22nd June 2021

Following the launch of its latest exhibition, Dark Matter, arc speaks with WHITEvoid founder Christopher Bauder about the studio’s design approach, its immersive artworks, and its fascination with light.

For those with a passion for light and design, there is a hope that, as we finally start to see signs of normality after 18 months under the Covid-19 cloud, that we will see the return of large-scale, immersive light-art installations, where we can lose ourselves in another world of light and sound, beyond borders and beyond pandemics.

As one of the leading names in such installations, this is a hope also shared by Berlin-based WHITEvoid. The two-time [d]arc award winning studio has made a name for itself over the past 16 years for the way in which it fuses light, sound, and technology to create vast, vibrant works of art. Following the opening of its latest exhibition, Dark Matter, at the beginning of June, arc sat down with founder Christopher Bauder to learn more about the studio’s origins, its inspirations, and how it creates its phenomenal works.

“I established WHITEvoid with a close friend of mine when we were both studying at art school here in Berlin,” Bauder explained. “Our professor asked us to do some interactive stuff for museums, and to look a bit more professional, we thought that we needed to give ourselves a name and look like we would be an agency, not just two students.

“When we were thinking of a name, we thought ‘what’s the basis of everything that we start with? A writer starts with a white piece of paper, we don’t even have that, so it’s white nothing. And that’s how we called it WHITEvoid.

“We both studied interaction design, so the beginning was mostly about programming, writing some software that was run on touchscreens, or some sensor-based systems for museums. From there, we grew into spatial installations and more interior architectural projects.”

Alongside WHITEvoid, Bauder simultaneously established Kinetic Lights, a manufacturing arm formed to create the automation systems, winches, and moving parts needed to bring his creative visions to life.

“So WHITEvoid is the creator of the ideas and the production and execution on the design and organisational level, and Kinetic Lights takes care of the hardware,” he said.

From the early days of developing interactive web and sensor-based audio-visual works for local museums, things quickly grew for Bauder and WHITEvoid. “We did a lot of installations for very traditional museums, like the Jewish Museum in Berlin, for example. But then, in combination with developing the winch and light systems, we moved into trade fair stands and designs, and a lot of brand-related installations, such as car shows for the launch of the new S Class Mercedes or BMW. We did a lot of these, always in parallel with developing our art projects.”

One of the first art projects, which has been resurrected for the new Dark Matter exhibition, is Tonleiter (Tone Ladder). In this interactive installation, household ladders have been transformed into musical instruments, where users, by stepping on or touching the rungs of the ladder, can create sounds, tones, or musical loops.

Bauder’s first large-scale, kinetic light and sound installation, what he would perhaps become best known for, was Atom. Unveiled in 2005, Atom features a grid of 64 balloons, each tethered to a small winch on the floor and illuminated via dimmable super-bright LEDs. These balloons are intended to float in the space “like the atoms of a complex molecule”. Here, Bauder worked with musician Robert Henke, with whom he would collaborate on several other audio-visual works, to create a dynamic sculpture “composed of physical objects, patterns of light, and synchronous rhythmic and textural sonic events”.

From there, Bauder has gone on to create a series of stunning, large-scale installations, each continuing to push the boundaries of what is possible with light, sound and technology; from the [d]arc award-winning Skalar and Deep Web, to pieces such as Stalactite and Grid, which also features in the Dark Matter.

Through these huge works of art, Bauder is able to get to the core of his focus as a creator. “I’m always after the “wow” effect,” he said. “I like it when people are amazed or mesmerised or moved.

“I’m not necessarily aiming for the new in terms of technology, but the new in terms of the effect that I achieve by creating something. Lately I’m experimenting a lot with emotions and how to trigger these, because on the one hand we’re very sophisticated, thinking beings, but on the other hand we’re also very primal and simple. We react to very simple stimulation like movement, light, colour intensity, music, and sound. 

“So, by using those very abstract patterns, I’m trying to create basic emotions, and it seems to work quite well because I get feedback from people that they almost need to cry in a section of the show. But why? What am I doing? I’m just moving lights and turning them on and off. But we’re working with your very primal receptors, creating an experience that triggers something in you. This is what I’m after: the “wow” effect and playing with your emotions in a positive way.”

Despite establishing WHITEvoid and Kinetic Lights at an early age, Bauder explained that it was never his intention to run his own company: “I tried some internships, and while doing that I realised that it’s not for me to work in a corporation with a hierarchy and stuff like that,” he said.

