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Celebrating 30 years ahead of the curve in art
ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Photo: Fidelis Fuchs.

by Annalisa Quinn

KARLSRUHE (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Many of the artworks at ZKM are not so much viewed as braved.

One installation on show at the interdisciplinary center for arts and technology is designed to trick visitors into thinking there are security cameras filming inside the bathrooms. (There are not.) But the illusion of surveillance, part of the “Safe Zones” series by artist Jonas Dahlberg, sets the tone for a visit to ZKM, a thrillingly destabilizing institution that smudges the boundaries between life and art.

ZKM, which has a reputation for spotting new and risky ideas, promoted, collected and exhibited digital and interactive art long before most major museums did. This year, the institution is celebrating 30 years of being ahead of the curve.

Housed in a former munitions factory in the small German city of Karlsruhe, ZKM contains an art museum, a research and development arm, a publishing operation, and a conservation studio for obsolete technology. Its building also holds the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, which supplies many ZKM curators, and a smaller, separate museum for more conventional art: the kind that doesn’t move, or talk, or threaten to watch you pee.

The total package is difficult to define. When asked, what, exactly, ZKM was, Christiane Riedel, the chief operating officer, said it was best to think of the institute as “an interface.”

ZKM expects visitors to just go with it, rather than puzzling about what that might mean. At some points this has been more difficult to do: For example, in 1999 at “net_condition,” the world’s first major exhibition of internet art, visitors were confronted with a wall of monitors. Initially, “people were really very disturbed by this exhibition,” said Dominika Szope, who works in communications at ZKM, “because you entered the exhibition and you saw only computers.”

ZKM has also been collecting video games since its founding — well before other museums were willing to categorize them as art. “It was really funny to us, when the MoMA started to collect games,” Szope said. “In 2013, I remember there was a huge article in The New York Times. And we just said, ‘OK, but we did it in 1989.’”

Nowadays, the technology driving the art on show at ZKM is different, but the forward-focus remains the same. In “Writing the History of the Future,” the current exhibition to celebrate the institution’s anniversary, the most striking works are responsive: pet a sculpture, and it purrs suggestively; graze the leaves of hanging plants, and they chime like bells. Your own image seems to follow you throughout the exhibit — in surveillance videos, as a silhouette in moving black-and-white tiles, or onscreen alongside your age, hair color and height, which are determined through artificial intelligence.

Jointly funded by the city of Karlsruhe and the state of Baden-Württemberg, ZKM was founded in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and the World Wide Web was invented. Riedel says that those two forces — globalization and the advent of the internet — created the conditions and the appetite for ZKM.

Most museums plan exhibitions years in advance, but ZKM often takes a fraction of that time, in order to keep on top of scientific and cultural trends. When Time magazine named “You” its person of the year for 2006, ZKM scrapped its planned programming and designed a new zeitgeisity schedule of events and exhibitions within months.

In 2015, ZKM’s indoor exhibition hall was home to a real, floating cloud, created by the Japanese architect artist Tetsuo Kondo and the engineering firm Transsolar, which briefly changed the second floor into something approximating a tropical rainforest. The same hall has also held, at times, a public co-working space, an ice rink and a waterfall.

But it is digital art that has put ZKM on the map.

“No other institution has a track record of really looking at the medium in depth,” Christiane Paul, a media studies professor at the New School in New York, said in a telephone interview.

Major institutions have recently held significant digital art exhibitions, including the Whitney in 2018 and MoMA this year. But it was ZKM, said Paul, who curated the Whitney exhibition, that was “enormously influential in getting the field to where it is right now.”

The American artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson was one of the first artists to integrate artificial intelligence into works, among them the interactive chatbot Agent Ruby. But before 2014, she said in a telephone interview, “nobody would show my work.”

That year, nearly 800 of her works appeared in a retrospective at ZKM, and many of them were then sold to major collections and museums. Hershman Leeson said that the show “gave value to my work, and really gave me many options for the rest of my life.”

Peter Weibel, the conceptual artist who has led ZKM for 20 years, has long prized novelty over prestige. He was an early promoter of the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson: a version of his spectacular waterfall, currently on view at Tate Modern in London, was installed at ZKM in 2001. “We have a Gerhard Richter collection,” Weibel said in an interview. “But you see Gerhard Richter everywhere. So I don’t show it.”

While ZKM is largely future-facing, much of the art it collects uses technology that regularly becomes obsolete and requires more or less constant repair. The center is closed two days a week for upkeep, but individual works are often on the fritz. “When you buy and collect media work, you must also buy an engineer for maintenance all the time,” Weibel said.

To cope with malfunctions, ZKM maintains a vast inventory of old technology: cathode ray TVs, magnetic tapes, recorders from the 1970s and 1980s. Dorcas Müller, head of ZKM’s laboratory for antiquated video systems, said she got old monitors or video equipment from the local dump. “We try to set up a time capsule of obsolete technology,” she said. Even so, many of the iconic works in their collection are running on parts that are now impossible to replace.

For instance, Fabrizio Plessi’s 1993 work “Tempo Liquido” (“Liquid Time”), uses computer monitors on a 17-foot wheel to evoke a water mill. The parts for the monitors are impossible to find; if something breaks, Müller will have to forage for similar parts from similar antiquated machines.

But, for Weibel, the effort is worth it.

“We want to be the Prado of media art,” he said, referring to the fine art museum in Spain. “When you go to the Prado in Madrid, you find all these paintings that are 500 years old. This is what I want to have achieved: That people can look at media art in 300, 200, 500 years, like they look at paintings now.”

That mission involves not only conserving media art, but also equipping viewers to understand it and offering a model for other institutions who might be hesitant to show it. “This is the main mission of the ZKM,” Weibel said, “to show people what is possible.”

“Not what is real,” he added, “but what is possible.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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