Ben Clement and Material Frictions - Art Collector

Ben Clement, the Spirit of Change 2015. Recast plastic waste, thermal paper heat transfer, dimensions variable, installation view, M.I., Berlin. Photo: Navot Miller. Courtesy: the artist

By Joel Mu

We recently worked together on your solo-exhibition in Berlin, entitled the Spirit of Change. I’m interested to know what you do after a project is finished, how you look at things differently, if you change your physical environment, like your workspace at the Städelschule in Frankfurt?

After an exhibition, I keep objects and materials I have been working with in my studio visible. I repurpose and rearrange them. It’s important for me to recalibrate, and consider the work with more distance, not to pack it away and move on to the next thing. The materials I work with are transitional in nature and being exhibited doesn’t render the objects as finished. I am interested in the way these transitional materials hold a narrative of how they have been translated through sites, processes and value systems. Being exhibited is one more transition that they have made.

Ben Clement, the Spirit of Change, 2015. Thermal paper heat transfer, dimensions variable, installation view, M.I., Berlin. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Navot Miller

I guess one reason why I’m curious about your workspace is because of your interests in materials and objects. When we last spoke, I remember you talking about objects of desire, material frictions and thinking about communication networks as a series of resistances. Can you explain?

We were talking about the emotional investment in objects as a cluster of promises laminated onto an object. As an attachment, these desires can only exist while the object sits outside your proximity, an idealised version of you. For the Spirit of Change I was considering an inversion of this. Here the objects I worked with are attached to an idea of progress, but this is negated by a sense of pedestrian depravity. The three objects I worked with were post-consumer plastic lumber, the scene of a construction site (or more precisely an excavated hole), and tree stumps studded with coins; a kind of inverted wishing well which I saw in Wales. As peripheral objects of progress these references lack obvious attachments, but still hold both elements of cynicism and of hope.

Objects exist, like humans, under a cradle to grave regime. By material frictions I’m referring to the moments of contact these objects have with other agents that mediate their value or form. These agents could be human or mechanical. In my recent show, one of the interests I had was in plastics recycling, tracing the arc of oil being refined from the earth into a consumer product that cycles, degrades and recondenses. One of the visible human agents in this cycle, at least in Germany, is the Pfandsammler (fund collector in English), who is part of a freelance labour-market, collecting plastic bottles for the resale value of this material. In The Spirit of Change I use the image of the Pfandsammler looking into a bin for potential bottles. It's a common sight, but the moment holds an intensity of looking into a material void, both of hope and despair.

The images displayed in the exhibition are made through a rather labour intensive process of a thermal transfer on thermal (fax) paper, displayed in a repeated series that wrapped over the space. The print takes place by the paper being rolled over a heated metal plate, which is etched with the image, this contact burns the image onto the paper, similar to putting a very hot coin onto a shopping receipt. The process is a material-performance of the image, in that it is scorched anew each time the image is re-printed. For me, the work is a document, of both the image and its material-performance. It has a throw away feel to it, and due to the stock, the image will eventually fade away.

I also worked with a plastics company who specialise in plastic lumber, a construction material made of injection moulded plastic waste. The end result is a thick sheet, its surface a webbed grain caused by the high pressure injection process, which perhaps contains these pfand bottles. It returns to a kind of object hood that it begun after a life of morphology. I’m interested in objects beginning to take on a character via human engagement or attachment. Its exciting to consider some equality between human agents and material agents, it feels slightly sci-fi or like blue-collar voodoo.

Ben Clement, the Spirit of Change, 2015. Offsite work, loose change studded into length of lumber found in a construction site, Auguststrasse, Berlin. Photo: Navot Miller. Courtesy: the artist

You recently co-presented a lecture (with Michael Stevenson and Thilo Gödel) at the Academy of Fine Arts in Nürnberg, entitled Beginning with the modem… I remember you showing me a curious photograph related to opening a modem. How did the lecture come about and how does the story of the photograph fit in?

The talk came out of a conversation I had with Michael about a dissatisfaction with the emphatic jubilation of technology and rhetoric surrounding seamless exchange of information via the cloud. We presented the talk by examining the objects of Internet infrastructure in a linear way, beginning with the rather sad and neglected object of the modem in the home (via the data highway of subterranean fibre optic cables, signal repeaters, data servers and back again). The focus was to understand the material resistances in each object, like the speed of light slowing by a third in the glass of fibre optic, or where rare earth minerals used in signal repeaters came from and that this network was a built on a series of objects in dialogue with one another. This very material nature of this system mean it is open to failure.

