‘Definitely, we are more interested in how machines see us rather than other humans.’

We skyped with Tereza and Vit Ruller of Amsterdam-based studio The Rodina, in December 2019. The Rodina’s practice is often thematically focused across various media, resulting in performances, installations, websites, games, videos & graphic ephemera.

During this conversation we learnt about the Rodina’s on-going projects and future ambitions, while digging into the intentions behind earlier works, such as Playbour: The New Workaholism and Shadows in Paradise. More broadly Tereza and Vit shared their views on, and relation to, design, forms of research, participation, performativity and technology. We were happy to inaugurate Scripted Space by exchanging words with them both!

The Rodina, Yllis — <em>Parade</em>, 2016 (music video still)
The Rodina, Yllis — Parade, 2016 (music video still)

Scripted Space Could you describe your day-to-day relationships with technology: is there something you do which stands outside the norm?

Tereza Ruller We are actually having a lot of debates in the last two weeks on how technology is connected with our practice, work, and creative process. How can we be more effective in such a small studio working on a lot of projects? Redefining our connections with various software and programs that are there to help us be more effective, improve communication, or organise the studio better seems crucial.

Vit Ruller Technology has different roles within our practice. That’s always a question if we do want to work with platforms: what platforms we want to be locked inside? There is a pressure to adopt new platforms every three months, which is not sustainable for a small team. Clients demand a change in the tools we are working with because we need to deliver more systematic designs, more responsible things, more complex projects.

TR Most visual identities are done as websites. So when we are designing these, we consider their temporality, changeability/motion, interaction and connection with the user more than a static design. It’s more of systemic thinking.

VR This has interesting consequences because now, let’s say 60 or 70 percent of our income is from a very technological work of the studio: programming.

SS When you choose which software and hardware you work with, are you trying to escape some sort of tech industry monopoly?

VR That’s part of our relation to technology.

TR We tend to question everything on a theoretical and ethical level. Criticality doesn’t easily go hand-in-hand with being a designer who delivers things ‘quickly’ and is effective under this stage of capitalism.

SS Have you found any alternative platforms? For example outside the Adobe monopoly?

TR We are gridlocked in the Adobe Creative Cloud, and that’s the thing!

VR Creative Cloud seems to stagnate. If you check what the income trend is for Adobe they don’t plan to expand the CC or stay on this platform for the next 20 years. Even if you operate using Adobe today your income from it is lower every year. So in 15 years, Adobe will be a different company than it is now. So you keep working with it to stay productive, but on the other hand, this product will become obsolete at some point.

TR Adobe is trying to automate a lot of things, offer ’smarter’ tools. They are learning from all designers, they are asking if they can record your activities, your screen, receive your complaints, and failures.

VR Most of the money in design in the next decade will go to non-visual things and the visual part of the design will be somehow automated. This is an obvious trend; at least you see it in the income of people who are doing visual things, it’s going down every year.

The Rodina, Putochinomaricón — 2 A.M., 2019 (music video still)

SS As an example some designers have been asked to design templates for Adobe...

TR The word template is a very disturbing one.

VR Most of the designs you experience worldwide––I don’t mean privileged western countries, but on a global scale––is a templated design. Perhaps some don’t think it’s very difficult to earn money by making templates. At some point, if we look at the reality of, let’s say, our Chinese colleagues––and we have a discussion with designers from China––there is a massive template culture. Meaning your touch or expertise is no longer needed when you’ve finished your template.

SS Do you see these templates as being able to replace the designer completely?

VR I mean if you are going to make programmatic templates––the ones which can generate other templates––then you probably have a longer life. As a visual designer, you will be making templates to compete with people from India. But their wages are much lower. Of course, you can connect it with your ‘good name’, ‘studio signature’, etc....

TR By criticising templates you are not just touching on responsibilities of designers, but also clients. It reveals the tension between demand and supply. What does it mean for cultural clients––who should support an exceptional design––to constantly lower design fees and look for easy and cheap solutions? Why would they work with advertising agencies when they have excellent designers close by? Why would they rather speak to account managers than to experts? Why do they feel safer when they can exchange 20 emails about a tiny thing instead of really making interesting ideas happen? It’s paradoxical why galleries, museums, and art festivals do this while basing their identities on exhibiting ‘radical’ and ‘exceptional’ art.

