Nemo Nonnenmacher is a multi-media visual artist based in Europe, working with photography, sculpture, and virtual reality to explore the relationship between the body and digital space. Nemo holds an MA Photography from the Royal College of Art, London and has exhibited in selected exhibitions including in Germany, Italy, Lithuania, and recently Cyprus. The curatorial department at Niio had a conversation with the artist following his residency exhibition at CYENS Thinker Maker Space, and towards a collaborative project in the making.
Recently, and as a part of your residency at CYENS Thinker Maker Space, you have been working on a mixed media project titled Burn. Can you please dive deeper into this subject matter and how this project came together?
Two years ago I witnessed being close to a wildfire for the first time in my life. I relocated from London to Greece recently, just before the pandemic. My studio is on the west side of the mountains in the Peloponnese, the closest fire was 2 kilometres away. I realised that these catastrophes happen every year all around the Mediterranean. A few weeks later I visited sites of past fires which are further south as you drive through the mountains. Seeing the landscapes where the fires had raged was a striking and uncanny experience, both visually and emotionally. It made me aware of the changing climate – in a very immediate way, as well as the reasons behind some fires being started purposefully, for economic gain. Having grown up in Germany and having developed a Western-European perspective on these issues; I was reminded that catastrophes like this are usually mediated through news, media and the remoteness of a screen.
In my practice I am focusing on new technologies and looking at what impact they have on our understanding of body, materiality and space – both physical and virtual. Experiencing the immediacy of the fires in Greece made me look at my artistic practice from a different perspective. One of connection, interaction and consequence.
I started collecting material from forests near where we live: Vasilikis Forest, one of the oldest forests in Greece. I gathered charred pieces of bark and burned wood, took videos and pictures to generate some initial 3D models from. Whilst driving through some of the previous sites, I filmed and photographed slowly recovering plants and trees, burnt vegetation – a picture for the 4 million square kilometres of wildfires that happen around the globe every year.
Finally, I was looking for space and time to explore these materials further. I wanted to research new ways to connect physical installation and virtual spaces within my practice, as well as meet the demands of the urgency of the project. I applied for a new residency programme at the CYENS Thinker Maker Space in Cyprus funded by S+T+ARTS and Horizon EU programmes, which invites artists to use their workshops and explore projects on the intersection of art and technology.
The outcome of this residency was a multimedia installation that allowed viewers to experience the burned material in several iterations: as charred bark on display to directly touch and experience, as well as developed into a new surface through laser-cut and digitally processed sculptural pieces. The experience of these physical works was the centrepiece for two video and VR works that focused more on the remote character of how these spaces and materials are usually experienced. They were driven by the movement of the viewers in the space, as well as through remote weather data in realtime. In a way, this project presented a spectrum of how immediate and mediated the sense of touch and the urgency of these very real climatic issues are experienced. The artistic challenge for me was to bring all these elements together in one exhibition space, which is something that I definitely want to explore further in future installations.
Nemo Nonnenmacher, καίω (burn), 2023.
Many of your works and your artistic practice in general deals with digital virtuality and our ability to experience, sense, and reflect cognitively in the digital space. Moreover, through your works, you reflect on this duality between the real and the virtual. Is there a desired outcome that you create for your viewers experiencing your artworks?
In a way, I would like for people to experience my works and consider where they come from and whether the space they depict or are based in is something familiar or not. I do believe that the boundaries between understanding something as real and physical, and virtual, remote, abstract are blurring with the technological processes we are employing. In the end it is a question of where do ‘I’ begin and ‘the other’ end. What is space, what is real – and is our concept of real the same as what we can experience? I hope that my work can be an entry point to thinking about how all these spaces – virtual, physical, personal, environmental – are connected through us and our bodies. Our sense of body and touch will ultimately have an expression in the virtual space and have consequences, just like in the physical and intimate world. In the end we might come to the conclusion that our actions matter, and have an impact, no matter whether you consider one space less real than the other. I would like the viewer to think about what intimacy means in all spaces and how we relate from one to the other.
When I started thinking about digital and virtual spaces, I ‘just’ wanted to emphasise the limitless possibilities of this new space. Somewhere where humanity can overcome its condition, where we can rethink our bodies, societies, economics – all from the fact that it is a space without materiality. This has been a big utopia of the internet and a driving force for why many people believed in the technological developments in the 90s and 2000s – and which I think still is fuelling the belief in crypto and other decentralised concepts.
Now I believe it is my responsibility to make the inner workings and the consequences of using new technologies more transparent. I would like viewers to leave an exhibition with a sense of amazement towards digital spaces, questioning their materiality and how our bodies relate through them and what environments and realities – bodily, social, emotional, environmental – they have consequences on. All technologies should be a means to better understand what it means to be human.
Nemo Nonnenmacher, καίω (burn), 2023.
As an artist working with the mediums of photography, sculpture, and virtual reality do you feel that these different art forms assist in pointing your viewers into your questioning of our experience and tactility in the virtual space?
When I started working with photography I was fascinated by the fact that everyone can take pictures nowadays. It is a medium that we use on a daily basis to communicate, remember and broadcast – in the case of social media – who we are (or what we want others to see we are). There is a very ingrained scientific connection between what you can see in a photograph and the statement: This is real. It happened. This is proof. I found this psychological ‘hook’ very interesting and a great starting point to look at spaces we don’t consider real, abstract or immaterial – like virtual spaces.
