Vitaly Bezpalov: Viktor, your work resembles documentation amassed in the course of travelling through the territories that have either been formed after a global apocalypse, or preceded it, or, alternatively, that exist right now in some parallel reality. Your landscapes, like the worlds without humans or the worlds that survived the extinction of humans, are filled with dilapidated facilities with bare iron reinforcements, insects, and the howling wind. You repeatedly invite the viewer to crawl along the tunnels and deserts under the guise of a cockroach or watch sinister flying machines in motion. Here and there decomposing, collapsing hands appear in your drawings, it is not clear whose hands these are, most likely, they simply belong to the dead. Can you tell us about these worlds that you construct from one project to the next?
Viktor Timofeev: It is actually my intention to give these worlds autonomy, so that they can exist without feeling as if they are a continuation of one another: multiple iterations on the same input. But it seems that every time I wipe the slate clean and start a new project, the things I make end up converging in the same place and eventually sharing a common base either way. I have accepted this base as my ground zero, my default, which behaves as my start-and-end point when interfacing with the world at large. It feels like a diaristic life barometer, or a volatile process that is futile to contain but at the same time seeks some kind of control. I oscillate between trying to escape this familiar base-swamp before realizing I am actually drowning in it again and thinking that it feels good, before again feeling anxious that I am back to the base-swamp and need to get out of it.
This base is like a patchwork of worlds: passing thoughts, fantasies, desires, what-ifs, curiosities, hallucinations, relations, urgencies, etc. It exists in the parallel present. One world is a mutated reflection on a relationship, an attempt to materialize suppressed feelings or unuttered words in this circular logic. Another is a frustrated acknowledgement about the stubborn unknowability of some things. Another is a celebration of it - a escape from the world of banal knowingness. It’s hard to say that all of it has a singular conceptual thread, as every world is sparked by different conditions...but they do have one common ground, which is the fact that they are a product of my environment, a response to the immediate present.
Another thing I consider when crafting each world is the specificity of the medium. For example, I don't make drawings with the intention of turning them into digital environments. I think each medium has its strengths, weakness, defaults, and tropes, and communicates on different levels of a spectrum; some of these worlds might function best as a pure text, others will only work in a game engine. I find a lot of freedom in shuffling around, not prioritizing one technology over another, and maybe letting their edges bleed into each other a bit.
Also, I have actually been including a lot of human forms into my recent work. It took me about ten years but I finally got there and now see it as this ultimate personal challenge: how to work with the human form in my own way. Because I have spent the past years considering architectural and non-human environments, I have a visual bank I dip into when dropping my humanoids into some kind of context or situation. On the other hand, humans, have actually always been in my work; the work was just stuck in a surrogate first person view and the surroundings were completely deserted. So the environment was “devoid of human presence" only because it was seen through the eyes of an amnesiac, devoid of company or any reflective surfaces to remember what the human form even is.
Natalya Serkova: Yes, it seems that anxiety is a very suitable word in regard to your worlds. I get very anxious when I encounter them, first of all, probably because I do not understand what a proper way to behave is so as not to get into some sort of trouble in there. In doing so, I constantly see a grid of some kind superimposed behind it, some absolutely definite, exactly calibrated logic, as in the worlds of Italo Calvino’s cities or in Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus. This grid becomes graphically visible in your architectural forms, which you constantly reproduce. Tell us more about this grid—what is that main law which operates within it? By what law does it expand or, perhaps, constantly gets distorted and collapse? What happens to someone who gets into the grid and, finally, what needs to be done to get inside of it?
VT: For me the grid itself is full of anxiety. As a structuring device, it systematically quantifies and compartmentalizes everything it encloses, and introduces a rhythm and finality into free matter. It is unwittingly inspiring and it dominates my work. Sometimes this grid is very literal -- a guide for me to construct a space within a drawing or a painting. It creates an order for me to respond to when occupying it -- a foundation to reinforce, to counter or to ignore. This process feeds me control crumbs, specks of something real (albeit artificial) that I can actually regulate and exercise authority over.
At other times, the grid is hidden -- a specter of a particular logic at work. This is more present in time-based, interactive work such as Proxyah (Figures 12 - 15) or Physical Capacity (Figures 16, 17), into which I insert purposeful disinformation: intentional distraction spawned by the explicit presence of one of more layers of alternative logic. These might be responding to incidental or random triggers that might not be related to the user’s behavior. The coexistence of these layers hopefully creates an atmosphere of constant uncertainty, which might beget chaos fatigue, which, in turn, will beget acceptance of pure, honest, blissful anxiety as the operative norm (and potentially a transcendental state of echanted disenchantment.)
I can think of nothing more terrifying, exhilarating and relatable than being inside of such hidden grid; one that expands or contracts outside of one’s control, or by a logic that is just barely out of reach, yet undeniably present. This is the feeling that I am generally kind of addicted to, and try to harness and recreate. It hits on existential themes of the search for patterns in noise, and general speculation about the function of purpose and faith. I personally oscillate between multiple poles, often countering my own arguments in my head, and counter-countering those as well. That is probably the only absolute truth I do believe in: the need for perpetual, fluid reformation.
Each time I make a work with this kind of rule-based approach, the “laws” that govern its creation and protocol are different, so I will outline the specifics of three recent works below.
is loosely based on the concept of an escape room and an entangled, shifting mess that is created by the player’s existence within it. As an avatar you find yourself in a rectangular room with a single exit. Your movements are limited to four directions: forward, back, left and right. Every ten steps you take, there is a directional paradigm shift (one of four), and the controls you use to execute this movement (keyboard keys) are cyclically rewired (Figure 8), meaning that if you simply hold one button intending to walk forward (presumably to the exit, which is approximately 25 steps away), you will end up walking in squares and end up where you started. So you have to pay attention to how your avatar actually traverses space (which movement paradigm you are in) before hitting the next key, in order to figure out how to make it to the exit.
The specifics of this movement paradigm are communicated to you via a HUD that is semi-invasive, partially blocking your view of the room that you are using the HUD to figure out how to escape from. At the same time, the same keyboard keys also control a two-dimensional snake game in your HUD, which you involuntarily participate in even if you are not immediately aware of it. All of this effectively turns your avatar’s HUD into a dirty floater/information-saturated sticker glued to the back of its retina. Parallel to this, your behavior (rate of interaction, pace, idle time) effects a second, totally different water-based world, which you are either collaged into or which is being displayed on a second monitor (depending on the version of Proxyah
). Simultaneously, the amount of energy you expend interacting within the whole game (how much you press the keyboard and move the mouse) is quantified and used to terraform a fictional island. This is all explained in the short guide accompanying the game (Figure 13), which has its own labyrinthine qualities and is borderline unreadable. I want it to feel so dense so as to potentially feel like an entirely different thing. Like having the solution to a problem right in your hands, but not being to read the language it is written in. The map is not the territory!
Physical Capacity is a VR game and installation in which users crawl around a series of virtual rooms that are co-inhabited by cockroaches, a dynamic labyrinth and a kind of pattern recognition meta-game. Users are foreigners in this virtual space, observing (and chasing) the cockroaches in their natural environment, while inevitably establishing some kind of relation with them over the course of the eight-minute game. The cockroaches change their behavior, the walls morph, move, steadily forming a corporeal envelope around the users and coercing them to embody a multipedal creature, not unlike the cockroaches themselves. In this sense, the metaphorical grid of the game has a potentially transformative effect on the users, who find themselves within a system over which they have questionable agency, and like frogs in boiling water, might even be unaware of the kind of transformation they are participating in.
Superimposed on this game of pursuit is a pattern recognition system that assigns colors to each cockroach, and flashes a random sequence of them at the start of each level. If users correctly match the pattern in the correct sequence, they score a point. This is not explained anywhere in or out of the game and acts as this additional, subliminal layer of tracked interactivity. Also, the audience (and potential queue of people) watching the users interact with the VR piece, receives no visual clue about the visual contents of the game with the exception of a screen that draws line paths of the users’ movements around the floor plan of each level. This abstracted tracking information only suggests that there is some kind of stimulus at work. This kind of viewing situation establishes a hierarchy among the users, who do not see that they are being observed and do not see the entirety of the level at once, and the observers, who watch the users scuttle around on the floor and see the full map and stimuli of each level.
In Polymers, a recent series of drawings (Figures 21, 22), I use irregularly scaled grids as the foundation on which I build patterns and then uncover formless voids in between the borders of these patterns, looking for a unique way to bridge my own version of hieroglyphic abstraction and an image that might conjure up some bursts of pareidolia. Firstly, pencil grids are arranged in a kind of patchwork. Their function in regards to the drawing is like that of a (skeletal) trellis to the plants that grow on top of it. A pre-determined pattern is then drawn into the grid with ink. The pattern for this recent series came from a diptych drawing I made in 2010, in which I tried to apply pseudo-rules to generate compositions that would feel both arbitrary and controlled, random and deterministic (following my own rules only some of the time). The left drawing of this diptych was generated with glyph-like forms that try to tessellate vertically in a sedimentary (bottom to top) kind of way, while the right specifically used blob-like non-forms to do the same. I resampled the pattern made in the left drawing of the diptych for the Polymers series, occasionally evolving it further but generally trying to keep it as one of the only constants. This pattern also features in Cyclical Oubliette 1, a painting from 2018 (Figure 20).
Working on the Polymers
drawings was like spotting figures in cloud formations. The shifting scale of the grids and the modular glyphs that occupy them provide transient moments of convincing space, which might give way to some kind of recognizable form, which, in turn, gives way back to the glyphs, hopefully forever. But it is also vital for me that these works be a bit crude, maybe imperfect and intimately small, not some kind of Magic Eye recreations by hand or something like that. I would like them to foreground the modular logic of their own construction, while allowing some kind of other dimension to peek through, which is also why I erase the foundational grids before the drawing is complete. Depending on the state I am in, I have seen figures and landscapes emerge out of these in a totally unexpected way.
Proxyah version 3 walkthrough. From at Karst, Plymouth (with Joey Holder)
walkthrough. From Sazarus IV
at Two Queens, Leicester
VB: I see a strong connection between the cities, the concrete boxes in which we all live, and the images you create, such as cockroaches, cramped cellars with converging arches and desert landscapes without any vibrant, not dead, life. You have been skating for many years. Skateboarding is a completely different way to consume the city, with its own independent delineation of trajectories. Skater perceives the city polygonally, creating brand new grids of roads for his or her movements. Skaters may see very clearly whatever does not become evident and significant to other citizens. What is a megalopolis for you? What do you feel about the city and how does it affect the way you feel about the reality?
VT: :) Yeah, I definitely am a skater down to my (fragile) bones. At this point, I have spent more than half of my life dealing with this vehicle/vessel that has grown to be something of a prosthetic limb to me. It has shaped my way of thinking about the urban environment, but it is also so close to my heart that I can not relate it to my work, at least not in an overt kind of way. But it was undoubtedly a transformative experience to grow up skating, especially when I was living in New York. You spend time with urban leftovers that are otherwise passed over and find hedonistic joy in basic pedestrian things. There is a strong relationship there to the post-industrial city, specifically regarding parts of the city that are byproducts of top-down planning that disregard the view from below. For example, J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, is a story about an architect who gets stranded in a wedge-shaped plot of junkspace that is a result of three overlapping highways and slowly descends into an introspective hellhole. Skaters regularly make very good use of spaces exactly like this leftover wedge.
This might also sound a bit strange, but as a skater, I spent a lot of time on the ground (falling, sitting, etc). Most people, in their day to day lives do not just lie down on the sidewalk. But as a skater you spend a lot of time "grounded” (how I choose to see this). I really enjoyed this feeling growing up and I still do very much. I tend to exaggerate it now and stay down for an extra couple of seconds just enjoying the ground, the view looking up, or looking sideways. Tangentially, I nudged towards studying the history of architecture, urban planning and eventually art. A bit later, I started taking lots of photos of found objects, buildings, architectural details, garbage, patterns and signage in the few cities where I was living and made scrapbooks out of them; now I regularly go back to this material and kind of reference it here or there, not in a direct way necessarily but more like reminding myself of the worn down ingredients of a large stew I have been cooking for years.
The cohabitation of so many kinds of species (human and non-human) in a highly concentrated location produces some incredible, unpredictable results that can be likened back to a kind of nature when zoomed out; tropes of dense crowds as insect swarms, cars like firing neurons, clusters of buildings as tesselating cells, etc. On the flip side, all of society’s inequalities, biases and hierarchies are also reflected there, in a city's design. So it really is this kind of organism, for better or for worse. My favorite cities leave room for change and adapt to their inhabitants' needs, as opposed to striving to shape the behavior of their inhabitants, or enforcing an external agenda. I hate the feeling that I am living in someone else’s rendering, for example, going through the motions and acting out my role as an anticipated render ghost. Though at the same time, I kind of also want to be one of these render ghosts, subjected to a vision greater than myself with no choice but to be in it. For me, cities are like these microcosms -- hotbeds for an accelerated kind of life which have a transformative effects on its subjects. I find this very interesting -- this tense push and pull of the container versus the contained, the restraint versus the improvisation, the skeleton versus fleshy organs.
