Uršula Berlot invites us to immerse ourselves into the world beneath our perception. As a philosopher, researcher and artist, she questions scientific imagery such as simulations of life at the molecular level and mathematical models in a poetic way. Microscopic and nano-scientific images become digital animations in black and white that allow us to freely experience this visual world, often in an expressive or dreamlike quality. Her works deal with modellings of physicality, microbiology, and radiology as well as light, simulacrum and magnetism.
Berlot has exhibited her work at festivals, museums and research centres around the world, e.g. Today Art Museum, Beijing,Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana, and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.She has collaborated with the Jožef Stefan Institute and the Clinical Institute of Radiology, University Medical Centre in Ljubljana. For her digital animations, she also works with designer Sunčana Kuljiš and with sound artists like Robin Rimbaud and Alessandro Tedeschi. Since 2009, she has worked as lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design, University of Ljubljana and has become Associate Professor in 2014.
A Closer Gaze at Microscopic Level
Scientific principles and reciprocal, proportional or relative processes direct the composition and movements in her images. Viewers can immerse themselves in this rhythmic and expressive animation. In “Bodygaze” (2020) graphical images combine structures that look like microscopic imagery and the morphology of bodily particles. The bodily tissue is mediated in a variety of observation ratios: from stylised visible body parts (abstracted forms of hair, eyelashes and skin structures) to microscopic images of elementary bodily particles.
There is a similarity to early film theory and Jean Epstein’s concept of photo-genie. While Epstein and his colleagues were fascinated by elevating everyday objects through filmic styles, Berlot gazes deeply into scientific imagery and its simulation of life. Her animations go beyond a close-up and represent reality through scientific analysis and visualisation. In the end, our perception of reality is juxtaposed with the visibility of the hidden world beneath and beyond it. Then and now, visual technologies allow us to take a closer gaze and Berlot investigates this within arts-based research.
Ursula Berlot’s artworks deviate from knowledge recognition towards an aesthetic exploration. To do this, she remixes, remediates and digitally processes the initial sources of inspiration. Algorithmically coded images reference the duality of mimesis and technologically generated reality. They question today’s boundary between image/simulation and original.
In ”Cerebral landscapes (Reflections)” (2006) a kinetic light installation visualises pulsating pre-cerebral states, mental-sensory patterns and mental energies. Berlot understands this work also as an artistic metaphor of dichotomy: reflection as the optic phenomenon of light reflection or a mental activity – a concentrated process of thinking.
Her work can also be highly personal since Berlot often uses her own body particles to create these images and animations. In the history of the body in art, her interpretation is poetic and technical at the same time: It is a self-portrait, a way of inscribing oneself into the work and an experiment. By working on a microscopic level, Berlot takes a new look at artistic identity and creation. The work ”Bodyfraction” (2020) parallels microscopic images of fragments of the artist’s body with recordings of drawings and light-sensitive objects created on their basis.
Martin KEMP: Uršula Berlot is beautifully exploring a very specific world of morphologies and processes at invisible scales. Not only does she find thrilling variety in this literal microcosm but she also infers fascinating analogies with what we see at the macro-scale. She is technically accomplished to a high degree and manages to achieve a compelling level of lyricism.
Ingeborg FÜLEPP: The specificity of Berlot's engagement with media and digital technology lies in her very experimental approach toward its expressive capacities. Instead of using media technology as a means in itself her creative process is directed to explore the variety of states of subjective perception. Her light installation at Media-Scape (Museo Lapidarium, Novigrad, 2008) was wonderfully fitting the idea of bridging the historical remains with the modern times.
Michael BENSON: In deploying scientific research technologies to inform her work as an artist, Uršula Berlot has produced a forward-looking body of nominally abstract works actually rooted in phenomenal reality. Although highly mediated, they tend to be grounded in data visualizations originally produced via short-wavelength electromagnetic processes, as in electron microscopy and magnetic resonance imaging. Berlot’s provocative fusion of art and science sustains our attention.
Tomislav VIGNJEVIĆ: One of the basic premises of Uršula Berlot's artistic expression is undoubtedly her desire to enlarge and ensuing practice of making visible that which is not before our eyes, that which is not directly evident nor exposed to the view and analysis of the viewer other than through her work.
