The research-based practice of German artist Florian Dombois may be informed by an education in geophysics and philosophy, but it extends into innumerable uncertain contexts in a spirit of experimentation and site-based attentiveness. His widely varied works, spanning mediums and disciplines, move from abstract fancy to concrete expression, from questions to curiosities, in a tantalising engagement with the sense and receptiveness of the onlooker. From sound sculpture to skyscraper-spanning threads of light and beyond, these interventions operate between precision and ephemerality; both generating maps and measurements, and impelling us to think about the subjective experience of the space under examination.
After a brief encounter in Boston, Florian Dombois and Sasha Amaya began a correspondence which stretched over one year, encompassing a breadth of topics and concerns, both practical and theoretical.
Sasha Amaya: Can you tell me about your path toward making art? While you grew up in a family of architects, designers, musicians you studied geophysics and humanities at the university, eventually obtaining a PhD. What brought you back to the world of art?
Florian Dombois: If you search for a door, you sometimes need to leave the house, and walk around the building before you return. I grew up in the arts — and I felt different. So I left my family's world, [but] it took me a while to realise that this feeling of difference was part of my way of seeing things as an artist. And I don't regret this long detour through the sciences and humanities: today it provides me a wide horizon.
There was a moment after school, where I thought about studying architecture. I spent so much time as a kid and adolescent working for my father in craft: I wanted to escape, but probably I got the architectural sensibility from him. He would not talk often about space or architecture, but since I was working with him in the workshop, on our family house, on ships every weekend, I could "breathe" him in. I spent so much time with him working in craft; I learned from watching.
But for me there is a difference between a designer and an artist. Design is for a purpose, a solution for a problem. And the craft usually is the best possible. In art, the level of perfection is part of the work, it is meaningful. Often there are very good reasons to make things not perfect, or even really imperfect.
SA: Why is it important for you to make things? What is your process?
FD: I think through my body, and I also think through words though I tend to trust the former more than the latter. I live between objects and words, and harbour doubts about both of them. In fact, this doubt is one of my starting points from which I begin to articulate an idea. I doubt what I want to say. I want things to speak for themselves. I often construct situations, setups, and experiments and always hope that they will surprise me.
I have a love affair with reality. What do I mean by this? It's hard to explain. It has to do with a strong trust that things will come out right. It has to do with a dedication to the magic that happens in the real. I think in every moment there is a gap in reality, a fissure, a cleft, and you only have to find it. And if you do, you can reach another level, another reality, that is physical, but also very poetic. Risky, but giving. Or maybe you call it another experience of reality. I reach another disposition.
SA: When you are setting up an experiment or a situation, how many parameters do you put in place? Or, to put it differently, how much "surprise" do you allow into your work? Do projects ever turn out radically differently than you first supposed? Or is it more a matter of degree?
FD: Well, let me say something in general first: my descriptions here are made in retrospect. I am never sure how the next work will be, or which of my procedures will carry into the next work. So there is a level of surprise also on the conceptual level, I suppose.
But coming back to your question: I don't feel like I set up scientific experiments or calculate degrees of freedom. I am not designing a box that allows for surprises within it. Rather, I work more in a mood of openness: I start with conceptual clarity and than I am willing to risk [the original concept] through the evidence of objects. Sometimes the surprises which result from the material way of progressing in the work are smaller; there are decisions [to be made] that I didn't foresee. And sometimes big surprises can happen, too. And then it is my task to rethink my approach and find out if and how these surprises integrate into the work. That is a process of validation.
