I. Painting of Light, or the Representation of Natural Light through Colour
One of the legends dealing with the origins of painting is the story related by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis historia.1) It concerns a young woman from Corinth who drew the outline of the shadow cast by her lover onto a wall before he had taken leave of her. Painting consequently derives from the realm of light and shadow. From classical antiquity to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – for example The Corinthian Maid or The Origin of Painting (1782–84) by Joseph Wright of Derby, the paintings of William Turner and the Impressionists – to the present day, light has been seen as the foundation of painting.
It must be said, however, that for thousands of years painting only occupied itself with visible natural light, i.e., with the spectrum of the wavelengths of the sun’s rays perceivable by the human eye and that it can only depict natural light through colour. In modernism, colour as a medium of light became almost the sole representational goal. Painters had already become obsessive about colour in the nineteenth century. Expressing a typical view, Vincent van Gogh noted, ‘the painter of the future will be a colourist the like of which has never yet been seen’. 2) For Van Gogh, colour was synonymous with light. He wrote, ‘I am completely absorbed in the laws of colours. If only they had taught us them in our youth! However, it is the fate of most people that by a kind of fatality one has to seek for light a long time. For, that the laws of colour which Delacroix was the first to use, . . . that those laws of colours are a ray of light – is absolutely certain.’ 3)
In 1929, Henri Matisse described in retrospect the development of colour and surface: ‘The influence of Gauguin and Van Gogh were felt then, too. Here are the ideas of that time: Construction by coloured surfaces. Search for intensity of colour, subject matter being unimportant. Reaction against the diffusion of local tone in light. . . . Light is not suppressed, but is expressed by a harmony of intensely coloured surfaces.’ 4) Because of the suppression of local tone, the relationship between colour and form was replaced by relationship between colour and surface. The position of the faithful representation of the object was taken by the construction of an autonomous surface with the pure means of colour.
Colour was the motor behind painting’s development from representation to abstraction: ‘Consequently, colour provided the stimulus to the liberation of painting from the object.’ 5) Firstly, the local tone that clung to the object was abandoned. Lemons were painted yellow, the sky blue and meadows green in the era of local tone. The Impressionist and Expressionist painters discovered that colour was independent from object. The notion of absolute colour, pure colour, colour for colour’s sake was born. The sky was painted yellow, horses blue, trees red. ‘Similar to certain men of letters who created “art for art’s sake”’, Maxime Du Camp accused Eugène Delacroix of having invented ‘colour for colour’s sake’. 6) Paul Cézanne, the father of Cubism, destroyed the object by following solely the logic of colour: ‘There’s a logic of colour, damn it all! The painter owes allegiance to that alone.’ 7) Pointillism, Divisionism and Cloisonnism absolutized colour even further: ‘Pure colour, one must sacrifice everything to it’, 8) replied Paul Gauguin to the poet Théophile Gautier. Painting increasingly developed into a painting of colour (as opposed to the world of objects) and accordingly to a painting of light. Light and painting, Light and colour became synonymous. Light and colour were raised to painting’s sole pictorial object.
Robert Delaunay, who celebrated Impressionism as ‘the birth of light in painting’ 9) in his manifesto ‘Light’, developed abstract painting from the principle of the simultaneous contrast of colours. Delaunay’s credo ‘Colour is both form and subject’ 10) manifests itself in his painting Les fenêtres simultanées sur la ville (1912). Colour here had become the sole support of the pictorial composition for the first time. However, it was not only colour; light was also included. Liberated from the constrained of object-oriented representation, colour was able to identify with the light from which it derived. ‘Colour, the fruit of light, is the basis of the picturesque means of painting – and its language.’ 11) Colour painting is consequently light painting because the painter can only represent natural visible light by means of colour. This absolutizing of colour ultimately not only banished object colour and the object but also colour itself. The end of colour painting and the beginning of monochromatic painting was introduced by Kazimir Malevich in his famous White Square on a White Background (1918). That same year Alexander Rodchenko painted Black on Black and in 1921 the first three monochrome paintings in the history of art: Pure Red Colour, Pure Blue Colour, Pure Yellow Colour. Piero Manzoni produced the first of his white Achromes in 1957. Therefore, i.e., in order to distance herself from historical colour painting and in order to not deploy light as colour but as light, Brigitte Kowanz solely makes use of white light today.
II. From the Representation to the Shaping of Artificial Light
The lining of prismatic colours that previously girdled every object for the painter dispersed around 1900, freeing the path in the twentieth century for a non-representational abstract space of light. Light, namely artificial light, advanced to become a direct design medium instead of colour. The possibility of working directly with real artificial light instead of exclusively depicting natural light resulted solely from technical advances.
