I conducted this interview with Valentin Ruhry for the catalog of a show I curated, titled Fünf Räume, the at the Austrian Cultural Forum, New York, which took place in the summer of 2011. Ruhry (born 1982 in Graz, Austria, lives and works in Vienna) works primarily in sculpture using an analytical, scientific approach. His creations are inspired by technological achievements, though more frequently by out-dated ideas once believed to be visionary. Regularly examining the formal and aesthetic aspects of objects, one of his major themes is light and its modulation as well as physically measurable qualities such as tension, force, and friction. In Fünf Räume, Ruhry presented two new works, one of which was created specifically for the exhibition titled Adaption. Drawing from the elaborate electrical and data system of the building, as seen through the variety of sockets and outlets within his exhibition space, Adaption, a quite humorous work, plays with ideas of functionality through mirroring the actual systems on the adjacent wall with non-operational replicas. His second work, Untitled (Hello World), composed of over 4000 illuminated rocker switches, speaks to both an interest in vintage technology and the visual language of Minimalism.
A previous work by Valentin Ruhry: Welle, 2010
Artist Interview: There is an interesting range found in the two works you present here: one has a fairly straight-forward concept with a very complex execution (Hello World) while the other has a fairly straight-forward execution with a more complex concept (Adaption). How do both of these works relate to your practice?
Valentin Ruhry: I never saw it from that perspective because if you look beyond the complexity that seems to be so divergent, you’ll see a connection to my other works: material. Cables, plugs, switches and light have essentially become my working equipment. And of course, despite all that, there is a basic idea that connects them.
AI: Was creating one more difficult than the other? Were there any surprises in the process?
Valentin Ruhry, Adaption, 2011, installed at the Austrian Cultural Forum
VR: The biggest challenge but also the greatest reward when you work site-specifically is that the final result can only be visible when you are finished. This - contrary to the work in the studio - leaves little room for mistakes. Naturally some concepts are more convincing while others can sometimes raise fears. In that case it’s good to examine the space in the best possible way and review and emend your concept if necessary to resolve all doubts.
AI: In the weeks since the show opened, Untitled (Hello World) has become an internet phenomenon, appearing on technology and design blogs and having images of it shared across numerous platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr. In fact, I originally found out about your work on the curated art blog, vvork.com, before I met you in Vienna. Do the internet and/or social media influence or impact your practice in any way?
Valentin Ruhry, Untitled (Hello World), 2011 installed at the Austrian Cultural Fourm
VR: During the last years I have only made one work that directly references to social media and web 2.0. That was in 2009, for a project where artists and writers were asked for a sentence that was later displayed on a big mobile screen, driving around the country. The subject was “the present” and I felt a bit uncomfortable - like an artist being in competition with writers. I refused to write something about the present and instead searched for a sentence that reflected the present in a way that it was obvious that it could have only been written today. My contribution was: “omg, when I get home I am so going to blog about your new haircut,” an actual Twitter post that I had read. There are obvious references to digital culture in Untitled (Hello World) but not so much to social media per se. I enjoyed the hype around the work being and posted and reposted all over the internet but I don’t think that it will influence my practice in any way. Still, art blogs and social media are great tools to connect, inform and get in contact with people and therefore can at least have an impact on your career.
Valentin Ruhry, OMG, 2009
AI: Beyond new media, there is an obvious interest in technology, sometimes simple or obsolete, in your work. Do you feel that technology and design will have a greater influence on art as it becomes more intertwined with human existence?
VR: I´m not a scientist nor have I ever been educated in mechanical engineering or whatever but I have always had a strong interest in technology. For me, a jet plane or a refrigerator is as fascinating and sometimes as miraculous as the power socket on your wall. Since I don’t understand much about the technical aspects of most of the equipment that surrounds me I study there aesthetic qualities. I try to highlight them by placing aesthetics or form before function. I’m not sure how many people feel the same but I’m sure that most of the people - like me - have difficulties explaining how their fridge exactly works. Today we have smart phones with touch screens, GPS navigation and enough storage for three weeks of music in our pockets. People make use of these devices and accept them like they did with fridges almost 100 years ago. I am sure that 100 years from now people will probably not be able to explain the functionality of their touch screens either. Therefore I don’t think that technology will have a greater influence on fine art in the future. People still get kicks out of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich and much of the media art I see seems very inaccessible. Of course, exceptions prove the rule.
AI: Is technology, especially “every day” technology with which we are familiar with a good entry point for people to begin to understand your work as an artist?
VR: Maybe, and in the worst case people will be inspired to Google how their fridge functions after they read this.
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