Mirror of Shadow
Iliana Veinberga, Art Critic
Artist and Designer Zane Bērziņa
Latvian-born artist Zane Bērziņa is one of Latvia's success stories, one that is often retold to highlight the ability of local people to com-pete on an international level. On completing textile art studies at the Latvian Academy of Art, Bērziņa continued her education in Helsinki, Berlin, Paris and London, and, as she herself admits, she has been very lucky with her teachers: for instance, her doctorate thesis supervisor Dr Frances Geesin is one of the founders of the science of smart materials. Dr Geesin has passed on her enthusiasm for this field to Bērziņa, who very quickly had realised that her intention was not to spend her creative life as a designer at some textile factory. Now Zane Bērziņa's name is connected to the fields of smart fabrics and elastic technologies, science, art, practical research and academic theory, and even though her daily life is spent between Goldsmiths Digital Studio in London and her duties as a Professor of Conceptual Development of Materials and Surfaces at the School of Art and Design Berlin-Weissensee, Bērziņa still finds time to help coordinate the processes of the Riga-based Electronic Text & Textiles cultural platform, which captures, explores and recreates phenomena that have emerged through the interaction of modern technologies with (textile) art and language.

In mid-August this year the artist visited Riga and introduced her newest project E-Static Shadows - a collaboration with architect Jackson Tan, completed only recently in 2009 after several years of work.

Zane Bērziņa. Photo from the Zane Bērziņa's private archive
E-Static Shadows, as the artist herself notes, bears no connection to anything ecstasy-related: it is a serious research and experiment project which spans a long period of work and has resulted in the creation of a special interactive fabric - a material that reacts to the electrostatic charge of the human body or an object, and translates it into a visual pattern. As a hand, bag or anything else is brought close to the material-installation, light diminishes or even completely fades in the corresponding area and shape on the surface of the material, which is illuminated by LED lights integrated into the texture. This results in a sort of a "shadow", which is created not by an object intercepting light waves, but by the static electricity charge accumulated and given off by the body. The visual effect is further reinforced by the element of sound, as the structure of the fabric also contains integrated miniature audio sensors, which react to changes in the environment and "play back" and make audible the source of their energy at various intensities. The "E" in the title of the research project and the installation itself refers to the presence of electricity and the new technologies within the textile membrane system (for example, electronic media, electronic textiles, electronic literature etc.). The effect created by the installation can be compared to a mirror, except that in place of the visible body the surface of this material reflects an extension which, being hidden from sight and hearing, normally does not shape our idea of the body itself - namely, static electricity, which we are at best forced to encounter when we touch a metallic or synthetic surface in certain conditions and get a shock.

Zane Bērziņa admits she is fascinated by the notion of human skin - "skin as a biological model and material, but also its semiotics and various psychological aspects, especially in their interaction with human expressions in the field of technology". This presumes both physical skin with its specific structure and functions, and skin as a surface, a work plane for interaction, or as a boundary, as a permeable membrane and even the lack of boundary in contact with the surrounding world. In 2006, by invitation of the British Council and the British Embassy in Riga, to mark the occasion of the first visit of the Queen Elizabeth II to the Baltic countries, the artist presented Skinstories II - Archaeology of Skin, a series of interactive artworks, in which she explored the topography of skin and creatively interpreted or imitated various aspects of its structure, creating a specific material which, like skin, reacts to changes in its environment - temperature, humidity etc. One example of this is Touch Me!, an interactive wall installation. Although such a material could have a practical application in architecture, for instance, in upholstering walls or building mobile, membrane-like partition walls in medical facilities, where climate control is of particular importance; much acclaim was also given to the aesthetic and emotional qualities of the material, which, combined with the interactive nature of the material, allowed Touch Me! to become an exhibition hit in London, Liverpool, Switzerland, Luxembourg and elsewhere under the stewardship of Jens Hauser, independent curator and the originator of the concept of bioart. E-Static Shadows is a conceptual continuation of the theme of this work, because its point of departure is the idea of a body and its surface. An excellent comment on the art of Bērziņa is provided by Joseph Tabbi, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, cofounder of e-t+t, author of the concept and editor of the influential internet journal he concludes that Bērziņa's subject is "the ecology of skin". This designation seems easy to grasp, because both "skin" and "ecology" are familiar words, however, in this combination and within the critical posthumanist discourse they have a different, semantically much more layered content.

