Karlsruhe, Germany's ZKM has a media museum fit for Gen Net

This hive of interactivity, part of a facility marking its 10th year, shows cutting-edge works.

Karlsruhe, Germany

ZKM. It may sound like a new model of souped-up Mercedes, but people in this industrial city in southern Germany know it as the self-proclaimed largest media arts museum in the world.

It's officially called the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, or Center for Art and Media Technology, but it's commonly called the ZKM. It's housed in a giant converted 1918 munitions factory, and its 10 large atriums contain three art museums and several art institutes.

During a freebie day early this year as part of the ZKM's 10-year anniversary celebration, about 5,000 visitors browsed through the block-long facility. (Usually, the daily visitor count is around 300.)

"It was kind of like going into the belly of a machine," said visitor Mike Yong, a 21-year-old student at the University of Chicago. "A little bit dark, loud, overwhelming — weird parapets hanging everywhere."

His impression is largely accurate, though I would add disorienting, odd, fascinating, strange, irritating, lively and (sometimes) funny.

From the first step into the cavernous entry hall, strung with colorful, electrically lighted mobiles, you know you aren't in a place that just hangs canvases on the walls. Right beyond the information desk and the coat check room, doors open to a bewildering display of contraptions, gizmos and flashing images that showcase works created by electronic technologies.

You're encircled by movie, video and TV screens. You can change images with the click of a mouse and the press of a button. A computer turns the lines of your hand into part of a three-dimensional graphic display. A spy cam lets you watch people watching people watching people. With your shadow, you can bounce electronic bubbles to someone else's shadow.

The ZKM's museums include the State Gallery, which exhibits postwar German art, and the Modern Art Museum (closed until May 10), which features various post-1960s art movements such as Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism. But its claim to fame among new media aficionados is the Media Museum — which is not about art movements, but about art that moves.

Works in the Media Museum haven't withstood the test of time, more like the test of last week. The museum's digital interactivity makes it particularly appealing to members of the Internet generation — someone like Yong, who was taking a semester off to live in Germany.

"There are lots of families and young couples who didn't look like they would normally be into this," Yong said of the crowds swirling around the halls that day. "And tottering old people who don't really know what's going on but who are enjoying themselves anyway."


Hmm. I wonder whom he's referring to? OK, I admit I'm an iPod-illiterate baby boomer and, yes, I needed an afternoon latte at the museum cafe soon after 1 p.m. But tottering?

A growing reputation

Karlsruhe, in the southern third of the country just off the Rhine River, is not a common tourist stop. It was founded in 1715 — recent by German standards — and it was bombed in World War II. It lacks the half-timbered-house-and-cobblestone-street charm of a place such as Heidelberg. Karlsruhe is more industrial than quaint.

Still, this city of nearly 300,000 claims to be one of the country's cultural high points. Its civic center boasts several museums, including the Staatliche Kunsthalle (State Art Museum), which has a collection of 15th, 16th and 17th century masters by artists including Grunewald, Rembrandt and Dürer, who seem to have made a lasting effect despite the fact that none of their works blinks, flashes or loops endlessly across a TV monitor.

But the city is also proud of the ZKM, which is less than a mile from the city's central Marktplatz. Although it's little known in the United States, the city has a growing reputation in Europe. A panel of snarky art experts polled by London's Independent newspaper ranked the ZKM third in "The 50 Best Visual Art Venues in Europe." The Louvre, by comparison, came in 11th.

We arrived at the museum around 10 on a cold, blustery morning. The main entrance hall — three stories high and lighted by building-wide skylights — was already abuzz with art lovers carrying sets of free chopsticks (the ZKM's Modern Art Museum was housing an exhibit of Chinese art) and wearing badges the size of a military campaign ribbon with a row of tiny red-blinking lights.

Soon we were blinking too and lost in the Media Museum's maze of flashing images.

The exhibits are arranged on three floors connected by steel mesh catwalks. The Media Museum is somewhat the reverse of most museums (including the two others in the ZKM): The surroundings are often dark, and the works themselves are the illumination — in the form of film or video image or just weird flashing lights.

Walking through this film-negative world can be disorienting. When I decided to take a lunch break, I searched for 20 minutes before I found my wife, Jody, on a second-floor catwalk.

On the day we were there, two floors of an atrium were occupied by "MindFrames," an exhibit that celebrated the cutting-edge work of the department of media study at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1972 to 1990. The works included photos, slide shows, films, video performances, computer graphics and various combinations of them all. It was a logical anniversary show since Peter Weibel, a one-time member of the department, has been the ZKM's director since 1999.

It was hard to pin down what "MindFrames" was about (the show has since ended). There were lots of strange film segments, shown in 20-foot-square cubicles, and flashing strobe pictures of cutting meat, shaving cream, naked people and people making weird faces.

For example, a film by Tony Conrad, who founded a movement called "minimal music," was accompanied by droning violins, which sounded as though they were trying to imitate bagpipes. It was a 15-minute film, 13 minutes of which I left unwatched. In "Matrix II," a film made by Sterna and Woody Vasulka in the 1970s, an apple floated across a kitchen scene. Nearby, numbers marched endlessly across 12 video screens.

Most of the works had appropriately bizarre titles: "The Theater of Hybrid Automata," "Events in the Elsewhere," "Twisted Water," "Epileptic Seizure Comparison" and occasionally something refreshingly self-explanatory like "Way Way Out."

Away from "MindFrames," the rest of the Media Museum was no less confusing but much more fun. One area, devoted to video games, was filled with teens and computer screens. Early Nintendo games were displayed like historic relics. By comparison I'm practically Paleolithic.

There were a lot of things that whirred and buzzed. A work called "Everything Is Dark Fluid Pneumatic in Motion" involved a contraption that wrote on paper with laser light, turned the pages automatically and projected a film of pages being consumed by fire.

My favorite (and maybe everybody's favorite, judging by the crowd) was a work called "Bubbles." The official description uses phrases such as "video input system" and "MIDI interface," but basically it involves a big white screen, about 10 feet tall by 20 feet wide, on which pictures of bubbles, floating down in random patterns, are projected.

The bubbles look like the kind kids make with plastic rings and soapy water. When you step up to it, a projector casts your shadow against the screen. And with your shadow you can bounce the bubbles around as if they were real and floating in the air above you. Completely cool.

I would have gladly traded my "MindFrames" time for bubble bouncing, but were there too many kids waiting to play and I had more works to explore — like the walk-through maze of yellow data tape that cascaded from the ceiling or the listening station where you could hear ambient sounds from around the world or the mechanical sculptures you could power by stepping on big red buttons.

The sculptures were particular favorites of families. Dads and preteens took turns pressing buttons and ahhing over the whirring, clanking results. Moms held toddlers up to rotating discs with eye-fooling patterns.

But by 3 that afternoon, I was onto my second latte and ready for a break from electronics. As I walked out of the Media Museum, I stopped by a booth where you could get your picture taken and e-mailed to you.

The guy behind the digital camera turned out to be 32-year-old local artist Fredrick Busch, who was studying at the ZKM's Institute for Visual Media. His specialty was what he called "multimedia room installations."

"They're like another reality," he said.

I asked him how long he had been an artist.

"That's a very hard question," he said, wrinkling his forehead as if I had posed some existential problem. Then he fell silent. Trying to help him along, I added, helpfully, "Most of your life?"

"No. No," he said. "It's a hard question."

A couple stepped before the camera. "Give me your e-mail address," he said as he turned back to his work. "I send you an explanation."

I politely declined and tottered off to the Modern Art Museum, where I could peruse the sedate works of those old masters: Mark Rothko, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol.