Art at SAP: Dare to Fail – and to Talk About It

An art exhibition at SAP headquarters shows new fields of experimentation in photography and revolves around the innovation maxim “fail early and often.”

Blinking signals and a humming sound. Many cabinets, wires, doors, and lights. It is loud and warm. In the middle of this scene: a pinhole camera. This is how Paul Pape, the artist and photographer, describes his visit to the SAP data center in Walldorf, Germany, where he took one-of-a-kind photographs with his homemade pinhole camera.

These photographs can be seen at SAP’s new art exhibition “Fail Early and Often – Martin Liebscher & Students,” which features works from 15 students enrolled in Professor Liebscher’s photography seminar at the University of Art and Design in Offenbach, Germany. The opening event took place May 24 at the International Training Center in Walldorf.

The exhibition shows that through the medium of photography, reality can be presented in a variety of ways. While in the early days of photography, artists aimed to create an exact depiction of reality, it’s become apparent that viewers are easily deceived.

“We all know that moment when we realize that we were deceived, that we were mistaken, or that we have failed,” said Alexandra Cozgarea, the exhibition curator, in her opening speech. “These experiences of failure are often the driving force for new ways of thinking and acting. True to the motto ‘fail early and often,’ they make us stronger, more resilient, and lead us toward success and innovation.”

Needle in the Haystack

In Pape’s view, the parallels between his art and a software company like SAP are obvious – and not just because his photographs were taken at SAP. For him, the similarity lies in the constant search for the best possible result. At the beginning, there was only an idea: building his own pinhole camera. The first prototypes did not work. “Software development is similar, I think. If there is a mistake, maybe you don’t even know where it is,” says Pape. “It is like looking for the needle in the haystack. It’s incredibly complex, but also exciting.”

Art Exhibition at SAP: Paul Pape
Left: Pape’s pinhole camera not only captures analog photos directly, but it is also equipped with another feature to create the light drawings: a fiber optic cable that is attached to a sail, which reacts to the smallest streams of air and draws the image like a brush. In this case, the cooling airflows at the SAP data center were used to create the lines visible in the photo above. Right photo: Wind spuerbar im Gesicht (“Feeling wind in the face”)

Small but Magic Mistakes

Failing early and often is not only a guiding principle in the SAP Design Thinking methodology, it is also an important and productive process in art. Small imperfections are actually desired, and even lend a certain charm to artwork. They make the work of art unique.

The works at the exhibition in Walldorf invite visitors to question perspectives and try new approaches. For example, if you take a closer look at Liebscher’s photograph, Steffi Graf Stadium, you can spot two “mistakes.” But the mistakes don’t end there. Twenty-two of these “many small but magic mistakes,” as author and artist Andreas Schlaegel calls them, can also be found in the catalog accompanying the exhibition created by students Janine Baechle, Patrick David Brockmann, and Svetlana Mijic.

Art Exhibition at SAP: Dare to Fail,
“We found the motto ‘Fail Early and Often’ on a glass door in building 5 at SAP and made it the title of our exhibition, and we made it our commitment,” explains Liebscher, who won a Guinness World Record for the world’s longest group photo in 1998. Photo: Steffi Graf Stadium

Dare to Fail and Talk About It

At first glance, Asli Oezdemir’s photos might seem a bit chaotic, colorful, and perhaps even exhilarating. They show food and clothing paired with shoes, dishes, and household appliances. There is hair in the bathtub. Her autobiographical work everything is sent upwards deals with the traditional Turkish mourning ritual “taziye.” In the first week after a death of a loved one, the grieving family welcomes a large congregation of mourners to their home, which inevitably leads to an accumulation of various objects that Oezdemir stages in her photos.

During the creative process, she allowed herself to be guided by minor “mistakes” and spontaneous ideas. “Suddenly, something appears, such as the hair in the water, and something emerges that I cannot even explain,” Oezdemir says. She states that her work is highly influenced by coincidences. “Mistakes also tell their own stories.”

Art Exhibition at SAP: Dare to Fail, Asli Özdemir
Asli Özdemir, alles wird nach oben geschickt (“everything is sent upwards”)

In his speech at the opening event, Guenter Pecht, global vice president of Future of Work at SAP, told the audience how important the process of failing early is, both for SAP and in everyday situations. “A child falls 2,000 times before he or she can walk,” he said. “Failure and making mistakes are part of our learning process.”

Then, the smallest visitor of the opening event, Pecht’s son Emil, suddenly walked on stage and created what was probably the most heartwarming moment of the evening. As if he wanted to confuse his father, Emil knocked on the speaker’s podium and stole the show for a moment. Unforeseen things and events like this, however, often lead to better results than expected. According to Pecht, the most important thing is to discuss them with others. One should dare to fail and to talk about it.

“Those who never fail run the risk of not risking enough and of not creating anything new,” Pecht concluded, and embraced his son.


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Video by Norbert Steinhauser and Kesja Cichowski

The exhibition can be seen through September 13, 2019, at the International Training Center (building 5) in Walldorf, Germany. Opening hours are Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Exhibiting artists include Joschua Yesni Arnaut, Janine Bächle, Jana Bissdorf, Laura Brichta, Patrick David Brockmann, Annika Grabold, Dennis Haustein, Zoé Hopf, Lea Kulens, Martin Liebscher, Svetlana Mijic, Asli Özdemir, Paul Pape, Yama Rahimi, Robert Schittko, Tatiana Vdovenko.