It was time i'd interview Niklas Roy! Jonah Brucker-Cohen had a fantastic talk with him for gizmodo but that was 4 years ago. And there are video portraits about Niklas Roy online but there are in a language i can't quite master. Niklas is one of the most facetious characters of the 'new media art' world. His dance machine without 'annoying Dj", moving curtain, 'distributed' fountains, white cube gallery in a box, physical teapot inside a Commodore cabinet or his electromechanical version of the game Pong are certainly witty, absurd and at times, even hilarious. But don't let the jesting fool you. Behind the playfulness of Roy's machines, lay much irony and lucidity about the world of art & tech he belongs to.
Hi, Niklas! Why do you feel the need to invent 'useless things'?
Well, I guess that engineers and designers which usually invent machines and devices mainly do that in order to solve a problem with their inventions. Or they want to make an existing process more efficient with the help of technology. But such efficiency-driven approaches exclude a vast field of possible inventions. I find it very interesting to explore this field as it promises to be very free.
Do you really believe that your works are useless?
Somehow, my creations often end up in art exhibitions. So the question is, how useless is art? I strongly believe that art is useful for the health of society in some sort of balancing way. From that point of view, my machines might be a bit useful.
It is a bit daunting to interview you. I'm not sure i can trust any of your answers. Especially after having had a look at the WIA < > WIA project for which a fictitious African artist set up an installation that consisted of a public toilet in Linz, that appeared to be hooked up via Internet to an African village's well. Why did you chose to trick ars electronica? Was it really a spoof? Surely they must have known there was something fishy in the work?
Ars Electronica is the leading Media Arts institution. Their pole position makes them define trends and create hypes. Unfortunately, I often cannot agree to those hypes - which feeds the rebel in me.
Melissa's - let's call it 'performance' - started when Ars Electronica released a 'call for proposals' for an exhibition as part of Linz' culture capital program. This open call was more or less a very clear wish list of what they'd like to show. This open call would have made a good briefing for companies which focus on designing interactive installations. But it was not suitable to address artists which should stimulate the society by expressing their own positions. My application as African artist Melissa Fatoumata Touré began as a little fun experiment. I submitted precisely what Ars Electronica asked for and spiced it up with some toilet humour. I wanted to know how they'd react to such a rather ridiculous submission. It worked out far better than I thought: As I heard later, Melissa's toilet project was the first that got accepted by the jury - and they were even a bit sad that the other submissions didn't even come close to the 'quality' of Melissas proposal. Well, this is what the jury said.
To answer your last two questions: As far as I know, the organizers really had no clue what was going on until Melissa presented her work via Skype and with a live video broadcast from her uncle's internetcafé in Africa. That happened about three weeks after the opening of the exhibition, as far as I remember. But you should not forget that they've never seen Melissa before this presentation. It was all organized just via email and phone calls. There was a lot of imagination involved. On both sides actually: I also could just imagine what the organizers in Linz would think about Melissa. And during the long process of preparing the exhibition and the installation, I often had the feeling that Ars Electronica wouldn't believe Melissa's identity anymore and that they're already playing with me.
I like your explanation of why Melissa is 'the perfect dream of every new media curator.' And i couldn't help but smirk at 'her ideas are distilled media art mainstream.' Could you elaborate on this? What are 'distilled media art mainstream' ideas? Do i perceive a certain disenchantment/fatigue with media art theories and ideas? Or am i completely wrong?
I'm not even sure if ideas and theory play such a big role if you want to become successful in this field. Here are some simple lessons that I've learned so far:
1st: Don't be an artist. You should be an architect or have a background in biology, or something else more or less unrelated. Melissa was actually a computer scientist. Talking about Melissa: Your gender also plays a role. Being a woman beats being a man, as women are extremely underrepresented in this field.
2nd: No matter what you're really up to, I can recommend you to also make some experimental electronic music. This adds an interesting layer to your personality. Your level of musicality doesn't matter as that's the point where the experimental part starts.
3rd: Buzzwords and -topics are your friends and your source of inspiration. You might consider to become active in the fields of biotech, sustainability or, of course, Facebook.
