Arie Altena

Autonomous Space Solutions

Interview with Hans Kalliwoda about The World in a Shell


This interview from 2010 was published on the website of V2_:

After a four year intervention at the Technical University of Delft, the artist Hans Kalliwoda brought World in a Shell to a field outside the NAi, Rotterdam. The work consists of a refurbished container and a specially designed tent which covers it. It is a self-contained mobile living unit to inspire a more sustainable life style. The unit generates its own electricity, recycles the waste water, and monitors its own energy-use. Using contemporary technology, it makes us aware of our own environments. The interview with Hans Kalliwoda took place on Thursday April 8th 2010 in The World in a Shell.

Hans Kalliwoda
: To start with it is important to realize that The World in a Shell is not a project about technology, it is rather an installation and an intervention. There is a continuous line in the 25 years of my development as an artist which leads up to this project. I am coming from a very traditional arts education: painting and sculpture. In the beginning of the 1980s you did not learn about making installations or interventions at art school. Of course Fluxus had been doing theatrical stuff and happenings...

Arie Altena
: Were you influenced by Fluxus and happenings? As the art world of the early 1980s, when you were on art school, was very much focussed on painting, I think of Baselitz for instance...?

: I had to find my own means of breaking out of there. I was always a bit of a rebel. I always tried to break down the borders in order to go beyond them. The central aspect is that I have always been trying to create situations. I come from the squatting scene in Berlin and that influenced me much more than the theories or the history of art. I figured out that I should put myself into situations that are extraordinary in order to become inspired in an extraordinary way. It is a very simple thing, it happens to everybody, but as an artist you seek out those situations. That is why I in the middle of the 1980s I traveled on a bicycle through Africa, looking for artists who I thought might have other methods of making art than we have in the West. After this trip I made paintings in which you can lie down. They were quite a success. We tend to marginalize African art, taking it as decoration rather than as art. African masks for instance are not made to be hung on a wall. They are made for inspiration, for 'upgrading', they are about going through an experience, and are used in situations.

AA: Upgrading – do you mean something like arriving at another level of consciousness?

: No, I think it is purely an inspirational thing. In fact, in that sense African masks are are not so different from paintings in the traditional Western sense; they are also meant to give you inspiration and give you another perspective on things. This new perspective might be very intellectual in the Western tradition. Through such an inspiration, you feel uplifted, it is as if you upgrade yourself. The African masks really function like that; the person who puts them on has an experience which gives them a feeling of 'upgrading'.

: Isn't the difference then in the fact that in African culture, there is a more direct connection between daily life and art? Whereas in the Western culture, there is a distance between art and daily life, which is only closed through an interpretation?

HK: Maybe. I was getting people inside the painting. For the public this created a sort of fear: can you actually cross that border, and step inside a painting when you have learned that you are not allowed to touch a painting? And what does the painting then become? Does it become usable art? Art for art sake should not have such function. When I was doing these works at the end of the 1980s, I think I stretched a border. I had a lot of exhibitions with those works, and I was getting many reviews, because I was getting away from the production - consumption thing.

AA: The main thing of such a painting is that it puts the spectator in a situation?

HK: That is the reason why I was making installations out of paintings: to put people in a situation. I also once enclosed a large space and used a painting as the door. I cut the painting, so people could go through the painting and enter the space. In this way I showed people that they have to cross boundaries, that you have to go further, and that you can go further. It was a high threshold for people.

AA: How did you develop from there?

: I worked on integrating people in a surrounding, into a space. In the 1990s I did that as well with my driving exhibition. I made an old VW Golf into a sleeper, and drove that into exhibition space, so I could sleep there. All my work has something to do with me. I have to live through it, so I can then present the experience to somebody else, so they can understand it and feel inspired. With the installations and the interventions I tried to do that. Another example is how I let workmen make my printwork with large pole drivers, that are normally used to drive poles in the ground with a falling metal block. I showed the prints that were the result of it in an art space, but the work is in the first place about these workmen making the art. For them it was a breakdown of their normal way of work, to them it served as an inspiration. They played an active part in it. Playing an active part leads to a deeper level of inspiration than just through looking at something. I want to actively engage the audience. Doing something with someone and working together is a much better way to get to know someone, than just talking. You meet people more intensely.