VR Because they are part of the same austerity neoliberal situation, they are also pushed to be effective. You can see that traditional design doesn’t bring visitors to the gallery. The communication is going online and on to platforms like Facebook, Google. As these entities want to have more income from the communication of cultural institutions, there is then less money for local printers and local designers.

The Rodina, <em>Shadows in Paradise</em>, The Small Museum, Paradiso, Amsterdam, 2016. Photo by Pieter Kers
The Rodina, <em>Shadows in Paradise</em>, The Small Museum, Paradiso, Amsterdam, 2016. Photo by Pieter Kers
The Rodina, Shadows in Paradise, The Small Museum, Paradiso, Amsterdam, 2016. Photo by Pieter Kers

SS In Playbour: The New Workaholism, you comment on the usage of personal data and then in Shadows in Paradise you have commented on the effects of exposure to mass media, etc. Why do you feel the need to engage with, understand or critique the different ways that technology impacts our ways of living in society?

TR There is this strange urge to understand phenomena that are happening around us. Maybe this drive is more of artistic feelings––to express and transfer the information we’ve found fascinating or disturbing. Obviously, we are curious and want to communicate facts and ideas visually and emotionally. To share them with others. To show what we see, feel and think is happening. For example, ‘labour’ and how it’s transformed into a strange productive consumption that feels like a play. To be a naive playbourer––who happily joins the digital economy, dedicates own free time to perform on platforms, to self-exploit in an addictive mode of precarious nomadism––affects you deep inside. We try to investigate it by designing video games, live performances, debates or a music video. It's funny, Playbour and Shadows in Paradise were done before Cambridge Analytica scandals.

SS How do you go about researching these subjects? Are there any particular methodologies you have been using?

TR Vit will describe it!

VR That’s a big clash in our studio because I studied psychology, or let’s say cognitive science. I was trained to give proper methodological academic research which always clashes with artistic research or design research.

TR I’m more like an emotional researcher where the research is floating all around, scattered and not organised. It’s kind of two of us in the debate, in a collision. But productive misunderstanding between us can lead to something really exciting.

VR As I was trained, research meant something which can be reflected through text or logic, and in scientific journals. But when I started to work with Tereza we tried to formalise ways we could work other than through typical social science research. Research doesn’t need to start with a text and logic analysis, research can also be setting up an experiment, and the experiment can be a game where you observe people because observation is a form of research.

TR Actually, these performative situations we design for and with participants––the processes, and relations that happen there––are the outcome for us.

The Rodina, <em>Playbour: Roleplay Reality</em>, (commissioned by) FACT, Liverpool, 2018
The Rodina, Playbour: Roleplay Reality, (commissioned by) FACT, Liverpool, 2018

SS When you’re doing some of the more academic inquiry, how do you utilise it? Obviously there are some points, I’m thinking of Playbour again, where it marries up with what you’re producing. But do you ever find there is some dissonance between what you’re reading and what you’re producing? Is there a more direct link between the reading and the aesthetics you’re producing?

TR We debate what we read a lot! I destroy all my books by writing into them and collect all key highlights from Kindle and iBooks into organised documents. Working with text is beautiful, frightening and difficult, so sometimes it is much easier––as we like to sing––to compose lyrics out of these snippets. That’s why we have some music videos. The text, the research, becomes a lyric which is vocalised and becomes a voice, an affect.

VR If we are reading, let’s say theories, we start to think how to activate or situate them. What does it mean to be critical? Looking at practices of knowledge production and their impact on modes of research is an essential inspiration we draw from Irit Rogoff.

TR That’s why we also describe our practice and post-critical rather than critical. Where the ’post’ means more ‘in a crisis of’ rather than the ‘next one’.

VR But is working with the text the only form of criticality you can do? That’s why we try to work with performance, with video or with more, let’s say, experiential formats. A video game is considered to be also an artistic medium now, but ten years ago it wasn’t so clear.

