Café Avatar, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, 2017. Photo by Chris Oughtred.

In the essay that accompanied the program for their show I’m Not Trying To Change Anything, I’m Just Changing (2019), Sonnenzimmer writes, “As we formulate … our split identities, stuck between our anthropometric physical selves and digital avatars, the screen is where these poles briefly commingle.”

This serious but playful acknowledgement of the rift between the physical self and digital self has always drawn me to the Chicago-based duo’s work. I first learned about them in 2018 at grayDUCK gallery in Austin, Texas where their show Café Avatar was on display. The question Sonnenzimmer repeatedly asked in that exhibition was: “Where do our avatars hang out when not in use?” Though humorous, the question has some validity to it. Like a bumper sticker, our digital selves are always speaking on our behalf, even when we forget about them.   

Sonnenzimmer’s work is delightfully hard to define. It’s commercial, it’s fine art; it’s playful, it’s thoughtful; it’s gestural, and it’s refined. The slippery nature of their work is the result of constant evolution and curiosity. Nadine Nakanishi and Nick Butcher—the artists who compose the duo—use their backgrounds in printmaking and typography to physically create seductive imagery that mimics digital space. But as the whole world has been shunted out of three-dimensional space and onto the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonnenzimmer too is deepening their relationship to the digital realm.

In July of 2020, Nakanishi and Butcher posted an instructional video called How to Begin to their website. The video, which was commissioned by the Cleve Carney Museum as part of a series of artist-made instructional videos, features a live action hand in deep, digital blue guiding the viewer toward beginning. Though instructional, it never actually tells the viewer what it is they are supposed to begin doing. During our conversation in October of 2020, Butcher says, “We were thinking of young people watching this video as a way to inhabit making an artwork for the first time. The point was that you just have to start. And the [making of the] video itself was starting without knowing where it was going.” 

 

This assignment came in the context of COVID-19 lockdowns and protests against racism, and this cultural turning point impacted the way the team thought of their practice. Nakanishi says, “I think [the video] is weirdly contemplative because we were … in this limbo of how to go forward with our practice in the light of social reform. It was really hard to face [that art]—the thing that we worked so hard on, that has set us free and given us purpose in life, [and a way] to relate to the world—was also in context with oppression. And this is in Chicago, where we have big race issues, but we also desperately needed the money. ” 

[The video] is definitely about taking into account your impact on the world and how to still move forward,” Butcher adds, “knowing that you will impact things as you do.”

Amid the chaos of the summer, this video offered a shocking moment of calm. While many of us are still cocooned in the eerie hush of isolation, this is a noisy moment in history. With that mass relocation to digital space, there is the increased volume of social media, Zoom calls, and the pinging of event reminders. In such a loud global environment it’s surprising to find so much comfort in a digital space, and it’s a pleasure to see how Sonnenzimmer has maintained the same incisive but cheeky flare that could be found in their physical work. “This time has made the idea of work hanging in a gallery feel medieval,” Butcher says. “I’m not concerned about [the move to digital space], because this is our program. It will be made, and we will make it. And when it needs to swing another way, that will happen, too.” 

Nakanishi is not so warm toward the changes she sees happening in our collective move online, or how easy it would be to go back. “What I’m experiencing is that the loss of material is like the loss of memory of nature. It will change the synapses of my thinking … [and I worry that with this shift] we’re going to see a bystander existence, instead of a participant existence.” Even so, while talking about the small human moments that sometimes happen on the web, Nakanishi says, “In some ways this digital space has become hyper-domestic, and it’s really tender in many ways.”

And maybe it is this mutualistic tension between Nakanishi and Butcher’s philosophies that keeps their work pushing at the boundaries of this pivotal intersection. One could posit that the duo’s physical works employ a sinister—albeit alluring—graphic vocabulary that mimics the digital, while their digital work, conversely, uses exceptionally human elements to remind the viewer of the “real” world. 

In Café Avatar, the publication released in conjunction with the show by the same name, Sonnenzimmer asks darkly: “If we don’t ask ourselves how our humanity and our graphic expression are interconnected … If we give over our forms of graphic expression to the self-driving impending monoculture, what do we stand to lose?” 

To which I suspect the answer is “everything.”