To give a short example: I did a piece for the Museum Haus Konstruktiv in Zurich called "Struck Modernism". For this piece I hit artworks from the collection and recorded their resonance with a pick-up microphone. The motivation for this piece was coming very much from my critique on modernism: about the attitude of forgetting the past, clearing the table and starting anew. How can we not wipe out but not repeat? I respect the 1968-generation — my parents’ and my teachers’ generation — a lot, how and what they changed in society, especially in Germany. But I also want them to go away, to step back and give me and my generation more space. This was fundamental. At any rate, at the beginning I had very clear arguments as to why I need to strike the artworks from older generations. But through that process, I found wonderful sounds and found new ways of dealing with the recordings, so that in the end '68 was not important to me anymore. When you see a spacecraft starting on earth, it uses no single-stage-to-orbit, but a big rocket, that will be kicked off, once the energy is gone. So concepts and ideas are to me often like these rockets. They give me speed to work, but they don't last for the whole journey.
SA: I am curious about one of your earlier projects: auditory seismology. This project is really fascinating in the sense that it deals with the technology and politics of the web, adds to our understanding of cartography, and ultimately creates relationships between human listeners and (far-away) landscapes. Tell me about your motivations for this project.
FD: In 1993 I was sitting in the Akademie der Künste Berlin in a lecture and daydreaming, when in my inner eye I identified the form of seismograms with the curves of audio recordings. I remember how I couldn't sleep that night, because I so much wanted to hear the earth. The year after I was invited to take part in a show called "Hearing & Seeing" — also at the Akademie der Künste — where I presented my first “audified” seismograms. And this fascination has continued since.
In fact, between 1994 and 1998 I wrote a PhD on the question "What is an earthquake?", wherein I investigated the relation between forms and modes of depiction in relation to natural disasters. I studied 16 different examples of earthquake depictions, from ancient Greek conceptualizations — such as those from Poseidon, Aristotle, and Seneca — to today's scientific papers, as well as news, science fiction novels, and museum exhibits. None of the examples — neither historical nor contemporary — could express the aspects that I found most interesting about earthquakes. So I decided to develop my own format and continued on the idea of audification, which is a specific technique of translating waveform data into sound. In 1999 I had the chance to work on it at a computer research institute in Germany, where Gerhard Eckel, an Austrian composer, helped me with the programming. I developed the concept of “audification” into audio installations, concerts, a recording, and a website.
SA: Did you feel like you were making a statement about the relationship between humanity and nature?
FD: Sure. My interest for landscape and nature was the starting point for studying geophysics. And my disappointment at the university had to do with the way science is dealing with nature. Dieter Mersch, who just sent me a text today, compares ereuna with zetesis as two different ways of research. For the first he quotes Francis Bacon, who apparently wanted to chase nature with dogs until she reveals her secrets. That describes my disappointment best: doing science felt like hunting to me. Rather, I wanted to listen to nature — and I don't mean it in a Romantic sense here — more zetesis. Listening breaks down fences, because it affects you directly. It is another way of "seeing" the world.
SA: This desire to listen to the world — to the earth itself — has prompted you to use sound in variously interesting ways. In your auditory seismology works, you interpreted the sound of the earthquakes into computational form and made them available on the web. In your work Acceleration 2,200, however, the audified earthquake was sonically displayed/performed/exhibited in a gallery. Here, you brought the sounds into an interior environment where they were controlled and precise. Tell me about the process of creating sonic pieces which were also visually and physically robust? How did you first approach this sculptural component to your work?
FD: The auditory seismology project is twofold, it has two faces: one is looking towards art and is articulated in concerts and sound installations. The other, however, looks towards science. In 2012 I was invited for a lecture at the Supersonix Festival in London and expressed for the first time in public my motivations for the work:
I confess, that I have lobbied for sonification — a general term which describes the turning of data into sound — following research-political interests. Many people promise that sonification allows more efficient access to data. But for tracking acoustic patterns the human ear is still needed. This I like. And there is an epistemic ambush, that comes with sonification and that makes her my companion: the dogma allows word and images only for scientific mode of depiction. Everything that is to be studied by scientists is first formulated in words and by this made amenable. But the monopoly of verbal-pictorial media cannot be sustained when introducing acoustical means. And when one alternative is introduced, the question for more alternatives will come.
