Petra Szemán is a moving image artist working with animation and game-like immersive installations. She positions herself within a ‘digital saturation of identities’; part of a generation that grew up learning how to ‘perform’ themselves online, initially through early forms of social media such as MySpace and virtual chatrooms. With the development of smartphones, which have made virtual interactions immediate, social media now allows for real-time editing of memories, providing a space in which you can experience something in the present that is simultaneously shared as a retrospective – placed neatly within a personal narrative on your screen. Szemán’s work explores these complexities, unpicking the binaries of truth and non-truth, reality and simulation, existence and memory, time and narrative.
Relying on multi-layered imagery and a virtual version of herself as a protagonist across various digital realms, Szemán aims to construct multiple worlds where ideas such as ‘a singular reality’ and ‘an authentic self’ become increasingly elusive and obsolete. She rejects the notion of cyberspace as a radically ‘other’ realm. Instead, her work navigates precarious borderlands, (re)positioning the digital realm between dystopian (‘fake’) and utopian (‘endless possibilities’) frameworks.
Monomyth: gaiden / Part 1. Departure (2018) explores Szemán’s relationship to her digital avatar ‘Yourself’, who moves along the frayed edges of both real and fictional worlds. Szemán relies on structures often used in traditional storytelling, arranging her video along the hero’s journey trope. However, she simultaneously constructs a narrative so that the protagonist is self-aware of the systems in which they exist. Through rethinking traditional linear storytelling, Szemán pokes at the borders of a narrative world, forcing the viewer to continuously negotiate between multiple lines of sight.
How to enter a fictional realm / TUTORIAL (2017) follows the format of a YouTube tutorial video, a guide for accessing the realm of Tamriel (from the video game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim), with a non-native character entering the foreign and hostile landscape. Szemán’s work evokes questions around citizenship, nationalism and borders in the digital age. Through subjects who have no root in a physical reality – they exist only in digital space – traditional ideas of citizenship and nationalism may be reconsidered, pressing for more complex perspectives.
Digital spaces have the potential to expand traditional definitions and structures. However, they are also likely to reproduce existing social systems, such as the construction of gender. Szemán exploits these ambiguities and contradictions. Her work approaches the digital space with a ‘sense of activism’ to engage conversations around how we live and experience the real world in the digital age.
Szemán is currently showing in hu, a touring exhibition at White Conduit Projects, London until 6 March 2019; EYECATCHER V, at Focal Point Gallery: Big Screen, Southend-on-Sea until 21 April 2019; and Digital Citizen – The Precarious Subject, at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead until 16 June 2019.
Petra Szemán (b. 1994, Budapest, Hungary) lives and works in Tsukuba, Japan. She graduated in Fine Art from Newcastle University in 2017. In 2018 she was awarded a two-year research scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education and Culture. Exhibitions include BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead (2019); Focal Point Gallery: Big Screen, Southend-on-Sea (2019); The Wrong Biennale, online pavilion curated by isthisit? (2018); and NEoN Festival, Dundee (2017).