Interview with Masha Ru on her creative practices

In March, artist Masha Ru was invited for a creative collaboration with research fellows David Marín and Branly López during the Sensiks Hackathon at Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven.
Age of Wonderland is a project initiated by Baltan Laboratories, Hivos, and the Dutch Design Foundation to foster social innovation. As part of the program, artist Masha Ru was invited for a collaboration. During the SENSIKS. Hackathon, a project made possible with support of Creative Tracks, Masha worked together in a small team and explored how traditional Mayan culture and technology could be merged in order to develop a new sensory reality by using wearable technologies and biofeedback. Olga Mink, director of Baltan Laboratories, interviewed Masha about her projects.
Please take a moment to briefly introduce yourself? Tell us how your background influences the projects you are developing today?
Masha Ru, Russian/Dutch creative based in Amsterdam. In 2011 I received PhD in Mathematics and Computer Science from Eindhoven University of Technology with the PhD Thesis entitled ‘Automated focusing and astigmatism correction in electron microscopy’. Same year I graduated with honours from Photoacademy Amsterdam. I have since then been focused full-time on creative practice. In 2013-2014 I conducted a residency period at Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam.
The experience of operating in high-tech environment comes back in my creative projects. I am engaged in open research-based practice across disciplines, such as video, photography, ceramics, installation, performance, and I often deal with the communities outside of the art world.
Having a scientific background I often think about the role of a scientist in a modern world and compare it to that one of an artist. Artist in a contemporary society is a broad notion. Art often overlaps with other disciplines and becomes complicated. I believe that due to its flexibility and inclusiveness the language of art is the most appropriate means to communicate curtain ideas. Building bridges between different worlds, such as art, science, and spirituality is what my work is all about.
Scientific approach in my creative practice is strongly linked to non-academic forms of knowledge spirituality. Spirituality in this case is not directly associated with religion, but rather with extended abilities of body and mind. I believe that a lot of things are not yet explained by contemporary science and that we as human beings possess much more capabilities than we use in everyday life.
Description: Hackathon
The topic of this year’s Age of Wonderland is 100 days of learning. It’s about sharing your inner wisdom, knowledge not taught on schools or universities. What lessons would you like to share/teach others? Why?
One of my ongoing projects deals with edible soil. This started quite simply with my childhood desire of eating clay, and has molded into a larger project and research about geophagy (the phenomenon of eating soil). For 100 Days of Learning, I suggest one or a series of public events, which would focus on the phenomena of eating, as well as a more global interaction with local earth. During the event I would like to learn myself from communities who still practice geophagy as well as share a more general practice of keeping in touch with soils.
What connection does your practice have with art/science/technology and natural sciences / traditional cultures (like the Maya’s?)
Since 2010 I was trying to find a function that would give a description of life and karma. Afterwards I discovered there were already existing formulas based on the knowledge of nature and astronomy, like the Mayan calendar. Ancient Maya used a very ingenious and accurate calendar, consisting of a system of several cycles of different lengths. Partly the so-called Long Count (with days counted from a mythical creation date) was used, and partly the 260-day Tzolkin, the religious calendar. The calendar is a complex system of predictions and repetitions. The repetition deals with feelings and experiences rather than with exact events. This day on the Tzolkin calendar might have something to do with the day 260 days before or 260 days after. My installations ‘MAYAN CALENDAR’ (2013) and ‘UNBORN BABIES THAT RULE THE WORLD’ (2014) are based on this Mayan concept and have an aim to retrace the repetition of emotions or events. There Tzolkin formulas are applied. It is a research on the degree of freedom within the stable system of the calendar and the possibility of withdrawing from predictions. It feels that when one studies the Mayan system theoretically, it is possible to go more and more deeply into it, but still never reaching the core. It is like trying to understand the essence of life. (*)
*The paragraph is partly taken from the interview ‘Masha Ru: Looking for a description of life’, Rijksakademie Inside/Out, Frederieke Beunk, 02-06-2014, The Netherlands
What is your opinion about 100 days of learning, the theme of Age of Wonderland 2017?
I have been engaged with Age of Wonderland since 2015, when we collaborated with Arie Syarifuddin from Jatiwangi art Factory (Indonesia) and Atelier NL (The Netherlands) on the project ‘Claynialism’. There we have as well conducted a workshop Clay=Food? Lab’ together with Dina Roussou (The Netherlands / Greece) and Dr. Noortje Reeuwijk (The Netherlands, Dutch Food Authority). In 2016 within Age of Wonderland we worked with Branly López (Guatemala) and other partners from the Netherlands (Tjitse Boersma, Louwrien Wijers, Jeanette Groenendaal) on the installation and a workshop ‘Big Cosmic Data’. All those events were hold in Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven during Dutch Design Week.
