Vis-Ed: AIDS 3-D—A Berlin-based expat duo mashes technology, theory, '90s graphics, and high art in mixed-media works
- Words: Ali Gitlow
- Photo: Ali Gitlow
In the corner of a white room sits a tall, sleek, black pillar, a serene-looking symbol of some thoroughly modern form of ceremonial worship. On the front of it, the letters "OMG" (the well-worn internet abbreviation term for "Oh My God") appear in blue LED lights, blinking on and off. On either side of it sits a clump of lit black torches, suggesting that we are all bordering on religious zealotry in our ever-escalating obsession with technology.
This monument, called "OMG Obelisk," can be attributed to 24-year-olds Daniel Keller and Nik Kosmas, known by their collective name AIDS-3D. Originally from Detroit and Minneapolis respectively, the duo spent a couple years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to Berlin in 2006 to complete their studies. Since then, they have created numerous installations, performances, videos, animated gifs, and sound pieces displayed at the likes of the New Museum in New York and the Venice Biennale. Much of their work addresses the intersection of art, technology, and society, crafting cheeky visions of the future using janky production techniques.
This month, they have a solo show at the Autocenter in Berlin, for which they are "making a series of custom solar panels that discuss alternative energy in an open and critical way," according to Kosmas. In addition, they'll soon be showing at the Frame Gallery within the Frieze Art Fair in London, and partaking in a group show called Smart Fridge at the Kunstverein Medienturm in Graz, Austria. We caught up with the guys while they were preparing for their autumn takeover.
OMG Obelisk, 2007
XLR8R: How did you guys meet?
Nik Kosmas: One of us was born very close to the summer equinox and the other was born very close to the winter equinox. This professor of ours was like, "You should collaborate." This was before we had anything in common. We had opposite strategies for getting problems solved. It was really eerie.
How long have you been in Berlin? What do you like most about the city?
NK: We've been here since 2006. We were deciding between London and Berlin. We chose Berlin 'cause we like Germans; we like their reputation. They have this history of taking things very far, and I think we appreciate that sort of commitment to aesthetics. It also just seemed more foreign, and [we thought] that we'd grow more being put into a non-English-speaking country, although we haven't learned very much German; nur ein kleines bischen.
Some of your work deals with the concept of accelerating change—the belief that technological development happens at a constantly increasing rate. Do you believe in it?
NK: Yeah. We are skeptical believers, or are at least interested in the idea. Most of the people that talk about that put it in a positive light, but we are more in between. I just read a book by [Stanislaw] Lem, where he's writing as an [artificially intelligent being] lamenting the evolution of life. He says, "You think of algae as simpler than an eagle, but algae turns the flow of cosmic energy directly into life, it feeds on a star. What does an eagle feed on? Like a parasite on mice who feed on roots, a land variety of algae."
How tech-savvy are you?
Daniel Keller: We'll spend a lot of time researching emerging technologies and somewhat obscure industrial processes on the internet. But our computer skills are only about average for people around our age... some basic understanding of image, sound, video, and 3D software; mastery of none.
I hear that you don't like to explain the name AIDS-3D. Any particular reason?
NK: That's not true! We have a perfect explanation. Dan's mom is a branding consultant and she used a proprietary algorithm to generate the name based on our mutual interests in state-of-the-art technology and social activism.
What was it like having your "OMG Obelisk" included in the Younger Than Jesus exhibition at the New Museum in NYC? Did you feel that the piece fit in with the rest of the show?
DK: We were very happy to be selected, and I see how in a pretty literal way it fit the concept of the show very well. That being said, we weren't totally satisfied with the reproduction of our original makeshift crappy version. But I guess it was a good lesson on the importance of craft—or lack thereof. They did exactly what they said they would with the piece. It's just that the original was so random and then the re-do felt a bit dry, but it's more our lack of instruction than any fault of the installation team. There's a special skill to being an artist who works more like a production director, and it's something that we still haven't become completely comfortable with. At some point we realized that we can't build things to our own standards of perfection. And it's not always easy to find ways to keep the soul in the work.
Laser Grid, 2008
When and how did you guys make your video piece "Heat Death"?
NK: We made it with help from a museum called FACT in Liverpool. It's a dark, dusty office cubicle with a computer that has the classic star-field screensaver. The idea behind it that we put online is: Automated Mission Report: 3rd Planet of the System Sol.
System Scan initiated: Faint signals of electronic activity....No sign of sentient life...
Humanity is wiped out in the near future and this crappy screensaver is the closest we get to creating the "Omega Point" simulator/computer. The Universe expands forever and slowly converts all energy into cold, dead matter, no information is stored—Heat Death.
It was part of a show called Speculations on Cosmic Culture, which we had in Berlin at a now-defunct space called Montgomery. It was work that discussed ideas around cosmic evolution and accelerating change. I think these are subjects that we are going to be coming back to over and over again, because they feel so, well, universal.
It made me think about how much desk jobs suck. Have either of you ever had a 9-5 office job?
DK: I once had a 9-5 internship at the Chicago Historical Society as a digital archivist, which was pretty fascinating. But other than that, we haven't had normal jobs since before we went to art school.
Teen Atlantis Cyber Chat, 2008
How do your families feel about the work you make?
NK: They are very supportive. We are following in their footsteps, in many ways. They are all involved in advertising in some way or another, and at least two of them had artistic aspirations, but they had to use those skills to sell stuff so they could feed and clothe us. So we're sort of part two of a multi-generational project to breed some professional artists.
DK: I think for the most part they are very proud of us. There were a few issues where they thought we might be making things too alienating, but overall I think they trust our judgment.
Your piece "Alpha" asks that the collector who owns it keep $25,000 in a US bank account, and the piece of wood will trade stocks, thus "growing" even after it is dead. Has someone bought it, and are your intentions being carried out as you've stipulated?
NK: It's a smart piece of Thai driftwood which automatically day-trades stocks and futures, as long as it has an internet connection. It's not sold now, so it hasn't had the chance to really win or lose using more than a test account. We're going to be re-releasing the work with a custom algorithm. Right now it just subscribes to a Collective2 feed, which is a platform for people to share and sell monthly subscriptions to algorithmic trading platforms, which are the programs that issue the 'buy' and 'sell' signals.
The "Berserker" sculpture, a Styrofoam alien head on a classical-looking human body holding a USB stick with an image of the sculpture on it, begs viewers to think about the piece in terms of reproduction. How do you guys feel about copyright issues in relation to your work?
NK: We're not really concerned... the MP3s and JPGs are certainly free for the taking, and if people start making counterfeit sculptures, we'd be honored.
Is there any medium you guys haven't worked in that you'd like to try out?
NK: Genetic engineering custom plant strains, more robotics, more algorithmic things that aren't gimmicky, controlling animals or their cells with electrodes and/or chemicals in a safe and humane way.
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