TOTAL RECALL – The Evolution of Memory will spotlight some of the pioneers of digital media art. Station Rose already caught the digital virus in 1988. They’ve been creating audiovisual sculptures, and mixing into their performances digitally produced sounds together with worlds of light, video and imagery. In light of this long career, they have quite a bit to say about the digital world. Elisa Rosa and Gary Danner granted us an interview as a lead-in to their work at the 2013 Ars Electronica Festival.
At TOTAL RECALL – The Evolution of Memory, Station Rose is presenting Digital Quarter Century Shelter. What’s this all about?
Gary Danner: We’re building a setting for live performances and installations. The core aesthetic element will—and I say this intentionally—once again be a wooden house, since we’ve been pursuing a “New Media Arte Povera” concept for about five years now. Since we’ve already been dealing with the internet and digital culture for a long time now, since 1988 actually, and since we lived in Frankfurt/Main for 20 years, we’ve kinda gotten over the Digital Euphoria and once again started working with materials like wood, with plants and with analog instruments.
Just like our 2008 installation at the MAK [Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art], we’re going to use a wooden house at Ars Electronica too as a kind of control center, but of course it’ll be wired and have internet access. From this wooden house, we’ll be sending our data to Zwischenmagazin B [temporary storage area in Tabakfabrik] for five days.
This is no doubt why we’ve been invited back to Ars: to disseminate our very subjective memories. We’ll screen images and play sounds from our 25-year history—either as-is or with a live make-over—and of course we’ll also give live performances of material composed expressly for this Ars Electronica.
There’s something like a schedule, according to which we have to perform at least once a day for 1-2 hours. The rest of the day, the space and the house will function as an audiovisual installation into which we’ll feed our data. On two days, there’ll even be two performances.
As for our mode of working: Right from the outset, we’ve maintained a fairly strict division of labor. I’m responsible for the auditory realm, and Lisa does the visuals. And these two elements fit together without the need for any kind of substantive coordination in advance. You know, right next door here in the studio, we actually work together like a band; I work on the music, and Lisa next to me on the visual components, which means that we’re in a permanent process of exchange without having to develop a written concept first. We improvise.
During the course of the work on a piece, there comes a point—usually on the second day—when we say: So, now we have a sort of basis loop that can stay the way it is.
For the live material—in concrete terms now, for Ars Electronica—we construct modular loops that can be totally changed at any time, musically speaking—from the number of beats per minute to the harmonic tone. What we’re preparing here is a basis groove, an audiovisual basis riff, which is then processed live. The loops can both be prepared in advance and be totally improvised on the spot. Now, we don’t rummage around on stage scanning the hard drive for something appropriate at a particular point—though, of course, individual samples and apps can be cut & pasted.
Elisa Rose: We’re considered pioneers of digital culture because we’ve been strictly pursuing this since 1988. Our roots are actually in Art Music and Punk. We studied at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, so of course it’s essential for us that all of this takes place in an art context. I mean, based on what I’ve seen lately, media art has kind of been left out of the loop. In the best of cases, some colleges have a professorship, which means that the person who holds it doesn’t live from his/her chosen profession but from a tenured position.
The art market is a parallel world. This shouldn’t be, of course. Just like in the case of photography, the new media should be integrated here. The discussion of the question “Can that even be called art?” ought to be obsolete, actually.
What should be considered now are the following questions: How can something as fluid as a performance be blended into an installation to such an extent that it’s both? And, of course, on one hand, this is interwoven with our history that has now reached a digital quarter-century—which is, after all, something quite different than measuring in terms of decades. In fact, it’s nothing less than a milestone, and thus dovetails perfectly with this year’s festival theme. On the other hand, the fact is that this thing has to function as both an installation and a performance in such a way that it constantly gives rise to variable artistic spaces.
The hall is terrific, really fascinating for us, since it contains elements that I’ve never been situated amidst in my artistic career—namely, an industrial aesthetic. It never interested me, not even in the post-industrial phase in 1988 when we started Station Rose; it was never my thing. But it is interesting considering that lots of people are missing six years—from 1988 to 1994, there are no played databanks. We’re going to shed some light on this at Ars.
Now, it’s fascinating that we have, as it were, half a decade that some people didn’t experience because they were too young, or didn’t experience because they were still involved in an Industrial aesthetic. My opinion back then was that it was really threatening that a lot of people didn’t want to make the jump to digital.
The situation now is that you build an installation that works in 2013. And by definition, material in digital form means that there’s no longer history in a conventional sense as long as there’s something that can be loaded. Of course, it’s really going to be interesting—for us too—to find out how many of these files from the last 25 years can even be opened now. Naturally, there’s a lot of material that was never digitized in the first place; all we have are VHS tape recordings. And then there are all the various formats. Which ones can be converted is anybody’s guess! We made our first CD-ROM in 1992 on an Amiga—I’d love to play it in the Tabakfabrik but that would be a tough assignment because I no longer even possess an Amiga with a CD-ROM drive I could play it on. The aesthetic of these early CD-ROMs somehow resembles the look and feel of contemporary computer games. There are so many interesting commonalities. And all of this is designed to occur in this space, in his hall at Ars Electronica.
So, would it be fair to say that you’re going to give a historical account of the Digital Age on the basis of your own archive, your own documentation?
Elisa: Exactly. Now, we’re already counting in terms of centuries, a concept that one would never associate with digitality as such. This is fascinating; after all, there has never existed a situation in which you do something and then you stop doing it. Rather, you do it, and how does the past now come into the present, the past that is as such in any case omnipresent as soon as it’s captured in digital networks.
As for the installation, I also wanted to mention that the space itself is pervaded by this classic industrial aesthetic. It’s protected as an architectural landmark. We’re entrapped in a landmark-protected environment. I am not by nature a tinkerer. Of course, I regard my visual works as sculptures, as media sculptures, but using a drill and a screwdriver isn’t my thing. The construction has to be quick and easy. As Gary mentioned earlier, we’ve developed the principle of “New Media Arte Povera,” a mixture of visual art and sound, but also with fleece and wool elements, with textiles, printed fabrics, recycled materials and wood—real sensuality. How will this industrial building manifest itself? I mean, it’s supposed to be a so-called experience space that people can enter, spend time in the installation, since this wooden house will occasionally be closed when we’re not there. This strikes me as a very interesting artistic challenge.
In 2013, we’re also posing five questions having to do with the development of digital media and the internet. In 1988, we proposed answers; now we propose a discussion. Why should all of this be free-of charge? To whom does all this belong? Why should I work for other people for free? What do the business models look like? How does the art market deal with digital art?
To a certain extent, this is also meant as the expression of refusal on our part. Why should we constantly be making content available for free on Youtube? Why should we continuously be feeding Facebook? How should people be dealing with their own material, with this treasure? Where are these gold bars being stored; who’s safeguarding them, without their creator necessarily becoming subject to the business model of some giant corporation, with a whole staff of programmers et al. These are things we want to address as part of the installation and performance, along with questions of the private sphere and security, issues that we already began attempting to come to terms with in the 1990s.
Station Rose is looking back on a long and successful career in digital media art. A glimpse at their online archive provides a sneak preview of what awaits audiences at the Digital Quarter Century Shelter installation/performance. The virtual curtain goes up on September 5, 2013 in the Tabakfabrik. The precise dates/times of the performances are available at https://ars.electronica.art/totalrecall/2013/07/29/digital-quarter-century_shelter/