Zane Bērziņa. Electrostatic shadows. Interactive installation. A fabric made on a Jacquard loom, with woven-in sensors and integrated light diodes. An installation records the electrostatic current intensity transmitted by exhibition visitors and passers by and reflects this on a fabric display surface - the greater the person's energy field, the larger is his or her shadow. London Science Museum. 5x20m. 2009
The concepts of Zane Bērziņa's art are seemingly homogenous; through research and reflection they are derived from the artist's personal interest in the body as a biological structure with its specific sociobiological individuality, integrated in a wider "environmental structure", as well as from her interest in the possibilities of the mutual interaction between space and body, and the creation of new environment scenarios. However, the making of the resultant work involves the use of an array of different techniques, knowledge of various academic disciplines, working groups of assistants and consultants, and consequently the contexts in which her works may be viewed branch out considerably. "I don't want to categorize my creative activities and their results according to traditionally shaped perceptions of what constitutes ‘pure art', what is design, what is research or science, etc. I am interested in the possible synergies among these fields and approaches. Therefore my works occupy that exact territory which is derived by the interaction of these fields. I like it if the curator finds an interesting aspect from which to show it all, a new context in which to position my works - the possibilities of interpretation are vast, because they comprise so many elements: technology, art, science," she says. When asked about her motivation, the initial reason to pick one or another subject to work on, she laughs and admits that her main incentive is probably curiosity: "I get a positive charge by the possibility of learning something new through research and creativity, of discovering for myself, and maybe for others, some previously unnoticed connections. It expands my world and gives my life meaning." Fundamental research lies at the basis of her activities. This is also the most interesting and important thing - should the experiments fail to yield the expected result, and the planned result is not achieved, neither the work nor the exhibition in which it is presented will be considered a failure, because what is vital is that the idea has been conceptualized, solutions have been sought and a certain amount of experience is accumulated. "In research, the result is the actual process of researching." For example, during work on E-Static Shadows, several pieces of equipment were altered, improved or even created from scratch (and also hired - for example, a particularly sensitive static electricity sensor from the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at the College of Engineering, University of Michigan, which is used by NASA in explorations on Mars) to serve the task at hand, thus making a contribution to the development of technologies and new working methods. Commenting on her involvement in this process, the artist says: "I am an artist and a designer who works with technologies and explores their performance, in particular, in aesthetic and human categories. If, among all this, my colleagues and I also happen to develop these technologies further, or even invent something new, my main interest is nevertheless not of a technical nature. It is rooted in my desire to find the most successful way of materialising an idea: to make the work have an effect on the viewer on all levels - emotionally and intellectually. In my case this sometimes means the development of new technology. It's just like learning a new language."

Asked if she is not worried that such hybrid works could strike the audience as more of an amusing sideshow rather than a work of scientific or artistic value, the artist says: "This work looks very different in various environments. So far the E-Static Shadows installation has only been shown once to a wider audience, at the Dana Centre of the London Museum of Science. So mostly it is available indirectly - in pictures and on video, run through various perception and technological filters. Therefore it is quite possible that it might seem "ambiguously" entertaining in these reproductions. In reality, however, when you are in that installation space, the mood is very meditative. This is an interactive work, and it lives on unmediated, analogous interaction with human beings and their senses, sensations and emotions. Of course, this is not only an aesthetic message but an intellectual one as well. Undeniably, there is also an intentional element of playfulness - it is fascinating to observe people trying out various objects to see my work react to their static field, they get excited, childlike in their joy. In this sense it has never been my priority to aim for the status of "high art". It is completely irrelevant to me how a work is defined, but personally I treasure this moment of discovery, in others and in myself. When people learn something new, something they haven't experienced before, through interaction in particular, it becomes obvious how branched-out and yet also interconnected the various themes can be."

Perhaps for this reason Zane Bērziņa has become involved in academic and teaching work. She enthusiastically explains that scientists, artists and designers who are involved with an academic institution have more opportunities to devote their time to research and to create results which have no direct and immediate functional value, they are able to freely collaborate with excellent specialists from other fields - also, because she feels it is her duty to teach, to educate people, to involve them in the process of acquiring knowledge. Asked what she really is - a professor who practises art in her free time, or an artist who has become a professor, she laughs and says she would like to be the latter, but over time it has become apparent that this involvement in university life means that her time can not be devoted exclusively to creative exchanges with students, that bureaucratic formalities and other similar matters consume inexcusably large chunks of time, which has meant that working on E-Static Shadows, while also continuing to teach, has been an incredibly difficult thing to do. "Now I feel the need to clear out a corner of my mind just for myself, to relax and get on with some of my smaller projects, to keep that creative flow going. In time I'll be able to start contemplating a larger project again," she says. This comment does, however, induce a sceptical grin - in a positive sense, of course, because over the coming six months the artist has to prepare for two museum-commissioned exhibitions in the USA. In these exhibitions she plans to concentrate on her newly found fascination with the body and architecture, and, knowing the commmitment with which she approaches her work, I have no doubt that the result will be anything less than spectacular.

/Translator into English: Līva Ozola/

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