KERNEL by Louis Doulas

A collective of three artists on their installations, a fusion of technology, architecture, the Internet, and real-life materials.

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Detail of Cascade, 2013. Polypropylene safety netting, polypropylene rope, custom-designed aluminum hardware parts.

In computing, a kernel is an integral component of any high level operating system serving as an intermediary between both the software and the hardware, as the primary operator for the actualizing of a command. Because a kernel accepts and sends information that allows the software to communicate with the hardware, it must confirm every command—from the physical taps on a screen to controlling volume levels.

This analogy might sufficiently characterize KERNEL, an Athens/London based art collective comprising Pegy Zali, Petros Moris, and Theodoros Giannakis. KERNEL’s practice is frequently collaborative, engaging with academic researchers, local and global publics, as well as institutional and corporate entities to generate visual research reports that explore ideas in economic theory, social structure, and information systems. These research reports are sculptural and architectural, and the installations and objects that constitute them are largely functionary, playing host to public congregation and data dispersion. In this way, KERNEL is also like another kind of kernel, biologically defined: an essential part of a seed; the core.

Louis Doulas How did KERNEL begin?

KERNEL We first met while we were studying at the Athens School of Fine Arts and the Athens Polytechnic, and have been working together in one way or another since 2007. We formally presented our first project in 2009, an installation series titled KERNEL Versions comprised of a system of metallic shelving structures—the title was meant to become our collaboration’s name.

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Contextual Playlist, 2010. Installation and projection of online-based video-list.

LD The construction systems and Pegy’s architecture background is a nice point of departure into KERNEL’s use of space. The modular design of KERNEL Versions allows installations to materialize almost anywhere, and consequently, is used in many of your works, like KERNEL SFD, which was a Versions installation that took place on Software Freedom Day on the steps of the National Technical University in Athens, and Contextual Playlist, which used the Versions constructions for a gallery video presentation. I’m curious then to hear what you can say about KERNEL’s broad use of space?

KERNEL It is true that architecture has provided us with a framework to think about such concepts. Architectural discourse has, so far, revealed to us significant tools to deal with the material and the physical, the social, and the political aspects of space. From the beginning of our collaboration we were interested in how the everyday experience of immaterial forms and structures that relate to the concept of the “network” has shaped the ways we perceive space and physical reality. KERNEL Versions was conceived as an open source project that acted both as an online-distributed, three-dimensional technical drawing of a basic structure, but also as a series of modifications and realizations of this structure within different spatial and contextual conditions. The SFD project you brought up was a situational manifestation of the installation organized in collaboration with members of the Greek open source community. The way it was developed had to do both with the practical reality of using the structure as a functional mechanism for the hosting of the event, but also with catalyzing the potential of the relational processes that are inherent in such communities. Similar understandings informed the way that we worked on the structural and formal properties of KERNEL Versions and subsequent work. However, the specificity of space is an important starting point and what we always come into dialogue with, in order to come up with the design and the sculptural properties of such open-ended forms. In that sense, relations, information, and narrative are communicated through the specific shaping and construction of space, structure, and form. We consider the installations that we produce to be elementary infrastructure that support these operations.

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Mirrors (Scale021, 025, 027), 2012. 19”/45U server-rack steel frames, rack-mount server computer, digitally printed silk crepe de chine textiles.

LD Mirrors, an installation assuming the form of a small-scale temporary data center, is another example of the prominence architectural systems have throughout your body of work. I’m interested in the conversation produced between the two spaces—namely, online and offline—explicitly explored in Mirrors. How does this work navigate these two distinct but conjugated spaces?

KERNEL It is true that Mirrors relates in different ways to both of these spaces and inhabits them respectively in its own special way. Mirrors is a series of installations comprised of arrangements of server-rack steel frames that host web server computers. When these temporal computing systems are on show, the content of the servers is updated remotely in order to serve the storage and public dissemination of raw data material originating from worldwide research organizations. This is made possible through a custom-made interface software that is accessible to the audience when the server is online. This is how, if seen through your dipole of “online and offline,” the nature of the installation suggests a paradoxical nomadic character: it has specific spatial and geographical presence, but its operation is global. We could propose that the moment when the physical infrastructure which supports this operation becomes visible (that is, when the structures are exhibited) is the very moment that the server’s digital content seems to be unreachable. And this is mainly due to the apparent lack of any technical output or interface within the installation. There is a constant play between what is enclosed and what is communicated in Mirrors, in other words what happens publicly and what happens in the background, be it because it is intentionally hidden or plainly invisible. This relates both to the technical nature of a computer server as an electronic device and to the formal and functional properties of the structures. For us, this point of threshold finds some kind of “relief” through the patterns of the digitally printed silk textiles that complete the installation. These printed kaleidoscopic patterns that are titled Scales were created with the use of visual material that relates to the information of the server, a type of visual coding that reflects this intangible content.

LD Is there a relationship to Linux’s Kernel Archive Mirror System beyond terminological similarities?

