Ambient Anxiety: when art and sustainability collide. Interview with the artists

Ambient Anxiety at the Curious Kudu Art Gallery in London

At the edge of the current environmental and social crisis, when technology has invaded our lives and defined our being, the two artists Elina Yumasheva and Djuro Selec explore the concept of Ambient Anxiety, focusing on the neuroses and distress emerging when environmental helplessness meets technological dependency


Displayed at the Curious Kudu Art Gallery in London, Ambient Anxiety is an emotional rollercoaster that takes the observer through inquietude, frustration, and unspoken pain in a journey of lights and colours that ultimately reveals the cathartic power channelled by the artists’ pieces. We caught up with the Elina Yumasheva and Djuro Selec to talk about their exhibition, and the role art plays in the transition towards a more sustainable world.

 How did you develop the concept of “Ambient Anxiety”? Why did you choose this topic?

Djuro Selec (DS): Early in planning this show, we’ve looked at where our ideas overlap and sensed that it was in the helplessness we feel when faced with the state of the world and how art helps us work past it and empower us by giving us a voice. We all feel this pressing doom when reading about environmental disasters, the fact that we get that news from the palm of our hands and feeling complicit by just participating in society is a very real, contemporary struggle. The expression itself came from the book “The Original Accident” by philosopher and art critic Paul Virilio, who argued that our techno-scientific progress is being overshadowed by our overexposure to its uncertainties.


Building a sustainable future: a social call for artists

What role do you see artists playing towards a more sustainable world and a more just society? How does art relate to sustainability?

Elina Yumasheva and Djuro Selec
Elina Yumasheva and Djuro Selec

Elina Yumasheva (EY): Interestingly, one of the first things I learned at university studying Environmental Science is that climate change has a transboundary nature, making it a universal issue. Art is even more universal in that sense – a visual language that most of us can understand and relate to. Art could be more powerful than words and can make a great impact, especially when it comes to the climate crisis. It can evoke strong feelings and connect with an individual on a deeply personal level. As a visual artist, I express myself better with visual language. I can go raw with pure emotions without translating them into the code of the written word. Communicating those feelings and sharing those emotions with the viewers – making them feel what an artist feels is a profound way art drives attention and action to social and environmental challenges we face today.

DS: Social change is very incremental, and art can serve as its stepping stone, if not a guiding light. Art creates connections, it makes the unseen visible and gives form to unexplored, less immediate possibilities. It can offer a different angle when approaching a situation and as such, often brings a respite, if not a solution itself. In terms of sustainability, artists are often at the forefront of environmentalist ideas and movements, and in a practical sense, art can be used to highlight pressing things yet offer a release of tension at the same time, making space for constructive action.

Both of you started your career as artists from a very different field – Elina from communications in the sustainability space, Djuro from tech. What was it that inspired you to do this career shift and to use art to advocate for sustainability?

EY: When I announced my transition to art publicly, many people thought that I decided to leave my successful corporate sustainability career behind, and they couldn’t be further away from the truth. It became very clear to me that I wanted to be in the worlds of sustainability and art at the same time. While I was hesitant about seriously going for it, as I was afraid to “lose” years of my successful career, I realised it is still part of the same journey – a journey of driving attention to social and environmental issues to make a difference, but by just adding a new avenue. I never left the subject of my interests – sustainability and purpose. I only expanded the means by adding another avenue – visual language.

DS: I’ve had my eyes set on painting since forever yet my career has taken me through a scenic route towards it: from icon design and illustration to UI design and even game development. I’ve always had a drawing board, or some canvas tucked away to work on in my spare time, but after over a decade in tech, I felt a strong pull to work away from the keyboard more and get my hands dirty with paint. Sustainability, in this sense, started from a very personal question of what creates balance in my life. So I took a long sabbatical to study Fine Art at the Academy, examining my artistic choices and references, and after working with Elina on this exhibition, I embraced that I would like to highlight the sustainability of our fast-evolving tech driving changes on screen-addicted humanity.

Visualizing distress

As an artist, you probably love all your works – but is there a favourite you want to talk about?

DS: All of my works celebrate some human aspect technology can have: a glitch, a computer bug, a lag. I find them most interesting because it is technology talking back to us, like in the Beachball (Not Responding) piece. This simple act of being put in a time-out by a tool we’re using, a cursor on the Mac OS interface, in this case, is infinitely amusing to me. It is as if the computer is telling you to slow down, some friendly ghost in the machine ordering you to go stretch your legs. Unlike my other pieces in this series, which have no compositional hierarchy, this one clearly throws a colourful pixelated ball at you: while suspended in a vast screen of visual information, it grabs your attention as if to ask for direction. Instead of being frustrated with it and trying to bend it to our will, I’m trying to highlight the opportunity it brings: to reexamine our busyness and our intent. Despite an overabundance of forms, planes, colours, patterns and shifts in focus around you and the circle, it is begging you to look at it, see it glitch and bleed.

EY: It’s rather impossible to choose. Seeing how different people interpret my works gives them so much more meaning and enriches their journey beyond the studio – I greatly enjoy interacting with viewers and hearing what they see and how it makes them feel. That conversation is really precious to me, and that’s my favourite part of the show. For the purpose of the exercise, however, I could talk about one of my paintings – “How do I feel about bringing children into this world?” – as it provides a rather unrepresented perspective. Capturing contained chaos of anxiety, the painting creates a psychological landscape and touches upon a deeply personal subject. It raises the question of how the climate crisis impacts women’s feelings, thoughts and decisions around childbirth. What planet will we leave behind?

A look at the future

What’s next for you as an artist? What’s the next topic you want to explore?

DS: I don’t think I will ever be done with examining what our tech tools are doing to our emotional and sensory experience of the world. What I’m most excited about is finding more ways to use design conventions to warp the sense of canvas. I’d like to “hack” both traditional painting and digital creation further so I can blend them more seamlessly. This is because I want to speak to both a wider audience who might recognise this friction between digital and analogue and then also to fellow tech makers and highlight how we all bear the responsibility of building a sustainable future for all of our wellbeing.

EY: While environmental concerns are a bit more obvious when it comes to the climate crisis, social aspects tend to get unnoticed. I’m also very interested in self-acceptance and mental health. I see them as important aspects of building truly sustainable, diverse and inclusive societies. Just like the diversity of the planet, where every form of existence is key to our ecosystem thriving, the diversity of individuals with their unique set of psychological, emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual traits are key to society’s wellbeing. I’d like to explore this subject further in my work to demonstrate the connection between sustainability and self-acceptance.

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