In this insightful interview, Aisha Arif engages with two groundbreaking artists, oculardelusion (Karen Frances Eng) and Isa Kost to get an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at their creative process, especially for their project VIVO DESIDERIO, a testament to the complexities of love and human emotion. They discuss the generative elements of this project, its symbolic underpinnings, and their hopes for its impact on viewers. The duo also gives a glimpse into their future endeavors, promising continued innovation and exploration in the art world.
Aisha Arif: Let’s start with you both telling us a little bit about your journey in the arts. How did you get started?
Oculardelusion: My mother, who is from Hong Kong, is a traditionally trained Chinese watercolor (known as guohua) painter and calligrapher, so I grew up completely surrounded by scrolls of rice paper, sticks of ink, and brushes everywhere – not to mention her beautiful paintings. Meanwhile, my dad, an engineer, loved Disneyland so much that when we moved to California, he specifically bought a house near there. So, I’ve also had a lifelong fascination with creative technology and immersive artmaking.
As a child of immigrants, though, I wasn’t really allowed to become an artist. I got my degree in English instead, specializing in poetry (my way of sneaking art into a pragmatic course), and became a writer and editor. I did art all along, of course – including photography, video, letterpress/book arts, and so on. In 2012, my first iPad sent me down the digital art rabbit hole, and since 2019, I have focused on creating art using a mashup of digital tools.
Isa Kost: My first artistic performance was at birth. I came into the world so fast that they thought I had broken my shoulder. I always drew and looked at art and animal books, and my high school studies were artistic. I majored in architecture, where I especially loved exploring various aspects of design. Then, I devoted one of my countless lives to theater, both as a set and costume designer. For 10 years, I dedicated myself to classical Indian theater/dance as an expression of my art. The exploration of art and self-expression in its different aspects has always interested me.
In 2018, I discovered the existence of crypto art and began to explore digital drawing and animation as an artistic expression. My research is based on exploring the outer and inner world.
AA: You’ve both been in the crypto art space since its early days. How has the community evolved? What are you most hopeful for in the future?
OC: For me, both the crypto art community and blockchain as an artist’s tool played a big part in liberating me as an artist. It opened new possibilities creatively, socially, and economically. While there has been a massive influx, gold rush, upheaval, and a nosedive, I would say that culturally, those of us who’ve been here from the early days and have forged communities are still here, in our neighborhoods of mutual support. That’s the most precious thing – no matter what the market does, our connections to each other are nourishing and invaluable. And I believe that the issues we’re collectively trying to think through and solve are still absolutely vital. We’ll go down in history as a cultural movement.
IK: I share Karen’s thoughts completely. In my opinion, this was also a great opportunity to break new ground in different areas: artistic, economic, and social. It’s a place where there is room for everyone. Although there has been a tendency to reintroduce traditional dynamics, I think there is a large segment of the community that has been able to propose and explore new dynamics from all points of view. I hope that we continue to research and explore the unknown.
AA: You met as members of the DADA collective. Can you tell our readers what the DADA collective is and what your experience working within it has been?
The heart of DADA is the online platform where people can draw in ongoing chains of visual conversations – some of which have been ongoing for years. This is open to everyone and seeks to demonstrate the intrinsic benefits of making art: connecting with other people, fostering the love of creation, and so on.
DADA also aims to decommodify art and free artists from the dehumanizing, toxic treadmill of the market. Blockchain technology presented itself as a possibility for achieving this, which is how and why DADA became one of the pioneers of art on blockchain, heralding the crypto art movement. For the last several years, it has been developing an alternative economic system, called the Invisible Economy, which captures value for the collective as a whole and redistributes it among the community. DADA has also taken on the role of documenting the history of the crypto art movement, in which it has played a significant part.
Working within DADA is creatively enriching and intellectually stimulating. There are many cultures, styles, talents (not just artists but also technologists, economists, and thinkers), viewpoints, and languages represented. It can also be overwhelming: DADA’s activities sprawl across many branches and groups working on exhibitions, events, the Invisible Economy, DADAGAN, historic archiving, and so on – not to mention the artists continually drawing on the platform itself. In general, creating art collectively stimulates both individual and collective sharing and growth.
AA: What (or who) are some of your biggest artistic inspirations?
IK: Nature, anatomy, the world, emotions, and dreams are my main sources of inspiration. Often, these influences are intrinsic, and what happens in my artistic process is mysterious and unknown. As for inspirational artists, I can mention Frida Kahlo, Caravaggio, Henri Rousseau, and Giotto, among many others.
OC: I often make art inspired by emotions, dreams, magic, alchemy, and poetry – the richness of human experience, especially the internal aspects. I love distillations of the unseen world made visible, and art that documents or reflects alternative states of consciousness. So, I look to artists like Hilma af Klint, Hieronymus Bosch, Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Victor Brauner, among many others. I’m also inspired by the collaborative spirit of the artists and technologists of the early Imagineers. And of course, music, which heals and unlocks what’s within.
Isa Kost (left) and oculardelusion (right) after a day of inspiration and collaboration
AA: Tell us more about your initial collaboration at MEET Digital Culture Center in Milan. You mentioned that your skills, interests, and styles complemented each other – can you elaborate on that?
IK: From May 10 to June 19, MEET hosted an exhibition dedicated to DADA entitled “DADA Perspective.” Being the only Dadakin living in Milan, I worked on the production and the artistic side alongside curator Eleonora Brizi and acted as the spokesperson for the collective in the decisions discussed with MEET.
