Sylwana Zybura and Tomas C. Toth, the creative minds behind Berlin-based artist collective CROSSLUCID, had exchanged several emails about ideas and experiments before unexpectedly meeting in 2014. When I ask how they initially found each other’s work, they answer synchronously: “Online.”
Early on, the two bonded over their shared sense of operating on the fringes of their respective professional spheres. “We had a lot of discussions via email about feeling as though we weren’t in a space where we wanted to be creatively,” recalls Toth, who had studied architecture at the Czech Technical University in Prague but was more interested in sculpting forms around human bodies than designing buildings. Zybura, on the other hand, had gone to the Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts and studied photo design but was more attracted to scenography and film than classic, large-format photography.
It was at a fashion shoot in London, where Zybura was working as a photographer and Toth as a stylist, that they finally met each other in person—and realized how well they clicked. “It’s very rare to have this kind of symbiotic relationship with someone you meet and work with for the first time,” says Zybura. During our conversation, there were several instances when the two would finish each other’s sentences.
After their chance encounter, they began to collaborate with each other more frequently and eventually decided to move to Berlin in 2015 to pursue the artistic projects that weren’t possible in their fast-paced London lives. In 2017, Zybura and Toth established CROSSLUCID. Since then, they’ve created an intoxicating body of work that revolves around speculating futures of all stripes. Because the duo was in the process of nalizing a rental contract for a new studio space in Berlin, we meet at a bustling café in the Kreuzberg district where they frequently worked when they first moved to the city. “We can work well at home, but we can’t make a mess there,” says Zybura. “We need a studio where we can test ideas and build things.”
As brands look to innovate and increasingly pay attention to cutting-edge aesthetics, part of CROSSLUCID’s appeal lies in the fact that their visual language is sleek, futuristic, playful, provocative, vibrant and otherworldly. Their practice includes—but isn’t limited to—photography, video, creative direction, collage, character design, installations and performances. Rather than putting CROSSLUCID in a box, the duo sees it as an entity that continuously transforms. “CROSSLUCID isn’t necessarily just us,” explains Zybura. “People that we work with can become CROSSLUCID. While we are an entity that instigates ideas in order for things to happen, I like that there aren’t many boundaries about what we are and can do.”
This openness is also reflected in their creative process, which often starts with an experience and then evolves from there. For example, what started as an exploration of the multifaceted ways in which individuals depict themselves eventually turned into the duo’s first book, Landscapes Between Eternities, published by Distanz in 2018. In the book, objects mesh with bodies, which become jarring landscapes from an alternate reality.
“Basically, we sought out people who had very strong personalities, invited them into a space and played a little laboratory game with them, where we took away the elements they used to represent themselves and shifted their character using found objects and materials that we had in that moment,” says Toth. “In a way, this setup forced us to focus on the communication between us and the subject, and to trust our intuition... ”
“But also,” Zybura chimes in, “because there was always an element of uncertainty, it was interesting to see how people negotiated this space between feeling a bit uncomfortable and trusting us to keep going.” While the pair try not to premeditate the direction of a photo shoot or project, they do have an “aquarium of ideas” they’re drawn to. Depending on the people, objects, environments and energies around them at a given moment, they trust that certain impulses that need to be examined will surface to consciousness.
It’s no surprise, then, that Berlin’s open and easygoing ethos played a sizable role in the book coming to fruition. Whereas in London, they often had to prioritize commercial projects over personal work to stay afloat nancially, since moving to the German capital, they have devoted their newly uncluttered headspace to researching and developing interesting ideas. As their friends in Berlin started spreading the word about their work, people would sometimes spend hours or even an entire day with the duo, trying things out to see what would happen, without any particular goal in mind.
“One time, a friend of mine told me she knew a guy from Norway who would be open to being photographed. It was late at night. He had just arrived at the Berlin airport, and she texted him about coming over for a photoshoot,” recalls Zybura energetically. “We had never even met him before, and he came directly to our place from the airport, and then we covered him in wet objects! Afterward, we asked him about the experience, and he said it was surreal.”
