It’s no mystery that contemporary Western societies have a complicated relationship with time. Time doesn’t just flow, it flies, and feeling like we don’t have enough is often cause for anxiety. But what if we could capture it by using Art as a medium?
That’s precisely what Berlin-based photographer Audrey Kadjar sought to achieve with Synthetic Velvet. A hybrid between a magazine and a digital art object, Synthetic Velvet freezes time by dedicating each issue to a specific hour using a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach. The website launched in December 2018.
The first issue explored 5.40am and featured exclusive works by six artists. In January 2019, Synthetic Velvet was exhibited as part of the Vorspiel programme organized by art festivals CTM and Transmediale.
I interviewed Audrey Kadjar about the project in January. Our conversation notably touched upon the challenges specific to digital art and the Western world’s anxious relationship with time. It has been edited for clarity.
(Disclaimer: I was a contributor to the project and authored the Blue Room poem.)
Hélène Belaunde: Could you please tell me about your background?
Audrey Kadjar: I studied History of Art because I originally wanted to a curator, but in the middle of my Master’s I realized I wanted to be on the creative side. So I got into photography and started teaching myself how to use different creative softwares. I began with digital photography until I discovered analog photography, one year ago. I absolutely loved it, and now I pretty much do only analog, even though I still love digital media. I would actually describe my artistic practice as integrating both analog and digital media, combining them rather than opposing them, as it’s often the case. Kind of like the yin and the yang. (Laughs).
For example, when I take analog photos, I send them to a laboratory for development. I receive them a few days later by e-mail in the form of digital files. So in the end, what I have are digital analog photos. I love mixing both, which is why Synthetic Velvet also employs a lot of analog materials. My contribution uses analog photos, and Li Linhui’s contribution is based on analog footage she found online.
Now, on to Synthetic Velvet. How did the concept occur to you?
A.K: At first, my idea was to make an online magazine. But I can’t say precisely how the concept, as it is now, occurred to me… one day I was walking in Paris and it just crossed my mind: “I want to make a project about Time, and each issue will take a specific hour as its main theme.” It was very spontaneous.
I asked myself whether to use print or digital, but digital quickly imposed itself, first due to my personality (as I’ve mentioned before, it’s my favorite medium), but also because it’s accessible to everybody. A big issue with print is that it’s incredibly expensive. I once participated in the creation of a print zine, Digitalis Minor: we ended up printing fewer copies than expected because the costs were simply too high. That was very frustrating.
But of course, digital art has its drawbacks. Since it’s on the Internet, people may have shorter attention spans. So I’d say that it’s one of the main challenges for Synthetic Velvet, and one I will have to solve for the next issue.
Keeping people’s attention?
A.K: Yes. It’s hard to find a balance between creating complex works of art and making them simple enough that they can be digitally digested. Frankly, I can’t tell whether I’ve succeeded with the first issue. Maybe it was too complex – I don’t know. But that’s definitely a problem with digital art. Then again, every medium has its own challenges.
What you’re saying brings to mind the specifics of web writing: copywriters tend to follow guidelines in order to keep people reading. Short paragraphs, catchy headlines, addressing readers using a conversational tone…
A.K: Exactly, you have to be super punchy. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do something so simple. With Synthetic Velvet, I was also inspired by print media: there are independent print magazines that I find amazing, very high-quality, whereas many online platforms publish empty content that’s meant to be scanned rather than embraced. Basically, I sought to reproduce the high quality of print media in a digital setting.
It’s a shame that the digital world should often be associated with easy, empty content: after all, we spend a significant portion of our lives on the Internet. It’s our world. We should strive to produce high-quality content as much as possible.
Let’s talk about time. Could you explain why you chose to build your project around this subject? What is it about time that fascinates you?
A.K: It just immediately seemed like a great idea. Not just the concept of Time itself, but choosing to center each issue on one specific hour.
