Visualizing what avoids visualization

Interview with Norman Leto

The first time I came across Norman Leto’s (b. 1980) works, I must have been around 16 years old. In 2014, two parts of the footage Leto was making as a part of his feature film Photon were shown in Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Arts. I have seen those two clips multiple times, completely mesmerised and puzzled by what I was seeing – an intimate, inter-cellular animation describing the processes of mutations taking place in the human body. On the one hand, the clips felt incredibly scientific yet rather approachable, and on the other, I was confused why I was seeing them in a museum setting and what the finished project was yet to bring. Leto remains an interesting anomaly within the Polish art scene, the only artist working with data and various incarnations of its renderings. Leto is a self-taught artist, who started simultaneously working with computer-based programmes and oil paint when he early on befriended a Polish champion of dystopian surrealism, Zdzisław Beksiński.

Photon - Film Poster, 2017, Feature Film, 1h 40 Min, Netflix Distribution

Nina Ledwoch: What are you working on these days? Has your perspective on your past projects changed? Your portfolio covers a broad selection of media – from video art, 3-D renderings, paintings. Your feature-length films Sailor (2010) and Photon (2017) contributed to your classification as a new media artist, director, filmmaker. But you are also an active painter – one of your most recent works references the recent riots on the Capitol.

Norman Leto: I try to preserve the analogue mode of expression like painting so as not to limit myself solely to the digital realm. I believe that the human brain approaches the traditional, analogue forms and the digital ones differently. Working on Photon, on the animations of elementary particles, I fully realized how differently my brain functions in relation to making analogue and non-analogue art forms. The digital realm is very intellectually challenging, requiring constant concentration and losing it even for a moment can completely undermine hours of work. I want to take care of those two sides of my brain’s needs – the spontaneity that painting gives and the meticulous concentration needed for digital animations and renderings. From morning to early afternoon, I focus on easel painting and later in the days I dedicate my time to work requiring a computer. One of the projects I am currently working on is a video clip for composition by Krzysztof Penderecki (a Polish composer; 1933-2020). The piece is from the 1960s and includes a part on a string quartet. As it is rather unconventional and difficult to illustrate the piece, the task is to create an animation that will be complimentary but at the same time engaging to the viewer despite the challenging nature of the composition.

Paderewski's Nocturn, 2020, Digital Animation, 3:50 min

Another project I am working on is a feature film The Pilot about 9/11, an event which for me was the first one of this scale and obvious tragic dimension that I remember. For the generation born in the late 1990s, this pandemic would be the first comparable one. With this film, my focus is on what was happening in the sky, the F-15 pilots who were ordered to patrol the area once the first rumours about a possible hijacking were reported and how this line of defence ultimately failed due to mass panic and communication overload. I look into a psychological portrait of one of the pilots who took part in that mission, his unfairly guilty conscience as he was sent too late. My aim is to look into this tragic event from an unusual perspective – all the footage that has shaped the mass understanding of this event was TV video footage from the ground and helicopters but the story of the immediate defence system and pilots fulfilling their orders remains rather unknown.

After the two towers were already on fire, the task of the pilots was to patrol the skies in search of other potentially hijacked planes and check for unusual behaviour or a change to planes’ original routes. They were forced to act very quickly, frantically, in the fog of war and communication malfunction. The chaos was both psychological, reflected in the pressure on an individual trained for events like this, and visual. The form will be not strictly self-therapeutic but introspective – a single pilot will shed light on his memories of the event, aiding the viewer with his graphic imagination and memory. Some of the sequences are similar to those I have used in Photon, for instance visual ‘bursts’ of synesthetic impressions. The screenplay is finished and similarly to Photon, it is going to be pretty much a one-man project. I have spent about 6 years working on Photon and The Pilot is likely to take just as long if not longer – photorealism is far more difficult to animate than photographs of particles under an electron microscope. The human eye is very sensitive to depictions that are actually realistic and look overly ‘computer-made’. But I am in no rush to finish, I don’t have a specific final date, I am prepared for the work to take however long it needs, 5 years, 10 years. I regularly do smaller projects, like paintings, and every once in a while, I produce a larger, comprehensive body of work. For me, the smaller pieces are not fully sufficient or satisfying, I am prepared for them to be lost in history, forgotten.

A Lifeshape of Witold Gombrowicz, 60x40 cm 3D sculpt, Rendering, 3D Print in Resin

Nina: Speaking of the pressure on an individual, I once again thought about your painting Democracy Issues, Capitol (2021) and how it reminded me of Eugene Goodman, the guard who diverted the angry mob inside the Senate on January 6th.

Democracy Issues, Capitol, Oil and Enamel on Canvas, Norman Leto, 2021

Norman: Certainly, there is a great sense of tragedy to those recent events and perhaps they do bring us closer to understanding past historical events. Speaking to my grandparents and parents I was able to get a sense of what was the impact of World War II on regular people. What fascinates me is precisely how totalitarian regimes arose, what was the response of the regular people who witnessed those processed first-hand, of the regular Germans, not those sentenced in the Nurenberg trials. I have read dozens of books about the Nazi rise to power but none of the books seem to answer my questions. Only fairly recently I was able to grasp how the German scientists or the intelligence have felt in 1935. The attack on the Capitol has made a lasting impression on me, I had a feeling that something was coming after Pence’s speech. I found a right-wing YouTube channel streaming the riots live – so I have watched the Capitol walk-through in HD as if I was there walking with the rioters. Looking at past press coverage, like 9/11, the events were filmed live but mainly from helicopters and broadcasting TV channels but with the Capitol riots, it was so easy to watch them from the perspective of participants, the only thing I was missing was a VR helmet. The next events which are yet to come will surely be streamed with considerations to the newest technologies. 3600 – view cameras can be next.

American Bull Terrier, oil on board, Norman Leto, Banach '07

Two days after the Capitol riots, I made Democracy Issues, Capitol. Obviously, the medium of painting has its own limitations but I tried to convey the sense of uneasiness and neurotic feeling through the style of a spilt trickle of paint. The man in the horned helmet (nicknamed the ‘Q Shaman’), whose image became almost emblematic for the event, turned out to be very uninteresting but it exposed the fact that the content of a conspiracy theory is not necessarily important, what matters is a symbol and a group of people behind it. When it comes to politics, those are the events that inspire me but the majority of my paintings are personal, describing my environment, friends, family. As of now, I don’t think there is a very strong pattern of themes but maybe if all of my paintings are shown one day in a monographic exhibition, those patterns will be obvious. I don’t feel the need to choose one dominant topic of my paintings.

Nina: For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Capitol riots was the unseen communication between the participants. I find it difficult to imagine that riots could ever form as a result of alienated, individual decisions, there is a strong sense of group mentality needed. I imagine the communication is mainly channelled via Whatsapp/Telegram/Facebook groups which in their raw form are rather uninteresting and certainly not visual. I wonder about the more plastic ways in which those sparks of group mentality can be visualised before they crystalize into events.

Norman: In Photon, I have looked into the phenomenon of the spreading of information between people. What Richard Dawkins phrased as a meme, the travel of an idea, has since changed its meaning. The rise of religions and their evolution between groups was one of the things I have visualised as shapes. Synergy and emergence are the ruling mechanisms of everything around us, finding a 0-1 system is impossible, despite the human nature to search for definite beginnings and endings. Those processes are very fluid and while there are many scientific attempts to study or visualize them, the task is not getting easier. I don’t believe that information control is possible. While I am not against Twitter’s recent ban of Donald Trump it is never an ultimate ending. Ideas cannot be blocked.

Photon - Film Still, "Cell Membrane", 2017, Feature Film, 1h 40 min, Netflix Distribution

Nina: A lot of your attention is directed at looking at fairly abstract processes, which to many don’t necessarily seem very visual at all. Visualizing the inter-cellular mutations, which requires bringing to life still electron microscope photographs is easier to comprehend as most of us have encountered enough images and photographs of similar processes in biology books, which makes them less intimidating to the audience. On the other hand, you are very successful at visualising processes that were not necessarily visualized before, like the spread of information, religion or rendering one’s biography. Coming back to your recent works, in 2020, you have rendered a virtual exhibition space based on the rooms of Zachęta National Gallery, and in them, a video projection of snow. How do you feel about those ‘real but artificial’ spaces?

The Slur, Virtual Exhibition Space, Rendering, Zacheta National Gallery, Poland

Norman: I have been working with virtual spaces for a very long time, in simple terms, one of my main motivations is the convenience of not having to be involved in a lot of logistical decisions regarding the time-consuming installation process. Secondly, I have been using a computer since I was a kid and rendering various spaces became a second language to me. Physical reality is rarely a dimension of my works. All the restrictions brought by the pandemics and the rushed move online that many institutions were forced to carry out, feel completely natural to me, for the first time the reality has adjusted to me and materiality stopped to be a dimension I had to consider at all. Reproductions play a crucial role in the formation of history, perhaps a more important one than any physical reminiscences. The fact that most of my works besides paintings are ‘immaterial’ does not bother me at all. I am a self-taught artist, so I never had a physical experience of a shared studio, etc.

