Dasha Ilina: DIY, humour, yoga, martial arts and human-machine interactions
Published 24 June 2020 by Rob La Frenais
Paris-based, Russian-born Dasha Ilina recently got an honorary mention at Ars Electronica for her faux corporation offering therapy for those constantly bent over their phones, the ‘Center For Technological Pain’. Encounter.
Remember a world 20 years ago where half the population didn’t walk around looking downwards at slabs of plastic, metal and rare earth? It’s quite possible these days to watch a movie from the 80’s with a street scene and think – there’s something wrong here. Nobody is holding their phones! Paris-based, Russian-born Dasha Ilina recently got an honorary mention at Ars Electronica for her faux corporation offering therapy for those constantly bent over their phones, the ‘Center For Technological Pain’. Marie Lechner writes about its products: “Among the prototypes it has developed are mechanical eye shields that reduce eye-strain, a headset to free the user’s hands, an insomnia-free box and various more or less absurd contraptions to relieve strained elbows and fingers. Ilina, who is part of a generation of millennials who never take their eyes off their smartphone, also offers DIY manuals on how to build low-tech accessories from cheap materials.”
From critical making to critical anthropology
On the Center For Technological Pain site there are some very entertaining ‘motivational ‘videos aimed at correcting the posture of phone users and literally fights back at the intrusion of mobile phone technology in our lives with martial arts techniques aimed at removing the phones of unwitting users. I asked Dasha Ilina where the thinking about the project came from.
“The idea for the project itself came to me quite naturally. Being around designers and media artists who spend all day behind their computers, as well as taking daily commutes on public transport, where people often don’t look up from their phones for the entirety of their ride, made me think about whether I could create something that would help those with a serious addiction. Another thing that was helpful was that, prior to starting the project, I myself couldn’t take my eyes off my phone, but I could recognise that it was not healthy to spend so much time on my devices”.
She started using DIY-style techniques for developing new prosthetics for adapting phone users postures. “I started making these ridiculous objects out of cardboard or whatever was around me to serve as solutions to the various tech-pain problems I saw around me. Originally the DIY cardboard objects were just prototypes, but having done a few of them I realized that the process of making the objects and the sort of thinking that the process incites was my favorite part of the project, so I decided to keep the objects very simple and easy to recreate.”
There is definitely a Russian dark humour behind the martial art and yoga videos and the cardboard prosthetics. Are these projects a sly dig at the world of the maker community? “I’ve never thought of my workshops as mocking the DIY lab movement. My workshops are all about thinking critically about the impact technology has on our body and then creating quick prototypes as solutions to the problems highlighted. While the actual making process is really fun, the workshops are not really about the outcomes.”
What influenced the making of her motivational videos? “My self-defence and yoga videos were really influenced by YouTube videos and video tutorials in general. When I came up with the idea of self-defence against technology I originally only envisioned them as illustrations, but in order to make the illustrations I filmed short clips with my friends to get the movements right and then I then drew over them. It was only after completing the illustrations and looking back at the videos did I realise that making a video tutorial would be a nice addition to the project. The YouTube part of it was very important to me in the research process, because I didn’t know much about self-defence moves when I started this project, so I watched lots of YouTube tutorials on different moves, which always explained why you would perform a certain move, which I ultimately ended up doing in my video as well. The yoga video was very similar. I watch a lot of yoga videos at home, so it seemed like a good idea to make a yoga video that makes you relaxed while you’re on your phone. Having read a lot of things about digital detoxes and other similar movements, I thought it would be quite funny and fitting to include your phone into the routine instead of eliminating it. And of course I was reading a lot about the effects of phones on people’s mental health (being the cause of anxiety and stress for many people), so something relaxing and meditative as a solution made sense to me”.
Self-defense techniques against technology:
Yoga for healthy phone use:
Of course the fake corporation, such as CTP, has a longer history in the art world, going back beyond the history of Bourriaud’s “Relational Aesthetics” I’m thinking of General Idea, File Megazine and Ingold Airlines from the ’80’s for example. How did she visualise hers? “I think I would say I was mostly inspired by The Yes Men when working on CTP. In my head, CTP is a fake start-up with real solutions that are not very useful. That is not to say that they don’t work, but the cheap and DIY way in which they are made doesn’t make them last very long. Another movement that was very inspiring for my project is Chindogu – the Japanese useless objects. However, the main idea behind Chindogu is that whatever object you created it shouldn’t actually be useful, which is of course ironic, because one of the Chindogu objects is the selfie-stick, an object that has become incredibly popular in recent years”
Choose Your Own Quarantine
A very recent and arguably extremely relevant project came with the quickly-developed “Choose Your Own Quarantine” an interactive journey through the COVID 19 crisis developed along with screenwriter Sofia Haines. There are some very clever twists in the stories. What inspired them? “The idea for the project came to me because of the wildly different choices Sofia and I made right before the enforced quarantine in France. When I found out that Sofia was leaving for the US to be with her family, I was initially surprised, but then I started thinking about all the different ways in which people all over the world would experience the quarantine. So I asked Sofia to co-write the game with me and most of the storylines that ended up ’making the cut’, so to speak, were based on our experiences, on what we’d heard from our friends, and what we were reading online. It was important to us to include perspectives from outside of France, where I was quarantining, and outside of the US, which at a certain point seemed to dominate the media with their anti-quarantine protests and general demeanour of not taking the pandemic very seriously. Some of the storylines are also very speculative, in the sense that the outcomes of a story could end in a way that might seem hard to believe, but we thought it was interesting to include theories about what the post-COVID-19 world would look like. Ultimately though, we wanted to question what values will be enduring post-quarantine, as well as highlighting the problems within societies that were brought out by the pandemic”.
