“A new, different constellation that has never been seen before” – studio interview with Mischa Kuball
My first question is directly related to your art, and you are sure to have heard it many times before. What makes light such a special medium for you? Why light?
That’s a valid question. At the beginning of the 20th century, light was the medium that transformed people’s view of the world, and it is still doing so in the 21st century. New material, the electrification of the cities that began in the mid-19th century, the invention of photography and film, the end of the 19th century and the categoric breakthrough in cinematography which led to what we now know as light art, the experiments of Lászlò Moholy-Nagy, for example: all this is raw material, the starting point of my artistic work, a foundation I can fall back on. From a very early stage, this became linked with the idea of working in a public, urban space. In a space like this, the light appears to send an interpretative signal, especially in the ambivalence between illumination and blinding, brightness and focus – there is perhaps even a threat of torture. In this context, I ultimately decided to focus my attention on exploring artificial light. The light I use moves in very different spaces through which it is constantly placed in a new context; it even raises the question whether light causes environmental damage, i.e. it touches on the subject of emissions. MetaLicht consequently incorporates a lot of contexts. Questions were asked about the energetic flow: how is the artificial light supplied? Where does the energy actually come from? We have progressed a long way from the euphoric consumption of the 20th century, from the misunderstandings of people such as Speer, from the light domes that embody a national socialist, fascist ideology. In contrast, MetaLicht tries to provide an interface, raise questions, formulate problems. It’s no coincidence that the university is the foil against which the light takes effect. The installation wouldn’t be thinkable without the university as the background.
Other questions that occurred to me while I was observing MetaLicht related to the role played by prior knowledge of this type of art, and the importance of aesthetic experience. What do you expect from people viewing your artwork?
MetaLicht is an answer to a question that Rector Lambert Koch asked me. He asked: “Is there any way in which an artistic process can mirror the relationship between the city and the university?” At first glance, this appears to be a task that many people would shrink from, as it has a dimension which is quite unusual in artistic practice. However, I already had some experience of this: the Megazeichen project (1990) was realised in a high-rise building, the Mannesmann building, located on an exposed site on the Rhine in Düsseldorf, and the aim was to integrate the 700 staff and the architecture created by Paul Schneider-Esleben in 1956. The ribbon windows offered the opportunity to create a simple dramatic composition turning the existing office light from a coincidental situation into a setting, a performative production, that was suddenly visible to the city as a sign. “Megazeichen”, or “Megasign”, doesn’t refer to the size of the sign in this case – it means a concentration of many signs. After the six weeks were up, people thought they were still seeing signs on the building; this was the result of a learning process that took place in an urban setting in a very short time without an artist coming forward and addressing the public. This was shown by reactions, letters to newspapers, and also letters to the board. They proved that this is possible.
The other work I’d like to mention in this context is refraction house, 1994, in a secularised synagogue in Stommeln near Cologne. For this we placed a strong light in a locked synagogue. In principle, this means we reversed the process. We didn’t use light to draw attention to the location; instead, the location itself drew attention to other locations in the immediate vicinity. The so-called “visitors” who approached the synagogue were not allowed to enter through the door, as is usually the case. This refusal of admission was a continuation of the strategy of exclusion pursued by the National Socialists against the Jews. Incidentally, this expedient was agreed with Ignatz Bubis, Chairman of the Central Council of Jews. Julius Posener, whom I visited in Berlin in the 1990s, said: “That’s a work you have to do. You can only experience it by creating an experience. You can’t solve this problem in an abstract manner.” The people stood in front of a locked synagogue in dazzling light. This means the visitors were exposed to the exhibit rather than the other way round. The work itself wasn’t the stage or the protagonist. You could say it asked a question relating to the role of the perpetrator, the victim, the accessory. The result was a completely ambivalent situation. When you consider that the spotlights used to generate this context of refraction house in the synagogue now illuminate the car park of the community sports ground, you realise that it wasn’t about the light source, or the number of watts or lumens. It's a common misconception that more energy always means more radiance. It was the context that created the radiance and defined the work.
That sounds like the experience I had when I looked at MetaLicht. It seemed to fluctuate between the sensation of a flash of lightning, an unexpected manifestation in the night sky, and the idea of letters of fire, that we understand as a kind of portent. Nowadays, however, we are familiar with electrically illuminated letters from computer screens and the like. Those were the two associations I had, and they put me in a position somewhere between my prior knowledge, the cultural concept of writing, and an aesthetic experience that happens quite a lot here in Wuppertal when the weather allows...
