Polish new media art and design collective panGenerator focuses on a wholly interactive approach to art, rejecting its traditional, voyeuristic aspect. Piotr Barszczewski, Krzysztof Cybulski, Krzysztof Goliński and Jakub Koźniewski joined forces in 2010 to nurture the now expanding digital art scene in Poland through their innovative works. They have even established their post-graduate coding programme to pass on their boundary-breaking skills on to others.
We managed to catch Koźniewski and Cybulski while they were briefly resting before continuing touring their massive new installation, Light Waves. The piece reflects how panGenerator attempts to usurp the common conception of digital technology as an alienating force, showing that digital art can conversely bring people together.
Hello guys, how are you doing today?
Jakub: Hello! We’re fine, busy as always (laughs). We’re having quite a big project which we’re exhibiting at events around Poland, and we’re just about to go on the road.
Oh really, where are you going?
Jakub: To Krakow, it’s kind of a tourist town. Right now, we’re in Warsaw, in our studio, but we’re going to go there and set up the installation for the second time, so we’re very busy!
What is it that you’re working on now?
Jakub: It’s an installation called Light Waves. We made it for the summer festival Meskie Granie It’s sponsored by one of the largest beer brands in Poland. We’ve made a huge and exciting installation that includes percussion instruments that people can drum on which generate light impulses that travel through space. There’s also a huge balloon with a projection that is synchronised with the drumming and light effects, so it’s quite a huge, outdoor, spectacular installation. There are recent video clips of it on our Instagram and Facebook.
Sounds spectacular, indeed! So now, to go back to the beginning, what were your expectations for the collective when you first formed in 2010?
Jakub: Oh, so we’re going back in time now (laughs). I don’t think we had any expectations, really. We were more excited about having the opportunity to create interesting projects through joining forces (as panGenerator). This allowed us to do more.
Krzysztof: And we just started becoming aware that there were other people in Poland doing the same sort of thing. There were some events where people were making work through DIY media, and this was in a sense the catalyst for our joining forces. We would meet there and recognise that we were all doing similar things, so wanted to collaborate in order to make some larger installations together.
Jakub: Yeah, right. The event that Krzysztof mentioned was called Media Lab, in a small village in Poland. It was an interesting media camp where various people gathered from very different backgrounds. It was the first type of this kind of event happening in Poland that centred around using new media technology to create interesting works of art. It wasn't only about art, there were also new technologies being used for various social purposes too. That was in 2010, so it was quite a while ago.
That makes a lot of sense because if we’re all doing the same kind of thing anyway, you might as well join forces to make something huge and amazing.
Krzysztof: Each of us had a different set of skills. Separately, we couldn’t create large-scale projects that had scope extending beyond our individual capabilities. But when we joined together, we were able to create larger projects encompassing all of our skill sets in design, electronics, coding and music.
Jakub: In fact, right now, we share a lot of our skills much more than we did in the beginning. I guess we’ve learned a lot from each other. This sharing is an interesting evolution. A benefit of working together is that you learn a lot from each other, and in a way, our skills are equalizing.
“We are much more into experiencing art than just understanding it on an intellectual level.” Jakub Koźniewski
You mentioned how you have people working on sound and things of the like, and many of your installations feature sound elements, like Spiralala and Apparatum. Why is that? Sound being usually exempt from the gallery space.
Krzysztof: Sound is a thing that exists out there, so why not use it? It’s one of the senses, so why shouldn’t it be incorporated in a work of art?
Jakub: Also, with new media technology, it’s almost inevitable that sound will be used. Right now, using modern tools like coding and electronics, it’s very easy to incorporate sound. Well, technically and artistically speaking. As Krzysztof said, it is hard not to include sound to a visual project or a visual layer into a primarily sound-based project. We like creating multi-sensory experiences so it's much more immersive and evocative – when you have an audible sound layer as well as a visual layer. Sound is important to this sense of interaction with the audience, and almost every time we use it in our installations, it’s in an interactive way.
Krzysztof: In the visual arts, we saw an evolution from static video art to more interactive and dynamic visuals; the same is happening with sound. We are no longer restricted to using recorded samples because now we can generate sound in real time through interactive stimuli. We’d rather not use prerecorded sound because we want the sound to be different every time.
Jakub: Sometimes, we sample the sound of the audience.
Krzysztof: Yes, we have some musical structures coded into the works like Mickyphon. The rhythmic structures are recorded but the actual sounds are recorded all the time.
