Peter Kogler in Conversation with Kathrin Rhomberg

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  • Peter Kogler in Conversation with Kathrin Rhomberg
    Kathrin Rhomberg, 2014

    Peter Kogler in Conversation with Kathrin Rhomberg
    Peter Kogler’s studio, Vienna, October 2014
    KR: We spoke about your career and some of your important artistic projects back in 2009, when your work was shown in a big exhibition at Museum moderner Kunst in Vienna (MUMOK). I would like to take up that conversation today, and talk in more depth about some of the key features of your work. First of all, I would like to mention the question of space. Since the 1960s, theoretical discourse has focused on space as a key determinant of various models for explaining the world. Influenced by the digital revolution, which has been fundamentally changing our everyday lives since it began in the early 1990s, a new kind of space has emerged, seen as equally fictitious, public, and private. This is a kind of intermediary space, a place-less space, a here and everywhere all at once. I think your installation of 2012 in the mezzanine at the Karlsplatz subway station in Vienna asserts a space of this kind. What are your points of reference when you create spaces?
    PK: From the very beginning, I was referring less to real and much more to media or mediatized space. This began with my interest in film architectures, in constructed space made especially for a film production, a space that is thus independent of questions of function, use, and the need to distinguish between private and public. I was particularly interested in the film architectures of German expressionism, and there especially science fiction film, like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. This is where the two film genres—expressionism and science fiction--overlap. With the advent of new digital technologies I began to address media space in my artistic projects. In 1984 I began to work with a computer. I was not only interested in graphics software, but also computer games and the specific pictorial space that they engendered and that was also greatly influenced by film architecture.
    KR: Your works address and also occupy space in a myriad of ways. You usually work with the spaces you are given or find—exhibition spaces, private spaces, public spaces—as in your 2012 project for the Karlsplatz subway.

    PK: In this project I was very fortunate to be able to select the location myself. The Karlsplatz station mezzanine was by far the most attractive space I found. It was ideal for my work both in its dimensions and size and also in many other architectural features. And it seemed to lack any clearly defined function. It was just a kind of in-between space where you can get from one escalator to the next. Interestingly, this space had never attracted anyone’s attention before. It was not present as a place in the imagination.

    KR: And thus it was a complete contrast to the main gallery at the Vienna Secession, a highly prominent place and the venue of your legendary 1995 installation. How did you make the decision to transfer your Secession exhibition to the subway station mezzanine, replicating the form of the first show nearly two decades later and just a few hundred meters away?

    PK: My starting point was to ask which of the idioms I had developed over the years might work best for this location. For a subway situation a system of pipes seemed the most appropriate. It was a happy coincidence that I had used pipes in a work for the Secession just two hundred meters away some seventeen years previously.
    KR: The main Secession gallery has a completely different character to the subway station at Karlsplatz. It is often seen as a “total space” where everything can be seen at one glance. The space for your intervention in the subway station is a very different diffuse place of transit. So the way your work was perceived at the Secession must have been different. In the subway station, a network of computer-generated pipe shapes seems to dissolve the parameters of the architecture, as did the Secession installation, but the difference is that in the subway station the pipes emphasize the transit function of the space and also its very specific qualities as a non-space. You have already said that the decision for this location was quite deliberate.

    PK: Strangely enough, I have often shown my works in the context of exhibitions in stairwells, corridors, or entrance halls, not in the dedicated exhibition space but in the intermediate spaces and spaces of passage that were never intended to be used to exhibit art but rather had the function of taking people from A to B.

    KR: Were you always able to select these spaces yourself?

    PK: The curators first offered them to me, like Jan Hoet for documenta 9 in 1992. He wanted to show my work in the entrance area at the Fridericianum, also a place of transit that leads into the various documenta galleries. I think Jan Hoet and Denys Zacharopoulos had a very clear idea why they wanted to have my work installed in a space like this. Looking back, I would say that my works do not just invite contemplation but also convey information that can be quickly communicated. They are works that in some ways are multiply encoded. They can be seen within art-historical contexts and they can also be very directly seen in passing, with no particular knowledge or expertise.
    KR: You talked earlier about the influence of film architecture. In one of her texts about your work, Sylvia Eiblmayr suggests that you have created a postmodern version of space in your digital interiors. Would you see it that way?
    PK: I rather see links to modernism. The pipe motif that I used in animations, the Secession exhibition, and in the subway station, is actually a key building block in the modernist repertoire. You see it in cubism, in the work of Fernand Léger and George Braque in the 1910s.
    KR: Using the pipe motif to make architecture dynamic can also be seen as a basic theme of modernism.
    PK: Yes. Think of Moholy-Nagy’s famous Light-Space-Modulator of 1930 or the constructivist spaces of the Russian avant-garde, such as in the work of El Lissitzky.
    KR: You said that your works are multiply encoded and thus permit differing points of access and interpretations. Couldn’t that be a postmodern feature? Postmodernism typically employs multiple codes, such as combinations of elitist and popular references, or fiction and reality.

