In Conversation with Hiba Ali
Luftwerk (meaning in English, “air-work”) is a duo that consists of Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero—and if you haven’t experienced their light, sound and (more recently) fluid installations, you’ve certainly passed by them. Starting this week, they will exhibit FLOW / Im Fluss, in collaboration with Chicago Loop Alliance, Goethe-Institut Chicago, Friends of the Chicago River and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in Couch Alley, a water and light installation that will span across an actual alley by the Goodman Theater and will be accompanied by Traces, a 40 minute live concert by Birgit Ulher. FLOW/ Im Fluss, powered by 7 nozzles, will create 4 mist screens on to which projection of river data from 2005 to 2013 of the Chicago River and Elbe River, Hamburg will be displayed. Having lived in both locations, Chicago and Hamburg, the duo has a personal connection as well as an ecological concern of the rivers and an interest in activating Chicagoland spaces. In 2012, they exhibited Luminous Field underneath Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, a projected light installation that transformed the concrete tiles around the sculpture into a glowing grid of geometric tessellations. Luftwerk’s overarching practice morphs the surface of architecture by video mapping their projections onto an existing structure. Earlier this year in February, in celebration of Chinese New Year, they animated the neoclassical exterior (facing Michigan Avenue) of the Chicago Cultural Center by casting motifs and symbols that referred to Chinese philosophy and architecture in Spring Light/ Luminance.
Their light installations encompass public space and are a part of Luftwerk’s engrossing and layered relationship with the history of Chicago architecture. They have worked with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in 2010, entitled Fallingwater, and will work with Mies Van Der Rohe’s Fansworth House this upcoming October. I sat down with Luftwerk to discuss their current installation FLOW/Im Fluss, and was curious to see how they would wrangle one of their expansive spectral, light and sound installations into a long and narrow space—not a highly unusual, but pertinent choice.
Hiba Ali: Projections are common in your work, how many will you be using for the piece?
Petra Bachmaier: We will be using four—each of these water walls will have one projection, and we are using them to visualize the river data we have been working on with a Science Station in Hamburg. They have provided us with the data that they are collecting of the River [Elbe], and we have worked with Friends of the Chicago River on understanding this river data so we are able to compare. We narrowed it down for this piece; there is a lot of data. You could almost stream live data from Hamburg to Chicago, but Chicago does not have public access to their data. You can get recorded data. So we are only working with recorded data.
We are working with the history of the rivers, with data collected from 2005 to 2013. We chose to work with Oxygen, Nitrate, Phosphate, and E. coli—we are also using the temperature, so when we count all the temperature values together, we can get an average for each river. The average will influence the color of the river—so if the Chicago River is colder, it will have a blue tint, and if Hamburg is warmer, it will be green. You can differentiate the rivers when you see the videos.
Sean Gallero: We will also be working with turbidity, which is the speed of each river. That data will also dictate the speed of the video. The River Elbe is actually faster than the Chicago River.
HA: Aside from both of your residing in Chicago, what drew you to work specifically with the river Elbe in Germany and the Chicago River?
PB: It came through a conversation with the Goethe-Institut. We very interested in the Chicago River, how we understand the river. How can we understand a river that is so industrial? What is natural about it? We are more interested in how one can locate “the natural.”
SG: The history of the Chicago River is enigmatic, it is insane to reverse a river and then the bring it back, right? We were interested in the history of flushing waste out into Lake Michigan and the cholera epidemic; Chicago was founded on a creek.
HA: Swamp land –
SG: Exactly—it was swamp. It was a little creek before anything, and 200 years later, it exploded. The history, in of itself, is very intriguing—I think it was our interpretation to go back to history and find a naturalness of the river. It was difficult to go through the industrial revolution and whole history, even the stockyards, to find any kind of natural element in that. I think partnering with the river Elbe in Hamburg, they dealt with a similar situation.
PB: Yes—a very similar history in the two cities. They had the cholera epidemic at the same time, but they treated their rivers in a very different way. The Chicago River was nearly reversed, and Hamburg started sanitation—so they are on a different page [laughs].
HA: I am sure they do not dye their river green every year either [laughs].
SG: No, the Hamburg River is still used as a water way for cargo ships, it’s a harbor city.
PB: Yes—it is an industrial, not a leisure river. In that sense, both cities use their waterways for industrial purposes, which is an interesting comparison. Hamburg monitors the river in so many places, we have access to so much data about this river, but in Chicago it is really hard to access data. We found information through Friends of the Chicago River; they have this program where they teach high school [students] to measure the river data, and that is available online. It is not scientific information; it is collected through high school students.
HA: Do you think the policy for public versus private data is based off of the two countries, and their approach to environment?
PB: I believe so. That was an interesting exploration in the process, and now we have streamlined it—condensing it to 23 values from 2 rivers over a time period of 8 years. Really, it is like a computer, we said: “okay Oxygen is a circle, the quantity of the circle depends on the data points.” You can simplify everything, ideally what you will see as spectator at FLOW is an abstract interpretation. We hope that audiences will still be able make the comparison between two rivers. NRDC is working with us to help us communicate that, providing a handout about protecting waterways and so on, so that the piece has a broader reach than just an art context.
