There can never be enough points. Interview with Benjamin Busch

Benjamin T. Busch Lama El Khatib Sonja Mattes
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21.03.2022

“Scanning the Horizon” by Benjamin Busch. Video documentation by Workout Services. Visit on desktop (Chrome/Firefox) for the full experience: https://queerspaces.berlin

The interactive website Scanning the Horizon (queerspaces.berlin) presents 3D laser scans of existing queer spaces in Berlin alongside audio interviews with representatives from the spaces. Drawing inspiration from José Esteban Muñoz’s formative work of queer theory Cruising Utopia, the title refers to the seemingly unattainable, yet powerfully generative utopian demands of queer life set out on the horizon. The website uses emerging technologies more often associated with very different kinds of utopias, or dystopias, as a way of questioning the tools of representation. It gives the user the ability to navigate the scans in 3D while listening to or reading dialogue about the spaces and how they represent themselves.

LK: Maybe we start with a short description of the project.

BB: Scanning the horizon is an archival project that began with capturing 3D scans of a handful of queer spaces in Berlin. The scans themselves are the foundation, the originating gesture for the work. They serve as the basis for the development of different ways of seeing, perceiving and interacting with these spaces.

LK: Let’s briefly pause on the presentation format of these scans: they’re available online on the website but there are also other encounters with the public.

BB: As archival media, the scans themselves contain immense amount of information. Scans have very high-resolution detail of the spaces themselves. All of these details create an initially very overwhelming data set. And in order to make it visible to people who are not technicians, or people who are not working with technical software, there are certain aesthetic choices that need to be made. The website is the first experiment that I have conducted with the scans as a way of making this data visible in a public manner. Normally, archival materials, especially in Germany, are very heavily protected for different reasons. Either because of the sensitivity of the material or because of rights issues. It is unusual to create archival material and so quickly publish it. This has been a learning process and quite interesting conversations have developed around this move to publicize or publish the data.

This first iteration of the work, as a website, was accompanied by a launch event at the Schwules Museum, where I presented the work for the first time together with a discussion among representatives of three of the spaces that appear on the website: Silverfuture, Möbel-Olfe, and BEGiNE. The publication of this archival material offered a platform for these spaces, to speak for themselves, and to enter into a public conversation about the importance of queer spaces in the city, in its history and its present. It goes without saying that the entire archival project would not be possible without the trust and the participation of the spaces that are involved. So, it’s worth noting all of the spaces that are on the website. Alongside the three I already mentioned, there are also Monster Ronson’s Ichiban Karaoke, and the Prinz Eisenherz bookstore in Schöneberg.

LK: I think this is a good moment to ask about the spaces themselves and the selection process. I think one question would be: what was the initial impulse to think about these specific locations in the city? And to follow that up: how did you go about the selection? This is particularly interesting in regard to the question of defining (personally and publically) spaces as queer.

“In this way, as a collective process, we are working on a self-definition of queer through our kaleidoscopic expressions of space.”

BB: My motivation behind this project originates in my identity as a queer cis man. All of the spaces that participate in this project also somehow identify with the term queer. In this way, as a collective process, we are working on a self-definition of queer through our kaleidoscopic expressions of space. Berlin is known for being historically a very important city for gay, lesbian and queer culture at large. It’s one of the first cities to develop a more or less decriminalized culture for queer folks. The legacy of this history is apparent in many parts of the city. What became interesting for me as someone living in the presence of such spaces and working with a medium that is used for documenting historical places and places of importance, is to deal with places that still exist or that are alive and that are still being produced. There is a kind of monumentalization in the process of scanning and publishing the archive that insists that queer cultural spaces are of historical importance, including the ones that are still being produced today.

I did the first round of scanning in April 2020, during a hard lockdown. I began by approaching spaces that I knew from my own lived experience. And through conversations with the people running the spaces and with peers, I came upon new spaces, which was a very exciting aspect of the process. Because of the speed of the first round of scanning, I managed to scan more than 10 places within a week. This allowed for a later reflection on what it meant to collectively claim a definition of a queer space and to consider within that the subject of diversity in terms of history, gender, sexuality, and so on. This reflection process contributed to the ultimate selection of the five spaces that are online at the moment.

