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In Conversation: Anna Ridler and Gary Zhexi Zhang


Given apparent synergies in their practices, Delfina Foundation put Gary Zhexi Zhang and Anna Rilder in touch – two artists who have been UK associates for consecutive seasons of Delfina Foundation’s science_technology_society programme – in partnership with Gaia Art Foundation. The following conversation is an edited version of a Zoom conversation between the pair.

Gary Zhexi Zhang (GZZ): So how has your residency been so far?

Anna Ridler (AR): It’s been good. It’s been quite different to what I understand the residencies at Delfina are usually like, initially because of the pandemic and now because England has gone into a full lockdown. In general, I think it has restricted the more social side of the residency, especially as, being one of the UK associates, I don’t live in the house with the international residents. I have been going to Delfina for meetings and presentations, but it’s hard to hang out together in the way I imagine you would have done when you were there last year. Even just going to exhibitions as a group, when that was possible, you had to be quite organised and book things in advance. Now of course, museums and galleries are closed completely.

GZZ: And work-wise, how has this year been for you in general?

AR: To be honest, it’s been difficult, as everything is at the moment. When the pandemic first hit the UK I basically couldn’t work for a while due to family reasons. Since then, like for many in our sector, it’s just been a very weird time with so many exhibitions and events getting cancelled and with things always changing and shifting and not knowing where anything’s going or what next year will look like. How’s it been for you?

GZZ: Overall, it’s actually been a weirdly busy time for me. I finished my residency at Delfina in December last year and then pretty much moved straight to New York and started manically looking for work because just breathing is expensive there. Things got shut down in the city from around March, slightly earlier than in the UK. I remember being on the phone with my mum in the UK and telling her that I thought things were getting a bit more serious with COVID and she was just like, “Oh, that’s nice. Take care of yourself. It’s okay.” And I was like, “No. I’m trying to tell you they’re going to shut half of New York down and you should probably be worried about that too!” The sense of urgency has been very different in the UK. I came back here in August, and it was shocking to see people out on the street without masks. Anyway in New York, I was teaching for a semester at Parsons School of Design and alongside that me and my partner Agnes Cameron started a design studio with two other friends building websites and digital objects. It’s not exactly part of my practice, but it’s a way to support ourselves financially.

Gary Zhexi Zhang and Agnes Cameron, The First 10,000 Years, 2020. Still.

AR: I saw you did a commission with Arts Catalyst recently. I am keen to talk to you about some of the things in it as I’m also interested in financial markets; how they work and how and when they break. Like the moments of speculation or when things are just valued really weirdly and I think valuing the weather, as you investigate in this work, is one of those moments.

GZZ: This was a project that actually began during my residency at Delfina last year. From an initial conversation with Arts Catalyst and Bloc Projects it has grown into an 18-month project already, which currently comprises three parts. The first part, the digital commission, The First 10,000 Years, has just been released, and there will be an exhibition next year. The work is a hurricane market simulation; a live simulation that plays out on a server onto a website which basically creates a series of simulated hurricane paths.

My interest in this area started with instruments or technologies of uncertainty. This led me to this world of disaster and catastrophe insurance, which is interesting because it’s both a speculative financial game and deeply consequential for evolving planetary conditions under climate change. In this piece, which was developed in collaboration with Agnes Cameron, the idea was to use roughly the same techniques as they do in industry simulations, which is to take the historical disaster data and perturb it a bit to simulate thousands of “fictional” hurricanes, which may or may not take place in the next year. The work gains its name from the fact the insurance industry typically uses 10,000 year simulations, simulating 10,000 fictional versions of the weather next year.

In general, in my work at the moment I’m thinking about how different systems cast into the future and the engineering of time through mechanisms like finance, and this latest work was an attempt to explore that visually. The difficulty we experienced was in trying to build a market simulation, as the markets are emergent processes, and keep themselves, to some degree, in check. It’s almost like Conway’s Game of Life; if you put certain initial variables in, everything dies very quickly. It can stay stable for a little while, then, suddenly, everything dies. Thankfully the market simulation has remained pretty stable and the next stage of the work is to bring people in to use it as a trading interface. I’ve not had a chance to work much on this evolution yet, but we’ve toyed with the idea of a [cryptocurrency] token launch. I think you’ve done a work before using tokens; I’d be interested to hear more about that, how it worked and your experience doing it?

AR: Last year I made an Ethereum work called Bloemenveiling, in collaboration with David Pfau, and, in effect, we ended up building a whole start up! It could sell moving image pieces on the blockchain and so it ended up being similar, structurally, to companies like SuperRare. I made my own token and it was basically a project through which I was trying to understand, by building from the ground up, how these things really work in practice; what they do, where they break, what is true and what is false, what is the narrative and what is the hype.

To be honest though, I hated working with the blockchain. It’s a really complicated technology. There are so many things that interface into each other. One of the things that I did like about using technology though is that it is controlled by contracts and you can start to play with how people experience things by writing controls into the contract. For example, in this work, you’d buy a tulip and it would be available for about a week and after that the person who purchased it would not be able to view it anymore – and there’s something quite nice about this element of control over how your work is experienced.

Anna Ridler and David Pfau, Bloemenveiling, 2019. Website, smart contracts, GAN generated video and AI bots

GZZ: Can you talk me through what happens in this work?

