Creator Spotlight: Harshini J. Karunaratne

Credit: Harshini J. Karunaratne

Harshini J. Karunaratne is a reflective soul who is always on the lookout for ways to flex her creative wings and explore different corners of the artistic community. She absorbs what’s happening around her and transforms that experience into an introspective reflection through her work.

Creativity Undefined spoke with Harshini about her journey as an artist, how the pandemic’s affected the indie creative community, and her observations on emerging trends and how they may impact artists.

How did your creative journey begin?

I think I was creative from a really young age but never realized that I was creative nor that I could be an artist. My parents never forced me to do anything that I didn’t want to, but growing up in Sri Lanka you definitely are fed with the notion that you could be a lawyer, engineer, study business or economics, but “art” is never in the vocabulary. When I moved to an international high-school as a teenager, I was able to take visual arts and I had so much freedom with what I could create. It wasn’t until I went to university though, at NYU Abu Dhabi, that I realized my passion for film and theatre.

How has your style evolved over the years?

During my first year at NYUAD, a friend dragged me to see a performance that was happening on campus and it truly changed my life. “Hamlet Ur-Hamlet” was part-installation, part-punk rock concert, part-reinterpretation of Hamlet and oh so much more by the theater company in residence at the time, Theater Mitu. It was a performance where you could wander around and explore and it was the first time I had been to performance where the boundaries between actor and audience member were blurred. There was no real stage. An actor walked right past me and that was the most incredible feeling ever. It was truly an immersive experience and that was really pivotal to my decision to study theater and also to my artistic practice.

A dear friend of mine named Attilio one day hosted a workshop on technology and theater and that became a whole new world I was exposed to. I became fascinated with projectors. How those little classroom projectors could be used for so much more than a presentation. What if I angled it towards me, created visuals and projected them onto my own skin? Onto other surfaces? Projection design became my focus, and it has trickled into other kinds of work I do because it makes me think about practices in image-making, light as a presence, animating space, and how to create immersive experiences.

What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve faced to date in your creative or professional journey? How did you resolve it? What did you learn from it?

I think my biggest challenge is also the greatest gift – at least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself! I become obsessed with very different forms and mediums and want to try as to learn as much as I can. I’ll see an animated film and say “I want to do that!” then start learning some animation and 3D modelling or I’ll see some amazing motion design work and I’ll turn around and say, “motion design? Ooh tell me more.” I try to absorb as much as I can but then the downside is never being able to develop fully my technical skills in one area. For me though the most important thing – and why this becomes an asset – is to develop a vocabulary in all these different areas so that I can effectively communicate with collaborators. I don’t want to turn to a musician and say, “it must sound blue” just because that makes all the sense in the world in my visual brain but truthfully, doesn’t mean anything at all. I want to be able to be specific and communicate well, and that ends up helping me as well gain more clarity in what I’m creating. In doing that I also begin to have an understanding of just how much effort (and pain) is involved in, for example animation, because definitely a lot of directors and clients take that work for granted.

How do you balance your professional and creative lives?

I worked as a journalist for a solid two months but right from the very first day I knew it wasn’t for me. While it was a great job in a lot of ways, it was also really creatively stifling and as someone with a lot of ideas, I felt like there wasn’t going to be as much opportunity to incorporate those ideas as I thought. My current job is as a video technician at The Arts Center at NYUAD, which doesn’t involve a lot of creativity but it’s the best place for me to be in at this moment in time. When I graduated, I was very aware that I had a lot of design knowledge and knew lots of software, but my hard technical skills were non-existent. And especially as someone who wants to pursue projection design, it was necessary for me to delve into the technical. My head of department, Claire, basically took me under her wing and rather than being just a boss, was really a mentor. Being a technician in a theatre means that I get to be a part of the set-up of a show and really see how it comes to life. My full-time job has definitely greatly informed my artistic practice, especially since pre-pandemic I was exposed to a lot of performances and go to see how artists rehearse and what their processes are. And I’ve been able to find moments when being creative has also been an asset.

What are your favourite subjects to shoot? Why?

Honestly I think I just really enjoy shooting spaces because there’s so much that we take for granted in our day to day. When I photograph spaces I think about the stories that are being told, the people that are passing by and what they leave behind, and spaces as moments of transit.

Your style’s quite abstract and surreal. Has that always been your style or did it evolve to that?

Is it? Thank you! I’m constantly learning and evolving and I personally don’t feel like I have a definitive style, but maybe that’s not for me to decide. A lot of my time is about learning different techniques and tools but it’s also about unlearning and realizing that I need to stay true to my instincts, rather than try to be someone else.

Is there a new technique or style that you’d like to explore? What? Why?

One of the many hats I wear is as a VJ – which is short for Video Jockey. Like how a DJ mixes music, a VJ mixes video in real-time. When I encountered this form I thought this was the most fun thing ever because I wasn’t cooped up in an editing room for hours and hours only to have my render crash on me (again!). It was much more freeing. I could create compositions, play with found footage and colours and shapes and listen to music. It’s performative. It makes all the sense in the world that as a photographer and VJ I would find my way to digital collages. Digital collages is just another form of remixing for me and I get to play with all the same kinds of things. Right now I’m trying to find my style and rhythm with digital collages.

