Performing Space for the Public: Mischa Kuballs’ light-sound-installation res.o.nant in dialogue with Daniel Libeskind’s ‘Voids’ at the Jewish Museum Berlin

by Silke Walther

1: Documentation of the intervention res·o·nant LIVE in Berlin-Kreuzberg during Berlin Art Week, September 2018, photo by Ladislav Zajac, archive Mischa Kuball, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2019

“The official name of the project is ‘Jewish Museum’ but I have named it ‘Between the Lines’ because for me it is about two lines of thinking, organization and relationship One is a straight line, but broken into many fragments, the other is a tortuous line, but continuing indefinitely.”

Daniel Libeskind

„Libeskind is not merely translating his architectural designs into a building … (…) going through the winding hallways of his museums, their ghostly quality resonates with [Paul] Celan’s poetic structures of the uncanny.”

Eric Kligerman, Sites of the Uncanny. Paul Celan, Specularity and the Visual Arts, Berlin 2012

„It [ the Jüdische Museum Berlin] feels almost like a fortress, so sound is an appropriate medium to circumnavigate these restrictions within the space.”

Mischa Kuball, 2018

Since the completion of the prominent new building complex by the New York architect Daniel Libeskind on an area of Kreuzberg where the first Jewish Museum in Berlin was located until 1938, almost 20 years have passed. The Berlin museum and memorial landscape has developed just as rapidly during this time as the gentrification of centrally located districts of Berlin is likely to change. While the world-famous museum in the midst of these upheavals may appear to be an unmistakable architectural landmark of the city, it is still a strictly guarded building to enter through a security gate in the baroque entrance building, whose hermetic shielding from the urban environment marks it as a cultural institution particularly worthy of protection. The institutional success story of the Jewish Museum, a federal institution, is also remarkable in a European context. Between the planning of a new building for the Berlin Museum and the then affiliated “Jewish Department” and the opening of a museum dedicated to Jewish-German culture and history in the so-called “post-reunification period”, hardly a decade passed. However, this brought profound changes not only for the Berliners but for all Germans in their everyday lives, in their historical images and in their relationships to a post-Wall world. This coincidence of events has given the building project, which was also associated with the claim of an urbanistic and mental departure into a common metropolitan future in the centre of Europe, a special position among the remodelling of Berlin’s museum buildings that has meanwhile been implemented. The institutional success story of the Jewish Museum, a federal institution, is also remarkable in a European context. Between the planning of a new building for the Berlin Museum and the then affiliated “Jewish Department” and the opening of a museum dedicated to Jewish-German culture and history in the so-called “post-reunification period”, hardly a decade passed. However, this brought profound changes not only for the Berliners but for all Germans in their everyday lives, in their historical images and in their relationships to a post-Wall world. This coincidence of events has given the building project, which was also associated with the claim of an urbanistic and mental departure into a common metropolitan future in the centre of Europe, a special position among the remodelling of Berlin’s museum buildings that has meanwhile been realised. The building is a notation or a text, at the same time a memorial of history, an artistic oeuvre and, in comparison with other Jewish museums in Europe, an unrepeatable conceptual experiment in itself through the interweaving of historical, political and cultural conditions, functional allocations and metaphorical references to postmodern Holocaust reflection in the arts.[1]

Over 10 million visitors from all over the world attended during the first 15 years to experience the spectacular architecture, the exhibitions opened in 2002 and the changing special programmes. The architect’s design period began at the end of the 1980s in the Reagan era under the influence of postmodern deconstruction of 20th-century architectural theories, in the tension between the international museum boom and postmemorial reflections of the Shoa from the perspective of everyday experiences of war and crisis in literature, film, and contemporary art.[2]  After German reunification, the building project would almost have been put on record as unworkable and dysfunctional if the Bundestag had not overruled the Berlin Senate. The architect was able to convince the building senator with his routing from the baroque Kollegienhaus to a subterranean labyrinthine basement with two corridor axes, the axis of continuity and the axis of the Holocaust: In order to walk from the old building to the new building, every visitor must descend the stairs into the dark past, wander along the intersecting main axes to reconstruct the experience of refuge, expulsion, imprisonment or the fate of exile, and climb the main staircase to the three-storey new building intersected by empty shafts (2).

