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Klaus Obermaier’s artistic journey from classical music to digital art

Interdisciplinary artist Klaus Obermaier talks to STIR about his creative practice that is based on the discovery, appropriation, and development of new, mainly interactive tools.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Mar 23, 2023

From studying classical music and visual arts, touring as a classical guitarist with his band, composing for ensembles like 'Kronos Quartet', 'German Chamber Philharmonics', 'Art Ensemble of Chicago', 'Alliage Quartet', and the 'Arnold Quartet', to becoming known as a digital artist at the forefront of creating interactive performances and art installations, artist Klaus Obermaier has had a long journey. He tells STIR, "There are no specific artists who (have) inspired my work, although many critics find connections to historical art movements and works, building these connections was not consciously intended by me. Of course, everything I have experienced, seen and heard in my life flows into my work." The artist has been working as an interactive performance practitioner for nearly three decades now, and his strange and starkly unique body projections have become synonymous with his style. He reiterates, "It was an exploration of (a) new territory, so it was pretty impossible to find influences from other artists."

The body talks, the face screams, the visuals sound and the voice cracks, 2016-2022, still, computer, projection or LED screen, stereo audio system, camera, microphone, 3D-touch keyboard, MIDI-controller, iPad Pro | Klaus Obermaier | STIRworld
The body talks, the face screams, the visuals sound and the voice cracks, 2016-2022, still, computer, projection or LED screen, stereo audio system, camera, microphone, 3D-touch keyboard, MIDI-controller, iPad Pro Image: Klaus Obermaier

In recent times, though a discourse has developed around his practice, and in particular, Obermaier identifies written works by Néill O'Dwyer and Bernard Stiegler as being of particular note. However, he makes it a point to mention that the uncanny valley quality, many will likely identify with his art is not intentional. He explains that it is simply his style and his way of expressing himself. He concedes, "I am aware that some of my works have such an effect on my audience." He believes that this quality is created owing to the fact that a lot of his work is breaking new ground, and often elicits a reaction of mild discomfort and confusion. The artist expands upon this, saying, "For instance, Rite of Spring premiered years before the 3D movie Avatar came to cinemas. And not only did it use stereoscopic projections, it did all of it in a real-time setting with no studio tricks. Everything happened before the audience members' eyes. All the virtual objects and environments that you can see in it are created live by a dancer and are generated in real time. Also, there is an orchestra present that is influencing the virtual worlds being generated. These interactive processes combined with stereoscopic 3D projections resulted in an outstandingly unique experience. Other examples are the projects D.A.V.E, VIVISECTOR and APPARITION, through which I developed a very precise way of projecting onto the moving bodies of the dancers. When we showed D.A.V.E, many visitors couldn't tell the difference between real and virtual, even though it was taking place on a real stage with real performers right before their eyes."

Waiting for the End, 2022, computer, 4k projection (or FullHD), stereo audio system – Duration variable (endless) Video: Klaus Obermaier

When asked for a breakdown of his process, Obermaier expresses an affinity towards creative discovery—the kind that artistic luminaries often do. He expresses that in actuality, he does not subscribe to a specific 'creative method.' Instead, he combines his learnings from different areas of his practice, in order to manifest increasingly larger projects, over the course of his career. "Depending on the project specifics," he says, "I am the director, the composer, the musician, the stage designer, a choreographer, visual artist, programmer, light artist…and much, much more. A large part of my work is based on the discovery, appropriation and development of new, mainly interactive tools.”

Le Sacre du Printemps, 2006, still, interactive system, stereo cameras, stereoscopic projections, silver screen, polarized glasses, light, sound, dance, large orchestra, microphones, Klaus Obermaier | Klaus Obermaier | STIRworld
Le Sacre du Printemps, 2006, still, interactive system, stereo cameras, stereoscopic projections, silver screen, polarised glasses, light, sound, dance, large orchestra, microphones Image: Courtesy of Klaus Obermaier & Ars Electronica Futurelab, Dancer: Yuka Oishi

The interdisciplinary artist is definitely one of those who believes that learning never ends: he is constantly mastering the ins and outs of new software and hardware, and all the while experimenting with setups and spatial implementations that act as a catalyst for his artistic ideas and projects. All things considered, he has a very hands-on method. The artist shares, “Take, for example, the interactive projection mapping piece DANCING HOUSE. I am known as one of the pioneers of projection mapping because of my early body of projection work; at that time, the term projection mapping didn't even exist, much less was it a part of common parlance within the creative community. After APPARITION, I became less and less interested in projection mapping because it became ubiquitous with projections onto large buildings, mainly in the commercial sector. But interestingly, almost no one, if anyone, was doing interactive façade projection. When I had the idea for DANCING HOUSE, I was unaware of this situation, just as I was unaware when I created D.A.V.E. that no one had done precise body projections before. And now, DANCING HOUSE has been touring the world for 11 years also because of this unique selling point.”

Dancing House, 2011, still, computer, projector, sound, Kinect | Klaus Obermaier | STIRworld
Dancing House, 2011, still, computer, projector, sound, Kinect Image: Klaus Obermaier

When asked what’s NEXT, the artist reveals he doesn’t know that himself. He continues to remain on the path of new media creative exploration, in hopes of mining new ground, for both himself and the creative community at large. He says, “If I am lucky, it will happen.” Obermaier’s optimism for creating and discovering even more, especially after all that he has achieved, is commendable. Still, he remains aware of the passage of time, tempering his excitement with a sense of grounded realism. He concludes, “Times have changed a lot from the 90s to today. Back then, we were only a few artists experimenting with new technologies, and if you came up with something new and exciting, you could quickly become a pioneer in a certain field." That was certainly the lucre of the day, but as the artist will point out, there was a flip side to it: "On the other hand, you had to develop everything yourself. There were no Youtube tutorials or study programs, or anything of that sort.” He compares the 90s to today, explaining that we now have an oversaturation of digital art and that digital practices in general have become mainstream. This certainly holds more true now than ever before, because of the NFT movement. But one thing is for certain: Klaus Obermaier will remain a potent creative force throughout his entire career.

Klaus Obermaier ‘s Profile Picture, 2022, image| Klaus Obermaier | STIRworld
Klaus Obermaier's Profile Picture, 2022, image Image: Klaus Obermaier

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