Fermenting at Flux: Live & Active Cultures (Part 1)

Presented by Christina Freeman, Flux Factory artist-in-residence

Over the course of my 5-month residency at Flux Factory I will be recording a series of studio visits with other artists-in-residence (aka Fluxers). Through its studio residency program in Long Island City, NY, Flux Factory supports approximately 30 emerging artists each year from a range of creative disciplines and international locations. Flux commissions new work through quarterly exhibitions, and residents produce public events at a prolific pace.  The next exhibition opening on July 20th in Flux's gallery is "Thinking Like a Machine," by Niki Passath.

Interview with Niki Passath

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C: Tell me about your opening on July 20th.

N: It’s a hybrid event, both workshop and exhibition. The robotics workshop starts at noon and finishes when the opening reception begins, at 6pm. We will experiment with the machines we have made as a performance during the opening.

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C: What are the materials you are using?

N: Styrofoam, wooden skewers, straws, mobile phone batteries, and e-waste.

[Recently Niki has been making robots that paint]

C: How do you see the action of the robot painting as cultural critique?

N: I propose new ways for looking at technology.  For example, a lot of people think, you can do anything with a good programming language. In reality, you are limited to what the producer of that language could conceptualize.

C: The robot acts as an intermediary, creating distance between you and the final painting. I assume you are thinking about technology mediating relationships and how we connect emotionally or disconnect.

N:  How we communicate and use technology nowadays, is the wrong way because we connect, mainly over software which has a reason. That reason is to make money. It might be a social software but the intention is different. There used to be couch surfing for free. The next idea was Airbnb, which was a good idea, but businesses were destroyed and in many cities the rents have increased.

C: It points to a global issue, of prioritizing short term consumer experience over long term sustainability.

N: It’s subjectivism, vs objectivism. The idea that everything that I would like to have and consume is inherently good.

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C: The lines these days are a bit blurred, but a lack of specific function is often inherent to what defines art, as opposed to design or craft. How do you think about the function of your robots? Aren’t they unnecessary?

N: I come from the classical music world. An instrument is a very elaborate technological device. Even when you use that machine to create music, you interpret the composition. The musician, is a very small element in the whole system. There could be a billion musicians, but the way they interpret the work is special.

C: The point is not to make a painting.

N: I tried it, it’s not something that I like. I really enjoy the traces of the robots, they take two to three hours. It might be the same amount of time for me to make it myself, but I prefer if the robot makes it. It’s a very intense, emotional time for me. The reason for having the robots paint, is the connection to the idea of trace and cave painting. Everything the robots do is recorded by the trace, it is the abstract form of each robot's movement.

C: You create the robots with some intentional element of failure?

N: Yes, I realized that if there are small mistakes in the form, the behavior changes and it becomes very lifelike. My theory is that every great idea came out of a misunderstanding of something.

C: Are you open about the code and the technical process?

N: I come out of the open source world. If you look at the score for a piece of music, that is the source code of the piece. In some cases, I write code onto the gallery wall. Calling it a score can help you see code differently. It’s more interesting to create scores for machines, than a very dry, technical code.

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C: The world of technology is still very male dominated, and your robots are working with the abstract expressionist language, which is also a male dominated language. Specifically this idea of the paintbrush as phallus is a reminder of this.

N: I’m looking forward to the conversation here in the United States, because Jackson Pollock is not so important in my world and I’m not coming out of that tradition. I was never a painter. I’m interested in the gesture, but not what a painter thinks is a gesture.

C: Your work reminds me of Yves Klein, with the traces of  bodies on canvas, performance in the gallery space, musical scores, neo-dada style happenings; also Nam June Paik releasing a robot into the street to be hit by a car.  It’s an event, alive and organic.

N: There’s no instructions for the evening. If you don’t look closely it would seem like a normal opening reception, with the artist present. It’s more subtle and I wouldn’t want it to be otherwise.

Niki Passath teaches Interface Design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Christina Freeman is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Both are currently artists-in-residence at Flux Factory in New York, where Niki will be leading a robotics workshop on Wednesday, July 20, 2016, followed by an opening reception and exhibition: http://www.fluxfactory.org/events/robot-making-workshop/

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