Hybrid Beings: Interview with Albena Baeva
Albena Baeva works at the intersection of art, technology and social science. In her interactive installations for urban spaces and galleries she uses machine learning and artificial intelligence, physical computing, creative coding and DIY practices.
Gloria Aino Grzywatz: We are talking today in the context of the exhibition And They Whispered Softly at KVOST – Kunstverein Ost. Right now, you are in your studio in Sofia. In the background you can see some oversized oil paintings. Would you like to show us around a bit?
Albena Baeva: The colours we see here are mainly green and pink. Normally I don‘t use them very often. But here they fit so well with the painting and the subject it contains. It is a portrait of something that cannot be clearly defined. An entity made up of different layers and levels of interpretation that exists in the dark depths of the water, not visible on the surface.
Gloria Aino Grzywatz: This reminds me of a documentary about oceans. Of creatures that live inaccessible to us, hidden in the ocean.
Albena Baeva: Exactly, it‘s about what‘s there but difficult for us to perceive at first sight, not really tangible, mysterious and yet existing. The work is about hybrid beings. Beings that embrace and respond to their environment and what is happening around them. A similar hybrid existence manifests itself in my sculpture created especially for the exhibition at KVOST. Formally, this represents a kind of summary of a theme on which I have been working for some time. I deal here mainly with bodies in the form of 3D models. The sculpture shows a woman‘s body, which was formed on the basis of stereotypical ideas of female bodies. At the same time, the work with its long, curved neck is reminiscent of that of a goose. This is an allusion to how women are referred to in a negative way, denying them their intelligence.
Gloria Aino Grzywatz: So, it can also be understood as criticism?
Albena Baeva: The work is a critical questioning of attributions of female identity and furthermore wants to show how boundaries can be shifted. Boundaries between what is true and what can become true. Many of the current worlds are hybrid and oscillate between physical and digital space. Some important questions that arise here for me are: How is technology produced? How do we live in this social feedback? How do we curate our content in the digital versus the analogue world? There is a lot of Fake News circulating, much of which involves higher-level manipulation. This problem is particularly evident in Bulgaria.
Gloria Aino Grzywatz: How does this influence your art?
Albena Baeva: The last few years have been a good example of how problematic the use of digital media and technologies is. For many years now, in my artistic work process, I have felt the need and the necessity to be aware of the differences of both worlds – the digital and the physical space – and to try to understand them.
Gloria Aino Grzywatz: In this context, it seems important to me to question who creates the content we consume. Who can determine what content is produced? You also studied Digital Arts after Restoration. How does this feed into your artistic practice?
Albena Baeva: The system in Bulgaria is very conservative. Very early we artists have to decide in which concrete field we want to work. We specialize in one thing and it is not desired that we move on from there. I feel this is very outdated. Especially in today‘s world. Restoration has shown me that you can reproduce most techniques. But what makes an art object interesting is its form, is its history, also in historical terms. After graduating in Restoration, I wanted to give myself a chance to work as a freelance artist and really pursue what I always wanted to do. So, I decided to study Digital Arts and since 2009 I have been working mainly in the field of digital art as well.
Gloria Aino Grzywatz: What was the situation like in Bulgaria in 2009?
Albena Baeva: At that time there was no big interest of other Bulgarian artists to work with these so-called „new“ media. I was one of the first to do it here and it was also the first master‘s program in digital art in Sofia. In the beginning, hardly anyone knew anything about digital arts. And also, my first projects were always connected to my background as a restorer. In the beginning, I recycled old things and gave them new life. That was one way I got from one thing to another. And then over the years I realized what connects my work to technology. What makes it interesting is not just the story behind it, but the technology. The way things are built, the conceptual context – the philosophy and implications of these technologies and the social aspects of using them. I want to find out what this does to the world we live in.
Gloria Aino Grzywatz: Has this interest changed in recent years?
Albena Baeva: Yes, it has definitely changed. For a few years now there has been a digital art festival in Sofia. We have some young artists who have gone abroad and come back to realize their visions here. Nowadays people travel a lot more. There are more opportunities to discover new things and the world has become much more open. The works that are presented now are different. But also, the works I‘m doing now have more to do with post-digital experiences. Especially after 2020, we all had to and still have to deal with the digital world more intensively.
Gloria Aino Grzywatz: What topics are you focusing on at the moment?
Albena Baeva: I started developing works with a feminist reference in 2015, and that is something that remains. It‘s a way to explore the world and understand social conditions and circumstances. It‘s not a subject for a single project or exhibition now, because now I‘m trying to break through all the points of view and create them out of the constructs. Another topic that currently interests me is artificial intelligence. Exploring different media and the impact of technology on the media world such as social media, fake news, etc. Since in the globalized world you also reach your audience through it, there are few options not to use it. It is important to remember that technologies are made by people and therefore always subjective. Creating opportunities to intervene, hack public spaces, make changes, and stay curious is what drives me.
Gloria Aino Grzywatz: Let‘s get back to the title of the exhibition. Why did you choose this one in particular?
Albena Baeva: The exhibition is predominantly about artificial intelligence. The title And They Whispered Softly refers to that. It is the idea or rather the question about who is the real whisperer / whisperer. Is it those who create and shape artificial intelligence? Do we determine what is to be done? Or is it possibly the other way around? Do I determine how my creatures, like those in the oil painting we talked about at the beginning, are to be formed? Or do these creatures have their own way of speaking to us, of behaving autonomously? The question is: am I the whisperer or is it the machine?