Experiences in a Different Space

Interview conducted by Thomas Irmer [translated by: Joerg Zimmermann] with the Veterans: Stephan Eichhorn, KP Ludwig John, Micha Touma and Tjark Ihmels. It was recorded in the basement of the College for Graphic Arts and Book Design in Leipzig, Germany, where the main parts of their groundbreaking, self-titled CD-ROM was developed.

Thomas Irmer: The work on this project lasted more than 18 months. Each one of you had a different background at that time developing media art. What were the original intentions for that project ?

KP Ludwig John: Each one of us worked alone at the college. That's the way it was. I was interested in the new possibilities that the CD-ROM would open up for an interactive multimedia art. Then Stephan started his job here at the college, and his technical know-how was the initial starting point. To use the CD-ROM for artistic purposes was the goal we all had in common and that brought us finally together. Of course everyone had totally different ideas of how to use this new medium. You still can see that very clearly with the single works which primarily are showing the individuality of the experimentation.

Tjark Ihmels: But one thing was clear right from the beginning. We didn't want a digitized catalogue of our works of art, which emerged out of other contexts and media. What we ultimately wanted was to work with the medium of a CD-ROM, so to say an investigation of the CD-ROM as an artistic medium. The single works are experiments in the sense that they are explorations of that medium. Of course we had a lot of respect for 600 MB space to work with.

Micha Touma: In our first meetings we had to deal with two relatively conventional questions. Is it going to be more like a record --- a stringing of tracks ? Will we invite guests by any chance? Obviously the result is totally different. My work field is painting and my first work here was an animation. I wanted to see how the problem of moving pictures appears to a painter. Repeatedly I'm interested in what a picture actually represents in times of the new media --- as a film, as a moving picture, as an animation, as a digital symbol. Additionally, I take a critical look at representational painting in the broadest sense. Because in that medium the character of the picture raises totally new questions.

Stephan Eichhorn: In the beginning my task was to set the technical possibilities as well as their probable limits. In addition to that we had to develop a common language so that we could communicate with each other about our different approaches to Art and Computers.

Micha Touma: Yeah, I was full of ideas for single objects, but Stephan said: First of all make a plan. For me approaching his technical requirements opened up the space for interactive correlations which led to new artistic solutions.

Thomas Irmer: How did the project come to create the interwebbing of the single image surface at the starting menu? Could it be described as a city landscape --- with a cafe, a cinema, a gallery, a department store and all the connecting streets in between?

Micha Touma: What I was looking for was a kind of narration, not a linear one like in most movies and literature but a narration in space. Urban points like galleries and cafes are perfect as switching surfaces for further images...

KP Ludwig John: ...but actually its not about a description of the structure of a city even if a few objects work similar to that. What we have here is great amount of programs. Their nonlinear and complex connecting is the most important thing in view of the user who moves in the space of the CD-ROM and can comprehend that. Its not primarily a simulation of a city. We were more interested in seeing the advantages of using CD-ROM technology in the fastest way possible and making connections between the many single programs on it so as to provide a variety of possible associations.

Stephan Eichhorn: First of all the connecting of the programs is a rather abstract and technical thing. The medium of the CD-ROM offers a certain structure wherein the artist works with many base levels and their branching out. Of course the levels and their connections are like main roads and the branching-out is like side roads. So that the user would say: I was on that crossroad once before and from here I can go to that point.

KP Ludwig John: But how this is transformed into an concrete image for the user is another side of that phenomenon. You are creating spaces on CD-ROM in a way and that's why the analogy to houses and the connection to a city is so obvious. It doesn't have to be that way, as you can see it in some of the more abstract ideas and images and their intersections created by Tjark and me. Graphic symbols belong to the tradition of that medium.

Tjark Ihmels: They have another function too. Not only the suggestion of spaces. Its about the user recognizing certain levels where a choice of opportunities to go on is offered to him, and where he can return to. So its about orientation within that complex system. If we are talking about a city map here then the analogy to spaces that already exist bothers me. For me it was important that a space be created that could only be produced by these devices that have not existed before and so follow the laws of virtual three-dimensionality.

Micha Touma: The problem of abstract and concrete structuring in regards to the medium itself didn't appear so clear-cut to me. There was the same thing in the history of movies. I'm quite sure that some day there will be real narrating in CD-ROMs. It is possible in this medium to create pictoral associations of an unknown nature like I tried with texts from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. This combination of text and image is possible here and maybe it will open up a new space for poetry.

Thomas Irmer: Can we really talk about two different directions -- the abstract and the concrete art of computer-images -- and is that reflected by different styles of working?

