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Interviewed by Giulia Frattini

Art In The Digital Age: Nina Roehrs, Roehrs & Boetsch

Giulia Frattini: What is Roehrs & Boetsch?

Nina Roehrs: Roehrs & Boetsch, founded in 2016, is a contemporary art gallery devoting its program to exploring digitalization and its implications for society. For us, the term "digitalization" is intended not as a technological description limiting the gallery program simply to artists working in New Media. Rather, it should be understood as the common denominator pervading their creative practices as well as our gallery model.

GF: Why did choose this direction, and what’s your mission?

NR: In recent years, the rapid pace of technological progress and increasing digitalization have not only had a major impact on contemporary society, but also continue to evoke old and new issues in a wide range of art-related topics. New technologies and their application for artistic practices have greatly expanded the variety of media and creative possibilities. Consequently, artists in this field are continually testing the boundaries of what is conventionally considered “art” while also developing a new set of aesthetics.

Roehrs & Boetsch’s overriding mission is to create a space for critical reflection on current and past developments as well as provide a platform for new positions in art. By working very closely with young as well as emerging artists, our exhibitions explore and critically reflect the relationship between contemporary culture, digitalization, and art in a range of media and techniques. Furthermore, as an art gallery, we take great interest in actively discussing and developing new forms of exhibiting and promoting artworks where conventional methods have failed.

GF: How do you select your artists?

NR: It depends. Some artists I have been an admirer of the work for a long time, such as Olia Lialina, a pioneer of the 1990’s net.art movement. Or Aram Bartholl: his installations in the public space have shown us new ways to bridge physical and digital worlds. Some others, instead, I have come across more recently, and I have decided to invest in their development when I felt there was potential. This is the case of Shawn Maximo, for example, an artist working predominantly with CGI and extensive installation, still unknown to the larger public. Although part of several group shows at influential institutions such the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and MoMA PS1, I was the one to give him his first solo exhibition. In general, we are interested in artists whose work offers new perspectives from both a media and society side. Looking back at last year’s solo exhibition by Shawn, for which he transformed the gallery space into a strange subterranean lair—part transit station and part refuge, it feels as we went time traveling. By thinking through the example of an isolated community living underground, Shawn Maximo carried the idea of isolation—such as national isolation and its benefits as increasingly advocated by some politicians—ad absurdum and unmasked it as a myth.

Shawn Maximo – Deeprecession (Isolationism and other Myths), solo exhibition at Roehrs & Boetsch (2019) | Photo by: Michael Harald Dellefant.

GF: Your gallery does not only engage with traditional gallery shows, but also experiments with new exhibiting formats such as Gallery.Delivery. Is there any project you found particularly interesting or challenging?

NR: Each project has its perks and challenges, but I have been passionate in developing every single one of them.

Gallery.Delivery by Berlin-based artist Sebastian Schmieg is both a group exhibition and a performance that can be ordered online. It is delivered by bike courier in a "White Cube" courier bag to the address stipulated in the order, where it will be temporarily installed. As the Internet increasingly penetrates every corner of our lives, this is giving rise to a mindset where we expect immediate availability in all aspects of our material world, triggered by a simple click or tap. Gallery.Delivery applies the promise of immediate availability to the exhibition space and the format of the group show. In 2018 and 2019, Roehrs & Boetsch premiered and presented the format during Art Week in Berlin. In a next step, we will bring Gallery.Delivery to Zurich.

Technology has provided artists with new media for their artistic practice, but also gallerists with new platforms to exhibit their works. Most recently, we have launched an in-app exhibition format. FitArt—developed together with New York based-artist Damjanski—provides art shows on your phone in the form of a fitness plan. Available to download for iOS and Android, the application is designed as a series of workouts, featuring exercises created by artists. Building on widely disseminated and highly accessible technologies—a mobile phone and an app developed for it—FitArt allows a wide audience to experience works of art even in times of social distancing and isolation.

And, then there is of course CUBE – Virtual Gallery for Virtual Art.

FitArt – Fitness Art Club powered by Roehrs & Boetsch (2020), in-app exhibition format developed with Damjanski.

GF: What is CUBE exactly?

NR: CUBE is a pioneering virtual reality platform, which simulates a virtual gallery for virtual art. Using VR glasses, visitors enter the virtual gallery building where they embark upon an immersive, self-guided tour. Visitors use a controller to move through the gallery space, extending over five floors, each floor exhibiting different virtual artworks.

New virtual reality architectures such as CUBE are the logical environment for digital and virtual art, especially three-dimensional art. With that in mind, CUBE is primarily intended for digital and virtual artworks with no physical prototype for which a faithful realization in the physical world fails or seems illogical. For us, CUBE serves as a testing ground not only for new digital and virtual artworks, but also for virtual modes of presentation.

CUBE was conceived by me in collaboration with artist Manuel Rossner, who was commissioned with the artistic design of the architecture and the technical realization of the project. Together, we developed CUBE over the course of one year.

In 2019, CUBE was launched at the gallery in Zurich with an inaugural group exhibition on sculpture. Through the combination of exhibition space and art forming an integrated virtual reality, CUBE offers one of the first immersive experiences of the diverse possibilities of digital native sculpture.

Now, we are working on an extension of the architectural structure and the next show.

CUBE – Virtual Gallery for Virtual Art (outside view) of Roehrs & Boetsch, architectural design by Manuel Rossner (2019).

GF: What are the challenges in working with artists using new media?

