Q&A: ADA’s Maker Karina Smigla-Bobinski

Karina Smigla-Bobinski shares her thoughts on computing, the bridge between art and science, and nano-music.

German-Polish artist Karina Smigla-Bobinski began making installations after an intensive education in classical painting. One of her most renowned works is ADA, an interactive drawing-machine built out of helium, silicone and charcoal, currently on view at OMM.

ADA has been exhibited around the world since its premiere at São Paolo in 2011, and is the intersection of many of the artist’s fascinations from world’s first coder, Ada Lovelace and nanotechnology to society’s relation to digital media.

ADA is on view at OMM until April 12, 2020.

Even with prehistoric handprints in caves, there was already this willingness to leave a mark: I was here. And the people who play with ADA, they are also interested in leaving marks on the wall.

Your work is named after Ada Lovelace, the computer programmer. Was that relationship something you were thinking about from the conception of the work or is it something that emerged organically?

KSB: I got a very good classic education in Krakow, Poland, so I can paint like the old masters. I wanted to try something new, and I saw even today, in Germany and in the art community all over the world, many people don’t like digital work. I was curious. I thought if people don’t like it, I’ll try it. Like putting sand in a machine.

I started to work with the digital but I wanted to know what I was using, I wanted to research. I started to dig deeper and one day I found Ada Lovelace. I was so amazed with her life, how unbelievably creative she was and how she merged poetry and mathematics.

At school, I was very good at mathematics and physics, and I’m also an artist. It was like finding my life story in somebody else’s. Putting mathematics and art together became a natural way of mixing two worlds. Ada Lovelace saw the machine of Charles Babbage, the analytical engineer, and she was the first person who could imagine the potential inside of it. Also, when she was young, she was very interested in finding a mathematical formula for how our brain produces thoughts, and how our nerves produce feelings. She wanted to express something really ephemeral with numbers, with mathematical structures. This was the first time I understood what computers are. I was really amazed.

In 2009, there was this time when we were really aware about the digital, about computing, and in Germany people were really afraid of this and how it can change our lives in a bad direction. I thought of course, we have lots of problems in the world because of the Internet, but at the same time it’s a very democratic and powerful medium for people. I can connect with interesting people all over the world without having a gallery. I only have the public, and the connection between me and the public is the Internet. I thought I would love to reanimate this wonderful idea that Ada Lovelace gave me. So, I decided to make a drawing machine. Drawing is a black line or nothing; it’s zero or one.

Like the binary system.

Exactly. Computing is all about zero and one. I also wanted to push us artists away from the pedestal, and to make art with a contemporary technique. The best contemporary technique is the open-source method. Like Wikipedia. I wanted to take this technique and make an interactive work where you really cannot say the balloon is the artwork, or the drawings are the artwork. The work doesn’t exist without the visitors. I like that you cannot buy it and put it somewhere in storage, in a dark room.

During an interview for Porta Polonica, you said “A work of art no longer belongs to you once you release it, then it’s a part of the world.”

It’s really like that. One day you have to release it and give it to the world. Because the world also gives this to you. It’s like osmosis in biology. I work that way.

Your work is created in the moment, in the space and nobody can take it home. It’s kind of erasing the concept of ownership, which is something that the Internet does as well. It’s a similar mechanism.

Yes, and I think I do this because I really don’t like to keep art exclusive. Art belongs to everybody. This is something that I really fight for. There are so many wonderful people out there, and I really love to enjoy that, to give the power to them.

The best contemporary technique is the open-source method. Like Wikipedia. I wanted to take this technique and make an interactive work.

Could you tell us a bit more about the technical aspects of ADA?

I thought the work should have contemporary techniques, not the old traditional stuff. The technique of today is nanotechnology. I thought, oh my god, now I have to research that… But I like that my art pushes me to places I never imagined I would be. I also like to work with scientists.

