Bettina Pelz: In Conversation with Squidsoup
The installation “Submergence” by the transdisciplinary collective Squidsoup is set up at the Center for International Light Art in Unna (Germany). The artists are known for large-scale, digital objects and environments, and “Submergence” is one of their signature works. It is part of the current exhibition program „HYPERsculptures“ on display from November 2022 to April 2023 with artwork by Christine Sciulli, Julius Stahl, Philip Vermeulen, and Giny Vos.
“We’ve loved the subterranean vaults at Unna ever since first visiting around 2015 ; the feel and even the smell of the place are very special. We built the piece bespoke to fit the available space, so the dimensions are different, but the work is otherwise almost identical to other recent iterations.”1All quotes from an interview with Anthony Rowe and Liam Birtles on 5 January 2023 about “Submergence” as part of the exhibition program “Hypersculptures” in the Center for International Light Art Unna 2022 – 2023., said Anthony Rowe and Liam Birtles, both part of the artists’ collective, when talking about the exhibition.
Located in one of the exhibition vaults of the former brewery, the installation is embedded in a dimmed light situation. Half of the exhibition space is filled with a 3-dimensional installation consisting of countless small luminous spheres floating in space. The glowing orbs, stringed in series, are hanging from a scaffolding that is implemented close to the walls. The distance between the loosely hanging threads and the gleaming spheres is all equally structured. They light up and fade, and colors change. A choreography of color fields is unfolding and creating a mesmerizing atmosphere. The installation is embedded in a soundscape that expands the spatial extent of the installation, and the artists stated that „… sound, even at low volumes, has strong immersive potential, and a less mediated connection to the brain – it is very good at evoking surprising memories and connections.” The visitor is solicited to a synaesthetic sojourn.
The light sources, sound systems, and digital controls are hidden from the audience. The custom-made components are embedded in small opaque balls, wired in lines, and anchored in a grid above the installation. Liam comments: “The framing of technology is perhaps the one we don’t like to admit or acknowledge, in some ways we try to hide our technologies, yet we see technology as a medium, material, and materiality, as much as chemistry is part of the painting, technology affords us to control, multiplicity, repetition. Engineering and technology represent a view of the world that sits in often contrast to that of art practice – the clash of cultures and perspectives lead to new ways of seeing.”
Inspiration from the past: Jesús Rafael Soto
When I asked them about artistic positions that inspired them, they both referred to Jesús Rafael Soto (1923 – 2005) and his series of walk-ins named „Penetrables“. In the 1960s, Soto was concerned with the interplay of structure and optics. He created objects from iron wires and wood, imbued with vibration. Some consisted of large cubes or suspended nylon tubes that the viewer was asked to walk through. Some produced metallic resonances as they were traversed through specially attached tubes made of aluminum. Soto’s artwork fostered the discourse on how the artwork and the art experience are inseparable as they are only completed in the sensorial system of the viewer and the conscious mind that is nurtured by it. The „porous presence“ of Soto’s works emerging from the interplay of the physical material, the kinetic structure, and the visitor’s journey, Squidsoup leads further by embedding it in the digital dimension.
2007 – 2012
The ideas and technologies underpinning Submergence were developed from 2007 on, preceding projects were such as “Scapes”, or “Surface”. In 2012, “Submergence” was built and Anthony recalls: “Submergence” evolved out of a period of research and exploration into the use of arrays of individually controlled points of LED light to create a feeling of presence or movement in physical space.” Squidsoup’s artistic practice is rooted in a highly experimental approach and is intertwined in a continuous dialogue with theoretical reverberation and research. Anthony holds a Ph.D. in “Immersion in Mixed Reality Space”, largely based on the work of Squidsoup which he started in 1997. He was a Research Fellow at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO) until 2015 and Associate Professor on Interaction Design since 2009. Liam Birtles has been a collaborator in Squidsoup since 2006, he splits his time between Bournemouth University and Squidsoup, Squidsoup is the vehicle of his practice-based research and creative expression. He has a background in low-end virtual reality and 3d computer graphics. Jointly they explore digital technologies, interaction design, and creative practices in the framework of digital arts. Both, share the experimental approach: “… the idea of „Submergence” itself was a vision we had for many years before finding a way to make it real. For me, it is something I felt I had to do. It has no function or intention other than to offer an altered experience of space, a new perspective or way of seeing.”