AA: After that you travelled with your own train through Europe, the Europartrain.

: The idea of the train was to connect cultures. It was about getting to know Eastern Europe, which was unknown territory for me. The arttrain was an eye-opener. I worked together with different artists and railway people from different countries and cultures. Because they were always put in the same situation, it was a good way of bringing out the cultural differences. People from Greece for instance reacted different from people in Poland on a train which arrived in their station, needed a place to stay for a while, and had to go through to another city at the end. Everybody solved that same problem in a different way. For the railway-people this was about getting the train from A to B, for the artists it was making the artworks and the catalogues published at different places during the project. To me the most important thing was the autonomy, the independence of the project. I am probably too anarchistic for the art world, which I find way too commercial. I had exhibitions but I never signed a contract. I'm  not interested in the money thing and I do not want to have any expectations weighing down on my shoulders.

AA: That sounds a lot like the autonomy that people strive for in the squatting scene. Also how you describe the importance of working together and how such processes develop, sounds very much like how things are done in the squatting scene.

HK: The train was an 'autonomous space solution', often we were outside a station and stayed there for a while. We would invite people to the train, to do workshops and work together. We used it as a space in which anything could happen. We arrived as strangers in strange places, and put ourselves at the mercy of the hospitality of the people, and then put ourselves in charge of hospitality by inviting the people to our place in a grand style. That was very exciting. These experiences were very important for me, and led me to work further on such 'autonomous space solutions'. Before they can put rules on you, you move on – in a train you are in a no-mans-land.

: is it really that there are no rules? The most important rule in this project to me seems to be that of a reciprocal hospitality? There is a social contract, which might be very subtle and tenuous. Once you stay at a place for a longer time, problems will arise...

HK: Yes, and that was very influential on the work I am doing now in The World in a Shell.

: This work is then again a step further in how to use spaces, how to find an autonomous space...

HK: But there are more layers to it. It is also about the methods I apply into making it: there is the collaboration with the TU Delft, an intervention phase at the TU, where I worked for 4 years with lots of students and different researchers.  Though I'd like to stress that the work is not made by the TU Delft, it is my work, realized in collaboration with the TU. I devised a strategy to find myself a way into the TU Delft, so they would give me a studio. I was doing it inside an educational framework. I was never invited by the TU,  I forced myself into it. The students and researchers of the TU are very much focussed on their own speciality, and they find it hard to step outside of their own field. There is a Studium Generale of course but not much more than that. I wanted them to step outside their small specialty and look at the broader issues, the overall perspective.

AA: Why did you want to tap into the knowledge of the TU Delft?

: Because I myself do not have all that technological knowledge to make The World in a Shell as an autonomous space solution.

: But you could also say, let's do away with all technology. Like some autonomous groups are doing?

HK: But that's not really an option I'd like to pursue. I wanted to get the most sustainable and environment-friendly technology from a place like the TU. The MIT for instance, works constantly together with artists, and that is why the MIT is probably such a progressive place. I am interested in such artist-scientist collaborations. Last week we had lectures on my project at V2_ and Han Brezet compared my influence on the TU Delft, with the influence of Wubbo Ockels on the TU. I was flabbergasted to hear that according to him I had a much deeper influence on the TU and their ideas on sustainability than Wubbo Ockels. Of course that is not the point, but still nice to hear. At the TU I was mainly busy with building bridges between the different faculties, which often look down at each other, each thinking they are doing more important research than the other. It has to do a lot with the privatization the education is going through – each isolated research field is afraid it will lose money to another specialty. I had a patronage from the rector magnificus and with that I went to the different faculties. When I was trying to get people together from different departments this really worked, because I was not coming from another faculty, which they might be competing against, I came directly from the rector magnificus. Fifty students from different faculties participated in my project.

