Piotr Krzymowski and Mateusz Kozieradzki in Piotr's London studio

Photograph: Dawid Lewandowski

It’s Friday evening and we are on the 10th floor of the Tate Modern Gallery in London (ranked as the second World’s Top 30 “Hashtagged” Cities on Instagram). We met with the artist Piotr Krzymowski and the curator Mateusz Kozieradzki to talk about their upcoming exhibition reflecting on the post-apocalyptic vision of social media and our transformation into the smartphone-oriented society.

 

The relationship between artist and curator is seldom merely a fleeting professional collaboration. With an exchange of ideas and inspiration must come synergy and a shared dialogue, and it’s no different in this case. Piotr (born in 1989) and Mateusz (born in 1992) grew up in the burgeoning digital age, so it’s fitting that they should have met on Instagram and still communicate via the app. Piotr lives and works in London, whilst Mateusz works with a team of curators at the CoCA in Torun. Their exhibition is due to open in the institution this October.

In his latest body of work, Krzymowski examines the effects of the Internet Age on an evermore widespread and dependant generation. Known as “Technophoria”, the metabolic condition devised by late capitalism suggests human needs and desires are satisfied purely by the continual evolution of their electronic devices. The artist looks carefully on our post-digital condition and ways in which our manners, relationships, and feelings can be expressed and interacted with through Internet fuelled devices that became essential to navigate our daily lives. As the artist observes ”Most of us approach social media entirely passively, giving little thought or meaning to what we see or post”.

Emojis

In his installation titled “Emotional Baggage”, shown in 2018 at the Exhibit A window gallery in West London, Krzymowski draws our attention to emojis used in the instant messaging conversations.

 

Piotr Krzymowski: According to reports, we share over 60 million emojis on social media and send nearly 6 billion in e-mails or text messages. It has become the fastest growing language, and one cultivated, perhaps surprisingly, by all generations. The installation I made for Exhibit A features groups of emoji pillows placed inside vacuum-packed bags. As a result, they’re wrinkled, contorted, squashed and altogether imperfect, in stark contrast to the identical round, polished icons that stare at us from the screens of our smartphones. One of the most prevalent references in this work are the XIX century experiments of the French neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne, who treated human faces with electric shocks in order to reveal the true emotions lying beneath the surface of the skin. He then photographed, catalogued and named the individual emotions, publishing them as the lexicon of emotions. The chart that he produced could be considered the first emoji dictionary.

#Florence, analogue slide photograph, 2018

# - hashtag and collective, historical memory

Mateusz Kozieradzki: I was struck by Piotr’s works because I’ve always been interested in art that limits its materiality. The kind of art that doesn’t necessarily take the form of a painting or a sculptural object, but adopts such ephemeral means as social media for example. Piotr’s works are very reminiscent of the conceptual art of the ‘70s. However, he presents a completely new approach to media that’s currently available, and adopts it in new ways. Moreover, he repeatedly looks back and references the past. For instance, in the slide projection entitled “#”, he combines the hashtag with analogue photography.

PK: These slide photographs portray my hands forming the hashtag symbol against obviously “hashtaggable” locations or situations. They were often taken by young people encountered on the streets, for whom the hashtag is a familiar concept. On the other hand though, this young audience was completely puzzled when presented with analogue technology. Once I’d explained how to use my old Zenith or Olympus cameras, they instinctively expected to see instant results on a digital screen. By combining analogue technology with a digital language I draw attention to the fact that experiences that once existed within the confines of our beings are now entwined with code and pixels. This unavoidable digital reality is leading to an increasingly perceptible shift towards a transient and pervasive sense of self, which can be created, curated and limitlessly modulated.

“A touch too much”

PK: At some point in my research I learned that an individual smartphone user touches the screen of his phone around 5,600 times a day. I decided to document the journey I made everyday with my own fingers by covering my screen with a special aluminium powder typically used by the criminologists to collect the fingerprints. Later, this very abstract image was scanned and turned into a screen-print with the use of the thermochromic paint that reacts to the temperature. It’s worth noting that as digital media have become increasingly haptic or touchable, the way we physically engage with the world is altering. While tactility is conventionally explored by what we can engage with our hands, the idea of what we can engage with through “touch” is rapidly evolving. Because the digital realm is most often experienced behind two-dimensional screens, the human hand had to develop a different set of commands to engage with it, such as swipes, taps, and clicks. The desire to touch is thus transferred from the hand to the finger.

Zombies and smartphones

“Swombie” is another series of works which enters the post-apocalyptic narrative of contemporary culture and offers a critique of technology altering our behaviour as we move into the future. As Krzymowski explains, “swombie” was voted German youth word of the year in 2015. The word is a mash-up of ‘smartphone’ and ‘zombie’ and seems to accurately describe how contemporary society is devising new modes of communication that make no distinction between the real and the virtual.

 

MK: In this work, the aspect of danger is associated with chemicals such as copper sulphate or sulphuric acid (also known as battery acid) that are used in the production of smartphones as well as other gadgets enabling us to stay “online”. The works centre upon glass mannequin heads which reveal the fragments of electrical devices within, all soaked in these two chemicals. The works are in a constant process of destruction and decay.

swombie, glass mannequin head filled with wires covered

in copper sulphate crystals, 30x15 cm, 2019

And what does his daily work and studio look like?

PK: I live just above my work space at Acme Studios in East London, so I don’t have to worry about catching the last tube back! There are no excuses for me not to be in my studio because it’s literally only about 100 steps from my flat (laughs). I tend to work irregularly; sometimes I can spend the whole day in the studio with my computer and books, other times I work in the evenings and finish a project at night.

Finally, I ask Piotr for advice for artists who are just starting, especially in London.

PK: Pay particular attention to open calls. When I was still in college I’d follow all the websites that published them. Each exhibition, each opportunity, they all offer new and exciting possibilities for young artists. Don’t be afraid to have a part-time job to fund your dreams too. I’ve been in London for 10 years and I still feel I have so much to see and discover in this most “hashtaggable” of cities! (Sylwia Krason  for Contemporary Lynx Magazine)