Bridging Realities: An Interview with Manuel Rossner

by Lucia Longhi // Feb. 25, 2022

Manuel Rossner is a Berlin-based artist who designs digital spaces and virtual architectures, merging physical and digital worlds with spatial interventions and thus questioning the boundaries between the two realities. With his virtual extensions and artworks, he explores how art and architecture can contribute to the creation of a new hybrid dimension. Rossner’s site-specific augmented reality experiences question the future of technology. He recently launched REALWORLD, a project including an app and a digital exhibition space featuring a collection of works by around 50 artists who shaped the digital era.

Rossner often collaborates with museums and institutions, expanding their architecture and embedding gaming experiences into them. His site-specific VR work for the Hamburger Kunsthalle exhibition ‘Out of Space’ (2021) became part of the museum’s permanent collection. He also created a digital version of the St. Agnes church in the virtual world Decentraland, where Johann König and Anika Meier curated the first digital group show of NFTs in March 2021. Rossner’s digital exhibition rooms also function as “gyms,” in which he trains artificial intelligence. The artist questions and experiments with traditional media in virtual reality, speculating on their possible future in the digital dimension.

Rossner strongly believes in the potential of creating a community via NFTs that goes beyond the boundaries of the digital realm. His art practice questions and reflects the digital age we live in, in which artificial intelligence and gamification of reality forge our new aesthetic codes and social behaviors.

Manuel Rossner: ‘How Did We Get There,’ 2021, site-specific VR installation, Hamburger Kunsthalle // Courtesy of the artist

Lucia Longhi: What is the potential of working at the intersection between real and virtual worlds? Some people are still skeptical and see the two as separated. How did you start using virtual reality, and how do you embed it within the physical world?

Manuel Rossner: What I am really interested in is the intersection between virtual and physical space. One of the first things I did, in 2012, was I create the Float Gallery, a virtual exhibition space with architectural visualization, like a photorealistic game. We are used and trained to live and experience spaces. We know what depth is, and how light behaves. Now algorithms are able to perfectly mimic these elements and their behaviours. There is a lot of industry around this, game engines and cinema effects, but architecture also uses this type of software to simulate building and predict architectural proposals. So it’s all very interesting, because you can dig into many possibilities and dynamics that are ultimately shaping our real world—they are no longer relegated to the digital dimension alone. Most evolution of technology comes from games, but now it has made its way into every part of our life. Everything is a digital experience, it’s a new way of living. Technology also allows us to create almost perfect objects and situations. And this also reflects on society and our psychology because, on one side, we live 100 percent with technology but, on the other side, it clashes with our essence as humans, because no one can perform like a computer.

Manuel Rossner: ‘How Did We Get There,’ 2021, site-specific VR installation, Hamburger Kunsthalle // Courtesy of the artist

LL: You said that a big part of the evolution of technology comes from games. Actually the gaming experience is integral to our work. It’s very interesting how you embed it within architecture and art, turning them into interactive spaces. For example, at Hamburger Kunsthalle, you created a virtual space that could be explored like in a game. How could gaming experience impact our experience of art? And, on the other hand, how can art meaningfully contribute to the interaction with virtual spaces?

MR: As an artist, for me the most interesting thing is that there are no limits in what you can do. For example, for Hamburger Kunsthalle, I created this sort of line that I draw in virtual reality with VR glasses. It crashes into the building, so you have a brand new path on the museum. You can visit it by turning into a little character. You can experience it with an app or at the location with virtual reality glasses. When I created this work, there was also an exhibition of the collection of Hamburger Kunsthalle in the museum. I reproduced all the words virtually, and also my physical work ‘Surprisingly Blue’ was exhibited there. It is both a physical and digital work.

Manuel Rossner: ‘Surprisingly Blue,’ 2021, Hamburger Kunsthalle // Photo by Fred Dott

LL: ‘Surprisingly Blue’ is a challenge to the notion of painting and sculpture in the digital age. While drawing from the very traditional media of painting and sculpture (because you actually create them by using your body, your hands and handling virtual pictorial material), you embed the true essence of virtuality in them. Where do we draw the line between traditional art and digital art?

