In Conversation with Operator on Human Unreadable cover photo


In Conversation with Operator on Human Unreadable

by Jordan Kantor

Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti (Operator) are an award-winning experiential artist duo who founded their collaborative practice, Operator, in 2016. Referred to as “the two critical contemporary voices on digital art’s international stages” (Clot Magazine) and “LGBT power couple” (Flaunt), their collective expertise collides in large-scale conceptual works recognizable for their signature nuanced integration of technology. Rooted in the understanding that immersion is not only a physical state but also an emotional one, their approach employs nuance in scale, producing a feeling instead of a spectacle. Ti’s background as an immersive artist and a human–computer interaction (HCI) technologist, and Catherine’s as a choreographer and performance artist make for a uniquely medium non-allegiant output, that brings together environments, technology, and the body. In fall 2021, the duo began a translation of themes from their Lumen Prize-winning work I’d rather be in a dark silence than into the Privacy Collection, exploring the tension between privacy and transparency in blockchain technology. 
For Human Unreadable, the artists developed a novel on-chain generative choreography method, which will be made available via a white paper that will be released later this year with Metalabel. Operator has been awarded The Lumen Prize (Immersive Environments), ADC Award (Gold Cube), S+T+ARTS Prize (Honorary Mention), and MediaFutures (a European Commission funded programme). They’ve spoken and appeared in BBC Click, Bloomberg ART+TECHNOLOGY, Christie’s Art+Tech Summit, SCAD Museum of Art, MIT Open Doc Lab, Ars Electronica, Art Basel, CADAF, MoCDA, Universität für angewandte Kunst (Vienna), Francisco Carolinum and ZKM. The duo are originally from Los Angeles and currently based in Berlin.
Jordan Kantor: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us, Ania and Dejha. It has been great to get acquainted in this process and to see Human Unreadable develop. You have been collaborating as Operator for a number of years now, but your creative history extends far beyond this project. Can each of you briefly outline how you first got into making art? Perhaps Ania, could you start?
Ania Catherine: I had a lot of excess energy as a five-year-old, and was put into dance classes as an outlet (and relief for my parents probably). I fell in love with it. What’s funny thinking about my earliest memories in dance class is that I always took it really seriously. I see photos of myself at the time, and I remember thinking I was doing something sacred when I danced. I continued my formal dance training into my 20s in college, then had an itch to stop moving in ways I was taught to move, or that was right, and wanted to pivot and start exploring what kind of movement came from or out of me. That’s where my unlearning started (which continues to this day).
I had parallel lives at that point: there was dancer Ania, and then I was concurrently studying political science and gender studies, doing internships at women’s rights organizations, the ACLU, and obsessively reading political theory. Once I freed myself to explore movement and the body more experimentally, I realized that those two worlds (my two selves) could collide. I went to London School of Economics to do a M.A. in gender and public policy, and there I created my first performance art film which was rooted in postcolonial theory. I realized many more people would watch a film than would read my dissertation, and that the fact that I was an artist could actually be useful in changing culture, shifting perspectives, starting conversations. My practice since 2012 has been mainly focused on improvisation, performance art, choreographing site-specific work, working with non-trained dancers (whose body language felt more honest), directing dance films, writing about movement and the body, performance installations—much of it having roots in what I studied and questions I had about gender, expression, power, my body.
Dejha Ti: As a kid I was always making art, drawing, and painting. Growing up as an only child, I would lock myself in my room and make films with Tyco video cameras, Photoshop and drawings that I then edited on a two deck VHS receiver. Eventually I went to University of the Arts in Philadelphia for a B.F.A. in multimedia in 2004.
Operator, off is on, 2017. Performance installation. Photo by Alexandre Souêtre. Los Angeles..jpeg
Operator, off is on, 2017. Performance installation. Photo by Alexandre Souêtre. Los Angeles.
JK: There is a strong sense of political engagement in this practice, and it is evident that you both have found a way to integrate critical theory and art making in projects like this. There are surely implicit politics in working creatively in a collaborative manner as well. Can you tell us a bit about the history and nature of your collaboration as Operator?
