zentrum für kunst und medientechnologie
mock up of the future ZKM building in Karlsruhe

In early 1992, while we were still preparing the IG Metall exhibition for Frankfurt, Hans Peter Schwarz, Lenneke Büller, and I visited the city of Karlsruhe for a new project. That project was the ZKM, an anagram for Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie – Center for Art and Media. The ZKM was founded and developed by Heinrich Klotz, who was also leading the German Museum of Architecture at the time. The architect Rem Koolhaas emerged as the winner of a competition for a new building. However, the City Council of Karlsruhe considered the so-called Koolhaas-Cube too costly and appointed an abandoned former ammunition factory as the ZKM location. The future ZKM would consist of four interrelating institutions: a museum for media art, a research lab for image science, a research lab for music and acoustics, and a Media Museum – the latter led by Hans Peter Schwarz, who invited us to become part of Zirkus Klotz, the ironic nickname of the development team. Therefore, the main reason for visiting Karlsruhe was to get to know the empty factory floors of the IWKA-Halle. This huge three-story daylight building challenged everyone involved to devise a clever adaptation of the ZKM program. And so, the articulation and staging of (interior) space became increasingly crucial to our work. I remember interviewing Hans Peter Schwarz in a Berlin hotel room about his vision for the future ZKM, and how he envisioned his Media Museum in the Karlsruhe factory spaces. Its entrance was foreseen in one of the atriums at the time. Enamored with its verticality, he drew an upward zigzag line and exclaimed, I want an OPERA!

the empty building of the Industrie Werke Karlsruhe (IWKA), as found in 1992

The Media Museum was the first institution out of the four that make up the ZKM to venture into the IWKA factory spaces. Although it didn’t get an atrium to work with, it was planned to be accommodated on the first and second floors of the building. In the early days, there were no standards or references, so everything had to be created from scratch. Many proposals were found to be unfeasible. That’s why I remember it vividly as the utopian stage of the ZKM project.

zkm portrait gallery

Being the first to explore the IWKA factory’s spaces creates a genuinely utopian situation for a designer. There were no constraints other than those imposed by the physicalities of the building itself. There were no references or guiding principles other than the demand that each project add to the concept of the Media Museum as a whole and respect or highlight the character of the given architecture. Even in terms of content, everything was open for exploration and imagination. So, the idea of an electronic media mirror popped into our minds. We would lay out a space with an elliptical core containing an array of camera-monitor combinations, each portraying the visitor in real-time. Each set-up manipulates the captured image through an increasingly elaborate video-processing component. The first filter, for instance, would produce a portrait in black and white, whereas the last one displaces the visitor in an entirely different environment using blue screen technology. Such a series of transforming self-portraits would alienate someone passing by, implicitly offering insight into the history of media technology and image manipulation.

Another ellipse provided a contextual background for each camera position, encapsulating the media mirror. If you turned your back to the core of monitors in the center, you would see a visualization of media history from the early days of photography until examples of contemporary media art to date laid out on the outer wall. On the one hand, this sandwich of manipulated self-portraits at the core of the space and the cascade of media-historical icons at the outer shell would present a relevant introduction to a museum that focuses on the conceptual, cultural, and mental dimensions of media technology.

Regarding the physical shape of the ZKM Portrait Gallery on the first floor of the IWKA factory, we imagined its elliptical form to be a powerful metaphor. It represents an optimistic allusion to a space shuttle that might transport us to other worlds. At the same time, its bomb-like shape also serves as a reminder of the building’s past as an ammunition factory during World War II.

floating identities

Each era has its own media technological obsessions. Now, it is AI – artificial intelligence. In pre-internet times, when the ZKM came into being, media and media art were dominated by supercomputers capable of synthesizing almost anything, including the human body. In 1989, the IBM supercomputer Deep Thought was the first machine to beat a grandmaster at chess in a tournament. The improved machine Deep Blue won over world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. So, there were great expectations regarding the future role of computers, and some believed that they would take over our brains someday, rendering the human body obsolete and opening the way toward a weightless universe in which the material world seemed to be floating. Doing away with the downward pull of gravity was a dream that also dominated the cinema for some time. A floating camera, called Steadicam, altered our perception of cinematic space entirely by stripping cinematographic technology from its machine-like character, as expressed in Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining in 1980. In the digital realm of the supercomputer, a floating camera was easily simulated, and artistic production only needed a convincing artificial environment before turning entirely into virtual reality. I was convinced at that point that the digital realm was going to hugely impact our reality in the future; however, I never believed that this tendency would diminish the importance of our physical reality. As it was clear that the issue of the body would be one of the major topics of the Media Museum, I decided to focus on it once more in a sculptural fashion.

