Helga Griffiths
Expanding the Horizons of Space Perception -
a dialogue with Christian Huther

Helga Griffiths has been working for some time with human perception and the codes, which constitute our world of communication. The artist who lives in Darmstadt (* 1959) tries to counter our strongly visually oriented culture by stimulating simultaneously the senses of smell, sound, touch and vision. In this way she is shifting art away from virtuality and distance in a lively and sensuous way into the direct perceivable world - in this manner of approaching art and science she automatically inherits taking on a pioneering role. Bettina Pelz very aptly describes Griffiths' approach with the words: "The artistic emphasis lies in the research and forming of perceptions (….) everyday objects and contexts are robbed of their familiarity. Our confidence in our sensual perception is taken away and a living space is created in which experiences, memories and associations can move freely ...."

The point of departure for Griffiths' work is also, as Lydia Hartl so neatly put it, "a type of anthropology of sensual experience", by which she is actually "expanding the horizons of the perception space". In this way the artist is showing for example, how close memory and the sense of smell are connected. The association of Marcel Prousts novel "Remembrance of Things Past" comes immediately to mind, but actually this is only a bridge to science. Influenced perhaps by Proust, many generations of memory researchers have since dealt with the interaction of memory and the sense of smell. This episodic and autobiographical memory - as observed by Proust - is activated by the control centre of the brain, which checks the different sensoric sections of the brain to see if there is a certain image connected to a certain scene - as researchers know in the meantime.

The fact that smells are recalled from such deep memories comes from the fact that memory was created in evolutionary terms as a memory of smell. This short excursion into the brain and memory research shows that Helga Griffiths with her experiments in communication and perception is on the borderline to science. In this way in her research she cooperates with experts of many different disciplines. Griffiths' uninhibited approach to scientific experiments derived from her earlier work with scientists at the Max-Planck-Institut for Solid State Research in Stuttgart.

Christian Huther: You started as a painter, but soon changed to three dimensions. Why?

Helga Griffiths: That was a process which began during my studies in the US. Already with my painting I was looking for three dimensionality, by stretching the canvas from behind with pieces of wood to the limit. Then I worked on paintings and sculptures at the same time - one influenced the other. After the stretched canvasses I was creating sculptural works out of steel, then figures made out of concrete and later lead castings. I was always looking for the physical proximity to my works; while paintings are usually perceived from the distance, I was looking with my sculptures at the nearness of the surface. It became clear to me, how important the haptic aspect - the sense of touch - is for my work. It was not long before working in three dimensions was not enough. The full immersion with all senses became the focal point of my work besides working with codes.

You already worked with the sense of smell during your final exhibition in the USA. How did this happen? And are you more interested in the sense of smell than in other senses? After all the sense of smell has been displaced by the sense of vision and hearing.

My final exhibition at Rutgers University near New York comprised of an installation with life-sized figure sculptures made of concrete. Their surface had been treated with metallic pigments, vinegar and other substances, to create a greenish-shimmering patina. I was surprised how strongly the intensive smells of the substances emphasized the perception of the installation. Suddenly that immediate bond to the work was there which I had always looked for and I would now call "immersion". My later experiences with olfactory installations have confirmed these observations. One feels a much stronger immersion, a more intensive submersion into the work than with works without smell. I find this evocation of instinctive emotional levels and the recovery of long-lost memories just fascinating.

The nose has however only a sort of delivery or sorting function The actual experience of smelling is taking place in the brain or in the limbic system. There, smells or memories can be linked to specific situations, moods or images. How do you express these complex processes in art?

Smells affect the nervous system comparatively directly and our reaction to these stimulations is more immediate, more instinctive than with the sense of vision or hearing and offers less room for distanced interpretation. Perhaps this is related to the fact that the sense of smell manages without complex interfaces such as the retina of the eye or the inner ear with its eardrum and tiny bones. For my installations this signifies an additional gain in immediacy, directness and nearness. Sometimes I am astonished with what emotional freedom the visitors react to my installations - the room becomes a real "space for finding one's consciousness".

Are you playing consciously with the forms of perception by exchanging them?