While painters were still painting natural sunlight in cornfields through which railroad trains were now speeding, on which the first agricultural machines were being used for the harvest and traversed by telegraph wire, artificial illumination, the electrification of light, was already being disseminated behind their backs. The electromagnetic theory of light, the principle of the electric charge lamp (Heinrich Geißler, 1856), the gas discharge tube as a light source, dynamos, the carbon filament light bulb (Thomas Alva Edison, 1879), the incandescent light bulb, direct current (Thomas Alva Edison) and alternating current (Nikola Tesla) as well as the fluorescent or neon tubes 12) were already developed in the nineteenth century. Reality entered the realm of art with the usual tardiness. Colour pigments no longer served as the material carriers of abstract colour or light forms – they were replaced by neon and light bulbs or the opto-chemical emulsion layer of photography and film. The place of absolute colour was taken by the absolute film. Avant-garde filmmakers of the nineteen twenties pressed ahead with the process of making light an independent artistic media.
Abstract avant-garde films of the nineteen twenties introduced the element of movement to abstract colour painting. Light kinetics was born. Projected light created a new relationship between surface, colour and form on the cinema screen instead of on the painting canvas. New media and materials enabled things that painting could not do, namely depict movement and the transition from the representation of light to the shaping with real light. Moving pictures, light boxes, light objects and light sculptures replaced colour painting. The art of light was born in the nineteen twenties. Thomas Wilfred, the inventor of the Clavilux, founded the Art Institute of Light in the nineteen twenties. Light became an autonomous art form.
In his 1941 book Kinetismus. Kinetika ve výtvarnictví – barevná hudba (Kinetism: Kinetics in Art – Colour Music), Zdenĕk Pešánek meticulously traced and sketched out the path of new light art from abstract painting, from the absolute film and visual music to real light and kinetic art. Pešánek was probably the first artist to make use of neon in 1929/30 for his kinetic light sculpture Edison Transformator at the Edison power plant in Prague. Gyula Kosice produced what was probably the first neon painting: Madí Néon No. 3 (1946). Lucio Fontana’s neon installation Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (1948/49), was, as the name indicates, the first light ambience. The absolutizing of light by means of new media and materials not only brought the medium of light closer to the art of kinetics but also to space.
Beginning in 1920, real light (and not only the representation of light) was incorporated into art through the introduction of such new materials as metal, aluminium, glass, plastic and neon, and through such new media as photography and film. The results were abstract glass and metal reliefs, light projections, light paintings with light bulbs, luminodynamic, kinematic and light kinetic sculptures, Light-Space-Modulators and so forth (for example Naum Gabo, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, Oskar Schlemmer, László Moholy-Nagy). László Moholy-Nagy’s statement ‘Light is colour’ (1921), the reversal of Vincent van Gogh’s statement that colour is light, describes the new phase of light art working with real artificial light. While Van Gogh claimed that the painter of the nineteenth century is the painter of colour, Moholy-Nagy proclaimed, ‘This century belongs to light’ in 1927. 13) The difference, however, is important. Van Gogh speaks of colour as the representation of natural light while Moholy-Nagy conversely speaks of artificial light. Artificial light took the place of colour as a direct design medium. This is the starting point for Brigitte Kowanz’s generation.
Moholy-Nagy can be seen as the central figure of a modernism that does not represent light like a painter but shaped light like a sculptor or an architect. He observed the meteoric development of artificial light in the cities and in industry and drew pioneering conclusions for art in his books. Advertising spotlights have existed since 1900. After 1910, light advertisements consisting of letters of the alphabet, digits, signals, signs, and graphics climbed up house façades, transforming the nocturnal city into a city of light with neon advertising: Electropolis. Light advertising projected onto the clouds by means of especially constructed spotlight wagons was popular in the nineteen twenties. Spotlight parades and light beams dominated the sky over the cities from the nineteen thirties. Moholy-Nagy liberated light from the surface (the canvas) and related it to space. In 1936, he explained the new design possibilities of light in the Hungarian magazine Telehor: ‘1. Light displays in the open air: a) the illuminated advertising displays of today still generally consist of linear patterns on flat surfaces. 2. Indoor light displays: . . . d) the light fresco that will animate vast architectural units, such as buildings, parts of buildings or single walls, by means of artificial light focused and manipulated according to a definite plan.’ 14) He was describing the future of urban light, the computer-controlled LED façades, the light landscapes of today.
Moholy-Nagy similarly recognised that the liberation of light from colour freed light’s immaterial character. Light space is a virtual space. The painters among the light artists, for example Dan Flavin, flooded real space with artificial light, illuminating real space with colour, but they did not expand or alter the boundaries of the physical space itself. With the exception of a few works by members of the ZERO group, they did not proceed into virtual space. Heinz Mack already generated virtual volumes with the help of mirrors, glass and light in a piece he entitled Virtuelles Volumen I (1964). Light accordingly has the potential to virtualise real space.