SS Just to return to this; when analysing behaviours, is there any analytical way of doing this observation? How does this fold back into your aesthetics or future practices?

TR We gave a tremendous amount of talks and lectures in 2019 and realised that we don’t always like this position of standing on the stage. I felt really sick of the podium. It has a certain power, a certain position and is very hierarchical. We thought this time we’ll base it on an exchange: we introduce ourselves and people will introduce themselves. Imagine the whole crowd interacting! And that’s how we can reflect and even change the flow of the ‘design talk’. Vit coded a tool; we developed it so attendees of the symposium could introduce themselves through the interface of their phones. In this tool which is a website, each attendee can write three words about who they are or feel to be. We collectively read who we are together. It’s a ritual. It’s a kind of flow of personas or a karaoke of characters.

VR It might be important to note that we always want to be critical toward quantification. That’s why we experiment with the performance because we really don’t want to quantify too much. It raises the question ‘What do you quantify?’. I think there are forms of research or ways to get information which don’t need to be based on quantification methods. Performance, performative, or discursive situations have different values.

SS You’ve discussed several projects in which Tereza is the protagonist. In your performative projects, the context usually takes the lead role: you invoke the audience, aggregate people and build communities to reflect upon specific topics. Could you discuss the centrality of your face/body in quite a few of your projects versus a ‘call for solidarity’ or for community in your performative acts? (Is this a comment on how technology is evolving?)

TR I would like to say that collectivity can be powerful, beautiful and way more exciting. When you work with people and you open up a collective possibility it becomes inclusive. Togetherness is so human. If you are a designer in such cases, you are not only presenting but you are also listening. You are with the others. You are not only making things for others but you are also part of the relational situation and that is really important these days for us. Our work and understanding performativity has really developed from a one-man show…

VR It has never been a one-man show. I mean, that was good, because to some extent people could relate to the work. Somehow it wasn’t about Tereza’s personality but it was more about the capacity to accept desire from other people.

The Rodina, <em>Playbour: The New Workaholism</em>, 2015 (music video still)
The Rodina, Playbour: The New Workaholism, 2015 (music video still)

TR In Playbour video I wanted to become a tool––not objectified, not sexualised––just like one of those tools from Photoshop, Illustrator or After Effects. I became the mediator, the messenger performing the moving infographics. That was the way I started to integrate my body into our designs. Because it was affective and affordable. The project questioned immaterial and creative labour. So we attempted to understand how everybody these days is part of a big performance, which has been commodified on platforms and through digital and attention economies. Platforms are really based on free work, all users are performing for them. So why not be subversive? Why not to use a body while criticising the spectacle of online performance?

VR I mean the original motivation had to do with the fact that Tereza studied fine arts before. So when she moved to study design, of course, she tried to experiment with her previous knowledge in a new environment. And at first, it wasn’t really successful. Teachers were quite upset and some would say ‘This crazy Tereza’ but at some point, it started to resonate..

{ Laughter }

And we started to ask: Why is this weird artistic performance resonating? Why now? We started to think: is it because of the network society and digital economy? Is it because of certain platforms that need us to generate profit?

SS So, when this goes into the territory of platforms, is this something you are actively considering when designing? Is this a comment on the shareability of design on these platforms?

VR At the time, around 2014, in Dutch schools most of the debates were around print, craft or (maybe) coding but they rarely reflected about the fundamental shift which was brought by social platforms and performative image production.

TR Yes, now there are many designers and students working around these notions of self-presentation, platformisation, exploitation––but before it was just about exploring what was possible. I didn’t know how to describe ‘exactly’ what I was doing back then, it wasn’t that systematic. Now, looking back, we can identify certain patterns and understand how that developed. It wasn’t that conscious, at the time we started to research play and labour as a pleasurable production there was an excitement in the air..

VR And maybe we turned this into our methodology. We do some things which are not really planned and then with time we reflect on them.

TR It’s also about how these topics circulate. These are ‘rhizomes’ that are growing through our practice. We identify certain topics, we study and visually express them. Then, we are not happy with our results so we look for different angles or contradictory theories to develop further.

