A wide shot of a ceramics studio, featuring students working with pottery wheels and other tools.

Light. Color. Interaction.

by Jeremy Ohmes

After journeying through Luftwerk’s new media exhibit, SHIFT, you might never look at light, color, and motion in the same way again. In fact, you might second-guess your senses all together. This is what Luftwerk’s large-scale, immersive video art does to you: it deconstructs your thoughts on color, refocuses your idea of light, and disorients your sense of space. 

Installed in the Chicago Rooms of the Chicago Cultural Center, SHIFT is site-specific like all of Luftwerk’s work—in this case three high-ceilinged rooms separated by narrow, elevated archways. In the first room you are greeted with Spectrum, a reimagined color wheel of 509 painted panels with light projected on each tile. As the video illuminations interact with the painted panels, more than 3,054 tones of red, blue, and yellow morph and meld, creating new color palettes and enabling you to see between colors. 

Discussing the ideas within SHIFT, Sean Gallero—one half of the collaborative duo Luftwerk—says, "We are interested in the perception and deception and additive and subtractive quality of color and light. Color and light can deceive you and that’s the beauty of the medium.”

As you enter the second space your shadows are projected onto a white floor. Coupled with a minimal, color-inspired score, Synthesis transforms your silhouette into slowly changing color fields, recasting purple, green, orange, red, yellow, and blue versions of yourself. 

The third room reveals black and white lines that play and converse with the dynamics of the space. For Threshold a mirrored obelisk mimics the narrow doorways of the gallery while projected beams of light grow, shrink, and bend on the walls and off the mirrors. The illusion of expanding space is dizzying and hypnotic all at once. Petra Bachmaier (BFA 1999)—the other half of Luftwerk—says, "With the three works in SHIFT, we want to shift your senses and how you perceive color and motion…how analogue can meet digital…how light and color can create a connection of seeing and hearing…and how light travels and creates different perceptions.” 

This concept of challenging perception has been at the heart of Luftwerk’s installations since their collaboration first began. Bachmaier and Gallero met at SAIC during their undergraduate studies. A German exchange student focusing on performance art, Bachmaier transferred to SAIC from Hamburg, while Gallero studied across multiple departments at SAIC, including Visual Communication Design, Sound, Printmedia, and Art and Technology Studies. He jokes, "I became a jack-of-all-trades and master of none in a way.” In the end he was drawn to the faculty, work, and collaborative opportunities within the Performance department. There he met Bachmaier while trying to fix a broken record player. 

Their first collaborations involved Gallero advising Bachmaier on technical aspects of her work—how to set up a performance and create a visual scenario. After SAIC they briefly worked in Hamburg, only to move back to Chicago. Bachmaier explains, "We met in Chicago and felt a good connection to the city. And we decided Chicago is a city where we want to develop our work.” 

They continued to work together as two individuals merging performance, video, sculpture, and sound until 2007, when they officially created Luftwerk. Bachmaier says, "The idea was to dissolve the name and ask, Is it my work? Is it his work? We are collaborative in nature. We work with musicians, technicians…all of our work requires collaboration with others. So we wanted to create an identity for the work itself.” 

Since then they have been commissioned to create experiential, site-specific installations for galleries, museums, art fairs, landmarks, and residences across the country. In 2011 they were asked to interact with Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater, for its 75th anniversary. With little knowledge of the architect’s work, they studied Wright’s architectural philosophy and his connections between nature, man, and the built environment. They projected light and motion graphics on the façade of the iconic house, creating a dialogue with the architecture and its natural setting. 

For their most renowned project Luftwerk was commissioned by the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture to develop the first-ever art installation around Chicago’s Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park. Known as "The Bean,” the sculpture was a new challenge for the duo. "Cloud Gate is already so interactive for the public,” notes Gallero. "And we were asked to put another layer of interactivity and contemporary media on the sculpture.” 

Influenced by Italian floor mosaics, urban grids, and geometric tessellations, Luminous Field transformed the 384 tiles on AT&T Plaza surrounding Cloud Gate into an illuminated video and sound "playground.” Luftwerk’s light projections and geometric forms enveloped ”The Bean,” reflecting off its surface and inspiring visitors to interact and "perform” with the sculpture in a whole new way. Bachmaier says, "We always want art to be an experience. For us the audience becomes a performer and we want the audience to be immersed in the work and to feel like it’s surrounding you and engaging your senses.” 

With their new work, SHIFT, Luftwerk moves their medium inside, but the performative dialogue is still the same. "We fully embed ourselves into a site to find that narrative of our artwork and the canvas or structure we’re projecting on to,” states Gallero. "We always want to create a conversation with the site, whether interior like the Cultural Center or a public icon like Cloud Gate.” 

SHIFT is at the Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago Rooms, 2nd Floor North, through January 5, 2014.