NR: There are many, from the technical difficulties in the set-ups to the hardship of mediating with a public still new or resistant to new devices. But it is not the artists’ nor the public’s fault: technology has reached a level of development in such a fast pace in order to respond to consumerism that it has left many of us behind. But this is what I would like this gallery to be, a bridge, a tool to decode and reflect critically on the effects of the phenomenon of digitalization. And also, a place to reconsider the understanding of art history as a tale rooted in our times, with new media challenging our definitions of what is a painting or a sculpture, for example. These are my challenges, but also what makes this journey interesting to me.

CUBE | Virtual Natives – Sculpture (inside / exhibition view), Virtual Reality Sculpture VR Bodypaint 01 by Banz & Bowinkel (2019).

GF: How are artworks sold, collected, or archived in these cases, in particular when it comes to net-based works?

NR: There isn’t a singular recipe that works for every case. We work with originals as well as series and editions when the artist and the artwork allow it, since it’s what the market and collectors ask for. But we are also well aware of the issues that fast and planned technology obsolescence brings. Some artists make of this a subject of their investigations within the medium. In the case of Shawn Maximo, for example, his images are secured by design, and unauthorized reproduction would be easily discoverable—but the hardware can, and is intended to, be replaced overtime. With the work of Olia Lialina, instead, the hardware is either an integral part of her pieces or not at all, as in the case of her network portraits series. Here, the preservation of the memory of our data on the net is largely delegated to the future development of the web, and its immateriality, as well as its fragility, is an integrant part of her poetic.

GF: How do you fund your projects, and how do you provide support for the artists?

NR: As an art gallery, my goal is to support the artists and give them the visibility I believe they deserve, despite current art market logics working against non-traditional mediums. Even though this might change faster than we ever expected in light of the digitalization push that corona has created. But not all the projects we do are for profit: FitArt, for example, is something that we have developed mainly to show the potential of alternative exhibiting formats that, thanks to the rapid distribution of new technologies, can provide a place for the artists to produce and exhibit their works, even during lockdowns. And this autumn, with the support of Pro Helvetia and a curatorial team from different art institutions across Switzerland, we will even be able to realize a second exhibition/workout, promoting Swiss(-based) female artists within this new format.

Self-Portrait by Olia Lialina (2018), Series: Network Portraits | Installation view at Roehrs & Boetsch | Photo by: Michael Harald Dellefant.

GF: As the first and only art gallery devoted to this field in Switzerland, what role does it play within the city of Zurich? And how is it internationally connected?

NR: We are a young, small gallery with a focus on an even smaller share of the market and art world in general. I like to believe that Roehrs & Boetsch is a converging point for new and experimental approaches to art and, because of that, is a place very much rooted in our time. Our lives are already heavily impacted by digitalization; portable devices are both extensions of our bodies and carriers of our minds and feelings. Zurich and Switzerland, like any other place for that matter, need a place to critically reflect about the effects of this phenomenon. And Switzerland is a tech hub recognized worldwide for its audacity and innovation, with large communities of professional developers and thinkers, in Zurich as well as Zug or Geneva. We, of course, follow very closely the work of larger public institutions such as the HeK in Basel or the ZKM in Karlsruhe, as well as Rhizome in the US. Through and with them, we hope to contribute to the education of the younger, local artists by exposing them to international perspectives, as well as serving as a place for them to come in and discuss new ideas.

For over three years, we have run an intense program of events in a beautiful space at Bachstrasse 9, close to Rote Fabrik in Zurich. As a consequence of the restrictions that limited physical proximity between people during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have decided to temporarily shift our focus over to projects that can have a meaningful presence also without physical displays. Understanding the immaterial dimension of art also involves differentiating between what is purely digital documentation and what is art that finds its purpose in the space of the connections that link us all together. We do believe, though, that one doesn’t have to exclude the other: our intention is to follow the current developments and come back with a new space when opening gatherings won’t be perceived as hazard anymore.

Damjanski: Humans Not Invited – IRL (2020), Closing installation at Bachstrasse 9 | photo by Michael Harald Dellefant.

GF: What is the role of art nowadays in your opinion and from your position? And specifically, of technology related to art?

NR: If there was ever a time that we needed artists more than anything, this is today. We need their radical ideas, visions, and perspectives on society. Art and artists are willing to provide their work and effort for common, shared goals. They offer critical thinking, intuition, and creativity for us all to reflect on who we are and what we have become. Digitalization has brought, and continues to bring, massive changes and challenges, and art is a place and space where debate can actually take place. Technology and innovation aren’t a problem in themselves: they might actually even hold the key to solving some issues. A society that is obsessed with self-optimization will not revolt against itself—that’s why we need art and the artists to question our status quos, highlight our neglected issues, provoke us, engage us, communicate to us. Artists are very good partners for these discussions.

 

Nina Roehrs (b. 1974, lives in Zurich) studied economics, politics and international relations at the universities of St. Gallen and St. Andrews. After 13 years covering various strategy and business development positions at UBS, in 2016 she founded Roehrs & Boetsch. In her free time, she enjoys the beautiful nature of Engadina together with her partner and their dog. http://www.roehrsboetsch.com

Giulia Frattini (b. 1992, based in Milan) graduated from the Brera Academy of Fine Arts and attended the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS, at ZHdK, with a final dissertation concerning the digital influence on individual and collective emotional dimensions. In March 2020, she was part of a curatorial team that launched an exhibition and mediation project on video activism at the OnCurating Project Space in Zurich. Currently, she is exploring creative writing as an experimental expression and continuing her research on digitalization and its cultural implications regarding art and society.

 

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