23 May Banz & Bowinkel
Digital shadows of real images
Photos: Kevin Mananga
Admittedly, I had successfully managed to sneak by the world of Immersive art without paying attention, until I visited this exhibition. The terminology alone, with its abbreviations, seemed scary to me: Artificial Intelligence (AI), Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Bots, and now Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT) … Too technical. Too complicated. Or so I thought until I met Giulia Bowinkel and Friedemann Banz – THE artist duo that has been shaping the development of this young art form since its beginnings.
But our conversation, and especially the interaction with their art, make it surprisingly easy for me to get into this unknown topic …
We met in Berlin at the Haus am Lützowplatz, where her works are currently on display together with four additonal artistic positions in the exhibition Resonance of Realities on the occasion of her nomination for the newly created VR Art Prize.
On view, first of all, is her “analog” installation, which defines and encloses an action area for the viewer. It consists of a squared yellow floor divided into individual grids; four oversized QR codes placed at the four corners of this floor, and a grid on the wall that mirrors the floor area and functions as a mount for the computer and screen. Connected to the computer are VR goggles, which will later allow me to experience the effect of immersion for the first time.
Installation view: Resonance of Realities at Haus am Lützowplatz (HaL), Berlin
But, actually, what is it about? And what led the duo to this highly technical media art after studying painting at the Düsseldorfer Kunstakademie? I try to find the answers by asking whether, perhaps, there was already a class for media art at the time. The surprising answer is:
Bowinkel: No. Not in our time – I graduated in 2008 – media art had definitely not arrived at the Academy yet. Even the photography class received so little support that Thomas Ruff, who was the only instructor, threw in the towel. There was really and truly only one lonely, completely outdated computer, intended for research purposes in the entire building.
Banz: That’s right. Hard to imagine today. The only digital tools for us at the time were the Internet, the scanner for digitizing photo prints, and Photoshop for editing. And that was it. It wasn’t until 2007, with the first Iphone, that the rapid technical development of applications and apps, which we now take completely for granted increasingly flowed into our work.
left: Bodypaint_V_15 (2019), right: SUBSTANCE_I_06 (2017)
E.B.: Despite your traditional art studies, what are the sources of your fascination with digital based aesthetic images?
Bowinkel: There were many. For example, I was fascinated by the beginnings of mini-animations in MTV video clips, and later it was games like Second Life. Not to forget, of course, classic science fiction films. You can say that everything that had to do with animation excited me, or rather us, and ultimately shaped us.
E.B.: Was there a particular idea that triggered your artistic focus on the digital medium?
Banz: Yes. Two simple questions drove us. First: How can you make art with a computer? And second: Why should you make art with a computer?
E.B.: Are there equally simple answers? How did you acquire the technical skills?
Banz: We are absolute autodidacts. There is no other way in this field. Technology develops so quickly that as soon as you are taught something, it is already outdated. Fortunately, there are Youtube tutorials [laughs]. But I also think it’s incredibly important these days to be able to move independently in the media world. In my opinion, it’s just as important as being able to read and write.
E.B.: Did the “why-you should-make-art-with-the-computer” also came from this reflection?
Bowinkel: Absolutely. As we stumbled into the cosmos of digital art, we became aware of how much our reality of life is permeated by what a computer does. Computer-controlled programming is built into almost everything and exerts an enormous influence on our actions and perceptions.
E.B.: The sentence: “Banz and Bowinkel generate scenarios of the coexistence of nature, texture, body and space, mass, form and substance” is in your website. If one looks at your works, I can follow it, except the reference to nature. To what extent does nature also flow into it?
Banz: That is to be understood more symbolically. Following the basic idea of bringing virtual and real space together, we are concerned with the question of the extent to which fictional reality influences people.
Let’s just take the situation of our current conversation. We are standing in the middle of the environment of a media-based exhibition, all three of us are wired up and know that the recording will somehow be processed with the computer. If, instead, we were to walk together in the woods and then chat together around a campfire, we would talk to each other in a completely different way.
So when we considered what the “nature” of a virtual world with VR goggles might look like, we concluded that a replica makes no sense. A computer doesn’t know the ground or gravity or time. It simply translates equations with variables in them. That’s why we create – you could say Platonic worlds – where you see the shadows of reality.
E.B.: I think it’s about time that I enter such a world …
No sooner said than done. When I put on the VR goggles, a short technical briefing follows. I get the controller floating in front of my eyes (does it really float?) pressed into my fingers and am let go. Finding words for what I see, let alone feel, is more than difficult … The dimensions of the virtual space are almost gigantic, its design fantastic in the truest sense of the word. The 360° view, or rather insight, makes me immediately become part of the animation and lose all sense of space. Insecurely, I plod forward, look up, look back and get the first feelings of panic when robot-like creatures disguised in women’s bodies move menacingly towards me in army formation. Irritatedly, I notice on the sidelines tips like: “Just walk towards them. You can trigger them. They also talk to you” or: “If you aim with the controller and then let go, you can teleport to other spatial areas or to the next level”. What I ultimately tinker with is transmitted via the screen, so that everyone involved can also observe my helpless defense attempts. Nevertheless, my entire virtual impressions expand the real scenario around me many times over until, at some point, the entire army collapses peu à peu in front of me. My question as to whether it was I who finished them off is followed by a mysterious, “Maybe …”. With a heavy heart, I part with my VR goggles and try to interpret what I have seen.
E.B.: Without revealing too much, I would be interested to know who the beings I perceived as attackers represent. Their standardized, perfect body shape was specially striking?
Bowinkel: These are bots, our avatars or personified representatives who represent the algorithms that develope as we use the Internet. They can be found in male and female form, deliberately generated perfectly in many of our works. Hereby we express the stereotype that is captured via the purely statistical data collection of programs. Data such as man, woman, age group, interests or place of residence define a type that primarily serves economic or even political interests. The computer does not recognize an individual. Even if it is often sold to us that way or we perceive it that way.
Exhibition views: left: 02_Cylinder_&_Bots_DAM_Gallery (2019), right: _01_Cylinder_&_Bots_DAM_Gallery (2019)
E.B.: True, unfortunately. It actually only recognizes my device and reacts to what I do with it. Presumably the oversized QR codes here on the floor can only be read by the device, correct?
Banz: That’s how it is.
I get a tablet in my fingers, align it over one of the codes, and this time I’m confronted with an avatar head floating in a rising vortex like Aladdin from the magic lamp and surrounded by hashtags also floating around. He speaks to me.
Regarding the Augmented-Reality-work Poly Mesh (2021)
“Are they philosophical thoughts?” was my first idea.
Bowinkel: They are comments on our world, written by an artificial intelligence-based text generator, spoken by a computer-generated voice.
E.B.: You can hardly get more fusion of real and virtual than that. All in all, is this the vision of the future that you are visualising and bringing to life?
Banz: Clearly not. We create images that reflect the reality of our lives today. Perhaps it becomes easier to understand in comparison with another era, such as the Renaissance. At that time, religion determined reality and thus people’s lives and thoughts. Painters invented the images for it and churches were built to make these virtual worlds tangible. Today, we experience our reality increasingly through windows of displays or influenced by technologies. We therefore see our artistic task in using technological tools both as a source and as a tool to create digital images of what presents itself to us today as real. Keyword: Platonic worlds …
<Too technical? Too complicated?>
My conclusion: A definite “No”! The art of Banz & Bowinkel is exciting, on the pulse of time and readily experiencable to beginners;)