The Rodina, SONIC ACTS Academy, 2018

SS It’s interesting to hear how you describe your research process. Nowadays many people are experimenting and altering their appearances using face apps and instagram filters. How do you see your ‘face’ as a tool evolving in this context? Any plans of producing a bot or Ai version of yourself?

TR A better 3D scan of myself could circulate! In 2009 there wasn’t a great 3d scanning app available, so we took a lot of photos from 360º and let a 3D modeller build our bodies. Somewhere––on somebody’s computer––there are figures of our younger bodies from 10 years ago. You can just walk around and scan everything now! We don’t work with facial filters but in so many of our designs, you can still see my portrait decomposed: based on the ways 3D scanning software decomposes one’s face. This technical vision cuts and decomposes the face into really ‘strange’ shapes. So now we are including these shapes in different projects, in the cards about performative design for example.

VR Definitely we are more interested in how machines see us rather than other humans. Most images are not only produced but also consumed by machines. Most of the images created are for other machines so we tried somehow to shift to the point that we see images as machines ‘understand’ them.

SS If you are saying you are using 3D scans of your face in the work, obviously when you are doing so you are making evident the method through which you have created them. For example, you have also used the ‘square circles’ of the VR goggles. It’s obvious you are making the medium you are using visible, as part of the subject. Is that part of designing for the ‘bots’, or machines, or is that aimed more at describing or revealing technologies for observers?

TR We wanted to make clear that the whole visual identity, everything you see on posters, is a walk through the virtual world we built. So we wanted to show the medium!

VR It’s very interesting to see how images are deconstructed on an algorithmic level but also on the level of interface through different tools. This introduces some sort of new machine-made visual language. But speaking about that as a space I believe we are slowly shifting to a larger scale, the scale of the cities. The same process we used on the 3D scans of Tereza’s face, you can use for an entire city! We are working on a project of a big Triennial for Contemporary Art, FRONT International 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio (USA). There, we are using similar methods but applied in an urban situation.

TR The scanning is based on satellite views.

VR And these mechanics work for the city by creating a persona or character of the city. We call them ‘spirits’.

The Rodina, visual identity, <em>Oh Gods of Dust and Rainbows</em>, FRONT International 2022, Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.
The Rodina, visual identity, Oh Gods of Dust and Rainbows, FRONT International 2022, Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.

TR Let’s say we are looking at Cleveland from an aerial perspective and finding these ‘characters’. This is the same way we looked at human face produced by the 3D scanning software. But now we are looking at the whole city and landscape.

VR Computers do not see photos in the same way as we do.

TR What we have learned from these technical images being seen, used and made by the algorithms from the software is that these kinds of ‘actors’, they don’t care about the image. The composition of pixels, the visual material reminds us—humans—of something. It is a kind of a memory. We feel something, we see meaning or we are attracted to certain colours or compositions, but the computer really doesn’t give a fuck. We are really excited about this kind of computational aesthetics.

The Rodina, <em>Chamber of Transformation</em>, 2018
The Rodina, Chamber of Transformation, 2018

SS So that explains your process that goes from commenting on a technology to generating a ‘new’ aesthetic.

{ Vit and Tereza look in their studio shelves for a series of posters. They pick 4 and show them one by one in front of Skype camera. }

SS It’s really fun to see the posters through Skype!

TR So these posters are painted during performances. We have this face there which people can interact with and they are asked to measure other people, the exhibition audience. The question we ask them is: How would you see people if you were a machine or algorithm? They are role-playing computer vision and are recording other members of the audience. It’s called Carbon performing Silicon.

The Rodina, <em>Slow Signal: Carbon performing Silicon</em>, NEST, 2018
The Rodina, <em>Slow Signal: Carbon performing Silicon</em>, NEST, 2018
The Rodina, Slow Signal: Carbon performing Silicon, NEST, 2018

SS Like LARP (Live Action Role Playing)…

TR Exactly. They are LARPing by embodying the algorithm and they have certain guidelines. But sometimes you see that they are reading off or misinterpreting or just enjoying the participation without feeling restricted.

SS And you give them instructions.