2: Floor plan of the basement with the intersecting corridor axes in the new building of the Jewish Museum with the spatial planning of the museum management for exhibition areas carried out from 2002-2017 and the museum pedagogical Learning Center, Archive Jewish Museum Berlin

While this subterranean access to the museum is on the one hand due to the history of the Louvre in Paris an integral part of the museum’s educational temple , on the other hand this circular path, through excavations in the underground, before the historical background of the extermination of the Jews gains the impact of a Holocaust subtext , which Libeskind wishes to be understood as part of his conception of a “performatively” built structure:

„The Jewish Museum is no ordinary building. Far from a generic container for exhibitions, it is a structure with its own narrative. Initially, officials called it the Jewish Department of the Berlin Museum, a name I vehemently rejected. The Jewish citizens of Berlin can’t be departmentalized; they were and are vital, vibrant part of the city’s fabric, their heritage woven throughout urban life. Their extermination during the Holocaust razed German culture – as if much of the preceding art, philosophy, music, and literature had been expunged from history. I believed it was possible to bring this erasure back to the public consciousness by designing a building that told the story. At the time, I was excoriated for this idea. Major critics, historians, and established architects dismissed me. (…) But I have always believed that buildings can say things through their proportions and materials, the way they handle light, and the emotions they inspire.”[3]

Since the opening, Libeskind’s architectural language and spatial formation have been related to expressionist architecture and sculpture, contemporary architecture and American deconstructivism, to John Hejduk, the New York Five and Peter Eisenman, and rarely to music, film and performative art. The journalist Janet Street-Porter compared Libeskind to a film director who never underestimated his audience: “An hour of your time enjoying this building beats two hours of a Spielberg fantasy any day of the week.” The interplay of a broken perspective and the surprising change of proportions in the sculptural Imperial War Museum North seems musically to her: “if that building was a song, which one would it be?”[4] For Libeskind, who found his way to architecture through music and drawing, the musical quality of his buildings is more than a reference to the teachings of proportion in architectural theory:

“Music is very close to how I understand architecture. In both, it’s about proportions, precision, vibrations, acoustics.”[5]

3: View of the Void from the basement of the new building in 2001 before it was set up for museum purposes, photography and picture archive Jewish Museum Berlin

If we consider the central spatial concept of the architect in several of his buildings, the so-called “Voids” (3), low light empty spaces or inaccessible shafts of his buildings, this musical analogy must include a postmodern reflection on the sound, silence and dissonances of modern compositions: Modern poetry and its timbres, Arnold Schönberg’s compositions, graphic and painterly abstraction from Paul Klee to Marc Rothko.[6] In a spatial formation informed by avant-garde designs and “paper architectures”, it is not a matter of proportional harmony, but of constellations full of tensions and dissonances. As Libeskind regarded resonance not only as a physical fact, but also as a sensual-cognitive transmission of vibrations, he was able to considerably enhance the polyphonic sound of his buildings. The fact that buildings are not only building bodies, but sound bodies, was pushed away from utopian designs between reinforced concrete skeleton and architectural engineering. Libeskind conceives precisely from these edges of the architectural sculpture and puts the holistic appeal of all the senses through built spaces back into the centre. Using the example of German-Jewish history in Berlin and national war history in Manchester, a conceptual geometry of contrasts and interruptions becomes apparent that uses the possibilities of concrete against functional tectonic spatial construction. Dissonances, asymmetries and supposedly disproportionate relationships between the parts are Libeskind’s preferred means of expression in both museum buildings:

„It’s not that I want to bully people … I want them to be immediately aware that they’re entering a condition of tension.”[7]

In the case of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, such a spatial experience, which the architect describes as a sensual reaction to the narrative of his building, is optimally only possible when the building is completely empty: 350,000 visitors came to the opening in spring 2001 and experienced an unusually autonomous formal language as surprising, ingenious and impressive. Critics noted that the furnishings for the usual museum operations would reduce the auratic effect of the light-shadow modulation and the unexpected asymmetries and that the window bands for exhibition areas borrowed from industrial architecture were completely inadequate. Some found that the building was more of a monument than a museum.[8]

The storyline of the permanent exhibition on the cultural and everyday history of Judaism, which is spread over two storeys and in whose exhibition design the architect was no longer involved, could only begin anew on the first floor by leading the way by jumping back into antiquity during the narrative period of 1933-1945. This break with the linear storyline, like the radical spatial multi-perspectivity of the building, appeared new at the time. The aesthetics of multiple perspectives makes it impossible for exhibition visitors to predict the spatial arrangement. The zig-zag line of the floor plan can only be recognized from the bird’s-eye perspective: It is reminiscent of a flash of lightning and, in designs as a “line of fire”, is the beginning of a metaphorical dimension of the acute-angled rooms. [9] In the finished building, this sharply serrated line remains unnoticed: fragmentation allows only partial views of the structure, for example from the more than 365 windows or into the light shafts. Thus the design with its opposing visual axes supports the insight that historical narratives can have many different perspectives and interpretations at the same time. Just like a broken crystal, the architecture also shows too many views for them to fit into a manageable regular arrangement. The exhibition and educational programme of the Jewish Museum Berlin is committed to this visual diversity and multi-perspectivity and has coordinated Libeskind’s structural narrative with its collection and exhibition-related museum narratives. The architect describes the creation of the ground plan by mapping historical sites of Jewish intellectuals and artists on a city map as his poetic access to a past and imagined Jewish city life:

