The Belgian media & technology art duo talks about new ways to shape art experiences, their residency at Vienna’s Q21 and whether the city is as picture-perfectly kitschy as expected.
ATK! [pronounced attack] is Brussels-based artist duo Ofer Smilansky and Isjtar, who just spent a few weeks in Vienna as artists in residence at Q21. During their stay, they worked on light design for the exhibition AJNHAJTCLUB. The show, curated by Bogomir Doringer, deals with former Yugoslavian migrant workers in Austria and is on display at frei_raum Q21 exhibition space until September 4th. We visited them in their temporary studio in MuseumsQuartier to find out how they feel about Vienna.
I’m having a hard time categorizing ATK!… How do you feel about the label media art?
Isjtar: The problem with media art is that the meaning of this term changes in every country, and can mean very different things. In Belgium they call it new media art, or art numerique in the French-speaking part. I call it art and technology in general. But what we usually make are immersive installations, that’s what we call it.
Ofer: The technology is mostly hidden in our installations. You wouldn’t immediately think it’s digital. It’s immersive art. It’s less defined by the medium or the technology used, it’s more about the experience. Our focus is always the people’s impression of the situation, and less thinking about the very geeky work that goes into it.
I: Most of our work is about manipulating perception of space, of time sometimes, and of sound. This can really make people re-appreciate architecture. Like in a project we recently did in Bratislava [on the national radio building] – people saw this building all the time, but never noticed it any more. Then we did a big installation on it and everybody realized: Actually, this building is amazing! It’s about making space plastic, so you can modulate it. That is our dream. Because on the computer with 3D programs you can do anything with a space, but in reality, of course, it’s not possible. So we try to have these effects through the use of lights.
What brings you to Vienna?
I: We worked with Bogomir before, at Lexus Hybrid Art Moscow, and we really wanted to do it again. He told us he was curating an exhibition in Vienna next, so we applied for the residency with this in mind.
For this exhibition, you did light design on the stair-like stage in the center. What did you want to achieve in this project?
I: We wanted to have an influence on how people perceive an exhibition. I would like the atmosphere of the whole space to change because of it, for people to become more attentive, feel like they’re in an atmosphere instead of just an exhibition. And there’s a very specific and subtle beauty in the way the metal of the stairs reflect the lights. That’s the essence of the piece for us. It works best if there are not too many people in the space. It’s a very simple idea. That’s what I like about it.
O: If people could take the time to not just look at a piece, read the label, look at the next… The light sequence the piece emits should calm them down, lower the alpha waves, let people chill out a bit. We decided to focus on the middle piece in the space. Throughout the exhibition, we just used one color, 6500K – this cold, white light.
I: It’s about changing the format of the exhibition, making it more involving. Not necessarily making everything flashier though. Just to break up that going-from-picture-to-picture tact.
O: I think modern or contemporary art, which is not only pictures on walls any more, would also profit from a new form of exhibiting things.
Did you see any building or space in Vienna you would like to work with?
I: We really like these air defense towers in Augarten! We would like to do a project on them!
O: We went to do photogrammetry of the towers, took pictures of the whole space, so now we can create a 3D model of them. Our latest installations and lines of thought were concentrated on Brutalism and the textures of concrete, cement… so that’s what we’re interested in at the moment.
I: The project for Q21 is confined to the context of the exhibition, but to do something that interacts with the city would be really nice. I think people would be open to it, the Viennese seem very open to culture.
We’ve seen a lot of projections, there’s a lights festival now, but your approach would be new to Vienna I guess.
I: I think most digital art stuff doesn’t happen in Vienna, within Austria. It happens in Linz, because there’s Ars Electronica, or at the donaufestival in Krems. It’s harder in a city with great tradition, it weighs on you. All the tourists come for that… but at some point you have to break it to do other things.
O: I thought all the heritage would be more present actually. I thought it would be like a city made of frosting, overly decorated, clean white streets with angels… But it’s more gothic than I expected.
I: It’s Franz Josef, he’s not into that! (Laughs) It definitely has a gothic feel to it. It has this central European thing, which is cool.
How was working on the topic of Gastarbeiter, migrant workers?
I: For us, it was very strange. In the digital art scene it’s usually much more about aesthetics, sensorial concepts, there’s not really a habit of working with concepts and themes like this – Ex-Yugoslavia or migrant workers, I have never worked on something like this. Digital art is rarely about people. But we do have a natural affinity for it I guess, travelling and working in the region a lot, and being inspired by monumental architecture in Ex-Yugoslavia.
O: Bogomir wanted to explore different corners of this topic, and to him we were the club culture corner. The way we explore the surfaces of the stairs changes up the aesthetic and helps to avoid the feeling of being in an archive, bring a bit of movement.
Did working with this subject matter change the way you see Vienna?
I: Yes, I wasn’t aware that so many former migrant workers lived here. Vienna seemed like a white, not very multicultural city in a way… especially compared to Brussels. It’s kind of middle class Valhalla over here! (Laughs) I thought that most people in Vienna were from Vienna. I still think the city is not messy enough. Not enough chaos.
O: Yeah, it’s kind of clean. But I went a bit further, around the different arms of the Danube – I really like the whole area. You got all these graffiti painted sights at Donaukanal, it looks like there’s stuff happening there.
Austrians from other parts of the country describe Vienna as loud and chaotic …
I: That’s two of the last words I would use!
O: It seems like there are a lot of rules. Like, you can’t do this now because of XXX, please use the door on the other side of the building …
I: It’s all about the “Sicherheit” [security]! We see the security guys a lot around MuseumsQuartier – they are really nice to us, but always checking things. It’s important here. People are into the rules, but they’re not difficult about it… not unfriendly. Everyone’s really nice.
O: I keep thinking – Vienna for me is a pure example of what a European city is. It has this European feeling. A lot of people think about Brussels that way, but I don’t think so – it’s on one end of Europe. The heart of Europe to me is in a place like this, between the East and West. It’s the food as well, which brings all these European cuisines together, the style people have, the European tradition of architecture. It all shines here I think, it really comes to live. And it brings the East into the picture as well, which is important.
So where did you try out the food?
O: The garden in the back of MQ…
I: We thought it was a tourist trap, but it was actually very nice. We also liked Burgers de Ville, in a little park. And there’s a little place that sells tacos, next to a church.
Do you think Vienna has a sound?
O: It definitely does – Da-na-na-na-na!!!
I: Yeah, the crazy sirens! They sound so loud. They have this weird way of modulating the sounds, and they bounce of the buildings, and you don’t know where it’s coming from. It’s strange, because it’s such a calm city otherwise… It’s funny how busy it is outside, and how calm it is inside the MuseumsQuartier. It’s very lively though. We were kind of surprised; usually spaces around classical art museums are very touristy and a bit bland. And here there are always people hanging out, young people coming here with their skateboards… It’s quite dynamic.
Did you have time to look at some art while you were here?
O: The advantage of being a resident here is that you get a ticket for all the museums! We loved the Egon Schiele exhibition at Leopold Museum.
Are you taking any souvenirs?
O: I had stamps made for my kids and my wife, with their faces on it. I found this very nice place nearby, they make the whole stamp.
I: Postcards from the museum shops… a very cheap way of getting high quality reproductions of artworks.
Q21 provides workspace for around 50 independent organizations in the creative and cultural sector within the MuseumsQuartier Wien. Along with the founding of Q21 in 2002, an Artist-in- Residence program was initiated. International guest artists are invited to stay in one of 9 live-in studios in MQ and realize projects on location. Around 600 artists, from fields such as literature, visual art, performance, film, comics or fashion, have already been guests of Q21 since the program began.