Digital Research Objects: An Interview with Terhi Marttila
By Celeste Pedro
March 2023 – Terhi Marttila is a digital artist who programs works for the web browser. She works predominantly with voice and texts but also adds elements of play and playfulness to her works. Terhi’s work addresses topics such as migration, relationship to place, gendered beauty ideals and ageing. As I started a collaboration with her, I realized how insightful her ideas were about using digital means to express research questions. Here’s a sneak peek of a conversation we’d be delighted to continue with you!
Terhi holds a PhD from the University of Porto (digital media). Find more of her work at: https://terhimarttila.com
Celeste Pedro: Hi, Terhi! Could you tell us a little bit more about your background and what subjects move you the most?
Terhi Marttila: I started (this) professional trajectory with studies at a small art school for contemporary art on Suomenlinna island in Helsinki (Artschool MAA). I then moved to Rovaniemi to study Art Education. Rovaniemi is a Finnish city located on the arctic circle and quite close to the southern extreme of Sápmi (the areas traditionally inhabited by the Sámi people). These were three highly influential years of my life, in part because of the studies themselves and in part because they allowed me to gain some understanding of life in the north and to learn more about the Sámi. I then ended up in Porto to pursue a PhD in digital media, which I concluded in 2022.
I am generally moved by socially-engaged topics, so for instance, in the past, my work has dealt with attitudes towards refugees and the unequal impact of political borders on people’s lives. More recently, I have turned to questions that emerge from the experience of being a woman, such as gendered beauty ideals and ageing (a work in process called Gray Hairs). I am also working on an interactive poem titled My Body, The Moon, which speculates about the impact of mining on the moon on the female body and its reproductive cycle.
CP: When did you first hear about digital humanities, and when did you realise you wanted to communicate your research questions digitally?
TM: I think I never identified my practice as being situated in the digital humanities, but I absolutely understand that it could be seen as such. The drive to explore my research interest through the practice and process of making interactive digital artefacts has its roots in 2011, perhaps, when I was first exposed to interactive digital art. I thought it was really intriguing. I kind of observed other people’s practices, and this sense of wanting to use code to create art grew and grew. In 2015, I attended MusicTechFest (MTF) in Ljubljana in Slovenia and was impressed with how quickly a non-programmer on my 24h hackathon team was able to learn and apply some basic python. I went home and decided I would use code to create the artistic component of my master’s thesis in art education. I came up with a simple conceptual work that was related to my art educational work with a volunteer community (of which I was also part of). I asked volunteers who worked with refugees to give eight reasons why they helped. I cut the reasons into subject-object-verb (the recordings were in german) and created a button that would randomly remix the parts of sentences to create infinite imaginary new reasons for helping refugees. This work is called Give Me a Reason (2016), and it is archived in the Electronic Literature Collection 4. I found this process of what could be called critical making a very interesting way to work with my research questions and have pursued this approach of artistic research since.
CP: What kind of bias have you encountered, and what kind of unexpected reactions have you had regarding using different media to question big social issues? What is it like to publish digital research objects versus traditional academic papers?
TM: Publishing these artworks or digital research objects is indeed different from publishing traditional academic papers. However, institutional outlets do exist for this type of work in an academic context. In fact, I could, and probably should, write a paper about my works as it could be an interesting complement to addressing the themes of the works. There are also several academic conferences in the expanded field of the digital humanities and digital art that do accept artworks alongside academic papers, so it is possible to contribute to academic discourses through the works themselves at these types of events. Conferences include the annual conference of the Electronic Literature Organisation, ACM Hypertext, and the annual conference of ISEA, among others. However, I am also somewhat new to this, so I may not be the best person to answer this question.
CP: You are now working on two very different projects. Can you tell us more about them?
TM: I am currently putting the final touches on an interactive poem called Gray Hairs, as I aim to submit it for consideration for a platform for digital art at the end of this month. This work is about gendered beauty ideals that drive women to dye their hair more often than men, in general, but that also drive ageing women to cover up their gray hairs by dyeing them. This work was born out of a realisation made while sitting on the bus one morning, observing the hair of my fellow female passengers. The poem is read by clicking (plucking) hairs that are turning gray on the screen, and I am really excited about the work. I think it is intriguing because it is a topic that many of us can relate to in some kind of way. The interface is playful, and people tend to get an urge to click to keep the screen black, which is fun.
I am also working on hacking João de Barros’ book and game Dialogo em modo de jogo (…), published in 1540, with Celeste Pedro and Sandra Simões. Celeste approached me to suggest this collaboration last September, and we have been slowly iterating on where exactly to take it. The original idea was to create a 1-1 digital version of the original game, but I think we are digressing from this path to take a more exploratory approach to this medieval text, asking, what could we do with this? How can we reinterpret this work to make it perhaps more relevant and interesting for our current context? As a sidetrack, I am also working (with my assistant Chat-GPT) on programming a digital volvelle-interface for combinatorial text (and poetry) that could be used for our hack of Barros, but also by other artists and scholars to play with and explore the possibilities of the volvelle-interface for creative and academic purposes.
CP: Was this (João de Barros) your first contact with an early modern philosophical work? How did you approach it?
TM: Absolutely, yes! Or let’s say I have come across Aristotle before, but this is perhaps the deepest I have gone in understanding the complex and interrelated ideas in Nicomachean ethics. So far, I feel like I do not understand it all well enough, but hopefully, over the coming months, I will have a chance to read and reread Barros’ book and to play and replay the game. I think the philosophical ideas are very practical and applicable, and that intrigues me. I like the idea that a virtue can turn into a vice if there is an excess (or deficit) of it. I think it is easy to find everyday examples to exemplify these ideas and illustrate the dilemmas, and to alert us to the need to be conscious about how the various virtues contribute to our behaviour and choices on our path towards the good life!
CP: Do you have any advice for young scholars regarding the use of digital tools in research?
TM: I would point all scholars interested in embracing programming and other digital tools to Nick Montfort’s wonderful open-access book Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities, Second Edition (2021).
Montfort elucidates some of the ways in which humanities scholars can benefit from embracing lightweight aspects of programming in their work. Indeed, it is not necessary to be a programmer to use programming. The book walks us through all the first steps, such as downloading a text editor suitable for programming, downloading necessary software, etc. Montfort offers his own code and encourages readers to modify this existing code. Modifying other people’s code is a great way to learn because it is not necessary to write a lot in order to have interesting results. But it is necessary to read and understand the code a little bit in order to make our own modifications to it (such as changing the text of a generative poem). The book is easy to read, and there are lots of fun examples that, if you follow the instructions, you can quickly get your hands on some real code, modify it and see the results. It is very fun to do!
Direct link to the open-access ebook on the website of the MIT Press: Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities, Second Edition (2021).
I hope this interview encourages anybody curious about programming to take the step and begin exploring it. I especially encourage women and any minorities, and underrepresented individuals to embrace programming. It helps if you have a project in mind or a vision or something very simple that you want to do that is not really possible to do without programming. That type of objective will probably give you the required motivation that helps you over the tough parts of the learning process. Another important thing is a mentor! Or several mentors! Please feel free to contact me if you would like me to mentor you along your path to embracing digital tools and/or programming in your own work.