Stream of Trials
Interview with Videokaffe and Jip de Beer by Karlijn Vermeij
Portals, communicating artifacts, augmented reality… getting to know nomadic artist collective Videokaffe is almost like diving into a science fiction novel. Since 2011, the ten members of this American-European network have been working together across a range of disciplines including sculpture, video, performance and new media artwork. Their practices and methods are deeply rooted in the digital, the technological, the virtual, but not without having strong connections to the physical world as well. Working and creating art together apart – Videokaffe raised it, quite literally, to an art form.
Instead of meeting each other in the gallery space of Sign at Groningen with a cup of coffee, I get acquainted with co-directors Mark Andreas and Sebastian Ziegler and their guest artist Jip de Beer through an online conference call. Spanning a distance between Turku (Finland), New York (USA) and Groningen, we are joined in the same online space to talk about Videokaffe and the project ‘Stream of Trails’, which was supposed to be taken place in April and May at Sign and is now postponed to September 2020.
Some Videokaffe history
To illustrate their practices as Videokaffe, Mark and Sebastian give a quick overview of some significant projects and exhibitions in which some typical aspects come to the forefront. Firstly, during one of the first shows in 2013 in Turku, Finland, they had the idea to build a fully functioning workshop into the gallery space. Mark: ‘This really blew my mind, because during the exhibition, we could develop work, share ideas and engage with the public. It really taught me allowing the process of art making to be also part of an exhibition.’
Sebastian: ‘It was a great time, how as a group, we were working on site in the gallery space. This also became a bit of a trademark for upcoming shows.’
Mark: ‘It got me hooked, especially working with technology and new media, there are so many facets to it, you need multiple lifetimes as an artist to really understand how it works or it takes a whole lot of money to hire a bunch of people to do it for you. We don’t have multiple lifetimes or have a lot of money, so it’s great to have artists around you that are willing to help you, share and inspire you.’
Mark Andreas @ Art Teleported
Secondly, at Saari, Finland, in 2014, the group had the opportunity to have a month long residency outside of Turku in the woods, exploring communication between artifacts. Mark: ‘We decided to build a project with two sculptures; the story was that they were brothers. They both were born there at the same time, one could fly and the other had a fire expeller and was made from steel. We had an exhibition in New York right after the residency, so we brought one of the brothers, the bird, to New York, but he still was in contact with the other brother in Turku. We had a camera watching the fire in the brother’s belly, and as the fire turned shape it gave a kind of algorithm to X/Y coordinates, to give information to the bird and the way it flew in New York. And after all this research and hard work, it worked really well for about thirty seconds.’
Sebastian: ‘With these two projects, there was the beginning of trying to figure out how either how two sculptures could communicate with each other, or how we could build a bridge over the Atlantic or oversees, to have a communication over a great distance. We called the project ‘The Transatlantic Dialog’.
A third component of typical Videokaffe-procedures is the principle of screen breaching, ‘a collaboration method using the world wide web to explore a form of physical telepresence’. In its most simple form, screen breaching is nothing more than Videokaffe’s members connecting their studios by streaming online and projecting their studio wall and worktable onto the combined feed from their colleagues. They then work together as if they are sharing the same studio. Sebastian: ‘It’s what the world now recognizes very much and what our group since many years is already using, is these Zoom meetings. But still there is the experience that each one is in its own room. From the beginning on from working together with our collaborative, we wanted to stand up and because we have so many things to do I would like to continue working with my sculpture AND talk to you. That was the first thing – we started to break out with the cameras. But then we also started to explore: if we overlay our table or our wall, and get them aligned, I could get the experience that you are actually next to me, working. And that is a little step more than this Zoom meetings and I think we would love to introduce to the audience in Sign.’
Mark: ‘It’s the same surface that we share somehow. Whether it is a table or a wall.’
Sebastian: ‘It gives the experience, once you have it aligned and the technique works, that you’re together on that surface. I mean, let’s project it a bit to the future, maybe people will work with augmented reality glasses on their part of the machinery and when they look to the left, you see the other person next to them and they work on the same machine.’
Workshop @ Titanik, Turku, Finland
In its more elaborate form, screen breaching can also be a part of the process of art making and an important component of an exhibition, as is illustrated by guest artist Jip de Beer: ‘I went to Turku, Finland, to be part of ‘Art Teleported’, the art show and conference for nomadic artists, by teaming up with Videokaffe collective. During Supermarket Art Fair in 2019, I met Sebastian and it immediately clicked. They invited me to work together, which we did for the first time during a project in Los Angeles at Supplyframe Designlab in 2019. For our second collaboration, me and members of Videokaffe were gathering on one side in Turku, and the others members were in New York. We installed two portals you could say, screen breaches – we had an interactive table that blended the table surface of New York with the table surface of Turku. There was also a wall surface with a kinetic sculpture on it, which has its other part installed on the other side in Turku, and together they form one installation, but they are in remote places. For example, on one side we had a bouquet of balloons that you could inflate for the other side, so in New York you could move your hands over the table and then triggering certain sensors on our side that would inflate the balloons.’
