Housing performances in a fitness environment with FitArt


Damjanski  Nina Roehrs  Marialaura Ghidini 



Project Title




Marialaura Ghidini: Can we begin by discussing what brought you to create the project FitArt?

Damjanski: It popped up during the pandemic as we were all stuck at home. I always used to go running in the morning and at that time I couldn’t. I felt like it was kind of important to have some movement, so I dived into fitness apps and what you can do from home. I downloaded quite a lot of them and tried them. I got the thought that you can have performances housed in a fitness environment. Nina and I had been talking for about four years, almost every month, and we had a conversation where we discussed it. We thought that maybe it was an interesting way to literally do a performance show. And then there was the show.

Nina Roehrs: We felt in a rush — I think it was around April, early May — because there was the first lockdown in Central Europe and the States. Somehow we felt it was going to be over soon and we thought it was better to get the project out of the door fast. Damjanski started to develop the app together with a colleague in Lisbon and we reached out to our network of artists — mostly artists we already worked with. Then, six weeks later, we were ready. Given the time frame, the rush we felt, and also the topic of the exhibition, Connected in Isolation, it made a lot of sense to reach out to our network of digital artists, net artists, and people who circle around internet devices and digital culture. We had the feeling that they might have a good understanding of what we were up to, because the app wasn’t around at that time and you need some imagination as an artist to find the right work that would fit in. We also asked some people for specific works and, through all of that, it was possible to launch it in six weeks.

M.G.: How did your collaboration work? I am interested in the fact that an artist, a gallerist, and a programmer collaborated together. Although I understand that you, Damjanski, worked on the app…

D: I think we had lot of fun because: A, we didn’t have so much time, and B, we kind of like each other a lot and everyone has their own expertise, and so it was very nice to work on things together and trust each other with what we were doing. How was it for you, Nina?

N.R.: To go back to your question about the way we worked, we had a person involved who did a lot of the development from a technical perspective. Is that correct Damjanski?

D: Yes. Vasco [Barbosa] did a lot of the app development.

N.R.: For me it was a lot of fun because, as Damjanski said, we had been talking for years, almost every month, about work and things we were interested in, but actually we never worked together before. The time we worked on FitArt was also the time we realised Damjanski’s first exhibition at the gallery. We had a very healthy collaboration. It was great to discuss how we would integrate our network and to work on the project from scratch. Somehow it was also efficient.

D: Totally. It was very nice the fact that you were there, Vasco was in Lisbon and I was here. It was two continents, three countries, and different time zones…

N.R.: We spoke almost every day for weeks! And we never met in person…

M.G.: For the show?

N.R.: No, never. We always only met on screen!

M.G.: Amazing. It sounds like my work life…

N.R.: Somehow I fear that if we were to see each other in flesh, that might be the end of our friendship! [laughter]

M.G.: I move onto a more general question. How do you understand curating online? Especially, in the light of the fact that over the past year and a half many places in the world saw a very limited, if not almost nonexistent, relationship with public space as previously understood — a space of physical interaction, encounter, and negotiation.

N.R.: Well, that’s a tricky question. For us, the whole thing of exhibiting online or in digital formats was not so new because as a gallery with did a lot of projects, even before FitArt, where we wouldn’t have anything presented in the physical space and still some connection to it. And I think for Damjanski, in his work, it’s normal to work screen-based.

D: Yeah. I think this is something where Nina has probably more insights than I have. I just wonder about one thing, and it’s more like a question actually. Work that lives online, or net art work, or however we would like to call it, has always a performative side to it, which means that people have to do something with it. I wonder if that has an impact on the curatorial process?

N.R.: I think the most interesting thing is that the project happened in the digital space and we were able to use a device that is quite common; giving people access. It was an app that anybody could download for free and somehow it was out there. Otherwise the whole exhibition format wouldn’t be very interesting to me. What was a bit surprising to me was how the whole art industry struggled, and still struggles, to find innovative digital formats. Most of them were hurrying to document their physical spaces and work properly to stream it into the world, or make it accessible to people. But there were not many projects that really worked with the preconditions of the digital world.

M.G.: I agree. I think that your project is one of the few examples in the period of the first lockdown that was actually trying to think of a different language.

