TNC Interview 2020
& Ajuan Song
Absolutely Augmented Reality
Absolutely Augmented Reality features original sketches and 100 colour photographs from the artistic series “Absolutely Augmented Reality” – a collaborative art project by the New York based artists Kuzma Vostrikov and Ajuan Song.
Hi Kuzma & Ajuan thank you for talking to TNC, how are you holding up during the lockdown?
Thank you for having us! We are quite well, even feel more energetic and enthusiastic.
Is this time offering you new creative inspiration?
When you’re floating in a spaceship to somewhere really far away, Alpha Centauri, for instance, having inspiration is not all that important. You just need to work, grow some dill, avoid meteorites, duck cosmic rays, and hide from the aliens’ spy glasses. We're experienced creatures. Ajuan is basically an old woman. You’d like to standardize us by issuing community instructions: a rightwing movement, a leftwing movement. Wear a mask, then don’t wear a mask. A set of terminology that is supposed to frighten us. “Inspiration” is one of those words. You know, western people get bored with themselves.
That’s why there's Netflix, chewing gum for the brain. To make sure certain questions and independent movements don’t come to life in people’s neurons. And we all chew it!
Our western society promotes what it calls a safety model. Meaning an illusion of “stability,” “welfare,” “human rights,” the higher values in life. But we don’t know how they serve up those dishes. Since we don’t know, then the virus will creep into our ears and whisper its own words. And we won’t like it one bit. Who likes hearing the truth? But we’ve managed to distract ourselves somehow.
How did you both meet?
New York is a place of random affairs. Artistic, sexual, administrative. You know that all the most terrible things were invented here. New York is a glamorous flower blossom with venomous flies hidden in its womb. Ajuan’s hands were itching, my feet were itching, we were reading Henry Miller at dawn, and we got the urge to do something terrible together, commit an artistic crime. And that’s where all this started – but it’s impossible to describe in words!
What has the collaborative process been like for you both since you started working together?
Collaboration is always full of pain and disappointment. Threats, blackmail, extortion. Manipulation, hysterics, intimidation – they're all necessary attributes of collaboration, from both sides. Look at any couple. Fellini–Tonino Guerra, Konchalovsky–Tarkovsky, Kasparov–Karpov, Don Quixote–Sancho Panza, Tom Sawyer–Huckleberry Finn.
America was built on a social cliché. If someone in Manhattan announces that sticking your head in a hungry lion’s mouth makes you more virile, then there's going to be a long line forming at the zoo. Pipe layers and flooring installers promulgate aesthetic values and create the design for morality. For a long time now, it's been the working class who decides what to suck on, which candy in art is the yummiest.
"...publishing books is a nerve wracking profession."
Collaboration means getting to know one another. Like on a first date. What do you like better: basketball or fishing? Do you prefer red ants or honey-sweet bees?
Only bookies and weather forecasters know the future. Ordinary life is subject to the logic of the absurd. Chekhov, Ionesco, O. Henry and other acquaintances of ours noticed that long ago. If you want to be happy, then accept life as it is, and cooperate. Some scientists did a study (good thing they weren’t British scientists): copying your partner’s social behaviours is the most effective strategy for achieving results. Why do the Chinese annoy us so much? Because they copy everything, including themselves, and it turns out pretty well. Though at first it was cheap and ridiculous. Collaboration is a fountain, it’s quintessence, it’s synergy, it’s illusion. Collaboration is a battery which is supposed to shoot its curiosity energy outward.
Your book Absolutely Augmented Reality is released on July 2nd, are there any nerves ahead of the release?
The word “book” sounds ironic these days, old fashioned. We’re worried that we've ridden in on horseback carrying swords, when we should have come in on electronic drones holding electronic gadgets. The book has discredited itself. Today it’s rightly associated with competency, but an outside competency; with patience, but also with dawdling. With selectivity, but also annoyance and pity.
If we go ahead and formulate the contemporary values that pose a contradiction, you would rip us to shreds and bury us in the same grave. Yes, publishing books is a nerve wracking profession.
Where did your inspiration for Absolutely Augmented Reality come from?
Inspiration arises on the face of a ticking clock. Inspiration always collaborates with death. Remember all the heroes. Robinson Crusoe, James Bond, Che Guevara, Wayne Gretzky.
Imagine you're sitting on a powder keg and you know you're about to die, and your end will be devoid of all glory. You’re going to want to change something before you blow up. Superheroes are just dystrophic people who have been scared to death. Ajuan is a top class superhero, a genuine robot. The only thing she loves to do is work. Whereas I’m completely lazy (Kuzma reveals).
