By Anita Malhotra
German artist and designer Christopher Bauder has married his love of light with technology he invented to create large-scale, otherworldly installations and performances that combine kinetic light with electronic music.
Among his award-winning works are SKALAR (2018), a large-scale installation created with musician and DJ Kangding Ray; DEEP WEB (2016), a monumental installation and live performance done in collaboration with electronic musician Robert Henke; and LICHTGRENZE, created in 2014 with his brother Marc, a filmmaker, for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Bauder’s installations and live performances have been presented in Germany and around the world, including at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Design in Zurich, MUTEK festival in Montreal and Mexico City, and numerous other venues and festivals.
He is also the founder of the companies WHITEvoid, the design agency that produces his shows, and KINETIC LIGHTS, which manufacturers and distributes the light systems used in them.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Christopher Bauder at his office in Berlin on Sept. 10, 2019.
AM: When did you first get interested in light?
CB: I was basically always interested in light. Even as a kid I started collecting candles and lighters and matchers in a drawer under my bed. I was three or four when my mom caught me collecting them.
I was fascinated with all kinds of light and that’s what I could get my hands on. Later, I started experimenting with light bulbs – with my own fixtures, desk lamps and table lamps. Then I got to know LED and other technologies, and it basically developed from there. It was a continuing love that I have been sharing until today.
AM: What is the fascination about?
CB: It’s the materiality of the light itself. I’m very interested in the output of the light. For example, a laser has a very iridescent, otherworldly, alien kind of look to it. You think you can touch it because it looks so real, but it’s not really there.
A flame is totally different. A flame seems to be alive. It has this golden look to it – very warm – and we connect it with certain emotions that we have when we sit around a fire.
Then there’s LED. It allows me to create light in any kind of shape I want. There’s moving light – halogen. Each of these light sources has a different property to the light that is fascinating to me. I can use it in in different ways to manipulate it and to work with it.
AM: How did your passion develop into actually doing art with light?
CB: I took a little bit of a detour. I was studying here at art university in Berlin and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in digital media classes.
It was creative programming – everything related to computer and screen output and so on, but I also experimented a lot with 3D software.
I wanted to use all these elements that I was using inside the computer – like polygons or voxels – in the real world.
So I came up with this idea of a three-dimensional pixel – something physical, like a small unit of a bigger form that I could position in space. And that pixel needed to have a colour.
I had the idea to invent a motor system that allowed me to move the light in space by attaching the light source to the end of a cable that I reeled in and out. Through that I was coming back to my original passion about light and from there I started experimenting with what I could combine that with – with laser and all kinds of different light sources.
AM: What was your first official piece for light?
CB: It was a large-scale installation called ATOM. It was 64 helium-filled balloons each about 50 centimetres high and there was a small LED inside each one.
I had an arrangement of eight by eight of these – it was about 10 by eight metres in size. It was attached to a motor on the ground and I could reel the cable in and out. I could control it through computer software – it was the first art piece in this direction.
AM: Were you the first person who used this technique?
CB: I think so. I would claim that I invented kinetic lighting.
There are so many copies out there and it’s diluting the original source. We have copies of our installations and products coming from China and all over the world, but I’ve been doing this since 2001, so I don’t think there was anything before that.
AM: Your installation DEEP WEB just completed a six-week run in Berlin a few weeks ago. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
CB: DEEP WEB is a large-scale audio-visual installation. It’s 175 15-centimetre diameter balls. They’re filled with water and each of them is attached to a motor – a winch – on the ceiling so we can move them and animate them in patterns. And then we have an arrangement of 12 high-power lasers around this, and the lasers are basically tracking those balls.
Normally, a laser beam would be endless. It would end up on the wall or somewhere. But in this case there is a stopper to the laser beam, which is one of the balls.
So by using this system we can create vector drawings in space. Again, this comes back to wanting to transfer properties of 3D software into the real world. It’s three-dimensional vector drawings that allow me to create architectural forms in space, made out of light.
And I work together with a very famous composer and electronic musician from Berlin – Robert Henke. He’s one of the inventors of Ableton Live, the music software. We present this as an exhibition, so you can enter it at any time and stay as long as you want.
We also have one-hour live shows where we can have a more clearly defined dramaturgy because we can start with something small and build it up to a peak, which you can’t do in the exhibition.So the exhibition is more ambient – you’re sitting on the floor, walking around slowly and it’s more meditative – while the concert is clearly more sound-driven. It has hard techno music; there are beats. It’s more like a full-on, one-hour concentrated show.
AM: Are you improvising in the live performances?
CB: We have the possibility to improvise mainly on the music side, and the visual side is directly connected by software programming to the audio side. So if Robert is changing something in his score, altering parameters, this automatically transfers to the visuals at the same time. So every performance is different.
AM: Is the lighting technology something that your company produces?
