Peter Weibel


The Politics of Light

The Art of Light in its Ethical, Social, and Political Dimension


During the 1990s, Mischa Kuball excited attention with his light installations of architectonic dimensions. He transformed the Mannesmann building in Düsseldorf into a light sculpture for six weeks in 1990. Nowadays it is common routine to alter building façades with the aid of light, but in those days it was still a mega-symbol, as the title of the work, Megazeichen, indicates. In 1992, his illuminated geometrical signs (Lichtbrücke, or Light Bridges) gave the Bauhaus in Dessau sculptural status. Two years later, the synagogue in Stommeln, lit brightly from the inside, penetrated public consciousness under the title Refraction House. For the 1998 Biennale do São Paulo, Kuball exchanged standard lights for ones from private households (Private Light/Public Light). In 1999, he marked abandoned houses in the Jewish quarter of Montevideo with green, hundred-watt construction lights (greenlight). That same year, randomly controlled rays produced by a spotlight stationed on the tower of the old Gauforum in Weimar were to move across the square (Sprach Platz Sprache, or Speak Square Language). In 2000, he supplied the residents of Moritzburg with a public stage to use for their own performances (public stage).


Carefully selected titles provide information as to the intentions behind Kuball's light and projection art. The word "stage" alludes to the fact that Kuball understands that light always implies staging, dramatization; and that wherever things are staged and constructed, life itself becomes a stage. When illuminated, all of life becomes a public stage, more so than ever in the media age, that age began with the spotlight. It is the age in which everyone is in the hot spot, where everyone is subjected to the direction of a controlling society. Whether through the spotlight or camera, newspaper or cell phone, anyone can randomly become part of public space, an object of public attention. Everyone is always a potential actor in a project. It seems reasonable to suppose that in Kuball's 1991 work with Vilém Flusser, Welt/Fall at the Wittgenstein House in Vienna, the artist was probably aware of the chain of associations involving project-projection-projectile. Very likely, he knew that spotlight and light batteries are part of the military inventory, and that light technology as a whole is a product of military technology, as Paul Virilio and Friedrich Kittler have always suggested. That is the reason why Kuball also referred to Virilo's Bunker Archaeology in the catalogue for the project urban context, which was part of the Projekt.Bunker Lüneburg (1995–2000), and it is also why, for the catalogue for 2001's ein fenster (a window) done for the Johanneskirche in Düsseldorf, he selected a text by Kittler ("A Short History of the Window")—who, it is known, also wrote a "Short History of the Spotlight."


In this reference to the connections between light and war—also conveyed in the work set up in the former Gauforum in Weimar—it is easy to see that Kuball does not, as other artists do, employ light only as an aesthetically alluring medium, one of interacting color and light, or as the radiance and misery of the colors of the spectrum, as the expansion of color in space, which was the somewhat bland mission of the neo-avant-garde in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, he obviously makes it possible to see the social and political context of the medium of light. Starting with his locations, from the synagogue in Stommeln to the buildings in the Jewish quarter in Montevideo, it can be seen that his light installations do not intervene in a neutral way in public space. Instead, they accentuate public space as a political and social space. This is a unique achievement in the history of light art. Until now, artists and their commentators have said, "Light is color, light is music," but Kuball adds, "light is sociology, light is politics." No one has done better at illuminating the political and social position of light than Kuball. He has reversed the immateriality of light, as it was used by Yves Klein and Jésus Rafael Soto to overcome place and space in order to make the leap into the void. Assisted by the immateriality of light, Kuball uses his projections of videos and slides, and his light installations to introduce the gravity of the historical material, the gravitational pull of history, into the empty space of art. He does not travel forward with the ray of light into an apparently bright future, but rather journeys through time in the opposite way: he accompanies the ray of light back into the darkness of history. There he illuminates the forgotten and buried spaces, the darkened and repressed spaces. He brings to light things that no one wanted—and still does not want—to see. History becomes a public stage; it is in the spotlight. His light installations reintroduce historical experiences into the everyday. Illumination turns the life of social activity into theater; the historical site becomes the setting for the ethical judgment. Through Kuball's light installations, through his interventions in historical and public darkness, the aesthetic judgment becomes an ethical judgment. What resonates in Kant's famous phrase, "the starry heavens above me and the moral law within"— the association of light with morality, of aesthetics with ethics — is beautifully articulated in Kuball's light interventions. Kant and Kuball mean this: light can be used in the public space as a moral and ethical authority that provides a framework for social action as well as a recollection of it. A spotlight is not merely a spotlight; instead, it transforms the world into a stage. Those on this stage act according to certain rules. In this, our world, nobody is simply a witness to world events, but through his own activity, each person participates in the events of the world. Everyone is an actor in history, appears on the stage of history, so that the difference between private and public falls away. Kuball's light interventions do this consciously in public space, on the stage of social activity, in the space of history. For him, light becomes a medium of consciousness—the political consciousness of maturity, responsibility, and enlightenment. For him, light is not simply a perceptual phenomenon, a phenomenon of perception, the eye, something experienced in the laboratory of the sensory organs. Rather, in his work, light penetrates the consciousness through the eye; it becomes a cognitive phenomenon, a phenomenon of consciousness, something experienced in the laboratory of the mind. Kuball is not a painter of light; Kuball is a conceptual artist of light, a political artist of light—a unique and important stance.


In: ... in progress: Mischa Kuball, Projekte/projects 1980-2007, ed. Florian Matzner, ZKM Museum für Neue Kunst Karlsruhe, 2007.

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