The image you mentioned was an instructional photograph of a device that Thilo, a telecommunications engineer, was commissioned to make in the late 1990s. The device was made to crack open the plastic casing of a domestic modem by inserting a series of rods to release interior tabs. We don’t know the reasons why this needed to happen, or if it was ever used, but as an image of an elsewhere object, it enacted the central proposition of two object communicating with one another, both becoming available to its counterpart via resistance.

Lecture slide from Beginning with the Modem... 2015. ADBK NÅ«rnberg, Courtesy: Thilo Gödel. Photo: Thilo Gödel

The image of a subterranean Internet reminds me of the Darknet and your research into torrent-uploaders who create trademark-like portraits of their avatar identities. How did that research start and do you think the uploader-avatars are engaging users socially, politically, morally?

Like most of my research, it began with consumption. I came across these images by torrenting many films, and noticing an additional file in the group one receives after downloading a film. It is called an .nfo file (short for information file) and it details specs about the film, its synopsis, IMDB rating, video codec, etc, but more interestingly it displays a logo banner, similar in design to a contents page and of the warez (short for software) group, and info about who uploaded it and banter about the ‘scene’. With names like “DrinkOrDie”, “CineFile” and “Cern0py”, the images are made in ASCii, a very early form of digital illustration where images are built up from symbols and opened in an NFO reader to be viewed in halftone. As images they enact a very 1990s juvenile and kind of hip-hop bravado to them, and it's this baroque quality of seemly invisible, but ultimately quite powerful online transgressive communities which become a very obscure mascot for the political discussion around copyright law in entertainment and distribution. They also become a footnote to the experience of this or that film. Private acts such as downloading or streaming a film is, in our current information age, as much a political act as public opinion on the matter, as it qualifies this new mode of consumption in numbers. It is large enough for the entire industry to change in response to it and these transgressive characters are at the ground zero.

In recent art there seems to be a resurgence of interest in the avatar. What is your take on the appearance of avatars in our culture?

Avatars exist primarily out of necessity, as a navigational tool for virtual space. The relevance is that it offers an extra moment of consideration when delivering one's identity, that there is an opportunity to manipulate and extend subjectivity. But at the end of the day it’s the real-world relation of these identities that is interesting. Modular forms of expressing identity are nothing new, it’s just far more present for everyone now.

It is a necessity for example that the identities of warez uploader groups are anonymous, to protect themselves from conviction. This kind of hacker aesthetic remains almost unchanged from its origins in the early Internet (bulletin board systems), which were used for open software exchange, before it being financialised. It now exists in this dated aesthetic because of the inevitable financiation of content in relation to its roots. I’m less interested in the capacity for these identities to bloom and morph and more in where they condense and become documents of exchange. I feel a bit allergic to the term avatar in relation to art, even though it is such a broad term and used in many ways, there can be a tendency to simply fetishise tools of communication over the specific origin or politic of them. This ends in a grand-narrative navel gazing that I’m not interested in.

Ben Clement, Antitrust Inquiry, 2015. Recast plastic waste, thermal paper heat transfer. Photo: Ben Clement. Courtesy: the artist and Städelschule Rundgang, Frankfurt

You recently sourced a large amount of celluloid film from the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Berlin. Is this for your next project – where is this research and material taking you?

Yes, it's not the first time I have worked with ex-cinema celluloid. Previously I have produced work from 35mm prints stolen from film distributors of companies like Paramount. While incredibly expensive to produce, this celluloid film was suppose to be destroyed because it is so large and difficult to store but also its vulnerability to the black market. This practice of using celluloid projection prints is reaching its end as digital cinema is replacing physical copies. I am currently working together with the plastic lumber firm I mentioned earlier to re-cast this ex-archive 35mm celluloid I have recently acquired into a construction material. I am going to work with a furniture designer using this material to produce set furniture for film production with the intention of the object becoming an image again, although this is evolving as it progresses. Today’s inherent nostalgia in the material image of film, seen in the likes of Instagram filters, slots into the notion of gentrified ‘authenticity’. This next project seeks to arrange an awkward marriage with industrial chic and industrial reality.

Ben Clement, the Spirit of Change 2015. Recast plastic waste, dimensions variable, installation view, M.I., Berlin. Photo: Navot Miller. Courtesy: the artist

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