Artistic Operations. A Conversation with Annett Zinsmeister

In the Architecture Series

Sabin Bors: Which are the architectural utopias you make reference to in your work and how do they reflect on our current understanding of the built space? What is the relevance of the Plattenbau typology today?

Annett Zinsmeister: In 2000 I started to work on the history of spatial utopias and published several texts and books [1]. I tried to figure out the concept of the utopian thinking from the first literal descriptions in Ancient Greece until the 20th century, as well as its correspondence to built architecture and urban planning. This research led me to the discovery of utopian role models and typologies for spatial constructions that came up over centuries in philosophy, literature, arts and architecture, and are the basis of built cities like Freudenstadt in Germany or Arcosanti in the Arizona desert, USA – to mention only two examples.

In this context, the architecture of socialist Plattenbau is very interesting. Plattenbau architecture represents the dichotomy of utopia. It is based on the socialist promise “Jedem EINE jedem SEINE Wohnung” (for everyone his own apartment) and as a site-unspecific global architecture (ou-topos), it embodies the promise to feel at home in a where ever you stay in the world, as far as it is a Plattenbau in which you grew up. At the same time, this monumental mass architecture stands for the politics of repression and a massive social control.

Sabin Bors: How do utopia and repression contribute to a socio-political coding of reality?

Annett Zinsmeister: Utopian concepts historically arise from a criticism of existing ratios. They represent the design of alleged ideal opposite worlds. These mental or literally constructed visions of a better world are related to the existing society and the socio-political conditions at their time. The realization of those concepts mostly failed in bringing the repressive methods of these utopian concepts into light. Therefore, I am talking about a dichotomy of utopia.

Annett Zinsmeister - light box, 61 x 100 cm, 2007, from the
Annett Zinsmeister - light box, 61 x 100 cm, 2007, from the "outside_in / virtual interiors" series. Lightobjects: slide in aluminium light boxes, C-prints, Diasec. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Annett Zinsmeister - light box, 61 x 100 cm, 2007, from the
Annett Zinsmeister - light box, 61 x 100 cm, 2007, from the "outside_in / virtual interiors" series. Lightobjects: slide in aluminium light boxes, C-prints, Diasec. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin Bors: How do you interpret the relation between form and space as an architect? Do you interpret it identically as an artist? Is there a dividing line between an artist’s and an architect’s way of relating to space?

Annett Zinsmeister: This is a very complex question and very interesting from a culture-historical point of view. I am working around this topic for years now, especially in my teaching practice and according to this actually two books emerged: Art and/or Design? Crossing border and Art / Design? Transdisciplinary Studies. In both books I tried to find answers to interesting questions like: What is the difference between art and design practice? Is there another way of thinking in the creative process? And what is the history and the current situation concerning the line up of the borders between the two disciplines?

As an architect you have the task to design space with all its specific functions to be needed. The functional aspect is a very basic one and in focus of the creative process. The architectural practice is still based on the more than 100 years old quote: “Form follows function” even there had and have been uncountable attempts in the 20th and 21st Century to undergo this. Especially for architects, it is still a relevant question: Which are the fundamentals of designing space and which meaning and relevance has art for this? For artists, the creative practice is different: Dealing with form and space has no preconditions. As an artist you are not a servant per se – an independency in your creative thinking and practice is ideally expected. As an architect you need to have the ability to imagine space and to create spatial concepts in your mind with the intention to realize and build these concepts. As an artist you are not obliged to build, it is up to you to choose the way of materialization and visualization or to deny it.

In my work I unify the way of thinking as an artist and as an architect. From the beginning I am more or less divided: my view on architecture is the gaze of an artist with the knowledge of an architect. I may recognize architecture as an image, I can see the beauty of abstraction in the details, in the composition, but I also know about the constructive, the technical and historical background of the real building, as for example the Plattenbau. As an artist I transform this specific knowledge into artistic operations: Therefore the artistic practice offers me the highest point of interdisciplinarity as well as space for creative research. In this kind of boundlessness, I feel home.

Annett Zinsmeister - outside_in II, installation view. Spatial installation, 45 x 3,5 x 8 m, at Akademie Schloß Solitude, November 18 - December 18, 2005. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Annett Zinsmeister - outside_in II, installation view. Spatial installation, 45 x 3,5 x 8 m, at Akademie Schloß Solitude, November 18 - December 18, 2005. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin Bors: Would you say there is a limit of perception? If so, where is this limit?

