This artist experimented with digital technology decades before it was cool | by Dora Segall | August 2022

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Traveling through the many avatars of Elaine Hindin, the 85-year-old TikTok crypto-influencer

Elaine Hindin’s TikTok page is filled with animated monkeys that are potted like plants and adorned with accessories. In one of the pinned videos, a chimpanzee with long, flowing hair and lavish jewelry tells viewers, “You’re just one video away from going viral.” The animation, named KK CELEBRITY, is a parody of Kim Kardashian.

“KK” is a parody of Kim Kardashian. In this recent iteration, Hindin alludes to Kardashian’s recent safari.

TikTok attracts such a young audience that consumer data firm Statista lumps all users over 50 into a single category – this demographic accounts for 11% of the app’s traffic, roughly half the size of each other age groups. Hindin is 85 years old. The artist sees the platform as a balancing act between creating for itself and the algorithm’s preference for trends. “TikTok art is created upside down,” she says. “You find a trending topic and create from it.”

Hindin has been adapting his works to changing technology since the 1980s. His projects blend popular culture with a more organic avant-garde aesthetic. The result is quirky, fun work that’s deeply rooted in social commentary.

talking plants, Hindin’s potted monkey series is originally NFT. Part of Hindin’s intention was to poke fun at the Bored Ape Yacht Club, a Miami-born collection of colorful ape portrait NFTs popular among crypto buyers and celebrities alike. It’s no secret that blockchain technology is primarily a boys’ club. Google Analytics shows that over 85% of user engagement with Bitcoin, for example, is male. And, according to Bloomberg, only 5% of NFTs sold between February 2020 and November 2021 were made by female artists. Hindin’s aim with Talking Plants is to present a satirical take on the male-dominated collection.

“[Talking Plants] has to do with me being a feminist – boy, am I really a feminist,” Hindin says. “I think the guys are running all the technical stuff, and now they’re just pushing it down our throats.”

Early in the morning of February 2, 1976, Hindin grabbed his yellow raincoat, camera and 400 millimeter lens to head towards a cyclone. She was living in Maine at the time and drove her Saab to part of the coast about two hours north. For seven hours she clung to a bush and photographed patches of water, snow and hail breaking through the wind and brief patches of sunshine.

“Time passed in a way I never knew,” Hindin says. “It looked like maybe minutes had passed.”

The storm pushed Hindin to create. Her paintings became more abstract and she turned to physics and metaphysics to make sense of her experience. With her husband away on business more often, she became restless with the isolation of motherhood in rural Maine. She moved with her daughters to California and filed for divorce.

One of Hindin’s paintings of a cyclone in Maine, 1976

One of the first works of art influenced by Hindin’s technology was the “telejectron”. She had already become dissatisfied with painting as a means of conveying her experience in the storm and created an immersive installation to emulate it instead. Telejectron went further by using holography, coupled with specific lighting and electronic music, to evoke an altered state of consciousness. The multi-sided, sharply angled structure took up most of Hindin’s living room, allowing visitors to sit inside. The project helped Hindin land an artist residency sponsored by the California Arts Council and the City of Santa Cruz.

A photo of Hindin (formerly Yanow) with his telejectron, taken for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1982

Installations and mechanization were gaining popularity in contemporary art after Hindin’s completion of the telejectron. Personal computers, invented in 1974, were also becoming common. In 1986, F. Randall Farmer and Chip Morningstar invented the avatar.

As technological innovation skyrocketed, so did the fantastical depictions of it in popular culture. movies like Back to the future (1985) and songs like Mr. Roboto (1983) played with real and imagined concepts, such as time travel and artificial intelligence. In 1985, a British television company introduced Max Headroom, a supposedly computer-generated program host. The “AI character” was played by an actor whose appearance was altered using makeup, harsh lighting, and special effects.

Hindin was fascinated by Max Headroom and decided to develop a female version. She dressed her daughter in second-hand clothes and photographed her as “Hedda Talespin”, a parody of 1940s gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. She wanted to create a digital avatar, but at the time, CGI was inaccessible to the average person.

The 1994 Northcon Electronics Convention in Seattle followed the first global conference on the World Wide Web. At that time, Hindin was working as a technical writer for Puget Sound Energy in Seattle (and moonlighting as a competitive ballroom dancer).

