DE­SIGN MONIKA BIEL­SKYTE

Patho­log­i­cally cu­ri­ous

Neue Luxury - - News - By Hung Tran

En­coun­ters with chtho­nian spir­its—who leave their subter­ranean dwellings only when the beasts wake them— are rare. Talk­ing to Monika Biel­skyte, the Lithua­nian-born cre­ative di­rec­tor, con­sul­tant, strate­gist and self-pro­claimed “techno no­mad”, is like con­vers­ing with a good friend you might have only known from a prior life. You feel in good hands with her. When we spoke, she had just re­turned to Los An­ge­les from Cape Canaveral, Florida, where she wit­nessed the Spacex rocket launch. She shared the view on In­sta­gram: a grisly orb of light that as­cends into black sky, as if guided by a string tied to poles of fire and grav­ity. “The rocket footage is noth­ing like what you can see in re­al­ity be­cause we don’t have the ad­e­quate cap­tur­ing tech­nol­ogy,” she re­grets. “It’s a big his­tor­i­cal mo­ment be­cause it’s the first time they’ve ver­ti­cally landed a rocket.” In one of her clips, two in­can­des­cent specks ap­pear to hover in deep space be­fore clos­ing in on the dis­tance be­tween them. The rocket, del­i­cate and yel­low as a fire­fly, con­sorts daffily with the moon. “It’s the first rocket I’ve seen take off,” she says. “The last time they at­tempted such a feat it ex­ploded.”

Biel­skyte was born in Ši­au­liai, North­ern Lithua­nia, in 1986. The city never buoyed its own cul­tural scene af­ter the two world wars— the first of which dec­i­mated over 80 per cent of its build­ings— but is fa­mous, in­stead, as a stop along the way to the nearby Hill of Crosses: a spec­tral mass of cru­ci­fixes that, in 1993, Pope John Paul II un­of­fi­cially de­clared to be a holy site. “I don’t come from some kind of priv­i­leged back­ground, nor do I come from one of those me­trop­o­lises like New York or Paris, where you can grow up with cul­ture,” she pines. “My fam­ily, although reg­u­lar peo­ple, were in­tel­lec­tu­als. How­ever, the en­vi­ron­ment I grew up in wasn’t par­tic­u­larly di­verse.” Chil­dren in al­le­gor­i­cal cul­tural slums even­tu­ally find their own ways to lift- off and imag­ine al­ter­nate worlds. At 10, Biel­skyte be­gan to draw and paint and sculpt. The char­ac­ters in books be­come her friends and con­fi­dantes. She de­vel­oped her own films and pro­duced prints in a mini lab in her bath­room. In 2006, at the mere 20 years of age, Biel­skyte pub­lished Times Im­memo­rial to show­case a col­lec­tion of pho­to­graphs taken in Nepal, In­dia and Bhutan. In 2008 she ex­hib­ited a se­lec­tion of her pho­tog­ra­phy at FOAM Pho­tog­ra­phy Mu­seum in a show ti­tled A Place

to Wash the Heart.

Be­fore Biel­skyte be­gan chas­ing as­tral lights, she danced with ter­res­trial ones. She first launched a mag­a­zine called Some/things. “When I started I re­ally had no clue about press,” Biel­skyte ad­mits. “The mag­a­zine was born of a de­sire to col­lab­o­rate. I wanted a mag­a­zine that re­sem­bled a book, with in­ter­views that read like dia­logue from a great novel, and im­agery that evoked the cine­matog­ra­phy of film.” Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher Roger Ballen and Chi­nese-amer­i­can artist Zhang Huan were early fans of the mag­a­zine. How­ever, it was Rick Owens and Michele Lamy—part­ners in work and life—who con­spired with Biel­skyte to make the darkly per­fumed im­agery she si­phoned into the mag­a­zine.

“There are few de­sign creatives who reach the same level as Rick,” Biel­skyte re­marks, in strands of speech that slither into awe. “He and Michele build worlds and fill them with char­ac­ters. It’s beau­ti­ful and grotesque be­cause peo­ple try to im­i­tate him, in at­tempt to be­long.” Owens and Lamy fea­ture in five con­sec­u­tive is­sues of Some/things. The tor­rent of snap­shots move from the pairs Paris ate­lier to their Palais Bour­bon home. Other scenes are in­ti­mate de­pic­tions of Owens’ al­abaster and ply­wood fur­ni­ture: proud, phal­lic wooden mem­branes atop short, wor­ried legs. When Biel­skyte dis­cov­ered that Lamy used to sing “be­fore she was so pub­licly pro­lific”, she up­hol­stered Lamy in front of a cam­era, turned up the mu­sic, and started shoot­ing. In a 2010 se­ries of pho­to­graphs of Rick Owens, Biel­skyte de­picted the de­signer in three solemn phases. He looks like the moon through the wrong end of a te­le­scope: joy­ous and re­mote, swamped in brit­tle shadow.

