With all of us staying at home more to limit the spread of Covid-19, many have settled into a new normal thanks to communications technologies allowing us to continue pursuing social activities. By now we’ve adapted to a more digital lifestyle: working from home, Zoom meetings, and digital content. 

Katie Yook  |  Ed YoungMi Lamine  | 16 September 2020

Ellie Niblock and Alaa Tarabzouni, With Love Nowhere (2020) – The Other Non-Place © Courtesy of the artists.

When it comes to artistic collaboration, working together online is not a new practice, with many collaborations commonly taking place across the international art landscape. Nonetheless, most gravitate towards some sort of launch, with visitors and live events. The first Connect ME residency, hosted by The Arab British Centre, responded to this limitation with a digital arts residency connecting artists aged 18-30 based in the GCC and the UK. The final project would be created, marketed and showcased, all digitally. 

Artists Ellie Niblock and Alaa Tarabzouni were two of four artists selected and paired up to commission a collaborative digital artwork over four weeks without being able to meet. As their project website states: “The piece was conceived in parts that happened in choreographed isolation.”1 

Ellie is a media artist based in the UK and Alaa has a background in architecture and is based in Saudi Arabia. At first glance, parallels between their work are not immediately apparent, but The Arab British Centre thought the pair would make an interesting collaboration based on their approach towards world-building. They both brought elements from their practices to create an augmented reality landscape, With Love: From Nowhere: The Places of the Not-Yet, which launched this month on the Making Marks website. 

Ellie Niblock and Alaa Tarabzouni, With Love Nowhere (2020) – The Other Non-Place © Courtesy of the artists.

Intended to be viewed on a mobile device, the multi-sensory and interactive work combines elements of architecture, new media art, sound and literature. The website presents three objects, Despina, Zenobia, Pyrrha, each named after fictional cities in the novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Each interactive object is further accompanied by its own sound piece, text description and geographical mapping. 

The artists utilised several digital tools to discover new ways of working together and creating artwork across borders. They kept conversations active through a stream of WhatsApp messages, a shared Pinterest board, Skype calls and hefty WeTransfer links. As the concept of the work began to take shape, their stock of technologies expanded to content-making and creative software: GarageBand, Soundcloud, Trnio, Rhino. Through these digital applications, many lo-fi, user-friendly and free, the artists were able to collaborate in real-time, creating the work and maximizing the full potential of working creatively across borders. 

Ellie Niblock and Alaa Tarabzouni, With Love Nowhere (2020) – Zenobia © Courtesy of the artists.

The postal service has been another means of communication with re-emphasized importance during a pandemic. While at home, the post becomes an important portal to the physical and material world, and as part of the collaborative process, Alaa sent a box of personal found objects from her home in Riyadh to Ellie in London. 

With a deep interest in the relationship between the physical and the digital and how they coexist, Ellie then transformed these objects into digital sculptures. Alaa’s focus on the built environment is also apparent in the work: by augmenting the scale of the objects and using architectural practices such as contouring and mapping, the objects become textureless and scaleless and start to appear as real topographical landscapes. 

Ellie Niblock and Alaa Tarabzouni, With Love Nowhere (2020) – Despina texture © Courtesy of the artists.

The artists were interested in creating a third space that was both hyper-specific and non-specific. The objects are hyperspecific with their magnified scale and detailed descriptors. Each contains traces of each artist’s local geographical surroundings in the UK and Saudi Arabia. Sound recordings from Ellie’s urban surroundings and objects from Alaa’s home giving hints to specific places. For example, the object Pyrrha is accompanied by a sound piece that includes hints of rain, the pace of steps and bar-code beeps. Its attributes are: “non-binary_72nd quadrant_387X2889 facets_South-West of Eudoxia”. Pyrrha is made up of objects from Alaa’s home. We can see the shapes and textures of pink pom-poms and a shallow dish. Pyrrha’s colour is meticulously described: “Visitors describe it as yellow; it fluctuates between the marigold hue and a deep magenta but can appear chartreuse in the moonlight”. 

On the other hand, the works depict a fictionalized and abstracted non-place that is impossible to know. Despite so much information and referencing, they are mapping nothing. Zooming in and scrolling through this interactive installation recalls an unretrievable artefact or lost city that has been recreated from fleeting details of memory. Just as images of dinosaurs and the galaxy are recreated and artificially enlivened by vibrant colours, the artists add in their own fictional imaginary to everyday objects. As a result, they created an alternative archaeological space inhabited by real objects where the real and fictional, and the digital and physical, can coexist and create new meanings. 

For their talk with Agora, “How Digital Art Encourages Connectivity Across Borders”, the artists will talk about how important the collaborative process was in making With Love: From Nowhere. Working digitally was not a limit but rather a possibility that allowed them to begin to materialise an imagined, utopian world without the limitations of physical production.

Ellie Niblock and Alaa Tarabzouni, With Love Nowhere (2020) © Courtesy of the artists.

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