can see that it looks like a dramatic shift on paper but it doesn’t feel like that. I always did my own thing during my education and I think this was most often towards fine art than design somehow. I haven’t really ever thought of myself as a designer but more as an artist with a design toolbox. For a while, a long time ago, I was seriously pursuing becoming a filmmaker, so that is more where my artist identity feels potentially split. For those that don’t know my work, I guess I would say that I’m an artist working across installation, sculpture and moving image.
Your practice includes 3D animation, immersive installation, moving image, and sculpture, among others. These are highly refined artistic expressions that need some academic background and technical skills. But how did you first discover your interest in art? Did you draw a lot as a kid, or did these expressions interest you once you grew up and could understand them?
I’m told that I was always a bit of a dreamer as a child, I spent days building imaginary worlds that I would draw out on paper or build in the woods. The first time I held a film camera and visited an editing suite, I was completely sold. Somehow, this way of obscuring reality and creating new narratives really appealed to me. Not much changed since then, except I found other ways of expressing these ideas. This is probably why 3D animation was such a great discovery for me because you can create things that only exist as thoughts and make them into realistic scenes and objects.
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Exploring the limits between what’s real and what’s not, your body of work questions reality, society and knowledge by asking different questions. Do you expect to answer them through art? Or are they rhetoric, just to make the audience ask themselves those same questions?
I don’t necessarily seek answers, I’m more interested in dialogue and reflection, and that’s exactly what art is so great at. I think art is not only the tangible works inside a gallery or museum setting, but it’s also the streams of thoughts you leave with as a result of encountering artworks. A lot of my work explores ‘what if’ scenarios, and I hope that audiences interacting with them are also pulled into these alternative realities and leave with new questions.
Let’s deepen into your work. You have some pieces exploring machine learning, AI and how we’re teaching softwares to be emotional somehow. For example, in Foreigner, you created a video of an android singing 1984’s hit I Wanna Know What Love Is. It satirises “the ways in which machine learning recognizes patterns and repeats them regardless of what those patterns are.” With new technologies improving faster, do you believe that, in a rather short time, machines will learn to love and have emotions? Can emotions be programmed in softwares just like they are in our brains?
Wow, those are big questions. The Foreigner piece had a quite divided interpretation: some felt sorry for the character who had been caught having this display of emotion in such a solitary and isolated environment, as though the piece was about loneliness. Others interpreted it to be about the critical gap in which artificial intelligence can get so far but never master feelings like love, which was also a sad prospect for a character like the one in the film. While others still found it funny and absurd that this robotics lab could be made to feel so domestic and human, with a sometimes out-of-tune voice singing along innocently to a radio.
In terms of what I think, I am less curious about whether machines will ‘catch up’ emotionally and more interested in the ways in which we are meeting in the middle. So much of intimate life is now mediated through technology, and this must have an impact on our human emotional life. Perhaps the question could also be if it is possible that our brains are becoming programmed to be more like software?
Another interesting and humorous piece is The Intimacy Package, a film teaching lessons to machines/softwares about how to achieve intimacy. Employing romantic clichés – like a sunset on the beach, for example, where two robotic arms end up ‘making out’ –, the piece “challenges how intimacy is realised and its inevitable failure when it’s mimicked between human and non-human beings.” So you don’t believe in the film Her, right?
I think when talking about an ‘inevitable failure’, it was more in the sense that romance between human and non-human objects would have to look different and don’t make sense amongst these sunset clichés. That particular type of intimacy between humans is already a bit tired and it is somehow absurd to imagine these tropes being taught to futuristic forms as a way to make them more human.
I actually do believe that you can develop feelings for non-human objects. Feelings are individual and not really debatable; if you feel them, then it is your reality, even if it doesn’t cohere with what’s real to other people. Her is an amazing film that somehow becomes less and less sci-fi to me. I don’t think the type of relationship displayed in Her is so far from reality. Many people develop relationships without ever seeing or touching each other, this type of love can be beautiful and real as well. Whether or not the feeling is mutual between human and non-humans is perhaps irrelevant – I think it can still be love even if it isn’t shared equally.
