For more than ten years, Luftwerk (the creative vision of Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero) have created art installations that merge elements of light and video with facets of architecture and design. An opportunity to create a new media exhibit for the centennial celebration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in 2010 sparked a growing interest in architecture leading to a deeper engagement with space and culturally significant buildings. Luftwerk will have an installation at the Mies van der Rohe Farnsworth House and Museum October 17–20. I spoke with Bachmaier and Gallero recently to learn more about their creative path and their Farnsworth House installation, INsite.
Luftwerk, Luminous Field, 2012, Interactive light and sound installation in Millenium Park, Chicago; © Luftwerk; Photo: Pete Tsai
Lee Ann Norman: You have been collaborating for a long time—you met while studying at the School of the Art Institute. How did Luftwerk come to be? What was the first thing you did together and how did you know this would be a good creative partnership?
Luftwerk: Our first installation was Sea Light in the Night (2000) in Hamburg, Germany. Hamburg is a harbor-city and we created 24 Super-8 film loops featuring portraits of sailors and images of the ocean and the horizon. Those portraits were then projected from behind the windows of the International Seemannsmission, so that people experiencing the work would feel like what they were seeing was actually happening aboard the ship.
From there we continued to work together, and became official in 2007. [Laughter]
Our relationship is very complimentary. I feel like I [Petra] came in with a big vision and he [Sean] helped me to refine it. When we met, Sean mostly supported the technical aspects of the work, but then it developed into a very creative—and collaborative—process.
LAN: And what about combining art and science? So much of your work requires technical skills and knowledge outside of fine art or crafts. What is your research process like when you begin a new project?
LW: When we make things, we don’t want to be bound by one technology. We always start with an idea rather than the technology as the core of our artwork. We both come from an analogue background, so technology comes in as a byproduct of how we make something possible, or as an organizing tool. We work with Liviu Pasare, for example, who is very fluent in video mapping and programming. We consult with select people who are very skilled in using different technologies so we don’t have to rely only on our own knowledge or resources. We also collaborate with other creative designers.
Luftwerk, Fallingwater, 2011, Video design: Luftwerk / Music: Owen Clayton Condon / Technical direction: Liviu Pasare / Project consultant: Larry Smallwood
LAN: How do you find collaborators—the other creative designers with whom you work?
LW: We just kind of see what other people are doing. We met Liviu through Collaboration Theater in Chicago at an event that merged video art with live performance. The first time we worked with him was on our project for Fallingwater, and we spent an enormous amount of time learning to do what we are now doing. [Laughter]
Every now and then, we hear of other people or learn about them through other collaborators too. We also work with Owen Clayton Condon, who is a composer we came to know when we ended up at one of his performances. His music is extremely dynamic. When we first heard him, he was performing as part of a new music event celebrating John Cage, and we knew he would be a perfect fit for what we were trying to do. His music wasn’t just stimulating on an intellectual level, but it resonated emotionally, something we thought might communicate well with a wide range of people, not just those who are into new music.
LAN: In the last few years, your work and practice had been focused more on architecture and design, but both of you have backgrounds in fine art and performance. Can you talk a bit about how you got interested in design and the built environment?
LW: We have always been interested in ideas surrounding the experience of space and how environments affect and stimulate interaction. Our work engages with sculpting a space through altering the familiar... the familiar can be a landmark, or material, but it’s always the idea behind or within a structure—the materiality—that attracts us. When we work with an iconic architecture like the Robie House or Fallingwater, we approach the building as sculpture, so we study its form, the material... and try to discover everything we can about it. We like to think of these projects as a learning process that allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the principles of space.
We feel like there is a thread throughout all of our projects, though. Lately, it’s been a dialogue with architecture that informs the work. A turning point was engaging with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. We’re also highly influenced by nature as a process that can inspire our work. Now that we’re learning more about its structures and geometry, we’re getting better at adding it to our visual language.
Luftwerk, INSite, 2014, Video installation; © Luftwerk; Photo: Kate Joyce
LAN: Your upcoming project is an installation at Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House. How did you come to work with that space and what are you going to do there?
LW: We’ve always been fascinated with daily occurrences that surround us like the sky. One of our earliest projects was Skywall (2003), where we projected images of clouds onto 60 ice blocks. (Fabric was suspended inside each block of ice to capture the video of the clouds.) We took inspiration from the structure of nature—high elevation clouds are made of ice crystals and melt into rain as they descend in the atmosphere—and the science in the design. The fabric acted as a screen for the video, and as the ice melted, the “rain” was collected onto tuned metal discs that played melodic tones as the water drops hit the surface... So yes, we’ve always been interested in natural processes and their interaction with built environment.
In 2010, we worked with the Robie House, which was pivotal. Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture is informed by nature, but he didn’t interpret nature into curvilinear lines or organic shapes. He created a very dynamic and structured—rigid—geometry. Learning more about that inspired us to consider how the organic informs the geometric, and how we could shape our work using that information.
Now this concept informs so much of our installation based work. We are thinking about what happens with light in space, which lead to our installation Shift at the [Chicago] Cultural Center last year, and even how that work informs our Farnsworth House installation. The first time we illuminated the house felt like a revelation. Other artists go back to classical painters or sculptors for inspiration, but we go back to these very iconic spaces and learn about the concepts behind them to understand how it informs our creative process and thinking. Initially, we were interested in the relationship of the Farnsworth House to nature, but realized it’s not a structure like Fallingwater, which is so integrated in and responsive to its surroundings. The Farnsworth House feels like it is separate from nature—that glass wall separates us.
When we first experienced the house, it was still accompanied by a Black Sugar Maple tree, which was removed in early 2013. (Ironically, the man-made structure outlived its organic partner.) We will illuminate the steel and glass with motion graphic content mixed with footage of reflections of light through water. We are video mapping the house from nearly every angle, and our audience will be able to experience the installation from both inside and outside of the house. We’re working again with Liviu and Owen on this project. (Owen has created an original sound score to accompany the visual experience Liviu helped us create.)
LAN: What else are you working on that you're most excited about?
LW: We always work on several projects at once, and all of them are exciting! In November, we present Translucence at the Tampa Museum of Art, which builds on our interest in the interaction of color and light followed by Recurrence as part of Lights on Tampa festival in 2015. This will be our first LED light installation. It’s based on the tidal patterns of the river and the Fibonacci sequence. We’re excited to see what comes from all of this!
ArtSlant would like to thank Luftwerk for their assistance in making this interview possible.