You explain that you created the Vektron modular because sometimes you need to listen to some strange zoundz. That sounds (to me at least) like a lot of work just for the sake of listening to some strange zoundz. I was wondering how often you create a work just for your own amusement. How much are you influenced by the possible feedback from public, the future reaction of the audience during the creative process? Do you give it much importance when you are developing a new work?
Building this synthesizer was actually an attempt to add an interesting layer to my personality. But I didn't want to write it so clear on my webpage, as this would have caused the reverse effect. Ok, now serious: I regard the development of things like this experimental Synthesizer as both, spare time fun and hands on research. I do that as often as possible as it often leads me to new ideas. The hard thing is actually to organize life an a way that you have so much spare time where you can work really free.
I was very impressed by the little video documenting the Reinventing Television workshop you headed a the Valand Art School in Gothenburg. Can you take us through a couple of projects that turned old tv sets into 'storytelling machines'?
This was really a nice workshop. Anna Kindvall, one of the directors of Malmö's Electrohype biennial was teacher there at that time and invited me. The idea was to take old TV's and build new machines inside or with them. I often built TV's out of cardboard boxes when I was a child and don't get me wrong, now, but I think when something was a lot of fun to do in childhood, it's always nice to make the same things with art students.
My Little Piece of Privacy is a curtain that moves along your studio window to protect you from the gaze of passersby and achieves precisely the opposite. I have the feeling that it is also the kind of idea that the 'creatives' in advertising and communication agencies would love to steal for their clients. Has anything like that ever happened to you? Have people from advertising ever approached you with a request to adapt one of your projects for their client? Is it something you'd be happy to do?
This installation is indeed an amazing attention-magnet. But the installation makes so much sense because it is just about a little hyperactive curtain. If the curtain would be replaced by a moving advertisement, it would be just poor. Maybe the 'creatives' which wanted to steal the idea also realized that. At least they didn't contact me and I haven't heard of any spin-offs, yet.
I guess the previous question calls for the upcoming one: The first time i saw your work was at Transmediale where you were showing Pongmechanik. You were still a student at the udk in Berlin at the time. As far as i can see you're still a happy independent artist doing exactly what takes his fancy. How do you do that? Do you have any advice for talented media art students who would like to actually have a career as media artist and not as 'creative' doing websites for an 'interactive design' company?
I think I answered that already in two different ways: My personal trick is mainly to organize life in a way that I have a lot of time (and at least enough money) to work on things that I find interesting. Working in a company will not really help, as this takes too much time.
How did you start being involved in media art? What attracted you in this field?
It was actually many years ago, when a friend took me for my first time to the Transmediale. I was working in the film business at that time, creating visual effects for feature films. This Transmediale visit caused two things: On the one hand, I've never seen so many interesting installations at one place before. I loved the way how technology was used in this very creative way. And on the other hand, I saw that there's plenty of space to make even more interesting things with technology. That's why I started to get involved in this field.
I saw the International Dance Party once in an exhibition in Amsterdam. i was alone in the room and could afford to throw away any kind of inhibition. But you must have witnessed the effect it has on a group of people. How do people react to it usually? Are they very self-conscious? Or rather extrovert?
Like the curtain, the IDP works amazingly well. But of course, there's a little bit of chain reaction involved. If one person starts to dance, it doesn't take long until the whole room takes off. The sad thing about this is, that I really like how the machine opens and closes and how it transforms its shape. People which are just dancing don't recognize that, as the installation always stays in full party mode. If that's the case, I sometimes try to convince the people to stop dancing. First they don't approve my suggestion, but if they do, they love the installation even more afterwards.
Has anyone ever bought the Beginner Set "Junior IDP"?
That's my main income!
Any upcoming project or exhibition that you'd like to share with us?
Yes, there's this exhibition in Barcelona's DHUB opening soon. The vernissage is on June 21st.
And then, there's another exhibition, called 'Paranoia' which is still going on in Lille's Gare St. Sauveur. Charles Carcopino curated this really great show. I can 100% recommend it and it's still running until 15th of August.
Photography used on the homepage is by Martin W. Maier.
I had forgotten to tell you about the work of Jérôme Zonder.
I discovered the work above at the exhibition Tous Cannibales at La Maison Rouge in Paris. Somehow, the show got lost in the frenzy of my last gallery-marathon in Paris. Plus, taking picture was a big 'no-no-!-get-out-of-here' which means that i couldn't document properly the exhibition. Yesterday, however, i was preparing my trip to Berlin (DMY!) and discovered that Tous Cannibales gets an Alles Kannibalen? reincarnation at me Collectors Room in Berlin. As its name indicates, the exhibition explores anthropophagy in art. Works by Goya and James Ensor are shown in dialogue with pieces by Wim Delvoye, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Pieter Hugo and Jérôme Zonder.
Zonder's work is provocative. Everybody loves provocative nowadays but he plays the provocative and offensive game with more panache and imagination than most. I thought he deserved more than just a photo on this blog:
Seizing on strong iconographic symbols taken from the Nazi aesthetics and the worlds of childhood and cartoons, Zonder revisits these forms of narration and the innocence they carry (children drawings, clear lines) as well as the cruelty (realism, caricature) through mise-en-scenes with a gory tone where sex and barbarity are more than compatible. (extract from the press release of the exhibition Pupper Show Dust at the Galerie Eva Hober Paris)
The title of Club Transmediale's exhibition, Alles, was Sie über Chemie wissen müssen (Everything You Need to Know about Chemistry), is based on a notebook with blank pages, published by an international science publisher.
An intriguing and cheeky enough opening for me.
No matter how much I love exhibitions at new media art festivals, i often find myself suspecting that the curatorial vision behind many of them is little more than an after-thought. This was certainly not the case with Alles, was Sie über Chemie wissen müssen and i can't praise curators Hicham Khalidi and Suzanne Wallinga enough for their exquisite, intelligent contribution to Club Transmediale.
The show wasn't afraid to call upon works from the early '70s to dialogue with new pieces on a theme that others than Khalidi and Wallinga might have been explored in a fairly lazy way: the physical interaction between people and things. To be honest, the description of the exhibition theme was a bit intimidating, the show attempts to convey an experience of Befindlichkeit (existential orientation), of the physical interaction between people and things, as described, for example, by Gernot Böhme: a primary experience of atmosphere, of "moods" that can be encountered in human and natural surroundings, in which there is no sharp distinction between person and thing. In Alles, was Sie über Chemie wissen müssen, the experience of winds, of feeling, of substance occurs through different manners of physical presence. The relationship between body and medium leads, either through the creation or perception of work, to the experience of a mental space where alternative ways of understanding the body may arise.
You didn't have to read Heidegger to find the show entirely enjoyable though.
One of the works that best concretized the theme of the exhibition is Aura by Joyce Hinterding, an artist whose practice investigates energetic forces, in particular acoustic and electromagnetic phenomena. Aura is made of graphite and gold drawings which, when connected to a sound system, become fractal antennas. As soon as i took off my camera to take a picture, i realized that the drawings made audible the presence of electromagnetic fields within the gallery. A text about the work explains that tracing one's finger over Hinterding's lines produces electrical sounds akin to those emitted by a theremin" but since i'm still not used to manipulating artworks, unless specifically invited to do so, i didn't dare touch the drawings. Besides, there was a guard in the room.
Rik Smits's ballpoint drawing Scorpoda Capital is a fascinating, slightly fearsome city driven by a taste for Dubai-worthy architecture, self-importance and luxury. Add to those, hints to the darkest chapters from the Old Testament (but that might just be my imagination) and an eerie absence of visible human beings.
Jelle Feringa's Analemma was probably the most insidiously fascinating piece in the show. In astronomy, an analemma (from a Greek word that meant "pedestal of a sundial") is a figure of eight-like curved traced in the sky when the position of the Sun is plotted at the same time each day over a calendar year from a particular location on Earth.
Feringa's Analemma defies the earth's 29.783 km/sec velocity by casting a perfectly circular shadow on the ground. No matter the time of the day, the day in the year, the latitude.
