Stewart Smith
Kunsthal Charlottenborg interview

Kunsthal Charlottenborg interview

In retrospect it’s amazing we could even string words together into proper sentences. Yet here we were opening night, perched on the gallery’s Tetris-like seating forms, expounding on Bobby’s insightful phrase “the critical weight of the pixel” in reference to the second gallery presentation of Exit (Native Land, Stop Eject)—our evolving data art collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, et al.

Our behemoth, 45 minute, panoramic data animation Exit (Native Land, Stop Eject)—a geospatial documentary about global migration and its causes—was commissioned by and premiered at the Fondation Cartier gallery (Paris) in November 2008. We restaged and augmented the piece for Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg gallery to coincide with the COP15 climate summit in December 2009. Absolutely exhausted, Bobby and I participated in this haphazard interview during opening night in Copenhagen.

At the Copenhagen opening for Exit (Native Land, Stop Eject), Bobby (right) articulates competently as I (left) struggle to hold the microphone without shaking.

Why so exhausted you might ask? This piece was a monster. 45 minutes of 360° panoramic video consisting of hand-coded data animations. Each frame, 8192 × 1024 pixels. 25 frames per second. It was a beast to render on the desktop workhorse machines of 2009—each of the six narrative chapters taking several hours to output frames, and then compile on ZKM’s custom panoramic projection system. Our first incarnation of the piece in Paris consisted of five narrative chapters, so the bulk of the conceptual work had been completed the previous year. But the new sixth chapter was itself a slog, and because this exhibition presented the opportunity to make adjustments to the first five chapters, our scope of work expanded to include re-rendering the entire work anyhow.

There were small aspects of the piece we artists wished to update. And then there were Fondation Cartier’s requests that were painfully metered out over time, rather than established all at once well in advance. Carter had commissioned the piece initially, and were now dangling the purchase of it for their permanent collection over us—or more accurately, over the big names on the piece, who then appropriately distributed that pressure upon Bobby and myself. (Cartier did eventually acquire Exit into their permanent collection.) In addition to the laborious development time ahead of our travel to Copenhagen, Bobby and I spent about two weeks onsite installing and completing the final renders ahead of the exhibition.

Finally, it was the night prior to opening. Charlottenborg had organized a dinner for the artists. But more last-minute content change requests [demands] necessitated that Bobby and I skip dessert and the after-dinner fraternization; instead returning to the gallery to code the final edits, test them, then render and compile final frames. (Yes, we had to skip our own party in order to finish the thing that the party was being thrown in honor of. Ha!) But this was more or less fine with us; our objective being to deliver the best possible version of the piece.

The real thorns of the rose appeared in the pre-dawn hours of the following morning. Bobby and I (and ZKM’s invaluable Nikolaus Völzow) had been inside the museum working through the night as a selection of our colleagues and partners partook in the free flowing alcohol of whatever string of after-parties unfolded across the city. The result? A close friend of the exhibition arriving at the museum in tears, terribly inebriated, and rather angry at the Bilbao curator who had made repeated, unwanted, aggressive passes at her. (There’s more to this—better left unsaid.) It was a mess. A mess that cast each character involved in the poorest of lights. I later found this curator, confronting him on the frozen rooftop of whoever’s apartment that was, and threatened to delete the source code and renders from every machine and backup drive before he could exhibit it at his museum—the next planned stop on its world tour. (Apologies to Liz and Ric, et al. but his behavior was entirely unacceptable and yours truly was perhaps not making the wisest choices after this already anxiety-laden sprint to the finish line.) Such is life.

And there you have the context for this ad-hoc dud of an interview above. (But the piece itself went over rather well.)

In contrast, six years later Liz and Ric do a far superior job of describing Exit (Native Land, Stop Eject) as the piece continues to tour the world.