Art at the Interface – Christoph Keller
He puts people under the influence of halluzinogens, he magically creates clouds in the sky and turns dark backyards into havens of sunshine. Conceptual artist, Christoph Keller, from Berlin ponders the partly blurry zones of human existence: between art, science and the patented invention.
In the summer of 2003 New York saw more rain than ever before in the history of weather records, and maybe Christoph Keller was to blame.
Keller, born in Freiburg in 1967, had reconstructed the actual “Cloudbuster” weather machine on the roof of the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Centre in Long Island. It was a copy of the actual machine with which the sexologist and sociologist, Wilhelm Reich, had tried to make it rain on the East coast of the USA in the 1950s – an experiment that was to serve him as scientific proof of his Orgone theory that propounded a form of cosmic energy that flowed through both the environment as well as human sexuality.
If we are to believe what the stories will have us believe, then Reich’s experiments with all their metal pipes, tubes and water fountain were a huge success – the same goes for Christoph Keller’s reconstruction of the experiment, too. The rain started to pour down in buckets from what was originally a clear, blue sky.
“The byways of the history of science”
“Reenactments” is what Keller calls his new demonstrations of the historical manipulation of the skies, which in the meantime has been repeated, among other places, in Morocco, Berlin and Paris. Whether they really do confirm Reich’s alleged results is deliberately left open by Keller. Throughout the two-month duration of the exhibition he was more interested in getting the visitors at the P.S.1 Centre to trace “the byways of the history of science in a museum context” – and not by means of an objectively analytical experiment, but rather with the possibility of an artistic installation.
“There is a close interdependency between art and science,” emphasises Keller, who between 1987 and 1992 studied mathematics, physics and hydrology in Freiburg, Berlin and Santiago de Chile, in that order. “And it is this interdependency that has always fascinated me.”
The blurry zones of our existence
Keller’s “Cloudbuster” project is a classic example of the artist’s work, whose focus is always centred on the partly blurry zones of our existence – above all on the blurry zone between art and science, but also on the interface between interiors and exteriors, light and shadow, consciousness and the void, what belongs to you and what to others, history and the present, knowledge and belief, collecting and forgetting, the utterable and the unutterable, logic and madness.
In his video entitled “Verbal/Nonverbal” (2010) test persons report on their in-situ borderline experiences while under the influence of hallucinogenic gas in a scientifically prepared atmosphere.
The title of Keller’s exhibition known as “Æther – Between Cosmology and Consciousness” at the Centre Pompidou (2011) refers in itself to a notion that ever since the days of ancient Greece and Rome was considered to be respectable – the notion of an invisible mass and one that as the “substance of the void” was still flitting through the 20th century until Albert Einstein finally relegated it to the realm of mythical phantasmagoria.
The inner world of the outer world
It is at these interfaces that Keller tries again and again to involve the visitors as an experimental part of the installation. “For me a museum is a space for experiencing things, a place in which the visitor himself can turn himself into an instrument,” says Keller. “The focus is not on an individual sculpture or painting, but the focus is shifted by the observer onto himself.” The divisive distance between the work of art and the observing “ego” is eliminated – observing the outside becomes observing the inside.
An example of this took place at the Kunstverein Hannover in 2003 - Scheunenversuch (i.e., Rod Test Field). A series of water pipes or veins were concealed under a special mat on which visitors were invited to walk and use divining rods to detect water. The project was actually analogous to an experiment conducted by the German Federal Government in the 1980s.
Three years later at an evening event at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt volunteers were invited to allow themselves to be put into a state of trance by a professional hypnotist and then to describe what they see as they walk through the “imaginary museum” of the trance – a clear indication of just how much of the spiritual is lying dormant in our post-modern everyday lives.
Art for the DIY store
For Keller science – and pseudo-science – do not only decide when and where artistic reflection starts, they are also a means of moving art into a social space – and into social commitment. This was the case with Encyclopaedia Cinematographica (2001), an installation which showed films from the International Scientific Film Archive of all Movements that had been initiated, among others, by behaviourist Konrad Lorenz – a project that sadly failed. The videos of the endlessly moving animals are presented in 40 loops which are shown to distraction.
Christoph Keller: Encyclopaedia Cinematographica (excerpt)
This becomes above all clear with Keller’s Helioflex installation – a patented, light-sensitive mirror system that operates autonomously and can automatically adjust its position in order to reflect sunlight onto a place of its choice. Keller calls the concept “urban utopia” – a concept that has transformed even the darkest of Berlin apartments into delightful havens of sunshine and has improved the quality of life enormously for those people not lucky enough to live in an expensive penthouse.
Helioflex aims to “make the distribution of the resource of light fairer” and to circumvent the “social gradients of sunlight” i.e. the gap between rich and poor. The fact that one day works of art may be available as serial products at low price at the local DIY market is in fact Keller’s express wish.
The patent office as a museum
It is almost goes without saying that the social element of a work of art should not take the form of a message from outside, but has to be located somewhere along the borderline between two worlds. In line with this, the patent for Helioflex that was granted in 1996 is also part of the artistic conception.
“For me patent offices are interesting as they are like peripheral museums in which I can enrol my work,” says Keller. For him a patent application outlines both the social problems as well as the artistic idea, “In this way, I turn the reality of the patent office, whose main task these days is above all to protect developments happening in the big companies, the pharmaceutical industry and genetic engineering, into a part of my artistic intervention.”
In the process of this artistic intervention Keller has learned that, in the figurative sense, the patent office has in fact been operating as an interface between reality and art for quite some time. “In the corridors you are always coming across private inventors who want to change the world and whose outward appearance is also quite different from that of the lawyers of the big corporations,” says Keller. “And it is these private inventors with all their visions who are aptly called ‘the artists’ at the patent office.”
lives in Colgne and works there as a cultural and science journalist.
Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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