By Marie Chatel
Claudia Hart is a pioneer of media art, one of the very few that worked at the onset of merging art and simulation technologies in the 1990s. Starting with early 3D virtual imaging then-used in the military only, she subsequently experimented with upcoming techniques such as AR and VR in an all-embracing capacity. But is being technologically vanguard enough for artists to gain credibility? Is it just about mastering new tools? These questions ask to ponder the blurring of roles between a creative and an engineer or IT specialist. Conspicuously, while Hart’s embrace of technologies stands apart, it is also her capacity to generate discourses and claims around simulations that makes her art so meaningfully addictive. An excellent example for understanding the role of critical content and art history within the making of new media art.
Away from the History of Animation
An obvious way to think of Hart’s work would be to delve into the history of animation starting with flipbooks and hand drawings up to today’s sophisticated 3D persona — but that would be a mistake. Hart diverges from the past of animation, giving a refreshing approach to the media. Instead, the artist looks into simulations, or what she calls Simul-isms, as something that has more to do with the history of automatons, giving digital bodies an environment to interact with and seeing from there how these avatars evolve on their own. While she always conceived these beings virtually through computer-generated imagery (CGI), she progressively infused them with physical perceptions through motion capture and the use of sensors, making these immersive environments more real and distorting viewers’ understanding of the fake.
Digital bodies and the Iconography of the Virtual Female
From painting to internet productions by post-cyber feminists, the representation of women is a recurring subject of art history and a most-important sociological question today as women still fight for equal rights. In CGI and 3D imaging, Hart was the leading figure to raise these issues being one of the rare female artists in the sector. IT, gaming, military and animation industries were (and still mostly are) male environments where pragmatic ideals dominate, and computer-generated images make the objectification of female bodies apparent. Women stand as standardised objects of desire and big breasts, thick lips, tight waists and curvy hips define a supposed global truth for attractiveness. Conversely, Hart depicts avatar-women as poetic beings of high sensuousness, retracing the emotional nature of women, the charms of their bodies beyond pre-conceived criteria, and their ultimate ability to express their desires and depart from male dominion.
Romanticism Brought Anew
Hart advocates a return to a form of Romanticism, an idea shared with other new media artists, and which she notably theorised as part of the article “The New Romantics: Flâneurs and Dandies of the Twenty-first Century.” At the core is the use of mythological, literary, and art historical references recalling the 19th-century movement with its exploration of personal feelings and human psychology as well as its use of allegory and revival of classicist forms — think Greek sculptures and other canonical imagery. Some works of Hart such as Ophelia (2008) see a direct allusion to Romanticism as the inert body of a nude odalisque-like figure floats underwater with perfect buoyancy, an adjacent plastic bag as the sole indicator of our period in an otherwise timeless frieze.
Landscape and pictorial scenes are also subjects of nostalgia against our technocratic pulses. In her latest work, Big Red (2019), Hart arranges a still-life with vivid colors and black outlines similar to those in Matisse’s canvas. The piece announces a new stream of works where she reinterprets the Fauvist painter’s depictions of his studio filled with paintings. Moving from the 20th-century scenes, set in time as in a photograph, to the ever-evolving possibilities of 3D simulation, Hart highlights the changes in communication flows and signals the overwhelming amount of information that saturates our techno-centred society. This approach, which diverges from her focus on digital bodies, reflects her extensive use of comparison with past representations to understand or question current times. And who better to emulate than Matisse whose work reveals such a poetic, emotional and intrinsically human vision?
Subversion and Repurposing of Capitalistic Symbols of Power
Another characteristic of Romanticism is the use of political irony — something Hart signals by using comparative symbols of past and present times. One example is the use of emojis covering the walls of her VR environment in The Flower Matrix (2016). Symbols of technocratic power as well as recurring elements of the fast-paced, emojis epitomises consumerist society and its mode of visual communication. Interestingly, the structure of this simulation describes the Labyrinth of the Minotaur, a subversion of the Greek myth for denouncing how embedded we are with capitalism. In media ballet The Dolls (2017), Hart uses billboard dresses as reminders of the collapsed Habsburg empire to signify the fall of authorities. The background shows a collection of buildings from fallen empires such as Cesar’s Roman Forum, Louis XIV’s Versailles, and Marie-Antoinette’s Le Petit Trianon, which Hart found on Google 3D Warehouse and which she depicts plunging in a surface covered with a grid of welcomes, as if alluding to Google whimsical take over past and present political, power entities.
Theatre and the Combination of Multiple Media
Through her interest in staging and spectatorship as well as her use of multiple media, Hart links back to the artistic tradition of the early 20th century. She extends her work with virtual worlds to the conception of the physical spaces where her experiences take place, and carefully designs augmented furniture and wallpapers, for instance in The Flower Matrix (2016) where the visitor starts exploring her work as he enters the set.
While Hart’s live performances remind of past theatre productions, she also restores Modernists’ cooperative approach to creation where many artists brought their understanding of a specific media. For the Alices Walking (2014), a sculptural opera and fashion show, she collaborated with composer and sound designer Edmund Campion and vocalist Mikey Mc Parlane, as well as performers to bring the five Alices alive. On stage, they wore sculptural costumes that Hart designed in shapes reminiscent of Picasso’s design for the ballet La Parade (1917), and which Hart augmented with poetic text animations through an application developed by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes.
Similarly, her media ballet The Dolls (2017) was subject to collaborations with Kristina Isabelle, Kurt Hentschlager and Liviu Pasare. Her costumes also share the streamlined allure and cumbersomeness of Oskar Schlemmer’s designs for the Triadic Ballet (1922), another appealing reference knowing how the Bauhaus valued cross-disciplinary collaborative approaches, appreciated the role of women as artists, explored upcoming media and reevaluated some crafts to the status of art — all themes which are essential to Hart.