Absolutely Augmented Reality features essay contributions from Anthony Haden-Guest, Rosa JH Berland and Lilly Wei. How much has their contribution aligned the message you want to say with this book?
A critic is like a government administration, a door into the formal right to call yourself an artist. You can create things your whole life, but if the critics don’t say anything about you, only the worms in the cemetery will ever discover you.
Today critics are critical-care doctors, working in a ward for the hopelessly ill. Because all artists are desperate, about to die from heart attacks. An artist puts a voluntary signature under his own insolvency.
We are absolutely delighted to work with critics, because with their scalpels they cut off our bones and prolong our lives! We're truly glad to know Rosa JH Berland and Lilly Wei. Anthony Haden-Guest is a legendary critic. He’s also a poet, cartoonist and writer. Recently Ajuan and I had the honour to curate an album of Haden-Guest’s cartoons titled Fun Times: The Chronic of Now released by Orange Art Foundation. It's a great book.
"Today, if you have a personal foundation, working is sheer pleasure."
This is a unique approach to a complex creative subject, was it always your intention to have Absolutely Augmented Reality challenge our understanding of modern art?
That’s a flattering question that it will be pleasant to answer. We think we challenged ourselves first. We wanted a loud statement so we could hear the silence in the answer. Without a doubt, if they start applauding you right away, something is going wrong.
Absolutely Augmented Reality is a cocoon, and we are caterpillars who have eaten up some weird data. We don't quite understand what our address is. Absolutely Augmented Reality is a haunted-house room or a camera obscura that we are inside. Absolutely Augmented Reality, in that sense, is a device to grope out a picture of the world.
What does modern art do? Does it seem to be busy earning some cash, surviving, searching for itself? Today classical literature is getting harsh criticism from millennials, who interpret it just like Netflix. Lev Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. Rating, two stars: slow-moving and not enough suspense. Johann Sebastian Bach isn’t a composer, he’s “the guy whistling in the mayonnaise ad.”
Our project should be interpreted more like a philosophical investigation, a visual language working the philosophical soil. The visual language and its affiliation with modern art would be better tracked here as components, whereas the theme is what can be observed, an experiment.
How important is it for artists to challenge conventions and push boundaries in their fields?
But there’s no such thing as conventions. There are vacant lots and debris. The ruins of ancient Rome. Bats carried this metaphor of a disease on their wings, and Chinese-mouse Hollywood acted on politics more harshly than chemotherapy on incurable cancer. Stockholders stuffed their pockets and left on vacation: the Nasdaq hit a new historical maximum! Long live the plague!
Today, if you have a personal foundation, working is sheer pleasure. Nobody’s going to bother you, because they simply won’t understand you, or they’ll ignore you. What language are you speaking, dude? Go ahead and build ten floors, or twelve or thousand.
How many photographs do we want to take in absolutely augmented reality? Maybe ten thousand, maybe a million? But it doesn’t matter. It’s like screaming in a vacuum.
Today the rules cannot be violated. Today it’s like in Singapore when one time spitting on the sidewalk gets you a thousand-dollar fine and handcuffs.
For kissing someone else’s husband they’ll cut off your finger. For bare boobs on Instagram, we chop those boobs right off.
You have said that Absolutely Augmented Reality is "an introductory experiment" since completing this book. What do you think you have learned from this experience?
How long do you think a person can hang from a pull-up bar? A day? An hour? Actually it’s a couple minutes. The biggest gift given to humankind is exhaustion. A lot of physical labor goes into a photography project of this size. Sets, construction materials, taking out the garbage. This was a good start, to continue with renewed effort. If you’ve lifted ten kilos, that means that next time you’ll lift eleven.
When you’re exhausted, that’s the very sweetest sensation, one you want to return to over and over again. It’s the actual meaning of the word “professionalism” – it doesn't mean how much they pay you to do it. There are, let’s say, about a thousand professional chess grand masters in the world, and a lot more painters who paint their whole lives have graduated from an art academy. But how many professional beekeepers, fishermen, or poets are there! Energy-draining work is happiness. As to why people in rural villages were happier than us, who are sitting out our Victoria's Secrets in stuffy offices. Why does everyone flee so joyfully from Manhattan, for example, like rats? Because everyone just wants to sow and plant from a combine! People are starved for labor! We’re all tired of its substitute!
Do you have plans to continue building on this experiment?
In Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, the protagonist wanted to take the risk and return to the Zone. Give us shovels, give us a business plan! Show us where to dig! We want to die on the job! A heart attack or an orgasm – that’s our credo! Computers live in the binary system. They have no choice: a zero or a one. Human fantasy has proven to be more powerful than a computer, and now computers are jealous, they're taking over creativity, business, and relationships.