N.R.: It was maybe a little bit easier for us than for many people, because most of the works we have presented in the gallery are either digital native or have a certain relation to the digital space. A lot of the artists we work with create with the computer, or circle around topics that are related to network cultures. I think we started from another level into this compared to most galleries or institutions. 

M.G.: This is also linked to the next question I’d like to ask. I am interested in the characteristics of working online and the networked environment, curatorially, and therefore in the fact that you worked with the language of a fitness app. Since the introduction of the smartphone, and then App Store and Android Market, the web, as we knew it, has progressively become corporatised and dominated by the logic of commerce, rather than a space for unmediated explorations. In my view, FitArt interferes with this development by inserting itself within this system. If so, why?

N.R.:  One question that always emerges when you launch an app is: do people have to pay, or is it for free? It was our mutual feeling, that it might be more beneficial for the project, which was anyway not commercially oriented, to make it accessible for free.

D: I find this question interesting because you are making a statement and then asking if the statement is true… [laughter] If we talk about “interfering with this development by inserting itself within the system”, one thing that brought us down the path of going with an app is that it’s a learnt behaviour. People have those fitness apps [on their phones] and so they are already using them. And instead of trying to teach people something new, we decided to go somewhere where people already have this behaviour, and then to give them a different perspective on it, like utilising it. This is part of the concept here.

N.R.: In a way, we just used an existing infrastructure to bring this project as smoothly as possible to as many people as possible…

M.G.: One of the reasons I have found the project interesting is that it was critically looking at relationship we have with fitness apps. Was this part of your initial idea? It’s a bit like what you were saying before Damjanski, “I used to run and therefore I used to use this app” and then you started to reflect on it…

D: Yes, totally. I feel there are a lot of components coming together. There is using this app and utilising a format that is already there for performances, but at the same time, there is critiquing fitness apps. Besides the fitness aspects, there is the mental aspect, and an artistic aspect. So the project is like a workout for your mind, maybe.

M.G.: Were there challenges in the process? 

N.R.: We had some challenges, but it was relatively smooth because Damjanski and Vasco are super experienced on how to get these things up and running, and go through the screening of Apple and Google. But we had some surprising feedback when we tried to put it in the App Store, especially with Apple not liking an Android phone in one of the videos.

D: Yeah. I did lot of apps as artworks, and there is always this thin line between utility versus artistic project, especially when you talk to Apple — and if it is more on the artistic side they sometime have a hard time to understand it. Sometimes there are rejections that happen and you have to deal with them by explaining what your goal is. And sometimes there are restraints towards the body, like you can’t show naked people, for example. So you have to work within those confines.

M.G.: Did you also have to have the content of the app approved then? I mean, is it the content being scrutinised or just the function of the app?

N.R.: I think the content is screened. And we only had feedback on the content in the first round. It was related to a work by Evan Ross that shows an Android phone because Apple does not advertise for Android phones — a bit ridiculous. 

M.G.: FitArt appropriated the language of social media platforms, like the viewing style of Instagram Stories. Can you tell me more about the choice of working with the language of these platforms and therefore the viewing habits created by online services?

D: That’s an interesting question because I think we talked about it a lot. At the end, FitArt resembles the language of fitness apps, but when you think about it, they also resemble the language of social media apps. So, it’s a mix of both. Nina, for example, had this great idea of pushing it further, and having a time limit to the exhibition so it’s like most of fitness apps — most of them have a 7-minute format. And this gave us the framework for how long this whole performance, exhibition, could run.

N.R.: And it also defined how many works we would have — we felt that thirty seconds per work would be enough. Also we didn’t want to give unequal conditions to the artists, so we took the decision to give everybody thirty seconds and that resulted in an exhibition of fourteen works. Somehow things went step-by-step. I think there was a point where we got nervous about not finding enough artists in time, and we started thinking about a one-minute contribution but, at the end, everything went fine.

M.G.: For me it was a successful format — for lack of a better word — in that it triggered certain kind of expectations in the audience because of the way we view content online, and the artworks became more powerful within that framework…

N.R.: Also, through the vertical format you are somehow forced into a certain look and feel… I think a lot of things came along very playful — it was not that we set down and wrote a curatorial text about the whole thing. Things happened step-by-step and in the dialogue between the artists, Damjanski, Vasco and myself.