KERNEL Mirrors indeed borrows its title from a technical vocabulary, or at least it asserts the reference to certain technical operations as one of the many possible interpretations of the word. While the specific reference that you mentioned was not intentional, we wanted to relate the work to this interesting computational procedure—known as “mirroring”—of doubling and synchronizing digital content from one server computer to the other. This is a practice employed by web administrators for a long time now, in order to ensure that significant (or sometimes illegal) data will always be online and reachable. This is actually what happens with the computer hosted in the installation, giving us the possibility to create an expanding network of servers that goes online when the work is exhibited. We also wanted to touch on an allegory about information dissemination, thinking about ancient ways of communication, such as techniques of sun-flash signaling, where mirrors were used to communicate from long distances by the reflection of the sunlight, a kind of primitive wireless telegraph.

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Mirrors (Scale025), 2012. 19”/45U server-rack steel frames, rack-mount server computer, digitally printed silk crepe de chine textiles.

LD “Practicality,” “utility,” “productivity,” and “functionality” are all words that could accurately characterize much of your work. Even the patterned fabric you just mentioned, Scales, that decorates Mirrors, has a functionary role: the encoding of information into a visual interface. What do you think of these words in relation to your overall body of work? Furthermore, how do you approach form and function—how might function be aestheticized?

KERNEL The terms you are referring to come with different connotations when used in everyday speech, but in some cases they also maintain specific theoretical definitions. Words like “utility” and “functionality” could possibly be described as too abstract or general, while at the same time being heavily loaded in the cultural sense, having been inscribed historically with either positive or negative undertones. This is something that we acknowledge when we employ them. Their diverse translations and interpretations become an important mechanism in our research and practice, and thus we attempt to be both open and critical about the ideas they manifest. We see this process of reclaiming the expanded meanings for such words as re-inscriptions with our own narratives, as quite essential. “Functionality,” for instance, is a word related to both economic and cultural fields of study that have asserted both specific and pluralistic understandings for the status of the term. Movements and traditions like modernism have shown us that perceptions about what is functional are in fact ideologically driven and that, in the end, functionality is a social and cultural construct. Then, it is also interesting to see how through history and around the world, each time functionality was considered a central demand, the aesthetic and formalistic outcome of the functional “product” has been surprisingly diverse in relation to its cultural and geographical context. Having said that, we could suggest that the idea of function is a quite elusive aspect in our practice, something which is in constant reevaluation due to the ongoing, unresolved relations that happen between the elements of each work and between the different works themselves. We see this process as part of the reality of our collective way of thinking and producing, an attempt to bring everything together into a shared concept that form three different subjectivities. It is a process of decision making, but it relates more to an attitude that has been shaped in relation to the different ideas and disciplines that we have embraced so far, rather than to pragmatic needs and intentions. In the end, the development of the way we understand and perform the relationship between the function and the form of the work is at the very center of our inquiry. And that is why we don’t have a straightforward answer to that.

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Word of Mouth, 2011. installation view at the 3rd Athens Biennale, Diplareios School.

LD In the past we’ve discussed your essay, “Paradoxicaly Advancing into the Past,” specifically the distinctions between two Greek definitions of what information is: πληροφόρηση and πληροφορία. The former relates to Walter Benjamin’s concept of information, as “the act of informing,” and the latter—information as an “ordered sequence of symbols.” Weather Report (2012) relates to both of these definitions. Perhaps you could extrapolate on this relationship, while explaining some of the goals of Weather Report?

KERNEL These two definitions are not definite, but speak, in fact, to two potentially different things: a process of communication and dissemination, and a type of intangible material transmitted as a code of variable forms. We are interested in both definitions since, however technical they might sound, they concern fundamental processes, both in the cultural and the scientific sense. As you suggest, Weather Report has dealt with both understandings of the word. It is a software work that remains under development, originally designed to operate as a web-based widget. It was conceived in collaboration with Phrixos, an Athens-based collective of young artists and writers which is constituted in a quite organic and loose way, primarily through their shared blogging activity. The widget in itself functioned as an interface for the writing and aggregation of short “reports,” coded written messages around phenomena and events taking place in Athens about a year ago. It was inspired by Phrixos’s interest in the ideas of what they define as “nephology,” a term which literally refers to the meteorological study of clouds but has been used by them as a metaphorical framework within which they develop a set of both poetic and militant practices that respond to the current sociopolitical condition in Greece. What we consider of great importance in the practice of generating, handling, and disseminating information of any kind and the public act of informing (reporting the news) is the form this action takes, the rhythm in its performance, its special and particular characteristics. In the specific case of Weather Report, we are talking about a digital tool that borrows its form from typical micro-blogging platforms, but was designed to be operated only by Phrixos. It is all about this collective’s idiosyncratic voice, meaning that the “social” aspect of relevant web technology should be found on some other level. We see the software not as a product but as a craft, not as an act of technological or conceptual innovation and problem-solving but as a vehicle for a dialogue that has its own time and place. A gift to a friend.