„I plotted everyone’s addresses on a map to create my own matrix, and connected points in an emblematic Star of David, which helped drive the organization of the museum and the slashes that cut through the building’s façade. I also looked to Walter Benjamin’s One-Way-Street … and used the urban locations It explores as points in my design.”[10]

According to Libeskind, the threads of life of the Jewish-German Berliners were torn between the years 1933 and 1945 and the continuity of their common history was violently shattered: The broken Star of David became the basis of the floor plan. Finally, this graphic method of visualizing the erased creative Berlin, a projection and graphic transmission, is associated with the unfinished opera Moses and Aron by Arnold Schönberg. The composer, who fled to the USA in 1933, thus took up the exodus from Egypt and the second commandment of God’s unimaginability. In the context of the Holocaust narrative of the Jewish Museum, the unrepresentability implies the commandment not to depict the horrors of the genocide in images, in other words to choose non-representation for ethical reasons. Libeskind’s conception is therefore a “postmemorial” of the posterity, i.e. it refers to the painfully felt emptiness in the artistic and intellectual life of Berlin from the post-war era to the present. The metaphorical dimension of this architecture is hinted at by sounds, the reverberation of human steps:

„At the end of the second act Moses calls to God, but there is no answer. I thought I could complete the third act with this building, in the reverberation of visitors’ footsteps across a void.”[11]

Resonant architecture thus means for Libeskind to refer conceptually to the specific history and memory of a place, for example by mapping lost Jewish persons and addresses. The projects are developed on the basis of a historical-cultural remembrance, on the other hand interpretations shaped by the examination of utopian architectural designs by avant-garde artists.[12] Thirdly, the effect of the spaces is related to the individual as a resonating body, which can subjectively experience history and memory through spatial constellations, material language, light and darkness. Although the building is static, it is supposed to appear through perception in the process of movement to be open, dynamic and changeable, so that it can stimulate and preserve the imaginative capacity of the subject and the audience, perceived as part of the social present.

On the Light and Sound Installation res.o.nant at the Jewish Museum Berlin 2017-2019

The Düsseldorf-based conceptual artist Mischa Kuball returned to the idea of resonant spaces in the conceptual design history of the Jewish Museum for his examination of the architectural situation and the museum narrative in 2017. By inviting contemporary artists to use the spaces created by Libeskind as a starting point for their own temporary installations, the museum’s management intends to set a new course programmatically, which will of course result from the museum as a place of the muses (ars) in the Jewish Museum as well. [13]  Instead of once again presenting only exhibitions for museum lovers who are dedicated to the museum, however, the museum will now be used in a more versatile way than before, not only as a place of memory and learning, but also as a human contact zone and space for artistic interventions and performances. Program director Léontine Mejer-van Mensch represents approaches of institution-critical New Museology and follows Fiona Cameron’s idea of a liquid museum based on Zygmund Baumann’s analysis of liquid modernity as a permanent social dynamic. Libeskind’s underlying connection to the displaced and lost Berliners must be constantly supplemented by close references to social discourses and immediate relevance for contemporary Berliners, and the focus on historical tradition and collection objects must be reconsidered and supplemented by further formats and offerings. The aim is a place that, in view of the dystopian aspects of global politics, positions itself more decisively as a “public space” for encounters, tolerance and social integration. The relevance of the museum’s work is thus not limited to the usual cultural educational mission, but is intended to help develop new narratives of the German immigration society more emphatically with the long-established and newly arrived Berliners. Libeskind’s crystalline multi-perspectivity, updated programs for permanent and thematic exhibitions, and a focus on the contemporary and immediate urban neighborhood are facets of the planned reorientation for the coming years.[14] The cooperation with artists from Israel and Germany can also be regarded as the first step in this opening up to new themes and visitor groups, who previously were only represented with selected works in curated temporary exhibitions. Now the collaboration is to involve many new partners of the museum and extend its relevance beyond its touristic and pedagogical significance.

4: Dismantling of the white exhibition space marked in Fig. 2 in the first Void 2017, Archive photo Jewish Museum Berlin