Mobile dots and bodies of light generate mere virtual volumes that are only visible in the recording media of photography or film. Light generates virtual volumes without body and material. According to Moholy-Nagy, we must take the ‘duality of volume’ into account: ‘1. The clearly circumscribed mass, a body of measurable weight, tangible in the three dimensions, height, width and depth. 2. Negative volume produced by holes and openings, perceived visually, which, although bodiless, is an outstanding plastic element. . . . Sculpture is the path to the freeing of a material from its weight: from mass to motion.’ 15)
These tendencies in the direction of immateriality were advanced by the postwar neo-avant-garde, from the ZERO movement to Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin and James Turrell. The dispensation of colour and painting and the turn towards real light as material and medium enabled artists to choose between light, body, material and space as autonomous representational aims and enter into new connections between them. These artists, however, as well as contemporaries like Olafur Eliasson, remained prisoners of the surface, the painting’s quad. While they used and use artificial light, light remained and remains colour, respectively, colour painting in space.
III. On the Language of Light
Contemporary light artists make reference less to surface, colour, and painting than to space, material and media. They work with hybrids of all media (from the photograph and computer to the Internet) and materials (from glass and mirrors to the fluorescent tube). In the case of these extensions of light art, artists were able to draw on the foundations of optics.
We must differentiate between optics and Op Art. Op Art is primarily a painting style that operates with the principles of sight, with the mechanisms of visual perception and not directly with light but with colour, lines, dots and surface, i.e., painting’s classic means of representation. Optics, conversely, works with light and new material and devices, with glass, mirrors, aluminium, generators, bobbins, diodes, transistors, resistors and so forth. Even the scholar Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham), who lived in Cairo around AD 1000 and made a substantial contribution to the study of light and optics, recognised the enlarging effect of lenses and devoted himself to experimenting with spherical aberrations, parabolic reflectors and similar phenomena.
Neo-avant-garde artist groups like the Italian Gruppo T, Gruppo N and Gruppo MID as well as the German ZERO group worked in the field of optics. Brigitte Kowanz similarly performs in this field. She developed her own artistic vocabulary of light over the course of more than three decades of artistic work. Vocabulary is meant literally here to the extent that Brigitte Kowanz deploys light as language, as code. Kowanz does not dispute the idea of light as colour, but her use of white light alone demonstrates that she does not understand light as a part of painting’s palette or impact but as an autonomous medium. As such, she eliminates light’s connection to colour. She employs light for light’s sake.
Examining the development from depicted light to real light in the space of art, i.e., from the representation of natural sunlight through colour in painting to the shaping of artificial light as an autonomous medium of art, we have learned that painters themselves have claimed that colour is the language of painting. If colour is in fact light, as painters still claim today, light is also a language. This covert definition of the medium of light as language is the historical lesson that Kowanz derived from painting. Her artistic achievement rests in how she defines, articulates and develops this language of light, its syntax and semantics. She not only formulates messages and images with the help of light but also designs spaces. She creates virtual spaces of light with mirrors. Perceptual processes become cognitive processes in her work. This makes her a linguistic artist of light, a poet of light. And namely – this is a crucial point of her light aesthetics – in a paratactic form. The term hypotaxis (from Greek hypo- ‘beneath’, and taxis ‘arrangement’) designates the subordination of dependent clauses under the main clause. The artistic combination of a main clause with numerous subordinate clauses by means of conjunctions, interrogative or relative pronouns is accordingly known as hypotactic and generally regarded as a ‘superior’ style. The works of Heinrich von Kleist and Thomas Mann are exemplary in this regard. Parataxis (from Greek para ‘beside’ and taxis ‘arrangement’ meaning the act of placing side by side), references, by contrast, an equal coordination or sequencing of sentences. There is no superiority and subordination of clauses, only coordinated sentences separated as a rule by such punctuation marks as commas, periods and semicolons. Morse Code is structured this way. The paratactic style is characteristic of the writings of Franz Kafka and the early Expressionists. 16)
Proceeding from the assumption that a language of light exists, we can conclude that Kowanz deploys this language of light paratactically. This is the underlying reason why her light art references written language and codes, information and communication to such a large extent. She traverses the universe of light as a poet of parataxis. Kowanz takes decided leave of the realm of painting with its definitions of colour and light. The language of light is no longer limited to the language of colour, as is the case in painting; but by deploying light as a medium of language, she creates the language of light in the first place. By defining light as language, shaping and writing the letters of the alphabet and words in light and with light, she sets light as language free in the first place. Free colour and free sound, early innovations of twentieth-century art, is now followed by ‘free light’.
