Review of Hofstetter Kurt: Ich schaue in den Himmel um mich zu erden (I look up to the sky to ground myself)

Hofstetter Kurt: Ich schaue in den Himmel um mich zu erden (I look up to the sky to ground myself)
by Philipp Konzett, Editor; Peter Waugh, Translator

VfmK Verlag für moderne Kunst GmbH, Vienna, 2021
300 pp. Trade, €36.20
ISBN 978-3-903796-54-6.

Reviewed by: 
Azby Brown
October 2021

Hofstetter Kurt: Ich schaue in den Himmel um mich zu erden (“I look up to the sky to ground myself”), edited by Philipp Konzett, is a massive and intriguing monograph exploring of the work of the Vienna-based media art pioneer Hofstetter Kurt. Part theoretical examination, part poetic exploration, it is dense, lyrical, and provocative. At exactly 300 pages, and with hundreds of color photographs in addition to numerous black and white images and diagrams, it is a philosophical and technical treatise masquerading as an attractive coffee table book. The text, in both German and English, includes a lengthy set of descriptive and analytical essays, heavily illustrated and annotated, by Hofstetter’s longtime creative collaborator, the artist and art historian Barbara Doser. A critical text by the prominent curator and art theorist Bazon Brock is also included. Together these help place Hofstetter’s work in historical context.

Hofstetter, as Philipp Konzett notes in his foreword, “…can boast an internationally recognized body of artistic work, for which he was awarded the Austrian Art Prize for Media Art, a national prize of the Republic of Austria, in 2020.” Among his first works to gain wide recognition was an early permanent public video computer art installation, “Planet of the Commuters with the Three Time-Moons,” installed at the Wien Mitte train station in Vienna in 1993, where it remains operational today. Konzett aptly explains that the subject matter of this work, and indeed of all of Hofstetter’s subsequent work, “…is time and space, parallelism and circulation, that Hofstetter approaches in a manner which is at once inquisitive, playful and scientifically precise.”

Hofstetter’s work spans many kinds of media and output while remaining remarkably consistent and unified. The book clarifies its powerfully conceptual basis, while evoking its quiet, contemplative, and cerebral nature. While availing himself of any advanced technology that might be applicable, we can see that Hofstetter studiously avoids technological fetish or trendy contemporaneity in his artistic language. The result is a sense of timelessness.

Ich schaue in den Himmel um mich zu erden contains new creative content in the form of a 160-page color image series by Hofstetter titled “Pause with your Mouth Open: X-stills – Moments in the Simultaneous Light of Dusk and Dawn on Earth.” This project may serve as a good illustration of the conceptual continuity that underlies Hofstetter’s work as a whole. The images in the series are derived from live video streams of the eastern sky captured by a network of twelve cameras called “Time Eyes,” which Hofstetter placed equidistantly around the globe along the northern Tropic of Capricorn as key elements in his Sunpendulum project, whose implementation began in 1998. In conjunction, Hofstetter has developed a series of interactive video terminals called fACING tIME, installed primarily at universities hosting Time Eye cameras, which simultaneously display user-selectable sky images from opposite sides of the earth, as well as a number of related video installations which display what he terms “X-tense Images” — extended imagery. These utilize image luminance key masks to parametrically blend the image streams from opposite sides of the earth. Within the entire X-tense image series these key mask images are of great variety and provenance, including human lips, legs, neck, breast, and buttocks, in addition to the sun itself, moons, and other imagery. The X-stills series in the book utilizes a subset of the X-tense images.

As realtime streaming images, the Sunpendulum and X-tense images provide a very slow and calming experience, literally at the perceived speed of the rotation of the earth, and the sense of being present in two places at once. These are ambient media artworks, intended to be continually operational and visible in public spaces, gradually becoming a familiar part of the everyday environment. “In the case of X-tense Images,” notes Doser, “this expectation leads to a kind of routine curiosity about changes to the image, and to a shift from implicit to explicit perception. It repeatedly comes up against something unreal, fantastical, even mysterious.”

As the X-stills images in the book show, skies on opposite sides of the globe present light-dark pairs in endless variation — cloudy, cloudless, rough weather, lunar phases, and other atmospheric and celestial phenomena. But as the rotation of the earth brings a pair of Time Eye cameras into the dusk/dawn boundaries, the images become awash in what Doser calls “a furious play of color,” which mutates with surprising rapidity. Most of the images in the “Pause with your Mouth Open” series capture these types of moments, which when experienced in the real world literally leave us agape. As Doser notes in her essay, “In Hofstetter Kurt’s conceptual world, it is not only the cycle of the departure and return of day and night that is elementary, but also their simultaneous or parallel existence.” Hofstetter is suggesting that all we have to do is look. Further, Doser provocatively argues, “What arises is visual haptics, optical tactility, a phenomenon in which optical stimuli are projected onto the sense of touch, evoking an imagined sensation of touch in the people observing. In the case of X-tense Images, tactility is conveyed as the act of being touched by something atmospheric and by the light in the sky.”

