Although the three founders of Numen/For Use live in three different cities, their complementary skills, points of view and new technologies allow them to work together on scenography projects as well as gravity-defying installations. Christopher Katzler, Nikola Radeljković and Sven Jonke love experimenting with materials’ qualities and share similar points of view as well as complementary skills. Their open approach towards design has made them travel from Seoul to Paris, to Sao Paulo and Moscow, while leaving a trace of dropped jaws along the way. Discover their mesmerizing installations and how do they do them here.
Who are the members of Numen/For Use and how did you meet each other?
We are Christopher Katzler from Vienna (Austria), Nikola Radeljković from Zagreb (Croatia) and me, Sven Jonke, also from Croatia but currently based in Berlin. We all come from a background in industrial design and met in the university in the ‘90s. I have studied Industrial Design both in Vienna and in Zagreb. Since then, we have been working together but never shared a studio. We are living in three different cities and only need workshops to develop our art, so we don’t have any employees.
How and when did you decide to join forces and create the collective? And what does this double name mean?
Everything started in university, where we used to work together on different projects – design is a field that needs a lot of teamwork. It’s been really important for us to develop ourselves together because we wanted to start our group, and since we formed ourselves in a very similar way, our way of approaching things is very similar too – this is the main reason why we are able to work from different cities today. We formed Numen / For Use in 1997 approximately.
Regarding the name, as we were working in the field of industrial design, we wanted to emphasize the functional aspect of it. So ‘For Use’ is somehow a very concrete name: it’s something that emphasizes our approach to design – which we used to describe as something “straightforward, functionally-minded, matter of fact approach to design.”
And then, after a few years, we decided to start working on different fields, so it wasn’t just industrial design anymore. Thus, we had to add a second name. This time, we started to collaborate with graphic designers – in that sense the team was bigger than in the beginning. Then, we showed the name ‘Numen’, which comes from the word ‘noumenon’. It means, “a thing viewed as a purely transcendental object, independent of the use of sense. The ‘numenal’ realm is the realm of purely cognitive reality.” This is like the thing in itself, the transcendental element within an object.
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So after the industrial design work, when did you get into installation art?
We started by working in industrial design, then we moved to spatial and exhibition design, and finally theatre. And then, through theatre, we developed more functional projects without any commission – it is actually the reason why we arrived to installation. Without scenography, I don’t know if we would have ended up here. We realised that the spaces that we were creating for theatres could be exhibited in a different way as well, so we thought of something that would involve the audience. It could be interesting if the public could go inside and become part of our projects. Working in all these different fields was inspiring to us. Thus, in 2010 we started to develop scenography concepts in art galleries by turning them into installations and the other way around.
Tell us more about the creative process you follow: when you have an idea for a new project, how do things work? Does each one of you have a specific role? Is it difficult to combine your three creative mind-sets while working?
As we are industrial designers we don’t have the same approach to installations as artists. Our approach to things is still very close to the design process; our methodology stays the same and differs from the one used by artists. The approach of a designer is to give answers and find solutions whereas an artist asks questions. For example, our installations always offer the possibility to go inside and experiment the architecture, it’s like a prolongation of furniture.
So, concerning installations, we are not searching for new ideas that much. We work on different projects and then ideas appear. If we see some potential ones, then we develop them further. In theatre it’s different: there is a whole reflexion behind a project in order to find a solution. And both of them also include a lot of experimenting. We are always trying to search for new concepts that give us ideas. It’s all about dealing with materials and experimenting with them. We don’t work much with computers although the spaces that we develop seem to be virtual and digital. Our projects are more made out of the material’s quality itself.
We do have some different roles. For example, I like very much working in theatre, whereas Christopher gets a little bit bored of it sometimes, and Nikola prefers working with the industry and doing industrial design. So each of us has somehow his fields where he likes to work, which means that we have to separate each project. This is the same for installations: I’m very much into tape and Christopher is more involved with the net, so it depends.
Since we developed ourselves together in the formative years, one has always spread and shared his ideas with others. Then, we make comments, think further, and make visuals separately before sending them to the other two. I think it’s easier when you are three in a group because there is always a consensus. When two of us are agree on something, there it goes. It would be harder to choose if we were only two people involved.
And we have all different qualities. For example, I’m doing a lot of 3-D visuals. When an idea comes to the point that it has to be visualised, I take it and work on it in a 3-D virtual space in order to design it further. If we need to make a model, Christopher goes to the workshop, tries to model it with real materials and sends us pictures. After that, we discuss about the concept in details. We are used to work separately but we share everything. Maybe it would not have worked if we were sharing the same office and seeing each other every day. We found a way that is running well and it’s probably the reason why we have been working together for so many years. Besides, we also work mainly abroad. In these cases, it’s like a two-weeks period working together on some projects.
