Uroš Krčadinac is a digital artist, programmer and educator who explores new ways of perceiving and feeling the common world of people, networks and data. Encompassing digital art, computer sciences, writing, mapping and animation, his transdisciplinary projects contain computer programs for automatically generating visuals and literary texts, an infographic travelogue about the Balkans and Africa, several interactive and animated visualizations of data and art interfaces. His work has been shown at festivals and conferences in Europe, China and North America, and his academic research has been published in numerous scientific journals. He has exhibited his art at universities, museums and galleries all over the world. He is the recipient of numerous awards. As an educator and public lecturer, he has designed and held over 100 public lectures, roundtables and workshops. He holds a doctoral degree in computer science from the University of Belgrade and works as an assistant professor of digital art and computer science at the Faculty of Media and Communications in Belgrade. He talked to P-portal about fractal languages, flags, identities, digital culture, art, habits, sensibility, freedom, reality…
While the debates about the correctness of the Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian… languages, dialects and accents continue daily, you talk about a new language. You say that you view algorithmic art, the visualization of data and generative literature as new languages that can perhaps say more about some aspects of our lives than traditional media. Can you tell us more about this idea?
Here is an example. In the poem “Nightmare,” Abdulah Sidran says: “That is what I sing about, mother. I had, mother, a voice and a language of my own, and now I have neither a voice nor a language.” When I ran this poem through Google’s algorithms for the optimization of advertising texts, they read it as an ad for medical treatments. To optimize it, the algorithms suggested adding the lines “tongue diseases,” “tongue inflammation symptoms,” “geographical language,” “burning sensation in tongue,” “blisters on tongue,” “pimple on tongue,” “creases on tongue.” That sounded to me like a new poetry, and excellent poetry – the poetry of this global, neoliberal, digital world where everything is sellable. A burning sensation in the tongue! Creases on the tongue! Isn’t that exactly what most of us feel when it comes to our common language?
If we give them Vasko Popa, they will read it as an ad for the lumber industry. Crnjanski worked for the tourist industry of the Urals and Sumatra without even knowing it, while Branko Šimić wrote wedding and birthday speeches. All this is revealed to us, completely unintentionally, by Google’s text optimization algorithms.
That’s how the book Optimized Poetics (Multimedia Institute, 2020) was created. I played with the fact that all the words of all the languages of the world have become indexes of goods and services. That’s how the global digital capital sees them, and that shapes new structural relationships in the culture of the 21st century. That is especially important for small and fragmented languages such as ours, which behave like mathematical fractals: they divide once and once again and so on, into ever smaller units.
We need to become aware that our language and its practical, everyday use are influenced more by Google than by the Serbian or Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the most important universities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia or Serbia. I wish our regional literatures saw this topic as more socially relevant than many that seem socially conscious but have, in fact, become boring to algorithms and people.
You have just finished the project Svesvrstani, for which you wrote a program that generates an infinite number of flags and different micro-identities. Among other things, the project explores the connection between technology and ideology. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you what you think: while scrolling and liking and getting a hit of dopamine and serotonin, do we only imagine a freedom of choice?
I am a software engineer by education, so now I use that knowledge in art and literature. That’s how the program you talk about, the basis of the project Svesvrstani, came to be. It is a computer program that can generate an infinite number of different flags. The user keeps pressing the button “generate” until the flag he identifies with appears. The magical moment of identification will happen at some point: the user will think “this flag is mine, really mine; it represents me as an individual.” Between 150 and 200 students from the Belgrade dorm Studenjak played this game. Using the program, they made a series of their own flags that we exhibited at the Studentski Grad Cultural Center in Belgrade.
