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

Karina Smigla-Bobinski shares her thoughts on computing, the bridge between art and science, and 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 world 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 sign: "I was here". And the people who play with ADA seem to be driven by the same desire as the first humans: the desire to leave a sign as a proof of their own existence.

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

KSB: It’s something that emerged organically long before I created ADA. You know, I got a classic education in Krakow, Poland and a modern one in Munich, Germany. So I can paint and draw like the old masters but also I am at home in performances and installations. During my studies, I discovered that the art community in Germany considered the digital medium as substandard, or something to be avoided. I became curious. I like to throw sand into the well-oiled art machinery.

So, I started working with the digital, but I wanted to know what exactly I was dealing with. I wanted to explore this medium. What was the very first idea, why did we develop the computer? That's how I came across Ada Lovelace. I was excited about how incredibly creative she was in combining poetry with mathematics.

At school, I was very good at mathematics and physics but I ended up an artist. Finding Ada was like finding a soulmate. Putting mathematics and art together became for her a natural way of mixing two worlds. Ada Lovelace saw the machine, the analytical engine by Charles Babbage and was able to foresee and imagine the crazy potential of it. Already in her youth, she was interested in finding a math formula on how our brain produces thoughts, and how our nerves produce feelings. She wanted to express something undefined with numbers, to grasp something ephemeral through mathematical structures.

I remember that around 2009 there was a big discussion about digitalization in Germany. People were very afraid, for example, that it could steer life in a negative direction. The first chair that officially dealt with the concept of digitalization was only established at the University of Potsdam in 2015. Crazy, isn't it?

Of course, we have a lot of problems in the world that arise from digital technology, it is also a very democratic and powerful medium. I can connect with interesting people all over the world, or get my art out to people without a gallery. That's what I love about it.

I decided to build a drawing "art machine", to reanimate this wonderful idea that Ada Lovelace gave to us. Why drawing? Simply because a black line on a white wall is all about information and non-information... like zero or one.

Like the binary system.


I also wanted to knock us artists off the pedestal by using another contemporary system of Open Source. In the case of ADA, you can't say my balloon is the artwork, or the visitors' drawings are; it's both, at the same time. One cannot exist without the other.

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. And the world gives something to you in return. It’s like osmosis in biology.

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. The idea that art belongs to everybody is something I really fight for. There are so many wonderful people out there, and I love to share my art with them.

However, ownership should not be confused with authorship, which stays untouched.

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

I believed that this "art making machine“ should be based on the technology of today, which is nanotechnology. My first thought was, "Oh my God, now I have to jump down this rabbit hole!". But I like that my art takes me to places I never thought I would be.

However, nanotechnology works with three key materials: silicone, carbon, and helium—the materials used in ADA. The idea behind nano robots is often to create a hybrid between biology and technology. ADA looks like a nano-hybrid. So, I took something very small, and blew it into the scale of a giant creature. [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?

ADA started with a surprise. When I thought about creating this artwork, the guy from the balloon company I contacted didn't even want to try. He told me to just forget it, that it's impossible. But I didn't give up and kept talking about it. One day he realized that the only way he could get rid of me was to show that it wouldn't work. We took a balloon, put some charcoal on it and he said "Now, look!" The balloon bounced off the walls, made a few strokes and finally landed safely on the floor. You should have seen his face! [laughs]

Later on, I wondered if people would even interact in the ways I had imagined. We are all trained to not touch artworks. But I wanted the opposite; I wanted people to touch, to push, to jump and dance, or even to lose their self-control. However, the reality turned out to be even more astonishing. The visitors don't need any artistic background to get involved with the ADA experience, and to become my collaborators. So, their imagination and their physical presence lead them in their encounter. I witnessed that everyone felt invited, from children to NASA scientists.

Yes, it’s very instinctive.

Yes, it is. ADA also seems to respond to another human instinct.

The participants seem to be driven by the same desire as the first human beings: the desire to leave a sign, as a proof of one's own existence. A long time ago people left their marks in the form of negative hand prints on cave walls (e.g. La Castillo in Spain or Lascaux in France). Similarly in ADA, people leave their marks in the form of lines on the walls, by touching and pushing the spiky balloon, or by clapping their hands and feet on the scribbled walls. This remind me so much of the negative handprints from the Stone Age. These are coded memories of their bodily movements. If you scrutinize the drawing, you can decode each line or stamp to comprehend which gesture caused it. You can even go further and draw conclusions on the person's temperament, or sometimes their intention.

That's what I've learned about ADA over time. I created this work and applied into the world and this is what people make out of it. I think ADA demonstrates how art can move forward and have a meaningful future, through techniques that respond to and 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 are working on this, and that's wonderful because we can exchange and develop better ideas. However, everybody can influence or even change the direction of things that are supposedly already set. ADA shows this very clearly.

In Vancouver, for example, a ballet dancer discovered ADA's dancing skills and simply started a pas de deux with her. After that, more and more dancers felt encouraged to develop their own versions, like Li Kehua here at the opening performance. It was not me who developed the dance performance with ADA, but a participant, a dancer. Turkish-British artist Memo Akten drew my attention to the acoustic qualities of ADA. Later on a musician, who visited the exhibition in Munich, made a musical piece out of the sounds of ADA. This was also the music Li Kehua used in her performance.

How amazing is that! I am looking forward to seeing where the imagination of the collaborators will take us next.

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 ADA as “she” as a living being. At first is the size of it. This is all about art and perception. Size and scale dictate our perception, and how we deal with an artwork. The relation between our bodies and the artwork is crucial. If the artwork is smaller than us, then it is subject to us, and can be accepted or rejected. If an artwork matches our size, then it mutates into a counterpart that we have to deal with. But if the artwork is much bigger than us, it becomes omnipotent - and here we can choose to engage or emigrate.

In case of ADA, the participant perceive it as an equal counterpart, a partner. No matter how much the visitor tries to control ADA, to drive her, to domesticate her, they realize very soon that she is an independent performer. ADA is constructed not to follow you; it can be gentle, not impressed at all… or even rude. Once you set the balloon into motion, it is pretty unpredictable, so you have to deal with it as an emancipated partner. Even though it's obvious that this is a PVC balloon with willow charcoals on it, many people speak about “her” not “it”… even me.

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