"We're More than just a Museum" - Karlsruhe Center for Art and Media

OKAMOTO Mitsuhiro: Hou Aomori Revolution, 2006; 3 Figures with Built-In Loudspeaker; 52 x 52 x 48 cm, 52 x 52 x 76 cm, 52 x 52 x 175 cm; Copyright: the artist Take a virtual tour of the city of your choice, make flowers bloom on the touchscreen or beam your own likeness onto the screen as a work of art: at the Karlsruhe Art and Media Center, you're part of the art. The ZKM (for short) opened ten years ago – and now it's the only institution in the world that not only exhibits, but also researches and develops media art.

Prof. Peter Weibel, direktor of the ZKM; Copyright photo: ONUK; Copyright: ZKMIn 1997 the founding director Heinrich Klotz opened ZKM in a landmarked former munitions factory. With 80,000 square metres of floor space, it's comparable to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Traditional painting is at home here alongside computer graphics – as is the cello next to the synthesizer. "We aim to provide a forum for the whole gamut of modern art," says Austrian media theorist Peter Weibel, ZKM's director since 1999. With temporary exhibits to round out its permanent collection, the center draws over 200,000 people a year to Karlsruhe.

But behind the acronym ZKM is a whole lot more than just an archive of artworks: it has now become a watchword for research and development, documentation and a multipurpose forum. In other words the place is as much about research as it is about presentation. "We're a museum, but we also happen to be more than just a museum," says Weibel. "We collect, archive and put on shows. But we research and develop at the same time."

Computers in "swaddling clouts"

ZKM combines under a single roof two museums, a media library and four research institutes. The Museum of Contemporary Art (Museum für Neue Kunst) shows selected European and American works from 1960 to the present, from Joseph Beuys to Nam June Paik and Andy Warhol. The Media Museum, the other main public attraction, is the first fully interactive museum: its video projects, walk-in installations and computer simulations invite the "beholder" to take an active part in the artworks.

Another section of the permanent show chronicles the infancy of the computer age. Starting with the legendary Z22 vacuum-tube computer of 1957 and moving through the Commodore 64 to computer game classics like Pong or Pac-Man, the icons of computer history stand side by side in a pantheon here, and rehearse the rapid evolution from analogue to digital technology.

Spotlight on research

In addition to the various museum activities at ZKM, Peter Weibel puts research to the fore. Every year about 20 or 30 guest artists are invited and commissioned to create. "No museum gives a painter money with an order to produce ten paintings. ZKM does that in the domain of media art. In this sense we're akin to a theatre or opera house, we commission works," Weibel explains.

Peter Weibel: On the Justification of the Hypothetical Nature of Art and the Non-Identity of the World of Objects, 1968/1992; interactive installation
Works group: Media works; Copyright: Peter WeibelThat's what the four ZKM research institutes are about. At the Institute for Visual Media (Institut für Bildmedien), technicians and guest artists tweak software systems, interactive installations and 3D systems to develop novel imaging technologies. The Institute for Music and Acoustics (Institut für Musik und Akustik) likewise fuses artistic production with research work. Next to a glass sound studio, there are several smaller studios and ateliers in the "Factory" where musicians can record or – in separate but technically networked rooms – put on live collective concerts. Some 200 electro-acoustic productions have been presented here in recent years.

The Media Library (Mediathek) boasts one of the most extensive collections of contemporary music, videos and literature on 20th-century art. It's a treasure trove for scholars, but also just a place to rummage around and dig up information. These audiovisual riches, initially reserved for researchers, are now available to the general public thanks to newly developed interface technologies.

ZKM, Blue Cube at night. Copyright photo: ONUK; Copyright: ZKM Karlsruhe
TV SymbolSlide Show: Karlsruhe Center for Art and Media celebrates 10th anniversary

Virtual discussions with philosophers

ZKM director Weibel wants to get people to think and talk about art on the Web – and Internet culture in general. One spotlight at ZKM is on the development of the "Web 2.0", which allows internauts to post home videos and photos on so-called participatory portals like Flickr or YouTube and pass them back and forth. "The Web 2.0 revolution has turned the viewer into a user, emancipating the public on the Internet," resumes Weibel. In a series of symposia since 2005, academics and bloggers explore the ramifications of this media development for our society.

Weibel also seeks to use this development to advance his museum concept. "Museums, too, must become communication platforms," he says, hoping to free the museum from its spatio-temporal confines. Another step in that direction is the opening of a ZKM "philosophers' academy" in the virtual world of Second Life, where "avatars" can discuss media trends with philosophers Peter Sloterdijk and Boris Groys – live in cyberspace.

Annette Klotz
Journalist based in Mainz, Germany

Translated by Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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October 2007

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