«New Art Frontiers»: the development of electronic art in Ukraine (end of the 1990s - beginning of the 2000s)

by Natalia Manzhali

The rapid development of new technologies and their implementation in the art process led to a certain migration of contemporary artists in search of the new art territories and new ways of artistic expression.


On one hand, a close relationship between the artist and new technologies gave birth to a diverse range of new artistic forms that greatly differ from the traditional academic style and genre structure developed over a course of centuries. The forms referred to include computer graphics, computer animation, interactive and online art, virtual reality, and many others. On another hand, the interaction between art and new technologies prompted changes within the existing traditional genres such as theatre, film, painting, and music.


Historically speaking one can observe a close relationship that exists between the technological development of a given country and the development of media art on its territory. For instance, the main principles of electronic and computer technologies were already known in Europe as well as in the United States in the 1920s. However, the implementation of these technologies only began after the World War II. When the new equipment hit the mass market, this is when the computer and media art began to develop both in Europe and the United States. For example, as early as in 1952 American artist and mathematician Benjamin Francis Laposky used cathode tube and oscilloscope to create the first series of electronic abstractions formed by the combination of electrical wave forms. These design compositions were titled «Oscillon». The first computer generated image was created in 1960 in Germany by Kurd Alsleben.


Personal computers in Europe and the United States became more available in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This led to the proliferation of computer and electronic art, both of which at this point already embraced a wide variety of genres such as computer graphics, animation, digitalised image, interactive art and many others. This is the period when some of the largest and the most widely known festivals and centres for media art were established, such as the annual Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria; European Media Art Festival (EMAF), Osnabrück, Germany; the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany; FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool, United Kingdom. Nowadays all of the above serve as the key platforms for the development and presentation of international media art.


Taking a closer look at the computer and electronic art in Ukraine one may say that it only began to develop here in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This is the period when the Internet became widely available in the country. More people gained access to personal computers, digital and filming equipment.


It is important to note that the artists in Ukraine showed interest in the creative potential of new digital and electronic media disregarding the absence of highly developed home electronic industry, well-equipped scientific research centres, cultural institutions supporting media artists as well as courses in new media studies available within the framework of state higher education[1].


This gave an impetus for the creation of Info Media Bank program at the Soros Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) in Kyiv in 1997. The program aimed to create institutional support for media artists and became an educational, representative, informational and technological platform for new creative media studies and the base for the development of new media art projects. The program of Info Media Bank was initiated by the curator Natalya Manjaliy and the art critic Kateryna Stukalova.


Among the first steps taken by the Info Media Bank program there were international presentations, lectures, public discussions and workshops for the artists interested in learning computer programs. The mastering of computer programs by the artists led to the recognition by the latter of the creative potential of new digital technologies and the creation of their own multimedia projects.


Media Laboratory was established alongside the main program of Info Media Bank, providing the tools for the creation of new art projects. Apart from this Info Media Bank provided Internet access at the SCCA, organised internet classes for artists, created the first SCCA HOME PAGE, launched the digital archive of SCCA, and in 2000 ran the first Kyiv International Media Arts Festival (KIMAF).


Some of the very first computer led art projects created in Ukraine appeared thanks to the effort of Info Media Bank Media Laboratory.


Thus, for example, the multimedia project by Illya Isupov titled «Zhaga / Interactive Object of Desire» (1998) curated by Natalya Manjaliy with the technical support by Ivan Tsupka was the first conceptual computer animation in Ukraine that aimed to combine traditional painterly techniques with the possibilities offered by morphing, computer animation, and electronic music. Within the project, the fairy tale characters of Isupov’s graphic work come to life through the perpetual transformation of one image into the next, creating a labyrinth of magical imagery. The electronic music for the project was written by the composer and musician Oleksiy Maket. The conceptual and aesthetic background provided by the soundtrack had a great impact on the visual side of the project. Two versions of the project were presented during the public opening of the project. The first one was a large screen video projection accompanied by the music by Oleksiy Maket. The second was also a large screen projection but this time accompanied by the sound of DJ Sokolov and DJ Derbastler. These two parallel presentations demonstrated what happens during the interaction of various elements of the same work, sound and vision, resulting in the creation of a new piece of art that cannot exist independently stripped of either one of these elements.


