“Feeling Data” conversation with Marcel Schwittlick and Julius Voigt

Julius:

How are you feeling, now that the exhibition is over?

Marcel:

The exhibition is actually not over, yet. The finissage is on Saturday and I’ll be around for a bit longer. I am happy about how it turned out. I am just slowly zooming out from the production process, it was a hectic time.

J:

The machines draw very long, if I understand right? And what is happening before that, what was the process that lead to these?

M:

Yes, exactly. The process to create the drawings is quite long and complex. This might be a good place to start at the beginning: In 2012 I started recording the movements of my computer mouse. I wrote a piece of software that is running in the background on the computer and records every single movement of the cursor on screen. Everything is being recorded and saved. All movement that happened between two clicks is interpreted as a line. It was important to me to save these lines as detailed and true to the original as possible. And with time I have developed a framework, a toolbox to handle these lines in various ways. This framework contains algorithms and processes which can modify the material “cursor lines”. It’s crucial for controlling and handling this overwhelming amount of data, which exists of millions of lines. It’s a unconventional process to get an overview. You can’t just easily print them and lay them all out on a table, to get an overview. This was a challenge for me, organizing and exploring these recordings.

One thing that becomes obvious very quickly is, that they have no meaning anymore. The original intention of the movement is gone, nothing is left. There is no record of what each line was meant to do originally. I analyzed the lines according to my aesthetic criteria and with time have developed a feeling for their properties. And then I attempt to condense these criteria into algorithms, the tool you need in order to shape digital material.

For some compositions, almost all lines don’t match the criteria of the algorithms, for that particular artwork. This is the entire purpose of the framework. With this framework I can look at every single line automatically, inspect it’s properties and if it satisfies the requirements of the current algorithm, continue using this line down the pipeline for the next steps. This works pretty well in the digital world, because every line has a certain set of parameters and properties. And if it doesn’t have these, one can calculate these properties for a line. A line consists of discrete points, which originate in the continuous movements of the hand, that moved the mouse or touchpad. Within the system of the computer, these continuous lines are being translated into pixel coordinates which, when connected, make up the line. Some criteria that I usually use is for example the absolute length of a line, how many seconds it took to draw it and more complex parameters like the entropy of a line.

J:

What does that mean? I have heard about the entropy of the water before.

M:

In this case this describes the unpredictability of a line, you can see it as a chaos-value or surprise-property. There are two definitions of entropy. One originates in the theory of thermodynamics and one from information theory. And I use the latter.

For instance, in the first stop for many of my compositions I want to select lines according to its entropy. I prefer lines that are not too simple and straight and not too long, absurd, curled or figurative. Somewhere in between. And in the next steps I narrow the selection of lines by a few more parameters. Until only a few hundred are left over from the originally millions of lines. That is where the manual decision begins. At this point I actually render and look at them. And just chose one by gut-feeling.

J:

I can totally understand that process, the idea of it. Lines are being recorded and re-used. From this incomprehensible chaos something is being shaped, almost like a sculptural approach. The material wood, stone or in your case a line is being shaped and processed in more detail in next steps.

M:

Interesting, but I can agree. But here it’s virtual, digital with the help of algorithmic tools: code.

J:

What I find interesting is that the tree that the wood is made of, for example, grows by itself. The digital material is not nature-made. You are synthesizing the material at the same time?

M:

You can compare it to that. We’re starting from nature. Something that you don’t fully understand. When you look at a tree, it’s something unknown in it’s origin, how it’s made of, it’s something given. It’s real. And it’s got a high degree of entropy, everything is unique about it, every stick and leaf. And that’s what I find also interesting about the digital material. Every line is unique and has had its original intention. But I am leaving this intention away, I am only interested in the humanness, the human essence, the nature-aspect within these data. This is one of the core points for me. The movements are real, they have not been artificially synthesized for the drawings.

As you know, I am coming from the computer-corner, I studied computer science. I often work with data that has been created in a mathematical way or is being processed in a mathematical way. But lines, curves and graphs that are created by mathematical rules are boring to me, from an artistic perspective. Their content is exhausted quickly.

J:

The mathematical approach is not an aesthetic one. You begin where a mathematician stops?

M:

Well, you can generate complex lines with nested and filtered sine curves. Though I don’t think they are visually interesting, they are predictable. And the sculptural approach is missing. This would be rather a chemical, fake synthesis of meaning.

J:

A more rationalistic approach. You have an aesthetic approach, the perception plays a big role. The result is, that it can be perceived.

