We are very happy to open the doors again for our exhibition „…das Glück, wenn man ja sagt, ZERO.“
Send your appointment request to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The visit of the exhibition is only possible by appointment.
NEWS FROM THE RESEARCH PROJECT
… each grows stronger when nourished by the other (György Kepes)
In conversation with Christoph Thormann
“Seeing, hearing and feeling – phenomena in nature, science and art” – this is the theme to which the ZERO foundation will devote its attention in the coming years. The historical knowledge from the ZERO era will become the input and trigger for new art processes. The artistic practices of the participants are as diverse as their references to ZERO art. At this point we would like to introduce you to the participants on a monthly basis.
Christoph Thormann was born in Düsseldorf in 1991. From 2012 to 2014 Christoph studied at the International School of Design in Cologne and trained as a 3D visualizer. Since 2017 Christoph has been studying at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf with Dirk Skreber.
Rebecca Welkens: In the 1950s and 1960s there was a real technology boom, which strongly influenced and contributed to the ZERO movement. What does technology mean for your work and can you draw parallels between ZERO and your own work?
Christoph Thormann: The work of the ZERO group has always been of particular importance to me, since I was born and raised in Düsseldorf. ZERO art is omnipresent in Düsseldorf. Technology also surrounds us everywhere in our everyday lives. Ever since Homo sapiens has existed, they have been inventing things and thus overcoming the constraints of nature. But the more we want to control nature, the further it moves away from us. Technology has become a matter of course for us, with nature becoming something abstract. When you look at paintings, however, you don’t assume that it was produced by machine. I work at this intersection of ‘digital’ and ‘analog’. In this way, I want to focus on the increasing technologization and critically ask questions about the advantage of machines and the meaning of work. Because the more we overcome what seems threatening to us (nature), the more our own actions become a threat. The ZERO movement once wanted to establish a new beginning and leave world war and the related art behind. With my fictional company, Heart-Working™, I set out to make art that creates a new aesthetic by relying primarily on automation and foregoing self-determination as much as possible. One of the models for my machines is Yves Tinguely with his Meta Matic-drawing machines, which he used to critically examine abstract painting and involve viewers in the design process.
You previously studied design – to what extent do your studies influence your art and to what extent do you use your previously acquired knowledge for your art?
In preparation for studying art, I first worked in a carpentry shop and then studied design. The interface between art and design is becoming ever greater – that’s where I start with my work. The reference to new media can be seen clearly in my reduced graphics, which I produce mainly with machines.
How does your working routine in regards of robots look like? How are they generated and what functions do they fulfill?
I theoretically draw on the computer, translate that into machine language. I program the machines myself, using codes that are also freely available on the Internet. I then adapt the codes to my ideas, so that the machine goes faster or slower, dispenses more or less oil. The machines I work with are CNC machines that are also used in carpentry shops for drilling holes and cutting panels. They are not versatile moving robots, but devices that can move up and down, left and right. Nevertheless, it took me almost three years to make the first machine so that it can print with oil and spray acrylic. Other machines have now been converted so that they can also produce etchings, for example. I always think about what I would like beforehand and the machine then implements it. There is little chance in the implementation, everything is very planned. During the process, however, there is always the possibility for me to intervene, for example, to spontaneously block the axis – they then rattle and there is an offset in the whole picture. In the future, it would be exciting for me to program a machine robot arm. In general, I would like to move more in the direction of machine performance and spatial installation in the future.
Before building the machine, did you know exactly what you wanted it to do beforehand, or did the ideas for implementation come to you spontaneously?
I always wanted to build a machine that could print oil on canvas. The original idea came from plotters, which are used in architectural contexts and can be used to display technical drawings on various materials. At first, I wanted to build a large plotter myself to print oil on canvas in a photorealistic way. But for photorealistic implementations, you would need several colors that then form grids that create an image – like in screen printing. I did not discard the idea, but after completing the machine, I first printed a raster. I found this grid aesthetically very interesting and appealing, because it is almost perfect, yet printed more oil in some places, less in others, thus varying the size of the little squares, which in turn gave a nice structure. So, I stayed with the grids for now.
Your production methods are, as you have described, very versatile and, in addition to classical painting and various printmaking techniques, also include robots as tools. To what extent do the methods interlock, can they be combined?