MR: I created ‘Surprisingly Blue’ by painting with blue color in space with VR glasses and, while doing so, I referred to the traditional canvas portrait dimensions, the rectangle. So it actually has the features of a traditional painting. On the other hand, it exists also physically with a certain depth, so it could also be considered a sculpture. The digital work is like a painting, the physical work looks like a sculpture… the boundary is blurred, and this is what fascinates me. I used cinema special effects technology to create it. It simulates objects in physical space, because I am really interested in exploring the materiality. For example, take wood: you can burn it, you can break it into pieces, you know how it will behave. Digital materials have similar properties and you can experiment with them in the same way, exploring lights and shadows and movements and physical properties. Just like a a traditional visual artist, I experiment with materials and how they behave in space.

Manuel Rossner: ‘The Artist is On-Line,’ 2021, for König Galerie in Decentraland // Courtesy of the artist

LL: You are among one of the first artists who jumped into NFTs and you have been invited to join auctions since the very beginning of this hype. The big debate has been, for a long time, whether NFTs are art or not. Some artists claim that NFT art is now a movement, because it is a specific type of art with its values and aesthetic codes. What’s your position on this? And could you give us feedback on how the NFT market is going from your side?

MR: Yes, I was among the first artists who explored the many possibilities offered by NFTs in 2021. For example, in March, I moved KÖNIG GALERIE’s St. Agnes church into a virtual space called Decentraland, a space where you can buy land, build architecture and show NFTs. In the virtual version of St. Agnes, Johann König and Anika Meier curated the show ‘The Artist Is On-line,’ with around 20 artists showing their artworks, which were also NFTs, and so they were on sale. It was one of the first group exhibitions with NFTs in an art gallery in a virtual space. As for the question of whether NFTs gave rise to an art movement, I’m not sure. Since I am also programming and coding, I have a technical view on NFTs from their very beginning. For me, they are mostly a container where you can put what you want: painting and sculpture, yes, but also pieces of land and other things. So the world of NFTs is very broad. At the same time, with all the auctions and the big hype around NFTs used for artworks, of course now it is a thing and there’s critical dialogue around it. Digital art to me is broader than NFTs. For now, NFT art is mostly video loops and jpgs. But, in some platforms like Hic et Nunc, there is a community and dialogue, so we might also say that it is a movement.

Manuel Rossner: ‘New Float,’ 2022 // Courtesy of the artist

LL: Talking about community, I have the feeling that your new project REALWORLD arises precisely from a sense of community and the urgency to create a space for digital art for a broader public, in order to expand the discourse outside the crypto niche, so to say. Could you talk about REALWORLD and the new museum you started in Berlin, New Float? The latter originates also from the urgency to give the city a space for digital art, which was missing, right?

MR: Museum is a big word. What I actually created is a space for my own collection! But yes, it is a new space for digital art in Berlin. Starting from the beginning, my art practice started with me creating an online art gallery, Float Gallery, and the first thing that I did was not simply to create art, but to invite artists to explore this digital space. So New Float is a sort of evolution of it. It is a new digital building in a construction site in Berlin, next to Neue Nationalgalerie. The construction is still ongoing, so I thought it was a perfect occasion. Everything was born from the question: where in Berlin do we have a space for digital art? There are great project spaces but not public institutions. And, generally speaking, there are not so many places to experience digital art.

I’ve also started collecting NFTs. One of the first was an artwork I showed in Float Gallery in 2013. Now I buy NFTs and it’s important to note that these artworks are often editions of 100 and not so expensive, and some platforms now are also ecologically friendly and pay attention to the carbon footprint. As for the market, there have always been a lot of differences between traditional and digital art. Traditional galleries and traditional collectors have never been so interested in digital art but now, thanks to NFTs and the work of many curators and artists, the market is growing. It is possible to live through the sale of NFTs.

This article is part of our feature topic of ‘Digital.’ To read more from this topic, click here.

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