conversations – Interview by Margaret Murphy – 13.02.2023
BANZ & BOWINKEL: SIMULATING REALITY
COMPUTER ART & DIGITAL PAINTINGS
Interview by Margaret Murphy
Artist duo Banz & Bowinkel have stretched the boundaries of digital art since 2008. In their works, Giulia Bowinkel and Friedemann Banz explore the human perception of the digitally augmented real world. The computer not only functions as a tool but becomes the subject matter itself and serves as the origin to blend the physical with the digital. Margaret Murphy, Head of Community, spoke to Banz & Bowinkel about their studies under Albert Oehlen and the early stages of computer art, the simulation of reality through their practice and shaping new digital environments.
Algorithmically controlled avatars emerge from a physical jacquard-woven carpet, turning it into an augmented reality installation in the blink of an eye. Banz & Bowinkel effortlessly combine the physical and digital in their work, revealing the intertwining of the two worlds and highlighting people’s enslavement by digital devices and computer environments. Technological tools that have become an integral part of contemporary society serve as sources and materials; the computer and interactions with it are the subjects of their work. In their practice, they use data to analyze human behavior and reflect on it by generating scenarios juxtaposing nature, texture, body, space, mass, form, and substance. With their approach of jumping back and forth between the realms, thereby simulating reality and creating entirely new environments, the artist duo Banz & Bowinkel stands at the forefront of computer art in the digital age.
Margaret Murphy: You studied under Albert Oehlen at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, Germany, in the early 2000s. Oehlen is one of Germany’s most important painters, affiliated with the Junge Wilde artist group of the 1970s and 1980s, alongside Martin Kippenberger, that aimed to reject artistic categorization and convention. As his art students, how did his philosophies influence you?
Banz & Bowinkel: Having studied under Albert Oehlen, we learned to encounter art through an analytical and experimental approach. That includes thinking through images, visualizing our ideas by developing series, and getting a series’ message straight. Oehlen conveyed a certain joy in using unconventional methods, which was surely conducive to our development of computer-generated art.
MM: Oehlen challenged the traditions of the painting medium by incorporating tools and techniques previously considered "bad." Frequently, this includes using computer-aided design, inkjet prints and artifacts, and making references to pixelation. How did these pioneering techniques encourage your own practice of experimentation?
B&B: Oehlen’s computer paintings from the 1990s definitely inspired us when we quit painting to head for computer-generated shores. He had never used these techniques outside of his scope as a painter, though. It seemed like he pushed the door open but decided not to step through it. Those images would have been more influential had he decided to expand on them as what they are: computer-generated images. While Albert Oehlen sparked our interest, we found more guidance in the true pioneers of that medium as we proceeded on our path: artists like Frieder Nake, Vera Molnar, and Herbert W. Franke, to name just a few.
MM: Since being at Kunstakademie, how has your understanding of painting changed?
B&B: When we decided to dive into the universe of computer images, we began to question painting as a 21st-century medium and its formal ability to represent today's world. Painting still dominates our understanding of art and is the prevalent medium at fairs and galleries. We’re convinced that the computer is the appropriate medium to depict the world we live in today. How technology affects the medium of paint is for each artist to decide, after all.
MM: Hardly anyone was using computers to make paintings when you began your art careers. Why did you decide to?
B&B: Maybe that’s not entirely true; there were precursors to what we do who mostly still are unknown. Our work functions more like visual traps, referencing paintings to draw the viewer's attention to an entirely different subject: the simulation of reality. This will turn our whole perception of what’s real and what’s not upside down.
MM: You turn digitally made paintings into physical works. Why not just show them digitally?
B&B: For us, the distinction between digital and physical is misleading. Everything digital is as physical as anything else. Every digital file requires a physical drive in order to exist. If you pull the plug, the Metaverse running on that server disappears that very moment. One of the common misconceptions about the digital world is that it is independent of its physical environment. While it may appear that these boundaries are no longer relevant within the digital realm, they may be even more so outside of it. This tension between the physical and digital is what makes it so interesting to work with a computer. One artwork might ask for a print, another for a screen, and another for an app, and some works can live in all these formats. It is astonishing to see how these respective outputs add a very specific notion to a work.
MM: Where do you see the similarities between a physical stretched canvas and a digital screen canvas?
