Andreas Palfinger: Navigating Virtual Realms, Parametric Designs, and Social Dreaming
Andreas Palfinger, an Austrian artist based in New York, is a versatile talent in virtual scenography, organic-parametric-geometry, and functional fictions. His philosophy embraces critical and speculative approaches, expressed through time-based media, CGI, writing, and sculpture. Palfinger explores post-apocalyptic societies, biased algorithms, democracy deconstruction, and speculative biology, employing artistic strategies and rigorous research.
Educated in graphic design, industrial design, painting, and animated film at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, he furthered his studies in architecture at Bauhaus University Weimar and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Internationally recognized, Palfinger has received accolades from prestigious institutions, with recent exhibitions at CIVA, Belvedere 21, Vienna Design Week, and Art Basel Miami.
It is with such joyous delight that we have the opportunity to chat with Andreas Palfinger about his parametric musings and architectural world building. Let’s begin by discussing more about your experience in world building. Was the process natural for you to construct virtual worlds with all of its microcosms? What did you learn about yourself in the midst of it?
It was definitely a whole journey to arrive at the topologies of work I’m doing now, slowly crystallizing from a heterogeneous mixture of interests, opportunities and coincidences. Early on I felt the inner call to develop towards the direction of fine arts and architecture, while in fact a quite non-linear path of educations and experiences ultimately resulted in unexpected intersections of approaches – from critical and speculative design, fine arts, architecture, new media, geometry, mathematics, philosophy, biology and ecology, programming, writing or film and animation. They all intersect. For me the relation of space-making, film-making and imaginative writing is particularly interesting.
My professional development lead form graphic design to multimedia projects and speculative industrial design, to painting and animated film and most recently to architecture. Regardless of medium, an interest in posthumanist philosophy and ecological utopias lead me to think more in a world-scale. Also the recent boom in tools for VR played its part in that development, with many fruitful explorations happening during the pandemics’ lockdowns.
This abstraction from physical space enabled a thinking process regardless of scale – continent-sized symbiogenetic megastructures and ecological systems; temple-architectures and living grottos; hybrid-objects and tools, or microscopic organisms. My projects interconnect all those scales through the shared element of ›the world they exist in‹, explored through writing and expressed through CGI and film.
In my imagination architectures don’t need construction methods, I rather envision a world where structures grow by themselves instead of being assembled, consisting of organic material and therefore possibly equipped with a novel kind of consciousness. The speculative future outlined in the project ›Mother Arkah‹ imagines thriving natural habitats within enclosed ecosystems, while the world outside could hibernate and regenerate from the toxicity humanity left behind. Its meta-themes interweave the human despair in the ›Posthuman Convergence‹ with speculative approaches towards autopoiesis and symbiogenesis.
An important theoretical component of the project is challenging the ›human urge for innovation‹, which goes hand in hand with the question “Will the future define growth as irresponsible, even criminal?”, asked from Isabelle Stengers, Belgian science philosopher. Other sub-narratives explore concepts like the authoritarian aspects of utopias, nuclear-priesthoods or eco-fascism. Here fiction and hypothetical scenarios prove to be catalysts for social dreaming.
The process of developing those approaches was never linear; throughout my academic journey in Europe and New York I got to know the most incredible artists, architects, designers, activists, philosophers, biologists, inventors, experimental film makers, performers, fashion designers … you name it. Yet, one realization is constant: the more I learn, the less I know.
To many, the idea of conceptualizing art forms towards a mathematical process such as geometry and parametrics is mind boggling. When you first started out, was it a challenge for you to learn the ropes of computational design? When you look back at how far you have come, how do you feel about your accomplishments?
When I started out with computational design I was luckily and forcefully pushed into learning Grasshopper within a few weeks. Still as a student in my early 20s I worked as interface designer [not responsible for the computational part] on a project, mapping CO2-values on procedural 3D objects for an architecture exhibition in Vienna. My then-project-partner, a student of Kazuyo Sejima at that time, suddenly went to Tokyo and was out of reach – so it was on me to figure the whole thing out. A stressful period that payed off in the end. What also played a role is my visual obsession with node-based interfaces. Many people seem intimidated by that, I was rather enchanted. Throwing myself into projects beyond my scope proofs to bring the steepest learning curves.
One concept I find myself drawn to is the ›Digital Sublime‹, which describes an effect on the human mind created by the amorphous forms of computational design. As the underlying logic of the mathematically-algorithmically generated geometries often remains ungraspable, structures driven by generative, parametric methods seem to the observer as if they were formed by ›mysterious forces‹. This can arouse awe and enchant the spectator. The more hidden those generative processes, the stronger their effect – enchantment is characterized by concealment. Therefore the digital age leads to a revival of the concept of ›the Sublime‹.
Looking back, another major part played my Professor in applied geometry and mathematics at Die Angewandte (University of Applied Arts Vienna – a magic place by the way). Besides being a pioneer in programming, he was also deep-sea-diver, nature-photographer or occasionally published books about the moon. At Angewandte he taught geometry to students of Zaha Hadid, Greg Lynn or Wolf Prix; in between he lectured at Princeton. So in his seminars we looked at interstellar bodies, how ships or rainbows function, and we analyzed patterns of growth in the natural world through the lens of architecture and coding.
Besides that, I’ve always been attracted to the experimentations by the digital avant-garde in architecture in the late 90s and early 2000s, as well as the bold visions in the 1970s [environmentalism, cybernetics, GAIA, systems theory, etc.] Studying those projects and the philosophies behind are an important resource.
Tell us a bit about how your personal identity plays a part, if any, in your body of work. From what mental framework are you operating in when you approach creating your work?
What is even identity? My journey has always been driven by personal interests – and strong dislikes on the other hand. This proves to be a reliable compass. Usually my personal projects are research driven, looking at political science, philosophy, at inventions, information- or bio-technology; ideas then often crystallize in hypothetical “what if” scenarios.
Over the last years my projects asked questions like: What if I wanna become a good populist and overthrow democracy? What if A.I. can determine your potential from your facial biometric data? What if a cult of survivors live on in a post-climate-apocalypse world and how would their worldview look like? What if architecture is grown and construction plans are stored in seeds? And ›who‹ would have made that?
Often those somewhat naive questions can open up pathways into unknown futures, not aiming to be predictive, but rather to investigate in (in)tangible possibilities. One of my bibles in that school of thought is the book “Speculative Everything” by Dunne & Raby. Further, studying speculative industrial design and later working on a project with Anab Jain (founder of Studio Superflux, London) shaped my personal philosophy lastingly, and how I approach projects, artifacts, films and the practice of “designing futures”.
Do you see your work performing in a massive scale? What sort of dreams are you envisioning your work in?
My vision is to work in architectural scale – which is probably a long way to go. As a more feasible scenario I’d see my creations coming together on theatre stages, as film-sets, -architectures and -artifacts. In one of my current projects I’m working as computational designer with a studio for art production and structural engineering here in Brooklyn.
The firm is focusing on creating physical large scale sculptures and installations driven by computational methods – speaking of marble sculpted by robotic arms or metal 3D prints. That direction is what I’d love to see with my own creations as my next milestone. The scale of megastructures though, as introduced in ›Mother Arkah‹, will most probably remain a vision – imagining such worlds goes hand in hand with the medium of film.
What sort of limits do you experience when working on a piece that entails computational design? How do you overcome challenges or troubleshoot?
One may think in the virtual realm everything is possible, still there are many obstacles. Especially when talking about technically details, correcting and preparing files, intentionally editing details, rendering times of several days or weeks, or even gigantic file sizes. And of course, limits in production methods like 3D printing, materials or for smooth online-use.
Troubleshooting for all of those can take up way longer than the creative part of it. For a ceramic 3D print, executed by a robotic arm, we created 25 different models to get to the desired outcome; and as always, here the technical limitations guided the form of the object, which again is an interesting feedback-loop where the ›limits‹ manifest in ›form‹.
What has been a proud moment for you in your career so far? Do you have any grand goals for yourself as an artist in this life?
I’m relatively indifferent when it comes to those moments when “feeling proud” is expected. There are rather many moments of gratitude – when being invited from somewhere abroad to exhibit a project, like now for an upcoming show at Art Basel Miami, or when winning an international award. Personally, having managed the financial hurdle to study at a top private university in New York [through countless projects as designer and qualifying for scholarships] is something to be a little proud of. Also teaching ›Studio Andreas Palfinger‹ at the Parametric Architecture Academy meant a lot.
Honestly, I feel pride when being in a room with my close friends, old and new ones from all over the world, knowing that each of them is genius in their own way. They are some of the most interesting young professionals I know; rooted in fine art, fashion, acting, photography, film, architecture, creative technology, graphic design … a huge inspiration and drive – and as we know, ones’ Umwelt influences virtually everything. Other than that, I definitely have ambitious goals in life – as one should always have. Again, I see this rather as a guiding compass in this maze we call reality.
How do you feel about the rapid development of artificial intelligence as it relates to creating art? Do you believe A.I. can replicate parametric design perfectly?
That’s two pairs of shoes. A.I. today can drive computational design in different ways, for example generating a piece of code that is to be used in a larger script, or, as we all see in Instagram, by generating wonderful images and rough 3D models – ideal for visualizations or iterative work. Yet, those are just rough ideas in low resolution. They need to be reworked in detail to be used further – and that is a human craft. A.I. definitely created interesting new workflows, positioning human creators as ›art directors‹ who work with ›non-human creators‹.
At least in early project stages – further on we [still] need to rely on traditional computational methods. With the above mentioned art production studio in Brooklyn we’re currently testing how to implement and utilize A.I. as integral part in every step of the process. Yet, getting things ready for production takes many hours of human labour.
When you go to sleep, what do you look forward to waking up to? When you wake up, do you find what you’re looking for?
That question is a good reminder to be more mindful. Approaching the colder and darker season now, it gets increasingly harder for me to get up in the morning – I’m a summer child; so summer is what I’m always looking forward to. Winters are there for getting things done, while summers are there for swimming in mountain lakes, discovering new books and dreaming. So back to the question, in winters I find what I’m looking for, while in summers I find what I’m not looking for.
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