So through sound, you give the audience a chance to become a part of the art?
Jakub: Yes, that is a very important part of our work. I guess that every piece we’ve done uses some kind of user-input, audience participation. It’s a new value that appears in new media art that differentiates it from traditional modern art, where you are just observing.
Is this also a technique to help the audience to understand art a little more? A lot of people go to a gallery and stare at a painting with no idea what they’re looking at.
Jakub: Yeah! That reminds me of another thing. We hate this kind of incomprehensible modern art.
Krzysztof: We don't mean that we hate all modern art though! We are just against the concept that it has to be incomprehensible and requires reading three pages of explanation in order to understand it. Art shouldn’t need a confusing philosophical background to make it valuable. We want our work to be comprehensible just through interaction, so we prefer creating experiences that people can dive into rather than making a large cloud of philosophy, which in itself is not very interesting.
Jakub: We are much more into experiencing art than just understanding it on an intellectual level. It's a much more sensory, sensual perception of art that we try to create here. Concerning the status quo, in order to be considered ‘real’, ‘high-art’, a piece must have many curators write texts featuring very vague philosophy with jargonistic language.
Krzysztof: They also say that an artwork is good if it’s ugly, but if it’s well-designed and attractive, it’s instantly described as ‘shallow’.
Jakub: We are trying to go in a different direction. We don’t agree with this approach to modern art. In a way, we’re trying to get back to the roots. We attempt to amaze the audience, surprise the audience, and create interesting interactions.
What do you think has been a piece of yours that has most surprised the audience?
Jakub: It’s hard to say from the perspective of the creator (laughs). We were surprised by the audience’s reaction to Constellaction, our emergent light installation. We usually create an open situation for the audience by providing them with some basic elements to interact with, and then we are surprised to see what people come up with in regard to, say, the arrangement of some of the pieces.
With Constellaction, the audience would experiment with making infinite loops of light, or someone would lie on the ground so another person could arrange the light pyramids around their silhouette. These were things that we didn't imagine the audience would do. This is a very valuable aspect of interactive work: there is always some joy and even sometimes a bit of fear at the prospect of the audience ‘misusing’ your piece in a way you hadn’t planned. So I think that we are the surprised party here!
Krzysztof: I think that Constellaction also exceeded our expectations in terms of how it influenced social connections between people. They created whole groups to facilitate some of their ideas on how to arrange the pieces.
Jakub: I really like that installation because it generated social interactions through technology. Because, most of the time, people think of technology as something that alienates people and removes them from one another, when actually, you can use it in art situations to gather people together. Social interactions that occur on top of technological interactions are very valuable. For example, for our latest installation that I mentioned earlier, we also tried to create a piece wherein people gather around a common object and perhaps drum in synchrony.
Do you see art becoming more digitised?
Krzysztof: I think there are still categories of art that are not willing to change, and maybe that's good. Traditional craft is still something to be valued and I don't think this will change. There was a trend in architecture back in the ‘90s where universities stopped teaching people how to draw by hand because they valued CAD software more. I had a friend that found it very easy to find a job in Western Europe because she knew how to draw by hand! It was a skill that was still very sought after in real-life situations for an architect. We can’t really replace true artistic craft with technology; they can complement each other but not destroy each other. There will still be sculptures made by hand even though we can use machines to make them.
Jakub: Yeah. We’re definitely going to see more and more art being created digitally or through digital means. It’s an inevitable evolution. But as Krzysztof said, I don’t believe that there’ll be the situation where art forms like sculpture and painting will disappear. Because so much of our work is digitised right now, people might start to prefer more analogue, humanistic works of art to escape from this digital reality. This situates us is in the middle.
We’re trying to blur the lines between what’s digital and what’s analogue. We like to say that we mix beats and atoms together. So through this, we try to join both worlds and get the best of both in our work. We aren’t denying people the possibility of touching the objects and experiencing them in some kind of space, but adding this additional digital, dynamic layer enriches the experience and makes a lot more things possible.
Krzysztof: It’s what they call a ‘post-digital approach’. After being amazed and adapting digital technology to everything, whether it’s necessary or not, I think we are entering the phase where this technology settles and finds its way into the rest of the world so we can create in many areas that are natural combinations of both digital and analogue technology.
It makes total sense. And we can see these combinations more and more, like in VR. 
Jakub: For example, we are not big fans of virtual reality; we think it’s very over-hyped. With virtual reality, at the moment, we sort of forget that people have bodies, and those bodies interact with the physical. With VR, you’re just waving your hands in the air but you don't receive any physical feedback. In our work, we’re not trying to do anything that’s 100% digital most of the time, but we are trying to find a midpoint.