“The approach of a designer is to give answers and find solutions whereas an artist asks questions.”
Some of your installations might look dangerous at first sight. What about the security measures? How do you manage them? Do you take into account security while creating, or are they taken care of after the concept of the installation is thought?
It’s part of our projects. The thing seems to be fragile and not secured, so at the beginning, visitors and participants are scared – but then get immersed in our installations. It’s not possible to calculate our stuff. They’ve tried it several times but they are very complex organic forms. In that sense, it’s very important that the gallery owner stays behind and says: “I want it and I go for it”. We’ve never had problems; no installation has ever broke – maybe some connection points in the wall that weren’t well made, but this is more the issue of the gallery, not ours. We know what we are doing and are totally experienced. Just sometimes institutions and galleries can be creepy – which is a little frightening – but the most important thing is that there is somebody who takes the responsibility and that’s it.
Some of our projects were never realised because of some security issues, especially in the United States because they are very picky. Once in Australia also: we did this Tape installation on the outside, in the public space, and there was this guy passing around who tried to calculate the wind strength facing the structure – among other things. But in the end, he went inside, started to laugh and agreed to the opening.
Tell us more about Tape, these incredible and huge sculptures/installations built with scotch tapes.
I’m still very surprised and wondering how is it possible because these installations involve ten people working physically, putting the tape line by line extremely carefully for eight hours a day during ten days – by the way, most of the people working with us don’t even know the process as they usually are from the country where the exhibition takes place. Although there are always two or three people who know the process, the rest of them are usually students – from design and architecture mainly. Thus, we always have to teach them how to work during the first days in order to train them so they can work perfectly.
The way it’s done is very organic. It’s actually one of the most basic things, like animals do with their cocoon or their nests. You can find a lot of examples of very similar ways of constructing spaces in nature. These cocoons are made with a sticky line, a one dimension line that you wrap around different points to get a curved surface which is like a three dimensional object. The one dimension line turns into a two-dimension surface that is curved into the third dimension. At the beginning, you have just construction lines that help you define the form and then you keep on wrapping. It’s a bit like a self-generated object.
Concerning the size, it cannot be too big because if it is, we cannot work, as we have to reach each other. We always try to build the outside first by wrapping around and around, and then the last layers go on the inside. There are some techniques to be faster and to be more precise while working on the form and curves. There is a technique to push the curves out and to squeeze them inside. You always need to design the form by performing some ‘surgeries’, cutting pieces, and wrapping new layers to keep it stretched and somehow in good conditions. It’s a very organic process, which is interesting to experience and to know how it works. It’s also interesting to see it – by the way, sometimes, galleries open their doors while we are still working on the structure so people can come and see. And the installations are very ephemeral, they usually last about three months.
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Your work called Tube is just breathtaking. What are the materials able to support the weight of several bodies used in this project? What research have you realised to conceive this work? How do the final results differ from one city to another?
It's made out of nets – a security net that is usually used on construction sites to prevent humans from falling down, for example. This material is really solid and elastic. Tube is similar to Tape because when you suspend both materials, they become solid and capable of holding all these people. When you spread them out into the space thanks to connections, they create a tension and the materials get really strong.
Also for Tape, its form is actually a visualisation of forces. As the material is elastic, there is a whole shrinking process. The more you will work on Tape, the smaller it gets and the more you’ll see how the forces are going in the material. Here are the similarities with the net. We deform the material in one shape that makes it stable at the end. And obviously we need a lot of connections to hold it. In Tape you need less connections but stronger while in Tube you need more connections but less strong. Which is the difference between the two projects.
The final result depends on the space where we apply it. We once did an installation of Tape on the outside, among some trees. Since it is a very transparent material, you can see through the environment through it. In that sense, it’s more about experiencing the existing space and the different unusual perspectives. Within Tube, you can feel the anti-space and have different perspectives on the existing space that you never had before. Especially between the trees: it’s so nice to be close to the branches up there and to have a view. We try to form the tube so that you can reach some angles of the space that are usually not available for us.
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Your installations are made so people can enter and experience them from both the inside and the outside. What do you expect them to do? What sensations/experiences do you want them to feel when being inside?
