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AN INTERVIEW WITH MOHAR KALRA 

on semiotics and his artistic process

Interviewed by 

Daniel Viveros Santillana

[PDF]


Introduction

Driven by the main themes of this special issue, on pop culture, media, and transmediality, the editorial team decided to conduct an interview with Mohar Kalra, a visiting researcher and artist at Tartu University. With a background in engineering and a strong passion for art, Mohar made the decision to broaden his horizons by gaining a deeper understanding of the field of semiotics. The American artist has a deep understanding and respect for a wide variety of artistic mediums and interfaces, and he employs them to provide his audience with engaging interactive experiences. His creations have a number of tiers and levels, and the only thing that’s needed to unearth their hidden meanings is audience participation. Mohar explains how his engineering experiences have always guided him towards building new systems of meaning, governed by obvious but also hidden rules; in a way, he had been always using semiotics, but he was not aware of it. Throughout this conversation, he discusses his artwork, the people and ideas that have inspired and influenced him, as well as semiotics.

Interview

DSSo to begin with, what led you to Tartu?

MK: So I am from the States, I got my degree in electrical engineering, and I was hoping to build up a practice in media art somewhere abroad after graduation. I was wondering how I could use technology to change the way we perceive systems around us in our everyday lives. Like, how do we introduce new feelings and new sorts of stimuli into the mundane? In my mind, this is very compatible with semiotics’ approach to perception. Because I have a background in engineering, I felt that I understood fairly well the technological systems around us and the meanings that can be projected onto them. However, especially after COVID and the various recent catastrophic climate crises, I wanted to find a way of reconnecting to nature through technology in my artwork, but I knew very little about things outside the world of tech. I had heard a little bit about Estonia’s experimentation with technology. A lot of what I had heard came from some propaganda you know ⁠— by the government, but still Estonia offers a different paradigm for relating to technology than what we have in the USA. There is experimentation happening here in civic technology administered by the government that could never exist outside of the profit-driven tech model in the US. As I did more digging, I learned that Estonia’s environmental culture encompasses environmental folklore, which is a very important part of Estonian identity. Furthermore, the department of semiotics shows particular interest in ecosemiotics and biosemiotics, unpacking biological systems, ecological systems, and understanding how they are linked with each other. It is a great contribution on how we perceive and relate to ecology as a culture, or as different cultures, and also how other non-human organisms do the same. I felt that this was very important and interesting for my work, because it would allow me to fill in the knowledge gap I had regarding how we relate to ecology and systems outside of purely technological ones. And so, all of those factors contributed to my realisation that: “Tartu would be a really great place to land”.

DSThat is pretty interesting, and before coming here did you have any previous experience with semiotics? Perhaps even something about the Tartu-Moscow school?

MK: I actually had not, but I had experience in fields that now I am learning have been historically very closely tied to semiotics. I had taken classes where we talked about cybernetics, and as I read a lot of interaction design texts now, there are a lot of references, implicit references, to Peirce and Uexküll. And so, coming here made me realise how semiotics is the foundation of the more technologically specific education that I had during my undergrad.

DSWhat about now, are you considering applying your semiotic knowledge in your artistic process? 

MK: Yeah, a lot of my work, until now, has been very much unknowingly influenced by a sort of semiotic approach to my own personal experience. For instance, regarding questions like: “I am feeling this when this happens, what does that mean to me? What are the perceptual processes going on here? What are the meaning-making processes happening under the surface in my head? And can I bring those out and present them to other people?” So, trying to discover a sort of meaning-making process that leads the audience to different meanings beyond what they ordinarily would have. Now, I think what has been really useful, especially here in Tartu, is understanding formal methodologies of breaking down ways of dissecting that sort of meaning-making and then applying it to specific contexts. So, I can draw from texts about, for instance, indigenous languages in the Amazon or other systems that differently structure ways of relating to nature, and then ask myself “okay, this is how the meaning-making process is working for this community, can I pull something from that?” 

DSWhat would you say is the relationship between semiotics and art in your experience? From your website, it is clear that you have a specific background and a very unique artistic style.

MK: That is true, but I mean at the same time the engineering and the art are really not at odds in the way they might seem. I think at the end of the day, and it is not true for all artists, but for me art is a process of fabricating feeling and meaning. So, it is a process of design and engineering almost; scaffolding an experience. It is a very semiotic related process, because it all comes down to how the viewer will hopefully find some meaning in what you are presenting.

DSSpeaking about your website, I went through your projects. One of them that caught my attention was Close Up, the interactive comic book. I found it brilliant how the mechanics do not let you close the book, once it is open, unless you go through all the pages, one by one.

MK: Yeah, and I think this is probably one aspect unique to my process. I try to build a system; a system with specific rules if you will. The rules in this specific case – making you read every page in order to close the book – contribute to the meaning of the work. But, the rules, as part of a system presented to you, invite you to explore as a viewer, and decipher how the system functions. I would say that it is a process that relies heavily on active meaning-making processes on the viewers’ part. Through the interaction the system reveals itself, and the viewer figures out what the rules are exactly. Even though the system does not necessarily operate in the same way as systems in the real world, there is definitely need for an internal conversation on the viewer’s part, and a recollection of a kind of logic built and used in the real world. 

DSHowever, we can see that your projects are quite different with each other, from comic stripes to a collection of different machines. Where do you draw inspiration from? 

MK: Usually it starts with a feeling. When I experience something and I think to myself “oh! That was weird. I did not really expect that” it makes my mind wander. Like once I was in a forest hiking and I noticed how the wind passing through the trees sounded like a door opening. It was this constant creaking sound, like doors constantly opening around me, and, being alone in the forest, it felt really creepy at the time. I remember wondering if there was really a house somewhere nearby. But it was also a very interesting experience, because it revealed a metaphor; a loose metaphor, where you can hear the echo of the final wood products from the living woods. The trees were actually recreating these familiar sounds that we hear everyday from a wooden door, a wooden drawer, etc., and so that made me want to replicate the feeling and the metaphor by creating a system; In order to have a feeling you need to create a sign system that will lead the viewer to ask certain questions and have an internal conversation to arrive at that feeling. But also, I want to scaffold this conversation through my art piece, because it is not necessary that everyone who will hear the creaking sound of trees will associate it with a wooden door without some prompting. So as I design the artwork, for me, it is important to emphasise this comparison between trees and the door, the built environment and the wild environment. So, this tends to be the process behind my work.

DSWould you say that there is a specific artist, or even an artistic movement that influences your work the most?     

MK: Yes! The fluxus movement, surrealistic cinema, and a lot of early media artists, like Nam June Paik, Jeffery Shaw, Christina Kubitsch, and others. They were people who showed a lot of interest in the emotional and cultural signs and the connotations of systems, especially technological systems. In the case of Nam June Paik for example, we see that he was making use of cameras and televisions, and things that are staples in our everyday lives, but he was creating art to raise questions on what they say about us and our society and what meaning they can create when placed in an unfamiliar context. For instance, one of his installations was a statue of Buddha watching a TV broadcasting a live-stream from a camera pointing back to him. So, this kind of work focuses on the metaphors built into a certain system and our interaction with it when these metaphors are placed in conflict with each other. There is a lot of experimentation with interfaces in these art pieces and they are very influential to me, especially the way they are scaffolding ideas around feelings.

DSBoxes, is another project of yours that seems to combine everything. It is a short comic book, it is interactive, and it conveys a lot of feelings. Also, I think since Tartu is a city of students, they could really relate with the story. Could you tell me a little bit more about it?

MKBoxes has a loose story about someone moving into and then moving out of a space. The main focus is the physical interaction between the reader and the book. You get to walk through it, until you reach the final page where you have to unfold the book to see the character’s apartment after they’re all moved in. In the end, you have to refold and pack the book up, just like the character must pack his boxes in order to move out. So again, the idea started with a feeling around moving out of one’s home. The physical interaction of the book, and the manipulation of the pages contribute to the meaning-making process and feelings evoked around this personal narrative. 

DSI have noticed that you are using a variety of media in your art. Would you consider including even more in the future? What would you say are some of the limitations when working with different material?