As part of the comprehensive redesign of the permanent exhibition, temporary projects in the empty Education Center with adjoining exhibition area in the basement became possible again for the first time since 2002. All exhibition-related fixtures were removed with the exception of the lighting (4). With the conceptual artist Mischa Kuball, the plan to integrate Libeskind’s museum architecture into the project was implemented between autumn 2017 and autumn 2019: a site-specific walk-in installation occupying over 350 square metres of the empty Void Tower, situated on Lindenstrasse, and its connection to the entrance staircase. Like all of the artist’s projects, it is conceived not only as a temporary intervention into existing spatial constellations, but is actually only completed by the presence and reaction of the visitors to the underground labyrinth. In addition to the site-specificity, which includes knowledge of the architectural plans and ideas, there is the relational component: the matrix, similar to the design history of the museum building, consists of ideas, people (here the museum audience) and the history and meaning of the site (here the architecture with its specifications). Libeskind’s knowledge of the utopian “Bauhaus ideas” through his architectural studies is a similarity with Kuball’s conceptual engagement with the resonance of Bauhaus design teachings in art: both play with the too familiar elementary grammar and aesthetics from a view of design shaped by individual educational experiences. Exposed concrete, glass and metal are the tools used by one, light, form, colour and mirrors are the tools used by the other. In both works, post-minimalist reduction of means is not an end in itself, but creates free space for educational processes that are based on non-linguistic experience and recognition. Both artistic conceptions critically reflect a modernist aesthetic of the sublime after the crisis of representation. The antithesis to the monotony of a field of stelae like the topography of terror is the contrasting play of the non-identical in Libeskind’s building. While Minimal Art brought the process of perception into the foreground through movement around abstract objects, Libeskind and Kuball can start from this processual formation of space and form and incorporate processes of body resonance into their processual spatial concepts. Both artists challenge the idea that physical, geometric space is a kind of container that is immutable in its dimensions. Over the duration of the movement through the space and over light and sound, the geometric space is at all times also a performative space. For this expanded spatial aesthetics, influenced by architectural psychology and perception theories, in both cases human resonance bodies in motion are needed. Secondly, there is not the one objective space that everyone sees, but the space is continuously produced in the autopoietic feedback loop and, in contrast to physical space, is “atmospheric”. We don’t just scan a sloping concrete surface visually, because perception is more than a purely cognitive process that permanently calculates and regulates one’ s position in relations. Our sense of balance compensates for uneven spatial coordinates and allows us to move forward safely on ascending floor ramps or in sparsely lit environments. Physically, body-physiologically, anthropologically and sociologically, resonance is therefore always relational. In every installation experience, the step from relationality to environmentality is individual, just as subjective is the sensual reaction and cognitive evaluation of the perceived as “unstable”, “open”, “wide” or “uncanny”. In the Jewish Museum, the Holocaust Tower, as a symbolic dead end, has no function for the operation of the museum; nevertheless, precisely because of its ” scary ” atmosphere, it is a meaningful link in the museum narrative mentioned at the beginning. Also the voids, as far as they were allowed to be entered at all, were often perceived as “uncanny“. This physical discomfort is the result of an interplay of “environmental constellations”, lighting conditions and lively individual imagination. Gernot Böhme defines atmospheres as subjective spaces created by the “ecstasies” of things, people and constellations in a reactive triangle as “spheres of presence” of something.[15] Both Libeskind and Kuball assign spectators an active role in the creation of space. Constellations and materiality make forms, images and atmospheres present to the sentient subject: The museum and the installation thus offer dense atmospheres that elude rational, balanced thinking and entangle us in physical sensation.

An installation that is designed as an intervention in “environmental constellations” does not correspond to the usual understanding of installation art in the art world of museums, exhibition spaces and galleries. An “intervention” is derived from the action, the intervention in the existing or a performance of the artist: either in front of or with the audience or as acting for the film or video camera as mediator of this action. The interventions that Kuball has carried out for many years in found constellations between public and private spaces, elude the usual art-critical classifications as conceptual, space-related and space-forming projects. These are installations that have been informed by performative art, time-based art and minimalist situations without repeating previous concepts. The processes that are set in motion by intervention, modification and communicative connections of the so far unconnected aim beyond the boundaries of the place of presentation and – similar to photography – besides the instantaneous need a temporal development in the field of the social. Since the 1990s, Kuball has carried out a series of such interventions in or on buildings in urban spaces, using projections and light reflections to draw lines, coloured surfaces and light spaces. The former Jewish synagogue of Stommeln near Cologne, whose community was dissolved in 1933, let Kuball shine as Refraction House (1994) into the nocturnal surroundings in glaring light. All viewers of this illumination were bathed in painfully dazzling light and involuntarily became the medium for silhouettes. Among the light works dealing with German history and Jewish fates in specific places, this was certainly the most radical intervention. The 33,000 lumen light radiated at night onto opposite residential buildings and fragmented the surrounding space into iridescent cast shadows and flashes of light.[16] In many of Kuball’s works, light as a medium and artistic material is at the centre of perception, recognition, remembrance and feeling, exploring the close relationship between projection, optics, perspective on the one hand and stimulation of imagination and reflection on the other.

