Scenographic Professor Michael Simon on the new presentation and projection of exhibitions and events

The only course of studies in »Scenography« throughout the country is at the Design Technical College in Karlsruhe. The job description of a stage designer is therefore changing to a designer and in-scene setter of concert stages, multi-media events, film sceneries and museums. Michael Simon, a stage director and designer, is Professor of Scenography for this unique course of studies. His plea: to develop a playful association with the complexity of reality. With »Contact points – the magazine«, he spoke of his perspectives for new ideas in the field of tension between architecture, presentations and projections and principals.

02133Question: Mr. Simon, your plea is for more courage in the design of exhibitions, museums and culture temples. Who is particularly characterized by wariness? Architects? Exhibition organizers / curators? Or principals?
Michael Simon: The society in which we are living is full of wariness. We have no staying power. Every change is rejected which cannot be converted into an advantage. Architects are the most courageous but for how long?. How many lost competitions are tolerated after the completion of studies without asking whether one’s personal ideas are capable of being realized at all. In 1999 at the age of 53, Daniel Libeskind presented his first construction project – the Jewish Museum in Berlin. His conclusions and tenacity in the 10-year construction period finished in overwhelming success. Exhibition organizers are always measured by the number of visitors. This also includes long-term tenacity to effect new approaches and contents in the face of internal criticism and also in the light of fluctuating levels in the number of visitors. Principals are to be divided between those in public and private life, whereby the museum sector suffers from a permanent lack of finance. In this case, courage is required to discontinue existing structures and the fear of sponsoring must be discarded. It is interesting that presentations of so-called future sectors are an artistic catastrophe in commercial life. The design history of the computer and telecommunication era is still in the Stone Age. There is a huge gap between the claim of shaping the future from a technical point of view and the reality of presenting this subject matter. Bill Gates’ appearances have the charm of an afternoon coffee party. The potential of the advertising industry is just as much on the testing stand in this respect and has to keep pace with the with the annual increase in chip tact frequencies. A creative increase in new Art and media Colleges is required. Where are the international media art prizes and exhibitions sponsored by Scholz and Friends, Pixel- Park, Microsoft, AOL/Time Warner and T-Online? Every savings bank pays more attention to creative up-and-coming executives nowadays.

Question: You discern a discrepancy between the claims of museum management – which wishes to communicate historical or scientific facts and values – and the inherent desires of visitors. Is this discrepancy new or has or just been identified?
03116Michael Simon: Museums are a stony manifest of humanism. Even museum architecture is designed to generate reverence and respect. »Please creep through the collection on your knees« is the invisible sign above the entrance. The transmission of knowledge is reduced to a pitiful observation and reading of picture captions. The change in society since 1968 has brought children into museums for the first time and has finally questioned the whole didactic-scientific apparatus. Many an art historian would have certainly closed his gallery and would only have made himself available for research. The discrepancy between the increased desire to look, the covetous consumption of pictures and their contents in our present recreational society and the claim of scientists will
remain unchanged. The success of the »body worlds« – exhibition with ethical and scientific discussions in their environment is a fascinating example of an area-wide presence. At the same time, one must know that the scientific collections in the Berlin Humboldt University have 30 million items alone. An immeasurable and immense treasure, the collection of which requires amounts which are only available for research purposes. I suggest a privately financed »Science Theme-Park« on the Schloßplatz in Berlin. Sponsors: Bertelsmann and Schering.

Question: Is the development which you have described a sign of increasing democratisation of the majority or for the frequently sworn »Downfall of the West«?
Michael Simon: With the rapid collapse of the reality TV wave after Big Brother and the stock market crash on the New Market, people now have to work in order to earn money. Knowledge is power and it will remain that way.

Question: If museums and exhibitions, etc., increasingly become an experience or an event – is that a rejection of the intellect?
Michael Simon: What can an exhibition do? For a person without knowledge, it can only create a desire for more. The greater the impression, the greater is the chance that I wish to concern myself with a particular subject. The longterm effect of an exhibition was previously not examined at all. A museum simply formed part of basic culture regardless of how many visitors came to see it. There were intellectual requirements but no visitors.