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Detail of Rim, 2013. Polypropylene safety netting, polypropylene rope, custom-designed aluminum hardware parts.

LD This seems like an appropriate time to mention your collaboration with economist and theorist Georgios Papadopoulos. How has his research been incorporated into your recent projects?

KERNEL We started collaborating with Georgios when he contributed a series of lectures/classes to The Public School in Athens, a series of events that were organized in collaboration with The Public School in late 2011 in the context of the curatorial project Word of Mouth that we realized at the 3rd Athens Biennial. We have since worked together in an informal context, mainly through discussions of concepts related to economic theory. Part of this collaborative research, for example, has been serving as the material for a report text we wrote, an essay that is the central element in our project Inputs, Loops and Anchors, which took the form of a solo show at the public gallery SPACE in London and was adapted last October into a new installation at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. This collectively written text touched on a spectrum of contemporary economic, social, and cultural phenomena and was developed through a critical processing of recent research material, theoretical treatises, and worldwide reportages. After we finished editing the text, we handed it over to the Athens-based metal formulation company CNC Solutions, which was to act as an inspirational framework for their re-design of three common hardware parts: a chain link, a hook, and a screw. The digital 3D models of this hardware system are published and distributed online as public domain files, while the documentation of their production process became a video piece which is subtitled with excerpts of the written report. Fabricated by the means of rapid prototyping, the metallic hardware parts are then used for the creation of installations that constitute both architectural and sculptural structures of which the main components are surfaces and bundles of safety netting.

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Inputs, Loops and Anchors (atrium/sky/landscape), 2013. Polypropylene safety netting, custom-designed aluminum hardware parts, marble.

LD The green safety netting in Inputs, Loops and Anchors is hinged by custom-designed hardware (a link, hook, and screw) and is presented in various formal arrangements: tightly bundled up, sprawled out across the gallery, and hung, stretched from ceiling to floor. What is the significance of these stages and how do they respond to the research reports that prompted the project?

KERNEL Our collective practice leans toward a conceptual and aesthetic core via the means of abstraction. This is an abstraction of information and material that we come across through our research, the content of our discussions, the stories inscribed in the network of things and ideas that we become connected to in one way or another. We considered the process of writing this idiosyncratic report as the first step in abstracting and formalizing our research, that was too expansive to be communicated as intimately and straightforwardly as we wanted. We saw it as a mechanism that could trigger the potential of speaking about this idea that is to be found in the heart of Inputs, Loops and Anchors: a “re-invention” that evolves within the special condition of the present time. When the metallic components were produced, we looked at the possibilities of dealing with their functional properties in a way that could tell something about all these immaterial processes that lie behind the project. Employing the safety netting as the material that would unravel the hardware’s potential has to do with a whole set of references and interpretations, a literal game between words, concepts, and visual output. Netting is an interesting material in the sense that it allows for its expansion and contraction—it can produce forms of different density and surfaces that are practically transparent. We are interested in letting all these characteristics of the material lead us into the final forms of the installation. When we plan the design of an installation we take into account all these parameters. But, most of the time other factors—like space, as we already discussed—force the reconsideration of the decision-making process. In the London show we had originally designed an installation that was supposed to act like a display mechanism for the metallic components, a structure aligned to the tradition of temporary exhibition pavilions. However, working within the space led us eventually to deal with this structure in a whole different way. In the end leaving it unfinished, and creating instead, a landscape of individual sculptural entities that acted as a network of formal information carriers. This happens often when someone confronts the material nature of things, as it forces the search for solutions on the spot, in both an intuitive and performative manner that transcends any kind of functional directives.

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Reciting, 2013. Still from digital video with sound (16:49).

LD All artworks rely on manufacturing and fabrication. In KERNEL’s case, however, these entities are more than practical collaborators—they are essential, and play an informative role in the work itself. For example, a video of CNC Solutions’ fabrication process is prominently featured in Inputs, Loops and Anchors. Is there anything to be said about this and other collaborations?

KERNEL For us, it is not about transparency but about the real subject of the work and the work’s reality. The processes of production become the material and the condition that we reflect upon. In that sense, the collaborations that happen along the way are, as you suggested, central to the way the work takes its shape. Their special character and evolution as each project develops, in combination with the specific background of each of our collaborators, become part of the narrative that the work constructs. This process of collaboration and sharing of the creative and productive process is thus not related to a form of outsourcing, for example, but to an intention of synthesis and embodiment: a transformative procedure for both parts. And it could not be any other way since there is always so much dialogue involved, and dialogue is always tough. It produces frictions, undermines assumptions, and redirects thoughts. It is what gives the work its special texture.

Louis Doulas is a writer based in New York whose research interests are in philosophy of art and philosophy of language. Currently, he is the Associate Editor at SNAP Editions. Previously, he was an Editorial Fellow at Rhizome at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the New York Correspondent at e-flux, and the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Pool.

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