Floating Identities was first presented as Plato’s Schatten (Plato’s Shadows) at the Multimedia 4 Festival in Karlsruhe in 1995. This title referred to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where its inhabitants couldn’t see the real world but only a simulated version. Chained to a wall, facing a blinding backlight, they had to hold on to a shadowy representation of an invisible universe. This inaccessible outside world was presented to them by puppet players who could easily stand in for the mass media of our times. This idea of simulation belonged to the set of core issues of a philosophically biased Media Museum, and it was apparent to contextualize the anatomy of the human body and its struggle with gravity in an introductory installation.

Floating Identities was a dedicated work of art scheduled for the entrance of the Media Museum, which implied a series of spatial constraints with media technological consequences. At the time, a multi-vision video installation used to present its imagery next to each other. However, forced by the relatively long and narrow galleries of the IWKA factory, I decided on a set up of displays behind each other. Also, the relatively small scale of the gallery floors, with its 6×6 meters grid of pillars, kept me from installing large objects, let alone constructing new interior spaces. So, Floating Identities had to have a sculptural nature, and the human figure itself offered the appropriate morphology. Countering the idea of a disappearing human body, I designed ten identical steel figures at 120 percent of the average human size, representing an overall material weight of one thousand kilos. Each figure was to have an individual posture and would carry a video monitor stripped from its casings and electronics. The series of ten would suggest an animation of the human body in motion.

animal locomotion / eadweard muybridge - motion study photograph, 1887

These human body variations reminded me of the 19th-century motion studies by Eadweard Muybridge and others. For instance, to analyze the locomotion of a jumping man, Muybridge placed a series of photo cameras in the trajectory of the jump, and the jumper successively released each camera the moment he passed its position by hitting a wire attached to that camera. This remote-control freeze frame production method, as it were, was applied before the motion picture camera was invented. Of course. But now that Floating Identities offered a similar setup of monitors, I could work the reverse way around. Instead of recording a physical movement as a series of frozen instances, Floating Identities could freeze and break down any recorded film fragment into ten isolated video monitor images.

Floating Identities was tapped into a select imagery database on two laser discs. Show-control software was used to edit its appearance, which was to manifest itself as a poetic archive. The database contained chapters like the Anatomy of the Body, The Dream of Flying, A Man on the Moon, The Eye and Virtuality, Renaissance Portraits, and so on. Two elements were added to structure the time base of the presentation. At the end of each cycle of approximately 30 minutes, the ten video monitors acted as a 10-bit digital counter, counting from 0 to 1024 in one minute. The other structural element was an allusion to Muybridge. I recorded a series of jumps in a studio with a high-speed film camera. These jumps were choreographed by Anouk van Dijk and performed by the dancer Mischa van Dullemen. The high-speed recordings allowed me to create modern Muybridges, as it were, by breaking down even the shortest fragments of a jump into the ten monitor images of the installation.

art direction medienmuseum

The ZKM Media Museum in Karlsruhe would not be a classical tech museum, displaying historical media devices on a timeline as local politicians desired. Instead, the Media Museum was to focus on how media of communication affect our image of reality. And, reversely, how our media-affected mindsets potentially define the reach and edges of our technology-dominated culture. Also, the IWKA-Halle was to retain its character predominantly, and the architects Schweger+Partners from Karlsruhe were assigned to adapt the building to contemporary museum standards. Now, a team would guide the art direction: Thomas Peschel represented the architects, and I overlooked the process from the museum’s perspective. We started in 1995, heading for an opening in October 1997. At that time, no public internet existed, let alone AI. Interactive media relied on standalone applications powered by expensive supercomputers. Databases were navigated using beta versions of early mind-mapping software. Video projections still had limited power and couldn’t survive outside a black box in daylight. Flat LED screens weren’t around, and computer monitors were bulky CRT tubes. Such was the technology landscape we had to work with.

To live up to its task, the Media Museum felt that inviting artists to invent and convey the essential elements of its grand narrative was most appropriate. Confronted with the daylight environment of the exhibition spaces, practically every artist envisioned a black box for their work. Their position was no different from the display practice of the classic art museum, where a white wall usually provides enough room between two individual works of art. They hoped to avoid any degree of perceptive contamination. The point was that Thomas Peschel and I were looking for the opposite. We highly valued those hybrid spaces in between and considered them niches for reflection. In our view, the mind of the strolling visitor was the locus where interesting crossovers should manifest themselves. So, we stayed put with the open landscape of the exhibition and tried to avoid black boxes as much as we could.

die Welt der Spiele

The ZKM / World of Games was a collaborative project of the pedagog Friedemann Schindler, who is an expert in the field of (computer) games, and me. Friedemann developed the concept and the content for the different chapters. My task was to design dedicated workstations for each of the chapters of the idea. The leading question in getting to grips with the design of the Welt der Spiele was: would it be possible to create an environment within a museum in which playing games is equally attractive as it is in an arcade of games without adapting to the usual character of the arcade? This contradiction was the critical issue of the design concept that Friedemann Schindler and I had to deal with. It could and would work if we added the proper context to the collection of (historical) games and incorporated them in unusual workstations or even awkward machines.

selected projects
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