Spotlight Interview with
Sabine Himmelsbach, Director, HEK
By Hazel Clarke
HEK's formative years...
Founded in 2011, I learn that HEK (Haus der Elektronischen Künste) is a merger of Plug-in, the Basel based media art organisation and the Shift electronic arts festival. With the Federal Office for Culture joining the Board during this formative time, the national orientation of HEK was set.
The institution’s main brief was to showcase digital and media art. Following decisions about finances, priority was given to the programme and the collection, meaning the festival was dropped. Himmelsbach arrived subsequently in 2012. ‘The idea behind the union, she explains, ‘was to achieve more working together as one institution than the two could do separately. There was also a need to consolidate funding.’
She describes how, from the gallery's festival roots, emerged new ways of bringing people together in Dreispitz, the urban quarter of Basel where the venue is located. ‘In the early days, given the area’s industrial character, it was difficult for people to even find us or know how to get here’ she recalls.‘ Of course this is changing every year with the landmark architectural building that we moved in to in 2014,’
Landmark architectural building...
The bespoke construction, sensitively converted from a warehouse, seems a fitting home for this forward-thinking institution. And it is easy to see how it has helped transform the area into an innovative arts hub serving the local community and welcoming national and international visitors.
I also learn how the new premises have opened up the possibility for HEK to build its collection and to extend the mission to solo and group shows that tackle current issues. 'Education and media have been added to the range of pursuits,' she says. Of course we are continuing with our guided tours and activities related to the exhibition, but we also create standalone events such as our educational kids club ‘Bit Fabrik’ spirits Himmelsbach.
Deep dive into the programme...
I am keen to learn more about the artistic programme of the institution and also to better understand the integration of aesthetic practices with information technology. Himmelsbach explains how HEK aims to showcase the different approaches by artists, and to delve into the new aesthetics of a net-based culture.
In fact, the exhibition programme is an incredible mix of group shows in a wide range media formats including electronic music, performance and theatrical presentations - all hosted in HEK's multi-functional space. Virtual Reality (VR) plays a particularly important role and in 2017, I learn, the venue put on one of the first shows on VR. 'We have come a long way since my first encounter with the technology, she reminisces, ‘which involved being strapped into a huge machine. Now it’s a simple act of putting on some glasses!’
I then receive a vivid description of some of the virtual reality performances. One such, involved members of the audience being kitted out in special headsets and backpacks, and dancing on stage with each other’s avatar. ‘What was even more interesting is that art is often described as a solo practice that does not provide a joint experience. This example of electronic art showed how one can interact artistically with others within a virtual space.’
As she builds on this point, I hear about an intriguing theatre performance by Ana Aderegg, which showcased diversity and interpreted the loneliness of humans behind the screen. The piece entailed people dancing whilst interacting with their computers.
I am keen to hear a few more examples and Himmelsbach obliges. She cites ‘Inferno’ by Louise Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn, two artists from Canada who contributed to HEK’s programme with a spectacular performance using exoskeletons suspended from the ceiling. ‘Audience members were invited to wear the costumes, enabling their movements to be manipulated into a dance via a computer controlled by the artists, whilst techno music played,’ she recounts.
I am captivated by the sheer diversity of activities that are on offer. Himmelsbach describes a number of solo shows that she feels represent outstanding artistic practice including that of the Mexican Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. ‘He’s a great media artist. He created a very interesting practice of interactive art and states that his works come to life through the audience. Without the audience there is no work.'
The discussion expands to the pop culture, that is immersed in today’s internet. ‘It is valuable but it’s important to educate the general public about what they are seeing, as often it is not fully understood.’ She cites a piece by Swiss Media Art award winner, Marc Lee, whose work is currently displayed among Chloé Delarue and Laurent Güdel at the venue. It contains a real-time social media data feed, but is often perceived in the exhibition space as a video.
‘As a curator, I am interested in art with a political perspective.'
‘I think that art always shows us different perspectives on the world and often comes with a critical perspective, she comments. ‘As a curator, I am interested in art with this political perspective. Art that uses or hacks technologies as an artistic strategy is particularly thought-provoking. It can take technology beyond what Google or Facebook want us to do. It looks behind the mechanisms and maybe also turns technology around to do something different.’
I have seen the exhibition to which Himmelsbach refers and we delve further into Lee’s work. ‘In 2015,' she continues, 'Marc Lee produced a new piece for us entitled ‘Picnic’ which used live data feeds from Instagram with the hashtag ‘me’ and featured people posting about themselves. 'This is of course a reflection of our attention-driven society,' she adds. ‘Lee combined this concept with geolocation data and zoomed in with Google Earth. It didn’t involve a lot of hacking as most people don’t switch off their geolocation in the metadata of an image so they are easy to find. I think that is what art can do. We read in the paper that social media tells a story about our lives, but seeing it visually, gives a completely different impact and provides a new understanding’.
She continues, ‘Art always reflects society - it was done in the cave men paintings with drawings of animals and weapons that were part of people’s daily lives. It also reflects how times change and that is why I am personally interested as a curator in media arts.’
We talk more specifically about the impact of media technologies on society, a theme explored extensively by the institution. '‘Future Love' is a touching example of an exhibition that examines how media technologies affect our relationships with one another,' Himmelsbach explains. 'Similarly, ‘Eco-visionaries’, investigated how we can use technology such as sensors and water monitoring to gain a better understanding of other species - the natural flora and fauna around us - so that we humans can better co-habit with them.’