B&B: They are both righteous output formats for digital art, but they act quite differently. The similarities are that they both function as windows into the digital world – at least in our oeuvre. We think that seeing through screens is a big change in our perception of the world in general. We like to compare it to the Middle Ages when pictures depicted a world that wasn't ours while also claiming to be true reality. This way of looking at an image is still very common, so, to us, a canvas or a screen is always a window into another world.
MM: You consider yourselves to be computer artists over digital painters. Why is this an important distinction?
B&B: Computer-generated art is so much more. "Digital painters" sounds like a subgenus of something much bigger. So why limit yourself? It would be like limiting yourself to painting landscapes when you can paint anything you want. We think it is too early for that.
MM: In a 2020 article about painting in the digital age by Anika Meier, you speak about the influence of simulation and data sets in computers on your work. What about these topics interests you most?
B&B: Computers, as we use them today, simulate. When you look at your computer desktop, you look at a screen. What you don’t see is your computer simulating a desktop with folders, trash, and windows. We use these computers to simulate not just desktops but the whole ecosystem we live in and everything around us.
We have gotten so used to living in these virtual scenarios that we struggle to distinguish between what reality is and what a virtual version of reality is. These simulations eventually become real or blend completely with reality.
Data, especially statistical data, is one of the idols of our time. Why? It is perfectly calculable! Data calculated by computers is equivalent to facts. One might argue that knowing the facts is knowing the truth, but the problem with this conclusion is that data in its raw form is meaningless. Only through interpretation does data come to life, revealing the image of ourselves as the ones who created all of this data in the first place.
MM: Having embraced computers and technology in your art, was it challenging to move into augmented and virtual reality?
B&B: Yes! At the time, the ecosystems for technologies to use AR or VR were so new, it was a struggle to work with them. Everything changed constantly, and all these individual parts that had to come together hardly matched – the operating system, the game engine, the plugins, and the XR devices. We had to figure everything out ourselves. Moving to AR and VR meant a big shift in our artistic practice: now we code, which we never really expected. But it’s so fascinating! As Frieder Nake once said, "Programming is thinking as the machine would do it – could it think?"
MM: You have exhibited your digital art online in spaces like Decentraland, a blockchain-based virtual world. How is showing your work virtually different from a physical experience?
B&B: It is a completely new way of designing a show. A virtual show has very different boundaries. In a physical gallery show, you are restrained by such things as space or transportation costs. In a show in Decentraland, you are limited by the number of materials you can use or the number of triangles. On the other hand, your sculptures are not bound to gravity, for example. You get that as a reward.
MM: Thanks to social media, visual content has become valued in its ability to go "viral" – often taking on entirely new meaning and context simply through being shared. What are your thoughts on the idea of virality versus singularity regarding images and art?
B&B: Actually, there is a very good example in art history of what "going viral" means. When Duchamp's "nu descendant un escalier" was shown at the 1913 Armory Show, it caused a huge scandal. Thousands flooded the show and wanted to see the "explosion in a shingle factory," a term coined by a journalist in a newspaper article making fun of the painting. The artwork was never meant for the specific audience of the show, and as a result, it went "viral." This event was the cornerstone of Duchamp's career. Today, this work resides in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is widely regarded as a modernist classic. It’s a great example to meditate on virality versus an art piece as a singularity.
MM: The willingness to push boundaries in your art is inspiring and exhilarating, and it feels as though you are barely scratching the surface–where do you think art and technology will lead you next?
B&B: There are so many interesting things out there. Of course, NFTs and their technology are interesting in regards to the distribution of digital art. Smart contracts could also be used in actual art pieces.
The big leaps in the field of XR are yet to come. All the big tech companies are investing heavily in these technologies, and they do it for a reason. It’s like evolution: the digital, the virtual, the Metaverse, web3, and AI. Everyone should participate in shaping these new environments in any possible way, as we are the ones that will have to live in them. We try to do it through art.
Friedemann Banz and Giulia Bowinkel generate scenarios juxtaposing nature, texture, body and space, mass, form, and substance. The artist duo creates reflective moments that shift between moving images, virtual sculptures, and snapshots. Technological tools that have become an integral part of contemporary society serve as sources and material – the computer and interactions with it are the subjects of their work.
Banz & Bowinkel have been internationally exhibited at the likes of Kunsthalle Zürich, Centre Pompidou, SPARK Art Fair, and the Museum of Contemporary Digital Art.