Annett Zinsmeister: The history of science is a history of stepping beyond our biological limits of perception, which are existent due to the physical abilities of our five senses. The processing of sensual impressions constitutes a unique experience of space that is supported, expanded, and also manipulated by cultural techniques. Technologies for the development of perceiver equipment that, for example, may expand our experience of the world and space (e.g. microscope and telescope) play the same role as technologies to accelerate the movement through space as well as analogue and digital techniques for spatial representation and simulation.

I am very interested in these techniques and artificial limbs like historical and contemporary developments of perception in connection with new technologies. I therefore studied years ago media studies and cultural techniques. Nearby all my work is about human perception and its limits. My pieces mostly deal with different ways of perception, that is a natural ability but also a conditioned human habit. Especially my installations serve as machines of perception, because they have a strong impact on our way of seeing and understanding space. They reveal unexpected intersections and parallels, in the perception, depiction, and experience of space.

Sabin Bors: What unifies the fragments you use to create the densities that define your works of art?

Annett Zinsmeister: I use environmental fragments, e.g. building elements like façades and floors you may find in city centers but also at the periphery and sometimes in rural areas. In general, one could say that I am documenting details in urban space, that I found casually on my way, some of them hit emotionally my mind as unexpected objet trouvé, or as a sudden impression of beauty or ugliness, as attraction or determent. These urban fragments are the initial point for installations or any other form of work that follows. Most or maybe all of them are constitutive modules that shape our environment. I am calling these fragments modules because they are not singular but repetitive pieces of spatial systems like a construction set. Due to my work about utopia, I am very interested in this kind of constructive spatial systems, and want to know more about the single elements, as well as the unifying matrix and algorithms that make the system work. This point of view touches also the question about the realm of creativity and the meaning of authorship.

Annett Zinsmeister - Rasterfahndung - Tracing the Grid, installation view. International group exhibition at Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, May 5 - October 7, 2012. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Annett Zinsmeister - Rasterfahndung - Tracing the Grid, installation view. International group exhibition at Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, May 5 - October 7, 2012. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin Bors: In your work, the fragments are not autonomous. You create depth from single planes, in a constant dialectic between part and whole. How do you interpret this structured interdependency? Is there a hierarchical element that structures your artworks and installations? What is it that you express through this tension between the singular and the structure?

Annett Zinsmeister: At the beginning of my projects about Plattenbau, as well as the virtual interiors, urban structures and the container project, the photographs of façade extracts or what you call “fragments” were autonomous pieces because they are authentic documents of former existing buildings that are mostly demolished or had changed their appearance. These photographs are part of a research – imagine a scientist who is going through housing areas, mapping and specifying the existing Plattenbau types. My photographs are autonomous documentary pieces I transformed in a second step in a serial art piece called medial modules. After this I started to use them like modules of a visual construction set for the creation of new spatial scenarios, of visionary and virtual spaces.

An important aspect is the dialectic between the part as a constitutive or remarkable element or module and the whole as a repetitive structure based on 1 to 3 modules. With this extremely reduced set of modules I am working at the edge of two powerful effects: the minimal aesthetic and a depressing monotony. Here again the dichotomy is an important aspect, because it stands for mostly all utopian concepts and also for many architectural projects of modernity.

Sabin Bors: There is also a constant reverse taking place in your work – you reverse the relationship between image and space, but also between the inside and the outside. There is an interesting interplay between reality and simulation here, especially when considering you are using flat surfaces to augment perspectives…

Annett Zinsmeister: Yes, you are right, and there are many more… this is a very important and basic strategy in my work…

Annett Zinsmeister - Rasterfahndung - Tracing the Grid, installation view. International group exhibition at Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, May 5 - October 7, 2012. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Annett Zinsmeister - Rasterfahndung - Tracing the Grid, installation view. International group exhibition at Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, May 5 - October 7, 2012. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin Bors: Do you consider your works to be figures or rather structures?

Annett Zinsmeister: My work oscillates between passion and calculation, between intuition and rationality. I investigate and deconstruct spaces quite rationally in their basic elements and rearrange them expressively to new spaces and structures. Then I transform this constructive knowledge into artistic operations: I take my documentary footage, and use it like in Plattenbau architecture as a modular building material from which I construct new facilities or cover existing spaces to change them into an intentional architecture, which compresses the contradictory powerful effect of the prefabricated building and drives it to the peek: monotony and minimalism – the beautiful horror: pathos of gestural. I work with images, documents and visions and at the end of this creative process there sometimes occur also figures as “by-products.”

Sabin Bors: How would you describe the “scenography” that defines your use of perspective, given this as an altered point of view than as applied to photography, architecture and the construction of space?

