In Conversation with: Christian Zöllner of The Constitute

INTERNATIONAL NOTICE chatted to Christian about early adopting, what makes a great performance and The Ramones.

IN: How did The Constitute come about?

CZ: Sebastian [Piatza] and I were both part of VR Urban. There were five of us in the beginning and then four. We made the SMSlingshot which was exhibited in the MoMA and travelled all over the place. Our first task as a collective was to figure out how to bring the design art side and the tech side together. Tech specialists tend to look at a problem in order to find the shortest distance from A to B, but from a design perspective we go in circles and iterate. At some point, people had kids, or went off to study or got 9-to-5 jobs, so Sebastian and I decided to do our own thing. We work as a liquid network now; for each project, people come and people go.

IN: What’s your professional background?

CZ: Both of us are trained as industrial designers. I was into product design initially – objects like vases, lights, tables, lamps – but during my diploma, I became more interested in designing how people use things, and then I was even more interested in how people use things that aren’t actually there – like in VR. The Fraunhofer Group lab in Berlin had a CAVE [computer animated virtual environment]; it’s a cube, open on one side, with five translucent white sides and a projector behind each one. You wear semi-transparent glasses that shutter on one side and then the other. The shuttering is linked to the projectors and it shifts too fast for you to see, so you perceive a 3D object that you can walk around. It’s basically like a holodeck. They were developing a 3D sketching app and our brief was to look at the implications of the technology and how to interact with it. We worked on it later as The Constitute too. We brought our design competence to the mix, and they brought their tech competence. The combination made it really interesting.

IN: Performersion brings people together from all points on the continuum from hard tech to performance and art. Where do you see yourself on that continuum?

CZ: Right in the middle. Tech people tend to put the tech right up front in focus. We used to do this too, but we soon realised that Silicon Valley will never have the chance to fulfill their promise because tech is always in the hands of the people. It’s more important to enable people to teach themselves to use tech rather than just endlessly coming up with new stuff. I’m not a fan of always working with cutting edge technologies and I’m a bad early adopter. On the other hand, a lot of art people are all about externalising something personal. This is not the point for us either. We work as advocates for ideas and issues, enabling a dialogue and making it happen, conducting a team of likeminded professionals from different fields.

IN: So you often find yourself between the techies and the artists?

CZ: Yes, at Performersion, we are booked as tech people, but often, we are booked as the art and concept people. I’m very interested in Performersion because the performing arts are totally new for us. I want to go in and learn something more than I can come in with.

IN: I was interested to hear you call yourself a bad early adopter – I feel I am more stimulated by basic technologies I can actually understand, like a teleprompter for example …

CZ: I totally agree with you that these ‘ancient’ technologies are amazing. It’s not possible to advance in the design field if you do not understand the complexities of the tech involved. If you don’t understand how to make the plastic casing for a biro, you will never be able to make it different or better. We learnt that we need to respect the technologies and keep track of them. Otherwise, tech will just go off and do its thing, and we will do our lower-complexity thing.

IN: So you don’t consider yourself a tech expert?

CZ: No – I’m a passionate lay-person. I have people all around me who are early adopters and I talk to them. When I get really interested in something, I know I’m ready to work with it. Some people want to be Mark Knopfler, the best guitar player in the world and they practice and practice and practice. But you can also do the Ramones thing – just put it together, and put it out there. You can be rough and see what happens. We are more these guys. From that point it starts to evolve. We don’t sit in our rooms striving to be the best. We can’t even approach that.

IN: Can you tell us in detail about one of your projects?

CZ: In Ready to Cloud we created a holographic display for teleportation. Everything we know about teleportation comes from Star Trek, and the basics we know about holographic projection comes from Princess Leia’s message for Obi Wan Kenobi. These films came out ages ago. We wanted to know why we don’t have these things in our backyards yet. We worked with off-the-shelf materials and open source code, and were able to create a holographic teleportation system. We showed it at Liverpool, Milan, Riga … people loved it because we made it very shiny and blingy.

IN: Would this technology being good for performance?

CZ: Well perhaps, but in Liverpool, we saw a piece called Future Primed. You came out of the cold, grim October, and had to go into a room and change into a gown and slippers. They gave you yoga tea to drink and everything smelled amazing. In the next room there was a Dream Machine where you had to stand in a circle holding hands, and then in the next room, you all lie down on the floor in the dark. There is a guy asking if anyone is claustrophobic, and not to touch anything, and don’t move, and all this stuff. They had a surround-sound system with an ambient drone soundtrack, and then there was some lasers. When it was over, we left through another door and all our clothes were hanging out there in the street! I was super-impressed by it all, by the way they took the audience through this wonderful process and made a performance out of it. It made me realise you don’t need this big Tivoli-style thing. If we made Ready to Cloud again, there would be a waiting room, and stewards. You’d have to sign a finger-thick terms of use about what would happen if you lost a finger, or an ear. When your number comes up, you’d give them your ticket and your paperwork and then you’d be teleported. Of course, you wouldn’t come back through the same door. The tech has to be a part of a broader concept – like a prop, or an actor – something that gives the whole thing a futuristic touch. It can’t ever hold the performance together on its own. The people and the ideas and the consistency do that. We learnt that the tough way.

IN: Tell us about your lab at Performersion …

CZ: Ricoh gave us the chance to try out one of their brand new 360° cameras. Of course we said YES. Now we have a big question about this new technology that we want to explore with performance makers: How do you make a storyboard for 360° video with no camera angles? What are the implications of not having a directed view? We create attraction by guiding the view, but what if that attraction is not strong enough and the viewer just looks elsewhere? Performing arts people have to be aware that this tech is coming and start thinking about adapting to it. It will change everything. The kids know already – they don’t get just sitting in the cinema and looking at the screen with a lot of people. They sit at home in their virtual worlds and look wherever they want to look.

  1. MAY 2016