Krzysztof: Our first project together was a musical controller, Dodecaudion, but we felt that the typical laptop performance was missing a physical component. I think right now we can see this trend occurring; more and more people are abandoning the laptop as the central electronic music set-up. After a peak of using digital equipment, I feel like people will always go back to the old.
Jakub: What’s going to go forwards in this matter is the perception of art. I expect more and more digital artworks are going to be considered true, real art. This barrier between oil painting and on-screen interactive visualization is going to blur more and more, so that people will gradually embrace and accept that the piece that’s placed on the digital screen might be as worthy as the oil painting next to it.
There is a link on your website to the School of Form in Warsaw for a post-graduate programme called Creative Coding. What is your relationship with the school?
Jakub: We initiated a teaching program, which is the first in Poland. We're teaching post-graduates to use new media technologies and incorporate them into their art. It’s mostly for people who have finished studying industrial design from a traditional fine art academy and they’re willing to get to know digital tools, using code to broaden the field and scope of their work. We provide students with coding and electronic skills and teach them how to join the two together.
What inspired you to start teaching?
Krzysztof: It seemed natural in the sense that the digital skills in the art field are still relatively new. Since we were some of the first in Poland to really get a grasp of these skills, there was always someone approaching us who wanted to learn more about them. Naturally, we always thought of teaching as one of the areas in which we wanted to work.
Jakub: From early on, we provided workshops here and there for various audiences, from art students to a more general public. After doing many of those workshops over the years, we thought that we should make it more formal. There are still a lot of people willing to learn, and there aren’t a lot of opportunities for them to do so in Poland, so it’s naturally evolved in this way. We are giving things that we have also received. Many of our skills and knowledge come from other people’s open-sourcing code, and we learnt a lot from various tutorials on the Internet. The new media art community is very open to sharing their knowledge. We got a lot from the community so we wanted to give back.
“We can’t really replace true artistic craft with technology; they can complement each other but not destroy each other.” Krzysztof Cybulski
What does art mean to you as a collective? It’s a big question, so feel free to take some time to think about it!
Krzysztof: I’m not sure we ever ask ourselves this question!
Jakub: We can’t do an official statement but we can answer for ourselves.
Krzysztof: I like the definition that our friend from Germany Niklas Roy came up with – he’s a very good new media artist. He doesn’t identify as a new media artist but instead says that he is an ‘inventor of unnecessary things’. So I don't know, we don’t define it, we just do it!
Jakub: I have a love/hate relationship with that. On one hand, I just enjoy creating new things and just observing the reactions of the audience and their interactions with the work. On the other hand, I am often exhausted. I ask myself if it’s really worth dedicating so much time and effort to something that is not making the world a better place. The ephemeral situations hopefully bring some joy, awe, and interesting experiences to the audience, but it’s also not the most necessary thing for humanity. From a wider perspective, of course, I wouldn’t say that art is unnecessary; I do think we need art to survive mentally and socially.
Krzysztof: Similarly, you could say that football or baseball are unnecessary. But then, my fellow colleagues asked themselves after a disaster occurred, ‘what difference does it make in the world if we make art?’ They came to the conclusion that there has to be some sense of balance. Art can be used to make a positive impact even if it is not direct. It doesn't feed the hungry, but maybe, it balances the ugly and evil versus the beautiful and good.
Jakub: In the end, I think that if what we do sparks some joy or ignites inspiration in someone, it’s worth doing. I hope that most of our works provide an enriching experience to at least some of the audience. Maybe we can inspire someone to pursue a creative path or see reality from an alternative angle by being surprised by the way we stretch the limits of what is possible.
What are your hopes and plans for the future of panGenerator?
Jakub: Wow! That’s a hard one. I don’t know.
Krzysztof: To finally get some rest!
Jakub: No, no (laughs),
Krzysztof: We’re always trying to break barriers and make stuff that no one else has done before, so it’s exhausting in a lot of ways. But I’m not sure we can live without it!
Jakub: I guess short-term, after this recent event we’re doing, we’re probably going to need a vacation for a couple of months (laughs). After creating large-scale advanced installations, I think it would be beneficial for us to get back to the roots a bit more using smaller experiments. But hopefully, we can regain our strength and enthusiasm and return to creating some other amazing pieces that are going to push the boundaries of what’s possible in art further.
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