Yes, I often do that, because these processes begin indeed with a destruction of the known, opens however a new way of perceiving and can intensify the perception tremendously. This can develop into a play between nearness and distance, for example in the way that information that we normally receive only through the touching of an object, suddenly can be perceived from a distance through seeing or hearing - the content of the information is being perceived completely differently.
With the project "Out-SIGHT-In" for example I have asked Laurence Jamet, my blind partner in the project, to photograph smells and other non-visual perceptions! This, for her completely fresh experience required an immense concentration, and I would even state that this project changed also Laurence's own perception. At the same time, I transferred odours - derived from olfactory excursions in Paris - into olfactory objects which could be translated by the observer into new images and memories. Even the work "Olfactory Analysis" is a reversal of perception using chemical analysis of my own smell the, four basic smell molecules, were identified and transformed into a visual, walk-in space. By translating from one sense to another the room opened up for new information and new ways of seeing.
I am interested in showing and in hiding, in uncovering the visible. Playing with apparent exclusion from a perception that one does not know opens up a new dimension, which fascinates me in its incomprehensibility, in its secret or its codes. In a sense I am tracking the limits of perception. But also the variety and sometimes even the limits of human perception compared to machine perception (e.g. medical equipment, images of the brain, satellite photographs) is for me an interesting aspect.

How did you proceed with your artistic work after your university degree?

After my move from the United States at the beginning of the 90s I had to reorient myself, because my "artistic language" seemed to be a bit different than what was common in Germany at that time. I have, however continued to develop my ideas and have found interested researchers, inventors, perfumers, entrepreneurs and "noses", which support my creative ideas. Now I have a wide network of experts, with whom I regularly exchange ideas and collaborate. My interest is still the physiology and psychology of perception and at the same time also the brain research which is connected with it. I try in this way to satisfy my own personal curiosity - my own search for awakening consciousness.

You have in the last couple of years often worked with coded scientific data about your own body from the retina to the brain, the sleeping pattern and the genetic code to your own smell. Perhaps you can find the basic idea of these five projects by reviewing and briefly describing them.

My body and especially my sense organs are often the point of departure for my works. Most of the time I am dealing with the body-typical coded information, which characterize my identity and not always can be decoded. Because through the codification still unresolved secret or one that should stay a secret can be created! The retina of the eye ("Perceptive Filters") we know as an interface between light ray and nervous system! It is the entrance hall for information, which is passed on to the brain for decoding or coding. My retina is at the same time an expression of my identity, because the retina like the iris is a clear individual characteristic. The study of my brain activity via computer tomography and the image of my sleep pattern lead to body-typical, coded information from patterns of thinking to dream phases. My genetic code is the theme of the installation "Identity Analysis", in which the perhaps most intimate secrets of my body are being laid open and made physically perceivable - even if the code cannot be read by everyone. With "Olfactory Analysis" the molecules of my personal smell of sweat were first decoded with gas chromatographic analysis and then translated into a new code - the code of molecular models. The common feature of all these works is that my body-typical code of identity is being transformed artistically and made perceivable in a completely new way.

Describe your most important installation so far "Identity Analysis" which you developed for the Lichtenberg-Prize (1999), and showed again at the Havanna Biennial (2003) and later in an extended version with mirrors at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo (2004).

The walk-in installation "Identity Analysis" is a abstraction of the human DNA, consisting of four thousand test tubes, filled with fluorescent liquid. The die fluorescein, which is used in analytic and medical research, shines with a mysterious, almost otherworldly green light, when it is being illuminated by ultraviolet light. On the floor are petri-dishes containing a chromatographic analysis of my own genetic finger print; this chromatograph is similar to a barcode, with which goods are being identified and controlled. This installation, which shows my body or its genetic structure with its most personal information, allows the visitor to enter into the most inner sphere of my being and opens a new perspective, in which the visitors can view this abstract, architectonic body from the inside and put into relation to his own body. The visitor can let their hands glide over the suspended glasses; and when several visitors touch different surfaces at the same time, the installation can be perceived acoustically as a room composition of vibrating, ringing glass sounds. My genetic structure is transformed into a transparent, fragile, walk-in room of the senses, which includes visual, acoustic, haptic and dynamic elements. The installation breaks with the traditional representation of the body in art and replaces it with the visualization of nano worlds and the exchange of visible perceivable worlds. The body is being translated into a research space, with which and in which research is being made - and not with the distanced, analytical intellect of a scientist, but with human senses and emotions. The illumination of the body with green fluorescein shows the scientific aesthetic as well as the fragility and artificiality. "Identity Analysis" is a transparent container of liquids, defined through the intimate perspective of an electron microscope. Our perception of the human body and individual identity has until now been influenced through the technical and scientific study of the body. The feeling of something mysterious or spiritual and perhaps unique has been superceded by the urge to visualize, uncover or illuminate. Scientists and philosophers have always tried to locate the seat of the human soul in the body. "Identity Analysis" allows the visitor what the dancer Saburo Teshigawara once said in an interview " "Go through the body to the back of yourself". In other words to discover one's self through an intense study of the structure of the body.