Mark: ‘What you do on one part of the world could affect another part of the world.’ Sebastian: ‘We also started to play with the audience, something like tic tac toe, and rock, scissors, paper…’.
Jip: ‘I think the interactive table is the playful thing you can also see in the work from Videokaffe throughout the years. Some parts are process and are hands-on, and not so clean in a way, and the other piece that we had was the finished ready work that was installed on the wall and that was also interactive but a more finished piece.’
Mark: ‘We also used light sensors to trigger mechanical pieces on the wall, while layering multiple places on earth onto the screen. The actions of each of these places are affecting the actions of the other ones, so it’s a bit of a Rube Goldberg machine: one thing affects another thing, affects another thing, and all through video.’
Stream of Trials
So, what are their plans for Sign? Together with other artists Lee McDonald, Sunjoo Lee, Jean-Francois Peschot, Jip, Mark and Sebastian will be working in a lab setting at Sign to examine themes like the future of making, collective action versus individual practice and the performative nature of work and play through the format of screen breaching. During a working period, there’ll be continuous translations between time zones, languages and measurement systems. The aim is to build bridges between cultures and empower through promoting curiosity and the joy of invention. Mark: ‘I think we’re still coming together about concrete plans. Some inspiration was that we wanted to combine primitive technology with cutting edge technology. We’re also going to have a workshop, like with our tools in there, and we would invite the public to come in and participate a bit like, or witness, and we’re very interested in having our exhibition accessible.’ Sebastian: ‘We discussed also things like scanning the site, the gallery, and sending these files over to our members at other parts of the world, maybe 3D-print things, using this information to act on before sending back, so there is a communication for and back, so that the experience of a bridge would be there.’
Jip: ‘The interactive part of screen breaching, with video and streams and connecting it to sensors and activators to influence on both sides, got me thinking about which artists from here who already do part of that or who would like to go in that direction – Lee, Sunjoo and Jean-Francois, for example. So I would love to see what would happen when we’re all together in Sign.’
Jip de Beer and Sebastian Ziegler @ Art teleported
The artist collective in a Covid-19 world
Although working together online has always been an important practice for the members of Videokaffe, the current global situation due to Covid-19 sheds new light on their thinking on digital art making. Mark: ‘One of the struggles of being so involved in Videokaffe is the juxtaposition between being an individual artist who does everything on their own, being this solo, Rambo sort of character – at least that is what the art market has built around this singular genius. And then the idea of the collective, or the group, and it’s a challenge, because the art market doesn’t necessarily see that as valuable as having this solo career. When you put a lot of exhibitions together and doing group shows, it definitely has a lot of challenges, but it also has a lot of benefits. The world seems to be dealing with this crisis now too, whether individualism is safe, and being by yourself, being a lone person is the socially correct thing to do. And groups, and this goes for states, this goes for individuals, this goes for countries… the world is kind of struggling with the same kind of questions that Videokaffe has always been struggling with.’
Sebastian: ‘I think the upcoming show, as we have this topic already within the group, like artist Rambo versus artist collective/A-Team kind of artist, will definitely will bring another layer into it. We have to see now, after this trauma of Covid-19. Because what Mark just said, we will all go away with a certain trauma – will we dare to get near to other people? For the last many years that we as Videokaffe work together, we definitely like to promote the point of working together. In our group, each one has a certain talent, and I think it really works because we don’t really step onto each other’s toes, because the one is very good in a certain thing, where the other one is not. So it is really like a great experience of fulfilment.
Mark: Basically, being together is more visceral and more experiential than being remote, so it is better. It is absolutely better. I mean, we’ve been isolated from each other because we are living in different parts of the world, but that was because we LIVE in different parts of the world. But now it’s all a bit different. I should be in Holland right now! We should be having a coffee together.’
Sebastian: ‘With the group as Videokaffe, some of us are checking up with each other on a daily basis, and talking about what we do for the next performance, we want to get used to stream.’
Mark: ‘All our shows got cancelled, all that we worked so hard to get going and have these opportunities… but we have each other. We can’t wait to hop on a plane and go back to Europe. Let’s hope! Good health!
Website Videokaffe: http://www.videokaffe.com/
Youtube channel Videokaffe: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjuPeHWaulWwAtMs4GdQmZA
Jips blog about Art Teleported: https://madtech.me/2020/02/03/art-teleported/