Workshop – von Menschen und Maschinen (of man and machines) | 2017
Of artificial and artistic intelligence: Graz-based artist Niki Passath creates social situations between human beings and machines with unforeseeable outcomes.
Ever since the Industrial Revolution the world of work has undergone massive transformations, with artificial intelligence and robots supplanting entire occupational groups. These changes have been affecting substantial parts of our society for a long time. And yet this is but the beginning of an unpredictable development. The ever-growing ability of machines to learn and link up with each other – with no apparent human involvement – has been accompanied by ever-intensifying discussions on the (dis)advantages of a world in which machines, robots and various forms of artificial intelligence appear to be morphing into man’s equal partners.
Graz-born artist and robotics specialist Niki Passath transplants this man-machine relationship into the White Cube, thereby creating a touching symbiosis between biological and machine bodies. In the “Workshop” exhibition the artist presents and develops software-controlled robots which, while following predetermined choreographies, also react to their environment and to the audience. However, these machines live a (largely unpredictable) life of their own. Trial and error, development process and outcome, autonomy and interaction – these are the crucial parameters in an experimental situation which causes the exhibition to expand step by step.
Theatrum mundi | 2018
The project theatrum mundi by Niki Passath examines, in two different installations at three different places – Schaufenstergalerie SCHARF, esc medien kunst labor and galerie GALERIE – the development of models of the world and how these might turn out in the future.
In various different fields of science, models of the world have been and still are being developed: from astronomy and physics via informatics to philosophy, psychology and mythology. In the exhibitions quantum physical and mechanical considerations play a decisive role, since their results make a mockery of the determinist world and enable a pluralistically oriented view of the notion of world. “Through quantum physics and quantum mechanics, many thought games become possible, religious belief and natural sciences thus do not necessarily contradict one another any longer.” [Niki Passath] With the discovery of the Big Bang, the creation and the development of the cosmos became understandable. The astronomer Carl Sagan noted then in 1988: “A universe with nothing for a creator to do.” In the context of his M-theory, which based on string theory, the British physicist Stephen Hawking argues that there are several universes with their own laws of nature. A universe could create itself and would not depend on the intervention of a supernatural being. Hawking dedicated his whole life to the search for an all-explaining world formula, which found its expression in the M-theory: “The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundaries. The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE.”1 (Stephen Hawking) This assumption would exclude the existence of a creator of the universe. Meanwhile Hawking has not only extended his earlier ideas and taken up some new cosmological questions, but he has also partly revised his earlier hypotheses. Thus he recently said that the Big Bang might possibly not have been the beginning of time and space, but a transition, the laws of nature would then determine its further development.
On the question of God there are various different statements by Hawking, such as: “The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws. God would be left at best with the freedom to select the initial state. But even here laws could prevail. Then God would have no freedom at all.“2 Other scientists from theoretical physics, such as Max Planck for example, believed in the “prevalence of a godly reason” with regard to the development of the cosmos. According to the physicist Anton Zeilinger, in natural science God is perceivable as follows: “There are two questions: one concerns the role of a God of the clockwork who has created the clockwork and who activated it. Which initial conditions initiated this clockwork since this conditions the future. Which laws determine the clockwork? Answers within the field of natural sciences are not possible here. The second question is, if – besides this question of the initial conditions – from the point of view of the natural sciences there is the possibility to intervene. […] Apart from that there are certainly things concerning the natural sciences that cannot causally be explained. This is the quantum mechanical individual process, the so-called quantum jump which cannot be explained causally.”
In principle, quantum physics and quantum mechanics change our view of the reality and contradict in this respect really our reason, for example if it is a question whether a thing can be at two locations at the same time, Zeilinger notes in this context: “There is the famous entanglement when two parts cling together in such a way that the measurement at one part changes the state at the other part. This phenomenon means that we either have to say good-bye to our notions of space and time – or to our notions of reality. Or to both. […] We need a new view of the world, in which we change our ideas of reality and of space and time.”4 Between the fields of science and spirituality, points of contact can thus be traced and connecting lines between various argumentations and hypotheses can be drawn, just as between the fields of art and spirituality. In the context of the relationship of different models of the world to each other, there is a point of contact between art and spirituality – while spiritual models of the world take the relationship of observable and non-observable world into account and form – depending on the cultural context and doctrine – different versions of the relationship between immanence and transcendence, art can underline the model character of their designs.
