ZKM Karlsruhe Art, Technology and the World Explained

The ZKM at night
© ZKM Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe, Photo (detail): Uli Deck

The Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie/ ZKM (Centre for Arts and Media) in Karlsruhe has managed to bring art, science, philosophy, economics and technology closer together. The standards, however, are high: the aim is to analyse and depict what the world will look like in the 21st century – the driving forces, along with all the problems and hopes.

A research institute, an exhibition forum, a discussion platform, a museum, a media theatre – the ZKM is all these things and its activities embrace all kinds of different fields. ZKM is the abbreviation of a long name that used to be a kind of mission statement – a Centre for Arts and Media. The idea the initiators had back in the 1980s was to provide a place where artistic creativity came into contact with the developments taking place in the realm of information technology.

In the meantime the centre has grown into an institution of world renown. International contacts and cooperations are the order of the day. Not only that – again and again the ZKM has taken on a pioneering role when it comes to some of the major issues facing the world today, for example, recently with an exhibition entitled global aCtIVISm. It came into being in the wake of the Arab Spring and the protests on Taksim Square in Istanbul and addressed artistic forms of expression that had been inspired by political events.

Conviviality instead of competition

“The ZKM provides an opportunity to combine the philosophical and the artistic, the scientific and the economic in a new way,” says Peter Weibel, who has been the institution’s director since 1999. Philosophy, art, science and economics for him are “the classic fields in which the world can be explained and in which the world can be changed. He considers technology to be one of these important fields, too. The most decisive factor for him is that it is reciprocal, that a mutual exchange takes place. Weibel: “Competition is replaced with conviviality.”

For the program at ZKM this means installations exhibited by artists are complemented by specialised symposia, research projects enhanced by challenging musical expeditions. Large-scale thematic exhibitions deal with the role of the media, with the human body in the world today or the way the art world sees the automobile. At the same time the ZKM Institute for Visual Media enables high-definition digital content to be accessed by users in a public space.

A production facility for digital art

Since it was founded in 1991 the Institute for Visual Media has evolved into one of the world’s leading production facilities in the field of digital art, above all due to its development of interactive interfaces and panorama-screen technologies. The spectrum ranges from digital video and 3D animations to real-time generation of natural and architectural environments. More research is also being done at the Institute for Music and Acoustics that is in fact two years older. The focus there is on, among other things, the investigation and production of electronic and electro-acoustic music, digital sound synthesis, as well as on sound art and the various applications of interactive sound technologies for concert stages and music theatres. The Zirkonium software that the institute developed itself and the Klangdom (sound dome) have met with success and approval all over the world.

A global perspective

One of the latest innovations in the realm of IT is the online exhibition platform ArtOnYourScreen (AOYS). It has an interdisciplinary structure and the aim is to merge real space with the virtual space of the internet. It kicked off with a One-way Interaction Sculpture (OIS) by the artist duo, //////////fur////, which involved the setting up of a direct connection between the ZKM and the Goethe-Institut in Montreal. A light bulb had been installed in both locations, in Karlsruhe and Montreal, that could be switched on via the internet – but could only be switched off on the spot.

The transatlantic artists’ project is only a small example of just how geared the ZKM is to international cooperation. Other examples are MIT-Press Cambridge, Mass, which is a partner for publishing scientific papers; there is also a rigorous exchange with the countries of Asia, especially China – an exchange that was clearly reflected in the recent exhibitions entitled Thermocline of Art – New Asian Waves or The Global Contemporary – Art Worlds after 1989. The next major project is Globale - an event lasting 300 days celebrating the 300 years of the city of Karlsruhe.

Globale pays reverence to the anniversary of the city. The name Globale itself could, however, actually be used as an overall description of the ZKM, particularly as the organisers’ perspective extends way beyond the 300 years between 1715 to 2015. One of its press releases announced that it was striving to “depict the cultural effects of globalisation and the mutual influencing and questioning of different ways of conceiving culture.” This is also further confirmation of the institute’s mission statement – to analyse and depict what the world will look like in the 21st century – the driving forces, along with all the problems and hopes. And as comprehensively as possible. The fact that these ambitions go down well with audiences is clearly illustrated by the following comment from a female exhibition-goer: “If Shakespeare had not beaten Karlsruhe to it, the ZKM might well be called the “Globe” today.