“Scanning the Horizon” by Benjamin Busch. Video edited by Workout Services. Visit on desktop (Chrome/Firefox) for the full experience: https://queerspaces.berlin

LK: As you mentioned earlier, the 3D scans form the basic blueprint for Scanning the Horizon, but the website also features an audio component – an oral history in-becoming built from recorded voice interviews with representatives from the spaces. Why was it important for you to have these two elements come together?

BB: I’m working with the notion of warm data[1] that was proposed by Nora Bateson as a way of thinking about data that can represent the depth of human experience and sensuality, but beyond simple rationalization. Following that frame, when I was looking at the scans, initially, and sharing them with peers, it became apparent that there’s a certain distance or coldness to the scans themselves. They are something like empty stages. They lack human presence, the sensuality, the serendipity, and the very rich experience of being in space personally. As a way to accommodate this depth of experience, I felt it would be fitting to bring the voice and the body back into this format. Even if it exists in the off as a disembodied voice. This allows for new relations to arise between the voice, the body, the user, and the space as it is represented in this very abstract kind of way.

The usual format of the video interview is something that many people, if not most people are familiar with. It represents a form of reality production that is ultimately taken for granted. It’s possible of course to disrupt the reality producing effect of a video documentary, a video interview, but I wanted to create a more poetic frame of reference to the space. Additionally, the presence of a camera in a room will severely affect the conversation that’s being had. There is a kind of violence to the camera as it is pointed at someone, which is certainly something that many of us can identify with. And that sort of alienation or experience of being seen, is of course there with the voice recorder, but to a much lesser extent. It is there as well through the 3D scans of the space, but it’s set in a different time because the temporality of the scan is very different from the temporality of a video recording. Ultimately, I found it much more productive to separate these two tracks, the visual and the aural, and have the website’s users navigate and perceive the space in this disruptive way, instead of offering a sort of an authoritative video documentation.

LK: I think you mentioned two things which I also picked up on in the website. First, this kind of poetic impulse, or, I would say, a detachment from the desire to represent in an authentic way – which we all know is also never quite possible. And the second is an intentional attempt to steer away from a very violent, somewhat observational, or scrutinizing surveillance approach. Would you say these two considerations were also present in the aesthetic choices you made regarding the presentation of the 3D material?

BB: The visual representation on the website is very closely linked to the raw data of the 3D scans, in this kind of pixelated point-based form. What you see on the website and how you interact with it is not so dissimilar from existing software for working with point clouds. I made some aesthetic choices, including the number of points, which you could compare to the pixel resolution of a photograph. The saturation of the colors, the camera angle, and how much how much you see not only of this space itself, through which parts were scanned, but also the city context. This was something that came later in the process, to actually include the scans of the surrounding neighborhood. Because when isolating the spaces, at first, they had a very different quality, but when embedding them again in the urban context, their relationality to this the urban space became much more apparent and unique.

The way that the scanner works is you basically set it in the space on a tripod. It has two cameras. One is for photography. And one is a laser measuring the distance from the scanner to physical objects in space. The scanner begins by doing a 360-degree turn, where it takes photographs which are later combined into a panoramic image. Then the scanner goes around, again, using the laser to create a three-dimensional matrix, as seen from that position in the space. Later in the software, these RGB coordinates from the photograph are combined with the XYZ coordinates of the laser scan to create a three-dimensional photograph in its truest, or rather in a very specific sense. In the software that I work with, it’s also possible to isolate certain elements that you want to extract like a piece of furniture, or to delete a person out of the scan for example. You can isolate things in the space of the software and then manipulate them.

SM: I was wondering why you decided to let the user navigate through the space. This interactive possibility definitely activates the user to spin it around, can fly through it, zoom in and out and so forth and discover the various functions.

BB: The reason I made it navigable was because I wanted to, exactly as you articulated it, activate the user and allow them to have a similar experience as mine in terms working with the material. I imagine many people will be experiencing a three-dimensional virtual space like this for the first time when they visit the website. And this perspective on three-dimensional space is something that I have maybe taken for granted, because I’ve been working in three dimensional virtual environments for as long as I can remember, from a production standpoint. And although many people are accustomed to consuming such 3D spaces (in video games for example) they might not have access to the means of producing them. So putting these means, however symbolically in the hands of the user in order to shift their perspective was an important editorial choice.

