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Carolin Liebl and Nikolas Schmid-Pfähler Plastic Extrusion Bot 2020 EMAP EMARE

Interview: Carolin Liebl & Nikolas Schmid-Pfähler


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Part of the The Living Planet season

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For 2020, artist collective Carolin Liebl and Nikolas Schmid-Pfähler joined FACT as artists-in-residence after being awarded the European Media Artist Residence Exchange by the European Media Art Platform.

Liebl and Schmid-Pfähler have been working as an artist duo since 2012. Both graduated from the Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach in 2017 and together with nine other artists, opened a joint studio in 2019 serving as a platform for the exchange of practices.

Incorporating elements of sculpture, the kinetic, robots, and installation, the duo’s work deals with the effects of technological development on the aesthetic and social aspects of human and nonhuman life. Their medium (technology) is both a carrier of social convention and a pictorial material. Their objects expressing different energies examine the nature of electrical energy and the self-perception of humankind in relation to it.

Now your remote residency with FACT is over, can you tell us a little bit about your creative process, and fascination with technology?

In our work, we explore the coexistence of humans with other life forms, as well as with technology and the environment. We work with various technologies in our work, creating objects that incorporate elements of sculpture, kinetics, robotics, and installation in order to help us better understand the idea of the ‘other’. We try to establish a feeling-based connection between viewer and object, usually with electricity, which means the viewer's reaction to this material itself becomes the object of observation.

We deal with technologies in terms of both content and practice, and both processes are equally important to us. We don't just think up a function and then build it; we find that we need to learn and work with different techniques in order to understand their potential. This process allows us to discover more subtle, conceptual approaches.

As a duo we work permanently in a team and think through ideas together. During production, we alternate between working on the various steps and techniques, because it is our individual experiences and approaches that serve as a basis for discussion. Also, we both really enjoy it.

Your residency was originally intended to take place at FACT, here in Liverpool. What's the process been like in your own studio, working remotely with the team?

It was of course a great pity that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we couldn’t travel to Liverpool and work at FACT! What’s special about a residency usually, is getting to know, and working together with the local people, encountering new influences and the constant need to adapt and improvise - all of which can produce unpredictable, creative results.

But working in isolation in our own studio was also interesting in this special situation. Our studio is a former laundry, which we renovated over two years with nine other artists of various disciplines. We moved into the studio together with the other artists just last year, and as there’s usually little time between projects, we still haven’t been able to properly furnish it. This time in our own studio and the intensive work during our residency period enabled us to make full use of our space and adapt it even further to suit our needs. The FACT team managed to visit us several times over zoom, and we had opportunities to give insight into our workshop and working methods.

You refer to the robot as "he" in the description of the work. Is anthropomorphising technology part of your interest in human/non-human exploration?

Actually, in this case we made a translation error, because "robot" is a male word in german! But, anthropomorphising is indeed an important aspect in our artistic research, both linguistically and in the eventual form and character of the artwork. We don’t use it to make machines appear more human or more intelligent, but to emphasise that technology and humans cannot be considered as separate from each other. Our aim is to draw attention to how we see and deal with our technological companions.

For example, we have a group of robots named "Siblings", where the title draws attention to both their similarities and differences from us. Or the group of works "They", in which the individual robots are all called “They” and numbered consecutively; their otherness as a group and the individuality of each of them is free to be explored. Finally, our robot pair "Vincent and Emily" shines a light on the effects of gendering machines, which comes with their anthropomorphisation.

The extrusion bot gains its "personality" by moving around autonomously and making creative decisions based on sensor data, namely where and how to drop the plastic sculptures. By granting the robot human behaviour, it can be seen to stand for our role as earthly actors. This gives us the opportunity for a critical self-examination, which makes us aware of our responsibility to make decisions that take into account the entire ecosystem.

Carolin Liebl and Nikolas Schmid Pfahler Plastic Extrusion Bot 2020 EMAP EMARE jpg DSF5548
Carolin Liebl and Nikolas Schmid Pfahler Plastic Extrusion Bot 2020 EMAP EMARE
Carolin Liebl and Nikolas Schmid Pfahler Plastic Extrusion Bot 2020 EMAP EMARE jpg DSF5955

Why was it so important for you to highlight the effects of plastic pollution in this commission?

Carolin Liebl and Nikolas Schmid Pfahler Plastic Extrusion Bot 2020 EMAP EMARE jpg DSF5811

As artists, recycling and reuse of materials is very important to us as a method of creating new works from old materials, but we had no tools that allowed us to reshape and repurpose plastics. We were looking for ways to recycle our private and studio waste, and in particular to reuse failed 3D prints.

With a small prototype project, the "Spitting Bot", we investigated the shaping of plastic and its appearance. Many viewers were fascinated to see for the first time how solid plastic material is melted and transformed into new objects. This fascination, which we share, and the little that most people know about the technical processes of plastic recycling have led us to address this in our residency project. In our installation, the material otherwise associated with cheap throwaway products becomes a valuable and changeable source material for works of art. Through this aesthetic experience we aim to change the relationship to the material, whose massive waste is the cause of a planetary crisis.

Can you explain what 'PLA' is, and how the recycling process affects it?

Our robot turns plastic waste from 3D printers into new forms. This waste consists of a type of plastic called PLA, made from starch (often from the corn plant), which is biodegradable, but would decompose very slowly compared to other bio-waste. In most industrial recycling plants, PLA is not separated by type and is simply burned, although special conditions in some industrial composting plants allow for the degradation of PLA within a few months. Conventional plastics, often extracted from crude oil, remain in nature unaltered for hundreds of years. In order not to waste the energy used for its production, the most ecological solutions are therefore firstly prevention and secondly multiple use and recycling, despite this plastic being biodegradable.

During our residency, we asked Professor Michael Shaver from the Green Materials Laboratory at the University of Manchester about plastic recycling and how to approach the technical implementation of our project. For example, he explained to us that it is not possible to de-colour plastic, only to colour it more and more. So the more different colours are mixed together when melting, the more brown and unsightly the new plastic object becomes. In industry, the plastic is then coloured black by adding burned carbon materials, which makes the resulting products more attractive but also the most difficult to recycle.

Professor Michael Shaver also explained to us why plastic cannot be melted down infinitely and brought into a new form. Due to the sheer forces and temperatures that occur, the material loses properties with each cycle, the viscosity gradually drops and the material becomes brittle. He estimates that with our extruder robot, eight cycles could be possible before the material becomes too brittle. We are curious to see how the visible properties of the resulting objects change with each cycle, and hope the project will contribute to promote public discourse around plastics.