Center for Networked Intimacy
In the waiting room, a few people are already seated. Outdated prevention posters cover the walls, magazines are thrown on a coffee table, the general atmosphere seems heavy. You wonder if your neighbours are there for more serious reasons than yours. Finally your turn comes; Artist Dasha Ilina is the one receiving you today. Welcome to the Center of Networked Intimacy.
This psychologist’s office-like centre is a project that aims to help all those whose relationships are affected by technology, and more specifically, by social networks. To what extent do they affect our relationships? Dasha tries to understand this and shares her insights with us, through the story of the first workshop conducted as part of this project.
To understand the nature of the Center of Networked Intimacy, we have to go back in time. During her studies, Dasha often heard her colleagues complain about physical ailments caused by always facing a screen. She came up with a series of parodic DIY devices to help them; preventive tools, assembly instructions, or Yoga to relax while keeping up with the news.
The Center of Technological Pain was born, a fictitious company that offers DIY solutions to technology-related problems. In constant search of new solutions, she organises events, participative workshops and exhibits her results to the general public.
The model on which Dasha’s new center is being built is still in its early stages; after the success of her first project, she sees herself creating several more centers in the future dedicated to different human problems arising from technological tools.
The idea for the latter came from a videoconference presented as part of Art Meets Radical Openness, a festival based in Linz to which she applied. Organised by the association servus.at, it is held in two stages: the first year is dedicated to artistic residencies, which determine the theme of the following year’s festival. Dasha is invited to join the residency, in order to launch a workshop.
After researching the topic of social networking, she came across an intriguing expression: “ambient awareness”. This is a sociological term that describes our relationship with those around us on the networks, and particularly the fact that we know about their lives without ever asking about them. And this is the case for most of our relationships today; looking at posts or a story, we feel like we know the daily lives of people we no longer have contact with. Before this phenomenon, the process was conscious; we had to make the effort to think about our friend and contact them to check in.
So to complete the circle, Dasha goes to Austria for a few weeks. Luckily, her residency takes place in August 2021, a period marked by the end of health restrictions. She starts by gathering a few participants and presents them with the results of her research in a small conference; in addition to the ambient awareness, the lockdown during the covid crisis has strengthened our need for IT tools.
Remote working, video chats and festivities, and online events have become part of our daily lives, allowing us to remain active and offering us an alternative to loneliness. The aim of the following workshop is to assess our relationship with our social network environment.
photo credit : Giacomo Piazzi
Dasha asks the participants to think of one person with whom they have this ambient relationship, and to question their feelings towards that person. The priority is to choose someone they know personally. The workshop quickly turns into a therapy session; one of the participants feels guilty for not having acted when she knew that an old friend of hers was in trouble, another knows all the personal details of an artist she met on the networks thanks to the information on her profile… In short, despite the difficulty and intensity of the exercise, everyone identifies a person on whom to focus.
This is followed by the making of a card, like a Valentine’s Day card, addressed to that person; it is equipped with an audio device that allows a message to be recorded and played back. After careful consideration, the participants have to communicate their perception of their relationship to this person in a clear and open way.
The workshop is documented in a final exhibition open to the public. Dasha suggests that the participants leave the contact details of the recipients of the cards and send them after the residency. But for most of the participants, the message is so personal that they do not dare to go any further…
In our virtual lives, we feel we know the people around us. But these people only reflect the image they choose to convey on social networks, so when it comes to crossing the barriers of reality, it is difficult for us to make the relationship real, and to admit to these people that they are part of our lives.
photo credit : Giacomo Piazzi
And Dasha has clearly identified this paradox. She is already thinking about the different ways to develop her next workshops. We will meet her again in March 2022 at Stereolux in Nantes for a new workshop, which will allow her to continue her research.
Through this first experience, Dasha Ilina took on the role of a psychologist without expecting it, making the Center of Networked Intimacy more than just an art project; it is an emotional outlet at the intersection of art, technology, and humanities.
We sometimes hear about those people with exceptional backgrounds who have been doing the same thing forever. High-level athletes, star dancers, or models, these are the kinds of jobs that require accomplishment from an early age. Dasha Ilina is one of these people, and fortunately, she thrives in her practice, the artistic field being sufficiently broad and varied to allow for renewal.
Her story begins a generation earlier when her mother dreams of becoming an architect. Her parents, from rural Siberia, do not support her choice, and she lacks the means and resources to finish her studies. Throughout her life, she tries to get closer to the profession by working at various jobs. Dasha’s arrival is a godsend; she sees a chance to instil her passions and pushes her to embrace an artistic career.
With no say in the matter, little Dasha starts piano, architecture, dance and other classes, and feels frustrated that she cannot go out and play with her friends. “You’ll see when you grow up, it’s for your own good” – who hasn’t heard this phrase from their parents? Dasha is only six years old when she joins a school specialising in architecture in Moscow; from simple drawings to start with, to creating a structure for graduation at 14.
The following year, she flies to the United States where she attends three years of high school, again specialising in the arts, this time painting. During this period, she enrols in a summer architecture course at a New York university; Dasha imagines herself going out, meeting people, but spends the entire programme keeping herself awake more than four hours a night to finish her work. “If you think it’s hard, don’t enrol in the architecture programme, it’s only the beginning”. That’s what one of the students, also an assistant to the professor, suggests to her… This experience leaves its mark on her.
Dasha now applies to architecture universities, but she already knows that she doesn’t want to push it any further. She is also interested in graphic arts, but it is the Parsons School in Paris that appeals to her. Originally based in New York, the school is renowned for its fashion courses, the famous artists and designers who have passed through it, and the filming of the show “Project Runway”.
