CREATING VIRTUAL WORLDS
Interview by Anika Meier
The German artist Manuel Rossner has been creating digital spaces and virtual worlds since 2012. He explores how society and art are impacted by technological advancements. He is best known for his site-specific digital work—virtual reality drawings that crash with physical buildings. His intervention focuses on the context of their location and the materiality of the digital. Rossner’s work has been exhibited throughout the world, including at the Grand Palais Éphémère (Paris), NTT InterCommunication Center (Tokyo), Hamburger Kunsthalle, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden and Kunsthalle Zürich. In conversation with Anika Meier, Manuel Rossner speaks about the present and future of digital art.
Anika Meier: Manuel Rossner, what does a day in the Metaverse look like for you?
Manuel Rossner: My day, like most people’s days, starts with coffee.
AM: And what does a day in your studio look like?
MR: Same here!
AM: About exactly 10 years ago, as a student, you started experimenting with building virtual exhibition spaces. Your first space was called Float Gallery, you exhibited work from other artists such as Jeremy Bailey, Francoise Gamma and Rick Silva. Do you think digital art needs digital walls?
MR: Not all digital art works best in a digital space. But a lot of it does, and for some, it’s the most natural way of showing it. Unlike traditional forms of media, the digital is constantly shifting between various incarnations. Every JPG can also be seen as a collection of ones and zeros.
AM: 10 years ago, the metaverse wasn’t the next big thing. I think people at this point have gotten used to Facebook and still have to get used to Instagram. What were your influences at that time?
MR: Post-Internet Art was just getting started at the time. Internet artists have entered the art world and market. I had just begun art school and recalled the potential of virtual worlds from my youth gaming experiences. I delved into the modder scene since I found ego shooters in cliché Middle Eastern cities to be boring. It was suddenly feasible to transform into a mouse and explore an oversized kitchen or to try all kinds of funny things. I became conscious of how limited physical reality is as a result.
AM: You were not only the digital architect but also the curator. What is historically relevant and good digital art for you?
MR: I think relevance comes from something you can’t unsee or unthink. Duchamp’s fountain, James Turrell’s endless spaces, and Katharina Grosse breaking the limits of the canvas are impossible to ignore, and so they extend and define the notion of art. Definitely, Vera Molnar’s and Herbert W. Franke’s works are historically relevant, in my opinion. Their plotter drawings, in particular, move me with their precision and simplicity.
AM: Have your criteria changed over the years with the emergence of new technologies and the new interest in digital art?
MR: Yes, definitely. Last year, I learned that digital art isn't the only underappreciated medium in contemporary art. It’s a way bigger part of culture. A big part of digital art was happening on Instagram or as brand collaborations. NFTs and the new crowds interested in them have liberated a whole new level of creativity, and working primarily in digital is finally viable outside of the digital art scene.
AM: You are known for building virtual extension buildings for museums and galleries such as KÖNIG GALERIE, NRW-Forum, and Roehrs & Boetsch, as well as for yourself with Float Gallery and New Float, in 2022. How do you approach building a virtual space?
MR: Typically, I begin with a physical location. My building becomes part of the story of the institution or place. I believe in the continuation of the physical into the digital and vice versa.
For New Float, I chose the construction site for the Museum of the 20th Century in Berlin. A new, expensive, and resource-intensive building for art of the last century. I wish there was such an interest in digital art from institutions in Berlin, or at least a fraction. Beyond the context, the dynamics of digital space also play an important role in my practice. While brick and mortar buildings are meant to last for centuries, a digital space is refreshed 60 times every second on each visitor's device. It could change 60 times in a second. That’s an entirely new way of creating, and my buildings pick that up by changing shape if necessary.
AM: Have the reactions of digital visitors changed over the years?
MR: I have made them react differently. In my digital solo exhibition SURPRISINGLY THIS RATHER WORKS at KNIG GALERIE, you had to play the game in order to see the exhibition. You threw over sculptures, and you had to walk on my art in order to even see the next part of the exhibition. You miss parts of the experience when you are not open to new and interactive ways of experiencing art. It’s like refraining from abstract painting and only allowing figurative. And interactivity and gamification are part of this new medium and culture in general.