The website was thus made with the ambition to destabilise scientific trust in visual or textual modes of representation.
SA: So many of your projects really engage the public in reflecting on politics and nature. What do you consider to be your first public art project? What compelled you to create a physical object outside of the gallery space? What was your process for this project?
FD: You could probably consider "Der stille Portier" as my first piece of public art. Originally, I developed this piece for a group show, "Pre-Emptive" (19.8.-8.10.2006), that Philippe Pirotte curated at Kunsthalle Bern and where he responded to my earthquake research at that time.
The title "Pre-Emptive" was also a reaction. I had five new works in the show but three were also "framing" the whole thing, they were placed at the outside, the entrance and at the last end of the showrooms. I had a poster in the entrance, which re-appeared on the handout; I shared with Camille Norment and Zhang Enli the last room of the Kunsthalle where I placed a seismometer measuring the earth's seismic activity; and I placed "Der stille Portier" outside functioning as a post for the show, to bring people in. And it found its perfect home there, and so started its own life. A lot of people loved it; lots of tourists studied it. We didn't have a licence to set it up in the public sphere and I have never got one. After the show I left it, and people from the city wondered why nobody ever doubted its presence there. When I was appointed professor in Zurich, a lot of people wrote me after the newspaper article that announced my move was published, curious as to whether I would take the silent porter with me, and requesting I leave it. Bern is so slow, so grounded, so down to earth that I am myself surprised why people here love so much this sign of "attention!” I think it was not me that made the piece, but the piece chose me to make it live.
SA: Another one of your earlier works, Mt. Merapi (2000-2001), drew on seismic data from the Indonesian volcano — provided by Prof. Dr. Frank Scherbaum’s research group at the University of Potsdam — to create a virtual environment. Visitors entered a three dimensional space in which they could experience the volcano’s physical and aural qualities. What was the impetus behind this project, and what did you learn from it?
FD: This is an interesting question. I never thought of it. But true, I returned to the art world by making my first steps in virtual reality. With my work “Mt. Merapi” I wanted to make it possible to stand in a volcano. I wanted to merge with it, watch it scaled in room size, scaled from weeks of recording to a few minutes of listening. And it was probably the only virtual reality installation of the research group in which I was working that was not using the flying perspective that is so often employed with virtual technology. “Mt. Merapi” — though a virtual construction — was about standing in and walking around a virtual volcano. Or maybe it was a form of swimming. I wanted to swim in the crust of the earth.
SA: Sound frequently features as a primary element in your work. While your work on auditory seismology took natural sounds and frequencies into the gallery, you’ve also brought sonic work into the landscape. Struck Modernism (2010), an acoustic installation, and The Hornitos (2011), a piece in which you buried speakers underneath soil, earth, and sand in locations in around Koblenz, both focus on the spatial and sonic interplay of your objects with their surrounding natural environment. Tell me about what interested you about these pieces and the challenges that were presented in their construction.
FD: As I mentioned, I am interested in finding the "gaps of reality". There is always a gap, wherever you are. Its up to you to find it. Sound can help to widen that gap, just as film music can defamiliarise the surrounding. I am interested in this gap, the door, the escape route — even though I don't want to escape.
“Struck Modernism” itself was installed at Museum Haus Konstruktiv outside and in the entrance of the museum. The speakers were hidden so it was impossible to locate the sound. The installation followed the clock: every quarter of an hour it would tell the time by the tone, a tone that I had recorded from one of the artworks that I had struck. In a way, the sound was affirming and questioning reality at once.
SA: Light is another medium which you’ve used; in 2011 you created Szkieletor & Błękitek for the ArtBoom Festival Krakow: a line of light linking two towers. Tell us about the “urban legend” of the Two Towers. Why did you decide to use light, and how did this installation come about?