TR Yes, but they are quite open. For each performance, there are different instructions.

SS Maybe this leads to a question on Conditional Design?

TR I was quite curious about Conditional Design when I was writing Action to Surface, my Bachelor thesis. We worked with Studio Moniker, with Jonathan Puckey and the former founders, so we kind of understood what they really meant by their manifesto. Conditional Design is interested in setting and working with rules that need to be obeyed, followed and filled in by human beings. There is human labour involved in a process that needs to be done. Then there is an exchange which is the result in the end. So as a participant, you have to ‘give’ your work. But is there really a transformative situation during the performance when everybody is ‘working’?

SS I.e. it can be seen as an army of people working for your project.

TR You could hire them from Amazon and you would have 100.000 responses to your project.

VR We are more interested in the subject of our performance.

The Rodina, <em>Elements of Style</em>, Fotograf Gallery Prague, 2020 (performance)
The Rodina, Elements of Style, Fotograf Gallery Prague, 2020 (performance)

SS You prefer to create a transformative experience instead of setting a concrete set of rules towards an outcome.

TR The performative design allows collapses, space for mistakes, space for failure. You can play around, experiment. And if the outcome is dirty, you probably cannot monetise on it so much. Typically, you would have to take another step, to redesign it, to make it ‘beautiful’ again.

VR We love collapsing situations. Performance participants don’t know that it has collapsed, but somehow they create their own rules, their own community. They have fun with colours, reading texts, talking to strangers, wearing ponchos or with any materials or props we provide. And that’s more rewarding for us than creating some quite blunt results.

(Gymnastics) Spartakiada 1985, Prague, Czechoslovakia
(Gymnastics) Spartakiada 1985, Prague, Czechoslovakia

TR Maybe this criticism of using human bodies for impressive results dates back into this old notion of art as a spectacle. We’re both from the Czech Republic and when Vit was a little kid, he would have to perform as part of a huge crowd in a stadium. Because the Communist Party was the leading one, you would have to show that you really love communism. You would wear a red dress and you would be doing the same exercises synchronised with thousands of others. This was showing-off the power of propaganda, brainwashing by repetitive tasks to insert ideologies into young people pushed to perform. That’s why we are very much aware that some types of performance can look beautiful and overwhelming, but might lead into this propaganda shit.

The Rodina, <em>Keep Smile</em>, Banska Stanica, 2014
The Rodina, Keep Smile, Banska Stanica, 2014
The Rodina, <em>The Map of Scattered Society</em>, Uncertainty Seminars, Stroom Den Haag, 2019
The Rodina, The Map of Scattered Society, Uncertainty Seminars, Stroom Den Haag, 2019

SS You explained how you tend to avoid setting rules that force a specific aesthetic outcome and you have pointed out how you aim to provoke a transformative experience from your audience. Looking through your projects, one can see allusions to rituals: in the Keep Smile project you displayed prints in a semi-circular composition similar to a shrine; in Shadows in Paradise, you wore that vest, your ponchos, and performed an act of ‘healing’; in The Map of Scattered Society, you had people sitting on a carpet where you explored the reconnection with Earth minerals through an allusion to crystal healing. Would you like to talk about the ritual dimension of your performances?

VR I mean, the word ‘ritual’ is tricky…

TR We are super scared of becoming seen as esoteric.

VR When we somehow start to frame it as a liminal experience, of course, we start to use the language of anthropology, its theories and frameworks. This thing of liminality or rituals is that something old is collapsing and something new is rising.

TR The performance is the moment of becoming, the in-between transition phase. You are feeling the change but you cannot easily say what happened because it hasn’t happened yet.

VR If we are invested in these transitional tools of becoming something else, that is this phase when all things are collapsing and then you are taking a new role in society. For us that’s the ritual. But, the question is, how does this ritual produce graphic design? Because not all rituals produce a surface.

