Interview with Helena Bulaja, part I: Tesla had Internet in his head!

December 18, 2009

If I will ever get a postcard directly from the Moon, I will immediately know that I got it from Helena Bulaja. She’s the only artist I know capable for such thing. I promised you, dear readers, while I blogged about Mechanical Figures – twentythousandcycles.NET – Helena’s latest multimedia artwork, that I will bring her here for a talk on film, new media  and, of course, Nikola Tesla…


Helena Bulaja was born in Split, Croatia in 1971, and was educated in History of Art and Comparative Literature at Zagreb University. She worked as an art director, designer and illustrator for various computer magazines, and started her career as a digital artist in 1995. In 1999 with her husband Zvonimir she founded a publishing company ‘Alt F4 – Bulaja naklada’, which became the leading Croatian multimedia and CD-ROM publishing house.

The company had its first success with a collection of Croatian literature classics in e-book form.  In 2000 she started the most successful Croatian interactive project: a collection of animated and interactive stories “Croatian Tales of Long Ago“, based on a fairytale book with the same title written in 1916 by Ivana Brlic Mažuranic, ‘the Slavic Tolkien’, one of the most famous Croatian literature classics.

Japan_2.jpgPhoto by Alistair Keddie

Since then Helena has won tones awards (more then 30) for creative interactive art, animation and digital art at leading international new media art festivals; and also was a jury member and programme director at multimedia festivals around the globe.

Meanwhile, she became closer to the Moon, joing the internationational robotics project Synergy Moon. Helena Bulaja lives in Zagreb and is a mother of 4 children. She’s one of the most energetic persons I’ve ever met in my life!

Helena, let’s start with the beginning of your career… when everything started?

HB: Everything began back in 1995 when I sent my work at the Youth Salon exhibition, re-launched after long time. That was a time when Ars Electronica exploded fully, net art was the big thing. Installation by Petar Grimani and me was staged in September, whilst the same concept was presented by Toshio Iwai in Japan in December. I’ve read about it in Wired magazine and I was very proud. Look, the ideas are floating through our world simultaneously. Of course, that what he was doing was on the higher production level.

helena_bulaja_freedom.jpg‘…lOok … wwwsculpture … Freedom in the City or Just an Illusion’
Petar Grimani, Helena Bulaja (1996)

But I was so happy because I managed to get such an opportunity to do something like this. At that time, we were pretty noticed because the public liked it a lot, but they didn’t understand it quite well. They couldn’t understand the concepts of tele-presentation, communication between cyber space and real space; and all the metaphors Petar and I tried to transfer.

By using cameras which were at that moment the top in communication process via Internet through the art expressiveness and the complex enriching of the space, people, conditions… I think e-mail was then a complete mystery to them.

helena-on-New-Zealand_1.jpgPhoto by Alistair Keddie


Yeah, those were times of very modest web sites…

HB: Yeah, and what’s best, it was the time of dial-up connection and I remember quite well the sound of connecting to the net. The idea that there is a web entity at server which could be viewed from literally everywhere in the world and thus effected on one image happening in space, meaning as projected output from the computer and managed by numerous people.

Back then, the idea was fantastic and from developer’s point of view totally feasible, but because of dial up and the speed of internet we waited for so long to open a gif file, even for hours. That was very ambitiously imagined and somehow we managed to achieve it. But, like I said, nobody really understood it, except on the level of kaleidoscopic admiration.

Mechanicalfigures3.jpgExcerpt from ‘Mechanical Figures’

We were immediately accepted at Ars Electronica and this was very nice. Our website was also presented. I was completely into web, tele-presentation and metaphorical reflections of the relations in cyber space. Where are the boundaries and impacts? How do we live in cyber space in comparison to real space? That was the time of telegardens and watering the plants. It was weird, especially because it was the post-war period in Croatia. These were the windows to the world.


You had then an international feedback, which was really important, because in Croatia it hasn’t been done till then….

HB: I was particularly proud on the fact that my web site was found by the editors of the Wired magazine, and they were thrilled with it. That was something that gave me huge stimulus, because I hadn’t had any feedback here at home. It wasn’t a feedback from anyone, but from the magazine I grew up with. As a very young person I have learnt that if an idea is very good there is no possibility that this particular idea would not find its space to grow up.

Mechanicalfigures2.jpgExcerpt from ‘Mechanical Figures’

You have moved to Macromedia Flash, and unlike many new media artists you have run away from black screen…

HB: The main difference between me and real new media artists, let’s call it so (laughs)… Hence, difference between me and those truly structured new media artists are that I’m not thinking about my own work in theoretical terms. I mean, I like to deal with the theory, but my creativity is my inspiration exclusively. I behave in such situations pretty intuitive, cause I can’t run away from myself.

I like nice stuff and beautiful images. I grew up on Tarkovsky, Greenway, Pop Art, David Bowie, psychedelic albums by Beatles. I grew up on kaleidoscopic, visual material. First VJ-ing by Pink Floyd, for instance, these are things that I admired and then I opened my eyes. So, I can’t escape from it.

