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A Study in Psycho-Cybernetics?
In conversation with Nina Fraser, a collage artist that applied the digital practice of cybernetics for her analog work
Some months ago, an exhibition by Nina Fraser caught our eye: A Study in Psycho-Cybernetics. The initial interest was in the title’s reference to digitalisation as cybernetics means ‘the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things’ to quote Oxford Dictionary. In other words, it’s the study of communication of machines and living things, a cyborg study of sorts. Combined with psychology, it can be understood as specifically digitalisation – how that communication works psychologically.
Shown at Marvilla Art District in Lisbon, the exhibition followed Nina’s 21 days of collage practice and experimentation, where she took the understanding of cybernetics as something that happened within her own psyche. Fascinating, right? Well, the exhibition was, too! Our editor Maria spoke to Nina about her understanding of cybernetics, psychology, her art practice and, of course, digitalisation. Here’s how that conversation went…
culturala / Maria
Hi Nina, it’s great to speak to you on these topics and a big congratulation on the show! As you know, I love your collages – and especially the haunting, unsettling pieces that you showed at A Study in Psycho-Cybernetics. I wanted to start from the beginning and ask you a little bit about how you ended up doing this 21-day study. What sparked your interest in cybernetics and psycho-cybernetics specifically?
Thanks so much for visiting the show and your interest in this series of works! So, the premise of the show… It all actually started from a request to respond to the theme of “Artificial Intelligence and medicine” for an exhibition at the 45th Annual meeting of the European Society of Neuroradiology at Lisbon's International Congress centre in Sep 2022. I hadn’t really worked with this subject before, and because I don’t come from a scientific background I had to think a lot about in terms of how my analogue practice could find a fertile place of intersection.
I read a lot about cyborgs and AI in general before finally stumbling across cybernetic theory. Reading this, I realised that artists had been working with cybernetics for many years and in many kinds of ways. And, as it was all about systems, it could be transposed into a framework of my choosing.
Psycho-cybernetics comes at it from a more human perspective in regards to self control, goal-setting and so on. This was interesting to me at the time as I was at a very unstable time of my life, moving house and studio, and needed to maximise my time and focus whenever it was available to me. I had a studio space for one month, and that was when I read about the 21-day theory – which played a big part of the process I created for myself for the Psycho-cybernetics series.
Fascinating. I think that the way of connecting analog art practice with the digital has been a big question for many in recent years. At the same time, just like you say, artists have been experimenting with these questions for ages. This is also a particularly interesting topic for us at culturala right now in relation to our latest issue on the topic of digitalisation. In the issue, we feature an essay by Catherine Mason who charts the collaboration between the artist and the machine where she speaks about cybernetics among other things.
In Catherine’s words, ‘Cybernetics as we think of it today was popularised by American author Nobert Wiener in the late 1940s. According to Wiener, at a basic level, cybernetics refers to, “the set of problems centred about communication, control and statistical mechanics, whether in the machine or in living tissue.” This includes the communication within an observer and between the observer and their environment. Wiener’s notions of control, feedback and communication penetrated almost every aspect of technical culture and a computational way of thinking about art production gradually gave way to artists who were able to access computing.’ How do you understand cybernetics? And what is actually “psycho-cybernetics”?
For me, cybernetics started to make sense when I tried to apply it to what I was already familiar with. For example, by defining the words “Planning” – the attempt to conceptually anticipate the future by setting goals and establishing values (criteria) to be designed by a formalised procedure, and “Systems” – models that distinguish themselves from their environment by employing their own language, we can see how it intersects with an artistic practice. In order to be ‘truly cybernetic,’ the system requires feedback loops, and in this case these can be seen as internal ones (within the creation process) or external ones (feedback from others).
In 1960, a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz expanded the theory of cybernetics to create a sort of ‘self help’ book – Psycho-Cybernetics – giving us (well, men, at that time!) a basic framework for understanding how the mind functions as a goal-striving mechanism and what we can do to be more efficient and effective in work and in our lives. Maltz identified self-image as the essential factor that determines your mind’s programming. And so, Maltz created methods to raise awareness of your current limitations, and to reprogram your mind to achieve success.
Using Malts’ statement that “It requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to gel,” I set aside 21 consecutive days to create one daily collage using a pool of outdated film poster multiples as collage material. Initiated on the premise that “Man operates an automatic goal striving machine”, the system created would allow me to monitor my own creation process, assist refinement of my methods of making, and ultimately ensure that ‘success’ would be achieved within a month. This is funny because it then leads us to question what ‘success’ looks like in an artistic framework.
Also interesting when it comes to how we understand productivity and the way it’s framed today as a requisite for everything. Turning to your exhibition, how did you explore this topic in your work, bringing back cybernetic communication into an understanding of yourself as an artist and a human being?
Constraints, used a little like the programming of a machine that is given the power to learn, assisted the direction of the project and allowed a closer awareness of any learning that is achieved through repetition and internal feedback loops. I could use multiple images of the same poster image whenever I wished, cutting it as many times as desired. The content of the film itself was not relevant to the process, in fact most of the films I had not watched. The resulting collage must always be the dimension of the film poster itself.
As I used “Negative feedback” as a process where the machine is controlled on the basis of its actual, not expected, performance, I gained a better awareness of my creative choices. Choices that were affected by the previous days, reselecting imagery to enhance its properties, to refine my craft. Although analog, scissors acted as a tool to perform the task, while the goal was to complete the 21 works in a set number of days. In fact, within each day the time spent making the work eventually decreased, from a whole day when I started, to around two hours toward the end.
The image of the face appears frequently in this work, chosen for its connection to the head, the brain, where the feedback loop begins. Heads are receivers of mass culture, which is both shaped by them and shaped from them. The body is the other repeating symbol, as all films have a main character and this repeating protagonist becomes an emblem for humanity. Sometimes androgynous, often cyborg looking, the silhouette may appear alone or in company. Sometimes the whole collage is created through a wet pasting method: soaking all the paper fragments in water and pasting them to the surface to seal them together like a street poster to a wall. In this way the image becomes one interlocking mechanism.
Nina, Maria and culturala
Nina is a multidisciplinary artist working with paper, exploring human interaction and relationship with the environment. You can see more of her work on her website, ninafraser.xyz or by subscribing to her newsletter.
You can find her works on show in the 𝗖𝗮𝗹𝗲𝗻𝗱𝗮́𝗿𝗶𝗼 𝗮𝘃𝘂𝗹𝘀𝗼 𝗯𝘆 𝗡𝗶𝗻𝗮 𝗙𝗿𝗮𝘀𝗲𝗿 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗣𝗮𝗼𝗹𝗮 𝗗’𝗔𝗴𝗼𝘀𝘁𝗶𝗻𝗼 exhibition at Studio Seco, a new studio and gallery space in Alcântara, Lisbon. 8th-29th of September, Travessa do Giestal 45a.