AC: We met in 2016 on Instagram, and met in L.A. to discuss a potential collaboration. Two artists, one working with the body, the other working with immersive environments and technology, we knew that would be an exciting collaboration to explore. What we did not know is that we would fall in love on the first date. Our first collaboration was that same year, a film called Line Scanner which featured me improvising on the floor, while Dejha live triggered animations from a projector rigged on the ceiling 40 feet above me in the air—I was obviously very trusting. We got married in 2017. Then we started exploring more ways that technology, environment, and performance can exist together as a singular experience, and were primarily working in the medium of performance installations. That snowballed into large scale conceptual, experiential works bringing together performance, immersive environments, and advanced technologies. However, it is a really important part of our practice to have no allegiance to any one medium, but instead, as conceptual artists, to ask ourselves “what is the best medium to explore this concept?” and do that because as we say in our Operator Rules for Art and Technology: “tech doesn’t age well, concepts do.”
DT: Between the two of us, there are many possibilities for “what” something can be, and we choose the best medium or combination of mediums to make the strongest work possible. Operator is a container inside which we’ve made performances, installations, fashion shows, photography, music videos, generative websites, immersive environments, conceptual blockchain art, a signal-blocking trench coat, poetry, a generative choreography method, and we have a feature film we’ve been working on for five years (for fun). We ignore the advice that as an artist you need to choose one thing and do that over and over again in order to be successful. We believe that our collective voice is the thread that runs through all our work. I guess we would rather follow our gut and where our creative juices flow even if it’s “confusing” or bad from a market perspective. Confusion isn’t the worst thing in the world after all. Certainty is much more dangerous. We’re not laying pavement, we’re making art, and the second we’re doing something we’re not actually inspired to do, we would let ourselves and everyone who has invested in our vision down—our cat would definitely be disappointed in us too. I guess that’s the nature of our collaboration: not disappointing our cat.  
Operator, The Big Now, 2017. Music video (behind the scenes). Photo by Ariel Fisher. Los Angeles..jpeg
Operator, The Big Now, 2017. Music video (behind the scenes). Photo by Ariel Fisher. Los Angeles. 
JK: What a great litmus test! Can you talk a bit about how you came to integrate new technologies into your practice: How did you first get into digital or generative art?
AC: When I met Dejha, I had not worked meaningfully with technology in my practice, nor really considered it. I was swimming solely in the waters of body, space, time—with the exception of creating films which was the most technical medium with which I worked.
DT: For me, my professors in college were artists, designers, cognitive scientists, and technologists—one who made paintings with asphalt on fire, an engineer, performance artist, and technology entrepreneur. My foundational studies still drive the core of my artistic practice today. Early on I learned about the conceptual frameworks derived from Black Mountain College, Fluxus, Dada, Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), Donna Haraway, Nam June Paik, and Stan Brahkage. Having learned about emergent systems with simple rule sets, HCI, ubiquitous computing and the history of computer art, my first projects were interactive games, websites and physical computing installations that all considered the audience as a participant in the spirit of Allan Kaprow’s Happenings. No particular emphasis on technology was present because technology moves too fast—so it was the conceptual rigor that mattered the most. The blue Processing book was one of my first coding books prescribed by my professor Deangela Duff (who I list in the credits of Human Unreadable). I became obsessed with physical computing, innovative interfaces and HCI, and so every digital artwork I created I tried to bring it out of the screen by building sensors from Radio Shack parts and breadboards to plug into my projects made in Processing, Isadora/Jitter, Flash, DirectorMX, and homebrew code. 
Operator, On View, 2019. Performance installation. Commissioned by SCAD Museum of Art. Savannah, GA.jpeg
Operator, On View, 2019. Performance installation. Commissioned by SCAD Museum of Art. Savannah, GA.
I think it is because I was introduced to digital art through the lens of E.A.T. and Black Mountain College that I have always known performance and computer art to go hand in hand. When I think of computer art, I cannot separate it from performance and conceptual art. I think this is why Ania and my collaboration is so natural, and also why generative choreography made so much sense for Human Unreadable. We were feeling that there was a lack of the human body in long-form generative art. I couldn’t help to think how odd that is given the history of computer art and performance.