D: Yeah, I agree. 

M.G.: Many of the works in the show Connected in Isolation were versions of existing works. What did you take into consideration when working with such translation — if this term applies to your work?

N.R.: As I already mentioned, we had the feeling that we had a certain time pressure and we were also running on a limited budget — to create new works for such a format, artists need time and proper financial support. Connected in Isolation was somehow a fun project that we did for the lockdown period, and when we started thinking about artists we might involve, we started to think about works that we liked. For example, Constant Dullaart, with the DVD guy, or Olia Lialina, with the hula-hoop. We just felt that the works were perfect. Then we started talking to the artists about which way we might be able to properly present the works within the app. We had a couple of iterations with some artists, but Petra Cortright, for example, gave us the permission to cut her video the way we wanted to, to use the sequences that we liked best. Once we had all the works, the most difficult part was to think about the flow — the order in which we wanted them to be.

M.G.: What was the thinking behind the order of presentation of the artworks?

N.R.: Damjanski, I think you were quite good with that. For example, the idea of starting with a work that would bring you in a good mood, like starting with Petra Cortright.

D: I think it’s Nina who had a good idea about how it could flow, and then we had some talks about certain works. But I think that, in general, your first draft of the order, Nina, was super cool. Ultimately, what we all decided together was to use one energetic work at the beginning, and one that was the opposite, like calming down, at the end.

N.R.: Eventually, we noticed that most people never did the full workout and they just jumped into the single exercises! We had quite pragmatic problems somehow.

M.G.: In relation to this Nina, was there a difference between working on a web project and on an app-based exhibition?

N.R.: Honestly, I never did an online project before. We worked with digital sculptures in virtual reality, and we presented Gallery.Delivery and by Sebastian Schmieg. In these instances, though, the web design and technology was mostly driven by the artist. Similarly to FitArt, I was more involved in the curatorial side of things, and in the overall look and feel. In this sense, it was quite similar.

M.G.: Many of the works in the show Female Body offer a critique of the way platforms shape our life-styles and expectations, and in particular the relationship we have with our bodies. Quantified self-tech is everywhere and embedded in the logic of apps. How can curating (and I am referring to your experiences) help in generating a discussion that goes beyond what is dictated by the agency of technology?

N.R.: For me, it’s mainly giving artists — the right artists with a critical perspective — the space to express themselves the away they want to express themselves.

M.G.: I think this also connects to what you said before Nina, about the fact that, during the pandemic, there were many projects but only few questioned the online environment, either the services that we use, or the platforms that we normally adopt…

N.R.: It’s very difficult for people who do streaming of their physical space for the first time to criticise what they are doing at the same time. This is because for them it’s a tool, while for us it’s an environment we work with. As a gallery, we always said that we work with art in the digital age, and for me it is mostly about what digital does to us as humans in our daily life. Of course, it is also about new media allowing new ways to create art, but it is also about what’s happening when using these media. For us that came quite natural.
What was interesting in Female Body is that we worked with a team of curators, who for the most part did not come from the digital context, and they had the tendency to choose artists working in a very performative context, which I would have not known that well before. The topic of the female body was our idea because we felt it’s quite interesting to see what media/social media do to the perception of the female body. We provided some guidelines, but things also happened by themselves at the end. In the briefing, we ask the artists to consider the media, the app they were using. So we were looking for works that would not only be any performance that you would put in the app, but also something meta-performative that would interact with the mobile phone.

D: I wonder if this second show is less about the technology than literally about the body, and in which way technology has an impact on this body. Of course, some artists responded to it, and some not.

M.G.: Thinking about this, it’s almost like FitArt has become an exhibition format. Like a framework, a container, or a way of experiencing art…

N.R.: Yes, that was also the idea when we started: to bring people and art together in a time of social distancing. I guess, in the meantime, even though we are still in this setting (social restrictions due to the pandemic), we would very much like for artists to use it as a platform in the future.

M.G.: Are you planning something soon?

N.R.: We might have a solo show next year in spring, and we are open to offering the app to institutions to curate a show, or use it as an add-on for their physical shows.

M.G.: We have already discussed the next question but I’ll ask it anyway in case you have something to add. Today, what does it mean to disrupt/interfere with digital technology, curatorially, especially considering the shift that has happened in the past two years, and the fact that the web is mostly accessed through platforms?

