STIR speaks to Chicago-based duo Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero, founders of Luftwerk. They create immersive experiential installations using elements of light and colour manipulation and perception and video projection, combining the former with sculptural facets of architecture and space design. Their latest site-specific installation Parallel Perspectives was designed for McCormick House, which was designed by the famous architect Mies van der Rohe.
Sukanya Garg (S Garg): What were you engaged in before you started Luftwerk? How did you start working together, and how did you start working with light and colour?
Petra Bachmaier (PB): We have been working as Luftwerk since 2007. We started a studio and have been focused on creating ephemeral installation type of work using light and projection. We work a lot with video mapping, but now we are moving away from video mapping, towards working more with colour and light.
We met at the Performance Art department (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago). We were doing very ephemeral performative work but then we have always used projection with slides, and as part of creating scenarios.
Sean Gallero (S Gallero): At the core, I think we are always installation artists . I think a lot of our work is either site specific or free standing installations that totally immerse the viewer through all the senses - sound, visual, touch, even temperature. So when we were doing performance art, we always had this installation art quality about it and so at some point, we removed ourselves from the equation and kept installation art apart. We are still doing installations, it’s what we love and we love to evolve.
S Garg: Your works meld into the architecture and space they are created and exhibited in. How do you develop this intimacy with the space you work with?
PB: We really like working specifically for our site, like when we go into a building or landmark or a house, we always look into the thought of the house - why is it built the way it is and how do we create an intervention that kind of acknowledges the site but is also our very own approach to it.
S Gallero: It is really building a bridge between the historical part of the site and the contemporary part. It is a dialogue really!
S Garg: What is the first thing that draws you to a place? Do you choose the place or does the place choose you first?
S Gallero: Both. Sometimes we see a space and we are like, let’s go reach out, and sometimes the space reaches out to us. For me, it is the light quality, during the day and during the night, how a place lives and how you see it and the way it disappears during the night or the shadows during the day. Sometimes it’s also the philosophy of the architect; sometimes organic architecture versus international style.
PB: We work a lot with Mies van der Rohe’s buildings. When we work with his space, there is already a quality of minimalism in the space, so when you work within that space, you are not going to make it more. You kind of reduce an idea to where it needs to be. You don’t make more of it, you keep it tight.
S Garg: Where did the idea behind Parallel Perspectives come from?
PB: In 2014, we made a project for Mies van der Rohe’s house, a building not far from Chicago. So we thought, he is an interesting architect and we found him very inspiring and so it put us on a trajectory to exploring his type of architecture and the very linear approach to making space. I think that inspiration was all part of making Parallel Perspectives because it is also a Mies van der Rohe building; it is a private house that is now a museum. It allowed us to not just celebrate the building, but to actually go into our own ideas that are inspired by the minimalism of his spatial design and make our very own language with it.
S Gallero: It is as if he designed a gallery for art to be shown in this house, McCormick house, even though it was designed for a family post war but the spaces are like small galleries that you can be intimate with and create immersive installations. I think it was challenging to deal with his philosophy of less is more. You have this minimal canvas and to generate ideas with colour and light was a challenge. The space lends itself though. You just have to be very intimate with it, know the space well.
S Garg: Angle of Reflection is an extremely evocative work in the show. While of course it is rooted in themes of space, perception, reflection and geometry, but is there a subjective symbolism behind the work?
PB: The Angle of Reflection works with reflections, how light reflects. We look a lot at the quality of light and how light travels on surfaces, what it does to surfaces. It illuminates, it reflects, it is an inner play of light source with materials, actual materials that we really like. We also really like exploring colour.
S Gallero: Colour is so subjective, it is so personal and private and intimate. Colour and light, the combination is magical. People are impacted so deeply, whether they dislike a colour or they love colour. We are always shifting colours and creating colours through lighting, so it really goes deep. We do a lot of research based on colour and colour theorists and colour scientists. For the viewer, it is a very intimate, personal subject and we are just tapping into that with our installations.
S Garg: How did you approach the McCormick house when you began working?
