Philipp Ekardt in conversation with åyr*
*åyr is Fabrizio Ballabio, Alessandro Bava, Luis Ortega Govela, and Octave Perrault.
Philipp Ekardt What’s your relationship with contemporary art?
Alessandro Bava I think that our relationship to contemporary art is, at least initially, almost parasitical. Since our backgrounds are in architecture, our interest in contemporary art was a very deliberate move towards another field and another way of operating. We were interested in the type of agency you have as an artist rather than as an architect. So I think our interest in contemporary art has to do with opportunity and opportunism.
Octave Perrault Also when we were architecture students a few years ago, we found that artists were addressing questions that were being ignored within architecture education.
PE Would you have an example for how an artist would approach these questions?
OP I’m thinking mainly about things related to the Internet. I remember the first time I saw a Ryan Trecartin video. I was in L.A. and I was just mind-blown. I thought “wow, that is exactly what I would like to see,” but I just didn’t know where to start in architecture.
AB I think we started working at a time in which there was a vacuum in architecture, it was very conservative and obsessed with the canon. So I think we all drifted towards this other realm.
PE As an outsider I find it really interesting to hear you say that it’s an alternative in terms of the agency you might have had within the architect/client relationship. There was a moment when there was a very strong interest in architecture in other realms, in film or in media theory, and now it seems to be that architecture is also falling for what I like to call “the promise of art.” For some reason the art system at this point really draws in all these discourses, it seems to be very accommodating. It’s also from within the art system that there’s an interest in architecture. It’s mutual.
AB Absolutely. I think, beyond us and what we do, maybe you see a problem in art being too accommodating, but at the same time it’s also a matter of architecture being in crisis. So people are looking for other outputs.
PE Looking at your show at Project Native Informant I thought “this is really interesting, and I can see where they’re coming from and also that this emerges out of an engagement with the digital which they’re probably aware of through their own skill, through architecture.” There’s probably a difference now vis-à-vis the art system where a lot of people are interested in the digital as a phenomenon but it’s not really part of their training.
AB This is actually for me a big part of why we decided to work as an art collective, because there was this gap that I perceived while I was studying architecture, acquiring this set of skills, and being interested in the digital, certain technologies, certain approaches from a purely pragmatic point of view. Then I saw artists being interested in the same things from this different metaphorical or symbolic angle. There was an urgency to investigate what was happening and try to address it critically rather than just acquiring the skills.
Fabrizio Ballabio Whereas it seems to me that within art practices digital technologies are often conceived of as instruments through which a work is then produced which might convey a completely different meaning, we actually work with the instrument as a piece in itself. For our works in the Newcomers show at Project Native Informant, we didn’t just use the renders as an art form; the rendering as a medium and our collaboration with the renders was also part of the work.
PE Which is really interesting because all of you guys probably have a much more thorough and practical understanding of rendering as a tool. But the art system also allows you to thematize that tool. You were using the art system to investigate the instrumentality of the digital. Which is really different from a lot of post-Internet art which often just builds a rhetoric around digitality.
AB There’s a big fascination with what was almost a big uncovering of this whole set of approaches that in architecture were completely unquestioned. Things that for architects are just technical.
PE How does your collaboration function? Are there rules? How do you collaborate?
AB We try to structure it in a way that is a hallucination of how an architectural office works. It’s almost a parody of that. The structure is horizontal, an exchange that has very few rules. It’s very flexible.
Luis Ortega Govela Everyone has their own process and it comes in in this very schizophrenic way. So everyone respects each other’s process, but then at the same time it is like ‘baby’s first architecture office’ somehow, this imagination of how it would work.
FB I would say now that we’re two years in, we’re starting to find more consolidated ways in which each one of us contributes. So, it is becoming more structured, even though how things happen is still very much a mystery.
AB The most interesting thing in our process is the idea of the project, actually. We approach an artwork as a project, a sculpture as a project, and that has a completely different set of rules and dynamics from another type of process.
