With technology changing the way we live, work and play at an exponential rate, the relevance of creative disciplines and the value they bring to our lives always makes for an illuminating discussion. Do technology and the arts share common ground? Can they live in a happy balance?
San Francisco based photographer, paper artist and technologist, Insiya Dhatt, believes that the “experiential” nature of the arts, long prevalent in creative disciplines such as advertising, has finally crossed over to applications developed by technology and business.
She speaks to Ayesha Kohli, Editor of Creative Sparq, about the stories she tells through her art and the technology she leverages in her craft.
Tell me about work as an artist and a technologist.
As a fine art photographer, I have explored the transition of film to digital. I shoot with a medium format film camera and use an Imacon scanner to digitise my pictures to get the best of both worlds. Some of my recent work has explored the transition, or the lack of, in neighbourhoods like Coney Island and Gowanus.
As a paper artist, I first draw all my work on the computer using Illustrator and Photoshop before I cut them, either by hand or by machine. Much of my work has been geometric, drawing upon old analogue designs and patterns to create my interpretation.
In addition to my work in art, I am continuing to leverage my technical background. I started my career as a developer, moved into user-experience, design, and information architecture, and now have combined the set to deliver websites from idea to completion.
Given your educational background in economics and commerce, your professional experience in e-commerce and technology seems natural. So how did your parallel journey in the arts come about?
I’ve always had an urge inside of me to produce art but first had to gain the freedom or means.
The work is about discovering the most novel solutions to problems using the unique power of computers. I enjoyed that in school and continue to today.
After spending years in more “behind the scenes” technology, I became fascinated with how people interacted with the technology we were building. Figuring out how to understand a person’s intent and even spark joy in them as they interacted with our work became important in the latter part of my career.
Much the same, I had enjoyed producing art but was originally more focused on the mechanics and practice in a few mediums. Over time I began to think about how the things I liked were rooted in me and my history, and beyond that how others viewing my work would experience it. This allowed me to expand my original focus in photography into other mediums where I could communicate the same ideas in very differently accessible forms.
Why are you passionate about the specific art forms of photography and paper art?
I started in photography with a curiosity to capture small frames of beauty. Initially photography seems accessible and straightforward, but I’ve been amazed by the different stories that can be told through what is simply the reflection of a scene within a photo.
Since I was a young girl, I’ve always had an inclination to fiddle with paper. No matter where I was, there was a newspaper, tissue, advertisement or something to fold or cut around. Throughout my life magazines would be scattered nearby with pages missing; little flotillas of paper boats would surround them. Recently I’m especially interested in discarded scrap paper I can source locally in San Francisco.
Do you focus on any specific subject matter in each of these art forms?
At times, my photographs reflect the change sweeping through a neighbourhood or the people who live within those same neighbourhoods, such as my Gowanus Project.
The Gowanus is a project examining the evolution of the Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn – its transformation from a character-rich rough industrial area to just another banal gentrification via the current wave of development sweeping over New York City. While the current state of the Gowanus Canal is both shocking and striking, most notoriously as a Superfund site and dumping ground for over 100 years of toxic pollutants, in its surrounding community, there is an unusual beauty and tranquillity that is getting lost.
Other times this has come in inspiration from the beautiful patterns across India’s temples, mosques, and fabrics that I would distract myself with to calm myself in the chaos of my life.
What does “creativity” mean to you in the context of your work?
A friend once pointed out I would walk down the streets of New York intently focused on the road. I challenged myself to view more and took special care to look up everywhere throughout the city and found so much beauty that I started my "Into the Sky" series. My interest was in the symmetry and walkway to the sky nature of the skyscrapers throughout the city.
Do you have routines or rituals that you follow that help you in your work?
When I’m in the middle of forming a project, I tend to dream about the concepts at night. I keep a little notebook next to my bed to capture my thoughts so I can continue the project the next day. Other than that my only constant is my dog, Iris, who somehow tolerates the millions of tiny scraps of paper that stick in her curly hair as she curiously sits next to me and watches me work.
What is your creative process when you start work on a new project – either in photography or paper art or as you develop your artists’ books?
With my work in photography, I spend a lot of time thinking about the context of the subject I want to cover. I am enamoured with the public library system of San Francisco and New York and how much access I have to historical books and art books to help me understand how others have talked about or captured subjects adjacent or contrasting with mine.
From there I tend to test concepts I am working on digitally. I am not one to visit a location to shoot just once, nailing the right shot instantly. I need to see and absorb the character of a location from different perspectives, different weather, and different light to really understand it. I’ll review test shots from these visits at home prior to committing to film over several more visits.