MK: So, for my work I use many different materials and various tangible interfaces. I don’t want to be limited to one medium, because each one in a certain respect is an interface which holds certain affordances that I can utilise to my benefit. In my understanding, an interface is, to some extent, a system encompassing sets of rules for accessing content, and based on that logic I use different media to build my own systems through my artworks, designing new interfaces. 

The hardest medium for me to manipulate is film. I have done some works using film, but I find it hard to give it a formal twist while simultaneously using the medium in an accessible way people are used to. There is the issue of production value, meaning that it is quite challenging to create images with realism, or surrealism, and make the experience really immersive. I think that my limitations at the moment are mostly technical, or skill based if you will. I can do comics because I have been drawing since I was a small kid, but when I had to work with sound to create art for example, I stepped out of my comfort zone and it was not such an easy task. So, in the end I believe that I need to grow more as an artist, because my limitations lay in experience rather than in the nature of the media I use.

DSMoving the focus of the conversation a bit, how would you describe semiotics through your own experience? And would you say that semiotics is an apt method of approaching art?

MK: I don’t want to make such a bold statement to say that it is the only way, but at least in my personal experience it is certainly a significant part of my process, even when I did not know anything about semiotics, and I was using it unknowingly and instinctively. Having said that, I can see how semiotics might not be a very important part of the process for some other artists, especially if they are not aiming at triggering a dialogue or creating a strong correlation between meanings. I do think however, that even these other artists are applying some type of semiotic process, just a broader and vaguer one.

DSWould you say that semiotics developed to be a new tool for your artwork?

MK: I do not know if a tool is the best word as much as a methodology. Having access to more literature and expanding my horizons through semiotics certainly helped me to ‘unpack’ my own sign processes. Getting familiar with other people’s understanding of signs, different cultures’ sign systems, the perception of various stimuli and their triggers, were all contributing factors. To be more specific and give an example, I’ve been thinking a lot about phobias around insects and bugs in the house. I talked to Professor Timo Maran about this, and even though I was approaching this phobia as a general phenomenon, my interest was certainly coming from my own fear first and foremost. However, I got to understand where this fear is coming from, connect it to biosemiotic notions, like the agency of other-than-human beings, and I discovered there is actually plenty of literature on the topic. This gave me a lot of inspiration, and showed me a way of combining these bio-feelings to my designs, expanding the horizons of my own methodologies as an artist. 

DSFinally, I wanted to ask you if you have any advice for young aspiring artists with a point of view similar to yours?

MK: It is hard to give advice, because I think the environment one grows into plays a significant role and influences the individual both as a person and as an artist. For example, I am coming from the US, which is a very capitalistic society, and apart from that I was heavily influenced growing up with comics, and not so much media art. In both of these contexts, one of the most important priorities is constant production. But during this frantic production, there is not much room for you to stop and think if what you’re producing is good to you, or how to improve. You cannot have the mindset that “I will not call the artwork finished until I am truly in love with the final result”. However this can be a very valuable thing; to be able to have work in a finished form, even if you’re not in love with it, that you can show to other people and get their feedback. Through feedback your work can improve much faster. It not only builds your momentum towards growth, but also creates a community around you that might influence and inspire you. 

Perhaps a good general advice would be to try and build the skills necessary to execute your ideas. I mentioned earlier that I am lacking the technical skills to do a lot of what I would like to do, but when I think about myself two or three years ago, I realised that I did not have the engineering skills that I possess right now in order to create the things I make now. I started with simpler projects, and I kept pushing myself. Like now, a lot of the projects that I have in mind are tough because they involve some things that I have never tried before; but the process itself is going to improve my conceptual skills and give me hands on experience with new media. It might sound scary, but it really excites me, to find real things, existing in the world, and try to give them a new twist, making someone other than me feel something. 

But to return to what I was saying about the environment you’re in, I think especially in Europe there is much more leeway for just ‘marinating’ in ideas. And I think this is very valuable too, because even if you are not producing something you are thinking and you are developing your ideas while building up your conceptual skills. You can also get your ideas into conversation with other people and gather some initial reactions before you start producing your work. I have been continually surprised by how much people are actually willing to help you if you just ask. Because they have been in your shoes, and they know what it feels like. 

DSThat was a great closing point! Thank you so much for the incredible conversation, and I really urge everyone to check out your website, and all your projects!

MK: Thank you as well!