Eva Davidova makes new media works that focus on ecological disaster, our interdependence as a species, and the political implications of technology which she unpacks with performative works rooted in the absurd. She imagines the paradox that one day our descendants–human or cyborg–will be constructing our reality as a simulation, and asks: “If we are the games our children will program one day, can we influence the code they are writing?”
I really enjoyed the book you sent me, The Second Body, by Daisy Hildyard, as a way to frame our interview. What did you like about that book? Maybe we can use that as a springboard to talk about what you are doing now.
I feel very connected to the ideas in The Second Body as I have been intrigued by the notion that our bodies are not some inviolable unitary thing. Instead, as The Second Body points out, due to climate change our bodies are really in multiple places at the same time, which is to say our bodies have these multiple impacts that project us into multiple locations. That really resonated with an earlier piece that I made in 2017 called Birds Birth, where I am literally giving birth to dead birds. This was my reaction to the frustration that despite knowing we are responsible for the death of all these birds in the environment, there is no physical sensation or physical connection, and that makes us forget it very soon.
As someone who feels very strongly about the effects of our mindless activity on all these living creatures, I wanted to really feel it in my body. Obviously, it is impossible to give birth to real birds, so I created this animation where I am giving birth to dead birds. It was related to drawings I began making in 2014 or so of dead animals–rabbits–singly or in piles. From this huge amount of drawings and animations done around the same time, slowly the animals became something different, something more mythological. Maybe that grew out of all that imagining, something like what Hildyard talks about in The Second Body where we are both in a place but also feeling a dissolution. Your body is omnipresent but somehow devoid of action. Because of this contradictory feeling I felt that the mythopoetic could come into my work.
When you say the body is omnipresent, you’re talking about the Second Body?
It reminds me of that feeling of my body dissolving, that I am everywhere, but the feeling is too nebulous, so there is no possibility of action. That’s what drove me back to my here-and-now body to try to do something with it–as in the tradition of people who see the body as not only something as a place where things get expressed but as a place where things take place.
How does this idea figure into your current work, which has a lot of different bodies in it. Are these expressions of your here-and-now body, or of your Second Body?
One of the things that I believe is that my work gains layers through complexity. What I mean is that I try to be specific in the flesh, so to speak, but not in the meaning. This allows me to layer meanings. If they are contradictory, it creates a tension I am interested in. For example, I started to work with mythological figures that began to act on their own initiative.
First it was the Hamelin piper that herded these animals that you’ve encountered before, the creatures that look like a combination of cows, women, and horses–prey animals as you called them. Then came Cassandra, the seer who had the power to perceive but was cursed because no one believed her. Then, Medusa, which was for me multi-tentacled propaganda who is turning her head around and glaring at her own gaze–all the things we fear in nature, animals, the wild woman, or whatever. She exemplifies all the bad decisions, all the wrong turns we have made that have brought about the environmental collapse. She embodies our own rationality that has become monstrous.
Finally there’s Saturn devouring his children which is us, obviously, devouring our descendants by the ways that we are living and exploiting the environment. This incursion of 3-D animals with agency that they usually don’t have into mythological territory and then criss-crossing back to perverse science like Dr. Moreau–it makes a bridge to information architecture and the more speculative thinking about what AI can become.
I like to talk about this paradox: If we are the games our children, humans or cyborgs, will program one day, can we influence the code they are writing? Are we actively influencing this code our descendants are writing about us, and can we pull in another reality. Or, is this reality becoming contaminated with another reality?
So what you are saying is our descendants could be creating a simulation that involves us?
Yes, that’s a theory that’s out there. It’s not mine. It’s a paradox within contemporary physics that’s actually possible. But, if we imagine it is true, can we influence the simulation, the code that is simulating us? That goes to my preoccupation with interdependence–our descendants are creating us, but we are in a position to change the simulation–and agency, the power to change the simulation, can be enhanced by that interdependence.
Is that what got you into virtual reality? Why that platform?
There are two principal reasons. One is personal, which is that I always wanted to pierce realities. Even when I was painting, I was always wanting to create polyphonic realities, and VR of course was the most obvious candidate for this almost physical intention. The other is political, which was strong enough to make me overcome the logistical problems and the lack of training. The political reason is that this is a contemporary language, and compared to TV with its advertising which is so manipulative to our behaviors, emotions, etc, the capacity for VR to manipulate is 100 times bigger.
Think about the perception of our bodies, proprioception, and how easily this can be trained, and retrained with virtual reality. As an artist who sees the climate crisis not as something casual or accidental but woven into society, it becomes very important to me to manipulate back with VR, to counter the advertising and commercial VR aimed at us. For me, creating a playground where people and animals can interact in a non-hierarchical way is interesting. Putting people into these spaces where nothing is real but it feels visceral gives the feeling that things are not set, that they don’t have to be the way they are. So it’s subconsciously creating the idea that things can be different. I can interact with things that I didn’t think I could interact with, and so on.
If we’re buying Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message, the medium of VR with its profound ability to manipulate may counterbalance the influences of our constant media diet. Is that what you mean?