Within a society, different models of the notion of the world collide – this concerns different approaches of how to think “world“, which exist side by side partly in harmonic, partly in a polarizing relationship to one another. Meanings and valences are not at all fixed, but are per se subject to identity as well as to a permanent change. In this context one should consider the “Copernican paradigma”6 in which the model of the world and the image of the world prevail so to say but cannot be projected onto one another. In the context of the exhibition one would speak of an organic world model, which manifests itself in the installation in a rhizomatic construction and which refers to the holism of the observation of the world: “They constitute a world of continuous and undirected transformations in which all parts are an integral part of the whole […]. Organic models of the world are thus anti-dualistic, they overcome the main contradiction of the occidental thinking, i.e. the contradiction between matter and spirit, body and soul”.7 Art in this sense is defined as a laboratory, in which a meaningful contribution to a current spiritual model of the world can be developed.
Niki Passath symbolizes, through his objects set in space in motion, the transformation of world models and realizes site-specific installations at esc mkl, galerie GALERIE and Schaufenstergalerie SCHARF. To speak with Tony Maslić: “His work accumulates in a synthesis of speculations and observations, and develops an insight almost like a premonition of a possible future, but without losing its allusive and elegant poetic characteristics. […] Occasionally dystopian but always thought provoking”.8 The theatrical aspect is a concise element of the installations theatrum mundi – from the architectural opening of the space from esc mkl, through the public space, to the exhibition rooms of galerie GALERIE. The architecture of the space becomes a conceptual starting point for the installations. The curatorial concept of Schaufenstergalerie SCHARF is based on the interferance between the public space and the white cube. The glass surfaces, which make esc mkl and galerie GALERIE almost permeable from all sides for the views of passers-by, open up the exhibition space into public space and make the passive participation of the pedestrians to an completing aspect of the installation. Thus, during the summer months, the exhibition space at esc mkl is transferred from the inside to the outside and the street or public space becomes the exhibition space. Both exhibition spaces together become, via the light, a kind of stage for the objects.
Gearwheels move objects via self-running motors in an incessant up and down – at the same time two further wooden constructions rotate on two levels around their own axes and around the individual objects. In itself, the circular movement refers to a organic construction of world models – whereby the object on a visual level appears anthropocentric instead of heliocentric: Doesn’t it, in the middle made of gears, remind us of an dancer? In the dance of the models, the question of the actors inside remains open. Thus, these objects could also be understood as an implicit criticism of the anthropocentric world model in which man was elevated to the measure of all things.“So there is no such thing as an absolute position. I would like to break the rigidity of these worlds of thought. […] The world view doesn’t always have to be so strictly defined, especially the transitions are the interesting thing.” ( Niki Passath) Irregular jerking marks inconsistencies in the construction system, which do not stop the continuous process. The moment of happenstance in which a work is created – a drop of color, a twitch, the touch of the canvas through marts of the machine – and the machine leaves its own imprint and breaks out of the system of construction – the system of algorithm – by happenstance. Only these unpredictable “outbursts” generate and stimulate the emotional and thus poetic potential of the installations.
The questioning of the anthropocentric world model continues in the questioning of autonomy and authorship, per se within art and the emergence of art – but also in the context of a neoliberal-capitalistic world model, through the self-running and robotic elements of the installations. The provocative aspect is another conceptual constant of Niki Passath’s installations – in the theatre of constructed world models the object, read as the centre of everything, dances on the stage of unlimited possibilities – or are they nevertheless limited – if constructed by the artist?
Also the model of time – a robotic, symbiotic chalk drawing that will run as work in progress over the duration of the exhibition – also refers to the model constructed by humas (whereby the completeness of the model is hidden only in the anomaly, the imperfection – or also in the quantum leap).
