Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos: An Artist’s NYC BigApps Story
By Bridget Quigg
What happens when a world-renowned artist turns her attention to civic hacking?
We caught up recently with Emeralda Kosmatopoulos, a conceptual artist, whose work plays with social media, virtual data and physical objects of our daily life. She says it, “investigates the definition and construction of identities, personal memories and collective histories in the digital age.” Kosmatopoulos was born in Greece, raised in Paris, has participated in art shows and done solo work around the world. She’s talented, successful, and passionate. And, last year, she entered the Big Apple’s biggest hack, the NYC BigApps competition.
You can see some of Kosmatopoulos’ art on her website. In one piece she blends technology, art, and her Greek heritage in the form of a light bulb that grows brighter when the word “hope” appears in the Twittersphere – a metaphor of the myth of Pandora.
We wanted to know what inspired her to participate in BigApps , where her idea came from, and how she felt about the experience. She worked on an app called MARK-IT, “an App-based participatory project inviting people living in New York to join a communal art-making experience.” Users would download the app and their movements would be tracked around the city, creating “prints” for them of the lines drawings their paths created along with others.
The following is an excerpt of our interview with Kosmatopoulos:
Tell us first about your history as an artist.
EK: I am a self-taught artist. I originally studied business, got an MBA, and I worked eight years in the corporate world until I gathered the courage to drop everything to follow my dream.
My work explores the social and human dimension of technology, or the virtual world. With the computers, we have learned to delegate part of our brain to the machine. Excel can do multiplication for us so we don’t need to know as much algebra, Gmail corrects our spelling mistakes so we don’t need to be as worried about grammar when we type an email. But, I feel like right now, especially with social media, we are extending our humanity and our emotions through technology. It’s a big but sometimes understated revolution, I think.
When you see people in the subway typing something on their phone like an email or a tweet, their face is very neutral. They don’t express physically the feeling they are experiencing at that moment inside. They express it on their phone through through virtual elements such as emoticons. And, that is something I am very interested in in my art, to see how our humanity is translated in the virtual world. And, vice versa, what happen when the virtual world gets physical through the Internet of Things. Siri has a voice and, when she talks to me, she enters my physical space.
I think it is very interesting to witness how these two worlds are expanding on to one another but also question this phenomenon. MARK-IT was a great example of that. You were getting people’s daily physical movements, you were getting data, and turning these two components into a final artwork that could be experienced on a screen or on a print. So, you’ve come full circle.
MARK-IT participants interact with the work and with each other at all time even if they do not see any immediate physical manifestation of these interactions. Even if they sometimes forget about their contribution to the work as they go on with their daily routine, their virtual persona is continuously but anonymously engaged in the project.Two people participating with MARK-IT crossed each other’s path in the street. They may not acknowledge each other physically but their did interact virtually. It’s a reminder that we are both at any time. That is part of what I’m exploring in my work.
Tell us about your view of data.
EK: What was very important for me was capturing the unique situation each participant was experiencing in their daily life, but doing it in a scientific way. No name, profile picture or personal information that could connect each line to their author was collected by the app, and every line was as important as the other. Rather than connecting the data to a person, I extract the humanity out of the data. By doing something anonymous on a large scale you get a big picture without putting a face on it. It is very important in my art to extract the concept out of an amount of data, out of unique and single behaviors.
Explain how you came up with idea for MARK-IT.
EK: The first inspiration came when apps started getting popular two or three years ago. I was one of those who always wanted to experience “the new thing.” Facebook would ask, “Do you allow us to use your data location?” And, I would say, “Yes.” Then, one day, I downloaded a doodling app and I got asked the same thing and I was confused. “Why does the Doodly app need to know where I am at this exact moment? Where does this information go?”
It was a wake up call. I was always pressing “yes” with no second thought, but I realized that, by doing so I was giving away part of my freedom in exchange of some kind of instant entertainment. So, this is where the project started.
I wanted to do something that would question the system by playing with its own rules. Tracking peoples everyday movements but keeping it absolutely anonymous. It invites visitors to make the conscious decision to participate in this common practice by calling attention to this heretofore-passive surrender. The idea is for them to identifying themselves as individuals while also entering into an anonymous fact-collecting system. Participants take an active role in the surrender of information and in so doing are empowered. The banal exchange of private information, in this case, provides a public service: public art. The app was free and had no commercial purpose.
It was a reminder that through technology we can create things together; create beauty just for the sake of it.
Once participants downloaded the app on their phone, their movements were continuously plotted on a virtual map of the city. The map was not visible. Instead, the various lines were drawn across a white canvas, forming an evolving, organic matrix of lines over lines. When looking at the drawing, you could identify Manhattan, Brooklyn, and all of Long Island by the density of the lines on the canvas.
As a user, the project also transformed the way I interacted with my city. It invited me to explore new neighborhoods or revisit old ones to transform the shape of “my line” in the drawing. I heard the same comment from other users, too.
What are your future plans for the app?
EK: I think it would be exciting to make the experience travel to other cities and invite the local community to draw the face of the place they share. Even in the last year, technology has grown and so many things have happened, I think that as a project it remains relevant because it looks at the core of humans lives – their movements in their shared space. Participants are making art just by living and moving in the city.
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