This binary opposition (or blurry middle ground) actually informs a lot of my work (in case it was not clear from my descriptions above). For example, in Sazarus 0, performed at Yvonne Lambert in Berlin in 2016 (Figures 24,25), two performers were given two sets of instructions within a closed time frame. One of the performers played a computer game I had written, while the other made automatic drawings while seated on the opposite side of the room. The game involved surveying infrastructure in a deserted landscape from a patrolling drone, superimposed with a never ending Sudoku game, both of which were controlled simultaneously with the same mouse. Both the gameplay and the automatic drawings were dictated by simple rules, within which I asked the performers to improvise. The sounds from the game provided auditory cues for the drawings and completion of the drawings drove some of the gameplay, which formed a kind of feedback system. But at any given time during the performance, it was hard to know for sure whether the performers’ actions were improvised or were simply protocol. In Sazarus 1 at Jupiter Woods (now Cordova) in Vienna, I set out to create something like a symbolic city, inhabited by Hexbugs randomly moving around concentric roads and delineations made from transparent acetate strips twice the Hexbugs’ height (Figures 27, 28). Their “sky” was dominated by a swinging screen, which displayed a generative flythrough of a deteriorating, three-dimensional alphabet in a free-floating space. The bugs only ran for about three hours, so in the course of the opening night they started to slow down before eventually dying.
From 2006 to 2007 I spent a year drawing daily from the observed things I discovered on my daily commutes (Figure 29). Most of this took place in New York, with the last three months in Venice where I was doing an internship. These drawings all involve niches and streets of the city, but it was really a way for me to train my hand to eye coordination and learn the basics of perspective. These drawings are a bit embarrassing now, but having had a bit of time away from them I can acknowledge that they have laid the groundwork for how I think about space within my flat work to this day. You can see a selected number of these drawings below (they are not linked to my website as I see them still as student work even though it was self-organized: http://viktortimofeev.com/files/2006-2007/
Sazarus 0 (screen capture), 2016, custom software, durational performance (~20 minutes). Part of Plural Melts at Yvonne Lambert, Berlin
Hexbugs compilation (best of)NS:
I love what you are saying about being ‘grounded’, lying on the ground. Echoes of your passion for being as close as possible to the horizontal surface can be observed in your projects where you propose participants to crawl on all fours. Crawling seems to be something that refers to the very beginning, to the chthonic nature itself, to what any of us is very close all the time -- one just lives in the illusion that those forces are densely fenced off from them by the city walls and the crowds of people around. In this sense, the cities that you create imply anything but not the simply vertical position of their inhabitants, they obviously call for some sort of brand new body engineering. What kind of creatures would they be? What will they look like? What will they do and, in your opinion, would it be interesting for them to read all what we have discussed here?
VT: Yeah, there is something primal and potentially out of time about being on the ground, being horizontal, giving in to gravity, turning your hands into legs. We spend a third of our lives this way! This is why I hesitate to call it some kind of body engineering, or a projection into the future -- I think this kind of imaginative, horizontal-dominant being belongs in the deep, chthonic past, the introspective present and speculative future at once. There is a link here to becoming animal, embracing your inner beast; shedding civil impositions of the climb and regaining an elemental relationship with the ground and your unmediated senses.
On the other hand, I have this personal fear of non-human locomotion that I am trying to deal with. Referencing this horizontal movement in recent work was just a beginning of a long process that I see unfolding over the next years: finding ways of relating, absorbing to this foreign locomotion. I am fascinated by snakes, frogs, snails, but am terrified of being in their vicinity because I cannot empirically comprehend how and when they choose to move. It feels so alien but also so complete. So projecting forward, it makes sense to me that the future beings would have to harness all of the advantages of every kind of non-human locomotion in order to survive in the coming chaos, whether with some kind of techy prosthetics or bio-engineered growth or mutation.
If crawling on all fours wearing a screen glued to your face can feel surprisingly natural, then anything is kind of possible to adapt to. The question is maybe less what kind of beings the future will bring and more what control we possess in guiding these coming changes. And if it is it possible to ignore/outgrow the transformative effects of ethereal computing? Are techno-fueled corporeal mutations natural/inevitable? How can we make room for and speculate about the unknown unknowns, the dark variables that seem lucid only in retrospect?
We are making so many layers of mediation between bodies and elemental forces that maybe we are alienating ourselves from our protocol, our deep memory. This creates room for a potentially radical shift in the evolutionary tree, a new creature potentially unbound by things like cosmic weather. In the meantime, it is easy to forget that we are drowning in plastic while broadcasting our death, and that we live in an actual society.