Here's What Happened When Conceptual Artists Released a Concept Album
Like Beyoncé and Frank Ocean, new media art duo !Mediengruppe Bitnik push the envelope of the audiovisual album.
Images courtesy the artists
The Zurich and London-based new media art duo !Mediengruppe Bitnik have Random Darknet Shopper, mailed a package to Julian Assange, and glitched out the House of Electronic Arts buildingin Basel. Now they are releasing an album.Schiiwerfer, was recorded by frequent “Bitnik accomplices,” the Swiss music duo Göldin & Bit-Tuner.
Schiiwerfer is best described as a nine-track audiovisual album, with !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo providing distinct web-based artworks for each of the songs. The album explores themes such as gentrification, technology, alienation, revolution and the mind-numbing effects of prescription drugs.
Göldin, a journalist and author of Delivery for Mr. Assange, tells The Creators Project that Schiiwerfer is “more or less a contemporary version of Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis,” only they are not rich like that novel’s characters. “The central idea is to capture the pretty disquieting feeling of us all falling out,” he says. “Out of the city, out of our jobs. While we drive through our glowing cities by night and by day numbing ourselves with Xanax.”
Göldin became a !Mediengruppe Bitnik member quite by accident while reporting on Opera Calling and Bit-Tuner has contributed sound for the group’s exhibitions on several occasions. Weisskopf says that Göldin and Bit-Tuner are always among the first they talk to about ideas for new works, so it was natural that this release would be collaborative.
Schiiwerfer itself grew out of a dinner in Zurich late 2015 in which the four talked about the state of the record industry. The discussion revolved around releasing music physically on CD or vinyl or on the internet, and what this all meant as far as access to culture.
“Releasing music with record labels on physical objects felt a bit as if everyone were pretending it was still 1999,” Smoljo tells The Creators Project. “We quickly came to the conclusion that we needed to find new forms, new formats for linking the music with the visuals, of creating visual worlds from music. How could we do that for a whole album, how could we do that on the net?”
“For us, the beauty of the internet was always that it is a medium which let's you share local culture with a wider, global audience,” he adds. “So we thought that the task of translating the local (Swiss German) into something which is internet accessible, browser based, a web experience as an interesting task.”
Initially, the four toyed with the idea of releasing the album on the URL https://fuck.bitnik.org — the Fuck Bitnik Label or the Fuck You Label. But, as Smoljo explains, the joke wore off the next day along with the wine. Ultimately the four decided on the audiovisual approach for Schiiwerfer, with the usual !Mediengruppe Bitnik name functioning as the label.
As Bit-Tuner explains, he and Göldin created the text and music, then let Smoljo and Weisskopf take over. !Mediengruppe Bitnik then brought in Berlin-based designers Christoph Knoth and Konrad Renner (collectively Knoth-Renner), who helped give Schiiwerfer its characteristic net art and typography vibe.
For Smoljo and Weisskopf it was important to make Göldin & Bit-Tuner’s description of exclusion accessible beyond the approximately 5 million people who speak Swiss German. This, Smoljo says, was an experience that people all over the world could share. “It was important to us that we could add our feeling of disconnectedness, disgust and alienation to the many other voices,” says Smoljo. “We started work on translating the texts, so we could combine the strong visuals of the net.release with subtitles in Swiss-German, German, and English.”
Since the subtitles would play a big role in the experience, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, Knoth, and Renner focused quite a bit on the typography. They generated the font in Python, combined it with found 3D objects, discovered WebGL libraries and code pieces, then threw it all together for the nine URLs.
Smoljo says, “Sometimes the visuals focus on one sentence from the song. Sometimes they just try to cover the mood. Or play with current social trends like Tinder. Where you can swipe away and never even have to listen to the song anymore.”
Göldin and Bit-Tuner also gave Knoth and Renner Tumblr images for every song, to which they added their own materials.
“For a graphic designer it used to be one of the greatest things to design a record cover,” Knoth says. “Not anymore. Today, it's designing the album's website.”
“The time of the record store is over, the time of the CD is over,” he says. “We sit in front of our computer screens night after night and consume clips and music by Earl Sweatshirt and Amnesia Scanner and Schoolboy Q and Zombie through pumping speakers.”