Mila Kotka and her bio-art hieroglyphs
"Every hieroglyph is a witness to my travels into the wild".
Recently, the Belarusian artist Mila Kotka hosted an author's exhibition in an unusual urban location — Kamień educational pavilion on the bank of the Vistula River in Warsaw. Just google kamien warszawa and check out cool that looks. A cool location for cool art: Mila exhibited her bio-art hieroglyphs as part of Bio-Art Hybrid-Media Exhibition "ENDO-EXO". As you've guessed from the name, it presented not only her bio-art pieces, but also hybrid media. For instance, part of the exhibition was located in the virtual exhibition space where you can join the author's avatar and stroll along the show-pieces. The exhibition also featured a few other curators, musicians, a choir, vj's and digital artists.
We talked to the artist about the impressions of working with the team and the creative process collaborating with a team of other artists to create works inspired by Mila's art. The result is an exhibition guide of sorts, combined with backstage stories and conceptual unpacking of the artistic statement behind this work of art. Check out the full version of our talk in the podcast. The below text version focuses on Mila's hunt for art piece materials, finding your own journey destination and why the transition phase is no less important then stability.<iframe width="100%" height="300" scrolling="no" frameborder="no" allow="autoplay" src="https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/1656179892&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true"></iframe><div style="font-size: 10px; color: #cccccc;line-break: anywhere;word-break: normal;overflow: hidden;white-space: nowrap;text-overflow: ellipsis; font-family: Interstate,Lucida Grande,Lucida Sans Unicode,Lucida Sans,Garuda,Verdana,Tahoma,sans-serif;font-weight: 100;"><a href="https://soundcloud.com/radioplato" title="Radio Plato" target="_blank" style="color: #cccccc; text-decoration: none;">Radio Plato</a> · <a href="https://soundcloud.com/radioplato/radio-plato-editorial-podcast-113-w-mila-kotka" title="Radio Plato - Editorial Podcast #113 w/ Mila Kotka" target="_blank" style="color: #cccccc; text-decoration: none;">Radio Plato - Editorial Podcast #113 w/ Mila Kotka</a></div><br>
Imagine that you are in a spacious exhibition hall with brick walls, minimalistic benches and a growing tree with red leaves stand in the middle; huge art-pieces are hung on the walls, you can approach them to see in more detail and read the descriptions. A cat strolls around the space, and the building itself is located in the middle of a bay with a soothing view of the sea. This is Kotkaverse, where everyone can go right now, take a virtual walk through Mila Kotka's exhibition, check out the art, listen to Mufer's hypnotic dj set in the main hall, as well as pay a visit to a forest rave and a separate meditation room. Just google Kotkaverse and a spatial.io link will take you there. This is where we meet Mila to have a talk.
– Hi, Mila! You have already been a guest of the "Editorial podcast” back in pre-revolutionary 2019. You were the organizer of Vulica Brasil festival back then. What is your main occupation right now?
– I am no longer the organizer of that festival as I am not in Belarus anymore. I have relocated to Brazil mentally. Together with diplomat Danilo Costa – my partner in the project I started the Vulica Brasil Institute of Art and Sustainability. At the same time, I was in Thailand, where I gave birth to the most important project in my life, both as an author and an artist. I used to feel embarassed of the word, but now I can proudly say I am an artist with more than one exhibition under my belt. The last one took place in Warsaw, in a wonderful place called Kamień pavilion.
– What does your art consist of?
– I would start with the visualization. Imagine yourself in the jungle, in the forest, on a river bank or in the mountains somewhere in the wild, where it feels great and it's beautiful and peaceful. In order to transport yourself to that place you can create a portal, a hieroglyphic key, a combination, a mental anchor as one would call it.
My bio-art hieroglyphs server as such a portal for me. I use endemic plant elements and from those petals, stamens, some shells, feathers, I create entities, portals, codes, ciphers, symbols. These symbols are the visual basis for starting an associative practice. Everyone sees something different in these symbols: some see animals, or a face, or maybe a whole story... For somebody it's a whole song.
For me, they serve as inspiration for reflection: through emotions, the journey, I try to make sense of my life and the life around me, I search for insights, because every hieroglyph for me is a small insight.
– How do you collect your bio-hieroglyphs? What does your day look like when you find a new one for your collection?
– For me it's a quest not unlike how pilgrimages are a quest for spirituality. I take very little with me: a camera, a black background (my hoodie) and go out alone or in good company of up to one person. But, of course, I prefer to be alone. Very few pieces have been collected when I was out there together with someone. People are hungry for communication, and few people can withstand my search, my fishing process. I can be sitting there for two hours almost completely still putting the pieces together. But for me time flies when I'm working on it.