In Track, 2020, Virtual Exhibition Space, Rendering, Video Projection at Zacheta National Gallery, Poland

My works have always been intimate and confined in my head. If not for painting, I would be completely detached from the material world. With my works for Zachęta, the sense of ‘clipping’, being able to permeate through objects and walls is exciting to me. But to someone who admires the materiality of stone sculpture, it will be an unpleasant feeling. Anyone who has tried a VR helmet was able to experience first-hand the weird sensations of defying the materiality of the physical world. In the future, I will likely dive deeper into VR but a VR helmet is not optimal for my work. I am waiting for the technological advancements which will allow for the technology to blend more seamlessly with people but that is a perspective for a very far future, even more, distant than the sci-fi films show. The equipment of the computer, keyboard, the VR helmet is still very material and clunky. I am looking forward to technologies allowing multiple, maybe hundreds of people to enter a virtual exhibition room with projections streamlined into their brains. So far, I prefer simple projections on walls rather than pushing for VR helmets. Similarly, I feel more comfortable doing a rendering of the existing gallery space with my work in it than creating a full HTML website supposed to give an illusion of being in the real space. I am much more positive about the Google Arts Project and the possibility of a very close zoom, seeing the cracks in the paint and the texture of the canvas than virtual walk-throughs. As long as the technology does not grant full immersion, I am not interested in the middle ground.

Nina: What other technologies are you interested in?

The Polish National Oil, 2006, 3D Sculpt, Rendering, Zacheta National Gallery, Poland

Norman: I have worked with AI, especially with enlarging photographs in more complex ways so that they don’t lose their qualities. I tried face-swapping and using deep fakes. All of those are interesting forms of artistic expression and at the end of the day just the technology behind the work, not much different from a paintbrush. It will sound obvious but the artistic self is the most important component. Sometimes, technology can prompt an interesting field of inquiry. It happened to me as well, for instance when I was starting to work with 3-D renderings, using 3d studio. The mistakes (glitches, the permanence of objects in video games, etc.) those programs carried inspired me to work with the lifeshapes of various people via the means of rendering them in the forms of 3-D blocks. I am using technology as a form of reflection of emotional states or life biographies – in that way, the technology can be an interesting extension rather than a gadget. For instance, with bio-art, the sole idea of being able to implant a chip under one’s skin was enough to get everyone’s attention, the actual meaning behind the work was not at the forefront. The current interest in VR is to me similar to what we have observed with bio-art.

Nina: Looking at your lifeshapes, they have reminded me of data-based art, for instance, that of the multi-disciplinary research group Forensic Architecture, which works on behalf of communities affected by human rights violations, state violence, environmental abuse, via the means of radar scanning, GPS photos, etc.

KHH, Oil and Enamel on Canvas, Norman Leto 120 x 160 cm, 2020

Norman: Digital art can be unfairly associated with something reductive, especially in Poland. I wanted to make works immersed in their supporting technologies. Data visualization has been an ongoing trend dating back to Bauhaus, or perhaps even the middle ages, with first attempts to showcase information in more digestible ways. With the emergence of the first GPS technologies, many artists have taken them up as a means of ‘painting in space’ via tracing of the GPS routes.

Nina: Looking back at the differences between your approach and that of Forensic Architecture, to me, the latter is using data which is more material – one can analyse the shape of a post-explosion mushroom cloud from different points on Earth and using various satellite photographs, the fact of the explosion is tangible and registered by different sources. Rendering of one’s lifeshape, on the other hand, is not something that exists in nature in a tangible way, it’s a completely new form.

Self Portrait on Oil And Panel, Norman Leto, 84 x 84 cm, 2020

Norman: Initially, the renderings of lifeshapes required a lot of explaining, as they are not ‘scientific’ forms, more pseudo-scientific I would say, but to me, they are not much different from oil paintings. After Photon, people were more eager to assume that lifeshapes are also rooted in science but are a form of self-expression. My brain is quite synesthetic and lifeshapes are a good reflection of that. To some extent, I see my work as a form of translation. One can say that almost everyone translates the internal states into external products. Thinking about some poets, they have a tendency to over-complicate things, adding too many words instead of simplifying. The lifeshapes could be an interesting tool for education for children, perhaps more comprehensible than dates in history books. Some people understand the world through numbers, for me, shapes and blocks are the most natural forms, even during this conversation, I constantly have an evolving shape of it in my head.

Follow Nina on her Instagram @l.ninka