Franz John, 2019
born 1960 in Marktleugast; lives and works in Berlin
Franz John (*1960) has been involved with new and old media at the interface between human and machine perception and visualization in association with natural phenomena. His work combines intensive research and scientific analysis with vivid and often tangible and usable installations in public art. In his site-specific art projects the Berlin artist deals with the historical, geological and climatic peculiarities of a region.
He has realized various projects in public art, and has been represented at numerous international individual and group exhibitions, including: in the Exploratorium San Francisco (US), in the Goethe Institute Warsaw (PL), twice at the São Paulo Biennale (BR), at the Skulptur-Biennale Münsterland, at the Ecomedia in the Edith-Russ-Haus in Oldenburg and at Über Lebenskunst in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (DE). In 2011 he received project funding from the German Federal Cultural Foundation for his artistic scientific work with dye-sensitized solar cells.
The artist, who has been living and working in Berlin since 1980, was guest lecturer at the University of Michigan, the Ohio State University, and the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg. In addition, he has been awarded various scholarships: In 1996 he was Artist in Residence in the Headlands Center for the Arts in San Francisco; in 2007 and 2014 he was a scholar of the Künstlerdorf Schöppingen Foundation, and in 2019 he received the residential scholarship of the ZF Art Foundation in Friedrichshafen.
During his time as artist in residence in Friedrichshafen Franz John has continued his work on his project Ressource Farbe (Color As Resource). For this project, which resides at the interface of art, science and sustainability, the artist is producing site-specific dye-sensitized solar cells from plants typical of the region. He uses these so-called Grätzel cells as energy sources for his sound and light installations. In Friedrichshafen he has made the dye-sensitized solar cells from hops, an ancient cultivated plant of the Lake Constance region.
Ressource Farbe (Color As Resource)
During his stay as artist in residence since February 2019 at the invitation of the ZF Art Foundation spent in the tower studio of the Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen, Franz John, who otherwise lives mostly in Berlin, has been able to present one of his central artistic projects of recent years based on extensive and detailed local research. For some time he had already concerned himself, in the context of site-specific local light installations in various forms, with a thematic area initially along scientific and technological lines: the generation of energy by employing a particularly sustainable form of solar technology. Even though Franz John possesses a solid scientific basic education, his particular interest in his work with solar cells lies in an area in which primarily artistic mindsets are capable of opening up new aesthetic and epistemological approaches to questions about our human perception and its limits. And it is also this very interest that has long led John to pursue the progress of the Grätzel cells (named after their inventor Michael Grätzel) that have been under development for decades – primarily in Switzerland. This invention is to do with dye-sensitized solar cells, whose photosynthetic components can be extracted from plant pigments – in contrast to the method of construction based on silicon that is presently predominant worldwide. Right at the beginning of his residence Franz John concerned himself with the dyes of the native cultivated plants grown locally in the region, and made them the subject of a series of tests for building Grätzel cells – like many other plant tests done by him previously. So he soon came upon the great importance of hop growing that has been carried on in the Lake Constance region for 175 years. The cultural and cultural-historical peculiarities of this cultivated plant, and their far-reaching climatic, ecological and economic interrelationships led John to put hops in the centre of his series of experiments that he used to investigate its photosynthetic and photovoltaic qualities over many months. It was also important to find out whether the plant cells yield more energy in a particular phase of growth or after undergoing a specific kind of treatment.
Many of Franz John’s works have been and are about light in all its cosmic, physical, epistemological and historical dimensions. During the artist’s work this has given birth on the one hand to the emergence of installations for indoor and outdoor space consisting of lines of light, but on the other hand also to the desire for self-reflective penetration of the scientific and artistic realities of light. This perspective certainly allows parallels to be drawn between artistic-aesthetic ideas of autonomy and scientific goals like subsistence and sustainability. In contrast to his own experiments, also conducted in the form of workshops, which represent a kind of subjective basic research and raise awareness of an energy industry energy using renewable resources, John’s works also include sculptural and installative, symbolic markings of spaces. A primarily commercially oriented optimization of dye-sensitized solar cells is not the main thing that interests the artist – for him what is much more important is something like the real, site-specific interrelationships and the interconnectedness of his aesthetic research.
