‘Everything Takes Practice, and Everything Takes Presence’ — Artist Ayse Demir On Practicing Empathy Through Art

Hidden Empathy (2020), Ayse Demir.

Artist Ayse Demir is a resident artist in Gray Area’s Incubator who tells stories through code. With a professional background in data science, Ayse joined the Immersive Program in 2019 to build on her knowledge towards a more creative practice. She joined the Incubator to continue developing her creative work, including developing a multimedia meditative experience Hidden Empathy which debuted at the Gray Area Spring Showcase this year when our programs transitioned online.

We got the chance to talk to Ayse about her unique approach to storytelling, and how her interests in art and creative code have been shaped by her life experiences and philosophy. Ayse will also be leading a workshop on Data Visualization Design: From Theory to Practice on October 3rd.

How did you first become interested in art, and how have you gotten to where you are now as an artist?

I think everybody is born as an artist, it’s just a matter of practice. Like everyone else, I scribbled a lot as a kid, but became serious about it in high school as I was building my figure drawing portfolio for fine arts college. My father convinced me to study in the US and pursue a degree in business, so I decided to get a little adventurous and move to America for college. In the meantime, I began taking photographs, not necessarily for the purpose of producing art, but as a practice for me to really tune-in and listen to my surroundings. I moved to San Francisco and started working in data science, but my interest in art has always continued and there came a time where I realized l wanted to do more in the art area. First, I got my Masters in Digital Arts, then changed my career direction to become a data visualization designer. That’s when Gray Area came into the picture.

I joined the Gray Area Incubator program in January. Before that, I was in the Creative Code Immersive program, where I learned more about coding for visual arts. I really like the idea of having a dedicated community where you can practice your art, and Gray Area is a really special place because it gives you an instant feeling of community. Art is something that should be accessible to everyone, and Gray Area is very respected within the community because it has a lot of hardworking and dedicated people, but doesn’t create this elitist culture where you feel like you don’t belong. So, as an immigrant woman coming here from Turkey, having that instant community feeling was essential. I have certain anchors in my life, and Gray Area is one of them. Ironically, it’s these anchors that give my life a sense of movement in times where there is very little movement at all.

How would you describe your unique approach to art? What informs your decisions and philosophy in how you see the world?

Being in a different country on your own comes with advantages and disadvantages. A few years ago, I fell into a deep existential crisis where I questioned who I really was, and what I was really interested in. Through trial and error, I found out that I need to be telling stories; I want to be expressing myself and creating a movement to make sense of the world, but I didn’t know how. I was still doing drawings and taking photographs, but I didn’t necessarily think that these were my most preferred mediums.

Now, working with digital media gives me this gratification of working with rhythm and a sense of agility. I see the practice of art as an experiment which helps you approximate towards the truth, and I like the idea of experimenting and crafting through a lot of mistakes and errors. Although I know I cannot get there, I want to keep that mindset of exploring the truth.

There is a very beautiful data visualization book by Alberto Cairo called Truthful Art, and it says that the truth is neither absolute nor relative. In the grand scheme of things, human knowledge is just too limited to make conclusions about the ultimate truth. We can only experiment to approximate towards it. Truth is not something that we can explain very well; maybe we can experience it, maybe we can feel it in our bodies, but it’s not something that we can describe.

Hidden Empathy (2020), Ayse Demir.

Do you find that your background in photography has informed your more current work in abstract digital art?

Certainly. Everything takes practice, and everything takes presence. Photography taught me how to see things. I didn’t know how to see, I think, until I had a creative awakening after this existential crisis. Every song, every note started making sense to me. Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to pursue that awakening, and the idea of really seeing things as they are without attributing my agenda to an object. I still act as a filter, but this concept has become more clear through my photography practice.

Your most recent work is called Hidden Empathy, and as a profoundly abstract piece, it seems to convey meaning through experience rather than inviting analysis. What was your intent in creating this piece, and do you see it as more meditative and immersive than activist?

There was a very intense period where everybody was in front of computers during COVID times. Then the Black Lives Matter movement gained national attention, and I think everything was sort of happening on a mental plane for a lot of people. There was a lot of share conversation, whether around topics like the Black Lives Matter movement or the collective experience of living through COVID. The fact that we are not able to move physically between spaces really put us in this mental plane.

For this project, I wanted to help people explore and listen on a deeper level rather than giving them conclusions. I wanted to help people reconnect to their bodies and create a somatic experience, while being careful not to contribute to this information overload we’re all experiencing. I think as humans, we need time within our bodies to digest and integrate all of the information that’s coming at us, so that we don’t become machine-like. My idea with this piece was to help people get out from their mental planes a little bit, and put them back into their bodies. There’s a strong parallel between immersive and meditative experiences. This parallel exists because they both have the potential to put you in a state of absorption. The idea of an object losing its identity and becoming a symbol of the unknown is activist, but the experience of it is meditative in that sense.

Hidden Empathy (2020), Ayse Demir.

What was your process like for creating this piece?

When I’m creating something, I like to digest the ideas along the way while I’m doing research. First, I start with a theme that stems from something that I’m going through personally, or something that I’m interested in. The experience of the unknown is the theme of this piece, because like most people, I didn’t know what was going to happen in the next six months. I wanted to explore how I can ease into this experience of the unknown, so I stuck with that idea and tried to be objective and experimental when I was doing my research. I’ve found that the research puts me into a kind of flow state. It’s all very mental at first, but then you use your body parts as an extension to execute that idea. Then you digest it a little bit more. And then you integrate it with your body, mind, and emotions as your complete, unified existence grasps that idea.

To create the visuals themselves, I began with a core image, and then worked with different parameters to manipulate the image. This experimental nature of my digital arts practice is what I’m enjoying the most. For me it’s more about the process and experimentation and putting myself in those flow states. I think it’s important to be able to distinguish between the different parts of my being throughout this process. I personally need to be less mental, and put myself more in my body. Therefore I try utilizing my mental capacity minimally in the last part.

Hidden Empathy debuted at the Gray Area Virtual Artist Showcase in June. Your and peers’ artwork was displayed in an online virtual recreation of the Grand Theater, yet some other artists have expressed that there is something lost compared to experiencing these works in person. How do you view the virtual showcase as a space to display your art?

It’s all about adapting and surviving in the grand scheme of human evolution. The showcase might be a minor step to start something different in this context — we don’t know yet. Technology gives us a lot of opportunities to experience different realms in a very unique way. In terms of accessibility, not every city has an Exploratorium, and not every city has a Gray Area. There are many entry barriers to even start as a digital art practitioner. It requires technical knowledge, and it comes with a cost. Producing things online allows them to be more accessible for people across the world. We evolve by trying different things, and learning how to adapt. I don’t know how this is going to evolve, but at least we’re adapting.

The COVID reality has certainly affected me as well, but you have to adapt to wherever you are, whatever the condition is. This is a pretty messed up situation, but there are things that I can control, and there are things that I cannot. How can I turn this disadvantage into an advantage? Like I said before, this is about survival, and the ability to be flexible is part of that. There is a lot of fear and darkness around not knowing. Everything coexists within the same realm, and there is power in acknowledging the fear, and then moving towards beauty instead of darkness.

Any last remarks?

Be gentle to yourself :)

Ayse Demir is a San Francisco based advanced analytics and data visualization professional with a passion for creating and seeing beautiful things. In all aspects of life, she loves working with complexity while finding clarity, truth and balance in it. Outside of the data and design world, Ayse is a yoga and meditation teacher working to bring more gentleness, strength and awareness to her life and others. Her interest and curiosity in a variety of areas help her build meaningful connections, and understand the world as it is.

Ayse’s piece Hidden Empathy can be viewed here. Keep up with Ayse’s latest work through her Instagram and her website.

This article was written by Sam Silverman, Editorial Intern at Gray Area.

Gray Area is a 501(c)3 Nonprofit applying art & technology to create positive social impact. #grayareaorg #creativecode