Let me go back to the freedom of choice. The business model of today’s social networks such as Facebook or TikTok includes the automatized maximization of time the user spends inside the system. That’s why, for example, liking posts and endless scrolling were invented. The longer we are on networks, the more ads we will see and the more data for training their algorithms we will leave. Some social networks intentionally show us content that will “trigger” us or make us show who or what we identify with. Enticed like that, we will enter a discussion. We will spend hours upon hours on the network. That is the unfreedom I fear the most – the one we have internalized as freedom. We believe we are free, but we are actually little rats in a digital labyrinth with levers and sensors. The exhibition asks the question: while we fight our internet battles aligned on one side of the trench against the villains from the other side, are we aware that we are drudging for digital capital for free?
I mentioned fractal languages. Svesvrstani is fractal flags, fractal identities. The flags multiply infinitely. Sometimes it seems to me that what happened to us in the nineties is now happening globally, and in an automatized way: the fractal disintegration of society, the metastasis of the symbolic at the expense of the material, the search for aesthetic solutions to structural problems. We were the avantgarde. We have only to find a way to turn that experience into something useful for ourselves and the world.
In the sea of information and technological, societal, demographic, economic and climate changes, do we perhaps not have the will, motive or ability to process current events in the region and the world? Do some other changes slip under our radar?
I agree. I try to always go back to the systemic and structural and avoid aesthetic and moral baits. Just as there are no aesthetic solutions to systemic problems, so there are no moral solutions to systemic problems. And the systems we live in – economic, technological, climatic, bioecological, financial, media – have become too complex for us to comprehend them easily, if at all. In such a situation, the mind gives in to exciting narratives and moral hysterias; that’s where all the conspiracy theories and the madness we have been living in for a while now come from. The mind wants to stand under a flag without even asking what it is supposed to represent and what its social content is. That’s why introspection is important; the ability to ask ourselves “is this decision really mine?” is important. Is this flag I am standing under really mine? Do I even have to identify with any narrative coming from the digital and media sphere?
That is one aspect – the ability to perceive big systems and oneself in them. The other is – the ability to marvel. I mentioned Branko Šimić. In “Poets,” Šimić says: “Poets are wonderment in the world.” I wish we regained the ability to marvel. At ourselves and the world.
It isn’t enough to travel – you must also talk to people
In May, you visited Zagreb and took part in the exhibition Mapiranje [Mapping], where you presented a series of hand-drawn maps for the travel novel Bantustan: Atlas of an African Journey. You wrote that traditional illustrated tourist maps are full of colorful, iconic stereotypes: the Eiffel Tower in France, the pyramids in Egypt… You want to do it the other way around and use the language of illustrated maps to talk about real reality. You want to preserve the tension between life and childlike imagination, but so that the exotic is a dialectical bait against the exotic. Do you have an idea what a map of the real reality of your room, street, neighborhood, city, Serbia, the Balkans would look like?
What can I say? Don’t organize two solo exhibitions in two months! It is too exhausting. But it turned out that way; the opportunity arose… I am grateful to the people from the Studentski Grad Cultural Center in Belgrade for their help and organization, especially to Maida Gruden and Andrija Stojanović. This exhibition of illustrated maps, And Then You Grow Up and Maps Become Scary, waited some seven years to be made. Now, it’s finally here, and I think people reacted very emotionally. And that makes me feel grateful. It is a wonderful feeling when you become aware that what you create lives in people, means something to them and becomes a part of their inner landscape. That is more important than all the professional career achievements.
I exhibited the hand-drawn maps of African countries and cities that Lazar Pašćanović, Marko Đedović and I described in the travel novel Bantustan: Atlas of an African Journey (The Travel Club, 2015). They are, however, simultaneously also the maps of my entire world, the maps of my street, city, country, region. Just like you said. They are very personal visualizations of data. Although I drew the ocean coastlines and borders with cartographic precision, they are, in fact, maps of little myths.
After the many journeys you’ve done, how do you perceive Serbia? What is it like compared to the stereotypical portrayals in the few media that occasionally report on it?