Tjark Ihmels: I do think that I have a different starting point which has not to much to do with the normal idea of abstract painting. My intention is not to depict or to interpret what is already there or to show what could be there but to create a kind of interface for a viewer who will complete the image in his memory. In the best case an image will be memorized by the viewer that doesn't exist. Maybe that's the view into new spaces. My pictures have a meditative quality. You don't have to recognize something immediately but you have to develop the picture by yourself. In some cases you can change my works in the computer. I don't refer to my pictures as abstract but as incomplete. This technique pushed open a door to a new world of images for me. My images come into being in the computer only. Most of the work is there to cross out.

Micha Touma: Sometimes I use image pattern as a painter, my own images, snapshots, etc., which are transformed with the help of the computer. As far as I'm concerned even with these new techniques share themes that have always occupied the human being --- love, hate, loneliness, self-knowledge. Everything that we as artists will have to deal with even in the electronic age.

KP Ludwig John: Yes, but the new media changes the society not only by producing new structures of economic organization but also by changing the strategy of perception of the human being in society, which means we're in the midst of a great change in our culture.

Thomas Irmer: In terms of the technological composition of the work of art, where do you see the quality of "interactivity" within your own works? Which leads us to the topic of the wear and tear of that magical word.

Tjark Ihmels: Recently, I had a traffic accident. A situation with certain parameters. The rest was interactive.

Thomas Irmer: Hardly, because that would mean that the term covers any interaction or communication between persons or between persons and machines. That doesn't give us an idea of what the special thing about interactive art is.

KP Ludwig John: Crucial is the technology that is available now. In the peculiarity of its use it is interactive for the artist already. In our case the computer and all the accessories. The most important thing is the relation between the user of the art and the work of art. The given possibilities as a certain extent of freedom on and with the work of art.

Micha Touma: What I want to point out is that there already existed precursors in the form of changeable sculptures in Modernism. It always played a great role, as far as production is concerned, to develop new things in a direct interaction with the respective medium. The Beatles revolutionized music by manipulating the recording equipment.

Thomas Irmer: But no-one who bought the record was able to manipulate the final product. Anyhow, no-one asked you to do that.

Tjark Ihmels: Exactly. We provide immaterial pictures for a further immaterial manipulation by our users and this medium with its new possibilities is asking for that. This is only possible with the new media and that's exactly what we're after.

Stephan Eichhorn: For me interactivity is nothing except that I can expand the possibilities of my work. Its very general, isn't it? Nevertheless, I can't stand the way the word is used today for everything where you have to push a button.

KP Ludwig John: I think, that my work is characterized by the fact that I accept the concept of interactivity immediately and then I find the appropriate material to work into the project. Maybe you can put it this way: we create a changeable work of art within the world of mass production.

Tjark Ihmels: And you can sit at home with the mouse in your hand. Where can I do that in a gallery?

Thomas Irmer: That seems to be a really important aspect the changeable work of art on a PC. What are the consequences of that?

KP Ludwig John: It's not possible to see the full extent of these consequences right now. Just the fact that people can deal with it individually at any time and at home means a new way of dealing with art. Because a lot of the traditional and normal influences ---for example the institution of a gallery and a museum and their aura --- are excluded and that means that these institutions can't dominate the reception no matter how small the influence. The viewer and the user stands alone with possibilities created by the new network technology. The technological structure of the work of art is now in its files and in the storage media. All works of art are now data.

Thomas Irmer: With Walter Benjamin we could now talk about the work of art in its expanded and creative reproduction stage which intends the user to be an active agent of the work of art. What do you see as the opportunities, limits and dangers? Does it really mean ---with a look back on the short history of the new media --- that there will be an ever greater demand for democratization of the arts and in that sense an unlimited participation?

Micha Touma: All of us, and that's our program, understand art as an intelligent game. There are preconditions on our side as well as technological preconditions on the side of the user. The technological development of the arts is connected to economic structures which are influenced by the technology as well. Therefore not only the realization but the distribution is changing considerably. Their is a change of perception in the general public and the fact that they are taking part in it is a great experiment for us.

KP Ludwig John: Right, we as media artists are living in transitional status that can't be described despite the fact that a CD-ROM as a product is clearly defined and exactly calculated by the Publisher. In the World Wide Web the distribution and circulation of works of art are widely unregulated. A growing number of artists are increasingly offering their works in the net side by side with all kinds of different information services and magazines. We have an address on the Web too. The kind of artistic communication that we have chosen is an open one to reach the user and should be more than just the CD-ROM. It should reach the point where the communication between the single users is public again and can give back new impulses. The most exiting developments are those where you don't know where they will end. We are living and working in such a phase now.