By Rachel Stern
A vast watercolour landscape – showcasing a moated medieval castle in the middle of a leafy green field – is spread across a wall-sized painting.
The vibrant canvas was not created to enrapture audiences with its aesthetic charm, but as a 17th-century version of Google Maps.
It was an aerial overview of Dutch terrain, commissioned by military chiefs so that they could strategise how to invade it.
“We’re putting a new spin on old paintings,” explains Peter Weibel, director of the Centre for Art and Media (ZKM), on the “Mapping Spaces” exhibit slated to open in April.
“The painters had to have an idea of space, as they couldn’t see the city and landscape from above.”
ZKM, a former factory converted in 1989 into a massive museum, strives to reinvigorate old works and create new innovative art of its own – despite never having enough funding, Weibel says. “It’s a big challenge for us,” he laments from his fluorescent-lit office.
Only about two of every 10 government grants he applies for are approved, and he’s still cobbling together the cash for “Mapping Spaces”.
“The museum, above all, has a duty so that works don’t vanish,” says Weibel. “In the past 1,000 years, only seven per cent of all objects have been preserved. We have even lost the grave of Alexander the Great.”
The ZKM is known for renewing old art, as well as creating a large chunk of its own. One of the museums housed inside a sprawling, 312-metre-long former munitions factory that stayed fully intact during World War II, ZKM seems to encompass an endless array of space, suitable for the 240,000 visitors it receives every year.
Every week, the museum also receives thick envelopes with antiquated VHS tapes in the mail from institutions and private individuals around the world. Its “Laboratory for Antiquated Video Systems” was the first in the world to create an algorithm to restore no-longer-playable videotapes and rare cassette formats, Weibel says.
A room with more than 300 devices allows the museum’s staff to digitalise and preserve some 50 video formats – saving videos from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s from simply decomposing away.
“We speak about endangered species, but media art is also endangered,” Weibel points out.
ZKM has a variety of centres incubating new art, such as the Institute for Visual Media and the Institute for Media and Acoustics.
But perhaps its most noticeable public feature is its hands-on exhibits, a playful assortment of presentations and games that carry political or social significance.
For example, in “Please Empty Your Pockets,” participants place objects on an assembly line that passes a scanner. Every object creates a shadow that then generates the shadow of another object.
“People in this digital world realise that they’re tracked all of the time and that their own tracks lead to the tracks of other people,” Weibel says.
Most museums are just focused on one type of art, but ZKM – the only museum for interactive work worldwide – laces them together.
“We are a form of media justice,” Weibel says. The museum’s newest exhibit, “global aCtiVISm”, explores “artivism” – or how activism and art have been fused together through blogs, videos and other tools of a participatory democracy.
“In the art of the new media, viewers become users,” Weibel says. “They must themselves act and participate in the creation of work and art.”