A cornerstone in the development of „Submergence” was an opportunity to explore an LED-based visual system called NOVA developed by Martina and Meinhard Eberle at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ). Squidsoup developed two projects based on the NOVA system in 2008 “The Stealth Project” and in 2009 “Discontinuum”. The artists remember: “The sketches we made then fed into several different hardware approaches that finally resulted in something that worked as a penetrable liminal space with „Submergence”, first shown in January 2013 … from that time onwards the physical approach has remained constant, but we have made software developments and made different textures/spaces.”
Like the pioneers of the 2000s
“Perhaps … on our route, we came more from media/digital art than light art, though we are very interested in the nature and effects of light itself. We moved away from the more traditional forms of the media presentation to get away from the isolating and distancing effects of the screen and, ‘worse’, VR goggles.”, Anthony and Liam agree. „Submergence” is programmed in openFrameWorks – an open-source toolkit built on C++. “We developed our own volumetric rendering system to create the visuals, which consist primarily of virtual particle systems”, explained the artists.
Artists like Jim Campbell2Jim Campbell (*1956) uses technologies developed for information transfer and storage to explore human perception and memory. He studied mathematics and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the late 1970s and has since worked in filmmaking, interactive video, and LED light technology. His background in electrical engineering, mathematics, photography, and filmmaking enables him to make immersive works that explore the space between the representative and the abstract. He started in the 1980s to experiment with LED Screens and recalls: “I made my first electronic artwork in 1988 and from the beginning, I saw electronic art as a way of merging my engineering skills with my background in film and photography.” He explicitly features the entanglement of perception, screen, and content. “Many of my works start out as perceptual experiments or questions. I have an idea for a mediated digital display and don’t know what the end result will be and that becomes the reason to make the work. The more unpredictable a finished work is, the more driven I am to finish it. Almost as important to the end result of a new experimental display is the preservation and development of mistakes. During the process of creating the technology many mistakes are made and I often run with these mistakes as they lead to a work that feels freer than a work that stuck to the preconceived notions that I started with.” Instead of displaying more information in a smaller area using a higher resolution, he inverted the process and features low-res screens: “Drastically reducing the details of a moving image allows the viewer to experience a simpler form of perception. In the more successful works, this process bypasses the more analytical parts of the brain leaving room for a more “primal” perception of an image that is more felt than seen. This has really been what is at the core of my work for many years now.” NOTE Richard Bright: Expressing to the Unconscious. On: Interalia Magazine Online. July 2017. URL https://www.interaliamag.org/interviews/jim-campbell/ >> 23 November 2022., Erwin Redl3Austrian Erwin Redl (*1963) started a series of works titled “Matrix” in 2002 designing a 3d matrix made of a net of individually controllable LEDs to fill a space. He applied similar approaches to tube structures named “Flow” from 2010 on, and a series of outdoor projects with hundreds of transparent white spheres, each embedded with a programmed, white LED light, suspended from a square grid of steel poles and cabling. “Whiteout” was first installed at Madison Square Park, NYC. He features the experienceable dimension of the digital sphere. “Since 1997”, Erwin Redl stated in an interview. “I have investigated the process of “reverse engineering” by (re-)translating the abstract aesthetic language of virtual reality and 3‑D computer modeling back into architectural environments by means of large-scale light installations. In this body of work, space is experienced as a second skin, our social skin, which is transformed through my artistic intervention. Due to the very nature of its architectural dimension, participating by simply being “present” is an integral part of the installations. Visual perception works in conjunction with corporeal motion, and the subsequent passage of time.” It reminded me of what Anthony was talking about when looking back on the guiding ideas while developing „Submergence”: “… the aim was to create ‘shared’ spaces; an augmented media environment that is also social, virtual as well as physical.” Erwin Redl summarizes it in a similar way stating “… equally, the various interactions between the visitors within the context of the installation re-shape each viewer’s subjective references and reveals a complex social phenomenon.” NOTE Erwin Redl: Statement. On paramedia.net (Artists’ Website). No date given. URL http://www.paramedia.net/information/statement.php >> 27 