First, you need to take a long hike, preferably no less than ten kilometers. That's what it takes to open up a new sense of vision. Perhaps, this is tied to our neurophysiology. It works like a meditation. Only then your mind clears and you start noticing the surrounding beauty or something unusual. You switch off the ceaseless inner dialogue and the everyday problems fade away. It gets you out of your mental prison.
I don't always manage to do such trips. You know, in Poland I haven't gone to national parks that much yet, turns out quite an expensive trip. But in Georgia, where I lived previously, it was walking distance to go out to the mountains and find some hieroglyphs. Of course, traveling to tropical equator belt countries was optimal for this task. You get the best biodiversity there, which is also very important to my work – the diversity of natural shapes and colors. And in the cities I could never make anything great. You can't make it out into the nature every single day. So you can say that every hieroglyph is a witness to my travels into the wild.
The coolest hieroglyphs were obtained where there were trips with a challenge: to some big waterfalls in Brazil, or when I had to make a long way through the sand dunes. Where the landscape itself was striking.
– That is to say, behind each hieroglyph there is a story?
– Yes, as well as a geo-location. When I grow too old to make such trips alone, I will start making tours on those paths. Every hieroglyph is tied to one of the most beautiful places on Earth that I have visited. Beauty and harmony 360°.
With the way the world is changing though, I'm not sure those places will still be there by that time. Sebastian Salgado once made his Genesis photo project in the Amazon and other wild places on the planet, and said that he wanted to capture the Earth in such an untouched shape, because it's not going to stay that way for long. But, in any case, hit me up – I have the locations for each of the hieroglyphs.<iframe width="560" height="515" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/HxuejT6pl58?si=lIgZRUdCnWws2VFM" title="YouTube video player" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture; web-share" allowfullscreen></iframe>
– Your exhibition took place in an unusual space, Kamień pavilion which is located on the bank of the Vistula River in Warsaw. How did you find it?
– I went there with my good friend Mark, an Englishman who has lived in Warsaw for more than 20 years, to an environmental party that involved cleaning up the Vistula. When I saw this boulder-shaped building – the architect was inspired by a real stone located nearby – I then thought it would be great to make my exhibition there. Prior to that, I was looking at exhibition spaces in Warsaw – a city with a strong historical energy, probably because Warsovians care about their history so much. For my art, I wanted to avoid this context. So when I saw the clarity of the Kamień space, it seemed to me that this would be the perfect place.
Fortunately, I had several of my works with me in the shape of postcards, so I approached the managers, showed it to them and told them that I wanted to make an exhibition here. For the first time in my life, I managed to negotiate in three seconds.
– How was the idea of the "ENDO-EXO" exhibition born?
– I have not lived at home in Belarus for more than a year or two, I have changed several countries during this time and I feel that I am in transit at this point. So I decided to focus on that.
Once I spent a few weeks with the mother of the girlfriend of my friend from Capoeira, thanks to whom I now live in a beautiful art residence in Warsaw. The girl went on vacation, and I stayed with this woman. Her husband had passed away, and she missed him very much. I tried to talk to her, listened to her, and then I took her on a trip to the bay. I watched her eyes fill with new life. We started talking to her about where to get energy for the new, for adaptation. She is a chemist by trade, and she said that there are processes in biology and chemistry when things give energy, and conversely, when they take it from somewhere – endo- and exoprocesses. It was fascinating to me that this woman, in the middle of her personal emotional turmoil, in one second metaphorically solved the problem of where to get energy from.
It became a clue in which direction to go with my work. When own energy is nearly exhausted and it seems like it's game over and nothing is worth it anymore, I decided to invoke the external forces and invite other creators and show myself in this transitory state that I, and we, find ourselves in.
I collaborated with electronic musicians Mufer and Syntrig, with singers Rusia from the Shuma band, Lera Dele from KOOB, and a whole singing female choir. The project was joined by digital artists Plaha and Dizzy, and three curators – Olga Klip, Ksenia Tyrsikova and Maxim Kruk. About 30 people together, creating something together is a very strong energy boost.
I looked up a scientific journal on this theme and it turned out that this phenomenon of transition, the whole dichotomy of internal vs external (endo- vs exo-) is a common concept in many branches of science – from quantum physics to ecology to psychology to brain neurophysiology. The latter come to the conclusion that our perception of the world has more to do with our brain that the actual outside reality: by classifying and categorizing the phenomena we make sense of what's around us.
