From container ship to artwork

25 May 2012

The light and sound installation "resonate" was a huge success at the Frankfurt Luminale. Approximately 2,000 visitors a day came to see the container ship transformed into a work of art. The project was made possible through a joint project of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and Mainz University of Applied Sciences (MUAS). Students from the design faculty collaborated with Kaspar König of the School of Music.

There are more attractive ships, there is no doubt about it. It is not immediately apparent why this elongated floating box that is slightly the worse for wear should act as a magnet for visitors. However, thousands came to see it at the Luminale, the large festival of light in Frankfurt, and there was no drying up of the stream of visitors when it was tied up to the bank of the Rhine in Mainz. This old rust bucket is home to something remarkable.

"We started with the ship," says Isabel Klaus, a student at MUAS. "We wanted to do something for the Luminale. The idea was to use the ship to create a huge musical instrument." The "resonate" project for the Kommunikation im Raum (Spatial Communication) Master's program of study was born. Fifteen students of the School of Design started to work and noticed quickly that something was missing: sound.

Great enthusiasm, a lot of work

"MUAS contacted my professor to ask whether the Neue Musik class would be interested in the project," recalls Kaspar König. Professor Peter Kiefer invited his student to come and have a look. "I got really excited about it, but I also quickly realized: Whoa, there's lot of work to do." So König, the first graduate of the new Master's Program of study Klangkunst-Komposition (Sound Art Composition) at the School of Music, came on board – quite literally.

Everything is different on board the ship. An exotic world is revealed to the eyes and ears of visitors. In the dark, there is a blue shimmer, water drips, a metallic sound vibrates ceaselessly. A black light directed on a complex structure of ropes makes this glow as it extends across the steel hull like a tent-shaped spider web. The phosphorescent lines combine to form eight cylindrical structures reaching to the floor where they merge into objects that have ever-changing light patterns forming on their surface.

Playing with light and sound

Visitors who wander through this light and sound installation are reserved at first, almost intimidated. Then they tentatively touch the individual ropes. Suddenly, the color patterns change at the base of the eight cylinders. A young woman finds the courage and pulls hard on an entire bundle of glowing rope. A blue-red storm of color is unleashed, accompanied by ghostly sounds. Is that the sound of a viola, the splashing of waves, a rough creaking? Whatever it is, the desire to play is awakened.

"I am also the type of person who likes to first get their bearings and then let my inhibitions fall," explains König. "It is interesting to see how visitors react in the same way." It is not the only thing that pleases him. "After Frankfurt we have every cause to celebrate. It was a huge success."

A lot of work went into the success. Initial planning began in October 2011. One thing König did was invite the MUAS students to a workshop. "They had to become much more conscious of sound." In turn, he also considered all of the ideas they came up with. "Our cooperation was very helpful in setting the right tone."

1,600 LED lights in the ship

Two very different specialist fields came together and produced something new but also something complicated and costly. JGU funded "resonate" in the course of the Excellence Initiative as an innovative teaching project of the Gutenberg Teaching Council (GTC) and private sponsors also came forward, otherwise it would not have been possible to construct the installation.

"It took us from early February to mid-April just to do all the setup work," states MUAS student Nemanja Tomasevic. "We spent at least ten hours a day on the ship," adds Klaus. "Such a complex undertaking is rare but the opportunity to work on such a project is one reason why many choose to study in Mainz." The students installed 1,600 computer-controlled LED lights in the 40-meter-long interior of the ship; they also installed eight kilometers of cables in the steel hull. The cables were produced especially for us," explains Tomasevic. "They had to be elastic and also able to reflect black light.

König worked on the sound while this was going on. He recorded the sound of waves, experimented with a dripping water tap, and also included music from traditional instruments. "I don't think my listening habits are what you might call typical. I've noticed that my ears like to be surprised," he says. Essentially, the final composition was made up of two components: There are a few constant base tones or drones that are altered in various ways to reflect the impact of water on the ship's hull. Added to this are the sounds produced by the eight cylindrical structures. It is possible for the visitor not only to generate light effects but also actually play along.

Two disciplines meet

The son et lumiére effects fascinated visitors at both the Luminale in Frankfurt and the MUAS' open house day. Sadly, it is now over, and the installation has been dismantled. But there is still the website and the feeling of success. "It was exciting to be able to work together with someone from a completely different discipline," enthuses Klaus, with one eye on König. "At the beginning, we spoke almost completely different languages."

Kaspar König is not only thrilled that he was able to work on the project; he also feels that he made the right decision in becoming the first student to take the Master's study program Klangkunst-Komposition at the School of Music. He had already studied Industrial Design/Concept Design in Berlin and had worked as a musician, a teacher, and on numerous installations. "However, what I missed was the close coordination between sound and object. In Mainz, I also had the chance to help define what my course of studies should include and that was very exciting. And as a Junior Fellow of the Gutenberg Academy I had a lot of options."

Kaspar König's latest project

Kasper König has plans for future projects in Mainz. "Right now I am working with a medical doctor, a film playwright, and a sociologist on an app for smartphones," he reveals. Sound and color will once again play a part, and it will also be about interaction. "However, it will take a while. Hopefully, everything will be programmed within a year." A lot of work – again.