Changing the subject, I love the piece Cryptic Ruins, which looks at both the fitness industry and historical documentaries. Could you please tell us more about the starting point of this video work and how did you develop it?
The video piece was part of Somerset House’s Hyper Functional, Ultra Healthy, where different artists questioned the invasiveness of the ‘wellness society’. For the video, I wanted to investigate the subject of ‘wellness’ from a different vantage point – more than a thousand years into the future. Borrowing from the aesthetic and tone of National Geographic videos about archaeological sites, I built a ruined gym in 3D software and toured around it speculating on its possible uses. In this way, the 21st-century compulsion towards exercise became a mysterious, even ritualistic practice. I was interested in how, from this imagined future, our everyday behaviours seem absurd and curious.
You have other works that critique the commodification of mindfulness and wellness, like 4K Zen, which takes the form of an infomercial, or Cyphoria, an installation that transfers the audience to a metaphysical travel agency. Do you feel like this commodification is one of society’s biggest problems? Why this fixation?
I think the fixation stems from growing up watching a lot of TV shop, I love the inane chatting about features and reasons why you can’t live without the various crap they sell. I think it’s probably not one of the biggest problems but I am alarmed by the commodification of ideas and the intangible. 4K Zen is a stress diet that promises an escape from the complexity of modern life by using meditative techniques. It’s sold as a package with a heavily branded TV hat, yoga mat and the permission to stare into a phone for fifteen minutes. Like a lot of commodified ideas, it plucks out a pop-science message to persuade you of the benefits. I am fascinated by the ways that we increasingly seek out overnight solutions to complex problems like stress, which undoubtedly need a bit more of inner work than some superficial props and distraction.
Before 4K Zen, I had another show in London, called There’s Life Outside, which was also about commodification gone wrong. The installation, which created a window from Coca-Cola Life cans, was an exposé of our increasingly artificial world where we are marketed products that are ‘sweetened by natural sources’ and that are literally called life.
As a curiosity, since you seem to not take mindfulness or wellness seriously, I can’t imagine you practising yoga in a gym… Am I right? Or do you do any sports and go to the gym?
I definitely take mindfulness and yoga very seriously. I’ve done yoga in many settings and love it! I also run every morning as a kind of meditation and to clear my head. The thing I’m questioning is not whether these practices are good, what I’m questioning is the commodification of them.
In your work, you play with humour, irony and satire. Is it easier as an artist to make the viewers/audience question our environment, reality and what we think we know through these tools? Or is it just because you’re a fun person and that’s how you approach everything, from work and art to your everyday life?
(Laughs) First time I had this question! I would say that the tool I use most of all is absurdity, and often that results in something with a tint of humour. When I plan a new piece, I don’t sit down and decide that it has to be humorous, but if it is, that’s a bonus.
Even though you work mainly on the digital realm, I can see you’re not very active on social media – at least on Instagram. Is it because you’re tired of being in front of a screen all day long for your personal work? Or you just prefer tangible interactions?
Most of my work is both digital and physical, however, as you imply, I do spend a lot of time on my computer developing ideas or sketching out installations. I check social media regularly and find that it’s a great tool for sharing work, exhibitions, etc., but it also gives me some anxiety.
In an increasingly liquid world where reality and fiction are more difficult to tell apart, what keeps you grounded?
Somehow, I think reality and fiction always melted together for me to some extent – this fluid space is really interesting to me and something I use all the time in my work. Although my mind wanders to various imaginary places a lot, I still need to be a good mum and partner, call my parents and buy groceries, all of which requires me to be on this planet.
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Photo courtesy: the Artist and Annka Kultys Gallery
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Photo courtesy: the Artist and Annka Kultys Gallery
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Photo courtesy: the Artist and Annka Kultys Gallery
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Photo courtesy: I DO ART Agency