" Smoking Lamp" (HeHe, 2005)
Interview/Article by Jonah Brucker-Cohen
In the diverse discipline of design for public and private spaces, artists are constantly creating new ways of envisioning our relationship to the objects we interact with daily. Exploring this connection is Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen (collectively known as "HeHe") whose work provides glimpses of the technological systems surrounding us by making them more apparent and tactile. From their "Smoking Lamp" which outfits a lamp with pollution sensors that effect its color when someone is smoking nearby, to creating a screen with a matrix of LED lights that react to visitors breath in "Twilight", HeHe's architectural transformations are compelling reminders how urban space can be envisioned and acted upon. Gizmodo spoke with HeHe during their artist residency at Eyebeam in NYC to discuss their projects and the importance of critical design in everyday life.
Images and Interview after the jump.
Names: Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen (known collectively as HeHe)
Age(s): 35, 37
Education: Mechanical Engineering, Theatre Design, Industrial Design, Computer Related Design, Royal College of Art.
Affiliation: Independent Artists
GIZMODO: The "Smoking Lamp", one of your larger "Pollstream" theme of projects which construct a more tangible representation of pollution, is a physical lamp with embedded sensors that detect the presence or absence of nicotine smoke. If it senses smoke, the light changes from a bright white to a warm pink color in an attempt to illuminate the particles in the air that the smoker is exhaling. Why was this project important to you and how do you see the project fitting into the practice of smoking in public spaces and the current laws to curtail it?
HEHE: New findings shows that the nicotine dilemma will sadly not be stopped in the near future and gives hope that it will never stopped at all: traces of nicotine were found in the mummy of Ramses II. This means that the Egyptians discovered America at least 14.000 years ago, and imported tobacco. In the meantime smoking has both served as a symbol of freedom (for example, in the women liberation movement), and has been banned and prohibited. One prominent example for the later would be the Nazi regime, which prohibited smoking as part of their hygiene politics. In short, smoking is political, because the act of smoking suggests something beyond its chemical impact on the body. This act, the gesture of smoking is highly visual, it provides, unlike other drugs such as sugar or caffeine, a visual canvas for its antagonist, to make smoke and fire. To give an example: A newspaper blamed a "careless Smoker" to be the cause of last weeks burning in the former Deutsche Bank building neighbouring Ground Zero. Beyond damaging himself, the Smoker is damaging the lives of others. We are concerned with the particular moment, the gesture of smoking, the inhaling, exhaling, the form of the smoke particles under the light, which is the essence of smoking. There is no moral judgment, no "to smoke or not to smoke", humiliation nor affirmation for the smoker, Smoking Lamp only turns the beast into the beauty and amplifies our choice - here and now.
"Pink Noise" (HeHe, 2004)
GIZMODO: "Pink Noise" is a large public urban situated display device that visualizes ambient sounds and passersby in the local city environment by illuminating numeric light panels behind a sheet of glass. Why was sound used as a stimulant for this project and what information did you hope to convey with the display output? Was it ultimately successful?
HEHE: Bruit Rose (or Pink Noise) was made during our residency at the art factory Mains d'oeuvres in Saint-Ouen a close suburb of Paris. At the time we were living and working in Saint Ouen, it was a beautiful atmosphere; everything was in movement, music, art, and performance - improvisation. But, there were also tensions. A small portion of the neighbourhood was concerned about the volume of the concerts and the noise in the street at night. We responded to this situation, with LoFi, which turned an unused strip of windows on the facade of the art factory into a graphical equaliser so that the building lit up with the sound of the music coming from the concert room. After the first night when LoFi was inaugurated, the neighbours called and complained that the red lights (at the end of the frequency scale) were too bright - which was another way of saying that the music was too loud- merci!
Then, Mathieu Marguerin the visual arts curator at Mains d'oeuvres invited us to propose a work for the biennial "Art Grandeur Nature", which took place in the streets of Saint Ouen with the theme of appropriating advertisement space. We extended the concept of Lo Fi onto a busy high street, designing Bruit Rose to fit into an existing advertising light box in rue des Rosiers. We worked with a semi transparent film, which acts as a mirror in daytime and superimposes the red light and the pedestrians at night. It shows the frequency of the noise in the street. The installation was vandalised the next day, caused by the mirrored daytime effect: the glass window of the box had been shattered. But, as always when things create some sort of friction in the city or the city a friction upon things, energy is released and this moment constitutes also an integration of the work into its environment. Things are never attacked for their intention, but for a secondary reason, which then re-informs the artwork. To give an extreme example: Fritz Koenig's World Trade Center "Sphere" sculpture, which has now been relocated to Battery Park. Through the energy transfer this formerly corporate sculpture has gained a new, deeper meaning.