One important aspect of her light art is the use of language deriving from the experience of urban spaces and the ideography of Conceptual Art. Kowanz renounced painting’s two-dimensional light definition in favour of architecture’s three-dimensional light definition. She integrated the self-referential technique of Conceptual Art and the postmodern observation of the world as a ‘forest of signs’ into light art. 17) The primacy of linguistic references and tautological definitions of the perceptual process itself are clearly expressed not least in the titles of her pieces.
It is common knowledge that light of the stars on the backdrop of a black nocturnal sky served human beings as the first navigation system, especially as regards sea travel. This is referenced by Kowanz’s light letters. The artist makes use of letters of the alphabet and texts as navigational systems. By employing mirrors, she returns the infiniteness of celestial spaces to these textual navigation systems. She constructs ladders of light, as it were, that lead into infinity, or makes use of light as a metaphorical ladder, as a kind of Jacob’s Ladder, which she expresses in such work titles as Light Steps (1990) and Ad Infinitum (2007). Kowanz employs texts conceptually and – as is commonplace in modern Conceptual Art – tautologically or reflectively, for example in Maßstab 1 : 1–1 : 6 (Scale 1 : 1–1 : 6, 1994). Her piece Light Is What We See in Basel (1995–1999) is representative in this regard. The tautological character of the assertion is fulfilled. Kalender (Calendar, 1996), in turn, is a typical conceptual work with numerals. The backdrop is consequently formed by verbal characters and numerals from the world of neon advertising that can also be translated into other sign systems or languages, as for example in Morse Alphabet (1998–2000). As the examples of the pieces Light Steps, Unendliche Falte (The Endless Fold, 2007) and Ad infinitum show, these light objects can also be sculptural in nature. Architectural references are blatantly obvious in such pieces as Lux (1998). Kowanz’s permanent installations in architectonic spaces – for example Licht bleibt nie bei sich / kennt keinen Ort / ständig in Veränderung / mit seiner Umgebung (Light Never Stays / Knows No Place / Is Continually Changing / With Its Environment, 2003–2005) or Outline (2006) – directly continue the work of the Bauhaus.
IV. Light as Information
The ‘Light Space’ Infinity and Beyond in Venice
We have now gradually recognised the tools continuously employed by Brigitte Kowanz over the course of more than thirty years: the use of neon light, mirrors, reflective metals, writing, codes, and information. Her piece for the Austrian Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale represents the culmination of all her previous efforts. Let us take a closer look at these elements.
Light is the designation for the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Electromagnetic waves have wavelengths between 10^-14 and 104 metres, from short to long wavelengths, i.e., from gamma rays, X-rays, and ultraviolet light to infrared rays, microwaves, radar, radio waves, and very low-frequency waves. Only a tiny proportion of this spectrum of electromagnetic waves, namely the wavelengths between 400 and 800 nm (nanometres), 18) which correspond to frequencies ranging from circa 789 THz (Terahertz) to 384 THz, is visible to the human eye. This is why we speak of visible light. For centuries, the nature of light remained unfathomable. The corpuscular theory of light (Isaac Newton) dominated seventeenth-century physics while light was defined as an electromagnetic wave in the nineteenth century (James Clerk Maxwell, 1864). Quantum electrodynamics with light quantums or photons as the elementary particles of the electromagnetic field provides the best description of the phenomenon of light today. The human eye can accordingly only perceive a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The eye is evolution’s limited response to electromagnetic waves emitted by the sun. Colours can be ascribed to the wavelengths of visible light. With the help of a prism, Newton divided white sunlight into individual spectral colours in 1672. Today, we know that the eye registers a wavelength of 450 nm as blue and of 630 nm as red. Wavelengths over 800 nm are perceived as warmth. Human skin, which perceives sunlight as warm, thus receives the wavelengths of the sun’s rays that the eye cannot perceive. Skin is accordingly a kind of eye for invisible light.
