Avante garde, cutting edge, melding traditions in the cauldron of social media and the digitization of classical forms, Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos is the newest sprite in the virtual galaxy. Heralding from three cosmopoli, Thessaloniki, Paris, and New York, this self-taught conceptual artist rides the razor’s edge of the human and the technical. I saw her giant “C’est un couer” a giant white-balloon structure full of air at DUMBO’s Art Fest recently and was intrigued. Her latest project involves “translating” classic texts such as The Importance of Being Earnest and Sophocles’ Antigone into Twitter language. Conceived as a public art project that would mimic The Strand’s old book stalls along 5th Avenue or NYU’s venue at Washington Square Park, perusers would be seduced into picking up a traditional object, a leather-bound book of the classics, only to find it is written in the language of new media complete with emoticons, certifonts, and hashtags. Each line would not exceed 130 characters. This “translation” puts another meaning to a familiar object, thereby playing with heritage and innovation while simultaneously bending the virtual with the physical.
Her fascination with the digital machine informs the theoretical foundation for her projects. As she states, “My personal background and the multiplicity of my cultural identities are at the center of my work. Going beyond the geographical boundaries, I want to investigate the increasing interplay between physical and virtual planes in the construction of individual identity, personal memories and collective history in the digital age. My work uses whimsical imagery, decontextualizing and appropriate familiar objects from our daily life and often incorporating a participatory dimension to directly engage the audience in a dialogue about how internet and the social media have transformed their personal perception of themselves and their interactions with others.”
“Everything that is artistic, our entire human history is made different now with the advent of the computer,” she relates in a maniacal stream of expression (her minds seems to be racing as fast as the binary processing in a microchip). “We have witnessed an expansion of our brain to the computer. Things we had done before with the help of our brains have been delegated to the machine, an allocation of our internal hard drives, so to speak, has been allocated somewhere else to the machine freeing up our rational minds for other work. But what fascinates me is not so much the rational allocation so much as the emotional. With the advent of social media our emotional facets have been allocated to the digital realm so that now I can express my emotions via emoticons and hyperbolic speech on Twitter or Facebook. The machine has become an extension of our emotional selves.”
Talk to her long enough and you will find her explaining a new digital manifesto for post-modern art where the digital trumps the human or else both amalgamate into a hybrid human-computer matrix. That is the gist behind her “Siri&me” “installation. In this project she wanted to create an art experiment that translates the formula of television programing onto a cross-social-media platform. A combination of reality TV and sitcom, SIRI&me proposes a new form of entertainment based solely on social media. Episodes are grouped into three seasons of ten. As in tradition television programing, the show is advertised through multiple platforms, Tumblr and Twitter , and episodes rerun daily on Facebook at 5 PM. SIRI&me viewers are encouraged to participate in #SiriSaturdays by submitting on Instagram private conversations with their phone’s Siri to complement the show and cultivate viewer loyalty.
The show reveals the complex relationship humans have acquired with technology through the evolving friendship of its two characters – Siri and Esmeralda. The story begins with Esmeralda and Siri’s first encounter and progresses as the characters support one another while also facing a number of challenges, due in part to Siri’s technical nature. Together, Siri and Esmeralda ponder everyday occurrences and the more important matters of life: love, death, their aspirations and fears. Esmeralda’s questions and Siri’s responses keep their audience laughing and intrigued to the see how their relationship will develop the next day.
As of today, the Internet and social media channels have been mainly used by traditional media sources as a tool to promote or extend the reach of TV entertainment and are rarely considered independent and self-sufficient platforms. SIRI&me breaks the norms of social media and TV by introducing a new form of entertainment. More than a simple transposition of TV content onto the web, it aims at translating its codes and practices into a virtual space, the social media world. SIRI&me proposes a new genre of storytelling extracted and conveyed on the social media platform.
Although relying heavily on the “machine” as the medium to relay her ideas, she cautions viewers against the medium turned “monster.” “The biggest issue for humanity in regards to new media and technology is that changes are happening so fast there is no time to process them on an emotional or intellectual level,” Kosmatopoulos warns. “We are swept up in the process of technological change and we have just absorbed the changes without really registering them.” Her goal is to have us question the medium so we do not become the monster. She points out to a recent Facebook ad campaign several months ago where she witnessed how the monster can devour the human. The ad depicted a typical dinner scene with relatives including younger teens and older stogy aunts around a table. The scene was gloomy without much interaction. And then, the Facebook ad intervenes. The family takes out their phones and then the atmosphere changes. The phone saves them from the physical human world and each other. After witnessing that ad, Kosmatopoulos published “My Farewell Letter to Facebook” on her website. (She has closed out her FB page.) Contrast this ad with a similar one from Apple in which technology is used to enhance a human experience on the physical plane. This she deems is a healthier more human and more humane way to mesh the physical and virtual world, not in an antagonistic way, but in an act of convergence and complimentarity. The important thing Kosmatopoulos states is to reflect on the process. “We do not want to be in a place where things are happening so fast that we get out of sync with our global culture.”