5: Incidence of light in the first void in the bare shell of the building, view into the rear end of the elongated exhibition area before the interior fittings begin, documentation of the building project, Archive Jewish Museum Berlin 1996

Artists dealing with the formation of ephemeral light-shadow spaces or light forms at the Jewish Museum Berlin need courage, for they enter into a competition with Libeskind’s “graphic” light direction of pointed triangles and bold diagonals (5). The entrance shaft with the steep stairway descent leads into the tunnel-like corridors to the first Void shaft, which can be entered via an exhibition area.[17] Looking up three storeys from this shaft to the skylight opening, on sunny days the impression arises of brightly shining, trapezoidal light forms in the upper third of the room height (6). The exposed concrete is preserved unplastered here, while the deconstruction of the basement exhibition space initiated in 2017 in this Void Shaft, divided into three connected rooms, left the white walls and the suspended ceiling of the exhibition area. [18]

6: View from the basement to the skylight of the first Void. View taken after the deconstruction in 2017, Archive Jewish Museum Berlin

Kuball’s dialogue with Libeskind’s performative architecture begins with audibly clattering, rotating projectors on the walls of the winding stairwell. Museum visitors are illuminated by rotating spotlights: this process takes place automatically due to the time switch: everyone in their privacy experiences an initiation and becomes an element of the public. For Kuball, this relevant public sphere is something that must first emerge in changing constellations with the collection of people at this location.[19] The light barrier as the entrance to the installation is followed by a confrontation with one’s own horizontally dissected mirror image at the junction of the two subterranean museum corridors. Three kinetic, strongly illuminated modulators were positioned, consisting of two human-high mirror elements rotating in opposite directions through 360 degrees: one in the intersection area of the two main axes, one in the Void shaft provided with light and sound, and the last in the elongated exhibition space of the basement, vis-à-vis an embedded collection showcase with tinted glass (7).

7: res.o.nant Installation photograph by Ladislav Zajac 2017, Mischa Kuball Archive, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2019

The positioning at the entrance of the ascending exhibition space thus directs from the corridor into the installation, which is distributed over three linked rooms, through an adjoining, deep-red illuminating exposure chamber into the void shaft, which is animated with projections and sound, back to the junction of the corridor. The three-step in this order is not mandatory, but increases the intensity of the sensual experience in the light-sound installation. The first experience concerns the thermoreception: it is colder in the basement. During my visit, visitors who expected a continuation of the museum narrative “The Shoa in Individual Fates” looked questioningly at the minimalist object display case of Libeskind, whose meter-long glass surface becomes a projection surface for changing plays of colour and form through sudden reflections of the two mirror rotators and incident red light from the side. Depending on the location, the screen glows blue to light grey or shows abstract light paintings. The passing bodies also become part of the process of taking pictures, which leads to frequent photography and filming with the smartphone. The visual impressions, however, are, as is typical for Kuball’s performative play of light, fleeting phenomena of our perception and imagination, the meaning of which lies in the experienced suddenness rather than in the documentation to be viewed. One must not want to possess them, only experience them individually: as in so many aspects of this installation, which will be shown until September 2019, a subtle critique and the connection to the unrepeatable performance lies therein. In the acute-angled room next door as in the exhibition space, the ceiling height is manageable, as long as one can orientate oneself sufficiently in the darkness about the dimensions of the room: Without warning, the entire room begins to glow yellow-orange to deep red (8,9) with three high-voltage luminaires placed in the corners.

8: res.o.nant Installation photograph by Ladislav Zajac 2017, Mischa Kuball Archive, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2019

9: res.o.nant Installation photograph by Ladislav Zajac 2017, Mischa Kuball Archive, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2019

As soon as the impression is created that you are standing surrounded by red in all directions, a firework of strobe flashes is released onto your senses. The flashes are followed by darkness again. The surprising effect of this sensory overload is that the human contours of strolling museum visitors dance as afterimages on the retina and the perceived moments subsequently blend diffusely. The temporal synchronisation of all projecting, rotating, fragmenting and sound transmitting apparatuses together create an eventful passage through light, shadow, colours and (sound) atmosphere. Meanwhile, two slide projectors supplemented with loudspeakers rotate in a circle in the three-storey, angled void concrete shaft. Kuball breaks the craggy sublimity of the view up with his circling light projection on walls, ceiling and floor (10). As at the entrance, the cone of light travels so deep that people can be captured and illuminated if they like. The refraction of the light rays creates a flowing transition from circle to rectangle, with the overhead light being superimposed once at a height of 24 metres by the projection of one of Libeskind’s three floor plans. The abstraction of the space is thus traced by the permanent loop of the projected light surfaces on load-bearing elements and on the floor. The light effects of all three rooms work together through the wall openings as “blinds” and create ephemeral geometric colour surfaces in continuous, “cinematic” movement through the glow into adjacent areas. This dialogical and repetitive process succeeds in reversing the effect of the sublime to uncanny abstraction gesture of Libeskind: the abstract of the spatial constellations is related to the viewpoint and figure of the human being in space. Visitors and light forms meet, images of the human body are split up by reflections. The stroboscopic flash of light prevents a fixed point of view from being maintained and intensifies the experience of colour space. One can understand this path into negative representation in media theory, from the flash of the camera, or as a reflection of Jewish cultural tradition. The curatorial management welcomed the choice of an artist who does not exhibit his own pictures in the museum, but practices art without images.[20]

