Aarati Akkapeddi on the poetics and politics of beauty and identity through data sets

The New-York based artist on depicting the fluid notion of the contemporary identity - cultural, aesthetic, political, and intergenerational.

by Girinandini Singh Published on : Jan 30, 2021

In the growing landscape of virtual worlds lies the allure of the ‘escape’, ridding us of the rigours of the everyday, trials and anxieties, in lieu of a liberating anonymity, alternative identities, and an acceptance towards whoever one wants to be. For digital artists and artists working with new media there is a world of unexplored possibilities in the sphere of body and technology opening up. How do we reset and challenge the inherent dynamics of patriarchal systems? How do we resist the existing binaries of identity? For Aarati Akkapeddi, a first-generation Indian-American cross-disciplinary artist, programmer, and educator, her work examines the poetics of such fluid identities and their politics through data sets.

Code - installation view| Aarati Akkapeddi | STIRworld
Code - installation view Image: Aarati Akkapeddi

“I think many ‘analog’ mediums have been used in ways to reinterpret the physicality of the body and challenge existing binaries of gender,” Akkapeddi explains. Historically, artists have been intrigued by the representation of human traits, physicality, beauty, and aesthetics. Think of the works by American visual artist Senga Nengudi, which are sculptures merging found objects with body choreographies in performance-based installations. We see similar lines of questioning in Frida Kahlo ’s self-portraits or Valie Export’s video installations of body performances. “I feel that new media artists today are working with these same themes which are such an inherent part of our history. Another artist who works with body and technology and also thinks of the body as a technology is Sondra Perry. Her work interacts with this idea in smart and critical ways and it has really taught me a lot about race and body politics,” adds Akkapeddi.

There is however an inherent danger towards escapism that comes with the digital medium, a temptation towards perfection. We can translate this as a corruption of the original flawed human form, arising from wanting to surpass or transcend notions of beauty and aesthetic. For Akkapeddi, however, it is the subjectivity, the fallacies, and the complexity of the human experience which mediate their way into her work. “I am actually quite critical of trans-humanist notions of perfection as I think these movements disregard subjectivity, political, cultural, racial, economic, and historical contexts around technology - its uses and as such consequences. I suppose in some ways my work might be interested in the fallacies of human memory but not really in order to surpass it, but more as a way to meditate on the very complex, intricate, and intimate ways we choose to remember through images,” she mentions.

Artist 3D printing embossing plates | Aarati Akkapeddi | STIRworld
Artist 3D printing embossing plates Image: Courtesy of Nina Simoneaux

This intimate meditation is apparent in her work Ancestral Apparitions, which uses machine learning to evoke simultaneous feelings of familiarity and distance in the exploration of a diaspora identity. As the audience we are confronted with the tension between the collective and the individual identity within our own archives - cultural and personal. The impact of the work comes from the complex data set, which is created by a Generative Adversarial Network trained on family photographs from the artist's personal archive as well as images from the studies in Tamil Studio Archives and Society. The machine learning model is, through this data set, able to produce its own haunting spectral of ‘family photographs’, which Akkapeddi uses to create digital negatives and print them on lumen prints on expired photo paper, completing the loop of the creative process by returning them to their original medium of the training data.

Artist uses lumen prints for her images | Aarati Akkapeddi | STIRworld
Artist uses lumen prints for her images Image: Aarati Akkapeddi

“The original photographs are portraits of men, portraits of couples which are cropped from the chest up, you all have portraits of couples standing and other poses which were popular at the time. The subject matter can be seen reflected in the output images,” informs the artist. The traditional aesthetics of beauty for the artist becomes subjective via the process of creation. Akkapeddi believes that with technology there is not always a clear-cut dichotomy between traditional and the contemporary, or the analog and the digital. A lot of her work deals with photography and is steeped in the history of the camera when it was considered a new imaging technology. “I think all these ‘technologies’, whether it is machine learning, photography, or oil painting, are embedded with our own biases and subjectivity”. It is perhaps these biases and subjectivities which find their way into the depiction of human beauty evoking strong emotional responses to what comes from the highly synthesised world of technological tools or digitisation.

Aarati Akkapeddi holding photographs | Aarati Akkapeddi | STIRworld
Aarati Akkapeddi holding photographs Image: Courtesy of Simon Courchel

The way in which the output is synthesised and mutated from the original data resembles the analogous, “resembling the ways memory is distorted over time and generations, I feel the machine’s ‘struggle’ to understand parallels my own yearning”. When Akkapeddi approaches an exploration of the physical - the body, the face, the human form - she does so with the understanding that there will be a certain subjectivity embedded in the viewer. The digital tool that is machine learning, data sets, or AI, accentuates this subjectivity by asking questions which lead to singular truths but with the acceptance of a multitude of perceptions. This is the collective and the intergenerational memory which humanises beauty and aesthetics.

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