Annett Zinsmeister: The scenography I create is a tool to stage a fictional space – a space that irritates and questions space, our perception, our environment, our expectations and wishes of space but also scaring moments of space. I am searching for the utopian and dystopian aspects of existing and possible spaces: Which aspects do we judge as the beauty and good, or the bad and the ugly? The scenography is like an apparatus to investigate emotional effects, to understand how powerful architecture is as a constitutive element in our life.

Annett Zinsmeister - Plattenbau, 80 x 80 cm, C-Print. Taken from the
Annett Zinsmeister - Plattenbau, 80 x 80 cm, C-Print. Taken from the "Plattenbau 80x80 / Architecture of Disappearance" series - conceptional photography series, ed. 3 + 1 A.P., C-Print Alu-Dibond, 31.5 x 31.5 inch, 1994-2004. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Annett Zinsmeister - Plattenbau, 80 x 80 cm, C-Print. Taken from the
Annett Zinsmeister - Plattenbau, 80 x 80 cm, C-Print. Taken from the "Plattenbau 80x80 / Architecture of Disappearance" series - conceptional photography series, ed. 3 + 1 A.P., C-Print Alu-Dibond, 31.5 x 31.5 inch, 1994-2004. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin Bors: Most of your works lie at the intersection between elements of serial architecture and virtual environments. Is this virtual space instrumental or just metaphorical? How do you define the virtual in this context?

Annett Zinsmeister: It is probably both instrumental and metaphorical. Sometimes I realize my installations as simulations of space: you have a perfect illusion and somehow an immersive effect – this is maybe the instrumental aspect of the virtual. But this kind of technical realization has only in some cases to do with the computer, and has nothing to do with the notion of digitally based virtual environments.

I create spatial effects based on traditional techniques, like perspective constructions and other techniques of visual deceptions that can be developed with different media, also with analogue media. If someone understands the virtual as a notion in digital realms, which is a quite narrow understanding, I would say it becomes a more metaphorical aspect. My installations are all about the possible and impossible space, about the unreal and the potential of spaces, about the imagination and performance of space, connotation and association with space and so on. This is the aspect of the virtual I am interested in and playing with.

Annett Zinsmeister - Urban Hacking, animation/spatial simulation, 2009. Spatial installation at paraflows 09: festival for digital art and culture, September 10 - September 20, Vienna, Austria. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Annett Zinsmeister - Urban Hacking, animation/spatial simulation, 2009. Spatial installation at paraflows 09: festival for digital art and culture, September 10 - September 20, Vienna, Austria. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin Bors: In the spatial installation outside in that you presented in 2005 at Schloß Solitude in Stuttgart, the curving of the wall creates an aberration which controls the viewer’s orientation. The panorama expands the space, but it also causes our gaze to diverge. It provokes a horizontal movement of the head. The perspectival schema is altered and you create a particular, privileged perspective in relation to these common constructions. How would you define this visibility you’re creating? How does this privileged perspective influence the observer’s understanding of what is being represented?

Annett Zinsmeister: This is also a very complex question. In fact, I studied the history of linear perspective, and other drawing tools and perception machines, like the panorama and many others. This history of cultural techniques is absolutely fascinating and affected my art deeply. I use these techniques connected with different media and try to find out their limits. In linear perspective for example, you have a fix position of the viewer to get the perfect spatial illusion. In my installation at gallery Oberwelt, I found out that our belief in the reality of the scenery we watch is much stronger and the human eye is much more flexible in upholding the illusion as a “given fact” that you may leave this fixed point of the viewer in a wider radius than as I thought and you still have the impression of looking at a real space even if the perspective isn’t right anymore. The other installation you mentioned had such a strong effect on the viewer, being surrounded by this seemingly endless façade, that you never thought about the movements of your head: you just moved the whole body and entered in the scenography with all your senses. People started to play with the acoustic odd space, with the strange effects of having no shadow, which sometimes appeared in an unexpected moment. The scenography became a performative platform for interaction.

Sabin Bors: How do you interpret the division between perception and authenticity?

Annett Zinsmeister: Perception is something you create in your mind. All those strategies of deception show us that it is just the knowledge that may differ between real and unreal. What you perceive is part of yourself, it is you who create your own individual reality. There is no real world in common, every individual has his or her sight on things happening. Authenticity is the opposite of deception in my understanding – a human or formal characteristic.

Annett Zinsmeister - City + War / Bunker Project, installation view, 2010. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Annett Zinsmeister - City + War / Bunker Project, installation view, 2010. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Annett Zinsmeister - City + War / Bunker Project, installation view, 2010. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Annett Zinsmeister - City + War / Bunker Project, installation view, 2010. Image © Annett Zinsmeister. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
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