We then move on to discuss Artificial Intelligence (AI). ‘Its a huge area for us,' says Himmelsbach, ‘the vast amount of data created by the foundation through its online and social media presence, prompted an exploration of this important field. In 2019, we staged a show on 'big data’ and data mining entitled ‘Entangled Realities’. One of the key messages was that AI is not something of the future. The technologies are already here, ‘entangled’ in the machines we use daily and they have a huge impact on what we do. Perhaps we just don’t realise it!,’ she ponders.
It’s clear that HEK is not afraid to tackle challenging socio-political topics through its programming and the institution is ready to showcase much more. Himmelsbach explains that for the up-coming show 'Seeing is Revealing' (Opening May 13, 7pm), Belgian artist Emmanuel Van Der Auwera covers the demonstrations for Black Lives Matter and will also look at how AI surveillance technology is used to prosecute people. She describes how the artist employs a clever manipulation of filters to produce an inverted image which at first glance creates a beautiful installation and then for the viewer, it becomes apparent that it is also quite political.
Recently, HEK introduced a new format series called ‘Medienkultur A-Z’. For this, the wider public is invited to discuss wordings, technologies and other topics that are in the media. NFT’s (Non Fungible Tokens) for example, which were the focus of media hype in 2021, were one of the topics in this series. Working with two artists, HEK showcased exactly how the process of NFT’s worked. Similarly, the institution is tackling Fake News and AI. ‘This format, says Himmelsbach, provides a hands-on understanding of topics that are being talked about and that we consider important to engage people in.'
Asked what concerns her most about the impact of media technology on society, she responds ‘My strong interest is the centralisation and the commodification of the global web. We plan to engage in strategies of decentralisation to change this over the coming years and also drive for greater empowerment of individuals so that they can learn how to better protect themselves digitally.’
'We have one Earth and we have to make it work for us now'
Another topic of continuous interest for HEK is climate and ecological change. A show on this topic entitled ‘Earthbound – im Dialog mit der Natur' is planned by the institution for this Autumn. ‘We can fly to Mars but for our generation that is not a solution. We have one Earth and we have to make it work for us now,' she insists.
'Community is important for us'
We do a deeper dive into the role of HEK in these topics. ‘Community is important for us especially within our education work, she explains. For every exhibition or topic in which we engage, we try to find stakeholders to partner with. For example, we collaborated for the show on AI with TA Swiss, a non-profit organisation that is researching into the impact of new technologies on society. They are reporting their findings to the Swiss Government to define whether a change in law is needed. In this way, we have a bigger outreach and impact, she states. ‘Our jointly staged event with TA Swiss was attended by artists and scientists alike. We had a fascinating discussion on the ethics of social robots used in healthcare and community care and it was interesting to hear the perspective of scientists as well as artists. It’s frightening, although understandable, that people prefer to have the company of a robot than to be alone,’ she contemplates.
Technology in evolution...
We touch on the evolution of media technology and Himmelsbach reflects on art’s longstanding engagement with technology, dating back to the 1960’s. She recalls her own first encounter in the ‘90s. ‘I remember when I worked at ZKM (Centre for Art and Media), there was a Silicon Graphic machine the size of a room. At that time it was very difficult for artists to gain access to technology. But today, the smartphone is as powerful as the Silicon Graphic machine was back then. This makes technology more accessible to everyone.’
She looks out of the window across the square at the arts school. ‘The younger generation are using technology just as they are using other tools such as installation or sculpture. Greater accessibility creates greater diversity,’ she maintains.
‘I think that’s why media art for a while was outside of the mainstream art market because it was really complex. Our existence as an institution enables that history to be showcased. A couple of years ago, we staged a show on the development of the internet from the 90’s to the present day. We emulated the time it used to take to load an image using an internet connection of the era. Younger generations would probably not know how long it used to take. Creating that historical perspective is where we as an institution can offer our expertise and insight.’
Ingenuity during lockdown...
I asked Himmelsbach about how HEK had adapted during the lockdown periods. She replies, ‘It was the moment when we really started to plan our programming and commission works for the digital and online space. It was also important to promote work that would enable income for artists when there were no shows.’
‘For our series HEK Networks, she continues, ‘there is a commission every month of work played out on our website or on social media.’ She cites an interesting piece by Joans Jund which displayed icons for each visitor to HEK’s website. ‘If the page was left open, by the end of the day you would see a myriad of icons, representing the interaction on the site.’ she explains. ‘For me it was a brilliant piece of work that demonstrated that although we are alone behind our screens in confinement, you can experience the presence of other people on your screen.’
She also mentions ‘Net Encounters’ a series consisting of micro performances, using HEK as a hub to facilitate communication between the artist and the public, and the children's series BitFabrik which was delivered via Zoom. ‘We did a digital Easter Egg hunt. The eggs were hidden in digital code in a playful way which encouraged people to explore our site to find the digital easter eggs,’ she smiles.
She talks about the new focus on digital works and the increase in online exhibitions that has come about over the last two years due to the pandemic. ’The media have been writing about these developments and there is a surge in interest in loans from our exhibitions. Digital will certainly stay as a space that is used for projects,’ she asserts.