Mischa Kuball

«And, it‘s a pleasure...»/The Laboratory of Public Space

Everything that moves in the city is «public»

Everyone who moves in the city is «public»




Our responses to the dynamic construct we know as «public space» are characterized by intervention, change, and acts of appearing and disappearing. Artists have responded to the changing character of public space, and the public has developed a new attitude towards the art it encounters in public places. Thus it would seem only fitting that we replace the private with «individually motivated yet public action.» The ingredients of interventions in public space have changed as well:

«The artistic integrity of a work must be preserved. It should be embedded in each work and obey the logic inherent in that work. The work should engage in dialogue with the viewer, who must be able to recognize what the artist is referring to and, ideally, to feel an emotional response to the work. Art may indeed seem out of place or represent a disturbing factor at a given location, but it should not evoke the impression that, by taking possession of a place, it  means to dominate the urban situation. Yet at the same time it must be strong enough to assert amongst the myriad stimuli of its surroundings.» (Georg Elben)

The era of the «drop sculptures» is over. Public art must go beyond the personal gesture of the artist, must transcend pure subjectivity and respond to the urban, social, and political structures that define a given place. The reciprocal relationships that emerge in the process form extracts for the «Laboratory in Public Space.»



I would like to outline the methodological and artistic aspects of the »city as a laboratory« with reference to six selected, exemplary public-space projects I realized during the period 1990 to 2000 in collaboration with a corporate enterprise, a school of architecture, a synagogue, a university, a museum, and as a contribution to the «Biennale.» In addition to my comments on these projects, I also include excerpts of statements by authors who were closely concerned with the respective projects. Their thoughts mediate between project concepts and public perceptions and are thus an indispensable part of the public process involved in each intervention.



The city as resource — proceeding from this fundamental standpoint, this project was devoted to an investigation of the possibilities offered by architectural potentials. A central focus was the idea of exploring architecture, its utilitarian functions, the people involved in architecture, and its position in the urban context withing (sic.) the framework of an expanded concept of sculpture. A total of six different signs encompassing all four sides of the building were projected, each for one week, with available office light from the existing architecture. No changes whatsoever were made in the building structure.

«Mischa Kuball‘s concept for his Düsseldorf Mannesmann project is based upon a few simple fundamentals: A high-rise building, the functional character of which is evident in the simplicity and austerity of its external form, was to serve as bearer of artistic signs for a limited period of time. These signs were designed by the artist in his studio and realized in the real setting with the aid of modern technologies. The artist did not disturb the building in its daily function as workplace; art took possession of the building‘s exterior only at the end of the work day, when it became an empty shell, the congealed form of working and living processes that can never be expressed in the building‘s outward appearance.» (Quoted and translated from Ulrich Krempel, Mischa Kuball, Megazeichen. Düsseldorf: Heinen-Verlag, 1990.)



In two years of preparation and discussion with all of the Bauhaus departments, this project focused on the forces at work at the Bauhaus in the form of artistic interventions and thus created the first installation — encompassing the entire building and its functions — since the institution was closed by the National Socialists in 1933.

Now that the great goal, the preservation of the foundations of human life has been identified and the general frame of reference has been set beyond the scope of digital and electronic technologies upon the process of communitization and, in the sense of a model, upon the city and the region, the tools and the methodology must be qualified. One possible approach can be derived from history, not as mere revitalization or nostalgic copy, which would be an abbreviated interpretation, but — as Heinrich Kloth proposes — as a continuation of the modern era with new Concepts and under new conditions.‘ (Quoted and translated from: Lutz Schöbe et al, Mischa Kuball, Bauhaus-Block, Cantz-Verlag, Ostfildern, 1992)



The synagogue was closed for eight weeks, during which it was physically accessible to no one. Light was placed behind the windows and directed upon the neighbors in the immediate vicinity. This project was accompanied by stimulating conversations with people in the neighborhood and a controversial panel discussion (Bußmann/Grasskamp/Haase/Stecker) on the subject of monuments/memorials.

