It takes Philipp Geist mere seconds to change the look of a city: When the Berlin-based light artist transforms the facades of churches, palaces, and statues into gigantic nocturnal works of art, the results are enchanting. And hint at endless possibilities.
An old transformer station in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Grey GDR architecture, touched by the ravages of time. Normally, such functional structures only appeal to nostalgics or urban artists who add their own graffiti or paintings. Or to Philipp Geist who asks us to meet him here at dusk.
He is caught up in last-minute preparations for a light installation that will transform the building’s wall for our smart magazine film on Berlin. Geist seeks the perfect perspective, boots his laptop, and calibrates the projector. Although his mind-set resembles that of guerrilla artists with their stickers and spray cans, he pursues a different artistic approach.
Philipp Geist works with high-tech equipment, ephemeral light, and (usually) approval from the highest authorities. In 2009, for example, Geist worked his magic in Bangkok’s Royal Palace for the King of Thailand. And in 2014, he illuminated Rio de Janeiro’s statue of Christ the Redeemer with a massive projection.
smart magazine: Mr. Geist, your projections lend famous buildings a brand new character and even breathe new life into abandoned structures. Just how would you describe your art?
Philipp Geist: These light installations in public space are a special way of painting with light. I don’t only focus on colors and moods – I want to tell stories tied to the place in question. Whether on a smaller scale – like here, at this transformer station – or translated to much larger dimensions, as I did in Rio.
smart magazine: Are these installations the result of meticulous pre-planning in the studio or do you prefer to improvise on site?
Philipp Geist: Such installations require artistic pre-production in the studio where I compose a film of colors, shapes, and sequences to be projected onto the architecture. On site, this film then enters into a dialog with the chosen space.
smart magazine: Yet these buildings – your canvas, so to speak – are often in a different location. How does your work incorporate their unique atmosphere?
Philipp Geist: That’s exactly why I visit all locations very early on in the process. That’s the only way I can get a real feel for the atmosphere, notice special conditions, and – if necessary – make tweaks to allow for potential sources of interference like street lights or light sources illuminating the building. I also need to find the perfect position for the beamers. Yet despite all this pre-planning, my work is still about fine-tuning the projection on location. It only comes to life when and where the static structure meets the moving image. In the end, the location is no traditional blank screen, but a very charismatic example of architecture. To me, this actual fusion is the most important and exciting moment.
smart magazine: Your art can never be shown in galleries or museums – it always remains an ephemeral phenomenon in urban space. What does that mean to you, as an artist?
Philipp Geist: I think public urban art is very important. While you need to actively step into a gallery or museum, urban space is open to all. Passers-by get exposed to it by chance – that’s another thing I find interesting about public space. My installations not only transform the cityscape, but also how people perceive their city.
smart magazine: And how do the cities you work in inspire you in return?
Philipp Geist: It’s all about spotting the small details. That’s especially intriguing in large mega cities, in the evening or at night, because there are all these different lights and reflections.
smart magazine: Well, Berlin isn’t exactly famous for its many skyscrapers or steel/glass facades. What is the visual appeal of your chosen hometown?
Philipp Geist: Berlin is simply an amazing city with a very broad and diverse range of buildings, places, and non-places. On the one hand, it is this contrast that makes Berlin simply unique and fascinating. On the other, there are all the changes within the city; it is constantly on the move and in flux. Berlin will never be – it is always becoming.
smart magazine: How do you pick just the right places for your projects from the sheer wealth of buildings and locations?
Philipp Geist: I am looking for places with a major story – or even a small one. Then, I try using the architecture to open a dialog on what the building stands for and what defines it. Some places have ceased to exist: They are gone or long forgotten. Others have changed. Yet I don’t necessarily focus on ostentatious or renowned buildings; unassuming commercial premises also have great potential.
smart magazine: Like the building shown in the smart magazine film? What is that place all about?
Philipp Geist: It’s a former transformer structure. I enjoy the challenge of turning such functional buildings into light sculptures. The transformer station used to have a straight-forward function. It was built without any real architectural pretenses – and now it has even lost its function. Yet it retains its own past and that’s what I am interested in.
Watch our “One fine day in Berlin” video featuring Philipp Geist, Original Unverpackt, and Ralf Steeg.
For more information on Philipp Geist and his work, check out his website.
All images, incl. the header image: Markus Altmann
All light and multimedia art: Philipp Geist