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Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero find joy in playing with the materiality of buildings

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to artists Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero of Luftwerk who treat light as a material and make us see it in ways that are new and magical.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : May 16, 2022

Chicago-based couple duo, Petra Bachmaier (b. 1974, Munich, Germany) and Sean Gallero (b. 1973, The Bronx, New York), founded their practice Luftwerk in 2007 to create immersive ephemeral installations using interactions of light, colour, sound, video projection, and space design to manipulate, trick, play, and enrich our sensory perception and spatial experience. Bachmaier received her Master of Fine Arts from the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg, Germany. Gallero studied installation-based, multi-disciplinary performance art at the City University of New York. They met in 1999 while studying at the Performance Art department at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The artists initiated their collaboration on all sorts of new media-based installations, while still being students, years before forming their professional practice, Luftwerk. They decided to stay in Chicago because it was a neutral territory to develop their work – outside of the almost too perfect and complete city of Munich and away from hustle and bustle of New York. There were no ties to their newly adopted city, which they liked. They were also drawn to Chicago’s roughness, affordability, and a lot of available space to operate and maneuver and get things done. In short, they saw more potential for creativity in the city that they saw as unfinished and in need of the kind of work they set out to produce. Their installations often engage with architecture, as they see buildings and interiors as their potential canvases. The artists’ most representative works include the dual presentation Geometry of Light at the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, and at the German Pavilion in Barcelona, both designed by Mies van der Rohe; Fallingwater: Art in Nature, an animated performance projected over Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater; and Luminous Field at the Millennium Park in the heart of Chicago. In the following conversation over Skype between New York and Chicago, we discussed their idea that light can be sculpted as a material, the difference between light art and lighting design, the artists’ inspirations, and their joy in playing with the materiality of buildings.

Geometry of Light, Barcelona Pavilion | Chicago | Luftwerk | STIRworld
Geometry of Light, Barcelona Pavilion, 2019 Image: Kate Joyce, Courtesy of Luftwerk

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): How would you define what light art is? Do you see your work as art, entertainment, or research?

Sean Gallero (SG): We are definitely artists! People sometimes confuse us with lighting designers, but we are artists. We create the kind of art that can live in the field of design and architecture, and even in an academic field. We cross paths with scholars, and we collaborate on projects that are based on research and science. Light, in general, has become a part of the mainstream. Many institutions are eager to attract people with something sensational, and light fits that desire perfectly. Yet, many designers use off-the-shelf fixtures to create quick environments. But we want to pay more attention to subtleties.

Petra Bachmaier (PB): So much of light art has become like an entertainment tool to highlight something in superficial and spectacular ways. We are keen to highlight the quality of light itself, not just play with imagery or brand names. So, what’s light art and what’s just mainstream lighting design is getting confused, but to be sure, to craft light is an art form.  

Using light and sound, the installation Geometry of Light focused on the gridded plan of the pavilion | Chicago | Luftwerk | STIRworld
Using light and sound, the installation Geometry of Light focused on the gridded plan of the pavilion Image: Kate Joyce, Courtesy of Luftwerk

VB: How would you describe the difference between light art and lighting design?

PB: There is a huge difference. Lighting designers deal with practicality, efficiency, balance, and highlights. They know how to choose the right light source or a fixture. We, on the other hand, are artists. We work with light because that’s what we like as a material, but we would not take on a commission to design light distribution at someone’s house or office. 

SG: We work with light sources all the time, but we consult light reps when it comes to selecting a particular light bulb or a fixture. Lighting designers achieve the right ambiance. We work on creating a particular revelation and experience. We work with narratives. We have our own narrative and we always respond to the existing narrative of the place. We learn from the spaces in which we work. Every installation is a reaction, not merely a projection.

  • Parallel Perspectives, McCormick House, 2019 | Chicago | Luftwerk | STIRworld
    Parallel Perspectives, McCormick House, 2019 Image: John Faier, Courtesy of Luftwerk
  • Parallel Perspectives, McCormick House, 2019 | Chicago | Luftwerk | STIRworld
    Parallel Perspectives, Angle of Reflection, McCormick House, 2019 Image: John Faier, Courtesy of Luftwerk

VB: How would you define your work and what you do as light artists?

SG: At the core, we are first and foremost installation artists. Our work resides in the intersection of design, art, and architecture. We are inspired by natural light. We are intrigued by such conditions as light coming through trees in a forest or reflected in moving water. We are inspired by such incidental beautiful qualities that we try to imitate, and we use technology to stimulate organic, natural feelings. Light helps to reveal things. Light gives objects, buildings, and surfaces a different quality. For example, when buildings are illuminated in a particular way they are perceived and felt differently. At night they become completely different creatures. We enjoy playing with the materiality of buildings.