10: res.o.nant Installation photograph by Ladislav Zajac 2017, Mischa Kuball Archive, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2019

res.o.nant is a virtual space created by light, sound, reflectors and resonances. Through light projections and sound installations, the fixed coordinates of the Euclidean space can be effortlessly overcome and overdrawn by imaginary or no longer perspectival perceptual spaces of hearing, seeing and feeling. Each space-sound-installation enables an “atmospheric” intensity and can stimulate the open, situation-bound perception, as Stockhausen emphasized in his comments on electronic music.[21] Mischa Kuball’s Open Call to Musicians led to the migration of found sound clips (skits) by professional and amateur composers of musical collages into the museum space. The artist’s invitation to send him sounds lasting exactly 60 seconds corresponds to a participative approach and at the same time links up with image trouvés and resampling. The timing of the light projections and mirror rotations corresponds to the minute cycle, so that the sound collage was adjusted accordingly: 60 seconds of sound alternates with 30 seconds of silence. The adoption of all transmitted sounds corresponds to Kuball’s concept of equal participation of all participants and ensures a constant variation of the sound component of the installation. The number of clips continues to grow, so that the loudspeakers mounted on projectors now transmit the sound clips stereophonically from two sides for 20 seconds with pauses of 10 seconds. The abrupt change between violin sounds and electronic sounds is perceived as atmospheric amplification in the light installation, although some of the sound constellations were created independently of the project. Titles appearing on displays such as “Kristallnacht” (composer John Zorn) or “never again” can evoke associations of war and genocide, while titles such as “Echoes of the Void” (Witzhum, 2017), “Abyss”, “Sein” or “Spazio” can act as rhythmic sequencing of the spatial impression. The admission of even disturbing, intrusive or popular melodic fragments is based on the conceptual extension of modern notions of “abstract hearing”: Heidegger’s philosophical conception of pure perception, aísthesis, and of “pure sound” beyond linguistic-cultural representations was oriented on his influential idea of the origin of the work of art: “In order to hear a pure sound, we must hear away from things, take our ears off them”[22] The capacity for abstraction demanded here refers to the essence of perception, the elimination of attribution of meaning. Morton Feldman still notes during his collaboration with John Cage that the most difficult thing about the aesthetic experience, e.g. an artistic performance, is to maintain this “original” perception assumed a priori by Heidegger over a longer period of time against the influence of sensual and especially cognitive impulses.[23]

When sounds gradually build up, it is similar to light projections deforming from one form to the next: both build up into light or sound forms at intervals of time and become more present step by step for our visual and auditory perception. Although exhibition visitors to the Jewish Museum will quickly discover the sources of the effects during their passage through Kuball’s resonating spaces – the artist always visibly exhibits his apparatuses – most of them remain standing in front of the projection screens, looking and listening banished. If the endless loop of circles, which become squares, is on the one hand transparent as a game with geometric-architectural basic forms and perspective, the listener of the sound clips cannot recognize a composed connection between image and sound, even after a long period of perseverance: Comparable to John Cage’s random music, it is impossible to guess what comes next. In their essay After Modernism, Cage and Feldman emphasized that sounds that want to be nothing more than sounds leave the listener with an experience of hearing without an association of ideas.[24] Only the swelling and decay of sounds in space causes a more intensive perception and holds us captive for a while, because listening, like visual experience, is initially a self-referential experience of time: sound is time, being is time. Kuball calls intensified perception, beyond superficial techno-experience or neurophysiological over-stimulation, a possible experience: space and body meet in the short flash of a resonance. The installation can also be experienced as an echo chamber for the steps and voices of museum visitors in empty spaces and thus close to Libeskind’s idea mentioned at the beginning, but younger generations certainly lack this subjective reference to the traumas of the second generation of Jewish Americans. The installation involves museum visitors in Libeskind’s performative spaces and conveys their unusual constellations. In addition, as in many of his public prepositions, Kuball is concerned with the opening and accessibility of spaces and squares through light, (signal) transmission, and communication with a circle of addressees beyond the interested museum public. The artistic claim to publish spaces and to create a democratic (assembly) public together with as many people as possible is thus considerably extended to the social spaces of today’s Berlin. The surrounding space of the JMB became by reflections of the project from the inside to the outside space the “arena” of the “audience” randomly passing by the selected days of action. [25] Kuball’s response to the specific situation of the fortress-like enclosed JMB site is thus intervention in public space at neuralgic points in the immediate neighbourhood. Since September 2018, further light projections and sound installations have taken place on the forecourt of the Kollegiengebäude and in Oranienstrasse on certain dates. The position was determined according to Libeskind’s conceptual floor plan of the museum building with the recorded memory points of a collective memory of lost inhabitants. The Void floor plan lines of the basement set the direction and dimensions. They were extended from the interior of the Libeskind building into the Kreuzberg neighborhood and projected with light into the immediate neighborhood of the museum. Since the res.o.nant opening, the collection of sound clips has grown from 40 to over 220. In autumn 2018, the sounds penetrated from the basement into the surrounding streets and residential areas around the JMB via a loudspeaker-enhanced, highlighted area in front of the Kollegiengebäude. At the same time, existing poster walls in Oranienstrasse with excerpts from Paul Celan’s poem Oranienstrasse 1 and large-format photographs of the res.o.nant audience were adopted for this intervention. The poet Celan and the tortured journalist Carl von Ossietzky appear as two life lines broken by the Nazi dictatorship, which became visible through their embedding in the well networked interaction project. In front of the billboards, the floor plan of a void was drawn on the sidewalk with the Twitter link to the project: Everyone was invited to leave comments on the intervention at this location or to write them on the posters. The role of the artist is that of the agent, who enables comparison then/today, power/powerlessness, homogenization/diversity, etc. through highlights and snapshots and stimulates communication about the sore points of the city and democratic participation in it.