For his exhibition in the Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen, he places five hop plants from the nearby hop center at Tettnang – in the course of the year these have grown to the height of the room – in the middle of a light installation. He runs this in the tower studio by means of Grätzel cells (in this case externally produced) and from energy also generated and stored during his time as artist in residence. Not only on a symbolic but also on a factual level, an autosuggestive, sustainable energy budget for the Color As Resource is thereby sensorially experienced; with John this happens without the idealization and romanticization of nature that is so often encountered with ecological art. The self experiential and comprehensible is always given the advantage in the works of Franz John. The strongest concession to symbolic or ideal spatial concepts, at any rate in an historical perspective, is perhaps the decision of the artist to distribute the five hop plants in the exhibition space according to the well-known transcultural quincunx pattern¹, that for example appears in the arrangement of the five dots on the common playing dice.
In the course of the last twenty years, within a contemporary field of research oriented art, Franz John has done important interdisciplinary work, focused on long-term goals, concerned with the relationships between natural and computer science, the philosophy of science, and the forms of artistic thinking. In 1992 I encountered one of them for the first time during a theme-based exhibition at the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum in Hagen, where I had just taken up a position. The director at the time, Michael Fehr, had conceived an exhibition Trivial Machines. Using a wide range of artistic contributions, this addressed a mode of existence of the museum conceived in a specifically system-theoretical way. In this context Franz John presented his scanner installation Sky Nude, a work that above all consisted of a color scanner, which at that time among private users still seemed very exotic and high tech. Its use there had nothing to do with mere exhibition of technical possibilities. The scanner stood on an open terrace that one could walk onto from the museum, and it was set up to repeatedly capture a particular section of the sky above the museum over a period of twenty-four hours, and then transmit it as image data to a monitor set up indoors. Franz John understood not just how to convey an image of the complexity of non-trivial input-output relationships. He also helped a scientifically untrained audience to have the opportunity to get near to philosophical problems that arise when using contemporary visualisation techniques. With this as with many of his later works John became for me a kind of artistic weak spot tester, yet he clearly succeeded time and again with the help of precise observation of medial processes to identify their blind spot, the spot that also allows the viewer new understanding of artistic and scientific conceptions of the world. In Sky Nude this new perspective led among other things to the realization that, despite the outward similarity of the monitor images resulting from the scanning none of the skyscapes or landscapes were naturalistic – because what was recorded in the scanner was only an area a few millimeters above the glass flatbed plate of the machine. This was apparent on closer study of the images transmitted inside the museum. In this way the viewer became aware of the preformatted nature of the habitual aesthetic perceptual schemata they were seeing in the skyscapes of the scan images.
One of my favorites among John’s earlier work is his Kopierte Galerie (Copied Gallery) from 1987, a work that is both performative and installative. In an act of creative abuse, the artist used one of the portable photocopiers still available at that time to photocopy the walls of an art space in Berlin in long, live printed strips, only to immediately paper the walls again with these 1:1 copies, hanging each exactly in the place from where they had been taken. Here too, in an apparently wonderful way, it was possible to experience epistemological consequences that arise when one bends a visualisation medium back on itself so to speak, to appropriate it contrary to the intended use. Copying the gallery took several weeks. Affixing all the narrow strips of thermal printer paper must have been extremely tedious. The peculiarity in the performative construction of this work consisted in the gallery space ultimately being hermetically pasted up by the copying and wallpapering actions on the inside. There of course came a time when the work, although complete could only be seen by the artist himself who was inside. This moment signified not only an intensification in art galleries of the usual relational norms of image and space. It also lent a new dimension to the concept of an exhibition opening, as here the artist himself first of all had to cut free an access from inside. Drastic means were used to place visitors to the opening in the exceptional situation of having to adjust their expectations for the exhibition to something that had already become a different work after the act of opening.
Subsequently Franz John concentrated on artistic research of large scale camera obscura situations. These were used to reflect the correspondences between biological and machine perception, while always reflecting the proximity between old and supposedly new media. In particular at this point I should mention his site-specific artwork Military Eyes, in which he primarily makes use of the special perspective situation of a group of abandoned military bunkers that lies above San Francisco Bay. Franz John was staying in the Headlands Center for the Arts in close proximity to the site as Artist in Residence. He discovered that the cavernous military architectures with their narrow observation slits which were once intended for defence against feared attacks from the Asian Pacific, could be employed as camera obscura, and hence used as devices for producing images. The upside down projected images were overlaid with the scribbles and drawings with which soldiers and tourists had covered the inside walls over the years.
