Digital Bauhaus
In conversation: Kathrin Passig, Philipp Albers,
Holm Friebe and Mads Pankow
Jun 22, 2014

Adeline Seidel: “Digital Bauhaus” – to what does that refer?

Holm Friebe: “Digital Bauhaus” is an exciting idea: What would Bauhaus be today? At the same time, it’s a bit of a provocation, namely the reference to the fact that much of what is currently being discussed as new and future-oriented already has a history in terms of culture and experience. Bauhaus is more than a modern design tradition. It also stands for a new form of work that first made design possible. As long ago as 1919 Walter Gropius called in the Bauhaus Manifesto for an interdisciplinary group approach to work with no hierarchical distinction between craftsmanship and design. It’s an idea the world of work still needs to accept fully. We want to explore this lineage and ask whether we are now smarter than the Bauhaus lot were almost a century ago.
In a down-to-earth sense, Digital Bauhaus rests on the idea of applying the Bauhaus’ social economic and cultural mindset to the complexity of the present. Added to which, today we have digital technologies and tools that render our working efforts more dynamic, above all in terms of time and space.

Can the original Bauhaus be reduced to some special form of creative collaboration?

Philipp Albers: Bauhaus can without doubt not be reduced to the topic of creative collaboration. For interdisciplinary cooperation between different trades was intended as a means to an end. The actual goal was to remove art from the groves of the academia and give it direct social relevance. At heart Bauhaus had an aesthetic program and a humanist reach. Beauty was to be democratized. To what extent it came good on that promise is another matter entirely. In order to get a better idea of claim vs. reality, indeed maybe of the hubris of the original Bauhaus, we’ve invited a real expert Lukas Imhof, to join us, and he views Bauhaus and its impact very critically. We deflate the myth only to breathe new life into it and extract those elements that we think can be used today.

What makes you so optimistic that the communal efforts by outstanding personalities such as Josef and Anni Albers, Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, László Moholy-Nagy, Georg Muche and many others can be “translated” into the digital age?

Mads Pankow: At Bauhaus itself the focus was not just on interaction between the artists. Instead what was really new was that form masters and crafts masters acted in the Bauhaus workshops as equals. This form of collaboration was the opposite of that championed in the art academies and above all significantly enhanced the status of crafts. Bauhaus essentially emulated the Werkbund here. The real trades community consisted, or so Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus’ mastermind, said, of the trio of artist, technician and salesman. This trio is just as topical today, as it now described the ideal of any innovation policy, even if we would today probably speak of creative minds, engineers and business administrator.

Working collaboratively in one and the same place is an exciting prospect, and in the best of cases coincidence, direct interaction and non-linear processes result. What creative processes support digital collaboration, which does not depend on place?

Kathrin Passig: Collaborating without respect to place was something already successfully practiced in Enlightenment days, albeit by correspondence and journals. If, and this was the case back then, there are only a few experts in a field, and they are geographically scattered at that, then there is little other way of doing things. International cooperation is hardly possible without methods that do not depend on place. And these approaches are an advantage to people who do not live in or around central research or innovation hubs, or for whom full-time employment is out of the question. A precursor of this was founded in 1962 by programmer Stephanie Shirley, the highly successful company Freelance Programmers Ltd. (later F International), which exclusively employed female programmers who because of their children depended on being able to work from home part-time – something British companies at the time did not envisage.

Holm Friebe: Digital collaboration cannot be a substitute for personal contact, but only supplement it. The Digital Bauhaus is therefore not something that takes place in a virtual domain, as innovations do indeed also thrive on unplanned chance, the spatial proximity of different disciplines and mindsets, unexpected chats at the water dispenser. Building 20 at MIT is a prime example of a completely under-designed, provisional space which precisely for that reason encouraged intense discussion between the various research groups and after World War II emerged as a hotspot of technological innovation. Sebastian Olma, one of our speakers, has researched the function of this kind of unplanned observation or serendipity as a key driver of social innovation.

The Bauhaus was a world of individualists. Why haven’t you invited any artists to attend, who in many cases successfully insist that individuals are superior to cooperative teams when it comes to “creativity”, especially if the focus is on radically different solutions?

Philipp Albers: One of the Bauhaus achievements that have sadly been forgotten was precisely to dissolve the strict category of the artist. The artistic is defined as the result of labor inputs, not by a copyright. For Henry van de Velde, basically the grandfather of Bauhaus, an engineer who designed a complex machine was most certainly to be classed as an artist.

Holm Friebe: Added to which, today innovations are ever less the product of an individual genius and ever more the result of creative teams and groups, as individuals face too tall a task from a degree of complexity onwards. So the question is not whether an individual is more creative than a group. We must be pragmatic and start with the real situation and ask how we can ensure that group processes do not produce some saccharine minimum consensus but instead benefit from the diversity of individuals. And precisely that is what interests us.

Co-working, Co-creation – in the current debates on new forms of cooperation, it is the processes that tend to take the front seat, not the results or products. I am wrong to assume we are stuck in a feedback loop of permanent process optimization?

Philipp Albers: Well the process defines the product, even if there is no linear I/O relationship and no laws of nature governing cooperation. Incidentally, at this very moment some doubt this: Alex Pentland at MIT calls his approach “Social Physics” and seeks via Big Data to actually enter a loop of permanent process optimization. The idea’s exciting, but still in its infancy.

Holm Friebe: Which is why we are very practical and simply seeking suitable forms of organizing cooperation. The objective: to bring together all the existing experiential knowledge and make it available for everyone wanting or needing to organize collaborative processes. Because those processes are reality and most innovations arise through collaboration. Meaning that primarily it’s not about calling for more, but for better cooperation. And this qualitative assessment is obviously triggered by the results not the process.