    PK: I do not see multiple coding as a specifically postmodern phenomenon. Marcel Duchamp’s works, for example, are made to allow diverse interpretations.
    KR: The principle of repetition that shapes your works could also be interesting in this context. Depending on where and how it is manifested, this principle can be read as avant-garde serialism or as a comment on contemporary social and political realities.
    PK: Repetition is a methodology for me. Like in a series of experiments I try out and test different variations of one and the same motif, to see what works how and where and to find the best solution. This is a mirror of the reality of my working processes, especially when I use a technical medium. A subjective signature or issues concerning the ego are pushed to the background by repetition, and I find that very appealing. This makes things more factual, straighter. If there is not just one version but rather ten or fifty different variants of a motif or project, then everything that concerns self-expression is relativized.
    KR: When you create your spaces, time plays a very important role, as your wallpaper rooms and all your computer-generated interiors and exteriors witness. In these works, you open up what seems to be an endless virtual temporal axis that extends into a future. This could be seen as another parallel to modernism and its firm belief in progress.
    PK: Yes, it’s about continuing to reflect on a utopia that stemmed from technological developments and innovations, a form of utopia that has been overshadowed by a certain cultural pessimism in the West since the 1970s. Films like Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner or the Mad Max films show this pessimism very clearly. Science fiction meets a situation in which everything is ecologically dead.

    KR: What do you mean when you say “cultural pessimism”?

    PK: We are living in a paradoxical situation. There has never before been such a high level and tempo of innovation and invention as there is today, and yet this is accompanied by a completely pessimistic view of culture. This is a strange mixture, and it is something that highlights the difference between today and the 1960s.

    KR: You grew up in the 1960s.

    PK: Yes. That was when men landed on the moon. This all made a great impression on me as a child.

    KR: The 1960s as a time when there was great faith in the future and people believed that utopias would turn true.

    PK: Today it’s all different. If you take a look at the twentieth century up to the 1960s, you will see that scientific and technological development and a social belief in progress went hand in hand. In this context people also thought about different political and ideological systems. The idea of progress, a belief in the future, has been largely lost today, at least in the West.
    KR: The future is a central factor in any concept of time. In many of your works you generate a virtual perspective of time involving apparently endless continuation. In this, computer-controlled machines seem to have particular significance.

    PK: I have always been very interested in the question as to how far my visual or artistic idioms can be transformed by technological developments and moves to different media. This is something that I am permanently observing, and that means I often have to adjust my works. This is probably also the reason why I decided to work with a much reduced visual vocabulary. I can only test motifs formally to the full if I stick to just a very few.

    KR: Can you name any projects that were only possible thanks to technological innovations?

    PK: The Cave project, for example, that was done in 1999 as a commissioned work for the Ars Electronica in Linz. This is a computer-generated, three-dimensional virtual spatial form that can be used interactively. We were entering completely new technological territory here. In the whole of Austria, there were only two computers with the capacity we needed. The 360-degree projection at my exhibition at Kunsthaus Bregenz in 2000 was also only possible because new projectors were available that were able to reproduce animation at this scale.

    KR: In his text entitled “The Unending Etcetera,” Boris Groys writes about your artistic method of using just a few motifs. He says that reduction down to the essential is a feature of the classical avant-garde: “in order to be able to formulate a clear and achievable program, a great deal of historical ballast needs to be discarded—everything coincidental, specific to time and place—in order to be able to concentrate solely on what is essential and universal.” In this context, your decision to work with a greatly reduced range of colors is also interesting. Basically and with few exceptions, you stick to just black, white, and red.