LK: Earlier, you hesitated at calling these images “true.” I would be curious to know if you understand and approach these 3D scans as ‘digital replicas’ of the ‘real’, existing ones. You also mentioned that the program allows for editing and manipulation. Did you consider purposely playing with the scans after they’re produced to toy with their accuracy in representation?

BB: So, the real or the true aspect. There can never be enough points. Yeah, there can never be high enough resolution.

LK: I think this should be the title of this interview. There can never be enough points. I think that’s really good.

BB: There can never be enough points[2], there can never be enough resolution, and there will always be detail at the infinitesimal level that cannot be captured. And that’s only speaking about the virtual, visual representation of the physical space. There is so much richness and depth to the spaces as they are lived and produced that can’t be represented in a visual format. So, I don’t see these scans as comprehensively representing the space. I see them more as a kind of abstraction, and a way of perceiving and experiencing the space that gives you just a shift in perspective more than anything. I think it’s really fun to see, especially in the spaces that are embedded in an urban context, how these pieces fit like a puzzle almost.

As a note on the editable, or the idea of playing with the scans to even fictionalize or create perceived untruths: one thing that is already there are the reflections from the mirrors, from the disco balls and from the windows. And I did not edit those out. On the one hand, it would have been very time intensive. But on the other hand, I liked the productive glitches that they created. And for this reason, there is kind of an element of fiction or of play in the scan, just as they’re generated through the medium itself.

LK: It’s interesting that you mention these glitches. I would definitely attach this term to the project. These spaces appear to be in a process of rendering, never full visible or completed. There is a sense of opacity there in the image. I understand that this is both inherent to the technology but also an aesthetic decision. Do you find that this specific image-form hints at broader social and political implications – perhaps regarding not only the relation of architecture to its digital counterpart but also as a question on/of queerness?

BB: Something that I really enjoy about this kind of experience of what might feel like loading, or glitch – as if you were watching a video online waiting for it to resume – is that it deals with a feeling of anticipation. And I think by leaving the space of anticipation open, it creates a different relation to the spaces than if it were something that was more immersive. Immersive in the sense that it is creating something convincingly real or all-encompassing.

And maybe that word immersion is important. I feel like I need to think about that more in relation to transparency and opacity. I feel that immersion and transparency are more closely linked than immersion and opacity. Immersion requires an attention to detail and a kind of pedantic obsession with creating something that looks real or that fully represents and understands every visual element of a space, and this relates to the notion of transparency. I think maybe what the refusal to create this environment, this immersive experience, does is gesture toward opacity. I think the use of glitches and even the celebration of them as an important, and even queer element of the scans refuses the transparency of an immersive environment. Or refuses a claim to a comprehensive and complete, “transparent” truth.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Maxi Wallenhorst’s essay on e-flux[3], which takes up dissociation and aesthetics. I think there are some levels of dissociation that are represented in this visual medium. Because you are, as a user or viewer of the website, placed outside of the scene, you’re placed outside of the space, while simultaneously trying to get closer to it or to understand it more. And I think this dissociative split can potentially relate to individual experiences of queerness. Not only in relation to oneself, but also in relation to one’s society. And one’s urban environment. This is something that I’m continuing to work on and to understand.

SM: You call this project a process of building an archive and I think that comes with many implications. One place to start would be with the notions of saving, protecting, preserving – because archives tend to serve such purposes. Do you feel like this project saves these spaces in the city (as they continue to be subjected to time and political threat)?

BB: I think that these scans save the spaces in the sense that you push save on a computer. That doesn’t do much more in terms of saving them politically or socially, or economically. However, I think there is an aspect of the politics of aesthetics that is involved in the work, in which presenting these spaces as being historically important will affect the minds and the social processes of people who encounter them. Of course, that’s extremely difficult to measure. I don’t think it necessarily protects the spaces. But it does generate a new opportunity to get to know them in a different way. Not only as like a patron or visitor to the space, where you might not necessarily know the history or the motivations behind it. This opportunity to enter into a new relationship with the space does in some way contribute to the community.

LK: As you speak about these encounters, do you have in mind the online visitors to these digital spaces? Are they the same people who frequent the spaces physically? Or is it also about making the spaces widely accessible to another audience?

BB: It’s both. I think there is this importance that I just outlined of thinking in terms of community. But also broadening that to include other people living in the city, who don’t necessarily identify as queer, who are just as welcome to interact with and learn from the website. The idea was to make these spaces accessible for people who might not necessarily feel comfortable going to them or even have the privilege of publicly presenting as queer or being identified with any of these spaces. So, there is a kind of accessibility that’s granted through this form of representation that isn’t necessarily there in the real-life context.

I call it an archive and the process of archiving, because, I feel like beginning this project, I have kind of nominated myself as the custodian of these 3D scans. So, my work is not only to find a way to make these raw scans visible, but also to hold onto, to protect, to back up and to keep them safe. The spaces have invested their trust in me as author of the scans, and I feel it is my duty to ensure that the scans are used only in ways that resonate with the self-description and political stances of the spaces. This might not always be easy, but it is important for the integrity of the work that the scans have this self-determined element.

LK: We’ve thoroughly discussed the cultural and political resonance of these scans and interviews, but I think what I’m curious about, also in terms of thinking of them as an archive, is that they start to form a kind of collective body together, which could function quite differently than they would as individual artistic explorations. I think what an archive does, besides bring materials together, is also allow them to speak in another way as they sit in dialogue with one another – as a perceived singular body of material. Do you have any thoughts on this?

“In a similar way to how the medium of the 3D scan will always be incomplete, I think using 3D scanning as a technique for archiving spaces will also always be incomplete for different reasons.”

BB: In a similar way to how the medium of the 3D scan will always be incomplete, I think using 3D scanning as a technique for archiving spaces will also always be incomplete for different reasons. One being that not every space can be archived in this way. Either because it doesn’t exist as a physical space, but moves around, or doesn’t have a physical space or because that space needs to be protected. It needs to be protected from public view, to be protected from legal issues, or political or social issues that might arise if that 3D scan were ever created in the first instance. So, even beyond the question of publication, creating the scan itself can potentially be a violent act. And I think at this point is also important to say that the spaces that are published on the web, like many of the unpublished spaces that I was able to scan in 2020, represent a specific type of queer space that is already very public and publicized. This of course made it more comfortable for me as an artist to work with these spaces and to present them online in this way, knowing that they are already heavily visible, so that their visibility, or their public presence wasn’t being heavily transformed, necessarily. But I also miss in the work, the narratives of spaces who cannot be presented in this way. And for that reason, as the project continues, I’m going to be looking at other forms of representation. Working more with oral histories as I’ve started already in the websites to think through space as a kind of sounding board or sensor for conversations.

“What makes spaces queer is the residue of queer experience.”

What makes spaces queer is the residue of queer experience. I think often about Eyal Weizmann’s articulation of architecture as a sensor[4]. And I perceive the spaces inhabited by these queer communities as sensing and recording the lived experience of the people there. It’s difficult to document all of these things. Of course, beyond this kind of poetic discussion of the space as a sensor, it’s ultimately the people who make the space. So, I think approaching a kind of ‘wholeness’ of the archive can’t be done without trying to recover some of this residue.

It would be really interesting to imagine doing that through different modalities of representation, taking place horizontally in this this archival work. So, working on a way to de-hierarchize the very visual and very affective medium of the 3D scan will be a great and exciting challenge.

This contribution is published in the framework of the Whole Life Academy.

  1. https://batesoninstitute.org/warm-data/ 
  2. Thank you to Michael Stevenson for bringing up this notion in a recent conversation about the work. 
  3. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/117/385637/like-a-real-veil-like-a-bad-analogy-dissociative-style-and-trans-aesthetics/ 
  4. Eyal Weizman. “Introduction: Forensis.” In Forensis: the architecture of public truth. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014. 9-32. 

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