Light was given a cosmological dimension when Albert Einstein employed the formula E= mc^2 to define the speed of light in a vacuum as a fundamental physical constant of circa 300,000 kilometres per second in the ‘miraculous year’ of 1905. 19) Reflecting telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope, whose mirror diametres total up to 10 metres or perhaps up to 100 metres and is particularly sensitive to infrared light, can look back into a dark past to a time when proper galaxies did not yet exist. More than ever before, they enable insights into the spatial and temporal depths of the universe. It was shown that light was the most important source of information concerning the universe. We also know, however, that light is not visible for a period of several hundred thousand years (circa 380,000 years) after the Big Bang. There is consequently a kind of cosmic curtain that prevents us from reaching any further with the aid of light. Thanks to the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation deriving from the time circa 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the previous Steady State theory of the cosmos (Fred Hoyle, Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, 1948) was disproved. The theory of the expansion of the universe has been valid since then. Based on the size of the redshift – the factor at which wavelengths have expanded – we can deduce how far the universe has expanded during the time light travels to us. We learn something new here. The light of the stars we see does not guarantee that these stars still exist because the light from such very remote galaxies began its voyage billions of years ago. Light is consequently a window to the cosmos. When scientists and artists work with mirrors – whether with reflecting telescopes or mirrored surfaces in boxes – they work with the galactic dynamics of light within what science calls the ‘past light cone’. Brigitte Kowanz’s light space in Venice is the artistic model of such a past light cone. With its virtually infinite spaces, drawn by light lines, it provides insights into the depths of cosmological time and virtually infinite data spaces.
Our solar system has been in existence for several billion years; our universe is fifteen billion years old. We live within billions of galaxies that in turn house billions of planets. Brigitte Kowanz references this in the title of her Venice light space: Infinity and Beyond. For it is light that defines the boundaries of our universe. We observe the universe with the aid of light. No observation is possible beyond the limits of light. Light has consequently defined our event horizon since the Big Bang. Science is naturally now searching for possibilities to expand this event horizon beyond light. With the help of search programs, a group of research scientists has discovered supernova with a redshift that is higher than ever known before. Early expansion phases were recognised in this way and it was concluded that these early expansion phases were slower than the present ones. Adam G. Riess, Saul Perlmutter and Brian P. Schmidt (2011 Nobel Prize in Physics) were consequently able to prove that our universe not only expands over billions of light-years but also that it is expanding at an increasing rate. Adam Riess accordingly prognosticated that the ‘Big Rip’, the implosion of the universe, will take place in circa thirty billion years.
Everything we know, we know through light. Light has become an information medium. The development of art as regards light can be summarised as follows: Phase 1. Classic artistic genres such as painting employ colour as a means of representing natural light. Phase 2. Modern art media employ light as a design medium. They continue the work of painters by suffusing spaces with light and colour – by means of fluorescent light, electric light and other illumination technologies. They thus continue painting with the help of artificial light. Phase 3. The generation of which Brigitte Kowanz is a central representative, employs light as a medium of information.
Contemporary global wireless technology developed from the radio wave experiments carried out by Heinrich Hertz, empirically confirming James Clerk Maxwell’s theory that light consists of electromagnetic waves in 1886. Radio and television, GPS (Global Positioning System) and Radar ensured a continuous flow of information that is transported on or with electromagnetic waves, respectively. The computer network we call the ‘Internet’ gave rise to wireless, immaterial electromagnetic communications between persons dispersed around the globe. Electromagnetic waves transfer coded messages. That is the true discovery made by Brigitte Kowanz, which differentiates her work from that of other light artists. With the exception of her early works, she has continuously made use of white light in order to emphasise that she does not deploy light from the perspective of painting. She neither wants to depict light with colour nor colour with light. She likewise does not want to create colour spaces. She continues with the work carried out by modern light artists precisely by distancing herself from it. The exclusive use of white light not only means a repudiation of spectral colours but also of the entirety of painting’s metaphysics of light as a medium of colour. This use of light is indeed only the result of a retinal activity. The eye can only perceive a narrow spectrum of electromagnetic waves, and this spectrum, these frequencies, these wavelengths are decoded by the eye and brain as colour perceptions. Brigitte Kowanz, however, came to recognise and draw the conclusion that light is more than solely colour codings, but a universal code instead. She employs light as a code, i.e., as language, as information. Herein lays the singularity of her oeuvre. A code consists of a finite amount of signs. This amount, this character set can be allocated to another character set to the extent that every sign from the one character set clearly corresponds to a sign from the other number of signs – Morse Code, for example, which consists of a sequence of short and long sound signs and intervals, can be ascribed to the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. The signs are subject to rules or stipulations, respectively, which generate meaning. The exchange of information is encoded. The transmitter generates a piece of information according to or in a specific code, which the receiver interprets according to the same code. Each code is consequently a language. The binary code of electronic communications consists of character sequences of the numerals zero and one, which in turn can encode numbers and letters. Communications on the Internet is based on binary code. Brigitte Kowanz thus makes use of two statements about the Internet, which she translates into Morse Code. With the date 12.03.1989 (March 12, 1989), she references the presentation of the Internet at CERN, Geneva, by Tim Berners-Lee. With the date 06.08.1991 (August 6, 1991), she commemorates the moment when the first website went online.