D: From an artistic point of view, I wonder if it opens up new interactions, and new formats. It can be the app we talked about, or something else. Even a podcast is interesting at the end of the day, right? I feel it breaks the conventions of the white cube — there is a performative aspect to it. 

N.R.: Somehow I don’t feel very dependent on technology. FitArt is the best example because it also made us overcome certain dependencies, like being in one space together physically. I think there is an upside and downside to it, like in everything.

D: I wonder if there is a feeling of liberation in curating in this moment… From an artistic point of view, the shortcomings are always super interesting and very beautiful areas to dissect and research. I remember back in the days, when Tinder was a thing and it shaped new behaviours: people had to order a cab for their date who they were going to a restaurant with. All of these new behaviours coming out of a technology are super interesting.

N.R.: Same here. I think for us, as a gallery, it was very helpful because somehow it elevated the speed of how the digital interferes with the art world, and the acceptance for digital art in general — also in relation to commercial interests, like NFTs. For me what is happening at the moment is very interesting.

D: As I come from the online world, I have been observing that there are many artists who have put together their own weird — by weird I mean fun — environments online, where they curate stuff that I am always attracted to.

N.R.: It feels like the mid 90s when the internet came up…

D: It actually does. It’s like when dial-up modems were a thing, and everybody tried to figure out what you can do with a website or HTML. It feels the same right now with curating. At the beginning, a lot of galleries started to do just a website and tried to recreate the gallery experience by just showing pictures of people, and then it evolved into more immersive, more interaction-driven projects.

N.R.: Most of the galleries that were not active in the digital space were all of a sudden very active in the digital space in the past year. I was a bit surprised. I was looking at all of this and felt: there is not so much more than I can do right now, or I feel like doing nothing right now. And now I am slowly getting the idea of what I want to do next. For some people it was a bit astonishing that we were sitting tight, and not really doing anything — I had an interview last week and someone told me: you have not posted anything on Instagram since January…! [laughter] Somehow Covid offered such a big opportunity to take a step back and to think about things.

M.G.: I guess for some, few, aspects it has been a time of regeneration…

N.R.: Of course, this is a very luxurious position to take, and sometime it makes me very nervous. But this is what it was for me and the gallery.

D: This is almost the reply to the next question…

M.G.: Yes, the one about: Has the Covid-19 pandemic changed your work, especially in the light of the dialogue between being online and being offline? Is there anything you would like to add?

D: There is a meme that I always laugh about. There is this puppet that in the first image looks in one direction, and in the second one it looks a little bit weirdly in your direction. In the first image it says: what people call pandemic life; and in the second one, you realise it’s your regular life. Obviously, there were things like social distancing, but at the same time I spent most of my time in front of the computer doing my art. So being at home felt not so abnormal to me. Although, at the same time, there were many things happening that felt very abnormal. For me, it was a bit like: go on and do what you do, and, at the same time, the pandemic accelerated it. This is because more people looked at my work, more people reached out with things in mind about what they wanted to do. We would not be talking about this whole NFTs space if there wouldn’t have been the pandemic that accelerated them. 

N.R.: For me it’s the same. The only thing that changed is that I don’t have as many physical meetings as before, and I think that’s very efficient in a certain way. FitArt is the best example: you don’t really need to meet people physically to pull off a project, in a way. Even though it’s nice to meet people.

M.G.: We have already kind of discussed the final question, which again comes with a personal statement… For me it’s quite interesting that you’ve been talking very positively about the pandemic because it has been a little bit different for me. I just started to think: why do we even curate shows online?

D:  I wonder if what you are hearing right now with us is a subset of a point of view. If I were a painter, for example, I would think differently about this than if I was coming from a practice.

N.R.: Yeah, that was also what I was trying to say about the typical art institution or gallery, working 95% with physical works that are not made for the digital space.

D: 3D rooms for example are not doing the best for painting and sculpture. It’s almost like when the TV came out and people started to sit in front of the camera and just read their radio stuff, until they figured out: oh, we can actually play with the medium of TV! I feel it is the same with virtual spaces right now: we started by just recreating physical spaces but that is the first step. The next step is exciting, do we really need gravity in virtual reality, for example? Do we really need walls or can we do something totally different?