As a former and hopefully a future participant, I think it is great that in 2017 Age of Wonderland will take place not only in the Netherlands, but also around the world. I believe it will open up the horizon of the program a lot and amplify intercultural and interdisciplinary interaction.
Description: Claynialism
How would you describe the impact of your projects / activity on the community locally or worldwide?
One of them is cultural. My work with edible soil is a good example. In a number of countries in Africa and Latin America consuming soil-based substances is a well-known traditional and spiritual practice. At the same time in Europe and USA, geophagy is socially regarded as a psychological disorder. This is fascinating because this dual perception serves a good example of diversity in ways of existing; something that is normal for one culture may be a taboo in another culture. The act of eating earth and soil-like substances in my work symbolises the meeting of the instinct with socially accepted behavior and is connected to culture, spirituality, addictions and sexuality. In my work the prohibited becomes casual.
What are the most important things you’ve learnt in starting your practice?
If I would have to mention one general thing that I have learned, it would be the way how an artist by involving the public can affect the area of work. Like with the project about edible earth, in the beginning I just wanted to try eating it myself. I then started to include the viewer and working with other artists, which then made the project develop into something dynamic and solid at the same time.
My works are often more conceptual rather than visual. More and more in my practice participation is coming up as one of the crucial components. The participation of the audience impacts the works, and the audience becomes the part of the work by participating in it. That said, the boundary between me as an artist, the audience, and the work is very blurry and is in permanent motion. Unlike traditional fine arts, conceptual art is not aimed exclusively at creating an image, but on fulfilling the idea. My art is participatory and research based, and the image, the ‘final’ result of the project is often the documentation of the participatory practice.
What kind of projects have you come across through your work?
In 2015 within Age of Wonderland we collaborated with cross-disciplinary artist Arie Syarifuddin and ceramist Lonny van Ryswyck. The core of our collaboration started with clay, which is related to issues linking to the earth, soil, dirt, land, and ground. This movement is called ‘Claynialism’. According to Arie Syarifuddin: "Claynialism is an effort to redesign 'clay' with all its particularities as the cool yet humble identity of the district”. There is an ancient tradition in Indonesia to eat roasted clay as a snack or a medicine, which is still followed by local communities. Several eatable clays from various former colonies are available on the market in the Netherlands. None of them originates from the Dutch ground. As a response to Indonesian edible clay, we
investigated the possibility of eating local clay in the Netherlands coming actually from Dutch ground. Inspired by the wine tasting circle, Arie and I tasted clay samples from all over the country provided by Atelier NL, and recorded our experiences. Also, chemical analysis of the clays was conducted, which resulted in a clay-mapping interactive installation. Visitors could review properties of various clays, taste them and contribute with their feedback.
As a follow-up to the Claynialism project, I went to visit Indonesia in September 2016 to research local clay culture and conduct presentations and workshops. The visit was initiated by Jatiwangi art Factory (JaF), where Arie Syarifuddin works as a coordinator, curator, designer and artist. The trip later evolved into participation in 4th Jakarta Contemporary Ceramics Biennale (JCCB) in collaboration with Dina Roussou, who also worked with us to conduct the public programme within Age of Wonderland 2015 edition. The project was very inspiring for me, as it involved collaboration across cultures, continents and disciplines, involving the topic that I have a passion and fascination for.
What are the main sources of financing for creative or social entrepreneurs in your area? How do they organize their activities?
Last years I worked on creation of customized commissioned installations and events in assignment of such organisations as Holland Festival, Satelliet Groep, The Bookstore Foundation, The Moving Museum of Clothes, PopInnPark, TAAK, Mediamatic, Hivos, Baltan Laboratories, European Ceramic Workcentre and Wilco project – Welfare innovations at the local level in favour of cohesion. Recently I worked as well as a guest teacher in academies in the Netherlands and abroad, such as Gerrit Rietveld Academie (Amsterdam), University of the Arts Utrecht (HKU), ArtEZ Institute of the Arts (Arnhem), Long Island University (New York), WDKA Art Academy (Rotterdam).
Apart from commissioned projects, my work last years have been supported by public funds in the Netherland, such as The Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK), Creative Industries Fund, as well as private funds, such as Wilhelmina E. Jansen Fund and Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds. My residency at Rijksakademie in 2014 was partly supported by KPN company – Dutch provider of telecommunication services. In 2015 I received from Mondiaan Fund, a grant for established artists.
To learn more about the work of Masha Ru, please visit her website.
Audiovisual and interactive media, Creative industries areas, Digital facilities, Visual arts

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