: Was it easy to involve them in your project?

HK: They are often very product oriented, and I am process oriented. If the process is good, then there is a guaranteed good outcome, I think. I wanted the students to work together so they could get to know the problems of the other specialization, so they would get out of their specialized thinking. They are putting function before form, and I emphasize form before function, we were fighting a lot about that. The students are also very career-minded, which I am not. I did work together with a lot of really good people, but the process took time, was tiring and it meant a lot of talking. It was though in the end. I learned a lot. After four years I was also happy to get away from their methods and their frame of mind.

AA: Was the idea from the beginning to build a container?

HK: Yes, that was clear from the start. The whole outline was already there. With every student and student group I researched different possibilities of the defined outline. Not everything was so defined as you see it now. Certainly I was the client and they worked for me. By the way, there was not a single student-architect that worked on it, because they want to have more influence on the shape, and I did not want that. The students were doing the research and design. The end result of what they were doing was mostly a paper, describing a technology which was for instance 40% ready to be manufactured. They were manufacturing possibilities which had to be further developed. The period of manufacturing was very long therefore. It took me four years to find the right solar panels for instance, they had to be manufactured in the right size and the right color, it was quite a job. What I learned from that is: do not trust that the technological guys will always follow your design. With every step you have to be on your guard, look over their shoulder, and be sure that what they make is made according to the agreed plan. That is very straining.

: But is that because you are using technical solutions which do not come ready off-the shelves?

HK: I would have loved to use solutions that are readily available, but what I needed for this project was just not around.

: Could that be changing in the future?

HK: The future of manufacturing is that more and more is made in China and that quality goes down the drain. It is not adding anything to sustainability or durability, not at all.

AA: How does your project relate to the current urban trend of trying to disconnect from the electricity grid, I think for instance of how in the United Kingdom more and more people have begun to generate their own electricity, for instance by putting a windmill on the roof.

HK: The World in a Shell is not made for urban conditions, that is clear here in Rotterdam. You can see it with the windmills, they do not function here as well as they could, because the wind comes from all sides. The World in a Shell is made for mobile use, the flexible solar panels are also not as efficient as the rigid ones. Of course it is good to decentralize – in every aspect. A decentralization of electricity is the only way out. By decentralizing you also become aware of your own energy usage, because you know how much energy you get in  and how much you consume. Being here now for the last days I really found out how much energy this is generating, and how much energy I can actually use. The heater is taking too much energy. I have to become aware of these things myself, because I never was taught to. When it was really cold in the night I felt a guinea pig of my own experiment. But that is part of the story. It is a learning experience.

: How is the energy balance? Are you using too much?

: No, actually I am using very little. I reduced myself to the minimum. It is a bit of a survival thing. We do not need that much energy to survive and even feel comfortable.

AA: That might be an optimistic view of the future.

HK: It is an optimistic view of my future.

AA: But isn't that an optimistic view for all of us.

HK: Well, it isn't looking so optimistic at all when I consider that there are no serious art critics at all who come and take a look at this work!

AA: Can you mention some of the proposals and ideas which have engendered The World in a Shell? You already mentioned the use of space, the container as an alternative space solution, but are there other ones?

HK: Well, I think that in the future we will have a lot of forced migration because of climate change. This gives a good incentive that you do not have to really cut down on conveniences when you adopt a more nomadic lifestyle, by being mobile. Because you want to have a refrigerator, also in the future. And you can, even when you are mobile. A freezer is also very handy. You can have a tap with running water, using the rainwater that runs down the tent. You can cook using induction cooking, which uses very little energy.

: Is induction cooking putting less of a strain on the environment than collecting wood and burning it?