In order to indicate to the art world that she does not deploy light as a medium of colour, but rather as a medium of communication and information, Brigitte Kowanz makes use of a code aside from artificial light with which the public has been familiar for thousands of years, namely the code of alphanumeric language. In Kowanz’s work, light encodes the code of language. She employs words and Morse characters. It accordingly concerns a twofold coding. When we make a telephone call, speech breaks away from the human body. Our words leave the body as utterances and travel around the world, as it were, coded by means of electromagnetic waves and are then decoded by the receiver. They land in a body again, more precisely in a human ear. In 1948, Claude E. Shannon provided the corresponding ‘mathematical theory of communication’ for this process. 20) To the dismay of numerous believers in language, language proved to be a sequenceable, producible and receivable signal sequence, to be a code. The crisis that was triggered in this way was designated the ‘crisis of linearity’ in a 1988 lecture by Vilém Flusser. 21) Flusser pointed out that Western culture was established by means of a discourse, the most important information of which is encrypted in an ‘alphanumeric code’. Our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, ideas and actions are profoundly shaped by the structure of that language code. Structuralism, in the fields of linguistics (Roman Jakobson) as well as anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss) and psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan), focuses on language as a universal code of our world experience. Other and differently structured codes, however, have emerged in the twentieth century, namely the visual codes conveyed by photography, film, television and the computer. The new codes marginalise, suppress, and replace the old alphanumeric code. Flusser’s hypothesis reads as follows: ‘One went from image to writing; the latter became dominant, fell into a crisis, was breached, and now one stands beyond writing in a new delusion that we must first practice.’ 22) Only few artists were in a position to comprehend this challenge posed by technical media and their impact for classic art media. Brigitte Kowanz is one of the few artists who were able to do so. By forming words and codes with artificial light and fluorescent tubes, she writes with light. Kowanz consequently not only paints with light like artistsof prior generations (colour fields and spaces) but also writes with light. ‘Writing/drawing with light’ is the translation of the Greek word ‘photography’. Kowanz produces words with neon-filled glass tubes. Her light writing is consequently not an illustration of sensual natural reality like in the medium of photography; her light writing is a concept writing (ideography) instead, i.e., a code. In order to more or less emphatically call the attention of the art public to this significant break with the tradition of the pictorial code, she employs the exemplary code per se, namely Morse Code. There are three Morse characters: short signal, long signal and interval. These characters are transmittable as sound or radio signals, as an electrical impulse by means of a pushbutton through interruption of a constant signal via a telephone line as well as optically with the switching on and off of longer light signals. Morse Code consists of standardised sequences of short and long signals called dots and dashes. This transmission mode is known as Morse telegraphy after its inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, who constructed the first practical electromagnetic telegraph in 1833. In the beginning, only ten digits could be transmitted, which were translated into letters and words with the help of a chart. Morse Code was thus a numerical code that in turn could be translated into a letter code. The essential characteristic of a code is that it can be translated from one code into another. After rectifying several ambivalences and deficiencies, Morse Code was standardised and turned into the decisive wireless seafaring technology. Brigitte Kowanz’s use of Morse Code points to a comprehension of space beyond the natural sensory experience. Just as artificial electric light overcame the limitations of natural light, thus celebrating a ‘Victory Over the Sun’ (as the title of the 1913 opera by Aleksei Kruchenykh, Kasimir Malevich, Velimir Khlebnikov, and Mikhail Matyushin called it), Morse Code represents a victory over natural space. Morse Code is the first code of electromagnetic space or disembodied virtual space, respectively. Light is immaterial and an electromagnetic wave. Morse code makes use of electromagnetic waves. Morse Code’s symbols travel bodiless via electromagnetic waves as pure signs in a virtual space. Combining light and Morse Code for the purpose of emphasising essential common characteristic features demonstrates striking artistic consequence and logical stringency: immateriality and virtuality. Morse Code is therefore an operating principle of Kowanz’s oeuvre as a whole because the states of existence and non-existence, presence and absence, reality and virtuality can be represented with it, with its interruption of signal sequences. The communicational structure of the electromagnetic age and its associated experience of space become apparent: We are concerned here with immaterial communication and mobility of messages without corporeal messengers. In Brigitte Kowanz’s works, light’s communication and information potential matches the communication and information potential of Morse Code. Two codes mutually heighten their own impact.
The above-mentioned twofold coding rests on this twofold connection to electromagnetic waves. Light and Morse Code both signify an overcoming of real physical boundaries and an invasion into imaginary spaces. The writing of light thus becomes the writing of virtual space. Kowanz is a poet and architect of light. Her light space at the Venice Biennale presents the interlocking of physical material space and immaterial virtual space. The body is situated in real space. This space is simultaneously expanded for the body into a virtual space by means of mirrors, two-way mirrors, artificial light and so forth. The words conduct the visitor in a conceptual space, in a fictional space, in a mental space.