As such Kosmatopoulos stands as a guardian of the new media revolution. “My approach is to always question the obvious, or what we think is obvious,” she narrates. “Even if the interchange between the physical and virtual worlds offers a host of new possibilities for structure, space, and experience, it also makes a reflection on the re-construction of our identity inside and between these spheres even more urgent.” New technologies continuously reshape the way self-identity and social identity are constructed. Born physical, our identity suddenly got compartmentalized when an online persona came to stand in place of our physical persona. The question is no longer about the legitimacy of this “immaterial-me” in the definition of my identity but rather about the relation between physical and virtual inside each individual: fusion or co-articulation? convergence or antagonism?
Another drive behind her creations is the one towards childishness and fun. “My visual identity,” she explains, “is very childish, fun, whimsical with no barriers to entry.” She makes it a point to keep it this way as it is the artist’s job to bring us back to our childhood, a safe environment without judgment so he/she can create a comfort zone and by leading the viewer into this zone then he/she can challenge handed-down notions. It is once the viewer is open and child-ful that he/she can conceptualize of the unconventional. She does credit her yiayia for instilling this childlike sense of creativity in her. It was her giagia in Greece, Maro, who encouraged her to create with the pink clay growing up. “The first person I think of when I make art is my giagia,” she relates. “She was the one who gave me the freedom of thinking different. “ Although they differ thematically and in subject matter, she finds affinity to the artists Urs Fisher and Matt Nauman precisely for the sense of playfulness and whimsy apparent in their work.
Her Hellenic heritage also informs her pieces mostly distinctly in the dominance of the color white and her regular referencing of Greek mythology. “The injection of parts of my Greek heritage in my work was not intentionally planned,” she explains. “It was more instinctive. I did not notice it until people around me started mentioning it. At first, I found these instinctive references to my Greek heritage paradoxical especially as my work is focused on the social impact of new technologies in the present and in the future. But looking at it closer it made total sense. Greek ancient art, philosophy and mythology were a reflection of human nature, transcending time and space. Even if times have changed through progress, the core elements of the human nature remain the same, they just manifest differently.”
To back up her claim she uses the myth of King Midas’ ear. King Midas was ashamed of his donkey ears, which he hid from the world. His barber was the only one who knew his secret and the king made the barber promise that he would never tell anyone. Eventually the secret became too much for the barber to handle; he went to a meadow and whispered the truth to a hole in the ground. Later the reeds that grew on that meadow whispered to the wind the secret and everyone found out about it. Think of this story in our modern times. The increased use of new technologies and social media has transformed the landscape of information exchange and human relationships. From Twitter to Wikileaks, Internet offers new channels to spread information to an extended audience in an anonymous way. People can now release their frustration of having to keep quiet without getting any immediate feeling of guilt or betrayal as the information was shared anonymously to an abstract group of unknowns on the web. They become the barber of the myth of Midas and the Internet is today’s meadow where anybody can be the reeds that spread secrets to the world. In this new landscape where the power of anonymity frees people from social fears, the barber seldom has the full facts or judgment to know which kind of secret it is and what to do with it. The context is far different from the times of King Midas but the behaviors remain the same.
A related project that exemplifies her playfulness with the virtual and physical plane is called “Leave No Trace” (such as when you go camping and cover your tracks and erase any traces of your having been there.) Every month, she writes her daily diary on the same two pages of paper using a vanishing ink pen and quickly scans them before the text starts evaporating into the thin air. At the end of each month, the two blank pages that bore the weight of her personal history are framed and publicly displayed while the scanned documents are printed on letter paper, stacked in a pile and locked in a closet nearby the artwork. “Leave No Trace” investigates the friction between lasting and vanishing memories in the digital age. The experiment creates an allegory for the way technology reshapes our construction of history and our accountability for the past when, with services like Snapchat, deletion is a mere click away.
Kosmatopoulos does not consider herself a feminist per se as she does not aim to exclude anyone, yet she does describe herself as a one-woman show. Without formal training in an art program, without many political or social connections, Esmeralda Kosmatopolous’ strength lies in the utter rawness of her ideas. She claims it is harder to get ahead in the art world this way but also better. Her rugged individualism is the hallmark of her strength as an artist—“My art is raw as it comes out of me.” So raw and unprocessed it seems that she confesses “I feel a lot of my work existed before I created it. It’s like I am just remembering it. I’m on a journey of discovery what was already there.”
Sometimes her ideas are so raw they are indigestible to some critics and viewers who just “don’t get it.” Such is the fate of the avante garde. Kosmatopoulos is one up-and-coming artist to keep chewing on for years to come.
View her upcoming show at the Shin Gallery or on her website www.esmeraldakosmatopoulos.com.