michael naimark




ZKM Opening, Karlsruhe

Michael Naimark


This past weekend marked the official opening of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (www.zkm.de) in Karlsruhe, Germany, opening its doors to over 20,000 visitors in the two days. By any gauge, the ZKM is the largest media arts institution in the world, consisting of an art and design academy, two museums, an institute for visual media and one for music and acoustics. The ZKM’s main attractions this weekend were its two museums, the Media Museum and the Museum for Contemporary Art, which together occupy 17,000 square meters. By comparison to its two closest cousins (both opened over the past year), the ZKM is roughly ten times the size of the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz, Austria (www.aec.at), and five times the size of the NTT InterCommunication Centre in Tokyo (www.ntticc.or.jp). It’s perhaps three times the size of the Exploratorium.

The space itself is a former munitions factory built in 1918, made up of ten enormous atria in a line. Not the original plan for the ZKM - a competition was held and Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas won with a big cube - but the munitions factory was important enough that the city of Karlsruhe couldn’t demolish it and was looking for an appropriate venue. Everyone liked the idea and major renovations were made to accommodate the ZKM’s unique needs.

The weekend was packed with events, both artistic and political. Most of the visitors were from the region, along with several hundred artists, critics, and curators from the international media arts community. The Saturday night concert by Kraftwerk, sold out months ago before the posters went up, played to a mostly twenty-something black-clad audience, and was either retro (the crowd exploded to "Radio-Activity" and "Autobahn," both tunes from the mid-1970s) or placed the band as the uncontested "Vaters" of the techno/house movement, which is probably true.

Even though the ZKM is an arts institution, it very much considers itself a research facility as well. The research is about aesthetics, culture, media, and technology, and the Europeans have always been proud of allocating vast resources toward this end. Over the past decade, particularly in Germany, building art centers, museums, and academies have been a source of regional identity.

It’s noteworthy that these institutions are almost always government funded, unlike in the U.S. where even the finest museums rely heavily on corporate and individual donors. This difference results in entirely different perceptions and expectations of the role of art in society. At the ZKM, there is little talk of commercialization or corporate sponsorship (though collaborations are fine). This may change as provincial and municipal funds dwindle, but looking to the U.S. for answers has always been the source of contention.


The ZKM has been in the works for over a decade. In 1985, a working group was formed in the city of Karlsruhe, with representatives from the local universities and industries as well as from the city government. In 1988, the city agreed to commit DM 120 million to it, and in 1989 the state government agreed to match it.

Around that time they began to look around.

In a perverse (and almost unknown) way, the ZKM is based on what the Media Lab didn’t become. When the Media Lab was first conceived by Nicholas Negroponte in 1979, it was to be called the Arts and Media Technology Facility, and was called "AMT" in the original design documents. The AMT was to include MIT’s art center, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), but in 1980 a series of events resulted in CAVS pulling out. Its Director Otto Piene (a German) later became one of the original advisors to the Karlsruhe group.

The AMT turned into the Media Lab, CAVS remained a separate entity, and the words "Arts and Media Technology" were co-opted, intentionally, by the Germans. The organizers used to say privately that they didn’t know what their new institution was going to be like but they knew what it wasn’t going to be like: the Media Lab.

The Media Lab was perceived - accurately at the time - as being corporate sponsor-driven and not interested in art. The ZKM, with its public funds and charter to be an art institution, viewed itself as uncompromising and strongly ideological, so long as it got along with the political leadership.


Out of the working groups in the mid-1980s rose Heinrich Klotz who was appointed Director of the ZKM in 1989. Klotz was an art and architecture historian, had been responsible for some major municipal museum planning around Germany, and had strong political connections. He also had a strong ideological view of art and media.

One of his early and controversial decisions was to create two museums, a museum of contemporary art which he would direct, and a "media museum," whose directorship went to Hans-Peter Schwarz, another architect historian. They both had relatively enormous acquisition budgets. Many in the media arts community cynically viewed this distinction as a "high art"/"low art" one.

Klotz went about collecting for the contemporary art museum based upon his theory of the "Second Modernity:" that the dynamic electronic arts has reinvigorated the static traditional art forms. He writes "Amidst the profusion of moving images, the tranquillity radiated by the static pictures produced in the traditional art forms is all more powerful in their impact, their potent aura in no way diminished by the vehemence of the electronic images that surround them. The modernist tradition is being carried forward..."