Ultimately, the experiments that culminated in Landscapes Between Eternities proved to be trust exercises for the instigators, their subjects and their collaborators. “There’s an awful lot of courage, playfulness and trust in CROSSLUCID’s way of working: trying, making mistakes, adjusting and connecting our streams of consciousness until these characters are born. It’s like tapping into another dimension and calling something new to life,” says Nóra Belovai, a friend and makeup artist who worked with the duo on the book.
For CROSSLUCID, spontaneity and synchronicity are a recipe for creativity—and community. Toth says many of the people they met on the photo shoots for Landscapes Between Eternities later became friends or collaborators. However, Zybura also admits that these kinds of unstructured experiences with subjects don’t always produce spectacular images. “There are moments when you’re working with someone and it’s just not working—but that’s a normal part of the process,” she says matter-of-factly. “In those cases, we either meet again or reflect afterward on why it might not have worked.”
Despite the risk of hiccups and awkwardness that can arise from their experimental approach, Zybura and Toth are adamant about maintaining intimate personal connections throughout their creative process. They also insist on crafting the objects and fabrics that appear in their shoots themselves. “Due to the light and the materiality in our images, people often assume our work is created using CG, but it’s mostly done by hand,” says Zybura. “CG is part of our work, though,” notes Toth, “but it’s difficult to communicate work that is created between the physical and digital worlds. People can get really confused about what is what.”
In 2019, CROSSLUCID collaborated with HYPEBEAST and Nike on a series of images for the launch of the Nike Air Max 720 sneaker. Since the client brief referenced the aesthetic from Landscapes Between Eternities, the creative pair decided to apply a similar approach and visual language to this very different environment. However, the project involved some of Nike’s most well-known brand ambassadors in China, and the duo learned that they would have fifteen-minute time slots to photograph each person.
In response, they adapted their process by conducting research on the brand ambassadors beforehand, creating looks—or “profiles”—for each person as well as making specific objects for each shoot. Still, they were determined to give the ambassadors an “experience” during the shoot and tried to inject as much spontaneity into the process as they could. “I was impressed by how CROSSLUCID prepared and organized their creative production right before the shooting— carefully laying down all the props and gadgets they had handmade and brought directly from Germany, as well as clearly labeling what parts went to which sets,” says Phil Gong, brand partnerships manager at HYPEBEAST in China. “Their ability to observe, discuss and modify as the shooting took place also played an integral part in the creative process.”
Later in 2019, CROSSLUCID released their first film, in a collaboration with friend and fashion designer Don Aretino. “Primer,” a poetic collage of stimulating sequences, titillating tableaus and thought-provoking meditations, is an eight-minute short film that envisions a world where every single being can roam free of binaries, boundaries and belligerence. “They’re truly the minds of the future, who think not just outside the box but also use whatever is in their surroundings to give them a new life,” says Aretino, who helped produce the film and designed the clothing in it.
Toth says the idea for the film stemmed from the many conversations they had with Aretino around the topic of “insularity” and, particularly, on how to transcend the us-versus-them mentality. “We wanted to reflect on the possibility of removing these divides,” Toth says. The film also includes snippets from an essay written by Romanian academic Ion Dumitrescu, titled “Pre,” that deeply resonated with the CROSSLUCID duo. “Post is the agony of structure totality,” the narrator recites in the film. “Pre is the ooze of potentialities.”
Since Toth and Zybura have been working together in differing capacities for more than five years now, I’m curious to hear how their professional dynamics has evolved over the years. “In the beginning, our roles and responsibilities were more defined... ” says Toth.
“I was the photographer, and he was the stylist,” adds Zybura. “Now these definitions don’t exist anymore. It’s much more fluid.” It seems that in the process of imagining new futures and identities through their work, CROSSLUCID also formed an alternate model of creative collaboration that works best for them. ca