First, they approach these projects from the outside. They are never sure about how they are made and if they are safe, especially in Tape. This understanding moment is always interesting to see. After that, they enter and get totally immersed in a structure they have never seen before. In Tube, you have always this flying feeling while in Tape, this hyper organic structure makes you feel in a new space. So both inner experiences are different and have their own magic. People’s feeling is also different when these projects are exhibited on a public space because it’s not the same type of audience.
People are part of our installations. It’s very important for us to see the public inside them. When empty, our installations are not that interesting. You have to feel people’s insecure feelings and this movement inside the structure.
You also create the scenography and settings for theatre/drama plays. How did you get into it? Are there any differences between creating art installations and scenography? Which ones?
We got into it in 2005 when we were requested by two drama directors. Actually, at the same time, we wanted to try creating scenography. Until then, we were just working as industrial, interior, exhibition or graphic designers, but we started working more and more in theatre. For us, it was like a new world because the freedom you have is much bigger than in the fields of design and architecture. It was a beautiful way to experiment and search for some new approaches.
Theatre involves a huge amount of teamwork; there are a lot of people, elements and arts that you have to combine: texts, acting, costumes, music, lightning, direction, etc. So it’s hard to make an all in all good performance when you have so many elements to manage. This is a process that goes for three, six or twelve months; then it’s over and you go to another project. And it is very different from architecture design, where you work for years on the realisation of a project. Moreover, you are not allowed to fail that much in architecture because most of the time the investment is high, whereas in theatre you sometimes fail.
Our approach towards installation is different. It can be similar because of the space also creates the context. But context in theatre comes mainly from the text too. I think that our background in industrial design is good for stage design because it needs to combine a lot of elements. And sometimes, when there is an interesting space in theatre, we try to turn it into a self-standing project to offer people the opportunity to go inside and experience it from another perspective, because in theatre the audience is only a passive viewer of the performance.
Let’s talk about your latest scenography project, Erde (Earth). It’s about how humans are destroying the planet, and your setting keeps changing depending on the subject being played. Could you tell us more about it? What do the three phases – Cube, Grid, Forest – represent, and how did you materialize each concept in a scenography that keeps changing?
We already had a nice relation with Valencia-based choreographer Nacho Duato as we worked with him and Tomaž Pandur on some productions in Madrid. But it’s been a long time since we wanted to work with him on a project – by the way, Tape was first meant to be for him. We offered him a concept in which each dancer would hold tape while moving around the space, leaving a sort of track. We used to have interesting talks on potential projects but we never realised any – until Erde.
Nacho came out with the overall concept of the ecological issue before we got back to him with these three spaces that could be combined with his idea and build one story. So it was a joint venture based on a very strong scenography and choreography. At the beginning, you have this empty close space – Cube – and its fall. Then, you have the metaphysical laser grid, which is a bit unreal – something like a matrix. And at the end, you have this realistic nature as a symbol. So it has been an open structure for the choreographer but based on an already very defined story.
When we did the selection of these three elements it was very important for us that they differed from each other. The first and the second are very abstract, very material, whereas the third one is very concrete and hyper-realistic. When you work with abstract elements, I think it always needs to involve something more realistic as well. It could be a totally abstract scenography but then the costumes, for example, need to be concrete.
And concerning its realisation, we worked in Berlin workshops, as they are very good for this. We did the fake forest, which looks real but is not. And we worked with a laser company that produced thirty custom-made lasers for us.
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Your work has been travelling worldwide since your beginning in 1998. What are the best memories you can recall? And what city/country would you like to bring your installations next that have never seen something of yours before?
My best memories are from the Tape installations because you meet the people involved in the project, you learn their culture, and live with them in different places of the world. They are almost unbelievable. This experience is the most beautiful because many people are involved; it’s so intense and so short. And also, you see differences between societies, mentalities, and natures – for example, how people tape in different ways (let’s say, between Brazil and Japan).
We’ve never been to Africa, and I think it’s a beautiful continent. It could be very interesting to see how do they tape and how do they approach our work. I think I will do the Tape installations my whole life, so I guess I will have the opportunity to show it to a lot of different countries. This is the good thing about these installations: they’re very ephemeral, so you always have to build new ones.
What’s next? What can we expect from your art in the next years? Any upcoming projects that you would like to share with us?
We are currently working on some projects but I can’t talk about them because clients don’t like it when you reveal things before they see them, especially in the art scene. We’ve just finished an opera in Sophia. It was a nice experience also because of some video projections work. In that sense, we hope to do more operas in the future. Our next projects in theatre will be in Oslo (Norway) and in Belgrade (Serbia). Concerning installations, we are developing further the Void concept, which was exhibited in Seoul. That’s something we keep working on. We are also thinking about developing some projects for Singapore.
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