PB: The good thing is that it (McCormick house) was offered as a colourful house with all sorts of colours for the windows and that was our starting point, which kind of set the canvas for us. That’s when we looked into colour theory, like the idea of Bauhaus was very important, like Johannes Itten’s with his colour mixing tools, and primary colour, secondary colour, the mixing of colours and also thinking of colour as dimensions when it goes from light to dark, creating a body of colour. So we were interested in all of these ideas and that kind of inspired the work. And also of course, the linear geometry of the place, everything has a straight line.
S Gallero: There are lots of right angles, corners, oblique angles; it’s a box, but it’s an interesting box. The house is like a freestanding artwork.
S Garg: What kind of material have you worked with for this show?
PB: We worked with acrylic, a lot of different window film colours, neon, paint and light box. It is minimal material use.
S Gallero: There is a lot of process behind the work, but we want it to appear very minimal, except for the neon piece (Angle of Reflection) where we let the aesthetic of the room balance everything else, which is sculpted very well and implemented a little too precisely. We were very happy to have that balance and were inspired by Mie’s minimalism of the place but with this one piece where… we are not hiding anything in that space. I think that’s the point that you see everything and that becomes the whole holistic art experience.
S Garg: Are there challenges you face in your work?
Both: Sound of laughter!
S Gallero: I think it is process-oriented, like how do we approach a place or how do you get to the concept. There are a lot of ideas swirling around but how do you focus the concept.
PB: We all have a lot of ideas but how do you give your idea the shape that you want. You are always learning as you are making. I think sometimes that's the challenge that in your mind; you are already light years ahead of yourself, but the reality is different. We have to (do) trial and error a lot. Material studies are kind of intense, every material responds differently to another material, so there is a lot of learning just about the material relationships of how one thing works with another one. You have an idea and then you have to figure out how to make it. I think that is always a challenge.
S Gallero: Fabrication, concept narrative, implementation is challenging but exciting. But we have good cohorts, people who can collaborate with us on fabrication; that’s helpful.
S Garg: Who or what inspires the geometry in your work?
PB: I think it’s mathematicians.
S Gallero: I think it is also nature and a lot of light and shadow. When we see shadow and light on a wall, it creates this perfect geometry or relation. We are also inspired by sacred geometry, circle of light, and things that seemingly are symmetric and have this sort of centre point. We also love reflections, 90 degrees, 45 degree reflections. Angles are very prominent in our work. We use numbers also as a data visualisation tool. Data collected, serves to create patterns. We do projections with it.
PB: We have a project where the data from earth magnetism goes into our artwork and it defines what colour the artwork will have. It is called Currents of Light and it’s in Canada.
S Gallero: In Calgary, it is a public art piece for a semi-new building and we are still working on the documentation of it. We are tapping into the data of an earth scientist who has a weather station way up north in Canada and he measures earth magnetic activity. So the earth’s vibration affects the artwork.
PB: Natural occurrences can impact things and how we make sense of the world. It’s a permanent ongoing project.
S Garg: Are any of your works permanent?
PB: We have been doing semi-permanent works where it lasts for a year or two or three years and slowly we are making a permanent body of work. The first one is the piece we described in Canada. We are also working on a public art permanent piece for the Central Library in Atlanta.
S Gallero: We also design artefacts based on these installations. We make light boxes, prints, colour changing fixtures, so it sort of has the narrative of the installation, of what we have done. We are trying to make permanent works, objects, sculptures and pieces.
S Garg: What kind of reactions has your work evoked in people?
PB: When people actually go in to see the work in person, they actually spend quite a lot of time with it. We have an immersive room called One Point Perspective Study No 1; it is a painted mural with colour lighting and once you are in this space, you actually want to kind of stay for minutes or more and people do that. We do hope it creates a platform for being in the moment and witnessing something that can take you on a journey.
S Gallero: I think we have also seen a lot of individual performances in our art installation and impromptu performances. People dance and pose. It sort of becomes an installation platform for performance for generating art. We find that pretty exciting!