The paintings that connect the objects and floor markings of the esc mkl with the rooms of the galerie GALERIE within the expansive installation, form a kind of backdrop – a kind of, partly digitalized and robotic diorama – a landscape in whose foreground the objects dance in their formations. They are built up in layers of color surfaces, hand-drawn lines, digital prints of a mountain landscape as well as the objects of the installations and robotic, symbiotic elements that are always created at the same time. These works subversively question the role of the artist in a high-tech and digitized world, but they also question ritualizations as a global phenomenon in the context of everyday experience. Are we losing the ritual, in the digital whirlpool of our time which is becoming faster and faster, also trough technology, in its social relevance? The repetitive patterns of the individual installation elements – the structure in several layers and the repetitive movement of the totem objects – reflect per se on the ritualization, which is once again underlined by the staging of the objects via light and floor markings within the installation at esc mkl. The markings on the floor plates of the exhibition space also connect the different layers of the installation.
The organic aspects of the installations can be linked to the approach of quantum physics. The decisive moment of the installations lies in the “both as well” and is unfold through the jerky movement – the imperfection and through the generative and performative aesthetics. The expansion of the project to several exhibition venues also illustrates this conceptual approach: while at this moment two objects move fixedly at Schaufenstergalerie SCHARF, four objects dance through the space at esc mkl, correlating with the paintings at galerie GALERIE. Suggesting a wave and at the same time in observation fixed particles, the installations explicitly refer to approaches of quantum physis: they refer to the ability to be both – wave and particle . And to the possibility to exist at two places at the same time.
Tätowierroboter Reenactment Tokyo 2018 (Kurt) | 2018
Tagging Kurt. The skin is my screen.
The robotic tattoo machine KURT can be read as the artist’s personalized “bio adapter”, a cyborg like entity comparable to the hybrid man machine object described in the text of the Austrian writer Oswald Wiener. The text speaks about abrutal machinery distorting and destroying the individual. Wiener’s bio-adapter anticipates exactly the modus operandi of Passath’s tattooing robot KURT. Once put on, it cannot be removed anymore. The tattoo is forever–till the adapter becomes the sarcophagus of the player’s body. But at the second glance the Passath object unveils as technological resistance machine. It speaks on flesh, is autonomously operating, but was homemade, self-programmed and written in a challenging low-tech way, which demonstrates that everyone can gain sovereignty over the machine by rewriting it with sufficient knowledge and creativity. This creative writing into the machine’s operating system implies a new form of symbolic exchange against entropy death of the system. In his diagnosis of the condition of the present society
L’échange symbolique et la mort Jean Beaudrillard (1976) points towards body modification as an example for the obscure exchange of social meaning, relation and status with objects of technologies and control. Facing the loss of meaning through increasing capitalism in social exchange only death remains as the ultimate sense maker.
This disturbing understanding of semiotic exchange in technology driven societies can be resolved in the more positive idea of Roland Barthes’s concept of resistance towards capitalization described in his seminal writing Mythologies as practice of everyday life. This everyday agency can serve as explanation model for the deeper meaning of the tattooing object KURT . Maybe the missing C case of KURT’s operating unit can also become the ironic urn for the Kurt-tagged artist – where the body overcomes death in exchange to its recognition as screen of everyday life! KURT low-tech cyborgization is made by one individual. The artist centers himself and his sovereign capabilities in the play with a machine of everyday life, with the computer. The low-tech aspect implies an emancipatory aspect, which the successful New York painter and director Robert Longo envisioned in beautiful impressive images in the Cyberpunk movie “Johnny Mnemonic”, following the fictional ideas of a techno resistance through techno creativity by the author William Gibson.
The tattoo machine of Niki Passath bridges the tradition of useless machines as a form of protest against the absurdity of everyday life technologies of self optimization and permanent communication and control with the futility of most of contemporary bio art. As a very actual fusion of technology and body modification it reminds the literate arts recipient on technological body modification, inscription, personalization and finally its harbingers in Dada objects from the turn of the last century. or me as artistic researcher and “body artist”, who considers herself at least as character in her art work, the work KURT called up a delicate reminiscence on Elsa Freytag Loringhoven. The Dada Baroness was a not so well known female Zurich and New York Dadaist, who corresponded intensely with Duchamps and signed his work The Fountain, the first ready made, in a word play under the name “R. Mutt”. She created collages of everyday objects including her own body into the art work, performed in everyday life.
Arts automatons, including the body as personal property and material provide provocative contingency solutions, questioning the right to harm your own body but also the right to define your own body as personal political statement. Implicitly this discourse links to a feminist tradition, opened by Elsa Freytag Loringhoven, who expressed this discourse
in a perfect arts-based way – instead of a hybrid and not so emotionally affective, and in that sense less powerful, discourse in textual form, as introduced in feminist theory by Donna Haraway or Judith Butler.