Nataša PETREŠIN BACHELEZ: In her art works, Uršula Berlot is observing the influences of so called coincidences and the results that uncontrolled processes cause. Her own "confronting the unknown" in the form of creative openness to the characteristics of the used materials (artificial resin and plexi glass) and to the gravity laws has brought her to an abstract visual language. She is complementing it with the scientific terminology and analogies, drawn from the processes occurring in the nature.
What are your current projects?
I'm in the process of finalizing a group of interconnected works for my next solo show. I began working on these projects almost two years ago with experiments in electron microscopy at Jožef Stefan Institute, Department for Nanostructured Materials. We scanned tiny particles of my own body tissues – nail, skin, hair, tooth enamel. After gaining some technical knowledge of specific computer programs for digital processing of micro-images, talks with scientists and readings of microscopy-related literature, I started to develop a series of works based on these images that could be seen as a discrete form of self-portrait. But rather than being occupied with the motif itself, the creative challenge in question was – How to avoid the seductive power of marvellous micro landscapes in order to touch, express or question their invisible dimension of structural (abstract) cognitive truth? In this creative process one path led through many computer and drawing experiments, which were directed toward denaturalisation of the motif while balancing the original and its abstract form; and another path consisted of questioning the structural parameters of optics or of perception itself, which resulted in the video work Bodyfraction and a series of transparent light works. While the latter could be seen as the result of experiments with light and 'lens' mechanic effects that led to a particular form of optical (experiential) refinement, the video deals with the idea of hybridized reality, which juxtaposes actual video recordings and the 3D digital simulation of them, with the purpose of blurring the perceptive and cognitive distinctions between them (the real and the virtual). Here, the concepts of life simulating abstract form, ambiguity in space determination or the ambivalence between form recognition and its fictional qualities came into play.
What path led you to digital art, and what interested/fascinated you about it initially?
My creative approach is experimental in nature, I like to play with materials and test technologies in ways that are unpredictable or unconventional. The use of computer, i.e. digital tools as a creative means was in my case not predetermined but spontaneous. I find several aspects of digital particularly fascinating: creative work in the digital realm is fast and fluid in nature, and the medium is dematerialised and has an extraordinary capacity to create illusory effects. As a medium the digital realm offers immense space for creative freedom, it’s an intense form of liberation from the many constraints related to our physicality: our own bodily limits, gravity, mass, and identity. Recently, [as a pedagogue] I’ve been mentoring on an interesting research project comparing artistic creativity in digital and analogue mediums. Based on an interdisciplinary methodology that combined a post-humanistic approach within the framework of qualitative phenomenological research methods, the research revealed significant differences in artists’ experience of the agency and its related constituents – control, media benefits, awareness of the body, and the presence and (semantic) use of language during the creative process. These findings might shed some light on the general increase in the use of digital tools as a creative artistic medium. As computer science is in a state of constant technological development, I occasionally collaborate with designers and experts in digital media to help me refine the form or the work, or to help fine-tune the technical dimension of digitally manipulated or created environments.
Your work is highly influenced by microscopic imagery, microbiology, radiology etc. What inspires you most about doing research at the intersection of art, science and philosophy?
I suspect my artistic research is driven by a curiosity and a passion to try and grasp the most elusive aspects of reality. Which is why I look for answers in philosophy or experiment with different scientific or medical technologies (microscopy, radiology) capable of making visible the most hidden aspects of physical reality. As per the intersection of art, science and philosophy, let me address this question in more philosophical terms. I like to think about the relationships between art, philosophy and science in a Deleuzean sense, in the way he and Guattari so poetically describe their functions as chaoids, as forms of thoughts or creation, as planes that cut through chaos in various ways. While we are used to constructing our ideas and opinions such that they form an umbrella that protects us from chaos, philosophy, art and science tear open the firmament and plunge us into the chaos, they let a breeze of chaos in and “frame in a sudden light a vison that appears through the slit” (G. Deleuze & F. Guatarri, What is Philosophy?). This is what, I believe, they have in common. Deleuze & Guattari state that an artist brings back from the chaos varieties that no longer constitute a reproduction of the sensory in the corresponding organ, but set up a being of the sensory, a being of sensation that is able to restore the infinite. They see art as a struggle with chaos that aims to render it sensory, a composition of chaos that yields a certain vision or sensation. They see the interconnectedness of art, science and philosophy not as a form of unity, but as a junction, and call this junction of the three planes the brain. And here is what I find particularly inspiring: that philosophy, art and science are not the mental objects of an objectified brain, but the three aspects under which the brain becomes a subject – becomes the thought-brain. The essential point is that the brain is the mind itself, meaning that the brain thus becomes subject – “It is the brain that says I, but I is an other”. I like to think about the place or the nature of a subject – which I see as the core element in thinking about art, in terms of this fluid, ambivalent entity. But here I'm starting to touch on another question.