Is there a danger that teams get fixated on process and thus only on themselves? In the Digital Bauhaus is there a shared idea that affects all of society?

Holm Friebe: Well, you might just set too high a benchmark if like the Bauhaus you try with a bit too much aplomb and bearing to change society by educating it in good taste: The notion that design determines awareness wasn’t right after all.

Mads Pankow: Society as a whole need definitely not be the mission of cooperative processes. Bauhaus itself was able to function at the mini-level, too. Then as now, the imperative must be down to earth in thrust: If you set about solving a task, then do so such that the addressees benefit.
Bauhaus always sought to find the right solution. That’s something the 20th century taught us. Today, it’s not about there being the sole right solution but about finding a good solution. Digital Bauhaus includes respect for the users, the consumers. Here, too, the collaborative development and manufacturing process is nothing more than a means, albeit an important one.

What tools play a role in digital collaboration and how are they used?

Kathrin Passig: To date, the software development industry has blazed the trail for cooperation irrespective of place. There have long since been powerful tools at hand here, but they tend to be so very specialized and so non-user-friendly that it’s hard to use them elsewhere. Much has changed over the last decades, with tools for time management, for simultaneous joint work on texts, presentations, graphics, project management, etc. arising. It’s now normal to communicate all day with other people via one or several channels as if they were sitting at the desk next to you. But because with Digital Bauhaus we want to expand the reach and not constrain the means, Anni Roolf’s tools workshop, for example, will also explore non-digital tools for collaboration.

Bauhaus art, architecture and design helped decisively shape the never-uniform face of Modernism. What picture of the present and future does a Digital Bauhaus paint?

Holm Friebe: We don’t know yet, as otherwise we wouldn’t convene a conference. We can assume that it will be more fragmented and multi-faceted than the original Bauhaus’ one-dimensional notion of progress, which was so much a product of its day. In his documentary, “A New Product”, Harun Farocki focuses on the ambivalences of office employment, which offers many superficial liberties but transposes control into the team and the individual. That said, the old Bauhaus idea of having people participate in the “beauty” of progress is very topical again today, for example when Dark Horse GmbH uses holacracy to realize democratic participation and co-determination within a company.
History does not get repeated, but strikes a chord. In his keynote, Philipp Oswalt will highlight precisely the common ground in the difference in historical conditions: Bauhaus responded to the transition from crafts output to industrial mass production. A new Bauhaus must respond to the end of the mass consumer age. It’s exciting.

Bauhaus had a strong local impact: Producers, suppliers, companies and service providers relocated to be near it. Today, Bauhaus is an education and cultural institution and a key regional marketing factor. What does the idea of the Digital Bauhaus spell for local developments?

Philipp Albers: That is indeed an exciting historical experience. The arts&crafts movement already stimulated the economy before Bauhaus came along, for example in Munich with the Vereinigten Werkstätten or the Vienna and Dresdner Werkstätten. And in Weimar as early as 1902, Henry van de Velde had started an economic upturn, and when he was dismissed in 1915 local companies spelled out to the government, what business benefits van de Velde’s work had brought them and how the dismissal hurt them.

Mads Pankow: Back to today: Digital Bauhaus is likewise first and foremost a job relating to business, advocating industry and craftsmanship. As was the case a century ago, today the issue of what form future production will take is back on the table with a vengeance in terms of both product and process. The answers will emphatically influence the scope for regional development. And precisely the regions outside the metropolises could benefit. It was no coincidence that Bauhaus was founded in the small Thuringian town of Weimar and not in Berlin or Vienna.

Rural regions, precisely in east Germany, are suffering from a population exodus. How can regions profit from the digitalization of work processes?

Mads Pankow: In terms of its development, a lot depends of course on whether the region has Highspeed-DSL or not. In the medium term, the demographic will depend less on whether I can work from home thanks to the Internet. Alongside quite personal reasons for living in a particular place, in future the question will remain decisive: What quality of life and which kinds of well-paid jobs does a place offer. Then there are regional cluster effects. For which economic activity is there a critical mass? What local tradition can be continued digitally? Digitalization has long since changed the world of work, but purely digital value creation without regional roots is rare in Old Europe.

What do you hope the conference will help you find out?

Holm Friebe: We’ll open the first section under the search entry “Digital Bauhaus” with a plethora of open questions. And we’re quite open as to what the goal will be. Perhaps, in 2019, when the Bauhaus turns 100, there’ll be a new manifesto. Perhaps we’ll have seen by then that Bauhaus needs to be overcome. That remains to be seen.

Mads Pankow: For this year’s summit we and Thüringer Agentur für die Kreativwirtschaft as the organizers are focusing quite practically first up on bringing together the wealth of experiential knowledge out there on designing processes of cooperation and tapping into them for users in the actual processes and projects. Given the diversity and fragility of creative cooperation we can’t expect to see any off-the-hook solutions. Like the historical Bauhaus, we feel we are duty-bound to deliver something practical.

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Digital Bauhaus Summit 2014
Designing Creative Collaboration
June 29 + 30, 2014, Weimar

The “Digital Bauhaus Summit” is a series of events organized by THAK (Thüringer Agentur für die Kreativwirtschaft) and RKW Thüringen, with support from the Thuringia Ministry of Economics, Labor and Technology.

Concept and organization: Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur
Conference languages: English/German
Entry fee: Workshops € 80 / Workshops and conference: € 120

For further information on the speakers and for tickets, click: