In search for a lost Valentine’s Day package: wandering in Viviane El Kmati’s work

FAKE ME HARD festival will take place in and around AVL Mundo in Rotterdam between June 30 – August 15, 2021 with installations by over 40 artists exploring the complex reality of the 21st century. Algorithms, (dis)information, artificial intelligence, technology, deepfakes, populism and how it all relates to what is real and what is not are some of the focal points. Viviane El Kmati is among the participating artists and designers, with her film Valentine in Things City.

Mayis Rukel met El Kmati for (A)WAKE to talk about her film, her design practice, the place of identity and representation in her work and her use of 3D and digital design as tools for storytelling and for getting curious about the future.

Hi Viviane! Thanks a lot for meeting me. Very excited to talk about many layers of your work, especially your film Valentine in Things City (2018). Could you tell me a bit about your contribution to the Fake Me Hard festival?

Valentine in Things City was previously shown at the MU Worlding Worlds in Eindhoven. Then Morgan Catalina (Curator) reached out to me for Fake Me Hard, and I really like what they’re doing with this festival. The film will be shown as a large projection in the physical space to allow the immersive quality of it work better.

Things City started as a research and design project even before it became a film; mainly about the future of logistic systems and the application of artificial intelligence in massive scale. In the film, a young woman enters Things City on Valentine’s Day, looking for a lost package. But the city isn’t made for human use, it is made to function as a massive warehouse, like Amazon’s fulfillment centers. So we follow her relationship to that specific structure of the city.

Things City felt very strange, efficient and self-assertive. In the way it functions it almost lost any visible human touch, like it was impossible to trace back to the moment when a person actually designed and coded this. I’m curious to the creation of this space. How did your practice impact the design of the Things City? Did you approach it mainly as a designer?

I do define myself as a designer and it’s the field I feel most comfortable in but I use a lot of techniques from filmmaking and art. Visual language was pretty much defined by logistics and machine vision aesthetics, to carry the sublime of technology but also to still resemble the image of human cities. Also the photography of Burtynsky was one of the main references for the frame composition in Things City.

The objects in this city aren’t placed there with common grouping logic that we’re used to, like “all the books together” or alphabetical storing etc. Their stock location is determined by selling, as in “people usually buy this together: coffee machine and filters” so they would be stored together; and naturally this keeps changing and updating. The employee would need a headset to navigate in the space and to find these objects they are looking for.

Things City and places like that have about 42 seasons while we have only 4. They deal with the actual holidays: in the film it’s the Valentine’s Day and Halloween. We’re so used to designing spaces for human use that it’s strange to think of massive spaces that are designed mainly for objects, for their uses in certain commercial seasons. All of these came together in the design process of the space in the film.

To talk a bit more about the human presence in the Things City; it also disturbs the precision in the rhythm and the movements of the machines, drones, belts and bots. Suddenly there’s the sound of footsteps that are very human in how irregular in rhythm they are. But until that moment the post-human aspect is very pronounced. It feels like humans and the machines in the Things City have a haunting relationship, like they possess each other and exchange bodies. And among all of this there’s the emotional aspect of someone looking for a Valentine’s Day gift that was lost.

Yes, among the rhythm of the machines that is also quite hypnotizing, and that feeling of extreme organization, there’s something beautiful when human emotion is brought into it. There’s an emotional drive for this person to search for this lost Valentine’s Day package. We question the motive of this person. Why would someone go there and do this. Why is that package so significant? That really brings the human element in it. It becomes relatable. And the difference between the machine rigidity versus clumsy humanness becomes more pronounced.

Viviane El Kmati – film Valentine in Things City
Viviane El Kmati – film Valentine in Things City

I also loved the change in color palette throughout the film. It started with the Valentine’s Day and everything was very pink. Then Halloween came and it all gets orange. The city changes its face and its costume in an instant, because there’s no one living there who needs a culture to stay there. That city doesn’t have to retain any culture in it. And the monochromatic situation creates a feeling like the consumer, the seller and the product became one. What would be sold or bought is pre-determined, and the choice of the consumer also turns out to be an illusion. I think it was very powerful how the change in color was able to accommodate all of this.