M:

And in this exhibition, I want to portrait a cycle. Here (pointing at Mousepad) is a mousepad, just a piece of paper that I have used as a mousepad for about 6 months. The majority of lines that I have been using have been created, or how I like to call it “performed”, here, on this A3 sheet. This here is the origin, the source of the data. At least a fragment of the creation. From here on, everything went into the digital world, formed according to my aesthetic conception. We talked about this. And after that they are being transferred back onto paper, with the same bandwidth like they have been created. For me this is an appropriate technique, it’s important that these works are not mistakenly seen as prints. They are drawings. Also because it’s not a perfect, technical reproduction. The process of drawing yields more space and freedom to influence the drawing. The properties of the pen.

J:

I find this interesting. The beginning is of analoguous-human kind, the hand movements on the paper with the technical device mouse. And this is being sent into the electronical-digital machine. And the end product is mostly analog. It’s for the human perception pretty easy, because we’re so familiar with the pen. We can feel the pen. And you bring this all together.The beginning and the end make sense to me. And in the middle the digital black box.

M:

Well it’s true, it’s encapsulated. The mouse is as simple as the pen. This is super fascinating for me and I am having endless ideas. Earlier this year I have been working on another project. I sent 50 drawings to friends and colleges, artists, curators and collectors all around the world.

Various “Composition #37” editions

J:

It was a similar to what we see in the room here. But something different?

M:

Exactly. Earlier this year it was Composition #37, this here is number #52.

J:

And the framework is different for every series?

M:

Well, you gotta picture the framework differently. The framework is the code that is shared among all the compositions and drawings. It’s the code that is responsible for general filtering, handling the data, morphing lines in general. Every composition has it’s own logic, a different algorithm that arranges the lines. This one could call the essence of one series, this algorithm.

I want to do some things a bit slower. I want to take more time for my projects. These drawings were finished already for some time, too.

J:

I like that point. Doing things slowly. And rather one thing instead of 5 things in parallel.

M:

Yes, just give things some more time. Let some space for passive thinking. Projects naturally become better, more mature like this.

J:

Interesting topic, time. For your work very important, I think. You can really see time in your work. In the context of acceleration, digitization. Through your work I get a new approach toward the digital and working in the digital.

M:

Funny. One thing I noticed over the time, something that I tend to do. I build a system, a digital tool, just to create a scenario so that I wait for the computer.

J:

I remember you once said that you love watching loading-screens.

M:

Yes, I love it. Have a strong computer in front of you, all CPU cores on 100%, all RAM used, graphics card on 90°C. And then it’s time to wait. Lovely.

J:

Listening to the sound of the busy machine.

M:

It’s the same thing with drawing machines. Start and wait.

J:

This seems like a new loading screen, in complicated and beautiful! You built your own loading-bar, so you can sit in front of it.

M:

Finally get some rest! (Haha). Just sit around with peace of conscience, knowing that work is going forward. But having a moment to breathe and relax, you gotta do nothing. But! Then you can duplicate yourself by still continuing to work, on something else.

J:

Okay right. But this is another big topic. Doing multiple simultaneous work-processes.

M:

Every software process is meat grinder for data. It’s always about algorithms, logical processes that work upon data. And in the end they produce an output, which is also data. Input, process, output. And when you synthetically generate data, there is something missing I believe. The software has no meaning, when the data has no meaning. It’s just going towards the void, because the beginning is missing. In my opinion, in digital art, generative art – the data is the most important. That’s when life is coming into play.

J:

I see. otherwise the computer would be a meat grinder without meat?

M:

Yes, you can’t eat artificial meat!

J:

And here the whips in the room. These are completely different works, right?

M:

Totally different. But they fit the topic of the exhibition very well. Finally a simple concept for one of my works.

J:

This seems like a completely different approach, different way of working, too. Much more physical, sensual and material and less conceptual. And as a footnote to the drawings, it works! And I am excited to see what else will result out of that initiative. It looks like a starting point to new work! You are using the material Ethernet cable.

M:

Yes. What made me continue this, is that it’s got some humor!

J:

Right, it’s funny.

M:

It’s got this bit of humor that I am missing in my own work, and in the work of many other artists. And the artists themselves, haha. I don’t mean at all that I want to get rid of the seriousness in my work, on the contrary actually. Though I think it’s important to touch different sections of the brain and heart.

J:

I see what you mean. For example in many artistic research projects, exactly this might be lacking. Maybe it’s just difficult to incorporate this. To some degree you present yourself as an artistic researcher, too, right? So let me pose this question properly: Which role does research play in your work?