The process of editing my work, whether photography or paper, is an arduous process for me. I start off seeing only flaws in everything I produce. It takes time and space for me to be able to step back and choose the least flawed pieces within a group. If I gave in to my desires, I’d probably reshoot or remake every piece of finished work I’ve ever produced.
Over time, building a network of trusted artists for feedback has been essential for me to accept my work as complete and in communicating my intention.
Do you ever find yourself in a state of “Creative flow” – when you just lose track of time?
I live in this state! I routinely forget to eat or sleep when I am in the depths of a project. Interestingly, my dog Iris has become timekeeper for me, gently nudging me along if it’s time for a meal or time to go to bed.
Who or what were your creative influences when you were a child?
I had the great fortune to grow up in one of the most diverse and colourful settings on the planet. I spent part of every summer in the arid, hot air of my grandmother’s house in Udaipur, wandering with my family through old palaces and temples, surrounded by rolling sandy hills and lakes.
I grew up in Mumbai in the heart of one of the most energetic and dense cities in the world. Mumbai was and is a very progressive place when it comes to arts and music, but more importantly for me was the place I would make friends from every religion and background. I also lived through the hell of the Bombay Riots and watched this both unify and divide friends and families.
Lastly, my grandfather kept a small house in the mountains in Khandala. He used this house to collect beautiful antique items he found as he travelled around India for his business. It always felt like a beautiful fantasy house from the movies for me in both setting and contents.
Who or what inspires you at the moment?
At this moment I am mesmerised by the work of Jenny Holzer and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. Their absolutely fearless work in the context of our world today has inspired me to experiment in my work with the voice and thoughts that generally stay within my head.
What kinds of challenges have you faced as an artist?
Even though we have curators and collectors, more or less art is still largely dependant on emotional and subjective responses. This reality has been a difficult adjustment coming from a business world where numbers and targets were either hit or missed. Secondly, I think many people look at artists and assume sans the pressures and deadlines of the business world that we all live in some zen-like state; I think they’d be surprised by the actual demands of living as an artist.
Do you think your experiences in art influence your experience in business? If so how? [e.g. Is your approach to website development influenced by your art aesthetic and vice-versa ?]
Yes, for example, after joining Sephora I was given the mandate to try to recreate the same giddy and pampered feeling that many get in a physical Sephora store in the seemingly dry medium that was the web in 2001. I loved experimenting (and failing at times) in uncharted territory.
As of recent, I think the technology and business worlds have woken up to how everything can and should be experiential. This emphasis has been prevalent in the advertising world for a long time but was missing from products, whether physical or retail.
How has technology changed the way you work and what are the opportunities and challenges that it presents for creative specialists in your specific field?
I’ve brought technology into a lot of my work, especially in paper. I tend to diagram, prototype, and illustrate my paper works first on my Mac ahead of cutting them either by hand or by machine. Bladed machines or laser cutters have allowed some of my paper work to have expansive scale while maintaining the exact precision that I think is crucial to some of what I want to communicate.
At the same time, I think many artists, curators, and collectors still look at work touched by technology as tainted or somehow lesser. This response has been frustrating as a label may get applied to work before it is adequately understood.
If you were to compare levels of creativity among children today versus your childhood, what differences and similarities do you see?
I don’t have a strong opinion on this topic but know that we all are shaped by that which is around us throughout life. Different inputs surrounding children in this era will undoubtedly change the output, but I would not imagine creativity would falter whatsoever.
With artificial intelligence, machine learning, the rise of robots replacing many jobs that exist today, do you think the future of arts is threatened or do you think art will play a stronger role than ever before?
One of my main concerns is how technology is now being subverted and used in harmful ways. Technology is being used to help foster compulsive behaviours, distort facts, and create divisions and war.
Truth comes in new forms like Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s Stop Telling Women to Smile or old documentary works like Weegee covering violence in times past. Artists must also show the possibilities of pushing these machines and AI to their extreme limits, helping others understand the outer boundaries of what the technology is capable of.
Interested in more articles on Arts and Design? Have a look at Invoking Mantoyiat with Nandita Das and The Power of Creative Transformation with Mick Oxley.
Interested in being a Contributing Editor for Arts and Design features ? Get in touch here.
About The Interviewer
A brand storyteller, Ayesha Kohli is the founder of communications consultancy Sparq Communications and the Editor of Creative Sparq. She launched the site in 2017 to showcase different perspectives on creativity and creative thinking. Passionate about people, culture, education, leadership, technology and trends, she loves championing emerging talents and new businesses. Connect with her on LinkedIn.