HA: You have worked with public space, and private halls, how does that process work when your working within a more narrow hall?
PB: We were so happy with it. At first, we wanted a location on the river itself because we thought it would make sense. When we found out that the Chicago Loop Alliance (CLA) was calling for alley activation, we thought: the problem with alleys is that they never provide run off, which contributed to pollution in the river. But this alley is a green alley so it was a moment of, “Oh, if all the alleys were like this there would be less pollution in the river.” We felt that it was actually a perfect location. We also like that it is a canyon within the city, like the river is a canyon within the city. We feel like it works, the CLA is a great partner.
HA: I was looking at their work with you as well, in terms of your partnership as a whole. How did your work at the SAIC Performance department lead you to Luftwerk? Was it due to performative aspect that happens with a space or thinking more along the lines of architecture and digital media? What inspired you two?
SG: We connected at the Performance department at school, where at the same time we were doing performative installation work. We were creating environments for performances and evolved to a point where we removed the performance aspects— basically ourselves—from the equation. It became environmental, and more about creating installations based on new media, material, and site specificity. That then evolved into the audience, and the participants in these environments became the performers. Now we create environments that are performative in a sense, in that they require an interaction with an audience, at the same time they create a performative quality. Light itself is an element of this—a stage light that in a way creates these wonderful interactive moments for the audience to be performed.
HA: You are right – it is totally interactive, like painting with light on a blank canvas. But this is also more about your trajectory. You have worked with corporate entities, like MUJI USA with the installation at JFK, and with architecture houses like Mies and Wright. Now for [FLOW/Im Fluss] you are working with he CLA. How is your creativity enhanced or inhibited by who you chose to partner with?
PB: That’s a good question [laughs].
SG: Each project is different.
PB: With MUJI, we felt like it was a design commission. They brought us designers, and it was our job to immerse ourselves with the MUJI philosophy. There was a lot of inspiration to be found, and because it a brand that is a no-brand, we felt like the philosophy behind it was something we could also communicate or have a dialogue, in terms of their way of thinking and our way of interpreting.
SG: I think the product was secondary; it was more about philosophy, primarily their philosophy, the thinker’s mind, their aesthetic.
PB: And I think when it comes to place, like Fallingwater, you also have a dialogue with the site. I think a lot of our work is about a dialogue with a place or an idea, and how you communicate that and also reveal part of it or show it in a new way. I think with Mies, that’s our project creating for Fall [in October].
SG: At the Fransworth House –
PB: It is really a dialogue between us and Mies. We are exploring how the house functions through lights. It is not so much that we are creating a bold statement that you have to say, “Oh theres structures there’s Mies”, it is really like a dialogue more than a statement next to each other. I think with the Loop Alliance, they came in as a partner originally our collaborator FLOW/Im Fluss is the Goethe-Institut.
SG: Because of the celebration of the Sister Cities.
PB: Yes—it is the twenty-year anniversary between Chicago and Hamburg. We were invited to a brain storming session through the Geothe-Institut and they were looking for artists to do something relevant for Hamburg. We were already looking at the Chicago River back then, and had all these ideas. They were like, “Wow and you have a relationship to Hamburg.” [Laughs] It came out of a round table discussion of what could be done for celebrating the Sister Cities and then we went back and forth. We also played with the idea of bringing in the project simultaneously to Hamburg, so it can be in both cities at the rivers at once. It took its own shape through partnering with the Loop Alliance; they also became a co-producer and helped a lot in making this happen. They are helping with facilitating, permitting, and all of these details that one doesn’t always want to do [laughs], or is not aware of.
HA: Regarding your sound work, a lot of your work has the integral element of sound that really orients the viewer in a particular space or sets a certain mood or tone. How do you usually decide sound work? Is the sound person you work with always in on the project with you [since its inception] or do they get interested later after the idea has formed between you two?
PB: We work with a Chicago-based composer who always writes the score for everything that we do, but this time [FLOW/Im FLuss] Birgit Ulher was brought on through the Goethe-Institut. She is from Hamburg. The only thing we shared with her is this template [a chart showing different measurements from the Chicago and Elbe River]. We go back and forth usually but with this [FLOW/Im Fluss] it was kind of like a blank card. The sound piece will not play throughout the night, but for forty minutes each performance. After that, the piece will be without music and we will just hear how the water hits the ground.
There is so much ambiance in the city, through cars and other sounds, so the soundscape of the city itself will be the audio to accompany the piece.
HA: You will be adding on to it, like another layer.
PB: Yes, of water.
Hiba Ali was born in Karachi, Pakistan and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. She is a graduate of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a dual degree in Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in Film, Video, New Media & Animation and Bachelor of Arts in Visual Critical Studies. She is writer, critic, and new media artist – her work occupies the intersections of architecture, queer politics, gender and race.