M:

I learned a lot from the books of the old computer artists. This was a strong inspiration.

This here is Composition #56 (point at exhibition poster). Here is another filter-chain happening. I am creating 100 different concrete implementations of the composition and then I manually chose one, curate the output of the machine. And this drawing here is one where the machine made a mistake, when drawing. That’s why this one made it just for a poster.

J:

Interesting, let’s talk about the error in the machine. I think it’s a funny coincidence that we’re in Erratum Gallery right now. Erratum means an error in printing. That could be an interesting point to discuss closer. What role does the error play in your work?

M:

In the first step, the process of conceptually, virtually creating a composition, there is no error. Just aesthetics. The error is really part of the data, the lines do no right or wrong, the fact that they are unique makes an error impossible. And in the second step, the implementation of a drawing, there is no error allowed. You can see that the pen faded out, the ink ran empty on a few drawings here. You can see this as a classic erratum. For me this changed from the first moment this happened. After the pen faded out the first time, it stopped being a surprise, an error. It became the main point.

And in general, it depends on the error obviously. A good error is not an error. It’s subjective. And an error like the one in the poster, this is a no-go. This is trash for me.

But in contrast, the one to the right here. There’s no error. In this drawing, there is one complete content of a pen. From beginning to end, a new pen, at the end it’s empty. And this is the first drawing where my self-built machine did not run into a bug or problem. The first time that the motors didn’t overheat, the paper did not skew, the drawing got straight without drift. I see this as an extension to the cycle we talked about earlier, the first successful drawing on my new machine.

J:

In connection to the exhibition title “Feeling Data”, I was thinking, do you mean sensing or feeling? Sadness etc. This would be one way of seeing all this here. Or do you see this exhibition more in the meaning of sensing data. That there is no pre-constructed feeling, but rather an aesthetic feeling.

M:

This is true, I am just realizing this myself. For me this is more about the sensoric feelings for abstract, virtual data. To develop a feeling for the material, which was a big topic for myself in many projects. This has always been my strategy for handling big data. Just developing a feeling. One could probably go about this in a more strategic and analytic way, though this was not a natural approach for me.

Seeing data as a material. And developing a feeling for this was interesting for me. This has been an important point for many other projects. Let’s look at the sculpture of laptops here, the “Data totem”. In the introduction text to the exhibition I mentioned the distinction between warm and cold material. The drawings use warm material, because the data is based on human, unique movements. I see the computers, here the laptop the same way as a warm material. For every single one of these laptops, there is a story attached. When I picked them up from, colleagues, friends, family and strangers, we had a last chat about the machine. The owners had a goodbye ceremony, told me what the machine meant for them, how they shared a life for some time.

In the end people build up a rather personal relationship with their computers, especially when they invest all that energy into one device for many years. All these stories are part of each of these machines. This context makes these objects very special. These are not new computers. For many years these have been worked on with fingers and mind. Personal ideas and thoughts were typed into the machine. But at the same time there are so many of them here, they are all the same. People see it as trash when it comes in quantities. But the pieces of aura are still attached to the computers. And this is what I find so interesting. Also the process of collecting them was special. I didn’t buy them and paid by the kilo. I wanted to attach more memories and context to this hardware. And this makes it warm material.

J:

Ok, this opens a new topic, the drawings are some kind of struggle with yourself. With your own movements, your own body.

M:

Well, not necessarily. I recorded lines from other people as well. I installed the software on some computers of friends and used their cursor lines also.

J:

Ok ok. Another question. On the one hand, you tried to understand the data overload, to develop a feeling. You are trying to make it accessibe by feelings for yourself. On the other hand, do you have the visitor, spectator in mind? You have an exhibition here titled “Feeling Data”. Is there some conscious or unconscious intention from you to discuss topics like data, digitalization, digitality with the people?

M:

Totally. For you, me, us, the digital is something very normal and natural. Still, it’s a complex construct which is in constant flux, always changing. This are moving, new concepts developing. Our generation grew up totally analogue. But we were still young enough to experience the digital world at a young age, we were able to develop a natural relationship with that. And I am thinking about the visitor, I want to bring digital fragments out of the computer. I want to provoke direct contact, get rid of the digital layer. I want to bring the body to the forefront. This piece of our reality that’s responsible for so much of our would. The digital world has a lot of power and possibilities, though our body will remain important. I think.