FD: I developed the piece in 2010 and 2011 for Krakow. During the preparation for the festival a year ahead the young curator made me walk almost everywhere and told me all he knew about the city. Andhe knew a lot! When we came to the modern new town, I saw the vast ruin of a skyscraper, nicknamed "Szkieletor", and at the other end of the main urban axis a shiny tower that was originally built in the same period but, after 1989, was purchased by a bank and renovated as a business centre, nicknamed "Błękitek". I observed these two buildings. They looked so different on the surface, but they seemed to speak to each other, and they seem to say so much about Krakow, about socialism and its end. Later, it reminded me of the story of the two towers of St Mary's Cathedral in Krakow's old city centre, which were built, as the legend says, by two competing brothers, one wanting to build higher than the other until one brother killed the other.
So I came up with this idea of visually connecting the two skyscrapers with a laser in order to listen to their conversation through the measurement of their distance. Technically, I was familiar with the technique of rangemeter — a geodetic distance meters that employs the speed of light to make measurements — from my work at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, where I had been monitoring the "breathing" of magma chambers underground. In this case, the laser light connected the two buildings, transforming two skyscrapers into one sculpture. The buildings are swinging ever so slightly; using light I measured the changing distance between the two towers Szkieletor andBłękitek: the light swings, approaches and recedes. That measurement was displayed in real-time, and it showed a curve, moving slowly up and down like inaudible waves. In this way, it revealed also the movement of the earth under the two buildings
SA: You installed a similar work, uboc No.1 & stuVi2, in Boston two years later. Tell us about the two buildings you put into conversation here, and how they departed from your original Polish version.
FD: Technically speaking it was the same setup: a laser line visually connecting two buildings and a displaying a real time measurement, but this time on a website. But the meaning was fundamentally different. In Poland you had two buildings from the 1970’s, one never finished, a famous ruin; the other transformed into a bank and business centre after 1989. And you had a lot of stories about two towers.
In Boston you had a beautiful brutalist building by Josep Lluís Sert from the early 1960’s which nobody appreciated. Students call it the "ugliest building on campus", what I shortened into uboc No.1. I connected uboc No. 1 to a new dorm from 2003: clean and without character. The new building was designed by a company, but when you look carefully, it actually quotes from Sert's building. The project resonates with the question of connection and horizon. And actually, since the towers are rooted in the earth, their movements also display seismic activity anywhere in the world. In this way, the piece reflects a global horizon.
SA: Your project Zugabe (2014) is a really fascinating public sculpture on the grounds of the Parliament of the Parliament Brandenburg/Stadtschloß Potsdam. It’s such an unusual place for this kind of an installation.
FD: Potsdam is a city outside of Berlin with an uneasy history: it was the military capital of Prussia, full of barracks; it was here that Hitler staged his transformation from an elected chancellor to a Führer. But it was here also that the Prussian kings would build their Arcadia with castles and beautiful gardens and invite intellectuals such as Voltaire to live and share ideas. After WWII the city was transformed by the socialists, a little bit like Krakow: new building blocks instead of the old city structure. The socialists of the GDR knew about the difficult history of Potsdam in particular, so they tried to transform it to a « modern » city. They destroyed the central City Palace, because so much war and death had its origins there.
And then, some years ago, the Parliament Brandenburg needed a new building and they decided to build it on the site of the Palace in the old dimensions. Two wealthy citizens gave money to put a historic facade in front of the new building. So quite a complex situation.
SA: And how did this project begin, and what is the concept with which you were trying to play?
FD: Well, first of all, public space differs from the white cube. In a white cube, I am encouraged to place a statement, to express, to put something from my studio on trial. People come to the opening and they judge. But if you place something in public space, that lasts for decades, you are in a much more dialogical situation. You add another voice into the public sphere. I see it as an agora of objects. They all speak to each other.