AM: You are not only a digital architect but also paint in virtual reality and create what you call SPATIAL PAINTINGS that sometimes destroy the environment they are exhibited in. Why do you feel the need to tear down physical walls?
MR: I start by creating a digital version of the space I work in. When I start painting, it’s normal that I crash into the walls. Scale isn’t a limit anymore, and it would be a challenge not to exceed the physical boundaries. But it’s also in line with the "digital attitude." There’s a whole ideology around disruption in the digital world. Also, the aesthetics of the digital evolved from games, and I play with this context in the institution I work with. Philosopher Byung Chul Han might call it the "Signature of the Present," when destruction is turned into an experience. When you look at my work for the Hamburger Kunsthalle, my painting and the cracks in the walls are also a new way to view the original building.
AM: Is there a difference between experiencing a painting in the physical and digital realms?
MR: Both worlds have their advantages. I also create CNC-milled physical manifestations of my paintings. And the sensual experience can’t be matched on phones or in virtual reality. We just can’t feel them the same way.
AM: You were the first to mint a geo-located NFT on OpenSea. Can you tell us more about your idea behind placing a digital artwork at a very specific location in the real world?
MR: Our whole lives are defined by locations. I don’t think that our digital lives will be any different. By linking my work to a physical location, I break the boundary between physical and digital, and it becomes part of the story of the location I chose. My work also becomes timeless and versatile.
My work HOTFIX around the TV tower, my SPATIAL PAINTING at the Kunsthalle Zürich, and HOW DID WE GET HERE? at the Hamburger Kunsthalle can all be easily integrated, for example in Microsoft Flight Simulator, which is also based on the physical world.
AM: Speaking about the real world, you released an App titled REAL WORLD in early 2022 and placed a digital space right next to the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. We worked on this project together, and I remember people asking when the exhibition would be open. Are people still not used to the idea of visiting exhibitions online?
MR: I feel like valuing the digital space for what it is feels like a thread to many. And in a way, I understand it. It’s complex, and if you think it through, it turns our notions of value, time, and human life in general upside down. Seeing the opportunities in these changes is a challenge way beyond the experience of art. But I’m convinced it is worth investigating.
AM: What makes a good digital exhibition? Interactivity?
MR: The beauty of art is that the format is very open. Traditional painting, cinema, and music are very limited in their forms. Contemporary art can surprise you every time. Think of Amalia Ulman's Instagram performance as an example.
On the other hand, virtual reality as a medium requires a degree of interactivity. It’s hard to capture the viewer's attention with traditional narration in 360°. When I can choose where to look and the action happens in a fraction of the viewport, there’s probably more to explore in this medium.
AM: What are your predictions for the next 10 years of exhibiting digital art?
MR: When I started Float Gallery in 2012, there wasn’t really a way to sustain a natively digital practice. It was always experimental, and artists had to take on a second job to make ends meet. Now this has changed, and I’m excited to see how digital artists will use their opportunity. Also, new institutions are evolving, and existing ones are expanding into the digital realm. At the same time, the pioneers of the medium are revisited, and in a way, art history is rewritten, factoring in artists like Vera Molnar and Herbert W. Franke. There hasn't been a more exciting time for digital art than the upcoming decade.
Manuel Rossner (b. 1989) is a German artist who has been creating digital spaces and virtual worlds since 2012. In his work, he explores how society and art are impacted by technological advancements. He is best known for his site-specific digital work. Rossner’s virtual reality drawings crash with physical buildings. His intervention focuses on the context of their location and the materiality of the digital. His digital exhibition space New Float is located on the construction site of the Museum of the 20th Century next to the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
Rossner’s work has been exhibited throughout the world, including the Grand Palais Éphémère (Paris), NTT InterCommunication Center (Tokyo), Hamburger Kunsthalle, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden and Kunsthalle Zürich.