Earlier this year, after travelling to Berlin and Ciudad del Mexico, Skalar landed in Amsterdam. Skalar is a kinetic audio/visual installation developed by German light artist Christopher Bauder and French DJ David Letellier aka Kangding Ray, especially tailored to the interior of the Gashouder on the Westergas terrain. Their work seeks to explore the interplay of two forms – light and music – and the emotions that they can evoke. The installation, which runs from 10 January to 5 February 2020, consists of a 40 minutes loop of moving lights and soundscapes. In addition, Bauder and Ray’s installation is offered in an extended and more intense version involving a live show on specific dates.
The term “scalar” is a mathematical definition used to describe something that has size but not direction. In Skalar, light photons are manipulated in order to create solid sculptures, and spectators are walk through a wheel of emotions by the show’s sounds and color spectrum. The Theory of Colours describing the sensory quality connoted in the perception of colours was first introduced around the beginning of the 19th century. It revolutionized the world of art, and artists started to play and explore its repercussions and how different colors affect spectators’ feelings.
Kandinsky, a Russian painter who introduced abstractionism into visual arts in Europe, once wrote: “These weird beings that we name colours coming one after the other, living in themselves and for themselves, [are] independent and endowed of the necessary quality of their future and independent life.” Kandinsky was the first to make colour the subject of paintings, instead of using colour as a means to depict a traditional subject. Through utilising modern technologies, Skalar translates this theory into an artwork for the contemporary age. To this end, the show deconstructs colours, and the projected beams of varying wavelengths of visible light are the absolute subjects of this work.
The Gashouder provides the perfect setting for the installation: it is a round, enclosed space that helps visitors to be encompassed by the deep sounds and the spectacle of light. Unlike during the special live performances, during working hours the venue is not crowded, people can sit, stand or lay down and thus enjoy the show from different perspectives. As you enter you immediately feel you are entering a space which is alive. The installation immerses you, and as you realise the loop has closed you feel compelled to stay and experience it all again one more time, maybe from a different position, maybe in a new frame of mind. The live shows, meanwhile, have the atmosphere of a concert more than an art exhibition due to the presence of a numerous audience and the show’s chronological narrative.
Overall, the public reception has been mainly positive. However, the way the artwork was branded might be counterproductive to how the artists want the work itself to be experienced. Making use of extensive social media advertising, collaborating with other big names in the arts industry, and making the tickets expensive and exclusive, are all tactics that make Skalar seem a commercially-oriented entertainment extravaganza, rather than a work of art that wants to stimulate emotional meditations. This branding strategy brings thousands of visitors to the exhibition but also develops expectations and preclude to the visitors the possibility of fully experiencing the artists’ vision. As a result, Skalar has seem to have been underwhelming for some; in fact, some interviewees said that “it lacks depth and a narrative”, “did not fulfill its potential,” and “I was expecting more.”. These reactions are understandable given the fact that Skalar’s interplay between lights and sound is not extravagant: the show produces measured luminous sculptures, while the sound consists of deep beats. This is why the visitor’s mindset when entering it is extremely important. Indeed, the visitors who let the installation walk them through their inner contemplation agreed, as interviewees Thomas de Bruijn and Noah Van Sittart said, that it “takes over your mindset”, “stimulates your imagination”, and brought them through a clean “up and down of emotions, like a rollercoaster”.
Although Skalar is a great success story, it’s a story that makes us (the public) and artists question the role of branding in contemporary art, how can it affect the expectations of the public, and what role do those expectations play in their overall experience. In this case, the way Skalar was branded set high expectations and made the work seem more like a commercial performance than a work of art meant to inspire meditation and perception of emotions. Indeed, as the artists have stated in an interview about the project, Skalar is “more meditative: you come in, get into the mood, and it is a constant up and down of intensities,” (Bauder) “we are triggering emotions and opinions, that’s exactly what we want.” (Ray).
I would definitely recommend you visit Skalar, although it is important to keep in mind Baudar and Ray’s instructions: “Enjoy the piece from different perspectives, it's 360 degrees so there is not a perfect spot, do not only lay in the middle or not only stay on the side, move around, and try to enter into the mood, not like ‘ok now I’ve seen everything and that’s it’, but try to get into a meditative state, be open to what it does with you.“ (Bauder) “come open-minded and try to see this as a parallel universe. It’s not Netflix, it’s not Instagram, it’s real life. It’s a real experience, it’s not the image of it, it is the piece. And then you can decide whether you like it or not, but you have to immerse yourself in it.” (Ray)