Retrospectively, I believe it came to me because time is something I often contemplate on. I have a very special relationship with time. For starters, I’m always late. (Laughs). Which obviously means a lot. And I think about time very often. When I’m sad, I feel nostalgic; when I’m happy, I think of the future… I believe our conception of time in a given moment is a meaningful reflection of our state of mind, our personality. And it fluctuates constantly. So it’s interesting on a personal, intimate level. But also on a societal level: our society has a very anxiogenic relationship with time.
A.K: Western societies tend to be very ageist and glorify youth. Early on, we are taught to think within very restrictive frameworks: when you’re thirty, that’s it, you’re old. There’s a whole fuss that’s being made about turning thirty, for example.
Exactly. And thirty’s super young – that’s not even half your life!
A.K: Yes! And I see people around me, they’re super young, 27 or 28, and they tell me “Jeez, I feel old”. They’re thirty and they seem to believe their lives are over, even that they’re past their expiry date! And I’m like, “But you’re so young!” Maybe we’re going to live a hundred years more. I think it’s really horrible how society puts these harmful notions and anxieties into our heads.
With Synthetic Velvet, I want people to take a step back and approach time differently: not as something that flies and becomes lost, not a cause for distress, but a source of creative potential.
That’s also why the project’s motto is ‘A digital love letter to Time’: it’s as if each issue were a digital love letter we send to Time to celebrate it, instead of criticizing it (or the lack of it).
I see. And since Synthetic Velvet prompts us to focus on one specific hour, it can also be said that it ‘freezes’ time, letting us think of this precise moment rather than the clock ticking.
A.K: That’s it.
As founder of Synthetic Velvet, you were not just on the creative side, you also had to manage a pool of collaborators. How did it go? Did you find it easy to explain your vision to the artists?
A.K: As a matter of fact, I found the management part extremely easy – when that was what worried me the most at the beginning! I was afraid people would say yes and just drop out in the middle of the project. It was a very strong fear. I was also nervous at the idea of managing so many people.
But I must say, I was very lucky for this first issue. All the collaborators were great and I was very impressed with their dedication to the project. They made everything very smooth for me.
What I loved was how all of them immediately understood the concept and took ownership of it. That was precisely what I wanted: obviously, I had no desire to dictate what they should do. The strength of the project also lies in how each creator expresses their own voice, their artistic perspective – each voice and perspective adding up to a coherent whole.
Retrospectively, can you say if there was one significant moment, or several, that moved you when working on the project?
A.K: I’d say it was during the first meeting. All contributors were there (except Eduardo, who lives in Brasil.) It was a beautiful moment: we were at the beginning of the project, and to be honest, I didn’t think it would work out. I thought: it’s too big of a project, it’s going to be so hard. But the first reunion was wonderful. The contributors didn’t know one another, and at first, we had friendly conversations about other topics. I could feel a positive vibe, a bond growing between us all. That’s when I thought, for the first time: this is going to work. Everyone was happy to be there, everyone wanted to do this, and crucially, everyone was really supportive of one another. That’s how it should be in the art world.
Because it’s usually very competitive, isn’t it?
A.K: It’s super competitive, and I think it’s hard for creators to find a supportive space. In retrospect, that’s also one of the goals of Synthetic Velvet: to provide artists with a space where they can find support and kindness. A place where we are excited about one another’s work, without being overly critical.
What future ideas do you have for Synthetic Velvet?
A.K: The next issue shall be themed around 3.10pm. This time we will be seven, as opposed to six in the first issue, with artists based in different locations.
Otherwise, I’d like to feature more visual works, and audio as well. I’d love for someone to compose a piece of music inspired by 3.10pm, it would be beautiful. Though it would pose technical issues, of course, since I’m not yet sure how to publish it on the website.
When will the second issue be published?
A.K: August 2019.
Outside of Synthetic Velvet, are you currently working on other artistic projects?
A.K: Yes, I’ve just finished a series of photographs called Link in Bio about digital communications, and I’m currently coordinating the production of the next issue. Finally, a video installation on a similar theme, Everywhere and Now-here, created with two fellow artists, was recently exhibited at art festival 48 Stunden!