Juan Covelli

Artist Interview

February 12, 2020
Juan Covelli is an artist currently living and working between London and Bogotá. A graduate of MA Contemporary Photography; Practices and Philosophies at Central Saint Martins, London, his practice revolves around the technological potentials of 3D scanning, modelling and printing to readdress entrenched arguments of repatriation and colonial histories. His work has focused on new materiality generated by the digital era; in particular, on the dynamics and approaches of the physical within the digital world. In the last few years, he has been exploring the relationship between technology, heritage, archaeology and digital colonialism. Using video, modelling, data sets and coding he creates IRL and URL installation-based works which collapse historical practices with current models of display and digital aesthetics.

Hello Juan, we are so glad to have you on De:Formal. Can you start with telling us about yourself? What is your background and how does it influence your practice?

Thank you so much for the invite! I am a Colombian artist, living and working between Bogotá and London. I also teach art at the Javeriana University in Bogotá and, of late, have been trying my hand at curation.

I was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia; I had a relatively normal middle-class upbringing, well… as normal as it can be when you live in Colombia in the 80’s and 90’s, if you know what I mean?! I studied for a BA in Political Science in Colombia, after which I went to Europe where I began my photography career and then continued to become an artist, studying for my MA at Central Saint Martins.

I guess my background in political science informs my practice, in the sense that my projects have a strong research based component, and although I think any art has the potential to be political, I believe I tend to be interested in politically charged subjects, such as repatriation and colonialism. My photographic background influences my work greatly; as such, I like to think of my practice as post-photographic, as I will always be interested in the image as a core part of my work.

What is your experience being an immigrant artist traveling between London and Bogotá? In what way does this experience inform your work?

I left Colombia for the UK in 2008. In 2009, I moved to Spain for three years, living in Barcelona and Madrid, then returned to London again, where I lived for a further seven years. I guess what happens when you leave your home country is that you become a sort of pariah, in the sense that you no longer belong to just one place. I believe this can be very positive, as you become more adaptable and learn from different cultures and ways of thinking.

This experience has informed my practice in numerous ways. Being in Europe for several years changed my perspective and my way of making art; I discovered digital practice, and this was a very positive influence on me. Furthermore, having access to great collections and museums, such as the British Museum reinforced my interest in repatriation of stolen artifacts. On the other hand, coming back to my home country has helped me decolonise my mind, shifting my practice again. So, to conclude, I guess being a “migrant” or foreigner of any kind will always make you rethink your work according to the context you are surrounded by.

What is your process like? Can you tell us more about your use of 3D scanning, and 3D modelling in your work?

My work focuses on new materialities generated by the digital era. In particular, on the dynamics and approaches of the physical within the digital world. I have been exploring how new technologies give rise to new ways of understanding what is physical. For me, the rise of these materialities open up a space to generate artistic production and allow me to speculate about matter and its digital destiny. My current main interests are related to new technologies; heritage and the copy as a way of fighting against digital colonialism. Depending on the project, I use different tools and technologies, some of which are: photography, 3D scanning and printing, coding, CGI, moving image and virtual reality. Normally, I use these to produce installation-based works that fluctuate between IRL and Web-based.

I am fascinated by the 3D scanner as a tool of power. The 3D scanner has been given magical properties, capturing our world in three dimensions and allowing us to experience artifacts as never before. I have been using these technologies as a tool for replication, dissemination and resistance. My processes then depend on the project I am working on. Lately, I have been working with different museums and collections, using the scanner to create new artifacts that I can claim as mine and take out of the museum, decontextualize or simply replicate. Working with artefacts that are 2,000 years old is not an easy task. First, they need to be in a good and stable condition. Some of the artifacts have been restored or are simply too weak to be handled. Also, their location in the museum and how accessible they are. You always need to work very closely with the team at the different collections to assess what is the best way forward. After scanning, I use quite a different set of tools and processes, sometimes I do re-materialization with additive technologies such as 3D printing, other times, I create 3D animations or just share the scans.

In my most recent project, “Terra Incognita”, I decided to approach the process in a different way. Instead of scanning artifacts, I collaborated with a 3D artist called Debora Silva, who helped me model a set of “beasts” based on early representations of South American animals by the Spanish conquerors. I then placed these in a 3D environment that I created using the programme Unreal Engine. The work itself examines the role of technology in colonial history where it facilitated the importation of “culture” from new territories, including living organisms. “Terra Incognita” questions how new worlds will be colonised in the 21st century; as new technologies develop, expeditions are, once again, back in fashion.

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You mentioned your interests in the relationship between technology, heritage, archaeology and digital colonialism. Can you tell us more about that?

