ArchitectureThese artists turned a glitch into a building
We spoke to Zurich collective !Mediengruppe Bitnik about what architecture and performance have in common, and how they transformed a momentary digital error into permanent stone.
The new facade that fronts an otherwise unmemorable arts building in Basel, Switzerland, looks like it has ripped through the fabric of reality. The colors blur horizontally, blending everything from railings to stone columns, in the unmistakeable form of a computer glitch.
Zurich art collective !Mediengruppe Bitnik created the piece, titled H3333333K, for the new House of Electronic Arts in Basel. They were chosen from six teams of artists who created proposals to transform the museum's facade to reflect its digital arts focus.
Working with architecture is an unlikely move for the collective, composed of artists Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo. Their previous projects are mostly performance and concept-based, including creating a bot that bought ecstasy and other illegal goods off the dark net, and a sending a package that documented its own journey using a hidden camera to whistleblower Julian Assange.
We spoke to Weisskopf and Smoljo about what architecture and performance have in common, and how they transformed a momentary digital error into stone.
Domagoj Smoljo and Carmen Weisskopf
Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo are !Mediengruppe Bitnik (read: not mediengruppe bitnik) from Zurich/London. Contemporary artists working on and with the Internet, their practice expands from the digital to affect physical spaces, often intentionally applying loss of control to challenge established structures and mechanisms.
HOPES AND FEARS: How long has this piece been in progress?
CARMEN WEISSKOPF: I think we started working on the idea in January, so a bit more than half a year. In March, we know we’d be able to realize the glitch, in May we started really drawing plans.
DOMAGOJ SMOLJO: Between January and May we did a lot of research, what could be done, what kind of software could be applied.
H&F: How was working with architecture for the first time? What about it surprised you or challenged you?
CW: I think for us the idea was to have a digital artifact transformed into something really solid, stone architecture. From there we closely worked with an architect. Architecture is a lot to understand. We relied very much on the people who worked on the building. They had to translate their processes for us so we could understand.
DS: We think that architecture is also a software. We realized that you can bend it, you can do something to it. We were really free. We knew there were things possible there.
H&F: What inspired the aesthetic direction of the piece?
CW: In front [of the building] there’s a big open square. When you stand on that square and you look at that part of the building, you’re not sure whether [the facade] is a rendering or if it’s real. It has this very 3D model-like aesthetic. You think, “there’s something wrong with that building”. It’s like a visual irritation, surreal.
DS: We really wanted to play with the aesthetics of the 3D model, the hyperreality. Sometimes you only realize [that a rendering is fake] because the people look unreal. The renderings are that good nowadays. Software is really fluid and temporary, we wanted to transform a moment into something that's solid, permanent.
New House of Electronic Arts in Basel
H&F: How did you design the facade?
DS: We took a photo of the building from the square, 200 meters away. Then we started to manipulate this feature. We wrote a small piece of software that would just move lines inside the image. You get these codec errors, it’s very common. Like when you upload an image and there are some bytes missing.
CW: The glitches we got in the beginning made the colors get really bright or go away totally. So we played around a bit looking for a glitch or an error that would give us an aesthetic transformation of the facade. What we were looking for was an error that would be buildable. When you start glitching floor plans it becomes impossible.
DS: Then we went to an architect to talk about possibilities.
CW: There were still some worries that the building would stay up.
H&F: So when you took the design to the architect, you didn’t know if the building could stand?
CW: Actually we already thought that the [existing] columns were not necessary to keep up the building, but of course, we’re not sure, we don’t read architectural plans every day. [The architects] immediately saw that the idea would work. but there were some things they had to figure out, like, what will happen with the water from the roof? Because our design cut the water spouts.
People don’t usually look at a building going “How does this work?” But yesterday at the opening, people were talking to each other, saying “Where does the water go now?” People started thinking about this structure that they take for granted normally.
H&F: How does this project fit in with your previous work, which is largely conceptual and performance-based?
DS: It relies very much on the piece we did before. When we started this project, Random Darknet Bot was still running. There we deal with algorithms that go and do things by themselves. They produce glitches, errors. We don’t know how they work anymore. The idea was around us because of that project.
CW: The error has a long tradition in art, not only as a visual concept but as something that can explain underlying algorithms. What made this work really something we wanted to do was this transformation of something that’s very short lived into a structure that’s totally permanent.
DS: In the project’s aesthetics there are concepts we use a lot. Not knowing if it’s real or fictional. A feeling of surreality. Is there really a bot buying stuff off the internet? Did we really hijack all those cameras? All those things are left open in our work. We wanted to translate that feeling into architecture.
CW: We usually work in exhibition spaces or online spaces, but in the exhibition space, when you install something, it’s semi-permanent. If you make a video installation, you’re also looking for something that has a certain permanence. This building will probably stand there for awhile, maybe 20 years. What makes it really strange for us [is that] the image is very contemporary in a way. Maybe something will happen in technology and the facade will be seen in a totally different light in ten years. We’ve never had a work you could look at over such a period of time. It’s totally new to us.
Making this work was actually a lot like doing a performance. You’re always doing something. Only since yesterday it’s become something that’s not connected to us anymore.
DS: Usually we’re used to working with digital tools. You say, “ok I need more transparency” and the image changes. With paints and a real wall, that doesn’t really work anymore.
CW: The facade is the outer surface of the House of Electronic Arts in Basel, one of the only institutions specifically dealing with digital arts here. I think for them it was strange to have us do something that doesn’t use electronics. They were totally open minded about it. Because we also feel it’s a statement in a sense. The museum always says that it’s for digital work. That they would work with sculpture so strongly… [it’s like an] appropriation of art history.
H&F: You've talked about this facade lasting for twenty years or more and speculated that it may be seen very differently by people in the future, as technology changes. Do you think preserving this moment in digital culture is important?
CW: The use of media is evolving so fast, I think within a lifespan we start forgetting about how we used to do things. You sit there going, “How did we write papers at school without the internet?” We had to go to the library. For us, it’s not about preserving the history as a historian would, but preserving a feeling of surreality, where offline and online collide now, in 2015. We hope we’ve done that in a way that’s precise, so you might still be able to look at [the work] in 20 years and go, “that was where things came together in 2015”. It’s a bit like Duchamp’s Fountain. Today, it’s a work you couldn’t do, it wouldn’t be contemporary. But you can totally identify it in a certain time.
H&F: Would you ever consider working with architecture again?
DS: We would love to. If you ever build a house, call us.
CW: We’ll come glitch it.
PHOTOS AND VIDEO by !Mediengruppe Bitnik