Doser’s essays are a conceptually well-structured explication of Hofstetter’s works and their many connections and implications, largely, but not exclusively, along a chronological vector. Many readers will find the section titled “Hofstetter Kurt’s Irrational Art” to be a particularly helpful exegesis of the artist’s mathematically-centered works, which are dense and often confounding. Hofstetter began toying with Phi — the Golden Section, represented by the irrational number 1.6180339887… — when designing a circular pavilion for the Sunpendulum project in 2000. The book provides an informatively detailed account and analysis of the explosion of creative work in several media which resulted from these explorations. This includes no fewer than six papers published in leading mathematical journals detailing hitherto unknown geometrical methods of generating the Golden Section using compass and ruler in as few as four steps, superseding Euclid’s 11-step method that has been the standard for 2500 years. Hofstetter’s explorations of Phi are manifested in a number of two-dimensional visual works as well as sculpture. With nine published mathematical papers describing new geometric findings in all, Hofstetter is regarded within that profession as a noteworthy and innovative mathematician.

Another large body of “irrational” works whose underlying basis is well described by Doser are generated by Hofstetter’s system of “inductive rotation.” This system, which has three variations, produces infinite aperiodic tessellations from simple iterative geometric manipulations of a single prototile. Hofstetter further discovered that the resulting patterns formed dual layers, one lying above the other, in a super-symmetrical relationship. According to Doser, “Already after the third iteration, the patterns are of such complexity that they go far beyond the power of human imagination. They elude reason. For Hofstetter Kurt, they are Irrational Structures.” 

As the book recounts, the artist next applied his aperiodic generation system to both musical composition and to weaving, with extremely innovative results in both. Using a programmable weaving system, Hofstetter created an aperiodic and asymmetrical weave, the first in human history, based on his geometric inductive rotation system. Called the “Vienna Waltz,” the patented weave results in increased airflow with no loss in tensile strength. More significantly, Hofstetter has produced garment-like artworks using this weave which are designed to be perceived passively, solely via the skin covering the body, in a manner which parallels that of his ambient media works. Referencing the conventional “hierarchy of the senses,” which assigns primacy to vision, as well as the tactile and haptic art experiments of early 20th Century practitioners such as the Futurist Marinetti and the Dadaist Hausmann, Doser persuasively argues that these woven works initiate a new medium, which she terms “Ambient Tactile Art.”

Similarly, Hofstetter began developing a system of “supersymmetrical” musical composition based on his Inductive Rotation around 2016. This method systematically reverses — or more precisely, “rotates” — the axes of tonal space and time, while maintaining pitch and the linearity of the overall musical sequences. As with the seed tiles of his visual Inductive Rotations, these compositions are based on musical pattern seeds, represented by dots in a two-dimensional matrix. One may sense some affinity with the chance compositions of Cage, the systemic density of the player piano works of Nancarrow, or the phasic patterns of Reich or Glass. Yet as Doser makes clear, Hofstetter’s approach is extremely different from all of these and arguably unprecedented. These compositions have had notable public performances, such as of the “Suite Irrational in five movements,” for two pianos; the fourth movement was performed at the Bridges festival in Linz in July, 2019, and the full suite at the Wien Modern festival November, 2020.

In his six-page text titled “Absurdity per se: Finite Infinity - Hofstetterkurt as a Magician of the Irrational, i.e. of Theoretical Art,” Bazon Brock provides a strong summary evaluation of the significance and import of Hofstetter’s work. Much of Brock’s text is what he calls “a short walk through the blossoming gardens of theories,” discussing the evolution of the Western idea of infinity as presented by Kant, Leibniz, Hegel, Heidegger, and others, while making the familiar (but scientifically unsupported) argument that there can be no understanding without language. Brock emphatically states that, “By finding great significance in the commonplace (the shirt on the body), recognising the mysterious character of the ordinary (in the coming and going of commuters), endowing the unfamiliar with the dignity of the familiar (in Pi and Phi values), or the infinite with the form of the finite (eternal light beyond the earth’s rotation)….endow(ing) the multifarious, the incompatible, and the barely identifiable with a meaningful context”, Hofstetter is “a grandmaster” of theoretical art, “whose work is immeasurable in terms of its consequences.”