Biel­skyte’s prac­tice slowly skated from fash­ion to pro­to­typ­ing fu­tures, un­du­lat­ing be­tween ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign. In 2012, she col­lab­o­rated with famed ar­chi­tect Claude Par­ent on Imag­i­nary City. “I called him my spir­i­tual grandpa,” she muses. “He was truly one of the youngest peo­ple I knew. He was so open and his eyes lit­er­ally shone with cu­rios­ity and won­der.” To­gether, they cre­ated a scale city that at the right squint, re­sem­bled Bru­tal­ist hon­ey­combs. In­deed, Par­ent’s future cities con­cept was the source of in­spi­ra­tion for many ar­chi­tects such as Rem Kool­haas and Her­zog and de Meu­ron, and film mak­ers such as Gat­taca’s An­drew Nic­col. Biel­skyte was later in­vited by Span­ish ar­chi­tect Ri­cardo Bofill to visit La Fábrica, which he be­gan re­con­struct­ing in 1973 from the derelict face but su­perb bone struc­ture of a ce­ment fac­tory. It is cel­e­brated by ex­perts as a lordly mar­riage of spa­tial cun­ning and Sur­re­al­ist de­light— stair­cases that lead to nowhere, gi­ant si­los that con­tain noth­ing, vines that swing in the ele­giac and ex­hausted air. To Biel­skyte, though, it is a fore­taste of the future. “It may be the most beau­ti­ful house I’ve ever seen,” she joys. “An in­dus­trial com­plex that was re­cy­cled into a house and a stu­dio, where fu­tur­is­tic de­sign meets lo­cal Cata­lan ar­chi­tec­ture. It’s the in­te­gra­tion of his­tory, cul­ture, na­ture and ev­ery­thing high tech.”

You sus­pect it’s Biel­skyte’s dirty-minded re­gard for high-minded schol­ar­ship that pulls her back to the world of tech­nol­ogy. This is where her scru­ples about hero wor­ship sud­denly dis­solve: physi­cists are her rock stars. Her fi­nal ma­jor project with Some/things in­volved meet­ing the bril­liant minds at CERN, the Euro­pean Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Nu­clear Re­search, in Switzer­land. “We went un­der­ground, saw the most ex­quis­ite ma­chin­ery, and pho­tographed the At­las and the Com­pact Muon Solenoid ex­per­i­ment. They are try­ing to dis­cover how the world func­tions on a small scale which, by ex­ten­sion, tells us how it func­tions on the largest scale imag­in­able,” she rem­i­nisces. “You see old peo­ple, young peo­ple, peo­ple with dread­locks, peo­ple with tat­toos, and peo­ple of a di­verse range of races and re­li­gions, all work­ing to­gether.” Biel­skyte’s imag­i­na­tion is future ori­en­tated, both tex­tured and buoy­ant. Her iden­tity is a mix­ture of mythol­ogy, Asian aes­thet­ics im­bued with East­ern Euro­pean sen­si­bil­i­ties so thick and thor­ough it bor­ders de­prav­ity. She ap­pears to ad­mire physi­cists be­cause they dart be­tween dis­ci­plines and ap­proach the un­known with noble in­ten­tions. Biel­skyte swiftly left Some/things in 2013 to ex­plore the new fron­tiers in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. “I changed rad­i­cally by chang­ing cir­cles,” she says.

Biel­skyte has in­creas­ingly be­come de­voted to the sci­ence be­hind aug­mented re­al­ity (AR) and vir­tual re­al­ity (VR). Both tech­nolo­gies have piqued the world’s in­ter­est and baited bil­lions from in­vestors. In AR, opaque, three- di­men­sional holo­grams are em­bed­ded onto our view of the real world; in VR, view­ers are im­mersed in an en­tirely ar­ti­fi­cial en­vi­ron­ment sim­u­lated by stereo­scopic tech­nol­ogy. Magic Leap is a lodestar in the field of AR tech­nol­ogy. The com­pany, which first launched in 2010 by Amer­i­can en­tre­pre­neur Rony Abovitz, is a Google­backed op­er­a­tion that spe­cialises in pro­duc­ing head-mounted vir­tual reti­nal dis­plays. Magic Leap’s tech­nol­ogy beams light sig­nals di­rectly onto the retina so that pro­jected and ac­tual light min­gles in our field of vi­sion. Sim­ply put, the brain is tricked into see­ing things that are not there in any tra­di­tional sense.