HK: I don't know exactly. Probably the best thing is to combine it. One has to deal with what is there. I did not work out the carbon footprint for every issue. The most important thing is anyway to use as much of the things that are around already. The stuff we are making should be as long lasting as possible. And when we make new things they should be recyclable, and, whenever possible make use of recycled material. Of course this is not at all in the interest of the industry. But I'm not out to find a universal solution, I can only give incentives. The project has a lot to do with social sustainability too. I lived on a boat for a while. You have much more of a connection to the outside world when you live on a boat, and also you have more contact with the neighbors. The World in a Shell tries to achieve the same. It is an urban intervention to promote that people open their doors more, and communicate with their neighbors. That is what we need, there is too much misunderstanding and the fear factor is overrated. By opening your door you can upgrade the social cohesion.

AA: So it is more a way of redefining urban space as a shared space, and change the social life in the city? That in fact again goes back to your squatting background?

HK: Well, I think in fact that in order to really bring on a change we need big natural disasters that force people to change. Wars don't do it, they create hatred. Only with natural disasters you see that people begin to stick together and start to help each other. We need a more mobile lifestyle in order to face the natural disasters which might result from climate change.

AA: We haven't talked yet about the measuring technology in The World in a Shell...

HK: We measure temperature and humidity in different parts of the Shell, and there is a weather station. We also developed a special cable which leads 24 DC, 230 AC, 5 volts and data at once. Under the container floor there are two independent battery banks. There are sixteen wall plugs, and you can switch those between the battery banks, which is part of the primary analog switchboard. By choosing to put the individual switch on auto one can enter into a digital mode. Thus the switchboard is also available digital. And then there is a wireless system which is registering how much energy is consumed. You can remotely switch them on and off. I would like to put an intelligence on top of this – I am working on that together with the University of Amsterdam Science department. Because all the measurements are registered in a database we can come to new conclusions through human-machine interaction. This becomes interesting if you can match it with the 48-hour weather reports, so you can see in advance how much energy you might need in the next few days, and then regulate one's electricity use accordingly. You could optimize the energy-consumption. There is also running water. The tent catches rainwater, and the middle membrane of the tent is meant to catch condensed water, it is filled into water tanks with pressure sensors, and filters. It tells you constantly how much fresh water is there and how much grey water. I filter my own drinking water here.

AA: All the architecture inside is modular...

HK: I like the Japanese way of using the space, with room dividers. Here everything is modular, so I can change the space, create a podium if necessary. It is flexible, all the elements are easily stored in the container. This is the future I think. It would be perfect for students who move a lot too.

AA: And you want to travel around the world with it.

HK: Yes, it is designed for that. Every square centimeter is thought of. There is a hydraulic system under the floor of the container, so the container can lift itself up, and a truck can drive under it to transport it. It is a standard size container. It is from 1973, it's recycled. It already had many lives, and was used in the train project too. It is completely stripped and overhauled. The locations I would like to go to are chosen because I hope that the people and artists I will meet there will inspire me. The people I intend to visit are really the indigenous people of those countries, often cultures on the verge of extinction. I think we should make sure these cultures do not become extinct, because they hold a lot of knowledge which is also very important to us. They know much more than we think they know. And if we let them disappear because of our greed, and because of the industrial and commercial interests in the natural resources on their lands, it will be like burning down libraries. We should not let that happen. Because on the long run, when we humans want to live in a sustainable way, we cannot do without the knowledge that these peoples possess.

AA: In that sense The World in a Shell is about combining the cultural and technological knowledge of different people, both in the West and elsewhere, in order to inspire a more sustainable way of life?

HK: It is an anthropological approach, and it is also about introducing these peoples to each other. Nobody yet introduced the Pygmies to the Bush-men, or the Bush-men to the Mongolians. The container is a way of collecting their knowledge and enabling an intercultural exchange. I am looking very much forward to it. When I am going there I will make material to represent them, or better let them make material to represent them, and then I am only a facilitator, so that they can spread the message they find interesting. That is why I call it an intercultural swap shop.

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Arie Altena