But, the most shocking thing I read there is that almost all of our human life depends on what kind of inner 'lens' we use to view the world and how much it correlates or conflicts with the outside. Which affects both our personal and collective lives. Moreover, art is what lies at this boundary of external and internal and has a potential to influence our paradigm of thinking, and, in turn, our reality. In any case, the space I created while making the exhibition – both real and virtual in the meta-verse – brought me closer to a new perception of life. Aligning the inner 'lens' with the external reality and thus releasing an incredible amount of energy. Surprisingly, I have much more energy right now than I had before the exhibition.
– How was the exhibition space constructed in virtual reality vs the real reality?
– Putting together the virtual reality exhibition space felt a lot like a computer game. I created a few portals just so you don't end up in a single room. The main hall looks like a sizeable gallery with white, brick and glass walls overlooking the mountains and the ocean and floating above them. The art objects are hung on these walls. I purposely made them much larger than they are in real life because why not. Virtual reality is a good place to experiment. I populated the space with some ottomans, flowerpots, a tree, and a virtual cat roaming the premises...
– By the way, that virtual exhibition is still open, right?
– Yes, it's open for visiting, moreover the visitors can meet each there as avatars that you create upon logging on. I created one of my own, and the crazy thing is that I began to identify with it. Now, I don't even want to use my real photos online anymore.
I used to be way more critical of this. But when I opened the exhibition in virtual reality I put on the VR glasses and met those who came to the exhibition opening there. A girl started talking to me in the metaverse, and asked me to show her around the exhibition. So I was showing her around the virtual exhibition while physically being at the real one. After a while, the curators and visitors who saw the whole performance unfold started dragging me back out to the real world. "Mila, come back to the biological world, take off the headset!" So I had to say to the girl: "Sorry, gotta go, I am being dragged back into the brick and mortar version of this exhibition".<iframe width="560" height="515" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GmNb2qQFy6k?si=Clum62JGydy9_MTB" title="YouTube video player" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture; web-share" allowfullscreen></iframe>
– What challenges did you face when organizing the exhibition?
– There were a few. First of all, it was emotionally challenging. It just so happened that I had to take care of three different projects at the same time and I had a hard time deciding which one to prioritize. One of the projects was thematically about a distant future, the other one about the pictures from the past and the third one – this exhibition – is all about the here and now. At a certain point I even thought of giving up on the exhibition, but then I thought to myself: "Hold on, I'm not going to sacrifice my own project!" It was hard to halt the other projects where I carry a lot of responsibility in order to focus exclusively on this one for the time being. In a way, this exhibition turned out as my triumph of focus, recognizing the importance of things at hand. As a result, it gave me a ton of energy and valuable resource.
The other challenge was the minimal financial support I got for this exhibition. I got a lot of help with the metaverse side of the project. I got the headset, and generally the whole virtual reality side was taken care of, with many of the collaborators voluntarily joining me on this project, for which I am thankful from the bottom of my heart! But, for instance, the costs of the material side of the exhibition are pretty high. I even had the idea of crowdfunding the real-world part of the exhibition. Open the virtual exhibition with an option to purchase art-objects. So a sale in metaverse funds hanging up a material version of it on a wall of a real-world exhibition.
So, for instance, there was only about 10% of the works hung up on opening day. The rest had black square placeholders in their place. In the end, I had to fund the whole thing with the last of my own savings. And I don't regret it, you know. It's the better way. I'm more comfortable as a hungry artist looking for the next project, this statement was totally worth it. But, of course, I would love this art product to be institutionally presented eventually. I think this is a great prototype.
And, I think, the greatest challenge for me was to understand my positioning. I want to keep my art and my name in sort of a safe space, so people can visit me from Belarus (and not feel threatened returning home to Belarus from abroad - translator's note), where I can communicate with everybody and everybody feels good about it. It's a very delicate matter right now. It's seductive to pick a side. Which side of the barricades are you on? Endo or exo? It was challenging to keep this balance right but I did my best.
Of course, I lost quite a bit of potential audience because of the interview requests I rejected. But this intimacy played its own role. There was no misunderstandings with the audience at this opening, when someone comes to the gallery and feels totally lost. And it's a good thing to have something new born. Because my artistic statement really does not fit the current media agenda. It's something completely new, and I am happy to spread to the wide world.
The exhibition was prepared in collaboration with: