Interview with Helga Giffiths

at Kunsthalle Darmstadt

Helga Griffiths (*1959, Ehingen) specializes in multisense installations at the interface between art and science. With her installation Dark Gravity (2017), which was developed specifically for Planet 9, she triggers subliminal sensations, while the observer's attention is held by a video based on a 3−D scan of her brain (Brainscape, 2008).

How do you relate your work to the metaphor of Planet 9?

Planet 9 is the planet which has never been observed directly but could only be detected through its gravitational field and its resulting effect on the movements of neighboring planets. My work also concerns itself with invisible forces and their effect on the behavior and patterns of movement of visitors to the exhibition space.

What kinds of subliminal influence are employed in Dark Gravity?

First of all, the configuration of the floor allows the visitor to experience the attraction, or gravitation, of unseen bodies. Each person who enters the space and watches the video projection of a flight over the landscape of my brain − the brain is viewed from the perspective of an orbiting satellite − will find that his feet are guided unconsciously to the middle of the space.

A further aspect is the scent Trust, which takes effect in an invisible dimension. Oxytocin is a well−known example of a hormone that affects emotional states, but I avoid using this substance for safety reasons. Trust has similar properties and also influences the social and spatial behavior of the visitors.

Why do you develop works that not only address the visual sense, but also other, "weaker" senses which are often neglected in art, such as the sense of smell?

My work with the sense of smell began in 1991 with my thesis exhibition at Rutgers University in the USA. I realized then that, by making use of earth and patinating substances such as vinegar, my work had a powerful effect on the visitors' perception of the show: their emotions and memories were evoked directly and they reacted much more strongly to the installation. We cannot simply switch off our sense of smell or hearing − instead, we are immersed in an experience space that expands perception.

My work Observatorium (2000), which was shown at CYNETART in the Deutsches Hygienemuseum (German Museum of Hygiene) in Dresden, was an opportunity to show the "Sniffman" of RUETZ TECHNOLOGIES to the public for the first time. The "Sniffman" was a portable apparatus which was capable of storing and releasing hundreds of different odors. This installation received recognition as a pioneering work in the area of olfactory art.

What is it that interests you about the project Dark Gravity?

One aspect of this project that interests me is the question of whether we could experience the world and the cosmos differently by developing new senses − a cosmos that extends far beyond our Milky Way. With our familiar senses and modern scientific instruments, we can still only observe less than 5 percent of the entire universe; the rest is dark matter and energy, which can only be detected indirectly.

You have cooperated with scientists during the development of the scent Trust and the video animation Brainscape. As an artist, how would you describe your relationship to science?

Before beginning to study art, I worked at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart. My function within the institute's organization gave me direct access to scientific experiments and discussions. I met my husband there, who is a chemist, and through him, I became part of a family of scientists. That prompted my interest in subjects like astrophysics, ornithology, chemistry, microbiology, and brain research.

As I began to study art, I returned to these subjects, but with an entirely different point of view from the scientists, who observe the world and people analytically, with a certain distance. I see my strength in the ability to correlate themes and theories, which seem at first glance to have nothing to do with each other. The starting point for many of my works is man, his environment, and his perception of reality. My installations are "experience spaces," in which the observer sharpens his senses − or develops new ones − and perhaps, after leaving the exhibition space, is able to experience the world and him− or herself in an expanded way.

Another article by Christian Huther at Frankfurter Neuen Zeitung.