Cover: The Flag | 2005 Belvedere, Vienna, Austria
The Flag | 2005 17 media installations that comment on the national history are woven into the Austrian flag extending through all rooms.
THE REnAISSAnCE OF SpACE
Mr Sauter, in your life, what were you first interested in: in ART or in COM? In design or in running a business?
modelling, for text editing, for pictures, for animations, but we did not use them as a communication medium yet. No one understood that at the time. But as a group we had the feeling that it would grow from a tool to a medium. We started ART + COM in 1988 and by the time the world wide web was established in the early 90s, it was clear that computers were not only a tool but a medium, indeed.
Between ART and COM it was definitely art. I come from the family of an artist and an architect, so as a child I was already connected to the arts. I disconnected for a little while, but I later came back to study design. After my studies – graphic design and afterwards film at the film academy in Berlin – the very first Apple Macintosh stood on my table. So in 1984 I decided to move towards the COM direction, but combined it with art. I never saw myself as someone running a company; that is why I always had a business partner by my side. How was ART + COM started? I understand it was not a company from the beginning, but a registered association? We were a group of six people from the academy of the arts and six people from the chaos computer club, which is a hacker group in Berlin. Our main motivation was to use the personal computers that came on to market in the early 80s as a tool. We used them for
In the beginning ART + COM was a non-commercial group but after a few years we received so many commissions that we turned it into a limited company and soon after into a so called ”small corporation“, which is not publicly traded. This allowed us to split the shares between ourselves. Even now the company is owned by the people working there. Could you describe how ART + COM developed in time? In retrospect you can divide the development of ART + COM into three 7-year phases. 7 is a weird number, because our cells renew every 7 years, a lot of partnerships end after 7 years. There are also a lot of those 7 years cycles in our personal lives with
childhood, adolescence and so on. We experienced the same at ART + COM. Our first years were our â€?prediction phase". It was the time when we tried to predict the qualities of the new medium along questions like: What could be done? What kind of interfaces will be used? We did a lot of self-commissioned research but also commissioned research. It was about misusing technology. An important project at that time was Terravision from 1994/95, which is more or less the predecessor of Google Earth. Everything we see now in Google Earth was pre-thought by us at that time. Luckily we hold a patent so now we are in a very nice but heavy legal fight with Google.
A self-commissioned project of that time was the Zerseher in 1992, a project in which we tried to propagate the idea of interactivity to the art world. At that time artists only used computers to change their brush with a mouse click but, essentially they kept doing the same as before. We tried to evangelize about the new medium. Interactivity has been and is still the most unique quality of the medium. So in a very provocative way we put a picture up on a gallery wall and made it interactive with an eye-tracking system. As soon as a viewer looked at that picture it was distorted exactly at the point the viewer was looking at. Through the process of perception the idea of interactivity came to the mind of the people. After prediction the second phase was about proof. That was when the first commissions from the real world came
Duality | 2007 Integrating media in public space: reactive spatial installation in Tokyo, Japan.
to ART + COM. Not only research or experiments but real commissions. At that time people really wanted to show technology. We saw huge projections, interactive environments, immersive interactive floors, even interactive stage design with interactive costumes. Technology as a visual element was very present at that time. When the new medium matured and was included in the context of the traditional media, the third phase started which was about prevailing. Let me give you one example. We tried to hide technology. A statistical graph in an exhibition was formed out of metal and only from time to time the metal dissolved into a light projection. But it was more or less used on the same level as the metal. The medium disappeared. We are now in our fourth phase and that one is about the renaissance of the physical. We are working with all the qualities of the new medium like interactivity, collaboration, networking, computation, etc. but we work mainly with physical objects. The screens, the projections and the LEDs disappeared and are substituted by physical materials. I understand that such concepts are very well perceived in the context of art and science, but do your clients understand what you are talking about? I think they feel it at the beginning and at the end of the project; after the opening, they understand it. That is why it is very important for us to give them security through our history and references. Having 23 years of experience is proof that they can rely on us.