AR: I used a GAN [generative adversarial network] to generate an image of a tulip (this was a part of a series of works I have done with this flower) and then created a NFT to sell them on the blockchain. The tulip was kept pixelated until it was purchased, at which point the customer was able to get the unpixellated video. After a while it would blight, so that video would disappear. In effect access to it was time based, so there was a clock which was counting down and then at a certain point, it would cut off.

We set it up so that there were also some bots bidding during the auction, which would, in theory, drive the prices up. To be honest, we were a bit worried that we’d end up spending a small fortune on our own artworks because the bots were trained to bid, but we didn’t know exactly what the parameters would be and whether they would just learn that if they bid a huge amount they’d always win, or if they would do it bit by bit, which, thankfully, is what they ended up doing.

The work was part of an exhibition at HeK Basel. The plan wasn’t to make a lot of money off it; it was more of an experiment to work with this type of technology and see what it could do and see what was interesting. It seems like there are resonances with things that you’re interested in, about value and around authentication and recording. For example, when you work with GANs you can make millions and millions of tulip video works, but as soon as you put it into an art market, it’s the ones that are stamped and verified that are valuable.

This is the only work I’ve done with cryptos. To be honest, my experience was it is a very contained world. I don’t know what you think about it, whether you think it is a good thing or a bad thing or just a complete red herring?

GZZ: I think it’s a potentially constructive thing. I definitely don’t think it’s an inherently ‘good thing’. I guess my position on it is it’s so deeply propositional. There’s the financial perspective, and then there’s the drowning in white papers aspect of it, which is itself kind of interesting because it does seem to represent another chapter of the utopian history of the web. First there was the quite-DIY, quite-libertarian, much more hands on, peer-to-peer version of digital culture that emerged in the 1990s. Then there was the rapid commercialisation and the rise of platforms in the 2000s and up to now and the monopolisation of everything. I guess after Bitcoin arrived at the end of the noughties it catalysed a discourse around some long overdueproblems. What does collective ownership of a network look like? How do we create infrastructures for trust across distributed networks? I’m not necessarily an advocate for these functions replacing traditional institutions of the state, but while we’re all caught in this ongoing skirmish between platforms monopolies and governments, I’m here for discussions around how people on the network want to build their own communities and cultures from the ground up.

AR: I agree that there needs to be these conversations around crypto, but I feel like you need to have a pretty high knowledge base in order to engage with it and that’s problematic.

GZZ: I think since 2017 there has certainly been a lot of effort made in this area for it to have become more widespread. I don’t think it wants to be an insular community. Although it’s true that every time I try to dip back into it, I sort of think, “am I the idiothere?” Because so many people seem to be so fluent in the latest jargon, whether it’s a lexicon or in the conceptual claimsunderpinning of the whole thing. I think that will change, though not necessarily for better, as everyone is pushing for wider adoption. So if you’re not continuing your work down the crypto route what are you thinking about these days?

AR: At the moment, I am working on a new project which actually is also related to hurricanes. Despite my very British accent, my mum’s American and I spent a lot of my childhood in the south. I’m working with Caroline Sinders, an artist from Louisiana, and we’re looking at the coastal wetlands of the southern US, a region where, due to climate change, hurricanes have become a huge problem. Our focus is on the Bald Cypress, a very distinctive looking tree that grows in the water there.

Anna Rilder showing a work in progress on Bald Cypresses
Anna Rilder showing a work in progress on Bald Cypresses

The Bald Cypress is always one of the few things that remains after a hurricane, due to the way its roots web together. Its root structure also helps keep the soil packed and so they serve as a crucial component in preventing coastal erosion. To survive the tree requires relatively fresh water, but in recent years due to oil and gas exploration cutting canals into the coastline, its habitat is getting flooded with salt water, causing it to die and then as a consequence you’re getting this slow costal erosion from the hurricanes.

In addition to this aspect, the tree is also an interesting vector to think about deep time, the past and the future – it’s now moving north as far up as Indiana due to the changing climate. They can grow pretty much everywhere – in fact there’s even one just by Delfina Foundation in St James’s Park that was brought over from the US 400 years ago. It grows best though in swampy environments with high precipitation and humid, hot weather. But due to climate change its moving into areas where it hasn’t grown for millennia. It’s not like people have decided to plant a forest of it there, it’s just consequential.

GZZ: It’s obviously a fascinating object to follow as an artist. Do you have an idea yet of how it will manifest as a work?

AR: We’re not sure exactly yet. The project has shifted a lot because, for nearly a year now, different waves of the pandemic both here and in the US have prevented me from traveling to the region. I had intended to do a lot of documentation of the Cypress trees; looking at them and trying to measure them, and thinking about all of those things.

Now all of this stuff has to be done online, which is a very different process to how I normally embark on these projects. Usually I’d go somewhere, find something, see it, and then later do the desk research, and eventually make something. That way the desk research is much more directed. It feels a bit inverted.

In general, though, it’s a project I’m really excited about, but like with many things during this pandemic it is in a constant state of flux. It’s like, when you have an idea and it feels like a little blob of jelly or something? Like you poke it, and it kind of wiggles, but it just doesn’t have that firm outer shell of an idea yet.