CREATIVE PRODUCER POLINA ZAKH DOESN’T DESIGN FOR INSTAGRAMMABLE MOMENTS
Jan. 24, 2020
By: Whitney Mallett
“Everyone is dying over ‘immersive experiences’ now,” laughs Polina Zakh. “I’m like, Oh really? Can we not say these two words?” Her laugh underscores the way the buzzy phrase has been used to the point of meaninglessness over the past few years. But it’s still a useful umbrella term to sum up the kind of future-forward happenings Zakh works on as Vice President of Sila Sveta, a New York and Moscow-based studio specializing in 3D mapping, laser programming, interactive installation, and set design. Zakh explains the thirst for these experiences stems from the fact that “everyone’s now on their iPhones and people need content.” More than likely, you’ve seen Sila’s work on your feed. Be it ‘grams from Drake’s “Scorpion” tour—this summer, they were brought on by creative director Willo Perron to realize each night’s ambitious VFX—or snaps from the Met Gala, where they worked with Gorgon von Steiner to produce a Rei Kawakubo-inspired video booth for Vogue at the 2017 event.
At the core of this kind of multimedia practice, there’s a balance of the commercial and the artistic, as well as a negotiation between how something looks online, versus how it’s experienced IRL. Sila Sveta’s clients include both brands and artists, their work being featured at corporate events and product launches, as well as museums and raves, and of course often ending up shared via phone screen. “Brands always want the instagrammable moment,” says Zakh. “But what is a little frustrating to me is when you see those installations people do just for the sake of Instagram. If you came in there, you’d just be like really? It’s not what you think it is.” For Zakh it’s vital to make sure when you walk into the space there’s a wow moment. “That’s the best thing for me. If it can be added to the Instagram feed too. Cool. Let’s do it.”
Russian-born Zakh grew up in Saint Petersburg with a childhood stint in San Francisco, but she ended up studying art and business at Sotheby’s in London. She was a contemporary art dealer there before she was introduced to Sila Sveta founders Alexander Us and Alexey Rozov in Moscow in 2015—they met through an artist friend who organized a Midsummer’s Night Dream rave populated by cosplay elves. As an art dealer, Zakh sometimes faced confusion over how her work could combine creativity and the market. “People would be like, ‘how can you be in this commercial space but for art?’” she recalls. “I’m like, ‘Excuse me, I’m selling emotions.’” Zakh sees her work with Sila as the same but different. “I’m bringing emotions to people just in a different way. You walk into a space and are like Oh my God! How is this possible?”
What is the most memorable time you entered a space and felt like that? For Zakh, it was Orlando Disneyland. “I was five or six and there was this Lion King parade. Now that was an immersive experience. You actually felt like you were in the movie.” Other inspirations? “I’m very much interested in architecture,” says Zakh. “In Russia, the churches are intense. The Orthodox churches are all gold-ish and have these beautiful interiors. I’m personally not a fan of the Church, but I like to go to them to check out the energy.”
The pageantry of churches is a good reminder that immersive experiences existed before WiFi and 4G networks. Still Sila Sveta’s work—whether an Audi launch with 100 VR goggles, or a New Year’s party with visual projections that look like a black hole you could fall into—is very much defined by the smartphone-obsessed climate. They cater to our impulse to constantly document—while you might think that reinforces the idea that we can’t be in the moment or genuinely experience anything when we’re preoccupied with gramming it instead—at the same time these augmented-reality light shows and tech-heavy creations are other wordly enough that we’re provoked to actually look up from our screens for once.
Rave culture is very much in the DNA of Sila Sveta—in addition to meeting Zakh at one, the Sila Sveta founders started the studio in a nightclub in an abandoned Moscow factory, which gave them office space and food in exchange for their experimental projections. Zakh explains that raving is defined by the architecture of the experience. “The space itself should be different,” she says. “The installations, the lights, the loud music, the people, if they’re all things you don’t encounter on an everyday basis then you bond together. It’s like when you’re in that space, you can connect to your emotions.”
During her undergrad, Zakh studied communications and linguistics, focusing her thesis on museums as a cross-cultural space. Thinking through the impact of these built environments seems a good foundation for the work Zakh does today, sometimes quite literally in museums, and always focused on how abstract ideas and emotion can be translated into 3D space. “I never thought about it this way,” says Zakh about how her studies connect to her work today. “But [my life pre-art world], I was always curious about how people were reacting to these spaces. How can you influence people’s perception? You walk into a museum and what scent do you smell?”
Zakh says over the years the museum space has adapted and become more open and welcoming. “As a kid, going to the museum you were literally going into this conservative space. If you moved around a little faster, they’d be like ‘what’s going on?’” she remembers. “The security guards at museums in Russia, it’s so funny, they have these babushkas. There’s these old ladies sitting there, all the time watching you. It’s like what experience am I having here? A very, very strict one.”
It’s been a big year for Zakh and Sila Sveta. Their work for Drake’s tour, which kicked off August 12 in Kansas City, really raised the bar for the kinds of VFX we’ve come to expect at stadium pop concerts. The concert stage transformed into 3D scorpions, a basketball court, an iPhone screen, cracking ice, and melting lava, the effects reacting in real time to Drake’s movements made possible by person-tracking software called BlackTrax with Notch. “It takes a lot of courage for the artist and the creative director to do this kind of stuff,” says Zakh underscoring the improvisational element of forgoing pre-recorded effects. And with 43 shows and nearly 700,000 tickets sold, they brought the cutting edge experience to a wide audience. “It’s incredible that so many people could see how beautiful the technology is now,” says Zakh.
A few weeks after Drake’s stage show was unveiled, Zakh headed to the Nevada desert for Burning Man and a much needed break from her phone. It was her first time at the dusty off-the-grid carnivalesque temporary city that forms every year, a hippie-cum-steampunk freakshow communing in the middle of a dried up lake bed. “On the fourth day, I was so depressed, like, Oh my god there’s still three more days to go. I was stressing out, and then you kind of just let it go and merge with this space,” says Zakh, who found herself doing yoga, which she emphasizes she’s absolutely not a fan of usually, and joining in a partnered trust activity, dancing with her eyes closed. “You can finally reconnect to yourself. It was an intense year for me, like really, really intense, and I finally found I had a space for myself without all this noise going around.” It’s a feeling that stayed with her and something she wants Sila Sveta’s immersive environments to elicit. “I want people to be more focused on themselves within the experience.”