Of course, we want to publish ten new albums of Absolutely Augmented Reality, with a hundred photos in each, and print a thousand copies of each book, using ten thousand square meters of paper, ruining a hundred thousand hectares of forest!
You call yourself photo-existentialists, how did you come about this term?
Modern art has gotten a little lost. It needs some help, needs to be doused with gasoline and possibly have a match set to it.Modern art, which doesn’t know how to speak anymore, wants to wreck and destroy.
At a certain age, if you’re not a scout anymore, destroying things stops being interesting, especially if your bees have carried away a certain expressed thought to their hives.
Photography is just one possible form of expression. We wouldn’t want to stop and tie ourselves specifically to that one. The process of how we come to know is inherent to the essence of the term we’re discussing.
How would you explain photo-existentialists?
Some people born in a city don’t understand why anyone invented the sky and the clouds or a river. If you have an apartment, the internet and a tablet... Looking at the stars is a total waste of time. (That’s why moonlight is still free).
We spent our childhoods out in nature, lit campfires, rode bikes, drowned into ponds. We didn't want to know what a telephone or television or bank cards were.
We bathed in cold water and spent the night in the woods.
In visual form, we are sending out a bottle with a message inside, in which our existence, our childhood, our values, and the books we’ve read have been encoded. Remember how NASA sent Voyager out away from us, and it recorded all the best that humankind has on a platinum record? We’re making our own record, with birds’ voices, a gurgling river, and gusts of wind in summer movie theatres. We are located inside the paradox of existence, trying to recognize it. Photography is a wearable, portable image with solvable problems inside.
Have you always been passionate for art?
Ajuan: I was born into a traditional family that had nothing to do with art. Different kinds of protests occurred on their own. My plans to run away when I was seven, a conspiracy with my sisters, a desire to do something extraordinary were my norm. I needed a good deal of time to get closer to myself and finally give myself permission to choose what I ought to do with my life.
Kuzma: At root I’m a German. I love uniformity, boredom and order, even though I live in disorder. “Art” is nothing more than a toxic habit, like parasite words, like smoking, like one style or another. I would add order and depth to art, if we see “art” as “discipline.” In the modern world, people have started parroting spontaneous chaotic expressions as substantive declarations. The noise is interpreted as consistency. The artist makes a statement – not as a choice of a specific language or image, but as his own foundation and postulates, with a toolkit he can use to appeal to the picture of the world.
Has your style and the approach to your projects changed much since you started out?
Probably. There's always something that’s missing. Developing an artistic style means a balance of resources, it means time. We are different in style and temperament, but in our joint projects, we perfect ourselves. Because time is limited and working in a team increases your responsibility, it concentrates decision-making. It’s a good question, and here is why. There’s always some kind of flavour missing. There’s always some dissatisfaction and fear, and they push you forward. Looking back and being terrified is normal, because after all we’re all running forward, because we're ashamed of our past.
Kuzma: How much has your background as a filmmaker helped you on this project?
I am a professional movie-maker but still independent, and we didn't have the kind of budgets that would be respectful of producers, although where respect begins, development ends. Essentially, Ajuan began the Absolutely Augmented Reality project. What could I have done? I was nothing but terrified. I said, Stop, what are you doing? We need to prepare ourselves. She said, Sure, sure, we’ll prepare. I threw up my hands.
On a technical side what type of equipment do you prefer to use?
We love old technology, we love film. We want everything to be spinning and buzzing inside. That’s kind of the attraction of it. So there's a perception of warmth. But generally it’s Ajuan who chooses what to shoot and what equipment to use. (Kuzma: I just like to offer criticism) We like wide-format film, colour correction, granularity. For light we used strobes, but we hope to try out continuous light in the future. You can work constantly to make technical improvements. The important thing is that the ideas don’t perish, you want to focus more on the statement, and sometimes try new techniques.
And finally, what are you hoping your people will take from Absolutely Augmented Reality?
When you pick up a good book, if it’s good, you think damn, that’s cool, it turns out I’m not alone! When things get bad I’ll open it again. If they take this book from me I’ll find another one. You're not alone in the universe. There’s somebody else who is exactly the same! Look! On the street, in restaurants, in graves. Especially there, because sound from underground is cleaner, you lift the lid and in two minutes you’ve heard everything, whether it’s your book or not. Even Stephen King, the badass, can do it.
And we’d also like for people to get pleasure from the atmosphere of this spectacle of a book. From the texts and from the smell of the typographic ink, from the density of the publication itself.