Already when the performance was relocated from the protected space for education to the surroundings of the Jewish Museum, legal, technical and organizational barriers had to be overcome. How much decibels above is art considered noise in urban space? The strict security requirements for the museum also made larger, uncontrolled crowds a problem as a symbol of freedom of art and assembly. While the live musical performance by invited sound artists was considered harmless in the installation, the public’s speech on billboards in the face of the smoldering anti-Israeli mood after recent military actions by the Israeli leadership gave cause for concern as to whether this would not present fuel for enemy thinking. For the artist, these interventions are an integral part of his project, by no means a kind of accompanying educational supporting program with a spectacular character. Of course, in view of the realities lived between exclusion and inclusion, it would be ideal if the activities did not emanate only from artists as initiators and if the neuralgic points concerned not only historical but also current problem zones. The extent to which the museum as a public place of encounter and exchange could actually compensate for the dwindling number of non-interested members of the public is difficult to assess in the context of programmatic cultural events. Kuball’s approach is intended to make people aware that the spaces of political and cultural publicity must be preserved and renewed through free communication and constant negotiation: they are neither static nor permanently guaranteed constellations, constantly to be protected against attacks and to be based on the ability to reflect and dialogue.

The project is based on the idea of a multi-reflector light space with a background in the artistic experimental spaces of the 20th century. It stretches from Walter Ruttmann’s film Sinfonie der Großstadt and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s light-space modulator to the light ballets of the ZERO artists, from Bruce Nauman’s Green Corridor to immersive colored light spaces. As an installation in the museum space, res.o.nant is both site-specific and situation-related, which is why the examination of Libeskind’s museum idea and his performative understanding of space was deepened. Secondly, points of contact between Libeskind’s radical edge-of-order geometry and the malleability of his material concrete with Kuball’s projection art and the malleability of his material light were shown without implying similar intentions on the part of the artists. Finally, the relationship to temporally layered memory and social spaces in the city of Berlin was put into relation with each other in the two artistic projects. On the one hand, Kuball’s installation can be interpreted as a further drawing of an imaginary space into an architectural (building) body and into human resonance bodies. On the other hand, the cross-border markings, projections and sound performances in the public space of the urban district present themselves as a clearly institution-critical variant of a hybrid new public art. In contrast to performative action art, however, the artist quickly withdraws from the (partial) public sphere marked by him in order to leave the field to the coincidence of processes such as the “audience” that is difficult to control outside the museum space. In relation to the Berlin memory and social spaces in and around the Jewish Museum Berlin, the resonance space project is therefore also related to current socio-cultural conditions and thus not only site-specific, but site-responsive. Libeskind and Kuball meet in the conviction that aesthetic imagination and sensitivity through resonances can also change the ethical imagination and persuasiveness of a society. The subject-centered modern aesthetics of reception remained trapped in the cycle between alienation and confirmation of the ego in its relationship to the “world”, to its objects, images or constellations, and seldom opens the door to different views, different ways of thinking or different feelings. By extending Libeskind’s musical-architectural resonance by the contemporary sociological dimension and stimulating resonance phenomena as an almost culture- and norm-free educational process of pure aìsthesís, Kuball Libeskind overcomes the viewer’s self-reference to the image. The opening of the hermetically closed museum space can also be interpreted symbolically as an indication of the social significance of resonances in contemporary theories of participation. The ” uncanny ” voids are released by res.o.nant from their embedding in the museum narrative and transformed as a resonance space for contemporary communication and educational processes. Unfortunately, for the duration of the project, the reactions of the international visitors to the JMB to the temporary installation and its extension into the surrounding urban space were not recorded. However, this does not diminish the conceptual and intellectual claim of this complex project, which differs significantly from merely spatial light-sound installations in its range of process-like and participative components. The openness of interpretation and ambivalence of the voids ultimately also applies to Kuball’s conceptual engagement with Libeskind’s metaphorical spaces in the JMB: “What is important is the experience you get from it. The interpretation is open”[26]


[1] Daniel Libeskind’s architectural model of this project is lined with text pages of the Bible and is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art New York.