“I was always this artistic, free-thinking person, that I ended up having a company myself is an accident, because I needed more and more people and a bigger team to create the visions that I had. I never wished or planned to run an agency, I was more interested in the teamwork behind it, and it just happened.

“I was always interested in the scale, I like everything that’s superhuman in scale, basically bigger than yourself. Because you have this possibility to build something that’s bigger than you. But because of the large-scale, you need more people. You can’t do it alone.”

Similarly, Bauder added that it was never an end goal to work with light, despite a fascination that saw him collect candles, matchsticks, and fireworks under his bed at just four years of age. “I always had a fascination for things that shine, and when I got into art school, I got more interested with the digital stuff, the software and CAD, programming, and all that. But then I started to connect that with light again, because you’re able to control light in a totally different way using these software tools, so my fascination came back, and I integrated that with the new life experience that I acquired.”

However, while Bauder has a long-standing interest in the power of light, he is reluctant to class himself as a lighting designer or a light artist. At least, not in the traditional sense.

“I don’t consider myself specifically being a lighting designer or light artist, even though I do part of those things,” he said. “I would say I do more media art because my work can be different things. Most of it happens to be light, but it can also be projection or pure kinetics without light, mostly something in motion.

“On the lighting side, a lot of people confuse the kind of lighting I do with a classical lighting designer who designs light to illuminate something, or who knows about CRI values, colour temperature, etc. I’m not really a professional in that sense. I cannot light up your room. What I do is more decorative, the icing on the cake; it’s something you do not really need, but it makes everything pretty.

“People hire us to design their clubs, including all the lights and so on, and I approach it more as if it was an art project. I don’t care so much about the exact specifications of the lamps or the lumen outputs, I just look at it and if I like it as a light creation machine, I select it.

“Event lighting designers are closer to what I’m doing, but there it is also mostly about the effect. For me, it’s more about the texture and the material of the light,” he continued.

“I see light as a material, even though it’s ephemeral and you can’t really touch it. It’s hard to manipulate, to modify and bend and change, and that’s exactly the challenge that I like about it: to do with light what actually does not seem possible. With Skalar, I’m trying to bend the beam in space with a mirror effect. With Deep Web, I use lasers, but I’m stopping the beam in the air in a magnetic way.

“I’m trying to create a kind of vector drawing out of light, which is dynamic. I’m trying to go where a traditional lighting designer doesn’t because this technology that I’m using doesn’t exist off the shelf. I’m trying to push the boundaries of that.”

Continuing the theme of what Bauder is trying to create through his projects, he explained a little further the creative process when developing WHITEvoid works – a process that in some cases is extremely quick.

“The ideation process for some of the installations is sometimes 10 seconds,” he revealed. “For example, the Deep Web installation: I had the idea when I was in the actual space at Kraftwerk in Berlin, where I later presented it. There’s a beautiful electronic music and visual festival called Atonal that happens every year. I was at that festival, and I was thinking “this is all great, I love the big screen and the lights, but this huge air space is completely empty”, so I was thinking of filling it with lasers and kinetic balls to create a structure in mid-air that’s not using the wall or the floor, what we would traditionally play with. That was a 10-20 second thought. It then took another three or four years to make it happen as the creation requires testing and development.

“In parallel, I normally develop the storyboard – what story do I want to tell? Even if it is super abstract, we always have a concrete story behind our work. The audience can realise it or not, it’s up to them for interpretation, but we’ll always have a story behind it.

“At the same time, we’re testing technology, because I always say we are building an instrument while we’re learning to play it. So that’s months and sometimes years of development to get to the point where we have the machine ready, and then starts the second part of the creative process, which is to make the actual show, which I also enjoy very much.

“I like to have the first idea, then there’s a painstaking process of development in between that I’m actually not that fond of, I have to manage it, and then comes the short time span of two to four weeks to work on the actual show. So, the two creative parts of the whole process are maybe 5% of the whole project, the rest is managing the teams and the development.”

Throughout his career, Bauder has been a pioneer of new technology, whether that’s developing the kinetic fixtures needed for his projects via Kinetic Lights or adapting existing technology to suit his needs. However, rather than the technology guiding the projects, he explained that it is more a case of developing what is needed to bring his ideas to life.

“I’m more about what shape or what kind of experience or what kind of environment I want to create, and then on the second thought I’m thinking about the technology that I might be able to use for that. It’s more looking for the right tool for the right application,” he explained.

