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Performance pioneer Chagall: 'With more women in tech, digital art will become a lot more interesting'

Written by Meike Jentjens
Picture: Ben Houdijk | Chagall live

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March 8 is International Women's Day. This day is meant to reflect on the emancipation of women in our society. Besides that this day is celebrated, you also sometimes hear people question whether this day is really necessary. The answer is 'yes', says Chagall, the artist who kicks off this series.

The Amsterdam-based Chagall is one of those artists who can't be pigeonholed. In addition to singing, producing and writing, she also programs her own audiovisual shows and light installations. As a result, she is almost always described as a 'pioneer in the field of technology', especially when it comes to her gender. What makes her unique is that she gives her 'tech-heavy' shows an almost romantic and feminine touch, especially because she herself is the center of those performances. For example, she is one of the first ever to work with MiMU Gloves, gloves that allow her to control her light installations and music through her movements. In 2021, she even used it to control drones during King's Day in Eindhoven. 

Picture: Eduardo Fitch

You may also know her from her 'Unlocked' tour, where she introduced her interactive light installation 'B.A.B.Y.' to the world. "B.A.B.Y." stands for "Bionic Assistant of Becoming Yourself" and is controlled in real-time by Chagall and the sensors in her suit and gloves. It is one of the examples of how the artist makes technology feminine and gives it emotion, a theme that recurs in her work. In addition to being a musician and performer, she also sees herself as a 'computer nerd' and a woman in tech, and hopes that her work will show that the world of technology, which at first glance is difficult to penetrate, can be super-feminine and accessible.

Women as examples

In addition to her professional career as an artist, she has been working for years to give back to (young) women in the creative community. She does this by sharing her self-acquired knowledge in her specific audiovisual niche and by being a leading example for young girls, something she has previously missed herself. Recognition is important, she says; Young creators should have the idea that they can just as well learn everything in the field of digital art. Especially in her 'tech-heavy' world, there are few role models, Chagall notes. That is why she wants to create opportunities for the next generation of bright minds with her 'LoveLace' project, in collaboration with Effenaar Lab. Chagall has a lot to say about this series of workshops, which will eventually become a real production house. 

It all started with a glint in the eyes of young girls who saw Chagall perform with her MiMU Gloves. Those gloves (which we also know from Ariana Grande) come from the company of the ever-iconic Imogen Heap. The gloves were designed by the British musician to control her computer directly with her hands and therefore make music while she is 'in the flow'. Chagall worked at Imogen Heap's company for many years, first as a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades and later as an user experience and user interface designer. 'I ended up at that company in a safe environment, where it was quite normal for many women to have technical roles. I didn't have a lot of knowledge about technology yet, but I got the chance to fail, to develop myself and to grow. That moment was life changing for me. I hope to develop such a safe learning environment with LoveLace.'

Picture: Ben Houdijk | Presskit Chagall Unlocked

'Anyone can do it, if you really want to'

And that starts with that twinkle of young people who are looking for a role model. 'Sometimes you may not be aware of the possibilities that are available. I want to show that what I do is within reach for everyone, if you want to.' Chagall wants to show the world that anyone with musical talent can develop themselves in a technical direction. That's why she tries to show (starting) musicians that they can create their own visuals with a little help. This makes live performances a lot more personal and therefore more feminine, because the workshops are aimed at women. For example, she controls her B.A.B.Y. system with an app called TouchDesigner. This app is also the core of 'LoveLace's workshops, where participants learn to turn audio into visuals. 'The nice thing about this programme is that there is a very close-knit online community of users. It's cool that everyone is trying to help each other. Yet I see very few women in that community, just like in the tech world. For the sense of community, it is therefore very important that we meet each other in real life with the workshops.' 

Picture: Barwerd van der Plas | Chagall at work

Chagall thinks this is a pity, for the reason that (young) women completely change the dynamic in working or learning environments, and because art as an output should not become completely masculine. Of course, the Amsterdam-based producer adds the disclaimer that she also likes men, but because technology and the arts are increasingly intertwined and can no longer live without each other, she believes it is very important to let the people who underpin it be as diverse as possible. 'This is also going to produce the most interesting art outside of the working conditions. You can also see that in my own work: I make something very technologically advanced, but my output has something soft. Of course, the image that digital art is just cool or black and white doesn't have to be true at all. These are all choices that the artist makes. I think that if more femininity is allowed, the output will also be different. Representation is the key to that. The reason why there are still few women involved in technology is that there are simply few role models. Actually, we shouldn't ask ourselves whether we can do it, but believe that we can really learn anything with a little bit of focus.'

Stepping over a threshold

During the first round of the workshop in Effenaar, Chagall already noticed that it is important to focus on (young) women. This question was also asked to the participants. 'I got the feedback that it's always exciting to learn something new and that you have to have the space to do so. Women often still really have to take that space, while sometimes it is more obvious for men. You then see that other people feel less called to ask for attention or to ask questions, which makes learning about technology a lot more exciting. You already have to step over something to start something new and then you should also dare to take up space. Of course, we don't want to exclude any group, but we soon got back that LoveLace made the threshold a little lower. The whole atmosphere was really great, it felt like a new group of girlfriends. I'm still in touch with all the participants.' 

Chagall Lovelace
Picture: Tanja Busking | Workshop LoveLace by Chagall

This is also the time to get into technology, says Chagall. When she started, about ten years ago, the tools were much less advanced and what she does was even more reserved for 'the real nerds and programmers'. That's no longer the case, she says, but you still have to enjoy working with computers. 'I believe that it is feasible for many more people, including women, to be able to use technology in their work. The tools are now much more accessible and with the help of total packages such as TouchDesigner, Ableton and AI, you can do so much more yourself than ever before. We are so lucky to live in this day and age!" 

Chagall wants to help people who think they can't do this. Of course, 'tech-innovator' Chagall doesn't stop at the workshops; she has a pretty ambitious vision for the future of 'LoveLace'. The dream is to grow this foundation into a production house, where it offers talented participants of the workshop series a chance to grow their productions into real shows. Dream big, is Chagall's motto. And that's what she wants to say to every person interested in digital art.

Interesse in de workshop LoveLace? De inschrijvingen voor de volgende ronde (22-24 april) zijn nog open tot 25 maart.


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