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Funny Thought / Project Description

An Interactive Experience of Baroque Pictorial Worlds

by Andreas Pinkow

A spatial installation comprised of many different parts is planned for the foyer of the Humboldt-Forum. The installation largely focuses on two historical points of reference: the art and natural history collections from the Berlin City Palace of Prince-Elector Joachim II from the 16th century, (kurfürstlich-königliche Kunst- und Naturalienkammer), and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who founded the Royal Brandenburg Society of Sciences (Kurfürstlich-Brandenburgische Societät der Wissenschaften) in 1700, which referenced the aforementioned historical collection.

The installation is distributed in 42 niches over three floors of the open galleries that encircle the building. The presentations in these niches are playful references to exhibits from the ethnological collections, but also raising questions on the nature of collecting as such, and about methods and forms of appropriation. In this way, references to exhibits, event programs and the founding concept of the Humboldt-Forum can be experienced directly in this spatial presentation.

In his 1675 published text entitled “Drôle de Pensée” (funny thought) Leibniz describes this historical collection – the Kunstkammer (cabinet of art) – as a lively, entertaining, and completely new interplay between forms of natural science collection, research, entertainment and communication. The planned installation is based on the principle behind the Kunstkammer, whose intellectual dimensions encapsulate the founding principles of the Humboldt-Forum: comparative perspectives on art, architecture and natural sciences that reveal new inter-relationships and highlight the global relationship between Germany and the rest of the world.

The thought behind the transmission of text as an interactive presentation for the Humboldt Lab, was to illustrate the Humboldt-Forum’s idea of ‘pars pro toto’ in a spatial experience beforehand. For this purpose we successfully developed and submitted a project idea that was subsequently commissioned by the Humboldt Lab.

Swiping, Morphing and Other Interactive Navigation Methods in Digital Spheres

Different aspects of seeing played a fundamental role for both Leibniz as well as the Kunstkammer. For this reason, the Humboldt Lab project “Drôle de Pensée” should break with usual modes of seeing and allow visitors new perspectives on this historic world of pictures. New digital spaces have been created to find a fitting reflection of Leibniz’ joy at surprising discoveries in a plethora of interests, across numerous disciplines.

The bold ideas that were occurring to Leibniz were accompanied by parallel scientific discoveries in the 17th century: the telescope and the microscope had just been invented – being able to view the stars or magnify the smallest particles were groundbreaking developments. To stimulate the imagination of present-day visitors, the exhibition team took drawings from this period and transformed them into three-dimensional formats: spaces gained depth, figures gained volume and objects were infused with detail. Processes that were only roughly described in the original images were brought to life with animation.

To make the newly created pictures accessible, we used common digital navigation techniques: intuitive zooming in and out, leafing through pages and so on. The visual surface was affixed to the front of a 3 x 3 meter cube, whose wooden frame was covered with transparent gauze. A circular projection area appeared to allow a view into the interior of the cube. In actual fact, the inner space was generated in real time – much like a computer game – that reacted to visitors’ movements. With the distortion of perspective one was given the impression of a window. In the depiction of the inner space of the cube the little pixels appeared to be floating around before continuously re-forming for each new presentation of historic picture images.

The visitors were then encouraged to discover images through simple hand movements, allowing them the surprise of each generated effect. For example, a stretched out arm functioned as a flashlight to illuminate the relevant historic Kunstkammer object. Or different mussel shapes – as seen on various historic paintings – could be morphed into each other with a swiping movement. As an increasing number of different themes were discovered, the multi-perspectival interplay of the animations increased. To assist visitors with their interactive options, a short film showing the different functions was located right next to the cube.

A high-performance computer was necessary for the technical realization of the cube, while specific software had to be developed. This computer rendered both the simulation of the inner space of the cube and the images made up of individual particles in real time, and continuously re-combined them using a random generator. A camera over the display captured the movements of the visitors to calculate the exit point for the three-dimensional appearances 1:1 to the visitors’ positions in front of the screen. The visitors’ gestures were transposed into control commands to present different animations reactively. Atmospheric sound effects accompanied the movement sequences.

A glossary had been developed to help visitors understand the themes of the installation in the most straightforward way possible. The glossary contextualized both the terms concerning the digital representation of historical pictorial worlds, and the terms used by both Leibniz and in the historic Kunstkammer, while connecting them with contemporary aspects of the Humboldt-Forum.

Computer-Aided Applications for New Insights

The multi-optional access to content and the non-linear storytelling methods were deliberate, but required a fairly high degree of curiosity from the audience. Visitors willing to engage, could experience Leibniz’ exuberant joy in experimentation and discover multi-dimensional elucidations. The possibilities for research-interaction particularly offered a young and technically able target group new access to historical material, while ‘museum fans’ and trade professionals experienced familiar motifs in a new context. An unplanned side effect was that visitors seemed more interested in watching others using the “Drôle de Pensée” than doing it themselves. In this way, the space in front of the installation became a kind of stage.

The Humboldt Lab project “Drôle de Pensée” represents the Kunstkammer, as one part of 42 presentations in the foyer of the future Humboldt-Forum. The development process involved a large team of academics, media artists, programmers and scenographers who all worked without specific result expectations. This was especially the case since the technically involved break with usual modes of viewing and a very technically detailed development of unique and innovative gesture commands went hand-in-hand. The test runs were able to provide an increasing number of new options in presentation and perception. The result, shown in Dahlem, was only one of many realization possibilities and has the potential for more complex navigation structures, as well as more narrative-based variations in the future. One thing is certain: this unconventional approach to historical pictorial worlds and the direct invitation to an audience to interactively navigate it carries a lot of potential.

Andreas Pinkow is the creative director of “Focus + Echo.” The office for concept and scenography specializes in dramaturgy, exhibition as well as media design and storyboard development for exhibitions, museums and innovative large-scale projects.

You can find further reading on this project here.