Dasha is accepted into the Paris branch, for the “Strategic Design and Management” programme, which focuses on brand collaboration and the organisation of cultural projects. She starts studying there in 2014.
In reality, she doesn’t want to embark on this particular career. At the time, she is mainly looking to leave the US, and Paris seems to be a good option. After a year, she drops out of the program and joins “Art, Media and Technology” at the same school; her teachers are recognized practitioners, such as Nicolas Maigret from DISNOVATION.ORG and Félicie D’Estienne d’Orves. They accompany her throughout the course, and introduce her to critical thinking, particularly on the issues of technology. Moreover, the director of her programme is none other than Benjamin Gaulon, with whom she will collaborate on several projects later on.
It is in this context that Dasha starts the “Center of Technological Pain” which is the subject of her thesis during her last year of study. Starting out as a simple joke, she has no idea yet that she will devote three years of her life to it, nor that this project will make her popular in the digital arts world. It is meant to be critical of our behaviour towards technological tools, while keeping a parodic and absurd character.
Although she continues to exhibit it regularly, a new idea emerges during the period of lockdown while attending the Art Meets Radical Openness festival: the Center of Networked Intimacy. The association servus.at invites her for the residency that leads to the workshop we know today.
photo credit : MU Artspace
But before going to Linz, she makes a detour to the Alps for a mini summer residency in the middle of nature with a dozen artists. Her research on ambient awareness catches the interest of two of them. Together, they conceive “Say yes to grave”, a Public Service Announcement (PSA) style video; popular in the USA, the PSA is a short message broadcast to warn and modify the behaviour of the general public with regard to a sensitive subject, such as tobacco consumption. Here, they address the issue of protecting our personal data after death and our relationship to profiles in this particular context.
“Say yes to grave”, Dasha Ilina, Erica Jewell and Lina Schwarzenberg, 2021
You’ve guessed it; Dasha, brilliant, is flourishing in this field.
Since 2018, she has been multiplying her interventions, exhibitions, conferences, workshops, residencies, and making the news. She show her work in major European institutions, from the Watermans Centre of Art to Ars Electronica, or even the Centre Pompidou.
At the same time, she co-founds the NØ organisation with Benjamin Gaulon, which promotes artistic and critical research on the impact of technology on our lives and our environment. Together, they also create the NØ SCHOOL NEVERS, a hybrid project between a residence, a research and experimentation laboratory, and a place of conviviality.
The human approach is essential in the conception of these projects, it allows her to get an idea of the general feeling about a given subject, but also to deepen this subject with a small audience. For Dasha, this aspect is more important than the exhibitions of her work. So, not surprisingly, we find her workshops and NØ’s projects in the calendars of Stéréolux and the Gaîté Lyrique for the coming year.
Dasha Ilina has succeeded and continues to thrive as an artist and activist. She teaches us that with a critical eye, details that may seem trivial to us, can take on an unexpected magnitude and become the driving force of our commitments.
As for her mother, she never stopped listening to her heart; she ended up working in landscape design, but she decided to focus on culinary delights which she promotes as an influencer.
“I wanted to create an interesting scifi universe that didn’t violate the laws of physics” says Neal Stephenson in an interview about his novel Seveneves. Known for his post-cyberpunk science fiction based on IT, he is credited with inventing the word ‘metaverse’. Although the concept is still unclear to many, the metaverse has become a hot topic, especially with Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the future of the internet. So what is it?
For the moment, it can be summarised as a digital space in which we humans are supposed to evolve, work and socialise through our avatars. Thanks to virtual reality headsets and the use of augmented reality, we will soon be able to send our children to school, have team meetings, travel, or go shopping in this immersive world, all from the comfort of our homes.
The announcement of this vision of our future is clearly not to everyone’s liking. According to Dasha Ilina, there is a generational gap; Facebook has gone out of fashion, especially among younger people, who would be the target of this new concept.
But here’s something to reassure meta-business leaders: while the Covid crisis is in full swing in 2020, our use of digital tools is exacerbated, making social networks the must-have tool. The numbers are clear: the amount of users has exploded during this period, creating if not accentuating the need to keep in touch with those around them. The reason for this phenomenon is quite simple: we have unlimited and free access.
Naturally, Dasha also looks at this issue, with the difference that with her artist’s eye she seeks to understand our behaviour.
As we saw earlier, with the Center of Networked Intimacy, Dasha wants to decrypt human relationships via networks, and focuses on the notion of “ambient awareness”. She also raises the question of what happens to our personal data after we disappear in Say yes to grave. This is another theme that is regularly in the news, and may seem abstract; we know we need to protect them, but we don’t know all the ins and outs of their use by third parties.
In reality, Dasha touches on a multitude of ethical issues related to technology, whose frequent changes are like a tsunami in the face of legislation that does not seem to keep pace.
She is one of those who openly oppose the globalisation of certain digital practices. She began to take an interest in these issues when she joined the Art, Media and Technology course at the Parsons School in Paris. Accompanied by personalities from the world of digital arts, she learned to adopt a critical mindset on the various uses of these tools.
Her work is dedicated to the general public; what interests her is to highlight the changes in our society, but above all to make us aware of our habits, sometimes harmful, and of their emotional or physical consequences.
With wit and humour, Dasha Ilina warns us of the possible shortcomings of our digital lives; like a safeguard, she invites us to understand ourselves in this universe, while keeping our feet on the ground.