In the Installation "Identity Analysis II" (Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo 2004) mirrors were installed in a darkened polygonal room, so that the visitor had the impression, he was entering a universe of fluorescent body cells. The viewer in his human individuality becomes even more part of the installation; he sees his image in the mirror being multiplicated on a molecular level, almost like the millions of cells, which carry his genetic identity. This can also produce a threatening impression. The example of "Identity Analysis" also shows how my project are being developed further, new aspects are added - in this case the multiple, molecular architecture of the separating cells.

How does the sign language which you have fit in, such as the deaf und dumb in "Flowing Gestures" or by a couple in "Shipping Forecast"?

Gestures, even with speaking people, constitute the majority of our communication, according to experts. They, too, are a form of coded information. While for "Flowing Gestures", a project for the Museum of Installation in London, I photographed hands of deaf and dumb people which were communicating under water in sign language (which interestingly also created sounds). I filmed the gestures of a couple in a restaurant "Shipping Forecast" without knowing the content of the conversation. These gestures has been underlaid with the sound of a shipping forecast which is announcing a storm in coded form.
A further important work with the code of sign language was, "Warming Gestures" (1999). A deaf and dumb man, who later became blind, could only communicating by putting his hands over the hands of his conversation partner, who used sign language. Here the skin becomes the communication organ. The friction or warmth of contact I have recorded with a thermographic videocamera.

You have also artistically thematized other communication codes such as braille, morse code and bird song.

One of my earlier works for the Kunstverein Dachau, "Blind Vision" (1997), consisted of a room with Braille texts. The visitor was at first in the dark and had to experience the room and the information on the walls with the sense of touch.
At irregular intervals he was blinded for a short moment by a very bright light and was forced to close the eyes. The moment of "enlightenment" was simultaneously the failure of sight.

For "Trust" (2004) convex magnifying glasses were mirrored from the back and with them the word "Trust" was formed in Braille code. Looking through is no more possible - one can only see the fragmented mirroring of the surrounding. This work is a reflection on the flood of artificially created images which lead to a mistrust of images. However "trust" in our own images is necessary to perceive the world and ourselves as "real".
Morse code was used for the "Sound Chair" (1999), where the sound gets louder and louder, until a human voice is drowned out. The subject of the installation "Pykes Model for Optimal Defence of Territory" (1998) is aggression among animals and humans. Here different forms of coding were used, including the translations of bird voices into the language of music. The point of departure was a scientific study from ornithology, which interprets the aggressive behaviour of nectar birds with mathematical methods - and transferred to humans - can even calculate the readiness for war.

One of the different ways of perception is also special orientation. How have you translated this in the works "Observatorium" (1999) and "Observatorium II" (2000)?

The points of departure for "Observatorium" (1999) were interviews with blind people, who I asked about their travels. Here I noticed, that when orienting themselves - both the smell and sound as well as the use of the stick plays a significant role - perhaps because smells help one to remember places. The visitor of "Observatorium" enters a dark room. On the walls of the rooms he sees a video projection flickering from one side to the other. Gradually one realizes that these are many overlaid rotating images. The installation contrasts the technological views of the world from a distance (e.g. satellite images) with the voices of blind people. I had already noticed that blind people with their perception are sometimes closer to "truth" than we seeing people, who are being dazzled and seduced by images" and therefore perceive the world remotely and with less intensity and emotion. The installation was originally designed for the observation tower of an Italian castle (of course with closed windows). The equipment, which was inspired by historic optical instruments with its turning mirrors and copper rings to transmit the electrical signals for the sound, projects the images into the room like a lighthouse.
For "Observatorium II" (2000) I added scents into the installations with the cooperation of the company Ruetz Scent Systems and the perfumer Karl-Heinz Bork. The visitors wear a "Sniffman" around their necks, which releases scents at moments synchronized to the video by computer. The scents bring a further layer of image into the installation, because they create further images in the brain - even without giving visual clues. Everyone creates his own, individual images, because in our unconscious we often combine certain aromas with certain memories, which again have visual associations.

In "Observatorium II" there were almost hundred scents stored on one tiny scent chip; at the same time one could perceive images and sounds. Is the recipient capable to process so many stimuli? Or is he concentrating only on one or at the most two stimuli?

Although it is technically possible to store such a large number of scents onto a scent chip of a "Sniffman", for the installation "Observatorium II" I restricted myself to seven scents. The scents should be perceived "subliminally" in other words not as superficial effects, but just to support the visual and sound impressions in a subtle manner.
With "Passage" (2004), my newest multi-sense-installation about phases of orientation and the loss of control, which was shown in September at Kitchener Contemporary Art Forum in Canada, I attempted to solve the challenge of a multiple sense stimulus through a gradation in time and space. The visitors enter a dark, curved tunnel space, in which they first perceive an abstract sound, then a series of four scents, which are emitted in sequence into the room controlled by sensors, and finally come to the projection of the video. In this way the visitors can assimilate the stimulus better, than with a conventional structure.

