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Petra Szeman Interview: hypnotic game environments

Conversation with Petra Szeman conducted by Fetchish columnist Dasha Kushnerenko

Petra Szeman produces video artworks and installations on the themes of digital avatars, game environments and ‘total worlds’. These animations commonly include a protagonist and a narrator whose interactions resemble the relations between a person and their inner voice.

The viewer experiences the life of the protagonist as the artworks have an almost hypnotic effect with its Japanese aesthetics, life-like narratives and philosophical discourse. Although the hero is clearly based on Petra, anyone can recognise and associate themselves through this character-narrator simulation. I asked Petra about some of the common features and patterns in her works and hope that anyone could feel the magic of the world created by her.

One of the underlying patterns in your work is the combination of a real-life landscape with an animated image. What is the creative process behind your art? Do you have a final product in mind and then search for the setting? Or, is it the opposite? Do you see a spot and then think as to where you can put it in your work?

A lot of my work is filmed/photographed in liminal spaces, whether it be rather generic ones like a laundromat or a train station, or as specific as the rail crossing where the ending scene of the animated film 5 Centimeters Per Second takes place, or Osorezan (‘Mt. Fear’) in Northern Japan that is said to be a gateway to the Buddhist idea of the Underworld. It has happened before that I had a very specific idea for a scene and went in search of a place that matched, but generally I tend to seek out spaces where different realms are layered up and go with what I collect there.

Most of the time I would walk through an area, being aware of my RL [real life] body in those spaces but also keeping an eye out for openings where my digitised self would be able to interact with that same world in a way that would make for a compelling scene.

There are also places that I discover by accident, like the inexplicably pink stairwell in one corner of my local run-down supermarket building. I’m still waiting on the right video for that one.

— Although in your video artworks the player seems to be the main character, the audience seems to always feel the presence of the narrator. Could you please elaborate on the relationship between the player and the narrator, and how this corresponds to real life?

It’s an ambiguous and shifting relationship –– I’m not sure if I’d be able to draw clear-cut borders between myself and the narrator and the player/ played character. There are things that work when they are contained by a certain body/voice/framework, but make no sense outside it. I am both myself and a character that looks like me. The protagonist is aware of her position as a protagonist, taking on qualities/knowledge of the narrator. The narrator speaks with my voice, and the protagonist walks in a version of my body. It can all be one non-localised identity, dispersed through a number of realms.

— In your artworks there are references to Japanese culture. What are the artists and animators that inspire you? And how has your interest in Japanese aesthetics sparked?

In terms of artists’ moving image, I tend to circle back to David Blandy’s and Hito Steyerl’s works a lot; for Japanese animation, I’m a long-time fan of Makoto Shinkai’s films, especially his earlier works. He tends to work around themes of distance and discordance, often between parallel worlds and disjointed timelines. I’m mostly drawn to his attention to detail when it comes to translating the tiniest and most mundane aspects of life to an animated image.

My interest in Japan started like you’d expect: I used to be into anime as a child. I maintained a casual interest through the years, but it took a long time before I made connections between that and my own artistic practice. Partially because elements of pop culture are rarely considered seriously or academically in these contexts. I started with making collage-like videos using stills from games and animes I liked, which over time evolved and developed into what essentially serves as the core aesthetic of my work today.

Japanese animation seeps into my theoretical framework too, as I tend to read a lot of theory on animatics and animated bodies. At the same time, a lot of the academic texts I engage with these days relate to ideas or ways of thinking that I first got interested in through (often Japanese) pop culture, like watching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood for example. My personal interests have shifted too, and now I’m more taken by the language, or the rail system –– the latter probably comes through from the gratuitous use of train footage in my videos.

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