Nanotechnology works with three central materials: silicone, carbon, and helium—the same materials used in ADA. The idea behind nanorobots is to create a mixture between biology and technology. And ADA looks like a nanorobot. So, I took something very small and blew it into a monster. [laughs]

Something different emerges from ADA every time it’s installed, like a continuous surprise. Was there a moment when you were especially surprised by ADA?

When I thought about making this artwork, I told my husband and a colleague of mine who has a Helium balloon company about it. I told these two guys, I have an idea to make a balloon with charcoal on it, and it can draw on the walls… Both of them told me to forget it. I said no, I’m sure it will work. They said Karina, it’s impossible. I was still a pain in the ass, talking about it every day. The guy from the company was so pissed off, he told me, OK, come on, I have to show you that it won’t work. We took an old balloon, put the charcoal on it, and both of them said, now look! We put the balloon in the space and it started to make drawings on the wall. So, this was a great story from the beginning. I also like this because Ada Lovelace is a woman, and I’m a woman, and all the guys said no, but it works.

That’s a great symmetry.

I was really wondering if people would interact, because we are so educated to not touch the artwork. And I want people to touch it and get really crazy. What I also like in this work is that people don’t need to be very educated in art to be interested. That’s very important for me. The first level of my work, the surface of my work, is that everybody feels invited and okay to join. This is interesting for kids as well as NASA scientists. I also saw that the body taught people how to use it. Because it’s such a new experience, you cannot recall your knowledge from before as to how to deal with it. So, the body tells the people how it works.

Yes, it’s very instinctive.

This is something humankind has had from the beginning. Even with prehistoric handprints in caves, there was already this willingness to leave a mark: I was here. And the people who play with ADA, they are also interested in leaving marks on the wall. So this is the next beautiful thing. I released the work and I left it to the world. I really think that ADA shows the directions in which art can move today to have a meaningful future, and techniques which really fit our society.

It’s also an optimistic scientific approach to our relationship with technology as opposed to one where we have no agency as humans.

Many artists work on this, and it’s wonderful, because we can exchange and develop new works and ideas. In Vancouver, many years ago, one dancer visited ADA, and she was so amazed with the work and the movement of ADA, that she just started to dance with her. This was like an initiation for all the dancers in the world. And I ask them, why is ADA so interesting for you? And they say ADA is the perfect dance partner. I asked them how, and they said that ADA is always on pointe thanks to her charcoal spikes – like a ballerina. From this moment on, so many dancers wanted to dance with ADA. I really look forward to how each dancer develops new relation with her.

Last year there was a new development by the visitors. In Rio de Janeiro I met one of the best Turkish artists, Memo Akten. He saw ADA, and told me that he loved her sounds. A few years later, a musician visited my exhibition, and he was so amazed with the sound. He asked me if he could record it and make something out of it. A few months later he sent me the music. He deconstructed my construction, in a musical way, and built something new out of it – like nano-music. I really love that this work is still in a creative development and process. It’s not a work that you exhibit in the same way a hundred times. Every time it’s new, and every time you access a new level.

Often people refer to ADA as “she”, as a being, as her own entity. Why do you think that is?

There are two reasons why people speak of her as “she” and as a living being. The first is the size of it, and this was my concept. Because this is all about art and perception: When an artwork is smaller than you, the smaller it is, the more it becomes a part of your world. This is a visitor in your world, and you are omnipotent, you are the god who decides what you do with it. You have the power. When an artwork is bigger than you, you become the visitor in its world. And this work becomes omnipotent. When an artwork is around the same size as your body, then it starts to become a counterpart, like a partner. So ADA becomes like a partner you have to deal with.

In São Paulo, during the premiere of this work, so many people came to the gallery and asked, where is the ball with the charcoal on it? After interacting with ADA, they came out and spoke about ‘her’. I thought maybe it’s because Brazilians don’t speak English, perhaps this is only a grammar mistake. But right afterwards I was invited to Liverpool, and the same thing happened. Before interacting, they spoke about ‘it’, and after, they spoke about ‘her’. It happens every time that they take ADA as a living thing. Now I also say ‘she’ all the time, instead of ‘it’. You feel like she has a soul.

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