Where do you find your inspiration?

A big source of inspiration is definitely Instagram. I follow mostly designers and artists and I’m constantly in awe and inspired by the kinds of things people make. Behance is another great resource as well.

Has your creativity and style changed since the pandemic began? How? Why?

I feel like this has been a very pivotal moment in time for me because I have spent so much more time indoors. I engage in a lot of self reflection, and that has actually helped me uncover the styles, aesthetics and techniques that I’m interested in. An ever-evolving process for sure, but I definitely sense a shift in my art.

What change or trend have you observed emerging over the past year? What do you think about it/them?

The biggest trend right now is the emerging world of cryptoart. Suddenly digital art seems to have monetary value and that wasn’t necessarily the case before. Artists who would make a video loop or an image just for their Instagram, can now turn it into a NFT and sell it. It’s definitely opening up a lot of doors for artists. Or rather, it’s creating another option for how artists can monetize their work that didn’t exist before. I think it’s the natural progression of technology that we would start to monetarily value a gif, or a JPG or a video file and it’s interesting, exciting and scary because it’s another way that as an artist, you’re making yourself vulnerable in trying to find a collector who values your work.

Do you think it/they will last once the pandemic is over? Why?

I think the cryptoart trend is here to stay for a while but probably not at full force when the pandemic ends because there will be fewer people spending time at home, online creating but also buying art.

Credit: Harshini J. Karunaratne

Have you felt that there’s more support these days for indie artists? Why?

Yes and no. The pandemic has really hurt the arts. Whether It’s theatres closing, or artists losing jobs and having to figure other means of earning an income. It makes no sense to me that we still have restaurants and cafes and malls that are absolutely full, but we can’t even open a theatre with limited capacity. On the positive side, there are so many opportunities like virtual festivals and remote residencies that didn’t exist before. Institutions adapted to be able to host art and design festivals online, sometimes for free or even support an artist in a residency regardless of their passport. For most jobs working remotely was considered impossible, but the pandemic proved that that was just all talk. I think a lot of artists and designers were able to adapt easily since many are used to working remotely, but definitely lots of pros and cons. 

What more do you think could be done to shine a spotlight and provide proper support?

I think more than ever we need artists to make whatever they want, and not have to conform to an institutional agenda. A lot of grant opportunities I’ve seen limit what the artist can do. It would be nice to see grant opportunities that just say “we believe in your work and want to support you” rather than the more client approach of “here’s money to do this specific thing.”

Are you currently working on a project? Can you share some details about it?

I am currently working on a transmedia project titled “Sacred Body.” Sacred Body is about removing the binary between nature and our bodies and instead see one as an extension of the other. In doing so, the aim to promote a more positive form of climate action. This project takes a form of a series of fabric objects, a self portrait photography series, a virtual experience and most recently, a zine.

What’s your dream project? Why?

For my undergraduate thesis back in 2018, I did a performance titled “Afterlife: an audiovisual performance” which looked at magic lantern phantasmagoria shows of the 18th century and reimagined them for the 21st century. The performance involved creating an immersive experience with live cello players, a DJ and VJ, and projections on all walls. My dream would be to continue working on that piece and adapt it to different spaces.

What equipment do you prefer to use? Why?

Although I am a Canon fan, I use a Nikon D850 because it handles both photography and video really well. I’ve got a little projector at home that I use to try out some visuals. And of course, my laptop has the Adobe Suite, and Resolume which I use to VJ and OBS for livestreaming.

Do you have a project/photograph/video that you consider to be your favourite? What is it/are they? Why?

It would probably have to be a project called “Veni Creatur” that I did with my friend and sound designer Keira Simmons. We submitted it to be shown at Burning Man in 2018 and we spent a weekend coming up with ideas and creating the work to meet the deadline. It was pure fun and creative and experimental and I sometimes look back on it and I can’t believe we pulled it off in a weekend.

Who are your artistic/photography/videography heroes? Why?

So many to name! If you ask me in a month I’ll probably give you a whole other list but presently: Magdiel Lopez for his use of colours and creating unexpected moments in collages; Frank Moth for his surreal and otherworldly digital collages; Shantell Martin for her iconic style with simple black outlines that inspires me to follow my instincts; and oh so many more. I need to also acknowledge photographer Tarek Al-Ghoussein for being such an influential mentor in my life, as well as Ruben Polendo and Theater Mitu for their guidance and support.

What’s a major goal that you hope to achieve in the next few years?

I want to keep learning and growing and just be unafraid. The next major goal for me is to pursue my Masters which will be in Media Spaces at the University of Europe for Applied Sciences in Berlin. I’m hoping to delve into creating immersive experiences with a focus on project design.

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