The form used to create the site has some interesting historical precedents. Ilina describes the story ‘adventure book’ genre in her informative video for the Suoja/Shelter Festival. How did she feel about the reference to Ayn Rand, who is seen as a pin-up for libertarians, now more or less associated with the far right? “Ayn Rand is one of the first writers to use the literary device of allowing the reader, or in her case the audience, choose the ending of their story. She used that device in a play titled ‘Night of January 16th’ from 1934, where some of the audience members are asked to play the jury and depending on the verdict they choose, the actors play out a different ending. The ultimate goal of Rand’s play was to make the jury decide between individualism and conformity, a set of themes often explored in her work. Personally, I am a bit reticent about commenting on Ayn Rand, because of how controversially her writing has been received, or more so, because of the people that support and worship her writing; and I did have a moment of doubt about including her as a reference in the presentation, especially since the presentation was so brief. However, ultimately, it was fascinating to learn about this play and I found that it would make for an interesting story within the presentation, which obviously worked since you are asking me about it now.”
“I really hope that virtual festivals don’t become the norm”
The very prolific Ilina is also co-creator with Benjamin Gaulon of NØ School Nevers, held for the first time last year in Burgundy (read the report in Makery). I asked her about this year’s edition. ”This year the organisation has been particularly challenging because the pandemic made its way to Europe right around the time that we would normally start all the heavy duty planning. Unfortunately, we had to cancel this year’s edition due to travel restrictions, as well other limitations within France. However last year’s edition went really well! The “teachers” and “students” all formed a community and I made lots of great friendships and made great memories from that summer.”
I asked her about what her influences were – she went as a young person to the START Architectural school in Moscow. “Yes, when I was a child/teenager I took courses at a school that forms future architects from a very young age. Unfortunately, I decided not to pursue a career in architecture, but I still learned lots of very useful skills from the classes I took there – knowing how to easily manipulate cardboard is one of them! But I was very lucky to get a degree in Art, Media, and Technology which was what put me on the track of Media Art. As for influences, I am constantly inspired by so many people but probably the artists that have made the most impact on myself as an artist are Benjamin Gaulon, disnovation.org and Nadja Buttendorf.
Both Ilina and I were in the recent Art Meets Radical Openness Festival (AMRO), ‘Of Whirlpools and Tornadoes’ which must have been the first major live event in Europe to go fully virtual. Did she think the virtual festival will be a reality for some time to come?
“I really enjoyed being part of the virtual AMRO festival. Of course I imagine that being at the festival in real life would have been even more exciting, I felt it was really well organized. I think that the AMRO team did such a good job of trying to make the events seem as real-life-like as possible. But I really hope that virtual festivals don’t become the norm. Even though I enjoy being able to conduct a workshop from my bedroom, online events will still never replace the feeling of physically being in a place with the people from an event.”
Her projects were very varied and ambitious. What’s coming next? “I’ve been working on a new project for quite some time, but I’m looking for funds to finally produce it, hopefully it will be completed sooner rather than later. The project touches upon the subjects of ethics of care, robotics, and repair. At first sight Let Me Fix You is an ASMR video, similar to the many others that appear on Youtube specialising in ‘robot repair’ where the viewer takes the position of the robot in question. The video follows a young woman who slowly and quietly goes through different steps of what one imagines as robot repair. However Let Me Fix You quickly takes an unfamiliar turn: instead of going into the details of what will be replaced in the viewer’s imaginary robotic body, the mechanic, while going through the standard check up, notices something strange which leads her to realise that the robot she is meant to repair, which is a robot that takes care of an elderly man, is not really broken but has become conscious of its inability to provide proper care for his owner because he is simply not human. The video uses sociological and scientific research, as well as elements of pop culture to question the effects and the place of robotics in the care industry, notably the quickly expanding elderly care market.”
It’s just been announced that the Bucharest Biennale in 2022 will be the first international exhibition to be curated by a robotic AI. Perhaps Ilina’s ‘Let Me Fix You’ will be ‘chosen’.
More about Dasha Ilina and the Center For Technological Pain.