After university I created large scale immersive experiences integrating projection mapping, custom fabricated environments and physical structures. Continuing along the line of experimenting with innovative interfaces and audience as participants, I was jamming together misfit technologies to create systems for these experiences, for instance TouchDesigner, mobile apps, Twitter apis, wireless technologies. Most of this stuff wouldn’t work after a couple months because the technology I was using was really not meant for the way I was applying it. Now there’s a lot more out of the box tools that allow for this type of art making to be more accessible. I say that, but then we just spent nine months developing an on-chain generative choreography method which required us to build a whole suite of custom tech (which we will be open sourcing via a whitepaper for other creators).
Operator, I’d rather be in a dark silence than, 2020. Immersive installation. Berlin. .jpeg
Operator, I’d rather be in a dark silence than, 2020. Immersive installation. Berlin.
JK: We see many artists in this space drawing inspiration from earlier non-digital forms of generative practice. Its great to hear about your particular “family tree” of ideas. Moving to the blockchain, specifically: can you tell us how and when you began to regard the blockchain as a medium for art?
AC: We did a really ambitious, experiential performance installation at SCAD Museum of Art in 2019 called On View. To this day, it is one of our most complex works. It looks very organic/physical but is highly technical—a commentary on ubiquitous computing in which technology becomes invisible. Conceptually, the piece explored where extractive technologies and data privacy issues intersect with selfie culture. We explored this in a three-phase installation in which we put the audience-participant on view very subtly using TouchDesigner, facial recognition, kinetics, environmental sensors, etc.
After the installation ended, we wanted to share what we did with other communities/people who were interested not just in digital art like spectacle, artertainment, lasers, big screens, but more conceptual use of technology in art. We reached out to fairs, festivals, events, conferences, curators, and the only people who invited us to speak were Christie’s Art+Tech Summit in Hong Kong, and people who were creating events around blockchain art. We spoke at the first ever CADAF in NYC in May 2019 (thanks Elena Zavalev) where CryptoPunks and pieces by Kevin Abosch, Tyler Hobbs, and Dmitri Cherniak were exhibited, then we found ourselves in Manchester, speaking at KnownOrigin’s festival where we met the folks from DADA, Eleonora Brizi, Serena Tabacchi of MoCDA, and others so we found ourselves in the experimental blockchain art circles accidentally, but loved what was happening and the spirit of the community at that time. That’s how we discovered how blockchain was used as an art medium, but as we are always cautious and intentional about how we use any technology, we took our time trying to figure out how to meaningfully integrate it into our experiential practice which relied so heavily on physical presence, the human body, space, time.
JK: This project evidences that meaningful integration. How has your creative process evolved over time? How has this project evolved in the months you’ve been iterating?
AC: I’d say that the lines between our individual “roles” in a project have definitely become more blurry over the years. It used to be a bit more Dejha has her lane and I have mine, but as we’ve worked together more intensely and in such a variety of mediums, we have less of a division. Also, we see it as a sign of our practice maturing to have disparate elements blend together seamlessly around a concept—we spend a lot of our time together in the middle ground figuring out how to make those lines disappear. At this point Dejha feeds back on choreography, and I give feedback on interactive system design. For Human Unreadable, however, Dejha was fully running the tech and engineering aspects with our team, while I was in charge of the movement, rehearsals, and will also be staging the performance. We both had plenty on our individual plates. Of course, how that all comes together around the subject of privacy, transparency, vulnerability, and blockchain was our major collaborative and creative feat. 
Human Unreadable has undoubtedly evolved since the beginning: not in terms of the feeling we wanted or what we envisioned, but certainly in terms of how it was made. There were many technical roadblocks we hit and had to work through to even realize the work. However, some of those challenges and constraints actually affected the work in very interesting ways that made it even more site-specific and exciting. Also, the custom tools that we created in the process with our team were not planned from the beginning—we realized there were tools missing that we really needed in order to see Human Unreadable come to life. We had to change the vision or make the tools. We chose the latter. That was an unexpected but welcome outcome, because we ran into problems and created solutions that (through our white paper and release of the tools) can be used to open doors for others to experiment in the on-chain generative choreography territory. 
Operator, Privacy Portraits, July 2022. Performance installation. Proof of People, London. .jpeg
Operator, Privacy Portraits, July 2022. Performance installation. Proof of People, London.
JK: Please tell us a bit about the structure of Human Unreadable and how it fits into current projects.