Already ten years ago you worked with collective memory or perhaps collective repression in "Memory/Entropy". Are you still dealing with this theme in your artistic research?

The theme memory occupied me at that time, because I lived as a foreigner in the United States and I felt a relationship to immigrants and their first experiences. I visited the archives of Ellis Island, the immigration island in the harbour of New York City - which like any historic museum constitutes a type of collective memory - and I was allowed to make video recordings in one of the old buildings, in which a hospital station including mortuary, laundry etc. had been located. These rooms for me had a special smell - which I would again and again bring into relationship with this space and its history. Is that a type of collective memory? Probably not, but for me its effect is strengthened by the thought that thousands of humans must have experienced these rooms and these smells, being under conditions of extreme tension. Today I work much more with individual memories - my own and others. I am working on an archive of smell memories, which I have gathered during my various travels - but also during my residency at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. Recordings from this archive form the basis for, among others, the multi-sense-installations "Turbulent Souvenirs/Memories" (2002) and "Pools of Memories"(2002).

The viewer has to put-together a multiple fragmented image in the installation "Image Control" (1999). It consisted of two tons of folded fashion magazines; on each of the four walls a miniature surveillance camera was installed, behind the eyes of the photographed models. On eight monitors the video images of the visitors could be detected. There you had four different images of the body: that from the magazines, the real are of the visitor, the filmed and finally the one that could be seen on the monitor. How can these fragments be brought together?

The installation "Image Control" questions our "image" - the image of ourselves, which everyone carries with themselves, and its perception. Even if the fragmented image of the shown photographed models in the fashion magazines are combined to a perfect female image in the brain of the viewer, this image does not correspond either with ones own image (in the head of the viewer) or the real self-image (which is seen on the monitors). The many deviations between perfection and reality are made visible and the fragments cannot be brought together - that is the interesting part of this installation.

Quite generally, on your process of working:
How do you tackle a theme? Perhaps you have to search and contact the different experts relatively early in the process of an idea?

I have always had more ideas than I will ever be able to realize. I collect these ideas over a longer period of time, and sometimes a possibility of realizing them does not arise for several years. These possibilities are created then through contacts to experts who have exactly the knowledge that I had been missing for the realization of the projects.

When did you work at the Max-Planck-Institute for Solid State Research and what did you do?

After studying languages - I had always been interested in languages - I worked from 1979 to 1981 at the Max-Planck-Institute. Although I was not working as a scientist myself, I organized among other international conferences and had a lot of access to scientists and their "codes", which led on my part to a great curiosity and a great interest in scientific methods/processes and tools. During that time I also met my husband, who was a guest scientist there - and also through him I obtained a closer access to the experiments and scientific methods of observation and analysis.

What does science mean to you and how has this influenced your artistic work?

Science for me means an almost inexhaustible source for techniques, which help me to get closer to the human body and its perception. Even though I use scientific methods of analysis in my projects and use scientific processes, I clearly see myself as an artist, because the scientific results, which often have a claim to authenticity, are being transformed artistically, newly interpreted and are also being questioned artistically. Perhaps I am fascinated besides with the content also with the aesthetic of the analytical science, the bright colours of satellite images or computer tomographic images, the manifold patterns and forms of different constructions, which scientists use, to demonstrate their results. Just think of the double helix.

With your project "Out-SIGHT-In" (2002 with a blind partner) you had a perfumer recreate the smells of a walk through Paris In the laboratory. Surely that would be a fascinating vision to be able to record smells?

That is an idea which has been in my head for almost 20 years, how would it be if we could store smells as easily as images or sound. However recording smell would be almost the same as storing memories. Perhaps the invention of a "smell recorder" would bring smell into the clinical postmodern art world and create new worlds of perception, which include also the subconscious.

Do you have any ideas that could not be realized yet because of lack of money rather than the necessary know-how?

There are numerous ideas, which I have carried around with me for a long time, such as for example an installation on the sense of equilibrium. An installation on the theme "weather" which I submitted ten years ago for a Japan-Bursary at Kobe Design University has only now resulted in an invitation to the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale 2006 in Japan. Another form of the project will be realized at the Kunstverein in Ulm in September 2005. My biggest dream however would be to participate in a scent-expedition in the tropical jungle. Such expeditions are in fact organized by a Swiss scent researcher, who floats in a hot air balloon over the tree tops and collects scents from orchids in glass flasks. Isn't that a fantastic idea?