Whereas one cannot write with electric light bulbs, one can use them for artificially illuminating a space. It is possible to write with fluorescent tubes, form words, form light, form words with light, and write. A crucial difference between the light bulb and the fluorescent tube is that the light bulb emits heat while neon enables lighting without generating heat. Neon light is cold light. Brigitte Kowanz is therefore a poet of cold light (and not of warm colour painting). By deploying the familiar code of language that is shaped by light, she indicates that light is also a code. This twofold coding is historically necessary in order to react in an artistically appropriate manner to the crisis of the alphanumeric code caused by the electromagnetic media to the extent that the shift of emphasis from page to website, from easel picture to monitor, from canvas to screen began with the media photography, film, television, and computer. The ‘pictorial turn’ (W. J. T. Mitchell) and the ‘iconic turn’ (Gottfried Boehm), respectively, began with the new visual media and the imaging procedures from the natural sciences that are obliged to the expanded use of the electromagnetic spectrum, from X-rays to terahertz radiation (scanners). 23) Civilisation is increasingly located in a space beyond writing. This space is differently disposed in comparison to so-called real space manufactured for us by the data processing of the natural sensory organs. New electromagnetic media ranging from telefax to telephone, from radio to television, have created an immaterial electromagnetic data space, the culmination of which is represented by the present-day Internet. In my book Die Beschleunigung der Bilder (The Acceleration of Images, 1987), I designated such virtual telecommunication space ‘infosphere’. 24) This networked outer layer of wire information conveyed via electromagnetic waves and the corresponding transmitters and receivers, from the satellite to the computer, encompasses the globe, and establishes an infosphere alongside the atmosphere. 25)
Employing wood, steel, mirrors, glass and neon light, Brigitte Kowanz constructs real and virtual spaces – a mixture of light space and data space – in which the boundaries between the real and the virtual are blurred. They model or reference the Internet’s global data space, more precisely the personalised access to the global data space. Kowanz coded the two dates 12.03.1989 and 06.08.1991 in Morse characters. Because Morse Code consists of dots, dashes and intervals, a long line structured by Morse Code emerges. This line not only has its origins in a gestural movement but also a character set, a code. Because Kowanz treats this line in her Biennale installation like a cable, it can also be brought into a gestural form. This long cable is attached to a pane of mirrored glass that covers parts of the space. A congruent neon pilaster strip 26) is installed before it with a two-way mirror before that one. The light of the neon pilaster strip reflects between the two mirrors and generates an almost infinite space, a deep virtual space. The boundaries of real space are broken up in a multi-perspectival manner. Ever-new perspectives result from the movements of the viewer in the space.
With this light installation, an extension of her previous light boxes, Brigitte Kowanz not only offers a sensory experience but also addresses a technical development that radically altered human life: the Internet. Humankind has not only been living in real spaces over the past twenty-five years but also in virtual spaces. People not only arrange their communications in real spaces but also in virtual spaces; they not only encounter each other in real spaces but also in virtual spaces. The two dates that make up the foundation of Kowanz’s Morse Alphabet symbolise this digital revolution. After digitalisation has also become a foundation of an accelerated globalisation, Brigitte Kowanz’s light pavilion furthermore poses the question about the future of society. What will a world after and beyond writing look like? How will we live in a world where real space and virtual space merge? How will we cope with the infinity of these data spaces? The encounter with herself in the mirror brings the viewer back to herself and her experience of the world. Numerous conceptual meta levels emerge. A human being perceives herself or himself as a nomad between codes. The information of the Internet based on codes is transported by light via electromagnetic waves. Brigitte Kowanz’s central operating principle, light coding, has as such always anticipated the world of the Internet because coding is the foundation of digitalisation and therefore the Internet. Seen metaphorically, Brigitte Kowanz’s light space is consequently a model of data space, Internet space, virtual space.
This reflecting light space is aptly titled Infinity and Beyond because it represents the opposite of a black box, a virtual infinite space. Before the Big Bang, before the gas discharge, before the genesis of light, the universe was probably what still threatens the universe today – a black hole. The black hole is the cosmological place where mass implodes and light disappears. To some extent, the universe represents the victory of the light box over the black box. As such, Brigitte Kowanz’s light installation Infinity and Beyond is a cosmological model, a miniature of the universe about which we only know what light tells or shows us. The cosmic messages of light also require receivers. Light is the message of the universe and Brigitte Kowanz is a messenger of light.
1) Pliny the Elder, Naturalis historia, 35,15. See Victor I. Stoichita, A Short History of the Shadow (London, 1997), pp. 11–22.
