Mattis Kuhn is a German artist/curator who works in Frankfurt and Cologne. It’s artists like Mattis that are the reason I do these interviews.
I got to meet Mattis when he was doing a residency in The Model Arts Center in Sligo, and I didn’t know much about his work prior to getting the chance to meet him for the interview – now, he’s an artist I will frequently tell other artists to check out his practice. It was a great experience to get to talk to Mattis, and he is someone I have immense respect for. The amount of thought that goes into each work is incredible; my favourite parts of some of his works are the subtle fine art references that Mattis is able to fit into his work, artists like Kazimir Malevich and Egon Schiele. It was a really enjoyable experience and I feel very privileged to share this interview with you.
Programming is a common feature of your work – can you talk about that?
In general, it’s an interesting topic for me – the relationship between the algorithms that make up these programmes that we use, and their environment and us as well. How we shape the algorithms, but also how the algorithms somehow shape us. We really force machines to make something that we can comprehend – the machine is different from the human being, and we have to translate everything to put it into a machine and to get meaning out of it – and I don’t think that is always possible.
This is a key point of your piece sketch_150709b.
In that particular case, I was thinking about how algorithms are all around us, but we don’t really get a proper notion of that. I think that’s kind of a problem, that certain types of technology are so hard to perceive. sketch_150709b deals with the relationship between code and its output. You’re seeing in the video parts of coding that we aren’t usually privy to. It shows around 40 small programmes, and they all result in the same output, and you can’t see from the output what lies behind each one.
The black square you see in the video is a reference to the famous painting by Kazimir Malevich – there is a connection between his painting, the transformation from objective or representational painting to abstraction, and the characteristics of algorithms. He says his work emerges from nothing; you could say the same of artefacts produced with code, in a way. Code itself isn’t a concrete object, but you can build different objects from it. It’s somehow not really bound to the world. It’s not predefined, but you can create objects through it. So, this black square, I kind of think of it as a place holder for anything. That it’s just about that you can create anything you can imagine with code. So it’s more about possibilities than the one concrete thing.
I think that we really have to keep in mind that it is us who built the machines – they don’t develop their own intelligence, we influence what comes out of them.
forkbombEnsemble was one of those sound installations, but it still has an interesting approach to programming.
So this is one work which really focuses on computation. This came out of my research where I tried to figure out that it makes sense that artists would work with algorithms and that art can contribute to discussions about algorithms. It was inspired by another artwork called forkbomb.pl by Alex McLean and by the Flash Crash from 2010.
McLean made this work where you can execute this algorithm. The general idea is that, depending on your input, it can cause your computer to stop running, because the process duplicates itself every iteration until your machine fails to execute the amount of processes.
This forkbomb runs on a single computer. But my second inspiration was the Flash Crash where several thousands of algorithms worked together to create something unpredicted. So I put both together to make a decentralized forkbomb. It is only possible to run as a forkbomb if several machines work together through communication. But of course you can think about social developments or social events which kind of have the same behaviour where several actors working together to make something that wouldn’t have happened if they were working as an individual.
Herz Woyzeck is an interesting piece. Can you talk about that?
Herz Woyzeck is based on Johann Christian Woyzeck, who’s the subject of a Georg Büchner play that was definitely influential for me. He was very poor his whole life — moving from one job to the other, ending up in crime. He pleaded insanity, but after several expert opinions he was found guilty and publicly executed in front of thousands of onlookers. That was one key element for my work. Another important element was medical experiments in which he participated to finance his livelihood. Actually he needed to risk his health because he didn’t have much money, and it wasn’t really scientific. The doctor who performed the experiments, he wrote an extensive report about his studies, and the focus was often about how the heart of this guy reacted to these experiments, so that’s why I focus the heart in the performance.
For the performance, I attached myself to a heart monitor which actually dictated the play of three musicians. The notes they had to play appeared on a screen. I’m using something called twelve-tone technique, which is a method of music composition for which Arnold Schoenberg is known. You define a sequence of the twelve tones in which each can only appear once. I used the curve of the ECG to define these twelve tones. Then you can perform several operations on this sequence but you have to make sure that all tones are played before you can start with the next sequence. It’s about an equal distribution of all sounds
So the sequences were defined, but the speed and the style of the play were related to the heartbeat. I could obviously control the heart rate to an extent, but generally it goes in one direction because of the exercise I’m doing on stage.
On the visual side, I did very slow transitions between several poses which are inspired by paintings by Egon Schiele. The setting of the stage is a reference to the setting where this Johann Christian Woyzeck was executed.
Let’s talk about one of your more recent projects, lys.
It is a Norwegian and Danish word, which means ‘light’, and it’s also an acronym for the slogan: ‘leave your self’. The primary aim of lys is to connect oneself with others through implants in the brain. On the one hand with the aim of enlightenment, on the other hand to make decisions on a collective basis.
One thing that it has in common with Herz Woyzeck – and it’s the general approach of my artistic practice – I do some research without knowing what the piece will look like in the end, and through the process I kind of find my right form for it.
In this case I connected this idea of networking with the promises of technology enthusiasts and big companies to save mankind, the planet, the universe etc.. So the right form for it was this idea of a fictional company, and the media it communicates through. First of all it has to look very nice, so we start with this commercial spot which is influenced or inspired by advertising of tech companies. I tried to mimic it, as if I’m advertising some nice product or something – you think it would be very nice to have that product, so I’m using the same technique as those companies, but then I have another layer where I describe it more from a scientific angle. And from this angle you read that you have to give something over to it [the network], so it’s not really all positive maybe?
And then on top of that, I think the website follows this idea of making something outside of the gallery. It’s kind of like – I tried to make you as a visitor not see it as a piece of art, but instead something that could be made by a real company to promote their vision.
Have you curated online exhibitions? Is that somewhere you would consider going with your curatorial practice?
I haven’t, but I think it’s a very interesting thing. Simply because there are shows in physical spaces that are mostly on a very short time frame, maybe a month or two, and for most people it’s tough for them to attend these exhibitions. So I think an online exhibition is really a nice medium or idea in general, but on the other hand, it’s kind of complicated I think – because a lot of it is about this sensual or physical experience, especially when dealing with AI artworks, I think sometimes it’s better to have this physical experience than through a screen.
Can you say something about your interest in dealing with AI?
I think in general with machines there is a lot about ourselves as well in them. So it’s kinda like we try and make things that we want to teach machines to do as well. We can really think about ourselves when we deal with machines because it is kind of a mirror of ourselves sometimes and it also shows us in which things we humans are quite better, but we also recognize some of our weaknesses, for example prejudices.
Can you define some different approach between your artistic and your curatorial practice?
One major difference between my artistic and my curatorial practice – whereas I prefer to go into detail about one topic as an artist, try to work one thing out, when I’m working as a curator I can go more broad, just bring together in a broader sense several different perspectives of artists who deal in detail with aspects of the topic. That’s what I’m mostly interested in when I’m in the curator role, to bring several perspectives to the one space.
You can find out more about Mattis’s work through his website link below