    PK: It is no coincidence that this is the same idiom that Bauhaus artists and the Russian avant-garde worked with. A reduction to these three colors has a very pragmatic side to it. Black and white makes me pay attention to the structure of the image. If you are interested in developing or shifting form, then using black and white as a visual vocabulary is mostly a good decision.
    KR: In spite of this reduction, or perhaps precisely as a result of it, the spaces that are defined by black-and-white or red modules seem very emotional.
    PK: The black-and-white grid provides a maximum contrast which has a very strong visual presence. The structure of the image is comprehensive and completely surrounds the beholder. In a sense, you are standing in the picture, and the work can be experienced physically.

    KR: Does that include both the wallpaper rooms and the spaces that have been generated by computer animation or video?
    PK: Both. For the computer animations I would add that the basic categories of left, right, top, or bottom are all cancelled out, when the space begins to rotate, or crashes, rises up, or tilts. This directly influences perception, as very primary levels of experience that we take for granted are challenged. This is all reinforced by the sound that Franz Pomassl has been developing since the late 1990s. He mostly uses sound like a sculptural material. In the 360-degree projections we often also see children walking alongside the walls, teenagers sitting on the floor, and adults standing still in the space.
    KR: In connection with her thesis on postmodern space that I mentioned earlier Sylvia Eiblmayr sees an echo of “modernist angst” in your computer-animated spaces, comparable to the experience of fear in expressionist film of the 1910s and 1920s.
    PK: In the 1980s, when I was interested in film architecture, that was a very basic theme. At that time, there was a lot of interest in and recourse to forms that has been used between the two world wars. Both in late punk and in new wave, and also in fashion and film. In the film Blade Runner, for example, architecture plays an important role that is comparable to the films of the 1920s and 1930s. There are several formal references to the film architecture of that period. Only part of the film architecture of Blade Runner was really newly developed.
    KR: Sylvia Eiblmayr says that this echo of “modernist angst” in your works is “created by the formal idioms that greatly utilize abstraction, graphics, and contrasts between light and dark.” Is it perhaps also due to the lack of all narrative elements in your work?
    PK: It is probably comparable to the film architecture of expressionist film which features no functional elements with the aim of implementing a maximum of emotion. My spaces are also highly abstract, and they also lack any functional side. This means that some questions no longer need to be asked, such as questions as to function or questions concerning morality.
    KR: Talking of maximum emotion, I must mention your work with the white rat that you exhibited at the Kölnische Kunstverein in 2006. A filmed white rat was duplicated in series and “ran” as a continuous computer animation along the exhibition gallery’s long wall and could also be seen through the window from outside the gallery day and night throughout the whole exhibition period. Although the path this rat took was very precisely steered, it seemed like it was aimlessly and endlessly repeating its forward motion.
    PK: This shows the disconcerting side of the ornament of the masses, as developed particularly by Fritz Lang.
    KR: The white rat first occurs in an early work on paper of 1981. Twenty-five years later you reactivated it for the exhibition at Kölnischer Kunstverein. Is its reappearance connected to fear and insecurity as basic motifs of our own time?
    PK: The motif of fear is probably latently relevant in the image of the rat. The social aspect is also important. When I compare the two motifs of the rat and the ant, which both appeared around the same time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then I see similarities, like the social element that plays an important role for both animals. They both live in highly developed social systems. We also take an ambivalent view of the features we associate with both of them. In the case of the ant, we see a small, omnipresent and troublesome pest, but also positively connoted features like discipline, hard work, and organization. Rats are seen as pests that live underground, but also as the objects of fascinating experiments in science and research, animals with high intelligence and adaptability. Both animals also live in cities, and not just in the country. The ant and rat motif is also relevant in our social context. We are permanently confronted with the problems associated with enormous collectives, and the question as to how an individual should behave within a collective. This is also the reason why swarm theories appear in computing, which attempts to grasp collective behavior through the use of algorithms.
    KR: And, interestingly enough, the ant and rat motifs also concur with your color range.
    PK: Yes, the ant is black against a white background, and the rat is white on a black background.

    KR: Was your decision to reactivate the white rat more than two decades later linked to all these ideas?
    PK: I have always decided intuitively for motifs, or returned to them intuitively. This was the case with the white rat. If over a long period of time you work with a number of motifs you have selected yourself, then their many subtle meanings will gradually become more evident.