A Conversation with Hannes Koch from Random International

The shared mind and the power of co-creating new media art

The Nxt Museum in Amsterdam – founded in 2020 with the aim of exploring the potential of new media art – has recently inaugurated an exhibition, curated by Bogomir Doringer, that brings together two decades of work and research by the London-based collective Random International. Open until June 30th, Life in a Different Resolution turns the spotlight on “co-creation” in new media art. Founded by Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass in 2005, in the past 20 years, Random International has explored, often ahead of its time, the issues of “machine vision”, artificial intelligence, privacy and the impact of technology on humans. We spoke to Hannes Koch about co-creating, “being together” and artistic control in digital art.

Can you tell us about the role of co-creation in your work?

The honest answer is that I think we’ve always been aware and intentionally interested in “completing” the experience of most of the work – not everything we do – through the viewer, through our audience. I think it’s been a real revelation in the creation time of this exhibition, that it’s not only a responsive environment or an “engagement”: it is a real creative act that we share by making the work the way we make it, and by making it available the way we make it available. We started thinking about it last year, when we created a fairly very participative NFT where individual owners contributed to a large public sculpture. The individual constituent parts of that sculpture, the NFTs, were generative. They responded to the individual owners’ preferences in terms of what they had in their wallet at the time. So it was a very conceptual digital process. But as a matter of fact, what they owned had a part of them in it and became part of a larger communally created sculpture.

How do you experience, as an artist, this complex relationship with artistic control, in works that imply co-creation?

At that time, like a year ago, we started feeling sort of discomfort in that, because you give away artistic license. And as an artist, that’s like the last thing you want. And of course, that’s where you have to go as an artist: where it becomes uncomfortable – and it turns out, of course, that you still have a large artistic control, I think. But then, this idea really didn’t go away. If you think about it, every experience that you create, when people physically participate in it, they create the experience of their artwork in their own hearts and minds. They are part of the creation process. So why not become very upfront about it? I think that’s what this kind of work is about. It comes from a shared mind, it goes into a shared audience, and people experience it alone or together. But they co-create this experience together with us.

Our Future Selves (2019) by Random International with sound by Signe Lykke – exhibited in ‘Life in a Different Resolution’ at Nxt Museum, The Netherlands. Ph. Riccardo De Vecchi

Usually, in new media art, you find less “individual” artists and more and more artistic collectives, probably because of the different set of skills employed in the realization of the artwork. In fact, we witness the interrelation of two collective entities: on one hand there’s collective, on the other, the audience.

If you take a look back you can see that our art making from day one was a shared mind, a shared creation, first between me and Florian, then between the wider studio. We cannot possibly make everything by ourselves. And as soon as you start that, you give away control, I think. And for us it’s been also a very hard thing to do, because you want to retain control. I would have always described myself, and still probably do, as a control freak. I know exactly how I want something to be. And I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can control this. It’s like a fight against the windmills. And that’s an ambiguity that I’m very happy to hold: I still want to control, and I completely submit to the fact that me and Florian have zero control.

But isn’t this feeling a part of the procedure of creation itself?

I think it’s a very human illusion that we’re now exploring actively. Who is in control? Is it us? Is it the machine? It’s not clear. It will never be. I think it’s fluctuating, but I think it has to be explored.

But how do you personally deal with this sense of frustration?

I think you need to lean into it. You make something where people are being called into the response, taking responsibility for their creative act every time they enter it. And you learn to hold that space, that ambiguity of really not liking it, of strong discomfort and of utter relief, because it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing to be together. And I think it’s our only chance. Being together is the one way we can meet all those challenges that we’re facing at the moment. Technological, sociopolitical, environmental. We can’t do it alone. It’s an illusion that we’re alone.

Living Room variation II (2023) by Random International with sound by Signe Lykke – exhibited in ‘Life in a Different Resolution’ at Nxt Museum, The Netherlands. Ph Riccardo De Vecchi

Would you say that “being together” is a concept that encompasses human and non-human, synthetic and organic forms?

Possibly. I think humans do have a unique (or at least rare) ability of becoming aware of their togetherness, and that comes with a responsibility as well. And I do think we need to meet technology together so as to navigate those challenges. I don’t think we’re sort of dystopian, but we’re also not utopian. We don’t like the sort of fear mongering and we don’t like this technology euphoria. I think we’re alive, we’re in the middle somewhere, and I think we’re better together in this. That’s something that’s at the bottom of our work: confronting each other, like in a network of ideas, and trying to figure out where we’re going and where we are right now and experimenting together as well. Sometimes you learn much more about yourself if you’re looking at others doing the same thing. There’s an interaction, there’s a response from reflection.

On another note, what's the role of immersiveness in your works?

I’d like to think that we’ve been absolutely not the first artist to work with that. Absolutely not. But I think we’ve tried and are still trying to give our human physicality center stage in the experience of an artwork. And I think physical immersion is the key to it. We did that with Rain Room, with all the performative works where you move in front or with yourself as a digital or lit up reflection. And with Living Room, where your body is physically given the signal you are inside the work. This is something I find incredibly interesting, because it underlines our physicality, our human body. If you stand in front of a painting, a certain part of our cognitive system is spoken to. For the kind of work we want to do, we want to speak to everything, to the whole body, and preferably not the conscious cognition, but the wet stuff, the subcutane, the instinctive. That’s where we want to go. And for that, you need to throw the whole body in. That’s why, for us, music is such an important part of the work: because it’s reaching us.

Laura Cocciolillo
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