One Hour with Swiss Kinetic Artist Ralfonso
Since the early 20th century, kinetic artists have been exploring the possibilities of movement, introducing the element of time, the nature of vision, reflecting the importance of the machine… AMA has had an interview with Ralfonso who extend this artistic lineage and incorporate motion into his art.
AMA: What is your background?
Ralfonso: My educational background is very much on the business side. I studied Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California, where I received my Bachelor’s Degree and then went onto an MBA from Wharton at University of Pennsylvania. So I have no formal art training, which might have been a blessing, as I was able to discover the magic of “art in motion” at my own pace and in my own way.
AMA: How did you start to make kinetic art?
Ralfonso: My passion for this particular niche of sculptural art started very early. Even as a very young boy, I was always fascinated by mechanics and design. From this fascination, I started to design objects and sculptures that have a motion component, that then became art in motion, or kinetic art.
I try to push the boundaries of kinetic art at the intersection of art, mechanics and design. Mostly I am inspired by nature, by the shape and natural interaction of all the elements. Therefore, my sculptures gently move with the wind, water, motors, or when pushed by hand, and range in size from 50cm to 15m.
AMA: What are the major difficulties of making kinetic art?
Ralfonso: Aside from all the aspects involved in designing a static sculpture, you add the dimension of movement to the art piece. This adds the 4th dimension of time and “change over time” to my designs.
So now I have a much bigger tool box to work with, which include interactivity via internet, smartphone applications, SMS text, programmable lighting and sound and all types of sensors, just to name a few. It also means that the outside sculptures are environmentally interactive, as they move in the wind or water, allowing us in some cases to even generate and contribute energy.
One example is my Cube Tower. It consists of 5 cubes, which are vertically assembled on their corners. Due to the wind channels in each cube, they all move in different directions with the wind. In my design for the next generation Cube Tower #2, it will be constructed with high-efficiency solar panels on all surfaces. So not only will it generate electricity through sun exposure, but also through the rotation of the large cubes.
So I really see it more as a major benefit and less of a difficulty. But it is true that as a kinetic artist you are now engaged in motion and other engineering fields, such as structural, electrical, light and sound engineering, material and computer science, programming, etc.
AMA: How do you overcome these difficulties?
Ralfonso: I very much enjoy collaborating with experts in these technical fields, as well as developing new interactive public art together with graduate students and their professors in various fields of science and art. We are exploring concepts, such as augmented and virtual reality for my public art, as well as globally interactive art – with which the viewer does not have to be in front of the sculpture but can interact with it from anywhere in the world at any time.
We are also working on globally connected art – art in several areas in the world invite and encourage the interaction between the viewers in these different places via art. One example is Ex Strata, an interactive light and sound sculpture. One sculpture is located on the campus of Tsinghua University in Beijing, the other is located on the NHL campus in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. Here we want to enable to students to send each other light and sound messages via these sister public sculptures.
AMA: What do you want to express through your art?
Ralfonso: I strongly believe that art viewing should really be a two-sided communication and interaction between the art and the viewer. I want to change the prevailing one-sided, passive viewing of a still piece of sculptural art to a dynamic interaction, where the art and the viewer change, react and interact – interactive and dynamic art.
I am thrilled to be on the forefront of this evolution from static to interactive and kinetic public art! My guiding principles in designing sculptures for public places are: active/not passive, moving/not still, dynamic/not static, interactive/not one-sided…
AMA: What is the most important when making art for a public space?
Ralfonso: In short, it should be something that the public will be intrigued, that puts a smile on people’s faces, and that they enjoy to mentally and physically engage with it. With a classical traditional public art sculpture, it is always a one-way passive engagement. Only the viewer who does the viewing and thinking. The art is forever still and passive.
My goal is to design truly new, never-seen-before public sculptures, which actually can “see” and “hear” the viewer, can communicate directly with them and change accordingly and interactively. As these interactive sculptures are also connected to the internet, they can be seen via webcams, and interacted with via computers and smartphone applications.
The big advantage is that for the first time a viewer does not have to be in front of a sculpture to see and interact with it. With the new technologies and techniques, art can be viewed and changed from anywhere in the world. My recent installation Union #2 is in the beautiful central Eola Park in Orlando, Florida. It is connected to the City Color Light System, shares sounds and moves in the wind.
AMA: Why do you make smaller sizes of kinetic sculptures for gallery setting?
Ralfonso: After making large – to monumental – scale public sculptures around the world for over 15 years, I have just very recently started to make smaller kinetic sculptures for private residences ranging from 50cm to 3m.
One example is the Ferrari Red Flamenco wind sculpture on the sunny beaches of Florida. I do not think of it as a commercialization, but as a new opportunity for collectors and art lovers to now be able to acquire limited series of smaller kinetic sculptures that they can enjoy right inside their homes.
In a way, I am evolving in the opposite direction of a typical artist’s career, which usually grows over many years from small-scale gallery art to large scale public art. I started with very large-scale sculptures and now am discovering the world of collectors, galleries and museums. My first small sculpture museum acquisition actually just happened this year. The Beijing Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) bought one of my small kinetic sculptures for their permanent collection.
Also, I am very much enjoying the versatility and relative ease of designing new smaller limited series versus the monumental public art. This way, I meet many more people around the world, who now have access to my art.
AMA: What do you want to achieve by co-founding the Kinetic Art Organization?
Ralfonso: We started the KAO to be a platform and place for all the people who are interested in Kinetic Art to meet, exchange and share information about Kinetic Art. From 3 members at the beginning, we have now grown to be the largest Kinetic Art organization in the world, with over 1,000 members from 60 countries.
We have published our first eBook about Kinetic Art with new articles by 18 international artists, curators and collectors from all over the world, including the USA, China, Mexico, India, France and Switzerland.
AMA: What is the most amazing moment/experience so far during your career?
Ralfonso: It is always truly special, especially when we install an artwork in its final destination. It is amazing to think that it all starts with just an intangible thought and idea.
So it is truly a very magical moment, to see it all become real, after we spent a year or more on planning, designing and fabricating it.
AMA: Who has inspired you the most in the art world?
Ralfonso: I am thrilled by the buildings and bridge designs of the architect Santiago Calatrava. I think his designs are in fact monumental sculptures. I also admire the old kinetic masters, such as George Rickey, Alexander Calder and Jean Tinguely.
AMA: What are your upcoming projects?
Ralfonso: It seems that, in planned public art projects, which I am currently discussing with large developers, involve more of a need for a master-planned strategic public art approach, to provide an overall art plan for unprecedented interactive art experiences for the visitors, residents and tenants of their large developments. So it calls much more for an overall curatorial and master planning approach than the design of a single piece.
As president of the KAO, I know most of the artists around the world that do this kind of contemporary kinetic and interactive art, so it is a great pleasure to be able to help to create a thematic and harmonious approach to the art pieces in a development project, rather than the piecemeal approach so often seen.
As an artist, my goal is to push the envelope of dynamic public art, whether with sculptures that connect universities and cities via interactive art or create visual and audio feedback loops between art and the viewer. In order to explore this “bleeding edge” in design, materials and possibilities, I have worked with students at various technical Universities, such as ETH and EPFL in Switzerland, NHL in the Netherland and others. I really would like to do much more student cooperation for projects, as it is a wonderful learning experience and discovery adventure.
Finally, I love the new design freedom I can enjoy with smaller kinetic sculptures for private residences, whether it is for a site-specific bespoke and unique commission, or creating a new limited edition of small sculptures.
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Featured image: Ralfonso – Cube Tower, via artist website.