Virtual Reality (as well as Augmented Reality and other Cross-Reality applications) is on the other side of this spectrum, as it bears the possibility of entering a space that (on a superficial level) has no need for a connection to the real world. Its visual worlds can be generated entirely from code, with no physical imprint whatsoever. The starting point for a Virtual Reality experience is usually an expectation of entering another space that is separate from the reality we started in. ‘This is not real anyway’ – a similar psychological hook to photography, just the other way around. This again is what makes it so attractive to work with and to think about how I can connect the exhibition space with the virtual one.
Sculpture and installation are the physical components that allow me to bring these two expectations together. What I am looking for is something that highlights a sense of space, a site-specifity, a tactility or material that is already present in the digital and image space and makes experiencing one before or after the other more meaningful.
Thinker Maker Space of CYENS, Nicosia. Nemo Nonnenmacher residency exhibition ‘Kaio’. Installation shot.
In 2023, you are planning to work on creating an interactive virtual reality work to develop a fully interactive, world-watchable space that will function both online as well as offline. This biome, as you have referred to it, will be created using new technologies, data-driven elements, real-world data and physical experiences. Could you please elaborate on the challenges and technicalities involved in working on such a technology-advanced project?
On a technical level, the main challenge for this project is that most of the tools and plugins are not built for the use I intend them to use, at least not in the way to combine them. The project draws a lot from resources in gamedesign, the automobile industry and machine learning, and combining these often performance-heavy elements whilst maintaining a freedom to experiment visually is something that you would only find in large industry companies, game and film studios. And even then their technicians would look at you doubtfully and ask: Why would you even want to do it like that?
This means that I have to develop and test all these elements individually, in separate environments, before combining them together in a single biome. This is a great generator for other works along the way, like renderings, videos and sculptural ideas, as they act as little artistic playgrounds. But it also means that you have to keep an overview over compatibility, performance overheads, whether software versions are still working with each other in a few months time or not (quite a few of the applications I work with are in development phase and change frequently).
This makes it feel like a lot of the steps of this project are made on very fragile legs, especially as some of the technologies rise and fall with the combined knowledge of the communities they are built in, online tutorials, waiting for answers on tech-forums, whether they are open-source or not, or if a major player like Meta decides to change their privacy guidelines when it comes using eye tracking in their headsets.
Artistically it is very exciting, as there are a lot of possibilities in every aspect of these tools, as well as a sense of agency of its own, something that is unexplainable at first, or literally happens by chance. But on the flipside this makes it predestined for bugs and errors, especially later on when combining multiple interfaces or plugins, or literally failing hardware and having to wait for an update of the graphics driver.
In the midst of all this there are these moments of clarity, in which everything works as intended, where you can actually start to explore how it feels to be in this space…
But even more important than the technical side are the ethical implications that come with these types of technologies. They are often overlooked in the economical and political race to world-first. When we are talking about hosting content in the cloud, using server resources or hardware intended for machine learning workflows, we are, or should be talking about their footprint as well. It will be a particular challenge to realise a project like this, that on one hand maintains its relevance on a technological level, but on the other, artistically and responsibly considers a sustainable way to participate in and exhibit it.
The other thing we have to keep in mind is that the conversation around AI and machine learning with copyrighted material, images, videos, texts, content in general, is only just beginning. As always, the law has to catch up with what is happening right now and it certainly will have an impact on what will be developed and how. It is something that, even if you are using AI for artistic purposes – and not for a monetary one – you have to be aware of. It is something we should all advocate and there is no excuse for the lacking legislation.
Nemo Nonnenmacher, Virtual Biome (Work in Progress), 2023.
Can you walk us through the process of the use of data-driven elements in your works? Where can these be attained and how are they then implemented into your works?
There are several ways in which I use data-driven elements in my works. For one there is the input directly through sensors when working with an installation in the physical space. This could be movement data, like position in space, velocity, distance to an object or sculpture, or how many viewers are present in the exhibition. I usually use this kind of data to animate objects in the virtual space, activate and change sound, or to influence the visual language of the environment, like colour, movement of textures or light and darkness. This could be either a direct response, where the viewer has a direct feedback on his actions, like changing the colour of an object when walking closer, or a more subtle interaction, where the data is used to introduce randomness and noise to the environment. This makes things feel like they have a life of their own, like breathing or a vibration of a plant, or the swaying of a tree.
Secondly there is data requested from public server APIs. These are datastreams that are used for all sorts of commercial and noncommercial apps and software everyday, like real time weather data, movements and changes of and in the markets, like currency values, exchange rates (including crypto and fiat), or the usage of hashtags on social media, trends on twitter and website traffic.
One example of how I have used this in my work is the implementation of real-time weather data, in this case the temperature and humidity in Arakapas, an area in Cyprus that was heavily impacted by a fire in 2021. As the weather changed, so did the colour and light intensity values in the interactive video work for ‘burn’. This meant that the VR environment was reacting to the weather data at any given time, changing from morning to evening, and basically different every time a viewer would come to see the exhibition.
Thirdly it is the use of OpenAI and ChatGPT to send data and receive new strings of information, pieces of text, or images, to implement back into the VR environment on the fly. For example, in the work I am developing right now, I am tracking what viewers are looking at in the virtual space and for how long and then sending this data to an AI to generate a new string of text, or a corresponding visual that then in turn flows back into the game engine and changes what the viewer encounters next, or has an influence on the parameters of a material or object. This allows for a certain degree of storytelling, but more importantly for very individual and unique experiences and outcomes for every viewer, which will be different every time.