Yes, I have been interested in colonial stories and narratives for a few years now; the institution of the museum as a key figure, and contemporary issues that are arising with new technologies such as 3D scanning. I am interested in exploring how this phenomenon affects our understanding of culture and ownership: what magical powers does the 3D scanner have, and how can we use it to fight digital colonialism? What is the best way to manage our digital archives, and are strategies like dissemination and reinterpretation of heritage an effective way to liberate the digitized objects from the museum and bring it back to the people?

In the las few years, there has been a boom in the digitalization of heritage, and in many ways, this is a good phenomenon as we can preserve memory in novel ways. The issue is that quite a lot of these museums and companies are keeping this data out of public reach and using it for personal gain, replicating the same power dynamics that were present in the colonial era. In this sense, what interests me is how I can use 3D technologies to fight against these practices. Digital colonialism can be avoided if we fight against it as a collective. The most effective tool we have in the digital domain is the capacity to endlessly copy and disseminate information.

Parts of "Speculating the fragmented copy" are made with Unity, a software for creating 3D, AR, and VR contents. What is your experience with programming (coding)? What advice would you give to young artists that are interested in learning and utilizing technology for their practice?

Yes, “Speculating the fragmented copy” was a project I created as part of the web residencies program by Akademie Schloss Solitude and the ZKM∣Center for Art and Media. For that project, I released 14 high resolution 3D scans of Mesoamerican artifacs I scanned in the Stavenhagen Collection -CCU Tlatelolco in Mexico and then invited people to download them, remix them and send them back to me.

I wanted to create a 3D walkable space, where I could place these knew objects, so I started researching and found that I could create something like that using Unity and webGL. I am not an expert coder or game builder; I normally learn what I need to learn in order to make it happen. The advice I always give to my students is that you should never be afraid of using technology, you can always learn it online, or if there is something that goes beyond your capacities, look for collaborations with coders, engineers or scientists, it is amazing what you can develop when you collaborate with other disciplines.

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Have you considered making work with/about machine learning?

Yes, I have been considering it lately. I am interested in the potential of machine learning as an alternative tool for the repatriation of stolen objects that are in the museums of Europe as trophies of the colonial conquest. So, I have been researching ways to use machine learning as an instrument for activism to rip the museum and create new artefacts that can circulate free from the geographical limitations and go back to where they belong, to their original culture or people.

Have you seen/read/heard anything interesting lately that you would like to share?

In early December 2019, I saw a moving image piece by Spanish artist Regina de Miguel, here in Bogotá. It was a powerful film called CATÁBASIS about the cosmos, gold, mining, the Colombian conflict and the healing process of post-conflict in Colombia. Using footage from Google Earth, 3D animations and footage from her travels around the department of Chocó, she takes the viewer through an amazing reflection on the politics of mining and how this affects the territories. At the end she uses 3D animation of pieces from the Gold Museum in Bogotá, metaphorically liberating this object from their captors.

Do you have any bad habits; do they affect your work?

I have a very bad habit of never making up my mind; I can spend months making any decisions. I have been told that I am too meticulous and take in consideration so many different scenarios when I am creating or installing work and I keep changing my mind about it. So, I can be a little bit a pain when it comes to this.

We are also curious about your relationship with the physical world; What is your studio like? What are the most important objects in your studio that you can't live without?

My studio mutates quite a bit depending on the project I am working on. I like to think that I am a post studio artist, as quite a bit of my work is created or happens within the confines of a computer screen. But truth be told, over the last few years my work has started to mutate and become more and more physical. The most important things in my studio are my books, plants, computer and music. Always music.

Are you working on any new projects these days?

Yes, I don’t want to go into too much detail, as it is still in the preliminary stages but this year, I will be working with machine learning to create some new sculptural work, based on archaeological artifacts from Colombia kept in a museum in Madrid, Spain.

Thanks for sharing your ideas with us, Juan. Are there anything else we should know about you?

Thanks again for having me guys. As I mentioned before, I have been getting more and more into curation. This coming February I will be curating my first IRL exhibition “How to inhabit the screen”, with my collective UHIM (Unidad heterogenia de imagen en movimiento). Faced with a future that appears increasingly chaotic, we imagine the possibility of becoming screen. Looking, acting and living in electronic flows of movement and parallel temporalities. In how many different ways can we inhabit the screen? What are the devices that allows us to access it? What are the possible worlds that it can show us? Through these questions we want to propose an exhibition that takes place in three different places: Video, video streaming and video installation. We have a very exiting group of artists, such as nabbterri (Finland), Sebastian Mira (Colombia), Kari Robertson (UK), Luuk Schröder (Nederland’s), Lea Collet (UK), Ana María Millán (Colombia), Lea Porré (France), KEIKEN (UK) and Rocio Pardo (Colombia), to name a few. If you happen to be in Bogota this February, please come to Espacio Odeón to check it out.

More of Juan Covelli:  www.juancovelli.xyz  |  @juan_covelli