People are made of similar material everywhere. We shouldn’t fall into the exoticist trap. The problems of the Maasai chief in Kenya are similar to the problems of the head of the local authority in Serbian or Croatian provinces. The Maasai chief takes care of the distribution of the cattle, settles disputes, acquires salt and opposes local tycoons that want to fence off the river and privatize water. Those are problems of the global (semi)periphery. And the tourist industry, unfortunately, lives off exoticism, and often off a kind of racism. It tells us that somewhere over there, some special people with a special mentality live, and then we have nations of this and that kind, countries of this and that kind… That is all nonsense. That’s why it’s not enough to travel, but you must talk to people, open up, read a lot, listen, immerse yourself in the world. And that is easier when you hitchhike, sleep at the houses of the people you meet on the internet or on the spot and travel cheaply and anti-touristy.
What is the cooperation between creators from Belgrade and Zagreb like? What have your experiences been like?
My experiences are great. Very, very positive. And that is not due to institutional connections or some Yugonostalgia but thanks to a fair number of us crazy people ready to build our little networks outside of the official framework. That often takes a lot of effort, but the networks that develop that way are very strong. And it is very important that they exist. It is not only about socializing, art, fun, sex and cultural production. In the case of any serious crisis in the world or the Balkans, I truly believe precisely such networks will save us.
We think we are free but are actually addicts
One can notice that the younger generations in the ex-Yugoslav area are unhindered in socializing and collaborating through the digital medium, from pop culture and gaming to social networks and especially Youtube and TikTok content.
Well, of course. It is a single cultural space for us. That is a positive effect of the internet. We are not just criticizing everything digital. If you write a book or a blog in Vršac, your readers naturally and spontaneously pop up in Pazin and Pazar, Konjic and Skoplje, Nikšić and Banja Luka, Čačak and Čakovec. Then you visit those places and gain friends and collaborators; they visit you, and these friendships and alliances develop, blossom, and, after a while, all these cities become your cities.
Working with young people, you must have some insight into how the dominance of ultrafast content influences and changes their behavior and habits. Should we be worried, especially since we hear more and more about digital dementia and similar phenomena?
We should ask the psychologists, look at concrete data… Digital culture, as I’ve said, has many positive as well as negative effects. Therefore, yes, we should be cautious, perhaps even worried, but we shouldn’t reject the possibilities digital connectedness offers. We need to find a balance.
In addition to the many lectures and projects you work on, you have started a conversation about digital sensibility. As you modestly say, “a little something against digital cynicism” while we voluntarily become objects of software instead of being its subjects. Where is empathy as the last hope of humanness? Can it win its place in the digital world that it has perhaps lost in the analog?
I like that: “we voluntarily become objects of software.” That is precisely the kind of unfreedom I talked about. We think we are free, but we are actually addicts. We are as free as a betting addict who wastes his entire paycheck on an idiotic addiction. The liberal narrative tells us: “It’s your own fault.” We have to reject that. We mustn’t accept that horrible attitude that it’s only the people’s fault that they are poor, addicted, lost or foolishly waste their life, etc. Empathy begins the moment we stop overestimating individual free will.
What do you think the organization of work and the functioning of society will look like in the near future? There is already a lot of talk and work on introducing a universal basic income (UBI), digital money, reorganizing work hours, remote work, the automatization and robotization of the whole production process…
For a while now, I have intuitively felt that these are historic years which will be studied as crucial in future history books. What does that mean for us here and now? I am not sure… Perhaps, as a start, we should accept it? We should stop pretending that everything is normal, that the normal, comfortable, individualist consumer society our parents hoped for exists at all. That has come to an end. The old world is at an end. It isn’t easy living in historic times, but it is incredibly educational. It is both a curse and a privilege. Those with eyes and patience, those who know not to fall for exciting narratives and moral blackmail are getting a free and invaluable historical lesson right now.
What are you working on right now? What are you contemplating? And how do you discipline yourself; how do you escape technology, and where?
Honestly, I need a long, zen summer. This has been a very busy year. I need to just be, without having to contemplate or discipline myself.
Translation from Croatian: Jelena Šimpraga