The direction taken here by his work subsequently led John to involve himself intensively with the particular spatiality that plays a role in the the visualization and communication of scientific observation data. That bought him to far reaching conclusions about the general definition of the concept of data, its correlations, and its materiality. The field of work Turing Tables, which he has been pressing ahead with since 2001, relates as the title says to the mathematician Alan M. Turing who, with his so-called Turing-Machine, proposed in the last century what was perhaps the most successful model of a general theory of recording and knowledge, but which was tragically pulverized between the opportunities of pure science and its corruption in military research. Also with Turing Tables Franz John (this time in cooperation with scientists and philosophers) again succeeded in creating a convincing spatialization of a complex knowledge model. This is done through the application of visual and acoustic data extracted worldwide by servers being used scientifically for continuously recording the tectonic life of planet Earth, and collecting data material for forecasting. John’s Turing Tables organize a projected indoor space of seismographic data around the viewers, who see the transmitted data being updated around them in real time. It is a construction, which in its worldwide synoptic use of seismological data has never before occurred in the applied sciences – and of course not in the production of art either – and which more than any other previous work of John’s is dependent on the interplay of interdisciplinary and international cooperation.
The project Die Salztangente (Salt Axis) that arose in 2005 as part of the Skulptur-Biennale in Münsterland, once again addresses a geological visualization problem, though it is also one of general historical imagination. However, in this case it does not refer to the here-and-now construed as real time by updated data, but to the difficult to imagine period of two hundred million years, which are estimated as the time frame for the formation of underground salt deposits in the landscape concerned. In western Münsterland there is a large stretch of subterranean salt deposits that were and still are not only of geological, but also of cultural-historical importance for this region. There along an 80-kilometer axis laid as a cycle trail Franz John has erected arrays of steel rods on average three meters high that draw attention to former water level of the primordial sea, the so-called Pechstein-Meer (Pitchstone Sea), once responsible for the formation of salt domes, but which has long since dried up. In this area a cultural landscape has arisen, where cyclists can ride along the axis – a line that is no longer just imagined, but manifestly evident and visible – and on their way virtually project themselves into an imagined underwater space, and at the same time into an historical space that has quite literally become experiential. A coloured mark between blue and gray on a scale based on geological maps indicates the thickness of the salt deposit at a particular place – incidentally Franz John also makes use of the quincunx arrangement here. A conceivably big difference for Franz John’s work from Land Art experiments of the 1960s and 1970s (like for example those of Walter De Marias or Michael Heizers), though perhaps similar in a formal sense, is the focus on the medial that stands between abstract knowledge and individual experience.
Since then more than just one generation of artists has put itself in a situation of alternating self-delineations and attributions to others between art and science with more or less reflective contributions. What in the beginning seemed like a clean break from an allocation of functions to art that was all too tight, like in a guild, is now confronted with a state of established commodification and ossified method discussion on ornamentation that should be addressed afresh. By virtue of its unusual frankness the work of Franz John belongs to those few cases where the idea of a work between art and science, which has become a cliché for some time, also again and again leads over a long period to convincing and surprising results. What makes his way of working so remarkable is his independence from the established routine of sharing tasks – and his flexibility of thought that makes him one of the few interdisciplinary artists who quite rightly bears this name. The seriousness of his research-based work, performed with perseverance and methodical perfectionism, clearly shows in John’s interest for meta-artistic discourse, which protects him from falling into the all too well-known self-referential traps of so much media and net art. It is definitely worthwhile to wait for his next big steps in these fields. It will not be a naive linear progressive movement – anyone concerned with his work can be sure of that. In his Friedrichshafen Hop Project that, in addition to his use of photovoltaic active plant-based solar cells and associated Colour As Resource, also points to the present and future importance of Art As Resource, the sustainability potential of the apparently quite familiar, immediate surroundings appears vividly before our eyes. When Franz John employs photosynthetic energy from plant pigments, he is using not only the most advanced solar technology: he is also making reference using undramatic artistic means to a register that traces back to the origins of all life.