Is this also how you sell your ideas? Exactly. We first show them what we have done. Then we have to convince them to not just commission things we have already done, but to rely on us to make something specific and unique for them, a project which is very innovative again. About 90% of our clients come to us because they want something very innovative, something which is not comparable to anything they have done before. Do you usually work directly for the clients? I think half of our commissions come through partners, scenographers or other agencies and 50% come directly from the clients. What would you say is the service you are offering? What is the starting point, the idea, the concept? Our first step is always a rebriefing. Clients come with a brief, we respond to it and usually we then agree to write a new brief. After that we enter a pre-design phase, where we develop sketches, ideas, renderings and a broad cost-estimate. Sometimes we then even make prototypes, but that depends on the project. The second phase is the design phase where we define the design very precisely and where we also produce prototypes. The third phase is the production phase and the fourth phase is anything that comes after that. Usually we go through all four phases.
Duality | 2007 By stepping onto the LED matrix covered with translucent glass passers-by trigger virtual waves that transform to real water waves in the pond.
What do you your offices look like? I assume it is not just an office space with people behind their computer screens, but also a workshop where you get your hands dirty? That is very important indeed. We have a whole floor with workshops where we do a lot of prototypes ourselves. What are your teams like? What kind of people work at ART + COM? We have four project teams with the same internal structure. They always consist of media designers, programmers, technologists and project coordinators. We are 80 people now and at first I thought that was a problem because as a company grows it often gets slower. But we decided to create these four sub-groups that are working fast and independently from one another. My position is to start the project with the team to develop the concept and then I do management-by-walking to see how they work it out. You are involved in each project? Yes. There is no project at ART + COM that starts or is finished without my involvement. How international is ART + COM in terms of teams and clients? The team is very international. We have people from China, the US, Finland, Italy, France. About a third of the people working here are from abroad.
Reflective Kinematronic II â€“ Mobility Based on the old principle of communication over long distances using light reflection, Mobility consists of 100 motor-operated prosthetic hands holding mirrors to reflect the light of a floodlight into the room and onto the wall opposite. The reflected light spots follow a complex computational choreography, moving like a fish or insect swarm to repeatedly form the Chinese character for mobility.
Kinetic Sculpture | 2008 BMW Museum, Munich The Kinetic Sculpture is a metaphorical translation of the process of form-finding in design. 714 metal spheres, hanging from thin steel wires attached to individually-controlled stepper motors, move chaotically in the beginning, then evolve to several competing forms, and finally resolve to the outlines of well-known BMW cars.
In terms of clients, we are even more international. Right now our three largest projects are in the Eastern World. The biggest one is in Qatar, another one in Saudi Arabia and the most interesting one is for the new airport in Singapore where we are doing two large-scale installations. But we also have projects in countries like Iceland. In the late 80s and early 90s we mostly worked for clients in the US and Japan, the two most developed countries in terms of new media. Then, towards the end of 90s and at the beginning of this century we focused more on Europe. Now we are reaching out again. Your particular market seems very dynamic. no museum or brand without a large-scale interactive exhibition. Who do you compete with? I know it might sound arrogant, but I do not really see any competition. Our challenge has always been to be a few years ahead. Others are following and often they can then make things cheaper, but that only forces us to be ahead by a few more years. One example of that is the multitouch technology, which we first showed 2003/04 in the Jewish Museum in Berlin. At that time it was an unusual technology and then three years later there was a huge multitouch table hype. When we did the project it was very expensive, there was a lot of basic development. A couple of years later others could do the same with a third of that budget, but then we could no longer do it. Right now we are much more into mechatronics and kinetic environments. We keep going on.
How do you stay ahead and assure that quality? That is very simple. We follow a set of rules. Flat hierarchy is important. Positions depend on competence, nothing else. You have to be motivated to reinvent yourself. You always have to be passionate about doing things differently. We work interdisciplinarily. We all leave our disciplines behind in order to find new ideas. You have to be open towards experiments and you have to know when they fail so that you can stop the project. You should only break rules if you know them. You need a good knowledge of your field and its rules. You need to have the courage to fail. My role at ART + COM is not to motivate people but to inspire them. If you motivate them they do what you like, if you inspire them they do what they can. We always try to create an atmosphere for debate, for constructive controversy. No fear. You have to leave your Macchiavellian side at home. There are no fights because of hierarchy. There is a very open, good atmosphere. We share our knowledge and our results internally and externally. But maybe the most important thing I learned is to say no. Not to take on everything you are offered. Looking backwards. The market was not always that demanding. What were the biggest challenges in the past, the most difficult moments? That was definitely the time of the new economy. Because at that time we had already been around for 10 years and
Jew of Malta | 2002 The traditional static stage setting was enhanced with a reactive and dynamic stage design that contributed vitally to the narration.