... a flash of lightning, which is highly concentrated energy. It’s so powerful that we still can’t capture or keep it in batteries or transformer stations. We try to do it, of course, because we find energy so interesting. At the same time, it could also be associated with the ASCII code used in computer programming language. However, something else occurred to me, something very fundamental. Until now, if you looked up to the Grifflenberg campus or any of the other more remote points from the city centre, you saw a ribbon window here and there but weren’t sure whether it was really a part of the university. Now it’s absolutely clear. The other light, which is whiter and more like daylight with a temperature of 5000/6000 Kelvin, shows that these buildings are all part of the same concept. It’s no longer possible to separate them or mistake them for something else. There’s no longer any doubt that this is the university campus. You could say that a kind of internal navigation system has been created, and this is of course also interesting because we orient ourselves on dots and lines. They aren’t just basic geometrical shapes; they have also been integrated into our code system and given a meaning. They are the shortest distance between two points, they direct the observer to other points and constantly form new configurations. Sometimes you get the feeling that you’ve seen fragments of letters. Every time you look up, you see a new, different constellation that you’ve never seen before.
The BUW is architecturally interesting in itself. It was designed like many other of the reformed universities of the 1970s: a building with no programmatic façade and very intricate, complex, labyrinthine architecture. When you look at the floor plan, it’s extremely difficult to memorise. It seems to me that this light art installation MetaLicht has brought forward the reformed university of the 1970s to the present day. A present day in which the university has again been given a face, a façade with which it looks down into the valley – but a flexible façade that can take on many different forms. Symbol of a new university reform that is taking place right now?
Your observation touches on a conceptual core of the installation, as we only worked in the areas that constitute the university’s “joints”. In anthropological terms, we worked on the knee, elbow and shoulder joints. These so-called reformed and campus universities, like the University of Wuppertal or the universities of Giessen, Bochum and Düsseldorf, are areas that are trying to create a university organism. They usually develop an inner skin that’s so thick, it barely allows anything to permeate to the outer skin of the city. This also seems to be a problem. The orthogonal anchorage points, the six joints, don’t just mark the six vertical axes of the university's skyline in the architecture of the urban context; they also actually become the points to which the light art installation MetaLicht refers, creating more than just a flat panorama. It has a sculptural effect and is indeed the perceptual aspect you responded to. Suddenly you see things afresh. What’s so interesting is that you can feel it to some degree even if you can’t directly see it. You sense auratically that something is also going on at the back. This actually returns the dimension to the university that it always had but couldn’t express as part of the city’s story. Following on from your observation, your reflection, this is in my opinion a true university reform. In this respect, these third and fourth dimensions are coupled to the university’s essential orientation. It would be good if this promise could be kept and stand the test of time.
In all, this is an ecological project fed with responsibly generated ecological electricity. Where do you place it in the ecology of the Bergisch region? I saw that others of your works explore the region and its ecosystems in some depth, the New Pott project, for example.
There are two answers to that. Firstly, MetaLicht is embedded into the topography, the shape of the landscape. A city that extends 30 kilometres along the Wupper valley produced the suspension railway, a masterpiece of engineering. This is no coincidence. More than 100 years ago, people found a way to integrate technology into nature, following the flow of the river. Secondly, we naturally also pay attention to the wind conditions. The fact that there is a certain modulation in the topography gives rise to a certain type of wind structure. You can concentrate this using buildings. There are for example strong updrafts around the Sparkasse building, even though it's situated down in the valley. Here on the hill, these updrafts are created by the university building itself. We used a new type of wind technology to find out where the strongest updraft can be measured. Interestingly, this point is located right next to the Rectorate building. This is where we constructed three wind turbines that are also part of the installation. They generate more electricity than we actually need, because in real terms, the almost 800 metres of new LED technology in the MetaLicht installation consumes the same amount as a washing machine and tumble dryer in a private household. When they are running at maximum capacity, they generate three times the output. With an average wind, as we assume there is here, they generate twice or two-and-a-half times the electricity actually consumed by the light installation; towards the evening, from 10 pm on, when the light from the city tends to become dimmer and the backdrop which interacts with this light installation on the Grifflenberg is dark, we manage with just 50 percent of the light output with no visible difference. We can of course only perceive light when contrasted with dark, and the accommodations of the human eye and neural system were taken into account right from the start of the project. Here too, we proceeded empirically and quite painstakingly. We are therefore ecologically oriented in a number of ways. We try to reduce consumption, and the energy we really have to use is generated by renewable or almost renewable structures such as wind power. The electricity we actually consume is generated in sufficient quantities as part of the project. Incidentally, this applies not only to the electricity supply, but also to the project funding: all this is financed solely by sponsors; no university funds are used.
The whole thing also has a scientific aspect. A lot of research was involved; the installation may even hold research potential for the future. I must admit, I was surprised that an artist now not only teaches at the art college but also works on a lot of interdisciplinary projects such as Platon’s Mirror and In Progress with scientists from other disciplines.