In a large room filled with mostly male attendees, Hindin spotted a man with threadlike glasses sitting in front of a black-and-white Macintosh Classic, an ancestor of today’s Apple computers.

“What are you doing?” Hindin asked the man. He told her that he was programming a web page.

“What is that?” she asked.

The man invited her to sit down and showed her how to code. Hindin doesn’t remember the name of his old teacher, but his lesson changed his life.

“I just went from there,” she said. “I mean, I got out, I bought a classic Mac. I studied HTML programming. At that time, as personal computers became more and more common, the number of women working as coders dropped NPR attributes this trend to a simultaneous rise in the “techie” digital space narrative as masculine.

Two months after the Washington convention, Hindin completed his first digital project: a series of 108 comics drawn using a bitmap program. She printed them out and published them in her book Fortune Kookies: A Cartoon Oracle. The cover asks readers to think of a question and open a random page for the answer. (I asked the copy Hindin had mailed to me if I was going to have a good summer. I opened it to a page with a diagram of an acupuncturist’s human body as well as a joke about the yawn of a medical procedure. Text in italics at the bottom read, Learn from your mistakes.

Hindin has used increasingly advanced software over the decades. She now creates all of her content using apps.

“My goal now is to create things that people can project onto their wall,” Hindin says. “I try to make things for people that can actually be wearable, and they could change the images anytime.”

Hindin’s daughter, Alexandra Sokol – the pre-internet model for Hedda Talespin – says her mother’s artwork has changed dramatically in the digital age.

“She went from creating 8-by-10-foot works of art—from museum pieces to wall space—to a smaller size,” says Sokol. “She’s able to produce things much faster.”

During her foray into social media over the past few years, Hindin decided to stop selling her physical paintings through a local gallery. The pandemic forced her to sell all of her work digitally, so she figured she might as well create it all digitally. Since then, it is up to her to market her work.

Hindin didn’t have much luck trying to sell his NFTs on OpenSea. She says the market has become too competitive.

“It’s exclusive, it’s overcrowded,” she says. “So now you’re back to how the New York art scene used to be.”

After several months and little interest from potential buyers, Hindin decided not to deposit his collection on OpenSea. That’s when she turned to TikTok, where she’s adapting talking plants for a different audience. Hindin joined the platform last March and is slowly building a following, so far 334.

Talking plants aren’t the only characters to grace Hindin’s social media pages. His work has drawn on a range of recurring and often bizarre personalities. Around Election 2020, she debuted a Plants vs Zombies-like character named MacDaddy.

“MacDaddy is what I jokingly call a day-trading toad,” Hindin says. “He’s your quintessential sleazeball, and he views himself as innocent all the time.”

One of Hindin’s other characters evolved from an analog series. Many of his paintings feature scantily clad, tattooed women posing against maximalist, often fantastical backgrounds. His “Luchadoras” are no exception. The series portrays fictionalized versions of professional Mexican female wrestlers. Hindin was inspired by learning that many luchadores were grandmothers or single mothers learning to support their families. “Bird Woman” was one of Hindin’s luchadoras and a crime-fighting superhero. Hindin expanded the Bird Woman story into a digital series in 2018.

A painting of Bird Woman, part of Hindin’s “Luchadora” series, which eventually became its own digital spin-off

Learning to create digital characters allowed Hindin to finally make Hedda Talespin a virtual reality. In 2021, she considered the figure, a plastic-looking makeup face on a disembodied head, as her personal avatar. The alter-ego somehow cements Hindin’s journey from an analog artist to a digital artist.

“The whole art world has changed drastically, I mean, it’s off the canvas,” Hindin says.

Hedda Talespin, Avatar of Hindin

Operating under an avatar also veils Hindin’s age, which she considers, aside from her living memory of the story, to be unimportant in her creative life. “I’ve always been 20 years ahead of my time, and I can’t speak for people of my generation, because I’ve never really [identified] with it,” she said.

Just over 100 videos on Hindin’s TikTok page is that of Hedda Talespin, her disembodied face shrouded in static, blue and yellow light.

“It’s just my avatar, so it went electronic,” says Hindin. “He’s an AI character now.”

Elaine Hindin at the 2013 San Diego County Fair

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