With the Center for Technological Pain, Dasha Ilina, a Russian artist based in Paris, is developing a project on the suffering caused by digital devices. She uses DIY solutions to soothe both the physical and psychological ailments caused by new technologies.
Can you tell us about your career? What made you take an interest in technology as part of your artistic practice?
I was quite late in taking an interest in technology. When I was young, I didn’t play video games – I know that a lot of digital artists started this way. But I began working on these issues when I was studying, particularly on the Arts, Media and Technology programme run by Benjamin Gaulon, whom I have worked with regularly ever since, and who is also involved in the exhibition Escape : voyage au cœur des cultures numériques (Escape: a journey to the heart of digital cultures), by the Institut français. That’s when I started programming and realised the potential of digital tools. It is also essential for me to develop a critical discourse on technology. Digitising a system or developing digital solutions is not always a desirable goal. As such, my dissertation focused on DIY and low-tech solutions. Despite the near-infinite possibilities of the digital world, I tried to restrict myself to make my projects as accessible as possible.
Why do you work more specifically on the issue of the physical and psychological suffering caused by the digital tools that we use on a daily basis?
When I was at art school, I worked in studios with several other students. We spent a huge amount of time in front of computers, especially before handing in our dissertations. Everyone complained of eye and neck pain. I started building DIY objects to protect us from these physical and psychic ailments. At the beginning, it was above all a way to have fun: the solutions weren't very long-lasting, but they worked. I also developed some self-defence movements against technology that can easily be performed at home, and I brought all that together for the Center for Technological Pain project.
Your Center for Technological Pain – a satirical company founded to solve the problems caused by mobile phones and laptops – features the same tropes and aesthetics of real companies. Is this kind of “staging” important to you?
I’ve always loved the “style” developed by tech giants. Even the website of the Center for Technological Pain was a copy of the Google Pixel smartphone, at the time. I really enjoy the language and semantic elements developed by these kinds of companies, so I wanted to appropriate them for myself. While I never set out to market the objects, I am completely fascinated by the way that GAFAs talk about their projects. Just before this interview, for example, I was looking at the page for the new iPhone, which really made me want to buy one. It’s a form of marketing that promotes a luxury to which everyone aspires, very understandably. So I thought it would be funny to use the same tropes to promote DIY objects.
Your artistic practice intentionally presents as “utilitarian”, even altruistic, as it seeks to improve people’s daily lives. What role does irony play in your approach?
Yes, I do use a lot of humour and irony in my projects. Humour allows you to step over certain barriers when addressing complex subjects. But it also enables you to create a narrative: like many artists, I want my projects to be accessible to the general public.
Could you tell us about the approach and process of NØ School, which you created with Benjamin Gaulon and the latest edition of which took place in June in Nevers?
NØ School aims to develop a thought process around art, design and technology while maintaining a critical perspective, particularly regarding the world of work or the environment. During this last edition, we really focused on the issue of environmentalism and consumerism. NØ School takes place over the course of two fairly intense weeks, during which workshops, performances and conferences are held. During this time, each participant can see a project through. Participants come to develop new skills but also to pursue projects that are already under way with the help of the other artists and researchers present. At the end of these two weeks, we put on an exhibition, making this a programme that takes both the form of a residency and a festival, or a summer camp, as we would like to define it. We have all our meals together, we share everything, which creates a real feeling of belonging to a group. This year for example, one participant created a tool to be able to talk on FaceTime with her friends without showing her own face, but instead her immediate surroundings. By putting our smartphone on our shoulder, instead of focusing the attention on the face, we can show what is around us.
What projects do you have for the coming year ?
I have just finished a residency in Austria, with a view to developing a new project, the Center for Networked Intimacy. I am interested in communication on networks and how they enable us to maintain certain social relationships from a distance. I had the idea during lockdown. During that period, the only way we could hear from our loved ones was via social media. For the workshop that I developed during my residency, I started from the sociological concept of ambient awareness, which describes the fact that we are living in a time when we are constantly informed of others’ activities, without having asked solicited this information or asked them directly for news, but via stories or Facebook posts. During this workshop, participants were invited to record an audio message for someone they thought they knew. In this message, each person could say what they thought about another person and send them a card with a message to make up for the absence or distance. They are a bit like therapy sessions that talk about our relationship with others in a very sincere way.
Dasha Ilina's Center for Technological Pain is presented in the exhibition Escape : voyage au cœur des cultures numériques.
Initiated by the Institut français, the exhibition will be presented by the French cultural network abroad (Instituts français, Alliances françaises…) and his partners from November 2021.
Members of the diplomatic network will find information on how to schedule this exhibition on this page.
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