PB: The idea is to reveal surfaces and textures; to reveal a particular history, a story, or to bring light into a moment. The point is to make you look at things in a new way; to capture a particular quality of light or what it illuminates. How do you shape this magical phenomenon of light? Light can be shaped and sculpted, and we want to play with it to create new settings and experiences in a variety of ways. Light is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. It allows making so many discoveries. We look a lot at the quality of light and how it illuminates surfaces and spaces. We also like exploring colours. A combination of light and colour can be magical.

Skywall, private event, 2003 | Chicago | Luftwerk | STIRworld
Skywall, private event, 2003 Image: Courtesy of Luftwerk

VB: At what point did you discover that light and colour would become fundamental materials in your work?

PB: It was our 2003 installation Skywall, a video projection on a suspended half-circle of sixty blocks of ice hovering over a crescent-shaped pond that collected water as the ice melted. We saw how material and light could interact and create an interesting environment around them. Before that, there was no particular focus. We were creating multi-media performance installations. In a way, we started removing different layers to focus on what was important and most interesting to us. It was at that moment that we realised that the material we really wanted to work with was light. We worked with video projections before but that was not our interest per se. It was the idea of sculpting light that we were most interested in. That was a big moment for us. And in 2010, was another big moment for us, when we engaged with architecture for the first time. That was Projecting Modern, a site-specific installation at the Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright. We worked with projections of geometric and natural patterns overimposed on Wright’s voice and quotes to highlight the spatial qualities of the house. That was a watershed project for us. Suddenly, we realised that we could work with architecture.  

SG: We engaged with the light first and with architecture second. And living here in Chicago, the city so rich in architectural culture, suddenly became a huge source of inspiration for us – to illuminate buildings’ textures and ornamental details. We came across Wright’s work by accident, as we were approached by a curator and it was really the first time, we started exploring architecture. We knew little about it before this project. For us, the Robie House project became a literal illumination. It inspired us to learn more about Wright and explore architecture in general. The project became our baptism to architecture.

02 mins watch Projecting Modern, Robie House, Chicago, 2010 | Chicago | Luftwerk | STIRworld
Projecting Modern, Robie House, Chicago, 2010 Video: Courtesy of Luftwerk

VB: Could you talk more about what inspires you?

PB: We find a lot of inspirations in different places but whatever it is, it’s always about light and colour. We are very inspired by Goethe’s Theory of Colors, our emotional reaction to colour, the fact that colour is shaped by perception, and its relation to light. Our projects are based on a lot of research. We explore history, culture, and theory, and explore findings by such artists as Johannes Itten and Josef Albers or James Turrell and Dan Flavin. We work on creating new visual experiences through different light situations to shift and alter the perception of colours. We are inspired by what colours signify in different cultures. We get inspired by geometry, nature, or simply by going to museums. We also try to broaden our artistic practice by taking part in open calls and competitions to propose new ideas in very different settings.

Color Code, Cleve Carney Museum of Art, Illinois, 2017 | Chicago | Luftwerk | STIRworld
Color Code, Cleve Carney Museum of Art, Illinois, 2017 Image: Peter Tsai, Courtesy of Luftwerk

VB: What are the main intentions behind your work? 

PB: To us, it is about transforming people’s perception of the space and environment they are in. We try to reveal something completely unexpected, to extract a certain story or sensation out of what is typically just a flat surface. Sometimes our installations have a particular message to become aware of, let’s say, climate change. But we prefer to stay on the abstract side and be open-ended about our intentions. We also want to be surprised by learning how people react to our work.

SG: There is a strong physicality about our work. We are not trying to merge physical and virtual. We try to create a very real sensual experience even though we work with optics. In a way, we try to hide the technology that we use behind the curtain, so to speak. We try to keep every installation real and physical.

INsite, Farnsworth House, Illinois, 2017 | Chicago | Luftwerk | STIRworld
INsite, Farnsworth House, Illinois, 2017 Image: Kate Joyce, Courtesy of Luftwerk

VB: Being light artists, what is architecture for you?

PB: For us, architecture is a canvas. It inspires and informs us. We never wanted to be architects and it is something that we discovered along the way. But we like to explore architecture and highlight this experience.

SG: We want to highlight the materiality, geometry, and perspective of architecture. Even before architecture became a part of our work, our projects could be described as architectural. There is an interesting dialogue between how we sculpt our light installations and the spaces around them.

What do you think?

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