J:

I just notice, there’s something else stuck in my mind. We are a weird generation. I got my first cellphone and at the same time the internet was coming up. And I was developing some kind of consciousness for myself being a human being, too. At the same time we still understand our grandmas very much.

M:

When we were kids, we went to ring on our neighbors or friends places, just to find out whether they were around. Today you send a message via Signal. But we got older, too. I think this whole topic is big and we should look at this separately, more carefully.

J:

Okay. Did I forgot about anything else.. Hmm, maybe the following question. We are here in an art exhibition. What kind of art is happening here? I would definitely say this is artistic work. Though maybe we can go deeper and investigate what is the art, that is happening here.

M:

Well, good question. The concept, the sensoric experience. Broadly speaking.

J:

I’m just thinking and trying to figure it out myself. There are many artistic aspects. One thing, you do is you take something and turn it into something else, bending it.

M:

Sometimes I see it kinda like a mirror. Like experimentation with timely media and possibilities. Digitization, algorithms, data crunching, everything pretty contemporary. All of the social media platforms are working with these things. They take input from people in order to form it into something else and present it back to them as something new. Recycling data. Usually I call it the same when working with the cursor lines from earlier, I’m recycling lines.

And I find it interesting to see the digital in real.

J:

The digital is also the real world. But on a different level, on different levels of perceptions for example. It’s strong to imagine all these invisible data streams, which fuel ourselves. And they are invisible but they do so much to and with us.

M:

Maybe this is the point. The shift of attention. More and more aspects and processes of our life are happening in the virtual. And it’s important to understand them, I think. At least being aware of what’s happening in order to be able to take consequences for yourself. So you know what to do and what not, according to your values. And the processes are becoming more complex? More or less opaque?

In general, when you buy something at Amazon for example. You already know now that it has negative consequences for the environment because of the high CO2 production of transportation. So bad for the world in general. But for other processes it’s not yet so easy to understand what things mean for example that data, the attention represents pure gold for the companies. And we give it to them ‘for free’. Or not?

What I’m talking about is about the idea of understanding the consequences of your actions. Maybe with the internet this got a little more complex, because the virtual aspect of life got bigger. This might be another idea of this exhibition, just being contemporary by inhabiting the natural level of complexity of our world.

J:

Right, and we can’t keep up with our perceptions. For a long time people don’t understand how things work. And they needed a way to explain them. Just to scratch on the surface, to develop a feeling/conscience for processes that one does not understand.

M:

Pretty abstract in the end. I love this.

J:

Yeah, you deliver no answers or solutions.

M:

I don’t think I’m clearing anything up, I’m rather causing some more confusion. Just a feeling. And what do people see in this? I don’t want to limit this, I want this to work in multiple contexts. And I don’t like the idea of needing a certain kind of knowledge in order to understand my work. I want to open this up, I think it’s okay to see it as design as well.

J:

Right, to catch people on the perceptive, sensoric level. These works are beautiful, I love looking at them.

top left: Upward Spiral (left right split blue & magenta)
top right: Upward Spiral (dual black & blue)
bottom left: Upward Spiral (triple split neon yellow & magenta)
bottom right: Upward Spiral (neon green & blue layered)
59 x 84cm Hahnemühle 200g/m² each unique editions of 1

M:

And there are all these old computer artists. They have been doing similar things for a long time. During times before there were computers with screens. Back then there were completely different problems and situations. And they were a great influence to me. But I want to mention here that I want to continue what they started. I’m missing the feeling in these old works. I am looking for unpredictability in drawings. Because I am using data from the real world, this continues something. Back then they were using mathematics with random processes. No internet with closed, artificial and mathematical systems. But still looking at them from aesthetic viewpoints. This was real cutting edge stuff! But even back then this wasn’t greatly appreciated and I have the feeling they still don’t get the attention they deserve today even. But for me it’s a huge influence.

J:

Back then they didn’t have the possibilities to work like you are now. The naturally grown digital infrastructure and means just weren’t there. They had to grow the tree before cutting sculptures out of them, so to say. And now we are somewhere else, you can work differently.

M:

Right, the people back then didn’t know what they were doing mostly, too. For example Frieder Nake and other artists like Manfred Mohr and Vera Molnar, who have been painting before and just had a unconventional way of thinking. They needed other possibilities and tools. Artists who wanted to create their work with some kind of automatic and aleatoric flavor. Algorithms and graphics.

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Marcel Schwittlick

Marcel Schwittlick

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Marcel Schwittlick is an artist living and working in Berlin, Germany