GIZMODO: In "Twilight" you created a large-scale display system by connecting up 256 LEDs on a matrix of steel wires that enabled them to "float" in a dark space. When visitors blew air on a small propeller the movement triggered the cones to illuminate and animate as if the installation was "breathing". What was your intention with this piece? What new perspectives do you see large scale feedback mechanisms bring to an interactive experience?
"Twilight" (HeHe, 2000)
HEHE: Like with other works (i.e. Smoking Lamp) "Twilight" visualises the flow of air, through light. Looking back, it is funny to see that there are so many ways to give form to this idea, to make it into a performance, a consumer product, an architecture. Scientifically speaking, there is a term for what we can measure at the tip of our exhaled air: "end-tidal breath". So in "Twilight", this little breath is translated onto a large-scale audio-visual architecture. In working with the idea of air, lightness is very important, it is the famous battle against gravity, which every maker always fights and by the laws of nature must loose. Even though "Twilight" is an installation with an architectural scale, one person can lift up all the materials.
Setting up the work is like a ritual, every light, every paper cone, every cable is unravelled and installed by hand in its particular way. It usually takes three days and I believe Helen and I talk about the same things, each time we are setting it up. Which is maybe why we stopped doing it. The scale of things is always very important. We are working since years on a large public art project called "Nuage Vert". We will finally realise it in Helsinki, in the beginning of 2008. The idea is to color the smoke stack of an industrial plant visible on a city scale. In between the nanoscopic smoke particle of a cigarette and the urban size of smoke stack are infinite ways to question our gaseous environment.
"Light Brix" (HeHe, 2001)
GIZMODO: "Light Brix" is a modular architectural system that reacts to human touch through electromagnetic field interruption. This simple interactive element allows for people to customize the bricks as a display mechanism for simple messages in public spaces. What is your ideal location for this project to be installed and how has it been used? What do you think is the future of public information displays?
HEHE: There are two recurring systems of expression: systems that are equipped with an openness to let people participate, whereby the act of participation create the content, a time based sculpture (for example, a machine to allow people to draw), or, there is the system, which is already an image, through its design, materials and form. Even though "Light Brix" lures people into the intention of participation, we already configure it as an image.
There was a time, and we are still in the midst of the period, when the terms media and architecture were merged into media-architecture. "Light Brix" was and is commenting on this activity, as media-rchitecture usually means to make a screen into a building or a building into a screen. This metamorphosis of building and screen creates an abyss of possibilities: which device will control what content. "Light Brix" proposes a simple tactile form of interaction, to converge media and architecture and create a space for negotiating content and expression, by using the lowest structural component itself.
Each new edition of "Light Brix" is re-engineered and tinkered with. We make bespoke editions for particular people or situations, which are numbered and titled accordingly. We can arrange the brix in any form and to unlimited number. The design of the shape will always depend upon the context of where the work is to be installed, for example: "P a r i s" was made for a show called "Paris Calling" in London whilst the "9 3", refers to the area in France known as "department 93" (Seine St-Denis) which has acquired almost mythic status, and is often referred to in French street culture as "le neuf-trois". We have received so many demands for this work to apply it commercially and even though the production process is industrial, we only installed it for situations and people that meant something to us. We have, and will, develop new "Light Brix" for specific occasions and places.
"Grandes Lignes" (HeHe, 2007)
GIZMODO: "Grandes Lignes" attempts to add a layer of abstraction to the daily commute of people crossing the footbridge of the CFL behind the train Station of Luxembourg. The project consists of neon lights embedded into the frame of the bridge with sensors that detect pedestrian movements and turn on the lights as they pass. What was your intention with the project? How does it address environmental concerns as well as reactive architecture?
HEHE: Artists can only do so much, but yes of course, the entire planetary electrical installation would be wired up to pyro sensors if Helen and I were behind the worldwide energy mix deck. Though our motivation would be different from that of an environmentalist. An environmentalist wants to save the earth and switch the lights on only when they are needed, with the intention to stop the global warming. Helen and I want to see physical movement activate a space - becoming a performance - so we switch the lights on only when they are needed and in turn, stop the globe warming as a side effect. Moreover, we believe that any problem can be solved through movement: transport, lighting, pollution - all of these urging questions of the post modern man can ultimately be solved by the anesthetization of movement: of our bodies and of our commodities.