2) Vincent van Gogh, letter to his brother Theo from 5 May 1888, in Robert Harrison, The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Boston, 1991), no. 482.
3) Vincent van Gogh, letter to his brother Theo from 4 November 1885 (Nuenen), in ibid, No. 430.
4) Jack Flam, Matisse on Art (Berkeley, 1995), p. 84.
5) Varvara Stepanova, cited from Alexande Lavrentiev, Varvara Stepanova a Constructive Life (New York, 1988), p. 172.
6) ‘Semblable à certains littérateurs qui ont créé l’Art pour l’Art, M. Delacroix a inventé la couleur pour la couleur’. Albert Cassagne, La théorie de l’art pour l’art en France chez les derniers romantiques et les premiers réaliste (Paris, 1959), p. 101.
7) ‘Il y a une logique colorée, parbleu. Le peintre ne doit obéissance qu’à elle’. P. Michael Doran (ed.), Conversations avec Cézanne (Paris, 1994) , pp. 120f., cited from Joachim Gasquet’s Cezanne: A Memoir With Conversations (London, 1991), p. 161.
8) ‘La couleur pure! Et il faut tout lui sacrifier’. Charles Morice, Paul Gauguin (Paris, 1919), p. 225.
9) ‘La naissance de la lumière en peinture’. Robert Delaunay, ‘Light’, cited from Vassiliki Kolocotroni, et al., Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Docu- ments (Chicago, 1998), pp. 195f., here p. 195. See also Joachim Umlauf, Mensch, Maschine und Natur in der frühen Avantgarde. Blaise Cendrars und Robert Delaunay (Würzburg, 1995), p. 183.
10) ‘La couleur est forme et sujet’. Robert Delaunay, Du cubisme à l’art abstrait, ed. by Pierre Francastel, Paris 1957, p. 67.
11) Ibid., p. 60.
12) In 1910, the French inventor succeeded in generating light by passing an electric current through a neon-filled tube. Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs), the first of which were developed by Nick Holonyak in 1962, became the primary media of artificial light in the twentieth century.
13) László Moholy-Nagy, in The New Vision: Fundamentals of Bauhaus Design, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture (New York, 1947), p. 60.
14) Ibid., pp. 49f.
15) Ibid., p. 46.
16) In a 1963 lecture that can itself be characterised has highly hypotactic, Theodor W. Adorno presented the surprising thesis to the assembled members of the Hölderlin Society in Berlin that Friedrich Hölderlin was a paratactic poet; see ‘Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry’ (1974), in Theodor W. Adorno, Notes on Literature, vol. 2, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (New York, 1992), pp. 109–149.
17) Catherine Gudis (ed.), A Forest of Signs. Art in the Crisis of Representation, exh. cat. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (Cambridge, MA, 1989).
18) A nanometre is one billionth of a metre.
19) In 1905, Einstein published five crucial papers: ‘A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions’, ‘On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid, as Required by the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Heat’, ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’, ‘Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?’ and ‘On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light’. See John Stachel, Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics (Princeton, 2005).
20) Claude E. Shannon, ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’, in Bell System Technical Journal, 27, 3, 1948, pp. 379–423.
21) Lecture at the Kunstmuseum Bern, March 20, 1988, published as Vilém Flusser, Krise der Linearität (Bern, 1988). An English translation of the lecture has been published under the title ‘Crisis of Linearity’ at http://fbaul-dcnm. pt/joelfilip/docs/flusser.pdf (accessed March 17, 2017).
22) Ibid., pp. 4f.
23) See also Gerhard Johann Lischka and Peter Weibel (eds.), Das Regime des Image (Bern, 2003).
24) ‘The network of computer terminals, telephones, telegraphs, textual systems, satellite-TVs etc., upon which our entire communications system is based, could be compared to a kind of orbital outer layer or perhaps a structure without which our civilization, and in particular, the cities, would collapse.’ Peter Weibel, Intelligent Beings in an Intelligent Universe, Ars Electronica Archive http://22.214.171.124/en/archives/ festival_archive/festival_catalogs/ festival_artikel.asp?iProjectID=8669 (accessed March 17, 2017).
25) See Peter Weibel, Die Beschleunigung der Bilder (Bern, 1987), pp. 86–88.
26) Pilaster strips, slightly protruding wall reinforcements from the repertory of faux architectural elements are employed in architecture to optically structure a façade.
In: Exhibition catalogue la Biennale di Venezia, Austrian Pavilion, Venice, 2017
Christa Steinle (Ed.), Brigitte Kowanz. infinity and beyond, Hatje Cantz, Berlin 2017, p. 215-226.