O: Human Unreadable is part of our Privacy Collection, and that context is very important because it drove all the major decisions around the work. The Privacy Collection—building off of our explorations of privacy for the last several years but with a web3 twist—is an ongoing exploration of the tension between privacy and transparency in blockchain technology. We consider the Privacy Collection to be culturally “site-specific” to crypto art. The collection ingests and reflects back what we see as significant phenomena or movements happening within crypto art with a particular focus on privacy, anonymity, selective showing and revealing, asking: what are the myriad of ways that people hide within a transparent system? It is fascinating to us that in the crypto world, people can be known for being unknown. Human Unreadable is the fourth lot of this collection, and long form on-chain generative art—being as central as it is the entire crypto art movement—felt like a natural context to dive into. We are hopeful that Human Unreadable will bring more attention to the body and performance in web3 art conversations.
Operator, Human Unreadable #0, 2023. .jpeg
Operator, Human Unreadable #0, 2023.
In Human Unreadable, as a metaphor for people hiding in plain sight, we took instances of raw human expression (movement), obfuscated them, and created a process for collectors to uncover the vulnerability buried beneath the work. We consider this three-act experience the slow recovery of the human. 
From a process standpoint: we created an on-chain library of single movements, which were captured and turned into data and stored on-chain. This data was translated into code, and our generative model creates unique choreographic hashes. A unique movement sequence is generated with every mint. The motion data of that on-chain choreographic sequence drives all the visual parameters you see in the final artwork outputs. We love that in these pieces, you know that human movement made them, but you are only seeing the result of the movement, not the movement itself. There’s something powerful even in the knowledge that movement happened and imagining what it might have been. The artwork output is an invitation, a transparent layer through which the human experience can come into focus after the reveal.
JK: The project has very specific and considered parameters. Can you tell us a bit more about what collectors should look for in the series as it is revealed?
O: There are six distinct looks in Human Unreadable. They share a visual language as a result of them all being variations using the material motifs of the Privacy Collection which are: the human body; glass/transparent materials; light; and x-ray. There is actually quite a bit to expect post-reveal as the reveal on Art Blocks is the first act. In the second act, collectors are able to go to Operator’s website, connect their wallet, and uncover the hidden choreography that created their piece in the form of a fully on-chain movement score. This is a secondary token that is soul bound to the Art Blocks piece. In this phase, the human becomes a bit more visible. The third act is a live performance in which the movement sequences behind the first 100 pieces will be performed. The human is readable.
Operator, Human Unreadable #1, 2023.
JK: We will be sure to keep our eyes peeled for all those post-drop reveals. Is there anything else you’d like to share that would help viewers approach and appreciate your work?
O: We always like to emphasize that while there are novel aspects to Human Unreadable, we find it much more interesting to highlight how it builds on brilliant work of artists and technologists who came before us. Artists like Analivia Cordeiro and Jeanne Beaman were among the earliest people to experiment with computational choreography, Merce Cunningham and his “chance dance” method, adding randomness to the choreographic process was something he pioneered, the E.A.T. Movement and cherishing of the artist and engineer collaboration (shout out to Isaac Patka) definitely comes to mind considering the immense artistic and technical lift of Human Unreadable. The haunting feeling of Man Ray’s Rayographs, Barbara Kasten’s immense knowledge of light, reflection, refraction and shadows, the work of Jurgen Klauke, these are pieces we could never unsee. Finally, we see this work as part of the lineage of embodied approaches to human-machine collaboration pioneered by early female digital artists who wanted to move away from modernism, symmetry and clean lines in favor of something more visceral, sensual, chaotic–human. 
JK: These are great references for folks to explore. Thank you. Are there any recent accomplishments you’d like to share?
O: Making it to the end of this project still liking each other and on top of that, feeling energized. 
We are extremely proud of the on-chain generative choreography method we’ve created with our team and are looking forward to making it available to others to use via our white paper release (via Metalabel late 2023). Hopefully it opens doors and expands imaginable possibilities for more integration of the performing arts in web3, which would be mutually beneficial. 
JK: Thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with us, and, more importantly, for bringing this first part of Human Unreadable to Art Blocks. We can’t wait to see how this project develops: the body onto the blockchain and back out again. In the meantime, what is the best way for people to follow your work, and stay up to date with your next plans?
O: We have an email newsletter which you can subscribe to on our website, Twitter and Instagram where we share upcoming work, performances, and speaking engagements. Our preferred method always, however, is if you see us at events please come say hello!

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