Question: What role does architecture play in the presentation and projection of a particular area? Should it offer possibilities such as the black, empty space of a stage or should it play an active part itself?
Michael Simon: Architecture a direct influence on perception. Our body unconsciously reacts to its surrounding area. Examples: claustrophobia or tiredness when going upstairs. This means that architecture always intervenes in an exhibition. Infinitely small changes in aisle widths and the height of staircase can have maximum effects for perceiving the contents and intentions. Light design should not be separated from an architect either. The relationship between an exhibition architecture and its light concept on the subject matter and the budget will remain an eternal dispute as far as exhibition concepts are concerned. Museum directors and advertising managers should travel on proverbial ghost trains more often and go to the theatre.

Question: There are endless events everywhere. What – possibly changed – expectations are there with these presentations and projections in public area?
Michael Simon: Quality consciousness is increasing. The event boom has given rise to an endless number of agents who have no factual or aesthetical criteria at all. A colourful spectacle is not all that counts. The commensurability of the application of funds and the transmission of the subject matter

Question: What role does architecture play in the presentation and projection of a particular area? Should it offer possibilities such as the black, empty space of a stage or should it play an active part itself?
Michael Simon: Architecture a direct influence on perception. Our body unconsciously reacts to its surrounding area. Examples: claustrophobia or tiredness when going upstairs. This means that architecture always intervenes in an exhibition. Infinitely small changes in aisle widths and the height of staircase can have maximum effects for perceiving the contents and intentions. Light design should not be separated from an architect either. The relationship between an exhibition architecture and its light concept on the subject matter and the budget will remain an eternal dispute as far as exhibition concepts are concerned. Museum directors and advertising managers should travel on proverbial ghost trains
more often and go to the theatre.

Question: There are endless events everywhere. What – possibly changed – expectations are there with these presentations and projections in public area?
Michael Simon: Quality consciousness is increasing. The event boom has given rise to an endless number of agents who have no factual or aesthetical criteria at all. A colourful spectacle is not all that counts. The commensurability of the application of funds and the transmission of the subject matter is more important. At the same time, industry is carrying out a more precise analysis of the sustained value involved: how long are sales to be pushed and how long does the motivation of employees last after the event? On the contrary, the spoken word is still an expression of war as far as culture is concerned: it is better to have a large festival rather than financing a theatre for the whole year with all its related costs. Life does not only consist of highlights, however. The basis should not be neglected.

01158Question: Your working philosophy is a »playful relationship with the complexity of reality«. Is the seriousness of such a playful relationship with – costly- projects firmly anchored psychologically in the meantime or is there still scope for a proverbial war?
Michael Simon: The last treatment for opening the new terminal of Düsseldorf airport was unfortunately not supported by the majority. 500 guests were to board a jumbo aircraft at the old terminal and start. Closed windows and terminals in front of every seat would have made a time journey possible by video during the flight and then to disembark at the new terminal. There, they would have been confronted with a presentation and project with people from 2050. – an opening ceremony from the air and from another period in time. A pity. Balloons will be distributed instead and Herbert Grönemeyer will sing »I have an aircraft in my stomach«. Unrealised projects remain the best however, because they take place in the head as utopia.

Interview conducted by Beate Schwedler

Photos: Matthias Stutte
Original performance of »Dante’s Faces«, a scenic poem by Michael Simon, September 1998

 

Michael Simon, Born in 1958
Stage design studies with Prof. Jürgen Rose (Academy of Formative Arts, Stuttgart)
1979 Performances und Installations with the FAMILI Group(Stuttgart, Cologne, New York and Washington)
1981 Stage management and room for »Memories can´t wait« (Performing Garage, New York)
1982-90 Room and light work for William Forsythe and the Frankfurt Ballet
1983-89 Stage designer for theatres in Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Freiburg and Darmstadt..
Since 1989 Opera and ballet stage designer (Amsterdam, The Hague, Basel, Zagreb,
Stockholm, Leeds, Madrid, Zarragossa, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Sydney..)
Since 1990 Stage management and stage of internal projects (»Newtons Casino«, »Roman
Dogs«, »Narrative Landscape«, »Real Life«, TAT Frankfurt)
Since 1994 Stage management and stage for »Black Rider« (Dortmund), »Dr. Jekyll & Mr.
Hide« (Volksbühne Berlin), »Tosca« (Burgtheater Vienna), »The Hunchback of Notre Dame« (Residenztheater Munich), »Der Auftrag« (Kunstfest Weimar). »Schlaflos, Woyzeck«, »Von einem, der auszog, das Fürchten zu lernen« (Schaubühne Berlin)
1997 »Documenta X« contribution »The Lady is not for burning«
Since 1998 Professor for Scenography at the HfG in Karlsruhe; Stage management and space for »Narcissus« (Opera House in Bonn)