“I use existing event technology – or abuse it maybe, using it in a different sense than it was originally meant for. We will modify it, take it apart and add some stuff in, or add a different layer of control to it, or combine different technologies. We’ll also work with lighting fixture companies or software companies to push their boundaries and ask them what is possible and what we can do with their technology, which helps them to push ahead and make their products.”

However, his approach, and his development of kinetic fixtures, has led to a number of imitators and copycats. But rather than getting annoyed at this, Bauder instead relishes the added competition. “You have to start competing with them,” he said. “An uneducated outsider does not know, and at some point, it’s fair to say that it doesn’t matter anymore. You need to continue to prove yourself. It doesn’t help to say, “but I was the first one”.

“In the beginning, I was always angry if someone tried to create or do something similar, but I think it’s a very human thing. I think that’s how development and progress works – a very small group of innovators who have the real new ideas, and then a much bigger group who pick up those ideas and advance them much further than the initial guys who came up with them – that’s a very important way of how everything develops in the world.

“Of course, the competition that we respond to makes it harder for us to exist on the market, so you need to continuously evolve and innovate and develop to keep up with all of this. You have to prove yourself again and again and again, and that keeps your thinking fresh.

“I also like what others are doing now with this kind of technology. They’re inventing things that I have not thought about. Sometimes I think “Why didn’t I think of that?” But it’s interesting to see how it lives a life of its own now and is becoming a standard in the events industry – everyone knows what kinetic lights are, and this is what we started. I’m proud of it, and it’s interesting to see how it develops.”

Looking back on his portfolio of projects and installations, alongside the award-winning Skalar and Deep Web, Bauder referenced Lichtgrenze (Border of Lights) as another stand-out favourite. 

A step away from what could be considered WHITEvoid’s “signature” aesthetic, Lichtgrenze was created to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and saw the installation of 8,000 balloons of light along the 15.3km border that once divided the city. Over the course of three days, more than two million people visited the installation, making it very special to Bauder.

“It was one of the biggest public events in Berlin’s history, so it will always be the one that stands out and defines me, which is very helpful because when I meet people, sometimes it’s hard to explain what I actually do. Now, and especially if it’s in Berlin, I say “did you see Lichtgrenze? That’s what I do.” I think that will be one that will stick with me forever. I still love it very much.”

Going forward, Bauder and WHITEvoid’s latest exhibition, Dark Matter, finally launched on 4 June, after a number of delays and pushbacks. The show, which features seven different installations of varying size and scope, is described by Bauder as “a journey through different kinds of emotions”.

“It has a couple of different layers: in general, it’s a parallel world of light, sounds and motion, and at the same time, it’s a journey through different kinds of light-art, from pure white light to static light, animated light, kinetic light and projection mapping and so on.

“At the same time, it’s also an exhibition of the history of WHITEvoid works and works of myself, from the 20-year-old Tonleiter to the newest one, that we created just for this occasion.

“It’s a very abstract journey as people take a one-way walk through the exhibition. It’s pitch black inside, and pitch black outside, so it deprives you of the natural influences that you normally have. It’s totally artificial in that sense, and we’re using this emptiness of your senses to charge you with a completely new experience and take you on a journey to different emotions along the way.”

While Dark Matter is the first exhibition for WHITEvoid in the aftermath of Covid-19, Bauder is already looking ahead to what is next in a post-pandemic world. “We’re getting into club designs a lot, not only the light part but the entire club, which is extremely interesting for me because I am a club kid,” he said.

“My education happened in the clubs of Berlin in the 90s and 2000s, so I really come from these environments, and I’m interested in DJ culture. So for me to design the surroundings that I know in detail as a person who goes there to party, I always wanted to be involved in the design of these spaces. It’s almost the most artificial place you can design, there’s nothing natural about it. It’s humans at their most extreme, so it’s very interesting to design for this kind of application that allows for crazy creativeness, because there’s no limit to that. What needs to work is that the DJ is presented well, and that it encourages people to drink, but apart from that, it’s about the “wow” effect, we want to have a crazy experience one night, that’s what it’s all about and I really like being a part of that.”

Bauder added that alongside the move into club designs, there are still firm plans to continue with the large-scale, immersive installations that WHITEvoid has become known for, the success of which he is very humbled by.

He concluded: “Doing more of our own shows has become really successful over the last two to three years. During Corona we obviously had a big break, but the year before we played our own shows to more than 200,000 people. That’s a big audience, almost like a touring band. I can see that when I was dreaming for many years that this would become something for the general public, it’s happening now, and it’s really possible to perform something where the visuals, not a musician, is the centre of attention, and I take great pride in that.”