At the van­guard of vir­tual re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy is Ocu­lus VR, the Face­book­backed start-up as­pir­ing to dom­i­nate fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment. “There [are] two broad camps,” John Car­mack, chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer at Ocu­lus, told Wired UK. “The hard­core aca­demic re­search peo­ple look down their noses at games. It was all about re­mote surgery and high-minded things.” Though VR tech­nol­ogy is still crude, it prom­ises court-side seats at con­certs and sport­ing events, im­me­di­ate con­sul­ta­tions with doc­tors, and greater ac­cess to class­room ed­u­ca­tion. “It’s the future of com­put­ing,” Biel­skyte as­serts. “It’s how we will cre­ate and con­sume con­tent. The future of this in­ter­face is that there is no in­ter­face.” Both AR and VR tech­nol­ogy are sub­ject to pri­vacy con­cerns due to the enor­mous amount of data re­quired to cre­ate and main­tain their re­spec­tive worlds: by­standers who have not adopted the tech­nol­ogy will in­evitably be in­volved as pas­sive par­tic­i­pants. Biel­skyte bris­tles at the men­tion of its po­ten­tial in war­fare. “How can we cre­ate some­thing that adds to peo­ple’s lives?” she in­ter­ro­gates. “I strug­gle with the word ‘bet­ter’ be­cause that im­plies some kind of moral truth. I don’t know what’s bet­ter, but I do know what’s worse. Per­haps we should say more hu­mane, beau­ti­ful, or in­spir­ing?”

Biel­skyte’s lat­est ven­ture is All Future Ev­ery­thing (AFE), a dig­i­tal plat­form at the junc­tion be­tween cul­ture and tech­nol­ogy pow­ered by friends who jump time: stay­ing ahead by im­mers­ing them­selves into the thick of it. “It’s all about peo­ple who are chang­ing the world,” she dotes. “I’m not re­ally in­ter­ested in hear­ing peo­ple speak about them­selves. If you can talk about what you care about, what you don’t un­der­stand, what could be done, what should be done, the con­ver­sa­tion is in­fi­nite.” Biel­skyte is adamant that, mov­ing for­ward, sus­tain­able think­ing will be in­te­gral to her prac­tice. “I think dig­i­tal waste is also waste,” she says. “Think­ing sus­tain­ably is about cre­at­ing con­tent that isn’t just more stuff.” Occasionally, Biel­skyte leaves the sky to or­bit more fa­mil­iar ce­les­tial bod­ies. “I’m do­ing a lot of stuff in Hol­ly­wood, work­ing with some prom­i­nent film­mak­ers and direc­tors to pro­duc­ing vis­ual and con­cep­tual frame­works as well as de­vel­op­ing strate­gies and tech­nolo­gies for their movies,” she says. “I want to truly col­lab­o­rate with peo­ple who value con­ver­sa­tion.”

All re­mark­able peo­ple know the one vi­tal truth of suc­cess: the paths are ser­pen­tine. At 26, af­ter years of ar­du­ous­ness, Biel­skyte trav­elled to the Beppu re­gion of south Ja­pan, checked in to the ryokan, and drowned in the hot springs. “My mind was there but my body didn’t re­act,” she re­calls. “I woke up as they dragged me out of the water, threw up, then passed out again. I was hal­lu­ci­nat­ing and had a fever of 42 º C. It was a bru­tal, vi­o­lent ex­pe­ri­ence. I was hos­pi­talised in in­ten­sive care, my life func­tions sus­tained by the med­i­cal equip­ment and the in­cred­i­ble med­i­cal staff.” Fol­low­ing this ex­pe­ri­ence Biel­skyte es­caped to Ice­land, where the “elves, the trolls, and the vol­canic earth made ev­ery­thing clear.” Ice­land has quickly be­come a turn­ing point in Biel­skyte’s growth, con­nect­ing her to what she con­ceives as her true re­silient soul. If Biel­skyte ever ap­pears to be sub­merged in her own solem­nity, it quickly dis­si­pates when she talks about be­ing mind­ful and thank­ful in vast pro­fu­sions. She re­minds us we’re the stuff of con­densed gal­ax­ies and ves­ti­gial star­dust— the uni­verse eter­nally ob­serv­ing it­self.

Photo courtesy of Monika Biel­skyte.

Un­ti­tled #13 from the Mob Rule (Fam­ily) se­ries, 2014. Enamel on C Type print, 60cmx40cm.

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