aspect-ratio 10x9 Atrium of HfG Karlsruhe in 2000

Atrium of HfG Karlsruhe in 2000, Photo: Dirk Altenkirch, (© Dirk Altenkirch)

It had become obvious by the eighties in Europe, that economics, politics, and art would no longer be built on traditional industries, ideological rhetoric, and aesthetics. The legendary eight-volume report on the German government commission for the expansion of technical communications (KtK) was published in 1974 – three years earlier, the Japan Computer Development Institute had coined the term information society for political strategy and stated this as their “national goal” for the year 2000. The Paris exhibition “Electra,” conceived by Prague-born Frank Popper and “Les Immatériaux” realized by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard were late but unmistakable signals for a re-thinking for the drivers and operators as well as the poets and thinkers in post-modern society. New working and production methods required new thought cultures. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had already founded its own artistic research platform in 1967, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), founded by the Hungarian artist Györgi Kepes. The Academy of Arts in Budapest was consequently one of the first traditional universities with a department for inter-medial experimentation and learning, built in 1999. Two years before the Institute for New Media (INF) was founded as part of the Frankfurt Städelschule; its first director was Peter Weibel. In 1991 the Institute for Time-Based Media at the Berlin University of the Arts came into being – founded under the direction of filmmaker and artist Heinz Emigholz.

However, other new establishments in the turn of the last decade of the 20th Century became even more influential. The state premier of Baden-Württemberg, Lothar Späth, belonged to the avant-guard of the political decision-makers. In his book, Wende in die Zukunft (1985), he conceived of a potential “thought partnership” between human and machine. He chose the city of Karlsruhe to deepen the relationship between culture and technology. Almost simultaneously, the two very different federal states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg founded their creative Think Tanks for the artistic and theoretical permeation of new communication technologies in Köln and Karlsruhe in the late ’80s. The French Studio national des arts contemporains Le Fresnoy was built between 1991 and 97. In Ogaki-shi, Japan, the International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences (IAMAS) was built promptly on the European model of the “Digital Bauhaus,” as the spectacular exhibition in 1999 at the ICC, Tokyo was also named. The term digital Bauhaus was coined by the artist Jürgen Claus in the 1980s, during his time as guest researcher at CAVS, MIT in Boston. Today, he is a welcome guest at ZKM and at the University of Arts and Design Karlsruhe.

It was a stroke of fate when Heinrich Klotz accepted the offer from the government of Baden-Württemberg to realize the ambitious plans for the arts in Karlsruhe. In the beginning of the 1970s, one could still get to know him at Marburg University (together with his assistant Horst Bredekamp and his colleague Martin Warnke) as a rather sceptical art historian, when it came to the students’ wishes to integrate media research with the faculty of arts and humanities. Barely 20 years later, he took on the challenge to merge technical communications research and design, now an imperative, with his own critical and creative spirit. The charismatic and pragmatic Klotz set the establishment of a university of arts and design in the tradition of the renowned Ulm Institution for the development of the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) as his basic condition. With this he secured the creation of an unparalleled mixture of teaching, research and exhibition machine in Europe in the early ’90s. As with the historical Bauhaus model, the borders between fine and applied arts as well as those between theory and experimental practice were to be dissolved.

In the summer of 1992, HfG together with a few students already experienced in other study programs, began their work. Analogous to the Academy of Media Arts Cologne founded in 1990, Heinrich Klotz initially focused the teaching on the post-graduate system. In the true sense of the word, he came across as a tireless spiritus rector. With Hans Belting, Klaus vom Bruch, Marie Jo Lafontaine, Marcel Odenbach, Gunter Rambow, Peter Sloterdijk, a little later Volker Albus, Siegfried Gohr, Boris Groys, Candida Höfer, Edgar Reitz, Thomas Struth, and Beatrix von Pilgrim, he successfully put together a prominent and exciting board that, together with the students, learned to grasp new relations and to reconfigure them.

“The first six to eight years were still very much improvised and essayistic,” wrote Peter Sloterdijk in 2008 looking back. This applied to the accommodation as well. Only after the university and ZKM moved into the enormous hall construction of the former weapons and ammunition factory (Industrie-Werke Karlsruhe AG), did the idea Heinrich Klotz so vivaciously described begin to materialize as we walked through the barren ruins of the impressive industrial building together: in a house, led by a single conductor, whose residence would be under the roof of the building, the interplay of art, media and thought was to be taught, researched, experimented and exhibited.

The death of Heinrich Klotz in the summer of 1999 was a heavy blow for the avant-guard project in Karlsruhe. As a university head, the forward-thinking, sensitive and yet determined visionary was irreplaceable. The brilliant Peter Weibel took over as director of ZKM, and henceforth etched the innovative research and exhibition machine even deeper into the global map of the museum landscape. Gunter Rambow temporarily took over the university as rectorate chair until Peter Sloterdijk was named in early 2001 as the new rector. He held his office for 14 years, supported a great deal in the last year by the successful product designer, Volker Albus, who effectively led the university from 2015 till early 2016 when the present rector came into office.

The Daniel Libeskind Research Studio was set up at the university from 1999 to 2003 under the direction of the star architect from New York. Students of media art, scenography, product design, communication design, art research and philosophy devoted themselves from all directions to the research of space. As a result, the productive interconnection between exhibition design and scenography remains to this day. Hans Belting was given emeritus status (2002) shortly before Libeskind left the university – two years before he had initiated the DFG graduate college “Bild – Körper – Medium. Eine anthropologische Perspektive,” developing image research as an interdisciplinary project till 2009. Boris Groys transferred to NYU in 2005. In the same year Michael Saup left the university. He had made a strong impression with his coding competency and emphasis on interaction between space, sound and light for over seven years.

In the first decade of the new century, the theoretical and practical posts at the university were gradually taken over by others. Michael Bielicky became professor for digital media. From 2003, Beat Wyss taught art research and media theory and directed the graduate college after Hans Belting. Wilfried Kühn taught exhibition design from 2006 to 2012. Byung-Chul Han made a short guest appearance in the philosophy and media theory program. Wolfgang Ullrich took the second professorship chair for art research and media theory from 2006–2015. In the media arts, Didi Danquart, Thomas Heise and Andrei Ujica established a strong film department. In photography, Michael Clegg and Armin Linke contributed to a notable artistic profile. Desiree Heiss and Ines Kaag, known more internationally as duo BLESS, helped shape experimental design between product and fashion, and Urs Lehni took on communication design.

At the last evaluation of the Science Commision in 2007, Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design was awarded a certificate of excellency. This, however, should not be reason to sit back. The international and German university landscape has changed greatly over the last ten years. Media departments as well as art history and art theory institutes, aware of the medial and technological integration of their subjects, have sprung up in many places. The majority of academies or universities for art and design have been tackling the challenge through changes in production and perception conditions for a long time. The digital is no longer analogous to the alchemistic formula for gold.

The rector's office together with the council of the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design has taken on the challenge to open up a perspective for students that will cater for the educational needs of new generations of students and creators, and that will keep surprising for the decades to come. The continual close cooperation with ZKM remains an important consideration for the present and the future.