PE One specific aspect I wanted to ask you about relates to the translation of the digital, implementing something in analog spaces that exists also in the digital realm. Looking at your work in situ it’s very clear to me that this is a pictorial type that emerges really from digital technologies, but then you have to think about how you get that into the analog. Do you have rules for that?
AB I think we also exploit the absurdity of the render as a tool. When the render is the work we always also produce renders of the exhibitions beforehand, because it’s pushing the fictional aspect of the render and doing something that will never end up looking like the exhibition. We translate the digital image into the reality of the installation.
PE This is really interesting to me because it situates your practice as an in-between system, but also within the architectural system. You were saying there’s always this divide between the render and the built house, which used to be the model and the built house… but an analog model can never be as striking or as sexy as a digital render. Also, you operate in a sort of meta-office, which is also a subject per se within the architectural discourse. OMA for instance used to be an office that communicated very strongly “we are an office, we have researchers…,” you seem to be also drawing on that experience.
AB I think we definitely situate ourselves in that lineage of people and the evolution of the architectural office. But there is this idea of multidisciplinarity and the office as something that is part of the architectural discourse, as you say, and I think maybe we are the extreme consequence of that kind of evolution.
FB At the same time I think what really distinguishes us on the one hand from the art collective and on the other from the architecture office is that somehow there is a really strong tension within the way we work together between radical individualism and complete subjection to the collective force. So it starts to become almost a second character through which I can express independently of taste, of identity, of self-definition. It’s very liberating and it also gives you something to work against.
PE I imagine it’s a way of exploring that way of working which is also liberated from the client/office relationship, where you would always have to take into consideration certain conditions of realization.
OP I was wondering if the installations we make are not model in themselves, or experiments for things that would be. They are some kind of tests with the ghost ideas of maybe building a building at some point. It’s probably never going to happen, but it’s been a driving force for our thinking.
PE The interesting thing is that within the history of art there are various practices that talk of that real life or actual-to-size model. Think of Thomas Demand’s practice: photograph something, then rebuild it in paper to size and re-photograph it. Even in contemporary discourse there is the idea of the generic. Laruelle provides one version of it.
AB We deal with the generic in terms of decoration, in patterns. We wrote a lot about Airbnb and this new generic image of the interior and the new international style which is emerging.
LOG The generic as a normative thing, as a way to construct a norm and a habit somehow. I’m really interested in that, in how that image of the generic also creates a normative attitude towards space.
PE One could think of a phenomenon that I’d like to call “aesthetic normalism” responding to this new taste for the normal. The idea is how can I influence this by making it modular for instance, whereas we’re dealing with something which is like a new normal now.
FB Well, it’s a different way also of understanding flexibility as a concept. It’s something which is easily adaptable and which you can easily adapt to. I guess that’s also interesting in relation to the normal, the norm.
AB But to me the new normal as it presents itself today is also tied to identity and in a way lifestyle. The idea of the generic in modernism is trying to take away identity and present itself as flexible and adaptable.
PE I first encountered you online, when you were still “that other Pavilion.” I was wondering if that makes a difference to you or if also your experience was that suddenly something you were doing for some reason generated that immense response online.
LOG Totally, but I think it was also a very conscious decision for the first pavilion to have a digital existence. It was almost never considered to be an actual physical space.
AB It was actually constructed as a performance, as an event played out online. Not in a corny way of being an online thing, but it generated this wave online that had to do with a certain fascination or unlocking of a certain idea.
PE It’s probably the case with your entire practice: as you say it’s “not the corny online thing,” it’s not digital art, it’s not an online practice, but it used online as a tool.
LOG I think that’s how we conceptualize most of our work: you can operate within the digital and the physical but they don’t need to be the same. They can be different strategies that try to subvert the same thing we’re trying to deal with.
OP We try not to separate them, we don’t see them as different. The digital is just a thing of the world that we are trying to reconcile with what is ‘really’ there.
AB The installations we’re doing for the two Biennales we’re participating in, the Architecture Biennale in Venice and the Art Biennale in Berlin, have essentially to do with these ideas.