In my opinion, I don’t do painting in the classical sense anymore, but create the impression that it is done by a human hand. The methods of classical painting are subordinate to technology and merely make use of the respective technique, e.g. etching needle and copper plate.
Where do you position yourself in this creative process, which at first glance actually seems like gradual moving away from the artist as a creative subject?
I don’t think that the use of machines is a detachment from the creative process. It’s just a new way of implementing ideas, like photography once was. With photography, the camera also only works with people operating it, and not every photographer makes art the same way. I think that depending on the application, technology can no longer be separated from art. The romantic image of the artist at the easel is outdated, which can be seen, for example, in the high-priced auctions of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT) or crypto art.
Let’s stay with your works for a moment. How do you involve the viewers in your works? What role do they play in your works?
My works are mirrors of today’s media and defy common viewing habits. Ideally, viewers have fun for a moment, let the work take effect on them and thus come to rest for a moment. The greatest fascination, however, comes from the machines at work and once you have become more familiar with my way of working and the use of the machines, the rather abstract-looking artworks invite you to take a closer look and also to reflect. Therefore, I would like to present the work of the machines in the context of an exhibition or performance.
You also deal with questions about artificial intelligence (AI) – what does this confrontation look like and what questions arise for your art?
So far, I only make lines and grids and deal with AI mainly in theory. I would like to charge my works with more complexity without having to intervene all the time myself. I imagine that you have different shapes and the AI then simply puts them together, so that more coincidence also flows into the creative process. For that, maybe a random generator will probably be sufficient so that random patterns emerge that are not chosen by me.
Especially in relation to AI, memories are particularly exciting, if you consider, for example, the work of the English artist Matt Collishaw, who uses AI to reconstruct the past in a certain way and to fill gaps, i.e. to resurrect memories. What role do experience and memory play in your art?
I don’t think you necessarily see experience and memory in my art, and probably neither plays big a role. Rather, I see personal experience and memory as paving the way for my art. I’m thinking, for example, of my early fascination with image editing programs, which offer many more ways to manipulate a photograph. In the end, I’ve always stayed with that, but I find it very difficult to make only digital art. That’s why there’s always an attempt on my part to use the machine to translate the digital into the analog, i.e. onto the canvas. I think it’s nice to have an image only digital, as can be seen in the example of the NFT’s, but it’s not real, nothing I can touch, it’s really just a file. I try to skip this step by translating the file onto the canvas. There are many other artists who also draw with machines, but mostly they try to imitate people. I try to engage with the machine and what the machine can do. So, I act more as an assistant to the machine during the whole process.
The topic of AI is quite ambivalent, because, of course, there is always talk of automation, digitization, etc., and the associated concern that human work processes are becoming superfluous – is the robot now replacing humans in art as well? What is your opinion on this?
I’m sure that robots will take even more work off our hands in the future. However, our society is ill-prepared for this. We are living in a society that is geared towards people wanting or needing to earn money in order to fulfill their dreams. More and more jobs are being taken over by machines, yet in contrast there is little development in the field of education. I see this as very problematic, because more and more emphasis is being placed on technology, but little thought is given to what consequences this will have for our society. In art, I think that although robots can already produce art today with AI, they cannot replace humans and art forms like painting will always remain with us.
What do you see as the future of art and especially in terms of new technologies?
I think more art will be consumed, but that doesn’t mean more art will be bought. It’s becoming more important to create something that only works well in reality. Art has to be experienced – like it used to be with ZERO. Works have to be looked at, under real light, a mere photo is not enough. You can also walk around my machines, they make noises as they work, you can take in different angles and perspectives – that is something that gets completely lost in the digital space. I think for the future, under the current conditions, it will be more important than ever that we get away from the screens again and really see things.
Dear Christoph, thank you very much for the exciting interview!
In this project, the ZERO foundation is supported by a research fellowship from the Ministry of Culture and Science of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia. The foundation the MIT Museum Studio and Compton Gallery of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, USA, as well as the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf partners. Six artists from the Academy were invited to participate in the international collaboration: Margareta Bartelmess, Till Bödeker, Yunju Lee, Sean Mullan, Johannes Christoph Thormann. The project is supported by the E.ON Stiftung.