December 2022., and Leo Villareal4Leo Villareal (*1967) started in 1997 with luminous sculptures. He works with LED systems to create complex, rhythmic artworks for both gallery and public settings. In 2002, Villareal presented his first fully formed LED sculpture, “Hexad” at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art in Lake Worth/FL.us demonstrating early experimentation with complex patterns, layering combinations of colors, and light intensity. In 2003, he produced his first large-scale architectural work, “Supercluster” for the group exhibition Signatures of the Invisible at MoMA P.S. 1, New York, in collaboration with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, Geneva. Leo Villareal recalls how he started to get involved with the technology: “I graduated from college in 1990, the same year Adobe Photoshop was launched. There was also a lot of buzz about virtual reality even then. These new tools intrigued me and led me to the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU where I deeply immersed myself in all sorts of tech. I always knew I wanted to use these tools as an artist. It took me many years to find my medium. In 1997 I connected software and light for the first time. I created a beacon with 16 strobe lights that I programmed with a basic stamp microcontroller. Zero was off and one was on. What started as a simple wayfinding device turned out to be a major epiphany. The combination of software, light, and space crystallized into what then became my medium.” NOTE Jeff Davis: In conversation with Leo Villareal. On: The Link – Art Blogs. 21 January 2022. URL https://medium.com/the-link-art-blocks/in-conversation-with-leo-villareal-e6124977f836 >> 3 January 2023. did start at the end of the 20th Century to experiment with artistic environments made of individually addressable LEDs. The technical advancement of the LED, its smallness — its digital controllability, and its availability — nurtured these artistic approaches. The resulting forms and formats move, change, interact, and ultimately grow into complex organisms reinventing the interplays of physical components, spatial extent, and of temporal resolution. Shifting, changing, and performing are at the core of the artistic practice of Squidsoup as they explain: “… we recognize „Submergence” as a container, we see the base material of media, points of light in space, we see the material of the thing, its materiality, it becomes not an object but an environment in constant flux, an endless series of transitional states, flow, waves, explosions, never settling”. Squidsoup represents the present artists’ generation that responds to the challenges of contemporary imageries.
„Forms and volumes that were destined to persist within the lifetime of their support materials are followed by images whose only duration is that of the afterimage on the retina…“ is, how Paul Virilio described the present shift in the way we encounter and interact with images. In the 21st Century, subjectivity as an a priori of perception is emphasized and the model of a still and objective image is dissolving. The aesthetics of the permanent image are transient to those of the mutable image, present only in its ephemerality. The advancements of digital media are a key factor of the momentum of this shift.
2013 – 2023
First displayed in 2013, „Submergence” has not only been exhibited all around the world over the last ten years but sparked a series of different works by Squidsoup, one example is “Wave”5Other than the cuboid shape of „Submergence”, the set-up of “Wave” is designed to represent a breaking wave of water. “Wave” consists of hundreds of suspended orbs, each one as an autonomous sensate unit consisting of LED lights, a speaker, and a microcomputer, including a movement sensor and wireless connectivity. It was first displayed in 2018..
Looking back on ten years of experience working with luminous pixels, the artists agree that: “ … currently, „Submergence” and “Wave” are our two strongest works, in our view. Each represents a culmination in its own direction of exploration. “Submergence” has come in many variants over the years however, we’re also pleased with „Where There is Light“ – a work created with asylum seekers and refugees in 2020 and 2021, “Singularity” – a different work but effectively a spherical version of „Submergence” in 2020/ 2021, and also our ongoing collaboration with electronica musician/DJ Four Tet since 2015, I see that project as a good example of how we try to break down boundaries, between performance and installation, between artist and audience, between the real and the virtual, even between disciplines like art and lighting design …”
Squidsoup is interested in how media technologies can be exploited to create a sense of uptake and presence for the viewer, and how it can be applied to create a sense of touch between the artwork and the viewer. They develop along with innovative technologies and generate complex interplays of light and its reagents, space and time, the interaction of senses, and media responses. Squidsoup originates aesthetic situations that allow reverberating the ongoing digital shift via a uniquely sensuous and bodily experience immersing in the digital sphere.