Written by Janet Sebri. Published on 9 September 2022.
Interview with Friedrich Boell by Janet Sebri
What else could you make out of it?
Oftentimes, during my interview with Friedrich Boell, we circled around this question: “What else could you make out of it?” The artist wonders rather curiously referring to electronic scrap. “I was walking down the street and I found this cardboard box on a pile of trash. I looked inside and I saw so many screens and I thought “wow”! …” It was then, that Friedrich took the box, examined its content and the result of that encounter is DEAD PIXELS – an installation based on broken iPhone screens that the artist tampered with to create a surface that cyclically displays light animations.
The artwork features a set of panels of acrylic glass that are covered with iPhone displays hanging from a steel frame in a slightly curved form. The backlights of the displays are individually controlled by means of electronics, that Friedrich custom-developed and reprogrammed himself, and thus form the pixels of a large screen which periodically displays a two-minute light animation. The light emerges from the cell phone screens in uneven artifacts according to the structure of their cracks and creates a shimmering texture. I find this aesthetic to be somewhat surprising to the eye and seamlessly captivating. At first sight, we see this randomly lit big screen, and the closer we get and the more we look, we find ourselves deconstructing its wholeness, pixel by pixel, screen by screen, to land on what the artist wants us to look at. Screens that once held great value in our lives are coming back to serve a new purpose and serve as a reminder to rethink how we handle them once they have lost their utility.
The online meeting with Friedrich was rather vivacious, and lively, and not your typical zoom meeting; we even got to have a tour of his working space in Cologne (Germany). Imagine a loft, a long wooden table, and screens, traffic lights, generators, wheels, soldering units, and more electronics laying around waiting to be used in one of his next projects. He showed me around and I understood that this is his living room.
Currently, he is working on his graduation project as he is in his last year at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne where he has been studying since 2015. Before that, Friedrich had an academic training in IT systems and electronics from 2005. He worked as an IT Systems technician before deciding to “look for creative ways to use computers”, a passion that he had since his very young age. The transition in his practice started with electronic music which was followed by visual artworks. Today, Friedrich mainly uses found material for his artistic projects, he usually starts by “looking around and seeing what’s available”. He is driven by consideration of the resources available in his surroundings, continuously trying to understand them and build something new.
I had met Friedrich and collaborated with him in the INTERFERENCE Series 2021 in Tunis when he was part of the ELECTRICAL DISORDER project, a small exhibition with focus on e-waste as artistic material. Building his art project in Tunis, a team of technicians was trying to find broken screens in the streets, even calling people and asking whether they have broken devices in their house which we would love to pick up. In the end, we had to buy them from small repair shops. While I was happy that Tunisians seem to have a good sense for ‘reuse, repair, recycle’, until today, I am wondering if we did betray Friedrich’s ideas by buying them.
The installation “Colors of the Medina” consists of old laptop screen surfaces of which the color rendering folie was scratched in a random way and tape was sandwiched between every two joint screen surfaces creating a light filter that produces a multitude of shapes that come in a variety of colors. Suspended from the ceiling of a small backyard and backlit by sunlight, they formed an exquisite colorulful sky. The artwork has an arresting effect, with its neat set up and meditative atmosphere it sends an implicit invitation to lay down and contemplate this alternative new sky and reflect at how we never would’ve looked at these broken screens again had Friedrich not presented them in this alluring aesthetic. “As I find the availability, distribution, and technology of flatscreens so amazing I would like to honor their existence and show their broken beauty to people via the way of art installations”, says Friedrich when asked about his inspiration behind this artwork.
I got to know how captivated Friedrich is with screens and how eager he is to understand they are made of and how they were manufactured, “For me, flat screens have something mysterious still until today. That is because I grew up with big and heavy television and computer screens. The possibility of flat (or transparent and maybe even holographic) screens was something that belonged mostly to fictional movies or literature. When I think about the way they work it comes to my mind how much high tech they include. I find it amazing that humans can manufacture something like this,” he said. What I consider to be even more engaging about his work is how he ignites the e-waste quest in those around him as He told us that “trash is the forest of electronics,” and towards trash piles we went.
His quest was a wake-up call for me: to consider how trash was being managed. I found that it simply wasn’t. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream worldwide and we don’t even know how to handle it in a sustainable way? In times where each new device has a short lifespan that it rarely fulfills before there is the next new thing that will replace it. We find ourselves eventually left with piles of trash that we shockingly do not know how to handle. “There is always something new”, said Friedrich, referring to how there is always a better TV, a better phone, a better tablet, all sharing ephemeral values in our life and finally ending up in the trash as soon as a minor incident occurs, which makes value as a construct much more unstable these days.
“Take screens for example, we tend to spend hours in front of them in their different shapes and forms, making them one of the most trivial possessions one could have but once a screen is broken it becomes valueless. “A shattered screen is obsolete”, said the artist, “but so is a screen without signal, and without all the other components that make it a whole.” As basic as this electronic component may be, behind it lies a complex relation with the elements surrounding it, starting from the rest of the device in which it is incorporated to the human in front of it. “Every time a screen breaks, I find it kind of sad that something that is complicated and sophisticated is destroyed and loses its value”, and he seems to be serious about it, “these incidents that we usually can’t forget, I still remember the first time I broke my phone’s screen and probably so do you? And then – in the artistic perspective – they become the origin of a new value, and of the new work that will include these newly-rebirthed unique screens, freeing them of their initial mass-produced nature.” I am wondering a bit about this empathic approach to technology, but he is very convincing in talking about it.
This conversation further developed into talking about his plans of working on generators to ignite these forgotten screens. Friedrich said, “… and this led me to think about what is the cheapest device that you can build that produces a signal on the screen, except that is not doable especially now that chipsets are short in supply. Being an engineer myself, we discussed how unbelievable it is that NVIDIA chipsets are difficult to get, and as well Raspberry Pis. We shared this moment of frustration of not being able to find the right hardware for our projects. And here, we diverted from our microscopic view to the global ship shortage and whether the Corona Pandemic is the reason or not. What brought us here and where are we heading? Are we still in the right direction?
Such contemplation led to reflecting at how we are handling the few resources we still have access to, although unequally. To ask “where do we go from here” was not easy for me, nor for Friedrich to answer. My understanding of going somewhere from here is finding an alternate way to inhabit the earth. When I asked him, I was surprised. He answered with an amazing ease “we could share material, maybe there isn’t this need to throw away this much. There is a problem of communication, people who have so much stuff and need to throw it away, maybe can communicate with people who need it”, and he adds, “a way of inhabiting the earth is to use the things that are there, and not follow the urge to always buy so much stuff”. I am intrigued – not only by his answers but as well by his well-reflected mindset. I start to be confused _ how could he find this sweet spot between his pragmatic attitude and art?
To put it simply, Friedrich’s art occurs when he brings a set of materials, and uses his tech-genius on them to produce an aesthetically inquisitive display that expands the artwork into something greater than its constituents, to add up to a greater cause, the E-Waste global issue in our case. I believe this is where the artistic value of this artworks lies. It is hard to discern where the inspirational, conceptual and operational processes start and end for him. I wondered what his starting point is, is it the technical challenge or the aesthetic form, or the E-waste topic, but every time we tried to dissect this matter, we found that they are symbiotically intertwined.
Friedrich Boell. INTERFERENCE Tunis 2021. Photo: Nour Elhouda Ghanem.