OC: Dadakin were asked to come up with experiential installations that would help express DADA’s core principles. I suggested an analog data visualization involving badges (aka buttons) that would visually represent intrinsic values – Freedom, Hopefulness, Curiosity, Belonging, Integrity, Creativity – inviting visitors to choose the one that resonated with them most, to let us gauge what’s actually important to people. (Freedom won.)
Isa helped me produce the badges – and we found that, despite having only just met, we worked together extremely well. We were able to quickly synthesize ideas, then pass drawings back and forth until we came up with exactly what was needed. As collaborative artistic processes go, it was shockingly easy and a joy. This kind of chemistry is hard to explain – and is priceless!
AA: Can you take us behind the scenes of your creative process for this body of work?
OC: After Milan, Isa came to my home in Norfolk to recuperate. We were still buzzing with creative ideas after Milan, so we were basically sailing on that momentum. Making art became simply part of our daily routine, which included making lovely meals, digging for clams on the beach, reading Tarot – another interest we share – and having long conversations about life and love.
This immersion in nature, magic, and conversation all got woven into VIVO DESIDERIO. We mapped out the overall theme, plan, and palette and began drawing. Isa is the real draftsperson here, with her ability to render objects with delicate precision. I led more on the textural, rhythmic elements. But we made all decisions equally and ran everything past each other, reconsidering and reworking until we were both happy with the final results.
We managed to do an astonishing amount of work in the days that we had. It was so exhilarating to see what emerged when we sat down together that we decided we absolutely had to carry on after we completed this project. That’s how we decided that we should create an overarching, long-term project – ANATOMILIA – that could contain this and future collections. ANATOMILIA will celebrate human anatomy and explore emotions as a deeply embodied experience.
AA: VIVO DESIDERIO delves into the ever-changing and varied sensations of falling in love. What does falling in love feel like to each of you?
IK: It is not easy to describe in words such an emotionally complex state. But the main feeling for me, which assails me each time, is the loss of balance. The vertigo that makes you feel full of happiness but also full of terror of falling. It’s like being an experienced tightrope walker who walks the tightrope and is no longer sure how to stay on it. It’s a profound awakening that makes everything more vivid and intense. The heart begins to beat faster; I feel it and vibrate along with it.
OC: It’s the ultimate altered state, isn’t it? For me, it’s rare. But it happens when there’s a realization – sometimes gradual – that someone’s soul somehow uniquely resonates with yours. Something in their being makes your heart sing… and then there’s intense curiosity, and an irrepressible desire to get close to that person. As for the “falling,” there’s an involuntary plummeting, an “uh-oh” sensation as you tip over the edge and sink deeply into the opening heart. Meanwhile, everything in the world becomes bigger, more vivid, magical – possible – through the lens of this heightened awareness. To have this acknowledged or returned – or not – by the beloved creates another emotional roller coaster. It can feel exquisitely tender, gleeful, passionate – or full of terror or sorrow. One thing’s for sure: when it happens, you know you’re alive.
AA: Talk us through the generative elements of this project, particularly the nine layers and nine states.
The nine layers include:
- ELEMENT: Organic elements framing the figure.
- POEM: A line of poetry adorning the figure’s waist as a belt.
- SEED: A jewel augmenting the figure’s navel.
- TATTOO: Decorative elements appearing on the figure.
- DESIDERIO AUMENTATO: Desire augmented.
- DESIDERIO: The main object in the region of the womb.
- SKIN & BONES: The figure.
- SURFACE: The background texture.
- DEPTH: The background color.
Each layer has nine states, named for their colors, textures, and objects, resulting in 387,420,489 possible combinations.
Behind the scenes of VIVO DESIDERIO creation process
AA: What is the significance of the number nine – for you both personally and as it relates to VIVO DESIDERIO?
The number nine holds important symbolic meanings across cultures. It represents the fulfillment of cycles and is the number of fruition, enlightenment, and wisdom. In Tarot, nine is the number of completion, signaling the coming of renewal. Multiplying by nine always results in numbers that add up to nine. Of course, it’s also the gestation time for a human baby.
AA: How did you select the nine combinations presented in the collection?
This process was simple yet difficult. We wanted to feature one of each of the central “Desire” objects, so we started there. Then, we sifted through all the other layers to find our favorite combinations. It was really just a matter of trial and error! We then augmented the nine still images generated with extra elements and animations, creating the pieces you see in this launch collection. In the future, we’ll release more from the 300 million+ possible combinations.
AA: What do you hope viewers take away from this collection?
We hope VIVO DESIDERIO reminds everyone of our innate human capacity to love with abandon, encompassing all the sensuality, ecstasy, enchantment, and joy that entails. Sometimes, it includes uncertainty, chaos, and sadness too. Romantic love is a powerful state of being. While we can’t live in it every minute of every day, it’s beautiful to remember that it’s always possible – often hitting you when you least expect it.
AA: What can we expect from the two of you in the future?
The launch of these first nine pieces is just the start. We plan to continue releasing new pieces generated from VIVO DESIDERIO in the future. We love that the artwork has the capacity to assemble into more than 300 million unique iterations – whether hand-picked or randomly generated. It could, in essence, go on into eternity – just like love itself.
Meanwhile, we can’t wait to start work on the next collection in ANATOMILIA in January 2024.