It’s tempting to say this is very German.

(It’s equally tempting to say the French, purveyors of post-modernist rhetoric, wouldn’t agree.)

At any rate, Klotz has assembled an impressive collection of painting, sculpture, photography, and media art in his museum. Much of the work is German, with a slight bias toward either clean-lined minimalism or explosive use of scale, form, and color (alas: Modernism!). The media art works, sitting side by side with the traditional forms, include several works by Nam June Paik and Bill Viola, a 30 monitor digital work by Gary Hill, a relief projection on a doll’s head by Tony Oursler, and a video installation by Bruce Nauman (all Americans, otherwise under-represented in the traditional media). Several works specifically dealt with the line between actual and virtual - the most spectacular was by Fabrizio Plessi: an 18 meter long rusted steel tank filled with water and a large waterwheel at one end with 21 monitors around it showing synchronized flowing water (all getting submerged in the water as the wheel went around).


While the Contemporary Art Museum occupies the entire ground floor of three of the building’s ten atria, the Media Museum is built over it, on two floors of long deep balconies. And though the Contemporary Art Museum attempts to be primarily about "art art" (allowing some "media art"), the Media Museum covers the range of media from "Media Art" (yes, the same listed category) to Media Games (historically significant video games). Other listed categories include Media Bodies, Media Spaces, Media Visions, and Media Experiments, as well as a space for temporary exhibitions called "Currents." Tempting as it may be to trash the entire organization of both museums, Klotz and Schwarz had to start somewhere and many visitors conceded that they did a quality, if controversial, job.

Some examples: Media Bodies included Alba d’Urbano’s "Touch Me," a touch screen beginning with an image of the artist’s face. As one touches parts of the image, the spectator’s own face (via hidden video camera) replaces the corresponding sections, a haunting effect. Kirsten Geisler’s "Who Are You?" consists of two large video projections of her head rotating - one is actual, the other a texture-mapped computer model. In the Media Spaces section, Rob Moonen and Olaf Arndt have constructed an anechoic chamber, a totally silent space, but with bright lights and a dentist chair to sit in the center. Jill Scott’s "Frontiers of Utopia" in the Media Visions section, is an interactive video installation where one "meets" eight women representing four generations.

The Media Arts section alleges to house the more "important" works, including Lynn Hershman’s 1984 videodisc "Lorna," Jeffrey Shaw’s "Legible City" consisting of a bicycle interface to a projected 3D model of a city transformed into text, and Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau’s "Interactive Plant Growing" in which live plants act as an input to "grow" computer-generated ones. (My 1991 Karlsruhe Moviemap is also in this section.)

The museums taken together challenge our concept of what is art and what is media. The literature explains that by placing these works as they have, it is left to the visitor to draw their own conclusion. It is expected that the current floor plan will be fine-tuned and will further evolve, but the place to watch for new works is within the ZKM itself.


The ZKM Institutes for Visual Art and for Music and Acoustics have both been quietly open for several years now, run by Jeffrey Shaw and Johannes Goebel, respectively. Their intentions are to be state-of-the-art facilities for research and production into new art forms.

Most of the Music and Acoustics work has centered around sound synthesis and algorhythmic composition, live and interactive music, loudspeakers as instruments, and inter-media productions.

The Visual Art work has already shown its own distinctive signature. Jeffrey Shaw spent 30 years working in the field (beginning by producing lightshows for Genesis and Peter Gabriel) and has a strong sense for spatially-driven projection experiments. Their facility includes loaded SGIs, a blue-screen "virtual studio" with a robotic camera, high-end video and projection hardware, and such oddities as a 40 foot diameter walk-in spherical screen and a multi-ton motion-control platform.

These institutes offer fully funded artist-in-residence programs. So far they’ve produced several high quality works (of the 28 works documented in the Media Museum catalog, at least 8 were produced here).

This is where the real future of the ZKM lies. But in a sense it’s in a win-win situation. Either it remains the Mecca of media art, the next Bauhaus, or it triggers a proliferation of other such centers (remember it’s funding is entirely regional - it could, in theory, happen in Winnemucca). Either way, the media arts are on the map like never before.


21 October 1997

Just a tad more context: from yesterday's NY Times.

Government funding for the arts (per capita):

France $32

Germany $27

U.S. $0.38