Offering critical insight into the wide array of professions in the industry of contemporary culture, the producers series presents thinkers and practitioners who stand out and leave a mark. In this issue, Carson Chan meets artist-turned-fitness entrepreneur Nik Kosmas.
You started collaborating with Daniel Keller as AIDS-3D in 2005 and ended it in 2013 at a pretty high point in the practice. You were 27 years old, had gallery representation and were being shown in museums around the world; you’d reached a point where you could have made whatever you liked, and it still would have been taken seriously. But you’ve spoken since about how it was precisely this ease, this “anything goes” attitude in the art world that made you want to quit.
Well, I would say 2010-11 was really the height of AIDS-3D, at least creatively. We had a lot of energy and felt very excited about everything. By 2013, we were super cynical with the art market system. What I mean by “anything goes” is that there is no metric or set of requirements for measuring quality in art when it’s a commodity. It stressed me out that there was no “answer,” and I realized that it was important for me to know what makes something good or bad. In product design, the object has to perform a certain function. In art, especially because it’s almost impossible to compare one practice to another, there is no real way to judge standards.
I don’t think that commodification is a problem, but hiding it under intellectualism is boring
But isn’t the non-linear way that art is able to communicate ideas part of what makes it valuable? Isn’t making art about trusting the illogical, irrational part of human production?
The problem with contemporary art is that there is simultaneously an attempt to be hyper-rational—to ensure that all the ideas and research going into a work is thought through—while also trying to be hyper-free. I was caught between wanting to write an essay or formula and wanting to be intuitive.
That’s the problem with Conceptual art. You also said that you wanted to reengage with the real world—but for me, the art world is part of the real world. It’s just one community out of many others.
It’s not so much about it being “real” or “unreal” as it is about its insularity. Contemporary art requires you to understand it beforehand in order to appreciate it. I couldn’t explain what I was doing to my parents. Maybe scientists have the same problem. I think art should make you feel something. I think the urge some artists have to verbalize or footnote their work is kind of a weakness.
Since stopping AIDS-3D, you have pursued fitness and nutrition professionally. You became licensed as a trainer, and along with artist-turned-entrepreneur Martin Thacker, you also started a company called Maru Matcha, which sells matcha green tea. How did you make the switch?
I started learning a lot about fitness through independent research while I was still part of AIDS-3D. At art openings and events, friends started seeing the results of my new interest. People had so many questions about how I was exercising and what I was eating. I sometimes answered more questions about my fitness regimen than my artwork. I realized that there was a huge demand for this information, and that people were willing to pay for it.
Fitness, like art, is easy to commodify.
I don’t think that commodification is a problem—I think that not being honest is a problem. Hiding commodification under intellectualism is boring. The language used in sports and health is more straightforward. It’s also rife with buzzwords and misinformation, but its intended effects are more direct than art’s. If I tell you that I can teach you how to get a healthier body, I really can do that—whereas I don’t know that I can change your worldview or confront capitalism by selling sculptures. The inability to effect actual change through art made me safely sarcastic. Everything became a joke. Health is real, and you can change people’s lives through teaching. Firsthand experience of healing someone feels really good.
Does selling matcha come from a similar desire to improve health?
Selling matcha is definitely more conceptually demanding, less straightforward. It’s available through our website (marumatcha.com) or Amazon.de, and it’s doing fine, but once again, I find that it’s not enough simply to convey to a public that our product is available. It’s really hard to measure the correlation between media exposure and sales. You and I are currently having a conversation for an art magazine which has its own specific audience, but how do you communicate to, let’s say, a girl in Munich who is into yoga and veganism and whose only source of information is Instagram? In a way, she’s my target audience. She’s part of an audience that might not choose a product for its quality, but rather for some other ephemeral, undefinable quality.
Recognizing that personal decisions are agents of change is incredibly empowering
Fitness and matcha, insofar as its ingested, both deal directly with the body. You’ve shifted from producing intellectual objects to bodily experiences. Gloria Steinem calls the physical, moral and political sovereignty of our bodies, of everything under the skin, “bodily integrity.” Owning a body is also owning the right to control it and resist external, even governmental intrusions. Recently, I heard biologist Sandra Steingraber talking on the radio about how climate change is impeding her ability to be a good mom. For Steingraber, being a parent means planning for your children’s future and keeping them safe from harm, and the effects of climate change prevent her from carrying out these tasks. In a sense, if the body is a political entity as per Steinem, working on the body through fitness and nutrition is itself a form of political empowerment.
Well, to your first point, working on the body is definitely about control. Personally, I found making art with another person a process in which I had little control over the results. If I can’t change my collaborator’s mind, then we have to compromise and find a consensus. Doing things well is important to me, and the success of collaborative art is really hard to measure. Producing something that does what it’s supposed to do well, be it a knife, a pair of shoes, an exercise rack or my own body, is far more tangible. When I decide what I eat or not, I can really follow my own logic and exercise my willpower. There’s something automatically satisfying about exerting control over small decisions. I do see your point about connecting the personal with a wider political scale. Recognizing that personal decisions are agents of change is incredibly empowering. At the same time, caring obsessively about what one eats and one’s body mass index is also incredibly selfish. I’ve met many people who look great and have amazing bodies but who never see beyond themselves. So the personal is political, yes—and personally, I see honesty, control and excellence as qualities that guide my future production.
Nik Kosmas (American, b. 1986) is an artist and entrepreneur who lives and works in Berlin. Along with Daniel Keller, he co-founded artist duo AIDS-3D in 2006.
Images: Training 2015. Photo credit: Julia Burlingham. Courtesy of the artist; Maru Matcha Promotional Material, 2016; Portrait while Drinking Matcha, 2016. Photo Credit: Julia Burlingham. Courtesy of the artist and Maru Matcha. Location and teaware by Thirsty Moon, Berlin. Styling by Diana Quach.