The second project by Illya Isupov titled «Giselle» developed from the same idea in a piece where the artist digitally transformed original hand painted artwork. In this case the artist worked with the motionless graphical images from «Giselle» opera bringing them to life with the help of projections in which only parts of the image were animated, creating therefore an illusion of motion. Hence Isupov retains a certain level of tradition even though his project engages with the most topical contemporary enquiry that explores the interaction between the virtual and the material spaces. Within these projects the artist employed high technology without turning his back on traditional art techniques. One may say that he 'migrated' to an old territory in order to imbue it with the new meanings borrowed from the new multimedia spaces.


The next project, created in 1998 with the support of Info Media Bank, drastically differed from the work by Illya Isupov. The project titled «360 B'U» was created by renown Lviv artists Hanna Kuts and Victor Dovhalyuk. The work that presented computer generated and computer animated graphics explored the artificial nature of 'high tech environment' by fusing the visuals with the electronic sound within the virtual space. This project was presented as a part of the program of Kyiv International Film Festival MOLODIST and was included in the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival 1998. The work was curated and produced by Natalya Manjaliy.


The program of Info Media Bank partially contributed to the project by Oksana Chepelyk titled «Leader's Favourite Toys,» digital photography project by Ivan Tsupka, and the exhibition titled «Screening,» curated by Nadiya Prygodych and Natalya Manjaliy, which brought together both traditional and media projects. Info Media Bank also presented an international exhibition titled «Videosculpture in Germany» and a multimedia project by Sergey Bratkov (Ukraine) and Olaf Breuning (Switzerland), which took place on the territory of the Hospital fortification of Kyiv Museum-Fortress «Kosoj caponier».


The projects mentioned above inspired further ideas to combine the theoretical overview of contemporary art with production workshops aimed at artists, various kinds of presentations, lectures, exhibitions and screenings within the format of an international public festival held in Kyiv.


The first Kyiv International Media Arts Festival (KIMAF) took place in October 2000. The festival was founded and curated by Natalya Manjaliy and Kateryna Stukalova. The festival concept and idea belong to Natalya Manjaliy, Kateryna Stukalova and the director of Kyiv Goethe Institute Johannes Ebert. The key event of each festival was a themed exhibition that took different presentation formats. The festival exhibition for the year 2000 was titled «Alter Natura». It explored the ways in which different artists who work with such natural elements as sound, motion, time, and light, could present as well as modify real life and engage with the questions posed by the interrelation between the artificial and natural processes. The aim of the exhibition was to avoid overloading the viewer with the effects brought about by the new technology but use the latter instead to emphasise and provoke the sensory experience of light, time, and space.


The exhibition of the second festival was dedicated to the gaming nature of the interactive art and was titled «GAME.» The curators and the artists researched the ways in which art incorporates the strategies inherent to gaming and where the line between the art and gaming lies and who defines this line.


Audiovisuality was the theme of the third KIMAF, which presented the projects that artistically combined digital and electronic sound with visuals. These included interactive audio installations, videos, audio performances, concerts, DJ and VJ performances.


The projects of other leading media art festivals were also included by the curators and organisers of KIMAF. Among them were the projects presented at Ars Electronica, EMAF, ZKM, FACT, National Audiovisual Institute Paris, Videotrafic (France) and RIGASOUND. This also allowed the curators to present the art of Ukrainian media artists internationally alongside the work of such international artists as Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, Hiroshi Matoba, Alba d'Urbano, Peter Style, Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, Mike Stubbs, Gina Charnetski, Pierrick Sorin, Testcard, Floex, Hans Beckman dot.nu, Tobias Bernstrup, Franz Pomassl, Christian Ziegler and many others. This contributed to the integration of Ukrainian art within the world context and brought it outside of local presentation.


The program of workshops for the artists was an important part of KIMAF. At first, prior to the festival the workshops were delivered as part of Info Media Bank program. They lay important practical and theoretical ground for KIMAF. The first workshop on the creative use of Internet took place on the 22nd-28th April 1998. It was attended by the artists from different cities of Ukraine such as Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, and Lviv. The workshop was led by Internet artist Henryk Gajewski (Netherlands), programmer and webmaster Martha van der Hagen (Netherlands), programmer and webmaster Wojciech Bogusz. The interactive and non-linear nature of the Internet allowed the artists to make their first projects within this new digital environment incorporating the elements of interactivity within the work.


The second workshop that was held in 1999 was dedicated to acquiring practical skills in Macromedia Director that enabled the user to create quite complex interactive net multimedia applications. The workshop was led by German media artist and programmer Christian Ziegler from the ZKM Karlsruhe. The works created using this program could combine graphics, sound, animation, special effects, text and video within an interactive context. They could be CD-ROM and DVD-ROM recorded and could be used online as well similar to the principles that underlie computer games.


Thus, for example, the work by Olga Kashimbeckova and Gleb Katchuk «Look Back» presented a slide film with a non-linear narrative based on a mystical detective story. Due to the project's interactive nature and non-linear narrative the viewer could independently influence the storyline and choose the order of each instalment. The idea behind this project is similar to the idea behind interactive cinema, created in a way similar to a computer game where the viewer can have an active impact on the devolution of the story.


Another work created during the workshop was also based on the computer gaming principles though it could be viewed as to game's conceptual opposite. Іn any computer game  the use of a keyboard or 'clicking' is an integral part of making a move or taking an action. Within their work titled «Catch me if you can» Olexander Vereschak and Margarita Zinets set before the viewer the task to catch or click on the female protagonist of the project who does her best to avoid the cursor on the display screen, making it virtually impossible to execute this 'sacred' action of the game. If, however, the viewer managed to click on the protagonist, he or she could see her partner as a reward.


The next workshop that took place in 2000 was also led by Christian Ziegler. It aimed to facilitate the creation of interactive installations with the detectors of sound, light and movement. Thus, the year 2000 saw the first interactive installation in Ukraine created by Ivan Tsupka and Natalya Golibroda. The work projected the image of a sexy female who flirted and tried by all means to attract the viewer's attention the moment he entered the room. The image inevitably disappeared at any attempt to approach her. Within the project the artists explored the nature of desire and inaccessibility.


The second interactive installation in Ukraine was titled «Soap Opera» and was created by Olga Kashimbeckova in 2001 as the continuation of «Anti Karaoke» series, on which Kashimbeckova and Gleb Katchuk had worked for a number of years. This interactive work encouraged the viewers to sing into a microphone set in the gallery space. When the viewer started singing or saying something a girl washing behind a semitransparent shower door appeared on the screen. The moment the viewer stopped, the water on the screen stopped running and the girl in the shower began to shiver from cold. To prevent the girl from getting cold the viewer had to continue the interaction. The water in this case switched itself on again and the showering continued. The artist placed her character in the shower as this space often tends to inspire people to sing.


Gleb Katchuk in his project titled «Anti Karaoke Inferno» also addresses the theme of anti karaoke. Though this particular work did not require computer programming nor filming. To take part in the project all the viewer had to do is to produce any kind of sound for the microphone. The microphone was complimented by a common light bulb. The sound of the viewer's voice was immediately enhanced and his face lit by the light bulb from below, creating the effect of a vintage expressionist or horror film. Simultaneously a large scale demonic looking projection of the participant's face appeared on the opposite wall.


The next interactive project was created by Margarita Zinets and Olexander Vereschak in 2002. In this case the viewer had an opportunity to communicate with the protagonists of the video who were on their side of the screen. The respectably looking men who stood with their backs turned to the audience did not look particularly approachable. However, the moment one of the viewers spoke one of the men turned around and mimicked the viewer using their words. Therefore the viewer had to decide how to communicate with these virtual strangers.


The programming and installation of these projects was quite challenging to be undertaken in Ukraine at the time. However, the programming part as well as the installations themselves well corresponded to the international standards. Later many of these projects were presented at the art exhibitions and festivals held in Germany, the United States, France, and other countries.


The next work by Olga Kashimbeckova and Gleb Katchuk created for KIMAF was an installation that explored the nature and the interaction of light. Within the piece the artists played with various light channels. The artificial light of the video projector was directed at a specially created two phase holograph of a turned on light bulb. This was a projection of virtual moths that 'switched on' the holograph. The moths appeared to break out of the virtual realm and flutter in the light of the holographic bulb.


The workshop in 3D modelling took place in 2001 during the second KIMAF and was led by the artist and IT-specialist Nicolas Reichelt (Germany). Upon its completion the artists were able to present their first independent projects. Naturally it would have been quite a challenge to create large scale project during the two week workshop period, however, a solid concept sometimes allows the artist to deliver an interesting art work completed within a short period of time. For instance, Gleb Katchuk created the following installation. A small screen was placed within a standard glass aquarium showing an animated 3D animal that resembled a snake. This animal comprised of moving letters that made up the word PLAY.


The project by Ivan Tsupka titled «The exploration of the Human Heart» was also among the results of this workshop. It recreated a 3D model of the human heart, which reacted to the outside stimuli.


The second KIMAF presented the video performance by Gleb Katchuk and Olga Kashimbeckova titled «Good Luck Chain Videocassette», dedicated to the departure of the VHS format. These artists were among the pioneers of video art in Ukraine, who started their creative careers during the analogue era. Therefore, they were particularly interested in the interrogation of the old formats in the digital age. When digitalised the tape does not loose its quality, however, it is easy to imagine what will become of a VHS recording after the tenth or twentieth re-recording. In such a case the image and sound may disappear completely but for the lucky recipient of «Good Luck Chain Videocassette» its value will not diminish as the ideal will triumph over the material. The use of «The Good Luck Chain Videocassette» was a part of the artistic concept.


The artists also explored the ways to create different kinds of visuals with the help of computer programs and the ways to project the above with the help of portable digital video projectors that did not require film as an image carrier. As the result of these experiments, people, water, buildings, and windows took on the function of a projector screen. For instance, the video performance by Natalya Golibroda and Solomiya Savchuk titled «Noktovizion» (2001), which explored the relationship between cinema and fashion, employed fashion models dressed in white clothes specially designed for this performance as the screen on which the main action of the video was projected. The poses struck by the models enhanced the impact of the film. The video was built out of a series of short cuts, their inner dynamic amplified by the DJ created soundscape.


As a part of his project titled «Industrial Fountain» presented during the international Uberwasser festival in Germany Gleb Katchuk used as his screen the surface of a two meter high waterfall. The projection was edited in such a way as to follow the direction of the ascending water. This added extra dynamic to the projected image.


The artist does not merely migrate to the traditional territories of the artistic genres in order to imbue them with the new meanings with the help of modern gadgets. Alexander Gnilytskiy in his project titled «Sunny City», for instance, employs natural optic projections (camera obscura) to demonstrate how the media that were used for many centuries can become the 'new media' for contemporary art. Ivan Tsupka presented a series of graphic works that were created as a trompe l'oeil. While Igor Galan in his project titled «An Orchestra, the New Reality» presented a series of kinetic paintings, where he combined sound, painting and kinetics in order to achieve a multimedia wholeness.


If an idea exists there must also exist the team that is ready to put it into action. The best affirmation of the great interest in the new media shown by our artistic community is the fact that all of the projects were created and delivered in close collaboration between the curators and the founders of the Info Media Bank and KIMAF Natalya Manjaliy and Kateryna Stukalova, Ivan Tsupka and «Institution of Unstable Thoughts» featuring  Alexander Gnilytskiy, Lesya Zayats, DJ Sokolov and DJ Derbarstler, the artists Olga Kashimbeckova and Gleb Katchuk, Kirill Protsenko, Illya Chichkan and Illya Isupov, Alexander Vereschak, Margarita Zinets, Natalya Golibroda, Solomiya Savchuk, the art critics Yuliya Yemelyanova, Olga Zhuk, and Nadiya Prygodich.


The festival council also collaborated with FACT, Ars Electronica festival, EMAF, ZKM and American House in Ukraine. Significant support was also provided by the Goethe Institute Ukraine, the Austrian Cultural Forum , Institut Français d’Ukraine, the British Council, Swedish Embassy in Ukraine, Polish Institute in Kiev, Japanese Foundation, internet provider Lucky Net, cultural foundation «Pro Helvetia», Samsung Corporation, Phillips, ZM, Ukrainian computer manufacturer ValTech and many others. It is important to note that it was the Info Media Bank program, together with Goethe Institute Ukraine, and the Austrian Cultural Forum that initiated the foundation of KIMAF.


The new multimedia projects undertaken by the artist testify for the vitality of this art genre in Ukraine today. In September 2013 MediaArtLab[2] delivered a project that combined animation technology, drawing, and street art. The project aimed to create light paintings on the buildings of the city. The technology employed in the delivery of this project were embraced by the artists, who had no previous experience in creating computer facilitated art. The great interest generated by this project among Ukrainian artists showcases the importance of supporting media art in Ukraine on a regular basis. The multimedia technology is not only a powerful tool for advertisement and design but a compelling instrument for contemporary culture.

[1] It is important to note that the situation described above has not seen significant changes over the course of the last twenty years (ed. note)

[2] After the Info Media Bank program seized to exist, Natalya Manjaliy and the curator Lyudmila Motsyuk founded  MediaArtLab, which primarily deals with the presentation of international media art in Ukraine (ed. note).