As exemplified by Passath, his contemporary creation of aesthetic machines points towards the questioning of the domination of technologies found in our society. A crucial aspect to be identified in his absurd machine is the function of a technological object as generator of symbolic meaning and value. Here a clearly readable critique on force, power and the brutality of technological systems unfolds through the practice of arts. By self-mutilating the body, the artist himself becomes the art object, a living art apparatus. In fact, every recipient can be potentially tattooed as well by the robotic instrument. Under that auspices everyone is empowered by the machine. Such an emancipatory angle in the arts system inverts the power structure of this system of command, control and communication into a liberating system of expression. The images that are really memorable in the logics of art history are those of the artist, exposing himself in his bodily vulnerability — who suggests self exposure to the public as a form of protest — for or against what everybody chooses him- or herself.
“My body is my software”, Orlan stated about her work on body implants and performances from the 1960ies till today. This sentence is valid to the max for Passath’s work. His theater is mobile.
It can be everywhere.
It is not isolated.
It is not sterile in the age of antisepsis.
It is a live performance party tool.
It is pure resistance and subversion.
It is provocation.
It is bloody.
Each body embraced by KURT turns into a coyote cyborg, a clever trickster opening up different ways of interpretation. Each body turns into a body of weight (compare Butler) by introducing the body as writing surface for the archaic sign. The inscription of code on the body is vibrant, especially in the age of RFID implants and body tags as common practice,
already implemented on animals and objects, increasingly used on humans and machines. The conceptions of the KURT automaton allows new formats for the investigation of digital cultural phenomena and artistic practice. The sign engraved into the skin is of no relevance. The act of forced tattooing counts as radical statement in the contemporary world of everyday life with computation. It is a fact that there is a sign engraved in each body through biometrics, that has a symbolic merit in the act of being tattooed by the apparatus, that becomes part of the body, with clothespins holding the skin as flat as possible for the machine. Again, the illiam Gibson story of “Johnny Mnemonic” gives a hint for resistance against biometric control:
“The lights flickered, died. ‘Go for it, Jones!’
Blue bulbs, cruciform. Darkness. ‘Pure! It’s clean. Come on, Jones.’
White sodium glare washed her features, stark monochrome, shadows cleaving from her cheekbones.
The arms of the red swastika were twisted in her silver glasses. ‘Give it to him,’ I said. ‘We’ve got it.’ Ralfi Face. No imagination.“ William Gibson, Johnny Mnemonic. 1995
In their conception as live tools for performances, KURT can be compared to a playful living machine. He follows in its format works of avantgarde artists, who constructed machinic objects, that were at first glance useless multi-layered spaces as stages for play in reality. Such kind of arts black boxes showcase an effort to liberate from the pure art forms through (stage-)play. Play is integrated in the research principles demonstrated by a robotic absurd machine like the one discussed here. The life-risking danger – we exaggerate here in fact – of being marked by a machine is also a free will life style
conception of techno cultures. Nouveaux exercices de style, the new lessons in freestyle self control are provided by KURT on stage. Here, the tattoo machine illustrates imaginative solutions, the particular, the extraordinary, the deviant, the contingency, the exception to the rule and the artefact of fantasy, which eludes every form of rationality. The cut into the skin is identified as research ouvroir on stage, which opens up spaces for contingency, before healing and fading out over the years to come.
[Text by Margarete Jahrmann]
Note: The text above was written by the Artist. No modification was made by C.O.C.A.
Niki Passath searches in his artistic creations answers to the mystery of life, the people, their emotions, social behavior, their behavior compared to machines and to the surrounding nature. On different research travels through Europe to the Americas, Asia and Australia he is finding answers, which he assembles in kinetic objects and artistic-scientific configurations. He was born 1977 in Graz, Austria. In 1988, he began with Violoncello studies, in 1995 with Architecture and graduated in 2004 in Digital Art (Peter Weibel, Karel Dudesek, Tom Fürstner) at the University of Applied Arts. He lives and works in Vienna and Graz. He is represented by the Gallery Peithner-Lichtenfels in Vienna, Austria, is member of the Künstlerhaus, Vienna and member of the Artist Collective „Schaumbad“.