I have noticed that you don’t runaway from colours in your work…

HB: No, I don’t run from life. There are beautiful things in black and white world, but they are rare. This is some kind of Malevich’s minimalism which is more philosophical. Tarkovsky and Jarmush own this minimalism, power without exaggeration. I really admire such things, but simply can’t express myself like this.

There are many people today who are practicing minimalism because they think it’s something fashionable and that you can easily handle it and communicate. As a matter of facts, this whole thing is banalizing minimalism as such and the art aesthetics in completely missing. What is often forgotten is that the theoretical work is one thing, whilst an aesthetic work is another thing. The inspiration of the visual must come from something visual or by some stimulus, but it also has to be able to come back.

helena_bulaja_2.jpgPhoto by Mare Milin

In my work there are different phases, sometimes I think way too much about it even when I find it good for myself. At the other hand, I have phases when I’m letting everything in some kind of incubation, those things we might call as the period of maturation. Therefore, I’m letting the intuition to ‘drive’ me through the artwork to be able to recognize it in my head. I find that very important. For example, I’m fascinated with the whole opus by Laurie Anderson. I like this beautiful baroque style, being minimalistic at the same time. If Laurie had such structured approach, she wouldn’t be where she actually is today.

Tesla_Laurie_Anderson.jpgLaurie Anderson

What particularly attracts you in new media?

HB: First thing I find interesting about new media is that computer itself is an excellent tool, no doubts. I’m fascinated by it. I’m mostly inspired and motivated by Internet and communication. This is something very unique, because it allows me to open myself to the space in order to communicate. I can go ‘out’, I can find inspiration wherever I want, I can find collaborators I want everywhere. This breaking of boundaries, this is something I’m interested fully.

4491_klizanje_i_bibilioteka_003.jpgPhoto by Mare Milin

Here in Croatia, on Mediterranean in general, it’s great to be a sculptor or a painter because of the heritage and motifs. Great! Everything is here! But if you are an artist with a strong need to communicate your idea at some higher level, trying to transform this idea in some weird cinema form, then you definitely need something else.

For instance, I grew up with the television and beach altogether, which is the reason I find Internet a great medium. Then you seek for some other tools. This is how I came to Macromedia Flash. The only possible way to design things the way I wanted was possible through Flash. Afterwards, I really started to like the whole scene around Flash.

Who has inspired you most from artists using Flash?

HB: Let’s say that discovering the work by Joshua Davis inspired my project ‘Croatian Tales of Long Ago’. The thing he does is absolutely fascinating. Those were somehow my triggers. Of course, to the most people that was strange. How can you be inspired by Joshua Davis to create a collection of fairy tales? Well, it’s possible because somehow everything is interconnected.

Yeah, people are usually like that, when you say that somebody has inspired you, they automatically expect identical or similar work. When you said earlier that you were inspired by Tarkovsky, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will or have to make a similar artwork… seems like people simply don’t understand that in such case it isn’t inspiration anymore, but pure copying…

HB: Yes, it’s a phase that everyone goes through in their creative work. I think it’s the process within which you can manifest yourself. I haven’t had this phase, because I have entered into practice having a previous background in art history and the theory of literature. I have found this sort of emulation mimesis in theory, and that of course gave me more freedom in visual aspects.

Exactly what you just said, that’s the reason I wanted to make a film on Nikola Tesla. This is not a project about Tesla, it’s only inspired by him. You have to have enough space for your inspiration in order to let it grow with you. I’m constantly fascinated by people who are working on things which are unattainable for me, something my mind can’t figure out completely, something that always stays slightly opened.

Hiroshi_Matsumoto_and_Helena_Bulaja.jpgHelena Bulaja and Hiroshima Matsumoto, photo by Alistair Keddie

I was said something similar by Hiroshima Matsumoto, the scientist I interviewed the last for the film. He hasn’t used Tesla’s inventions and patterns, but he has used him as a steady inspiration. Tesla’s essence and the way he has worked are so fascinating that every scientist can feel it strongly as an impulse giving him strength to go on his way.

I find that visual arts don’t need philosophical pamphlets that accompany the work, because the work itself is capable to tell its own story. Naturally, we shouldn’t exaggerate, I personally don’t like too many descriptions, like I don’t like toys with too long descriptions. Tarkovsky would say that the art is creating and making you a better human being. Hence, artist isn’t here to build up an ego in its most stupid sense, or to create beautiful artworks. The artist is here the same as a dog is here or a tree.


Besides, we shouldn’t forget to play…

HB: Absolutely, not only in arts, but to play in life, too. Seems like we all have forgotten to be creative during the 20th Century. We have structured the art in a sense that those who graduate at Art Academy are artists, and that’s it. That’s absurd, because we know very well that since the cave paintings people always had something to do, either dancing or drawing.

This is the place where you can find the most beautiful art. Does anybody have a diploma?! Is there some critic who did a research, so he/she can tell us what we are actually seeing in the cave. People are not bothered with such things anymore. That’s exactly the reason why crises happen today; when you place everything in the scope of fear, especially if everything else is taken.

To be continued… jump here for the second part of the interview