So there is something there but I don’t buy McLuhan’s idea completely. There are a hundred ways to use VR, but my intention is to create a playground where people can inhabit with other beings, with people from the past, with performers and the other members of the audience in order to discover things rather than being fed things. And, also a sense of agency, where you feel that the others around you have a sense of agency as well. So you are not communicating back and forth but you are in this dance of agency. I am not saying “Think this!” or “Do that!” or “Buy this!” or “Vote that!” The difference is that it is not manipulation but offering the subconscious something to play with that expands the dreaming ground, or the possibility ground.
If I am following you correctly, you are offering a dream space, but it is a waking dream space that participants can direct in a way that they couldn’t if they were dreaming in their sleep. Is that close?
Something like that. I never thought about it that way but I like what you are saying. I hear too often “That’s just the way things are.” or “That’s the way it is.” Who decides that? The biggest problem with the media is that they say “Oh, people like cheap soap operas?” but that’s not true. Who says people like cheap soap operas? There is obviously an averaging toward the things that allow big companies to control us. I am against averaging. For example, one of my requirements when I work with a developer, because the technical is conceptual, is that they not use averaging. Machine learning, polling, advertising research, they all use averaging as a means to control and manipulate populations, making everything homogenous. Whereas there is nothing homogenous in what we think, or what we are.
My fight against the homogenization of identities includes technical logistical requirements that developers not average out signals from the sensors of one person with the signals from the sensors of other people. Instead I ask for a balancing out, the dance of agency that I was talking about. If you use that method, it creates a much more vibrant reactivity of the piece. Instead of, say, averaging out one arm pushing up from one participant and an arm from another participant pushing down, to cancel the two out, we keep both signals and take turns, using one signal, then the other, but never impose an artificial homogeneity.
So each participant is granted their own agency through giving equal time to everyone’s actions, as opposed to averaging which subsumes the actions of the participants into some fictional mean?
Exactly. For me that’s important, because I see so much of the opposite happening around us, using statistics almost as a form of oppression: OK, this is the norm and if you don’t conform to it you get excluded. I am trying in my work to do the opposite.
Statistics are used by so many companies, governmental agencies, and so on to control populations to come up with an average. The average is used to predict what populations will do, and then incentives are put in place to make those predictions come true.
So you’re doing the opposite of averaging, amplifying the individual’s actions. In these spaces that you create, is this a way for each participant to have agency, and even come into conflict with other participants, in a safe way because it’s virtual?
I never thought of conflict, necessarily, but if you consider that every micro movement has a counter movement, maybe there is some. So for example my piece Garden of Drowning Descendant, 2022, that premiered at Harvestworks on Governors Island this past August, there are four scenes that play on a loop. In all of them there are different interactions, but every scene very slowly drowns, and once you drown completely you drop into the next scene.
People can resist the drowning for a very long time. If they want, they can swim above the water and interact with the animals, push the drill bits to the side, and whatnot, but in the end, there is a drowning. So maybe there is conflict there. At first I give them the impression that they can fly above the water or swim forever, but in the end, since I am not a completely optimistic person, all the scenes end in drowning. Each scene is a very distinct scenario of our Descendants.
The drowning is a reference to how New York harbor will all be underwater at some point?
It’s the whole world. In the last scene there is this cyborg child with a dying sheep in her arms in a desert that floods, a reference to how we are experiencing an increase in desertification and flooding. If things continue as they are, most coastal cities will be underwater pretty soon. In Garden Garden, one of the sequences, a girl learns to fly while another lives in a plastic and electronic junkyard underwater. It is also possible that there is some kind of adaptation process.
Could you tell me about the four scenes?
The entire piece is twelve minutes, divided into the four scenes. It’s mixed reality because you can experience it on a VR headset and outside VR on a big projection screen. Everybody can interact inside VR and outside VR, and influence each other. The people outside of VR can influence the people in VR, which hasn’t been done all that much in the VR world. So the last scene is Shepherd Dream, with a shepherd child showing us all the dead sheep, telling us “I killed them so you would look.” In saying so she makes us complicit in the ecological horror of all the slaughtered sheep.
Then there is Surveillance Dream, where even the jellyfish are bioengineered to carry out surveillance. The audience generates security cameras, and there are crocodile avatars to interact with. Crocodiles have been around for a long time, and could outlast us. In Flying and Drowning Dream, a performer spins around in air and water. Participants can dive below the water, or can try to stand above the rising water on their tiptoes. Nature has been extracted to the end and all the indigenous people are dead. There is only one survivor there, dancing for some kind of life. Dance was originally a celebration, an invocation, a petition, an invitation, courtship.
In all of these scenes, anyone can control the actions but the point is to create a playground where we may navigate each others’ intentions. I am making a space where the participants can manage their interdependence in a way that does not do violence to others or to themselves. By creating this interactive dream space through VR, we feel that interdependence viscerally which has the ability to rewire the brain so we don’t have to accept things as they are, and maybe re-write the code to this simulation.
About the writer: Hovey Brock is a writer, art critic, and painter who divides his time between Claryville, NY and Brooklyn, NY. His Crazy River series has been in the works since 2017. HOT AIR is made in collaboration with Hovey Brock, who has frequently written articles on climate/art for Art Spiel.