The power of imagination

Joachim Sauter, founder and creative director of ART + COM, full professor for "New Media Art and Design" at the 'University of the Arts' Berlin.

Interview by: Kate Kovaleva, head of HelloComputer Studio

After graduating from the academy of fine arts in Berlin, Joachim Sauter studied at the 'German Academy for Film and Television', Berlin. From the beginning, he has focused on digital technologies. Fueled by this interest, he founded ART+COM in 1988 together with other artists, designers, scientists and technologists. Their goal was to practically research this new up-and-coming medium in the realm of art and design. In the course of his work he was invited to participate on many exhibitions. Beside others he showed his work at 'Centre Pompidou' Paris, 'Venice Biennial’, 'Stejdilik Museum' Amsterdam, 'Museum for Contemporary Art' Sidney. He received several awards like the 'Golden Lion, Cannes', the 'D&AD Black Pencil', the 'Ars Electronica Interactive Award', the 'British Academy for Film and Television Interactive Award', ADC New York and ADC Germany Gold and many other national and international awards.

In most of your interviews you claim that you’re a happy person because 'you get paid for what you like to do’. But how do you manage to convince a customer to accept such an incredible and technically complex idea?

In general it’s vice versa, clients already come to us looking for something really unusual. And for the best communication, when we come up with new ideas, first of all we make a prototype of a project. It’s not a visualization, we try to use their imagination. Clients believe in us and it’s very important.

But all your ideas are rather expensive… What about the ROI?

One good story is about our project in an airport.  After completing this project the client told me: Joachim, this project was so expensive, but we can see the results which are higher than our other advertising and marketing projects!

Photo: ©Анна Расторгуева

In one of the projects you used Interactive technologies as a metaphor of power and authority. How do you create such projects where you combine what the client wants and artistic expression? Finding the right balance is also an art.

It’s a good question. Inspiration is a very personal feeling. Sometimes clients come to us with their own ideas. When this happens we organize a workshop and try to move the ideas in the right direction. So we start our communication with discussions as sometimes a client can't explain what they want and we need to find and determine all their needs and objectives. To achieve this, we organize a workshop and during this process we look for some conclusions and ideas for interaction in the communicative experience area. Sometimes we are re-briefed by the client, but it’s a working process. If we make some changes to our project once or twice it’s ok, but if these edits destroy the whole idea, we cancel the project because it goes in your portfolio and we are responsible for each and every work, it’s our face and reputation. If the client wants to completely change the initial idea and we don’t believe that it will work, we skip the project. So sometimes this balance is ruined but it’s an exception. If you have a good imagination and strong personality, clients will believe in you.

What guides you in selecting projects? Why did you refuse some projects?

When people come to us with ready ideas/projects and want us to copy those for them, we refuse. Usually a client tells you what they want, we start with the workshop, we present several ideas and the client chooses which of them they will pay for and use. The duration of this process is about six weeks.

Photos: ©ART+COM


Changi Airport, Singapore



Kinetic Rain is an art­work designed for Terminal 1 at Singapore’s Changi Airport. The kinetic sculpture adds a contemplative element to the lively transit space of the departure hall. Kinetic Rain consists of two parts installed above the terminal’s two central escalators. Each symmetrical element is composed of 608 copper plated aluminum drops. The drops are connected by steel wires to computer controlled motors that raise and lower them with precision. The two elements move in dialogue through a fifteen minute animated sequence, evolving from abstract to fig­u­ra­tive three-di­men­sio nal forms. At times the two parts move to­gether in uni­son, at other times they mir­ror, com­ple­ment or fol­low each other.

The en­tire in­stal­la­tion spans a total area of more than 75 square meters and spreads over 7.3 meters in height. It can be seen from above, below and all sides. The visual experience of the complex computer designed movement is completely different depending on perspective. Kinetic Rain was commissioned by Changi Airport Group Singapore and the installation was manufactured and installed by MKT, Olching.

Some of your projects have become a real story of interactive art. What in your mind is the perfect lifecycle for a project?

 I compare projects with wine. Old wine is really good, the same applies here. The more time you have for developing a project, the better it will be.

What are some of your favorite projects?

Oh, it’s like they say: who’s your favorite child? You don't have a favorite one, it’s impossible. All your children (and projects) are equally important.

What do you think is your key achievement?

Actually, it’s my son. I’m a bit older, 57, and last year I created my best project – my son. His name is Arto. It’s the best achievement I have ever done. 


Which great people inspire you most and influence your art?

I don’t want to associate with anybody in the past, but the person who inspires me is Leonardo Da Vinci. His inventions and technologies are really close to me. His life and attitude inspire me. It’s not so much about his works, it’s about his way of thinking.


