Dennis Knopf (b 1981) is a new media artist and musician based in Germany. Producing work that engages with the materials of pop culture, Knopf’s works are characterised by a deft form of Détournement.
How did you begin making – for want of a better word – net. art?
Okay this is a fairly complicated story…or maybe not so complicated. I basically started making music a long time ago and from there I began making music with my laptop and exchanging it with friends who happened to live in Rome. We were sending music back and forth all the time, or trading and exchanging software and other things like that. That’s how I got introduced to a basic network of friends online. There was also a net-label scene of free music, which was all about illegally downloading copyrighted tracks and also making and exchanging music yourself. That’s how I got into an ‘online scene’, or how I entered into the online world.
I started studying communication design around 2003 and I had the choice of choosing film and video, graphic design, or new media (or it was called interactive media back then). I was planning on focussing on film and video, but then we had the introductory course and it was really interesting because we had ‘pioneer net-artist’ Olia Lialina as a professor there and some other great teachers too. I had the idea that new media was a very challenging area, very new, but there was not much great stuff going on, so I just starting making things. I can’t really say how I got started. It was more like, through all the theory stuff I learned in school and all the stuff I was messing around with my friends online, it just happened.
I was curious to know whether or not you were exposed to the idea of net art, as an extension of these sub cultural networks you were talking of, before you started making your work?
I’m not sure. I mean it just starts happening. Okay in the normal physical world, if we can put it like that, when you hang out with friends you make jokes and do things together, but online it’s different. You have different friends and you have different ways of communicating with each other. In order to make a joke, or just to show each other things or make a song for each other, you just start producing. I didn’t start thinking about producing or the concept of what I wanted to produce, I just did it. So what came out sometimes was really funny or cool, or just not worth mentioning. In a way it’s driven by the general interest of dealing with technology and, I would say, trying out consumer tools, because I never got into using any software professionally. I’m always on the amateur level and I enjoy that.
Is that interest in the amateur similar to the vernacular web idea Olio talks about?
I think it is. I have a feeling that in the 90’s, when net art started, you could distinguish between normal users and net artists because they were really aware of what they were doing, or they were aware of the fact that they could use the technology in a different way then it was meant to be used. Today I see things differently. I don’t consider myself a net artist detached from all the other users I think it’s the opposite. I’m just part of all the users online and anyone can do good stuff if they’re aware that it might be art or not. Like some 13 year old kid in Oklahoma could do better stuff then me.
So, to me, it’s important to keep that amateur level for authenticity and credibility because I think claiming net art as a professional field is the wrong way to approach it. But, I don’t think that is the same conceptually speaking; ideas should be strong. Still, I think its always safe if the way your work is being done is on a level that everyone else could reproduce and understand, because that makes it more accessible. That makes the joke or the concept and idea behind it more powerful.
Olia Lialina said that you represent the third generation of net artists. Is that true?
I don’t know, but I think what she was trying to get at was the idea of people using the internet as a mass medium as opposed to what they, the first generation of net artists, did in the 90’s. I think the third generation is about taking the tools that are accessible to everyone for granted and not just reflecting about ‘media’, or the medium itself, so much.
I wanted to talk to you about Bootyclipse. Its seems to me to be a work that can be approached on two levels. I suppose there’s the immediate recognition of what’s missing, but there’s also a lot more happening underneath what’s instantly recognisable as being an amateur striptease video, on YouTube, with the stripper removed.
In general it’s about using a language, which people instantly recognise and understand. I think that’s important. As soon as you figure out what’s going on you kind of feel like you’re on the same level of cultural competence and that’s how you feel good about something. It’s like an inside joke. I think this work, that I and other artists I’m in contact with are producing, always deals with some kind of cultural background. We grew up with pop-culture and learned all the signs, languages and rules within it. I think now the task is to talk back.
When I saw strippers stripping on YouTube I knew amateurs trying to imitate the moves they see on television was connected to the kind of MTV culture of music videos and Bootyshaking. Because of this, I knew that when I removed something, as it was just about showing off, it would be like questioning the cultural ideology of that scene. The side effect, which I though was beautiful, is that these videos give an insight into how cultural production functions nowadays. If you wanted to make a video a few years ago it would be more of a hassle for you and so you’d probably really clean up your room before you began shooting. In these videos people don’t clean up; they don’t even set up the camera properly. It really gives you and idea of what the medium is like; that it enables you to spontaneously record video and make it available to such a wide audience, or user group, of any social class. These are the things I felt came to the surface once the stripper was removed and you’re looking at empty rooms.
