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Philipp Geist on his light installation in Cologne

Bettina Baumann als
December 23, 2016

Having created light installations around the globe, Berlin artist Philipp Geist has his work cut out for him on New Year's Eve in Cologne. Last year's harrowing events in the city on the Rhine grabbed world headlines.

Cologne light installation by Philipp Geist
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O.Berg

DW: Mr. Geist, the platform around the Cologne Cathedral has gotten a pretty bad name since the events of New Year's Eve last year. Given those events, what significance do you ascribe to your installation this year on the cathedral's platform and the surrounding areas?

Philipp Geist: It certainly is a challenge, but implementing an art project to respond to those horrible events of last year is the right thing to do. You can walk through the projection, so it invites people to participate. At the moment, people are sending me their words, which I am integrating into the installation. Getting the people of Cologne involved in the project is the ideal response to what happened last year, and I'm really looking forward to this wonderful project.

Are certain themes coming together among all the words and wishes that are being sent in?

It is true that many of them are connected to the events of last year. The words that have been really common are "peace," "human rights," "international understanding," hope," "love," "light," or the slogan "no human being is illegal." But I have also received negative terms such as "concern" or "war," which may also appear in my installation. I have actually not received any hate mails.

"Time Drifts Cologne"
Visitors are to walk through the light installation and become part of the flow of wordsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Foto: Philipp Geist/VG Bildkunst Bonn 2016

You will be projecting the words, characters, colors and shapes only onto surfaces of the square in front of the entrances to the cathedral, not onto the cathedral itself. Why won't the cathedral be lit up as well? After all, that could really look spectacular.

I think a projection onto the cathedral itself would not be an appropriate response to what happened last year. It would have too much of a sense of "one religion against the other." I think there would be a risk of placing these things too much in a religious context. The Cologne Cathedral is one of my favorite buildings in Germany. When it's lit up at night, it's simply beautiful, inside and out. So it's going to have the same lighting as usual and will rise up like a pillar of strength from the installation. That was also the wish of the organizers of the event from the beginning - to not place the cathedral in the spotlight, at least, not with a projection directly onto it.

Philipp Geist
Geist integrates his selection of words, terms and wishes that participants have sent to him via emailImage: 2015 Philipp Geist/VG Bildkunst Bonn

This isn't the first time you've created the "Time Drifts" project. You also walk through the installation yourself. What is so fascinating about it?

For one thing, I am very grateful for being able and permitted to do this project. And, of course, I also observe the reactions of the people - how they really concentrate and delve into the projection and become a part of it. That is something truly special. What is also great is when people lie down on the ground, or climb on top of each other and build pyramids, or dance - like it happened in previous installations. That's the really interesting thing about projections in public spaces and especially a place like the Cathedral platform. When someone who has lived in Cologne for 70 years has never seen this space in such a way, they're directly confronted with their own history and this particular site. At those moments when people react completely differently to a location they know so well, really great things happen.

How much happens live and on site, and how much must be prepared beforehand?

Generally speaking, it's like I develop a longer film beforehand that corresponds precisely with the architecture of the facades at hand. Based on that, I can then further develop the individual elements live on-site. And that's what I'll do in Cologne, too. The architecture, the location, the lighting, the people - all of that mixed together evokes many different perspectives, and the installation becomes a space in which one can immerse oneself.

The success of a stage play can be gauged by the number of people in the audience, or by the applause or boos of the crowd. At what point can you say about your installation: "That was a success?"

For one thing, from the fact that some people have seen it, and then, of course, that those who have seen it have gotten something from it - a memory, a sense of how it is to move through such a space of light. My hope is that some people feel inspired by it. For me personally, as an artist, I think the installation has been a success when I actually achieve what I have envisioned. I am satisfied when I know that I have gotten the most potential out of myself.

Collage "Time Drifts Cologne"
'Time Drifts Cologne' is a hands-on project: Geist will integrate his selection of words, terms and wishes that participants have sent to him via emailImage: Philipp Geist

Is there a moment during the creative process that you find particularly appealing?

The most exciting thing is when you turn on the projection and see for the first time how it looks on-site. That's the most beautiful moment. After all, you spend your time envisioning the project, developing collages, and have a clear idea of how something can look through all your experience. But it is still something else when you actually turn on all the lights live and in color.

Philipp Geist's The "Time Drifts Cologne" light installation begins at the fall of dusk around 5 p.m. on December 31, 2016. It will include large projections onto the Cathedral Platform West and the Roncalli Square (Roncolliplatz). Geist will submerge the facades of the Roman-Germanic Museum and the DomForum building into video-mapping installations. The facades will thus be transformed into moving, picturesque light sculptures.

You may participate yourself in the project until December 28 by sending in proposals for words associated with Cologne and the notion of time. They will go directly to Philipp Geist at: 

deinwortfuerkoeln@videogeist.de oder