What would you wish for yourself at the age of 80?

I wish to be healthy. It’s really important, but along with that I would like to continue working. It keeps me passionate. There are two relevant things for me: health and creation.

You work all over the world. Is there a national identity in the creation of projects?

Of course you need to adapt some ideas. You need to think totally differently with Asian countries as oppised to America or the UK. Europe and the USA understand your ideas and creativity, but in China, for example, they would like to work only in terms of the results of your activity. They can’t imagine that they pay for an idea, they don’t understand the value of the idea. But it’s really important to realize that If you just copy some existing projects, you get much lower results than if you come up to consumers with something totally new.


Opera Biennale Munich, Germany


The set design for the opera The Jew of Malta extends the opera stage with the help of new media to become an active part rather than simply the scene of the action. Based on the play by Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, the libretto explores the conflict between the world’s three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Key aspects of the plot inspired the set design: The drama begins with a prologue in which the Italian writer and protagonist Machiavelli ‘creates’ the play. He is practically omnipotent at the beginning of the play and gradually loses his power in the course of it. To illustrate this development, the set was designed as an interactive projection that is initially completely controlled by Machiavelli. As the play progresses, so Machiavelli’s influence of the set fades.

The interactive set resembles a bunker: a modern reworking of the protective but also constricting and confining environment of a monastery — the original setting of the play. To maximize the spatial experience, the bunker was projected onto several large surfaces positioned at different angles on the set. These screens serve as intersecting planes literally cutting through and revealing the virtual bunker that is otherwise invisibly standing on the stage. By dissolving the architectonic volume into several projection sections, a strongly spatial impression was created while keeping the actual architecture of the bunker on a relatively abstract level.

The initially all-powerful Machiavelli interacts with the set through movements and gestures. By moving his arm in a certain manner, he is able to rotate the bunker horizontally or generate new versions of the bunker from which he then selects the one he wanted. When Machiavelli moves across the stage, the audience view of the bunker changes in accordance with his position. In short: Machiavelli literally becomes the central axis of the virtual set.

A central motif in the story is the swaying thoughts and stances of the various actors. To make this more legible in the complex deconstructed narration of the libretto, another layer of media was developed. Using the white costumes of the singers as projection surface, the internal states and belief systems of the characters were visualized directly on their bodies. For example, the influence of one character over another would manifest in the merging of their projected costumes. The costume projections also clarify the balance of power between Machiavelli and the other characters. A specially developed image recognition system identifies the silhouettes of the actors in real time. From these contours, virtual masks are then calculated, textured, and projected onto the actors. The actors are thus able to move about freely as the projected costumes can be continuously adapted to their movements.

The virtual set was developed in close cooperation with composer André Werner while he was still writing the opera. The project was commissioned by the Opera Biennale Munich in 1999 and premiered in 2002. It was a co-production between ART+COM and bureau+staubach, supported by ZKM Karlsruhe. Co-authors and developers: Nils Krueger, Bernd Lintermann, Andre Bernhardt, Jan Schroeder, Andeas Kratky. Music and libretto: André Werner.

What are your plans for the future? What technologies do you want to develop?

We don't develop technologies. It’s not only about, for example, VR. It’s about ideas. Usually we come up with new production ideas for technologies. Every project is very individual. We try to do something which was impossible before. So we develop an idea and further develop the production of the ideas. The attitude is a balance between technology and art.

What advice could you give to people who want to create great projects at the intersection of art and technology?

The only advice is to be more confident with your clients and believe in your idea. We can’t change a client’s mind. We should assert our ideas. You should keep your creative mind, style and attitude. Every time when a client thinks that they know more than you and that they are absolutely right, it’s very important to convince them to think differently.

Photos: ©ART+COM


BMW Museum, Munich, Germany


In a six square meter field, 714 metal spheres are suspended from the ceiling on thin steel wires and animated with the help of mechanics, electronics and code. The theme of the installation is the form-finding process in car design, which is performed in a seven minute choreographed sequence: at the beginning the installation is in a chaotic state. No form or design idea has yet been found. The spheres move individually creating an impression of spatial white noise. Slowly the first geometric forms emerge, loosely relating to the contours of the vehicle that ap­pear later. In the following sequence, a succession of competing forms interacts with each other, one displacing the next. The final shape of the vehicle then emerges from this process. This narrative is repeated, covering the design process of five iconic cars from the company’s past and present.


The audience is the headline perfomer

Tuomas Kallio, Artistic Director of the Flow Festival

Interview by Max Hagen, editor of LCM

The magic of light

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Sometimes you have no choice

Philip Thomas, CEO of the Cannes Lions festival