It’s interesting what you’re saying about this ease with which people, nowadays, as a result of the Internet and things like YouTube, can be a part of cultural production. In some ways, in terms of contemporary art, it has the potential to clear away all the preliminary stages, which were previously necessary, to get your artistic gesture out there. I’m thinking of maybe art schools, agents, galleries, curators, critics and museums. Now it seems like you have a direct access to a network of peers and an audience that functions independently from any gallery system, but that would enable you to make inroads into the gallery system if that was what you wanted.
This is maybe the most important feature of contemporary art today. I think this is what the art scene always has to compete with. It’s like post post-modernism: everything has the same level of meaning and importance.
I’m wondering who, besides Olia, was instrumental in influencing your move towards net art. Was there a group of you at university, did you stay in Germany after you graduated?
I stayed in Germany while I was studying and did an internship in New York where I met a lot of people. Ok, lets go back a bit…Olia introduced me to the net art scene and the background of net art, but this is not what I was really interested in. What she also introduced me to was the first Internet surf club Nasty-nets. I started following it everyday. It was so interesting that I couldn’t get enough of it and I was really trying to understand the language of the conversations they were having. So I got into that and established contact with some of the members there. Then, as part of our university course we had to do an internship. So I decided to go to New York and join a comedy troupe. They were producing YouTube videos, or actually, back then YouTube was just getting started so they would have just been producing online video.
What was the name of the comedy troupe?
It’s The Whitest Kids You Know. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of them, but they’re quite successful in the US right now. I think they’re on television with the third or fourth season of their show. When I was with them they just had their weekly free shows at some bar in the lower east side. So I guess that I used that as an excuse to get to New York and then once I was there I met some people involved in the Net-Art scene. After that I returned home and graduated. Then I went back to New York and met more people. I did an internship for Rhizome.org and all of this experience sucked me in to the scene, which was very, very, New York based.
Then it suddenly seemed to explode. Everyone was involved in the scene, everybody was producing stuff and there were so many great artists that I lost track of everything. That’s also, maybe, when I lost interest in producing things. You know, when there was a smaller scene you were addressing different people. I think my motivation kind of suffered from discovering all this great stuff.
Who were some of the important figures for you in New York?
Chris Coy (also called C-Coy), he was always visiting New York and introduced me to a lot of people. Also people at the Fatlab, Marisa Olsen, Cory Arcangel; I was just talking to everyone I could.
I was disappointed, actually, when I went to New York. I was ready to talk and discuss, and really dig into the topic. Everyone was just chillin’ and laid back; online they were always doing great stuff, but in the real world there was barely ever a great conversation to be had, besides with Corey or Michael Bell Smith. So it wasn’t like there was a scene where we were discussing things, it’s more like we were making things together. It really opened me up to the whole New-York based net.art thing, which is now shrinking, falling apart, or moving to Berlin.
Do you think it’s possible to disengage from a community when making work now? I’m thinking about creating work in isolation as opposed to as a part of a larger organism or social network of net artists. Is it possible to make net.art without this peer based pressure to remain cutting edge?
I think this is what everyone should do actually: detach from everything and reflect more. But then, I don’t think what you’ll end up with will be net.art, it’ll basically be contemporary art.
I used to have these discussion with Olia, and she was interested in the question of how a net.artists could earn a living. Other contemporary artists are able to sell their works, but if your work is online everyone can access it and there’s no need to have it in a gallery. My opinion was that the work is online, that’s your choice. If you think that that’s the best way to present something then you have to be aware of the fact that you won’t get any money just by people looking at it. It’s the same with free music: I know I won’t earn any money by giving away my music. I might want to play some concerts or gigs and get some money for that, or if I needed money I’d just have to try and make it some other way. I was just ok with the fact that there’s no money involved in it and that’s what made it so perfect for me. Olia was always trying to find some solutions – I mean this was several years ago and so I don’t know if she’s still concerned with these problems. It was really about ‘how can artists be supported?’ or ‘shouldn’t big institutions buy work that’s online?’ I’m glad that these were never issues that I dealt with, because those ideas would influence the work in a way that I wouldn’t want it to.