«Kuball‘s idea is as simple as it is convincing: The synagogue, so tightly boxed in and well hidden that it is hardly visible from the street, becomes a point of attraction, particularly at dusk and during the night. It awakens our curiosity. When we approach it, however, the glaring spotlights repel us, prohibiting entry and drawing all attention back to themselves and to the center that forms the religious sanctuary. The concentrated energy within makes synagogue walls look dark; its window panes appear to glisten; both are dematerialized in any event. The glazing posts and bars of the five windows break up the beams of light and cast a pattern of dark lines onto the surrounding ground — particularly striking in wet weather. Thus there is a strong contrast between the concentration of the self-outshining monument and the diffusion of a light that projects neither images nor geometric forms but, in a sense, only itself. The contrast is heightened by the abrupt alternation of inside and outside, of the animated and the inanimate, of the spiritual and the profane. And all of this against a background that links the past and the present. (Quoted and translated from Armin Zweite, Mischa Kuball, refraction house, Cologne, Verlag Walther König, 1994)



This work was realized as the so-called  »German contribution‘ to the 24th São Paulo Biennial in 1998 in response to an invitation by Biennial Commissioner Karin Stempel. The underlying concept of exchanging private light with 72 families and thus transforming private light into public by removing it from the private context and placing it in a new public context in the Biennial exhibition building. This project reflects the very special relationship between the Brazilian people and the city. «Mischa Kuball‘s concept seems very simple: private and public spheres are intricately linked according to certain rules, overlapping and mutually penetrating one another as projections, switching the conditions under which they operate and, to some extent, becoming dissolved in each other. The element that works as a catalyst in this process is light — as an object, a medium and a metaphor, always uniting all three aspects in a symbiosis. In the same way that light seems to represent the concept in all parts of the project, it is also a mere sign and no more than an appearance — a fleeting trace that brushes against an object in passing, brightly illuminating something that cannot be grasped.» (Quoted from Karin Stempel, Private Light/Public Light, Ostfildern, Cantz-Verlag, 1998)



The «Gauleitungsbunker» (an underground bunker built as a refuge for local government officials) in Lüneburg existed for 50 years without attracting public interest. In 1995, students from the University of Lüneburg began to inquire into the problem of a contemporary approach to historically sensitive relics of the Nazi period. The installation entitled urban context represents an attempt to trace the form of the underground complex in public space. It must also be seen as a documentation of a project in which students presented both their own activities and the objects of their historical research to the public. «Mischa Kuball developed a concept for the underground bunker that defies fixation in a monument. The discourse of memory is thereby focused entirely on local history and presented at an authentic historical site — though neither as living archeology nor as vague empathy. His intervention seeks neither to mourn nor to uplift. Its aim is — literally — enlightenment as a disturbing appeal. He does not intend to «give the bunker, this historically troubled place, a different face» (Landeszeitung), but instead to emphasize the underlying historical relationship.

He approaches the bunker in a demonstratively direct manner, opposed to all traces of represssion and «memorializing.» He avoids all comforting references to art history. Eleven spotlights affixed to a bridge structure above the street, cast a flood of light across the roadway. They follow the outline of the bunker, tracing the tunnel beneath the street, measuring the dimensions. The bunker itself remains closed, concealed: an underworld of absolute darkness in stark contrast to the glaring light. An aggressive provocation of our imagination: ‘What was here?...’» (Manfred Schneckenburger, Quoted and translated from Harmut Dähnhardt and Ruth Schulenburg (eds.), Mischa Kuball, urban context Projekt. Bunker Lüneburg, with essays by Hartmut Dähnhardt, Manfred Schneckenburger, Ulrich Krempel, Ruth Schulenburg, Dirk Stegmann, Paul Virilio, 2000)



public stage investigated the possibilities for public action on a stage outside the walls of the Moritzburg. For three weeks, a stage, lighting equipment, and technical support were made available to the people of the city 24 hours per day. The question of the public acceptance and use of an offer of this kind was directly related to the discussion of the progress of democratization and self-determination among the urban populace in the tradition of the question «To whom does the city belong?». The project also inquired into the degree of demand for self-publicity in Halle.

«Nothing unexpected happened, either on stage on (sic.) via the network. Everything remained within the boundaries of a cultural normalcy based upon a broad consensus. Yet what might have happened if something unheard-of, something radical or scandalous had been presented on the «public stage»? Presumably nothing. For as Speakers‘ Corner has demonstrated for years, even the most unheard-off, radical, and scandalous statements fall on deaf ears so long as they remain confined to such a taboo zone and stay out of the mass media, make even the most banal things a center of attraction. And those are the essential characteristics of the  two opposing models of media publicity and art publicity.» (Dieter Daniels, Quoted and translated from Cornelia Wieg ed., Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg, in Mischa Kuball: public stage, with texts by Dieter Daniels, Ulrike Kremeier, Katja Schneider and Cornelia Wieg, Salon Verlag, Cologne, 2001.)

in: Public Art: Kunst im öffentlichen Raum, ed.: Florian Matzner. Schriftenreihe der Akademie der Bildenden Künste München, Hatje Crantz Verlag, Ostfildern-Ruit 2001, p. 455-465.

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