Jew of Malta | 2002 The projected virtual architecture moved according to the movements and gestures of the main actor Machiavelli. Additionally the costumes of all actors were also augmented with digital media via a special tracking system.
for all the investors we were the old guys and they were only looking for the new people. A lot of companies had a lot of venture capital then and they could do the jobs we were relying on for free. We almost had to give up. But then the bubble burst and we were the ones with the strong portfolio; when the others collapsed, for us it was like riding a rocket in the first half of the last decade. When I look at your projects they very often seem to combine the hightech element with poetry, storytelling or something anybody – at any age – could relate to. What are the ingredients to tell a story in space and time? You either communicate content – and then you have to know how to translate it with media and space – or you create a poetic kind of experience. What we do – and few others do that too – is combining both. We try to be very content driven, but we also want to tell a story in a poetic way. I grew up at a time where Helvetica, grid and grey where the only parameters to design with, but that changed over the last few years. Beauty as a basis is very important because it allows people to access your work and it also involves them step by step and tells the story better. You also teach both at the University of the Arts in Berlin and at UCLA. What do your students learn from you? Maybe I should start by saying what I learn from my students. We try to
encourage anyone at ART + COM to teach, because I think it is extremely important for your own attitude towards design. It is not about getting inspired by the students, not about getting ideas from them. It is rather the other way around. You give them ideas and then you cannot use them anymore. But if you are getting older and you have a little bit of success, it is so easy not to question yourself anymore. I see that very often. If you are teaching, you have to be very precise in questioning yourself, very precise about how you do things and how you reflect on your projects. If you do not do it, the students will ask you anyways and you better be prepared. I think the most important thing in teaching is that you have to be precise in what you are doing. And in terms of what the students learn: I would say I do not teach recipes for cooking a meal, I am teaching the idea of food and how you can combine food. If you give broader assignments to students they learn a lot more about the essence of their disciplines. If you only know the recipes you might be well off for some years after your diploma, but then no one wants to eat your food anymore. But if you know about the ingredients and food in general, you can go further and reinvent yourself again and again. I've seen a lot of changes in design recently. Students are much more used to, and also faster in adopting, new technologies. In addition there are the fields of design research, design thinking, design criticism. How do you think
Reflective Kinematronic III – Wave The large-scale kinetic installation is made of light, movement and 17 wave-shaped mirror blades that form a single, continuously undulating wave. It reflects a spotlight and thus creates an abstract, moving light structure that adds a new dynamic to the actual physical space.
Reflective Kinematronic III â€“ Wave Light reflected by the wavy metal mirror blades.
the field of design education is changing in this context?
the creative city of Berlin. How important is this aspect of networking?
I am in my 20th year as a professor now and I think the biggest change really has been the developement of new technology. But in terms of the structure I am very satisfied with the old system, because the project oriented approach is the only one that's really appropriate. The core is the project and around it we build up technology, theory, etc.
I do not think of myself as a public figure, as someone being recognized. I see myself more as a kind of an evangelist. Like in the very early days of ART + COM when our aim was to evangelize the idea of new media. I go out, hold lectures and tackle projects that are provocative in order to show what can be done. That has always been in the DNA of ART + COM and is also in my own DNA somehow.
I see a lot of projects outside the traditional field of education gaining momentum. Conferences like TED or open workshops and co-working spaces will help people to learn and to grow through all stages of their lives. How does this challenge the status of universities? What I said before addressed the internal structure of universities, but looking towards the outside open education and process based education are certainly becoming much more important. Students include much more educational input from the outside now and we also create such inputs for the outside. At the University of the Arts in Berlin we are offering post-graduate courses for a few years now, and people from the business world come back to university to extend their knowledge. There is even a strong business model around life-long-learning. You are also a public figure representing ART + COM, the University of the Arts, the field of interactive media,
But I am also interested in cultural politics. I advise, but I do not see myself as someone for others to look up to. Maybe I could do more in that area, I would love to, especially in Berlin, but I do not have the time. Maybe when I am 65! For the time being my main focus is clear: I am a designer, I am not good in being strategic and I think I am happy about that.
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THE REnAISSAnCE OF SpACE
08 JUnE 2011, 6.30 pM, MUDAM LUxEMBOURG
This catalogue is published for Joachim Sauter's lecture at Mudam Luxembourg on June 08, 2011 organized by Design Friends.
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The Renaissance of Space