Exactly; the face of the city changes depending on the commercial holiday of that time. We see that happening in real life too; the color changes depending on the holiday season. But also objects carry the connotation of that holiday too. The types, textures, colors of the objects all reflect the product to be sold in that season. On a mass scale this reflects on the Things City and paints it in almost a single color, determined by the season and the seller, and the people keep ordering.

How about the ending scene of the film, when we see a more machine-like, raw side to the city?

There we see the machinery that’s running the space. The data, the motherboard of the city. Data center that is powering this space, like the cooling lake as well. The spaces that serve the city and make it function. There’s something confrontational about seeing what’s behind the structure that works so efficiently for a single purpose on such a massive scale.

I do try to have one element in my work that’s kind of myself; be it queer, Beirut, a consumer, a lover of technology… to tell a story of myself.

I’d also love to talk about the experimental design studio FollyFeastLab, co-founded by you and Yara Fegali, based in Los Angeles. You create immersive and interactive visual experiences focusing on social and urban themes. Maybe you can talk a bit about your earlier work with the studio, as well as earlier solo works by you. Works such as Local Echoes and Mediterranean Sea Diaries.

The main idea for FollyFestLab is bringing people together spatially. To create digital spaces, whether in VR or in film, for people to come together and connect over common social problems. The aim is ultimately to create communities.

Local Echoes, was a solo project and it was actually my main road towards Valentine in Things City. In the film the Frankfurt cityscape becomes a poetic urban fabric through computer generated image processing. A predecessor for Things City, especially regarding the visual design and visual structure of a city.

Mediterranean Sea Diaries was a project with FollyFeastLab. It came out of curiosity for the afterlife of overproduction, like the afterlife of Valentine in Things City. What can be the future of the spaces like landfills and waste lands or polluted seas? What happens to these objects, where does it all end?

In your work there are a lot of 3D aspects. I’m curious to your thoughts on the vast storytelling possibilities of 3D and digital design. Is this your main medium and what draws you to it?

I like how 3D design creates fake objects and spaces and brings a fictional element. You can’t actually go there but you can feel like you’re in it in a different way. When you go physically into a real space the texture and the experience is very real; but in the digital format there’s more room for interpretation somehow. I use a lot of 3D scanning or photogrammetry to use real spaces and make them fake. Kind of removing things from reality and putting them in a different context.

I think this helps people deal with certain issues easier. The real, physical experiences can take over easily and overwhelm certain senses and aspects. But digital distance heightens different narratives and makes the experienced curated and more intentional. Same with the embodiment of a VR body and how it reflects on the identity performance. An avatar could be anyone, so that impacts the experience within the space as well.

How do you see the emancipatoriy potential of digital culture, tools and media in the post-colonial process? What could be the dangers and what could be the benefits? Can algorithms lead us to liberation, help sustain our ecosystem, implement sustainable production and equal distribution of resources? Do you feel like it can help us finally break free of the grip of ages long suffering from the systems we built?

I think it’s very important to think about all the good things these tools bring, as much as it’s important to pay attention to the bad implications. We think about terrible potentials a lot, and anticipate horrible changes. But that scary future might not be that far. Maybe we are already in it. We live in apartments that are actually boxes in the air. We use money and we think it’s normal to exchange money when it’s actually just as virtual as the cryptocurrencies. We are already in it in so many ways. My approach isn’t to say it’s bad or good, but more focused on what I can find good in it and what can be helpful to highlight and bring to the surface from this complexity.

What are your thoughts and ideas on representation and identity? Both on an individual but also a broader, maybe on a cultural level. Is representation among your concerns in any way while working on your projects?

Identity inevitably comes up, since there’s always a connection to my own life experiences. Coming from Lebanon and having lived through very beautiful and very bad moments; I don’t feel apprehensive about discussing either part. I like to challenge the status quo, and I don’t mind confronting more difficult topics, and from that attitude comes a lot of representation. I do try to have one element in my work that’s kind of myself; be it queer, Beirut, a consumer, a lover of technology… to tell a story of myself. I always like to put myself in there somehow. I think it keeps the work connected to a lived experience that I can testify first hand. It keeps it real and connected.

More info Viviane El Kmati
More info Fake Me Hard
Interview by Mayis Rukel
Image credits: stills from Viviane El Kmati – film Valentine in Things City