Jorinde Voigt's Grammatik combines several parameters, such as spinning aeroplane propellers, writing on the propellers (64 grammatical possibilities, declination of the personal pronouns, who loves who, who doesn't love who) and the size of the blades (the first person singular corresponds to the biggest blade. The third person plural corresponds to the smallest blade). Next to that, the installation defines the grammatical system even more precise by the declination of the rotation speed, 0 to maximum, individually controllable speed (the artist does not specify how fast each blade has to turn; every speed within the possible range is correct) and the declination of the direction of rotation: turning to the left or to the right. Technically, this corresponds to whether the blade turns away from or towards the observer.
Loved the show, took tons of pictures.
While the reliability of ballistic, bite-mark and even fingerprint analysis can sometimes be questioned in courtrooms, genetic evidence is still widely regarded as the forensic gold standard.
Or the deep embarrassment of European police when they found out that a mysterious serial killer known as the The Woman Without a Face had in fact never existed? The only clues that the criminal had left behind at 40 different crime scenes were DNA traces. These were collected on cotton swabs and supplied to the police in a number of European countries. The police later discovered that the DNA had very probably been left by a woman working for the German medical company supplying the swabs, who had inadvertently contaminated them.
There's more in the case against the fail-proof quality of DNA evidence. Three years ago, a crime lab analyst found out that DNA "matches" are not always as trustworthy as one might believe. While a person's genetic makeup is unique, his or her genetic profile -- just a tiny sliver of the full genome -- may not be. Siblings often share genetic markers at several locations, and even unrelated people can share some by coincidence.
And in Israel, scientists have demonstrated that DNA evidence can be fabricated. "You can just engineer a crime scene," said Dan Frumkin, lead author of a paper published in 2009. "Any biology undergraduate could perform this."
Paul Vanouse is doing just that with his latest work, the Suspect Inversion Center. Together with his assistant Kerry Sheehan, the biomedia artist set up an operational laboratory at the Ernst Schering Foundation in Berlin. Using equipment anyone can buy on the internet as well as Vanouse's own DNA, they (re)create in front of the public identical "genetic fingerprints" of criminals and celebrities.
The solo exhibition features two other biological artworks by the American artist: a series of Latent Figure Protocol lightboxes and Relative Velocity Inscription Device, a cynical molecular race reflecting on biologically legitimized racism, in which bits of DNA, instead of bodies, compete by testing their "genetic fitness". The work uses DNA samples from Vanouse family and directly references Charles Davenport's book Race Crossing in Jamaica (1929), which attempted to provide statistical evidence for biological and cultural degradation following interbreeding between white and black populations.
The press release for the exhibition says:
Vanouse's biotechnological installations do not only challenge the codes and images of contemporary knowledge production but also question the methods behind (natural) scientific findings in general: What do uncritically accepted commonplace catchwords such as "genetic fingerprint" conceal? To what extend does the technical construction of alleged naturalness notarize clichés and prejudices? Vanouse diverts biotechnologies and scientific imaging techniques from their intended uses, and amalgamates auratic iconography with technical images. Employing gel electrophoresis as artistic medium, he intentionally applies a method that bears analogies to photography: while photography allowed viewers to draw seemingly objective conclusions about human qualities based on physiognomic characteristics of the body, today, increasingly questionable social conclusions are derived from ontologized body fragments such as genes.
Curated by Jens Hauser, Paul Vanouse: Fingerprints... remains open at the Ernst Schering Foundation (google map) until March 26, 2011. The foundation, which aims to promote science and art, was showing the wonderful work of Agnes Meyer-Brandis last year: Cloud Core Scanner - an artistic experiment in zero gravity.
Another exhibition i just saw in Berlin is Comes with the Territory at Charim Ungar Contemporary (CUC). Don't run to the gallery just yet, the show closed on Saturday.
The exhibition brought together Israeli artists who explore the daily struggle to define and stretch the boundaries of the territory. Obviously, the word 'territory' in Israel comes with tense references to occupied stretches of land such as the ones in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. The term also evokes Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, check points, separation walls, disputed borders, forced evictions, etc. The artists in the exhibition, however, approach territory in a more private context. Comes with the Territory featured the works of Rotem Balva, Raafat Hattab, Gaston Zvi Ickowicz, Joshua Neustein, Nira Pereg and Roi Vaspi-Yanai. Subjective selection of works:
The work i noticed as soon as i entered the CUC gallery was one of the photos from the Settlements series that Gaston Zvi Ickowicz">Gaston Zvi Ickowicz shot in the West Bank and the Gaza strip between 2003 and 2006. His photographs centre on the architecture of the settlements, portraits of the settlers, fences and road-blocks, and examine their relationship with the landscape. Ickowicz's photographs reveal the character of the buildings, whose future as ruins is marked upon them from the moment of their construction.
Joshua Neustein was among the first Israeli artists to question issues of territorial displacement and militarism in his performances, sound pieces and installation. In 1976, Neustein began his Territorial Imperative actions in areas at the heart of boundary dispute. He first visited the Golan Heights (that Israel annexed from Syria and that remains the bone of contention between the two people) in 1976; then he went to Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1977; Kassel, East/West border of Germany in 1977; and Krusa, German/Danish border in 1978. He was accompanied by a male dog that urinated on the land at each site. Neustein created a series of posters with a photo of the animal urinating and the words "Territorial Imperative" stamped across it. The artist then created a map of the area which showed the territory marked by the dog next to the political territory marked by nations.
Nira Pereg's Kept Alive (literal translation from hebrew) refers to texts engraved upon headstones to reserve pre-purchased burial spots.
The photos document burial rituals in Jerusalem's Har HaMenuchot. Because of its 'prime' location in the holy city, the cemetery has become a very lucrative burial ground and its graves are spilling over. Pereg's photos record empty burial plots saved in advanced for those who are still alive yet wish to occupy a spot there when time has come. Pereg was particularly interested in pairs of graves for spouses wishing to reserve adjacent burial spots. The signs on the grave say "Kept, Alive" or "Reserved while still living." The 'booked' grave has not only become a status symbol, like a much coveted real estate but it also works as a superstitious 'insurance' of a longer life.
In 2009 writer and filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen and photographer Rob Hornstra embarked on the Sochi Project, a five year enterprise to map out the area of and around Sochi (Krasnodar Krai, Russia), a small city on the Black Sea that will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The duo will document the changes the city undergoes while it is getting ready for the Olympics.
The choice of this location is surprising, to say the least. This subtropical coastal area has exceptionally mild winters by Russian standards (average 11 °C (52 °F) during the day and 4 °C (39 °F) at night in the period from December to March). Besides, it lacks any kind of facilities and infrastructure to host the event.
The choice is not just surprising it is also extremely controversial. Greenpeace Russia is particularly worried about the environmental impact of the construction work inside a national park. To top it all, the Games are going to take place in Russia's most unstable region. A few hundred kilometres away are the breakaway republics Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. And just a few kilometres away is Abkhazia.
An exhibition titled Mutations III, currently on view at the Berlinische Galerie, shows one of the first chapters of The Sochi Project And in particular a newspaper-cum-exhibition presenting life in Krasny Vostok. The village is barely 200 kilometres away from Sochi, but it appears to still have one foot in the 19th century, still partially without gas and electricity.
A village like so many in Russia. Where the population is dwindling; where industry and activity are disappearing; where a handful of people are attempting to prevent the decline; where Moscow's politics trickle through slowly; where every day is a struggle to keep the village hanging on. Only when you are familiar with this kind of village, we believe, can you get to know this region better.
The series about Krasny Vostok is called On the Other Side of the Mountain, you can view more photos online.
Because Hornsta and van Bruggen believe that the Games themselves, and all the area surrounding Sochi deserve a sustained and in-depth coverage, the pair request donations from the public for the crowdfunding of a project whose scale is impossible for the mass media. They call it slow journalism. Please support their project by donating.
Photo on the homepage: Matsesta, RUSSIA, 2009 - Dima has burns on his legs. He is being treated with sulfide-chloride-sodium water in the healing complex of the Matsesta spa. Image credit: Rob Hornstra