Getting involved in Potsdam was motivated politically: I could live with the idea of building the Parliament on the old site of the castle and could even accept the quote of its dimensions. The whole urban surrounding makes clear, that at this spot, these dimensions make sense. But putting up the historical facade was and still is too much for me. First, I did not want to get involved, so much I dislliked the architectural decision. But than I realised, it is the Parliament, so I should add my political view. Therefore I stepped out of my comfort zone and articulated a work into this surrounding.
A few aspects were important to me: The building is from the time of Absolute Monarchy, expressed e.g. in symmetry, in the single axis of the king. So I added two pavilions, that break symmetry, that open up for more view points In my installation there is no single sweet spot, from where you can see best. I tried to avoid to highlight any point of view, not even in the parqueting of the sandstones. Furthermore I put the facade to the extreme, so I removed the volume. You step into my pavilions, and you are immediately out again. There is alway something disturbing the illusion. Either you see the silver edges of the crossing plane or the illusionary paintings are distorted. And by the way, these paintings were developed from my experience, how textures are used in virtual reality. Or how they are used for buildings in Google street view or in computer games.
SA: Some of your most recent works have been created on a much smaller scale, using more traditional materials, such as paper and ink. Has your work with the environment, and, in particular, your keen connection to the earth, impacted the way you approach small-scale projects like Spaces Out of Delay (2016) or the Language of Things (2015)?
FD: “Spaces Out of Delay” results from my love for caves. Maybe because of my scientific training I see these spaces not only as volumes, but as spaces of transformation. I see the material transport by the water, and even though it takes thousands of years to form the structure, I sense its flow, its change. It is alive to me. And when I watch this flow, especially, I see the floor dropping and the ceiling dripping. And I realized one day that a cave is formed because the floor drops faster than the ceiling drips. The latter doesn't catch up. And this fascinates me endlessly. A space formed not against gravity--the piling up of stones; a space not dug out from a material; but rather a space formed by different speeds of material flows in opposition to each other. A friend introduced me to Thomi Wolfensberger, the Swiss authority for lithographs — which also use water and limestone, like in the caves — and we began to experiment, starting these works and leaving the final products to form on their own. In effect, letting the stones speak.
SA: So much of your work is associated with this idea of “Art as Research.” What was your original impetus behind the concept of Art as Research and how has this changed over time?
FD: This is a long and complex story. There were a number of interesting aspects that I figured out in my time amongst natural scientists that make research interesting for artists. For example, the shift between discourse, laboratory practice, trial and error on the one hand, and the rigour of publication on the other. Or that in research you are paid by labour, by effort and not – as in the art market – by product. Or that other researchers form the peer group, and not the market, not the gallerist, the collector, or the critic, etc. So one day I said, let's frame art as research, let's see if we can form a new network of artists who organize themselves independently from the art market. Let's use research money for this purpose.
In the beginning we had great discussions without cynicism or ironic detachment. People really fought for or against this idea of art. But after some years the discourse was hijacked by non-artists, and it became about “knowledge production.” I don't know, I think this leads away from art. So some years ago I stopped theorising and fantasising about a possible future “Art as Research.” In the art school I have to write research proposals and I do so for my little wind tunnel laboratory. But I am not interested in the general discourse any more.
SA: Several projects of yours are also manifested in talks or happenings, often, though not exclusively, outdoors and in public. Additionally, you also hold a teaching position as Professor of the Zurich University of the Arts. How do you view the relationship between your artistic and intellectual investigation and your more activist-oriented and pedagogical pursuits?
FD: The German artist Harald Klingelhöller once said “the discourse is the plinth of the sculpture.” So working in discourse, working with students, discussing in public is for me part of my work in many respects. It is the intellectual meadow from where my works grow and it is the platform on which it stands. It is bi-directional: back and forth between verbal and non-verbal formats of thinking, of statements, of exchange. I don't believe in the idea of the genius, who simply expresses. I want to be questioned from my works. For me, art-making happens in an environment of taking and giving. I see single art works as articulations within my flow time.
To learn more about the work of Florian Dombois, click here.