The Rodina, <em>The Map of Scattered Society</em>, Design Museum, London, 2019
The Rodina, The Map of Scattered Society, Design Museum, London, 2019

TR That’s why we have created a playground to facilitate these situations. Not just for ‘rituals’, but as a place for sharing. It accommodates a very small group of 15 people. There is no affirmative situation like fully explaining all details and who does what. Participants start to think: What is this? Why are there mountains called ‘data ruins’? Why is there a city called The Scarcity Waterfall city. What is this strange map? Suddenly people start inserting themselves in this map instead of somebody telling them to perform a character. We work with the eventenss of the situation – the stage, space and time.

VR Let’s say rituals are staged. Theoretically, it’s very close to game theory. A lot of terms from game theory are coming from Johan Huizinga, a Dutch anthropologist, who wrote Homo Ludens which is very old school but beautiful. Of course, it’s a colonial project (I won’t go there now because we have limited time...). He came up with all these terms like liminality, ritual and the magic circle. In the game theory, computer games are basically these magic circles where you can enter, lose your old role and take up a new role. You are a hero and you can play. That’s a ritual. And we design in this way. We are building these magic circles.

TR In a performative space, it’s quite exciting to observe whether people take unexpected roles because they are entering the safe space of the magic circle. Because the rules are not explicit, they don’t know they can take another role. What happens if they start playing around?

SS You’ve been interviewed on Twitch recently.

TR But Twitch is a strange and addictive combination of the late-stage capitalist platform labour, nonstop performance, constant online self-exploitation, loss of time, and then also self-presentation. It’s like the ultimate combination.

The Rodina, <em>Accidental Geopoetics</em>, Sonic Acts HEREAFTER, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2019
The Rodina, Accidental Geopoetics, Sonic Acts HEREAFTER, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2019

SS You mentioned magic circles; when in computer games, I guess people tend to think of these as being quite immersive i.e. it removes you from everyday life. When you factor this into your performances, when you’re not being completely removed from ‘real life’ are you instead trying to augment reality? Could you expand on that?

TR We definitely work with this notion. People we work with already have an intention to come to the gallery/festival to experience something different; they are willingly entering the space. In relation to this transformative part, when you are immersed in these magic circles, we really believe in our roles. When we did the Geological role-play in Stedelijk Museum, people became surface. By wearing geological ponchos they became part of the earth. Each embodied a particular mining location, where extractive capitalism is really taking out all the minerals and special rare earth metals. Performers became part of the earth for almost 5 hours. There was this flow of turning into the ground, feeling it inside, accepting the role, and starting to do really strange things. The dynamics is stunning. And then there is this ending exhaustion. It’s quite interesting to work with temporality––what’s the beginning of performance and what’s the end and how do you navigate the time.

VR We are using performance and play as icebreakers or something which triggers people in the room. We don’t want to take people and put them into some immersive environment, that’s something we always try to be critical of.

The Rodina, <em>Accidental Geopoetics</em>, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2019
The Rodina, Accidental Geopoetics, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2019

TR Activating and making passive viewers active, which even refers back to The Society of the Spectacle; has some negative connotations. It’s even used now in the attention economy and marketing strategies. To ‘activate’ somebody you assume they must be passive, therefore you have prejudice. Isn’t it a choice not to do things? Not to be effective? Who is in power? Every supermarket tries to activate you to be a good shopper. Online––be an active user––comment and post, share and like. The beauty of human action and play is being misappropriated, hijacked by capitalism and commercialisation. That’s why we are looking for new words instead of ’activating’, such as togetherness, relations or education.

VR I’m quite into collapsing situations where different values than the monetary emerge. So there is a collapse of the neoliberal capitalist order for a few minutes or hours because you are not exchanging anything for money and you don’t expect productivity, you don’t compete with each other. You’re just transforming together, you share this commonness. It’s a collapsing situation of the system we live in. We call it productive collapse! There are two types of collapses. One is unproductive collapse, where everybody gets annoyed, bored, or starts to have big arguments. Then, there is a productive collapse when people start to disobey rules that are somehow not working well for them and start to be happy, creative, playful, and create community. So this is happening in many of our performances for periods of time. So instead of trying to make better rules or have more power to push people to follow them, we try to work with these productive collapses.

TR I think that’s more exciting, and that’s the future of our performances.

The Rodina performativity participation research labour