CB: This is something that my companies WHITEvoid and KINETIC LIGHTS produce. KINETIC LIGHTS is a manufacturer, so we make those motors. We sell and we rent them worldwide. And WHITEvoid is a design agency and at the same time acts as the producer of my shows.
AM: I have read that you have always been interested in electronic music. Can you tell me a bit about that?
CB: You could say I’m like a techno-kid. I grew up with techno music – I was fascinated by electronic music right from the start. When I moved to Berlin almost 25 years ago, I immediately dove into the Berlin techno scene that Robert is also a big part of. That was always my background music, and when I’m creating art pieces I’m always thinking of the connection with electronic music.
AM: What comes first? The lighting design on the computer and then the music, or is it created at the same time?
CB: It’s a truly collaborative process. I come up with a general idea of what I want to create – so, in this example, a combination of lasers and kinetic balls. And then I meet up with Robert and we discuss a topic that we want to illustrate. We have an abstract storyline.
In this case we’re illustrating communication – from the early ways of sending and receiving to multi-point communication, to complex networks, to modems. This is basically a run-through of the development of digital communication from the early days until today. And then we try to illustrate that on the visual side and on the audio side.
Robert is creating sounds that could illustrate different aspects of this topic. I’m creating patterns that could match with certain parts of our storytelling. And then we see what fits together and look at the visuals and say, “This could sound like something like that.” And then either he already has a small snippet prepared or he’s producing something on the fly.
We do the same on the visual side. If we think, “Okay, the sound is great, it illustrates a certain aspect, but we don’t have a matching visual,” then we create something.
So it’s an iterative process – a ping-pong back and forth until we are satisfied with the overall construction of the show.
AM: Your lighting designs bring to mind the planets and the universe.
CB: Definitely. If you enter our space, if you’re experiencing our installation, you’re somewhere else. We’re transporting you to another dimension or another universe. A lot of people have said that they felt detached from being in Berlin, being at this time, or being who they are, and in the best case we managed to do that. So, of course there’s a strong connotation of creating something otherworldly or alien or like a universe of effects.
AM: How do you choose your spaces for your work?
CB: I like industrial spaces. I don’t like traditional museum spaces – white cubes or black boxes – because they’re just a neutral shell. I like to work with the space because my installations are spatial. You can experience them from 360 degrees. And I like this interplay between the old industrial space and the modern light installation inside.
For me it’s very important that the space has a character of its own because I will highlight that through my piece and that will be reflected back onto my installation and give it a nice background.
It’s like the frame around a picture in older times. You had the picture and then the frame gave it kind of a “shine.”
We are creating a similar effect by using old industrial spaces as a backdrop for our installations. Obviously I like big, so the space has to be huge and there are not that many available. So we are always hunting for particular spaces that can match the size and the properties that we need.
AM: Can you say a few words about your 2018 work SKALAR?
CB: For SKALAR I worked with Kangding Ray – David Letellier. He’s a French electronic composer and a DJ, and I’m a big fan of his. With SKALAR we tried to dig more into basic human emotions. I realized with previous shows that you can trigger really profound emotions in spectators with very simple combinations using technology.
We have light, we have movement, and we have sound. They are very abstract and we use a lot of technology to create them. There’s nothing natural about it, but we can still trigger very profound emotions in the spectators.
Some people feel sad in some parts; other parts make them feel elevated and happy; in other parts they get angry because it’s very aggressive. We got that feedback a lot from audiences, so we realized we were on to something.
With SKALAR we were digging into that. We used a cycle of eight basic human emotions and we tried to illustrate each of those emotions with a combination of light, movement, colour and sound. I think we were quite successful with SKALAR in recreating this palette of emotions with the very abstract means that we had at hand.
AM: What are you working on currently?
CB: I’m working on a new show – also related to light, of course. I’m trying all kinds of combinations of a lot of different light sources. Before I was always focused on one aspect and now I’m trying to cover multiple things.
We are also working on a lot of projects where we do derivatives of our art installations for more commercial clients.
So we will do an installation for a club in China and probably a club in Switzerland, where we will use similar technology but in a club context to illustrate what the DJ is playing.
We’re also working on touring SKALAR. We will be in Mexico City in November for a whole month, and we will be in Amsterdam in January for one month. And then we’re looking at other shows probably in China and wherever we can find suitable spaces and opportunities.
AM: What future developments do you see with your company?
CB: I want to tour our pieces more to the general public – maybe even multiple at the same time. We do a lot of corporate shows, but it’s just a limited audience. So we’re looking to tour our installations more worldwide and also to show them for a longer time to be able to appeal to a broader audience.
For me it’s very important that this is not art for a certain peer group or special interest group. This is not just for art lovers or for people who like electronic music – it’s supposed to be for everyone: from children to old people. In Berlin it works quite well. We attracted 50,000 people in one month. But we need to get the word out and transform that all over the world when we’re touring, and that takes a bit of time.