This is a perfectly natural relationship that has developed over the last 25 years. The fields that interest me have a lot to do with reception and perception. These are integral not only to art and visual studies, but also to neuroscience. I conducted some research into the Broca area in the left hemisphere of my own brain, naturally with the medical and scientific support of the faculties in Krefeld, Bochum and Düsseldorf. I discovered a new light medium – in an area not visible to the human eye – in the so-called computer tomograph with its rotating x-rays and made the interior of the photographic apparatus the subject of my work. This is a part of “Platon’s Mirror”, a truly international project: an American perspective of the cave allegory, an interpretation from Australia, the southern hemisphere, a view from Japan and naturally also one from our own cultural region. The other people involved were Hans Belting and Bazon Brock, one of Wuppertal’s greats, Peter Sloterdijk, Duncan White from London, John Welchman from Los Angeles and Yokiko Shikata from Japan. You notice we all talk about the same text by Plato in the wonderful translation by Schleiermacher. We all have different thoughts, and this process of developing multiple facets is not unlike that of creating photographic images. The ideas penetrate various lens configurations like rays of light: if a long focal lens is used, i.e. a 220 millimetre lens, the resulting image will be small, while a 50 millimetre lens will create a larger image. It is of course difficult to find a common language in which to communicate with people who work in the field of neuroscience. However, it seems possible to overcome the age-old accusation that science cannot find the language to make itself accessible to a wider public. I believe that this consideration is central to the projects I am working on; it is incidentally also central to my teaching at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. The students are already doing this: they study photography, dance, performance, art or other subjects and come closer to each other on this platform.
What’s most important to me is to create a plateau, and I think MetaLicht is something of this kind: a stage that the university is now creating for itself and the city of Wuppertal. There is a degree of tension between them, but this tension also creates energy. As an artist, I see it as an energetic field into which something can be placed. Metaphors such as lightning and impulse are therefore by all means desirable. MetaLicht, the title, doesn’t mean that we have risen above things; instead, it means that we want to look “beyond the facts”, “beyond the material aspects”. I think the secret of this work is that I as the artist do not have to say much about how to interpret it; the interpretation takes shape in the project itself. After all, it also incorporates the idea of collaboration and participation. Ultimately, this will also be the mystery of MetaLicht. Does MetaLicht succeed in integrating the formal or constitutive elements of the university into the urban landscape? Lambert Koch and I drove to different locations during a light rehearsal. It was surprising to find that there was an impression of closeness to the university itself, quite different from the panoramic view and narrative from the city. This is exactly the horizon of experience that will be handed over to the public along with the project. Not only in the sense of a launch, but also in this multi-faceted functional context with its variety of perspectives.
Studying with perspectives. You could say this is a motto at the BUW. Is it also the motivation behind this installation, designed with and from a variety of perspectives?
One of the things that moved me is that for many of its students, the University of Wuppertal is a commuter university. This means that interaction between the city and the university is not a matter of course. It is constitutional for the university because urban life has an impact on academic life, on themes and ideas, yet the reverse is also true. We might have succeeded in weaving in some of these aspects, aspects that became clear during the preparatory phase and preliminary talks.
If you had the opportunity to give students at the University of Wuppertal a piece of advice, not only on viewing MetaLicht but also on their studies in general, what would it be?
A very topical question, because I tried just today to give my students something like the first thread of a guide rope. A thread, though, that doesn’t aim to be a leitmotiv and certainly not a guiding principle, more like a suggestion for reflection. I think it is wrong to see a course of study as a kind of assembly kit, a kit you take pieces from because you have a goal you are striving for, a goal that might lead to economic success or social recognition or the like. What I’m trying to say is: a study program should not be based on monocausal pragmatism. I think this is also an appeal to the teachers, one I would like to make to you. I want to see students teaching, teachers studying, moving reciprocally towards each other, naturally without denying their own life stories and key interests, and simply helping to develop society a little further. In other words, less repetitive knowledge, less interrogation, and more questions to which there is as yet no answer. Space should be left for questions like these. I have to admit that this goes against the foundations of our current educational system, which by shortening the period spent at high school from nine years to eight tends to favour cramming rather than creating space for individual ideas. I find that a lot of young students have become very phlegmatic; not the kind of phlegm that comes when you cultivate a complacent world view and believe you don’t have to move, but rather a fear of disorientation. I would like to see a basic model that leaves space for experiments; I would like to see the teachers offer this and the students demand it. From what I have seen of the changes made over the last few years, I believe that the University of Wuppertal has created and is promoting this model in many places – frequently also in alliance with extramural structures. I think this is a very good signpost. It is of course difficult to give general advice, because every student has his or her own personal questions. I think it’s important to use a foggy mirror to view your reflection. A clear, easily recognisable image is rarely of any help. The irritation helps train our recognition skills. Don’t be afraid of the fog that sometimes quite literally surrounds the university...
The interview was conducted by Prof. Dr. Matei Chihaia, Vice-Dean of the School of Humanities.