The Argentina Independent – Axel Straschnoy and his Practical Philosophy

by Else Siemerink, 11 April 2013.

A wobbly clay animation shows an artist in the creative process. Piling up what resemble wooden sticks – a straightforward reference to an artist using his tools for creation – the artwork enlarges. But as more are added, the work starts growing of its own accord and completely overwhelms the artist, eventually pushing him out of the screen.

The short clay animation 'Estudio' by Axel Straschnoy

‘Estudio’ (2006) captures some essential aspects of Argentine artist Axel Straschnoy’s artisthood: an interest in modes of production, reception, and the use of technology. The making of the clay animation was supposed to take place in a museum space, where a lifted platform would form the surface for the animation. A camera built into the ceiling would flash and take a picture every ten seconds, while two animators would hurry to lay the oversized clay in the right position for the next shot. The flash would blind the audience, whose view was already restricted by the high level of the platform.

By turning the museum space into a live studio, the process of creation and the presence of an audience would become part of the work. This experimental approach to the production of art is a recurrent theme in the work of Straschnoy, all of which evolves from a ‘practical philosophy’ that he defines as: build it, try it and see what happens.

Unrealised Projects

Unfortunately the project Estudio was never realised. It was supposed to take place in a temporary space of the Museum of Modern Art in Buenos Aires (MAMBA). In the end, the museum was not available, and Estudio solely exists as a short film, as a draft, on Straschnoy’s website, in which the project is explained and visualised. Estudio was not an exception: Straschnoy describes his artistic period in Buenos Aires as “a period of unrealised projects”.

In Buenos Aires – where he was born and raised – Straschnoy developed his artistic practice. He was educated as an artist in a studio by, amongst others, Mónica Girón, who is currently teaching the Artists Program at Torcuato di Tella University. This traditional and romantic sounding concept is quite common in Argentina, as the art academies are often less suitable to be trained as an artist; they are more focused on educating art teachers. Furthermore Straschnoy studied Art History at the University of Buenos Aires, which contributes to his broad understanding of the theoretical as well as practical functioning of art.

After living and working as an artist in Buenos Aires for several years, Straschnoy says he got stuck. “I felt I knew the art scene and everybody in it and was not able to advance. Showing my art seemed practically impossible and the Argentine artistic environment didn’t fit me,” he says.

Los Proyectos Medley Taller Boceto. (Photo: Axel Straschnoy)

Straschnoy decided to expand his horizons and trade Buenos Aires for Helsinki. But before leaving, he bid Buenos Aires farewell in a literal and symbolic manner. Invited to exhibit in Galería Dabbah Torrejón, he made a show with his unrealised projects: Los Proyectos Medley Taller Boceto (2006). Straschnoy explains, “I collected all the scraps and papers from my studio; all my unfinished and unrealised projects, and exhibited those in the gallery space.” This resulted in a chaotic range of drafts, papers, notes, sculptures, etc. as remainders of ‘what could have been’. The themes of experimenting and failing lay at the core of this exhibition. By exposing this he was able to metaphorically shake off an unsatisfying period and start a new chapter of his artistic life in Finland.

Cameras and Robots

Helsinki meant a change for Straschnoy in the most positive sense. He found Finland to be a fertile environment for the production and the presentation of (his) art. Since his arrival, Straschnoy has staged many exhibits in a variety of places, though he continued to show his work in Argentina, the country that still strongly influences his work. Six years after he left, Straschnoy says that Buenos Aires remains inside of him.

The main elements present in Estudio still form part of his work: the interest in the production, perception and technology of a work of art. For Camera (2007) he turned an entire gallery space in Finland into a camera, with one of the windows as its lens, focused on the street. Although the second part of the work was the projection of the resulting film, it was not about what was filmed; the subject of a street with pedestrians walking by was random. Rather, the work focused on the process of the production and of the audience intervention with the work of art. By entering the gallery the visitor became part of the ‘technology’ of the camera. And just like in Estudio, the spectator is not able to comprehend and see the entire artwork, because it is ‘happening’ as they are present.

In one very remarkable project, Straschnoy’s interest in technology and spectatorship reaches a climax. The New Artist (2008-) is an ongoing project on which Straschnoy works with fellow artists and scientists from the Robotic Institute in Pittsburgh. The objective of this project is to create purely robotic art – “What happens if robots create art for robots? What happens when the human is completely left out?” These questions resulted in a witty presentation of two robotic machines facing each other, with one performing and the other watching. With this happening behind semi-closed curtains, the human as a spectator and consumer of art is made unnecessary. Robots creating art for one another, makes us contemplate on the (human) role of the production and consumption of art.

The end product in Straschnoy’s work is often not the principal focus. The process of production and reception are an integral part of the work, leaving room for experimenting, succeeding and failing. This results in flexible artworks, which might change form and meaning even during and after the exhibition. The idea of ‘unfinished’ remains a recurrent theme in Straschnoy’s work, but it is now deliberate and no longer means ‘not shown’ or ‘failed’.

Straschnoy as his Clay Artist

As The New Artist illustrates, Straschnoy is always searching for something new to discover: “If there is not something new in it, why would you work with it?,” he says. For his latest project he dedicated himself completely to the medium of the planetarium. As a place where mainly computer generated and didactic films are shown, Straschnoy went where few have gone before and created an art house film – a film that follows the conventions of (experimental) cinema – for the dome-shaped screen.

Different stills from Axel Straschnoy’s ‘The Planetarium Project’.

The Planetarium Project consists of photos and the film Kilpisjärvellä. The film narrates the story of two explorers, one of which is Straschnoy, embarking on a journey to one of the most northern parts of the world, in his adopted home Finland. Here Straschnoy filmed the aurora borealis, the magical northern lights. The 180° view a planetarium offers the best possible way to project these northern skies, and the film is a documentation of the northern lights as well as the process of filming it. We see the explorers travelling through the rough landscape, warming their hands by the fire, setting the camera in the right position, etc. Once again, Straschnoy includes the audience in the entire process, making them part of the journey as well as the destination.

By researching different modes of production and technology, Straschnoy mixes art and science. But he always approaches his subject as an artist. He uses technology on an intuitive and emotional level, much more than having a formal or rational take on it. He uses his tools to find out what might happen, not to establish a specific targeted end result.

In many ways, he is like the artist in Estudio who is engulfed by his artwork. Could this animation be a self-portrait of the artist and of the way he works? Just like the clay artist, Straschnoy welcomes the unexpected, and is not afraid of a sudden turn of events during an artistic process. The way he approaches his subjects and media leaves room for the unexpected, for a sudden intervention and for multiple outcomes and interpretations. And this lies at the heart of his practical philosophy: build it, try it and see what happens.

Axel Straschnoy’s film Kilpisjärvellä will be shown at the planetarium in Buenos Aires as part of the 2013 BAFICI Film Festival. For dates and times, click here.