[2] On the relevance of postmemorial memory culture in the 1990s, see Silke Walther, “Imagined Communities in Contemporary Holocaust Exhibitions”,, conference transcript, European National Museums and a difficult Past” ed. by Dominique Poulot/Felicity Bodenstein/José M.L. Guiral, Linköping University Press 2012 []

[3] Daniel Libeskind, Edge of Order, New York 2018, 232

[4] Janet Street-Porter, “Editor-At-Large: Movie director or architect?” Column for the opening of the Imperial War Museum North, in: The Independent, 30.06.2002

[5] “Music is close to how I understand architecture, Daniel Libeskind in interview with Sandra Trauner, NMZ Online, 28.12.2015 [last accessed 31.03.2019]

[6] “Void Spaces”, incisions in a continuum of space, alongside the Jewish Museum in the Felix Nussbaum Museum and Libeskind’s extension to the Victoria & Albert Museum, are formative design elements.

[7] Daniel Libeskind”, Interview with Jason Cowley, The Prospect Magazine, 20.02.2003 [, last accessed 3.4.2019]

[8] “the exhibition spaces are on the one hand totally inadequate … (…) But … the possibilities inherent in the Libeskind building are amazing”, commented K. Gorbey on 23.5.2001, quoted by N. Susanne Reid from JMB review, in: Virtual Library Museen Online []

[9] Elke Dorner, The Jewish Museum, 3rd ed. Berlin 2006, 16.

[10] Libeskind, Edge of Order, New York 2018, 232

[11] Libeskind, Edge of Order, New York 2018, 233

[12] “Innovative Ideas always win through”, Lasse Ole Hempel in conversation with Daniel Libekind, in: Pulse Movements in Architecture, No. 01,01, 2013, edited by LPR Architects []

[13] Berlin’s first Jewish Museum presented works of modern painting from 1933 onwards, including works by Max Liebermann. Individual works from the art collection confiscated in 1938 reappeared after the Second World War in the former cellars of the Reich Ministry of Culture and were handed over to the Bezalel National Museum in Jerusalem. With the integration of works of contemporary art and photography into the collection and the exhibition program, the Jewish Museum Berlin Foundation is therefore continuing the tradition of the Jewish Museum destroyed in 1938. I would like to thank curator Gregor Lersch for insights into the exhibition history of the JMB.

[14] „Das jüdische Museum Berlin das ich mir erträume“, L. Mejer van Mensch, Lecture Educating Curating Managing ECM Discourses, No. 31, University of Applied Arts Vienna 2017 []

[15] Gernot Böhme, Atmosphäre, Essays zur neuen Ästhetik, Frankfurt a.M. 1995

[16] Armin Zweite, Refraction House, in: Florian Matzner (Ed.), Mischa Kuball, Projects 1980-2007, Ostfildern-Ruit 2007,59-81

[17] Libeskind originally planned that four voids cutting through the main building would characterise the silhouette of the museum as outstanding towers, but for reasons of cost this first light shaft was connected underground to the old building and only the Holocaust Tower was completely vacated.

[18] This not entirely feasible uncovering of the shell of the building is part of the artistic project plan for the installation res.o.nant and will have to give way again from October 2019 to exhibition-specific space requirements and lighting.

[19] Cf. Vanessa Joan Müller (ed.), Mischa Kuball, Public Prepositions, Berlin 2015

[20] Conversation between the author and Gregor Lersch at the JMB, January 2019.

[21] Karlheinz Stockhausen, Texte zur elektronischen und instrumentalen Musik, Cologne 1963

[22] Martin Heidegger, “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes”(1935/36), in: Martin Heidegger, Holzwege, edited by Friedrich W. von Hermann, 9th ed. Frankfurt/Main 2015, 1-66

[23] Morton Feldman, After Modernism (1971), first published in Art in America, LIX, No. 6, new edition German translation edited by Walter Zimmermann, Kerpen 1985, 95-108

[24] Feldman, After Modernism, ibid. (note 18)

[25] Vanessa Joan Müller (ed.), Mischa Kuball: Public Prepositions, Berlin 2015, 11-15; Paul Celan, Todesfuge. Illustrated edition with papercuts by Mischa Kuball, New York 1984

[26] Libeskind, quoted from the text of the museum tour through the basement of the Jewish Museum, January 2019, o.w. A.


A light and sound installation by Mischa Kuball in the Jewish Museum Berlin

WHEN? 17 November 2017 to 1 September 2019, open daily from 10-20 hrs (closed 30.09., 01.10., 09.10., 16.11. and 24.12.2019)

WHERE? Jewish Museum Berlin, Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969 Berlin-Kreuzberg, Libeskind Building UG, Rafael Roth Gallery

COST? with the museum ticket (8 EUR, reduced 3 EUR)

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