How do you develop and create your artworks in laboratories and research institutes? How do you cooperate with the scientists working there?
There is one part of the creative process, usually the starting point, that I develop within the frame of scientific research institutes. These institutions not only provide access to optical or medical research technology, but introduce the opportunity for discussion with and among scientists, who often proved crucial for the development of a new artwork. While creating works for my Polymorphic Imprint exhibition for example, which were developed on the basis of microscopic recordings at nanoscale, my conversations with a leading scientist about certain problematic optical issues in microscopy and the nature of space and visibility in general were highly inspirational. He explained to me how we grasp, during the process of observation through the microscopic lens, so called inverse space, which appears as an “error” in our optical recognition scheme; but these errors or disturbances are actually indicators of a far more complex reality that extends beyond our visible reality and is mathematically expressed through the relation of real and complex (imaginary) numbers. He also introduced me to the use of software technology developed, e.g. to calculate crystalline structures, which I then used to manipulate microscopic images in order to digitally simulate their projection in reciprocal space and back to the real in order to produce variations of the same (polymorphism). Something similar emerged related to radiological experiments, where the scientist's explanations of MRI recordings were crucial to elucidate their meaning, which then led to the creation of a light and video installation.
You have developed an abstract visual language. How do you wish viewers to experience your works? Is prior knowledge of your concepts an advantage, disadvantage or neither?
I'm more inclined to consider ways of engaging the spectator by thinking of an artwork as an open structure, which consists of an empty space or a blind spot that is open to the viewer’s projections. I usually accompany the presentation of an artwork with a text or a description of a technical or conceptual nature, which might help orient the spectator to a certain degree. But as I pay great attention to the sensory aspects of an artwork – often with the selection of certain light sensitive materials or their particular placement in space – I try to create conditions for a particular perceptual experience that is fluid, unstable, immanent and subjective in nature. As to the abstract component I must admit I'm a great admirer of abstract art, despite the general predominance of narrative and figurative forms of visual language in this our contemporary reality. Several interesting findings regarding the sensorial and cognitive dimensions of the aesthetic experience of abstract art have emerged out of recent neuroscience research (neuroaesthetics), which has empirically proven that a lack of coherent semantic (narrative or figurative) expression in abstract painting can greatly enhance the imaginative and intuitive (pre-cerebral) dimensions of aesthetic experience. The specific quality of abstract art with its visually undefined, intangible or ambiguous forms lies in its capacity to evoke individual sensorial and emotional experiences before the rational response appears, and has the capacity to stimulate the uniquely creative potential of the viewer to imagine new ways of feeling and experiencing reality.
How do you judge the interest in digital art in your surroundings, in your country?
Slovenia is a relatively advanced environment as regards digital creativity, and young artists are particularly interested in the close relationship between art and science. One important gallery in Ljubljana has been actively covering this experimental field of research-based and performance art since the early 1990s, enriching our cultural landscape with top-level international exhibitions. A few years ago the organisation initiated a laboratory for artistic research of living systems, thus providing an experimental platform for bio-art research. The geographical proximity to Linz and the Ars Electronica festival might also exert an additional positive influence on the vivid digital and technology-oriented art scene in Slovenia, especially in the bio-art domain.
How do you archive your work? How do you think your works should be preserved?
Since the earliest days of my artistic career I have been posting documentation of my artwork online, which still is one of the important mediums for preserving and expanding accessibility to my art production. I also archive selected documentation of my artworks in a well organised Slovenian digital archive, and more recently at the ADA archive of digital arts. As regards video and site-specific art or similarly ephemeral forms of art interventions, digital documentation of such is particularly important, as this is the only form that will help ensure they survive through time. Alongside these considerations there is another important advantage of digital archiving and the online presentation of my art production, which is accessibility: because it’s not uncommon that foreign curators find and get in touch with me, invite me to participate in their exhibitions, which is another very tangible advantage of digital technology.