Jakob Kvist is a lighting designer and artist living and working in Copenhagen. He was part of Regenerate 14 – an art event organized by The Lab and Generator hostels. He was interviewed by fellow visual artist and designer Rune Brink Hansen.
RUNE BRINK HANSEN—Hi Jakob. We work in the same field, yet I would consider us being of completely opposite natures when it comes to how we approach light. We work with adding light to darkness; while it seems to me, that your brilliance is in adding shade and colour to light. Besides this you have a distinct sense of detail when it comes to adding light to an existing surrounding; working on the location instead of adding tons of foreign elements to a setting. Start by telling me a little bit about your background, how and why did you start to specialise in working with light?
JAKOB KVIST—I’ve been fascinated by light as far back as I remember. I used to watch a Michael Jackson Dangerous World Tour concert from Bucharest that my dad had taped for me on VHS over and over again, just to check out the lights. I was, and still am, a great admirer of just how integrated the lights and music could become, and it’s basically the same thing I do when working with concert lighting today. Also, when I was very little, I used to build big stages in LEGO. I would do a Queen or Michael Jackson scenography, complete with moving lights, risers, audience and even roadies.
Apart from that, I’d never figured I would be working professionally with light. In my high school years, I thought about becoming an engineer and designing rollercoasters. After high school, when my grades were shitty and I had gotten an F in math, I played a lot of music and worked as a chef in a Japanese restaurant. That was back in 2007. I went on to study musicology while playing with various bands and working in the restaurant. It was actually playing music that got my interest in light woken again. Our sound engineer worked at a local club, and I asked him if I could come and watch how the lights worked. I was lucky to get a few hours behind the light desk at the club, and started to work as a freelance lighting technician. The year after I got to go on a national tour with a band, and the rest is history.
RBH—Your recent project for Regenerate 2014 in Generator’s Copenhagen hostel looks like you’ve taken out hallways, hotels and scenes from lost locations in restless movies from the past. What were your thoughts about the place and transforming it with color?
JK—When you’re working on a location where a lot of people come and go all the time, it is important to take a look at how they react to a certain room, hallway or passage in relation to the architecture and light. With Generator I had a completely uniform light and a completely uniform architecture where you could get lost in a matter of minutes, because all of the hotel looked exactly the same! So without putting up a single light bulb I added several functions to the light, by putting on specially manufactured colored gels. By putting on the color gels I added an aesthetic function to the light that was easy for guests appreciate and understand. Furthermore, by putting the colors into a system that related to the architecture I added an intuitive function that would help people find their way around the hotel. In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need room numbers, just colors, and to me that’s a wonderful thought!
RBH—You seem to have a distinctive ability to make colors and light meet and create contrast or shapes in the room, can you share a little about this secret of yours, and what thoughts lie behind it?
JK—Just like the contrast between light and darkness, there lies a great contrast between colors, their philosophical meaning and physiological influence on humans. I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg regarding the application of colors, and that’s something I will continue to study and investigate for years to come. I’m always looking for a color that no one has seen, or a color combination that’s somehow sacred. I try to do colors so that they relate to their surroundings, tell a story, and add an interactive or intuitive element to create a symbiosis between spectator and light.
RBH—As a minimalist you are not afraid of working with colors; does the setting tell you where to go, or are you taking the setting to a new place on your own?
JK—Both actually! I will always try to extrude as much from the location as possible: numbers, history, rooms, architecture, etc. I believe there is a ‘sacred’ approach to each location that I work with, and it is my job to excavate as much information as possible to find that golden path in the light, that creates magic. The more I can get inspired from the location, the better and easier it is for me to do a good job. The more dull or meaningless a location gets, the harder it is for me to do something good. I’ve turned down a lot of jobs, because I couldn’t find any inspiration or extrude something useful for me to work with.
RBH—How are you influenced by the American sixties minimalism or ‘Light and Space’ movement; who are your main heroes in light design throughout history?
JK—I’m very inspired by lighting artists such as James Turrell and Dan Flavin. Turrell still amazes me today, and I think he’s one of the true pioneers in working with light and color. His installations have such a deep and profoundly over-earthy atmosphere to them. He has truly found a unique way to work with colors and architecture to create healing installations that really affect people. Still they are so powerful and minimalistic, and that’s what’s so fascinating about light. You can create something magical by staying simplistic and true to your principles. That’s something we could all learn from in life!
RBH—Do you seek inspiration in other fields as well?
JK—Everyone who works with colors and light are an inspiration to me. Goethe and Johannes Itten are some of my heroes in color, while painters such as Hockney, Rothko or our very own Willumsen do fantastic things with light! I’m very inspired by how much natural light and artificial are an influence on our wellbeing, feelings and behavior in our everyday lives. For instance, in Scandinavia we tend to let as much daylight into our homes as possible and use warm artificial light as a direct contrast to our very cold daylight. In southern and Mediterranean Europe, people will do the exact opposite, having only small windows to let in as little sunlight as possible, and using vast quantities of cold fluorescent light indoors in contrast to the warm sunlight outdoors. When people migrate they tend to take their light with them, even if the weather and climate is completely different. I love to see how people from other climates and cultures make themselves feel at home by bringing their own cultural understanding of light and coziness into their homes, even if it doesn’t make sense in relation to the light and weather outside. That’s true inspiration to me!
RBH—Many of your works can be seen as interactive, being influenced by the audience presence of shadows and movements; how do you consider the audience in your work, do you differentiate between creating a ‘stage’, and inviting the audience onto it?
JK—All of my installations have an interactive feature, but I don’t see myself as artist in that field. The interactive elements I put into my installations are not technology based, but work on an intuitive level where maybe a certain color pattern urges the spectator to broaden their horizon, or see things in a new light. My work is based on the idea that the installation should affect the spectator, not the other way around. Technology should never be an excuse to interact with the spectator. Aesthetics should be.
RBH—Many of your projects are reminiscent of graphic art and painting; do you work in other art forms to develop your ideas?
JK—Most of my work is based on an image or a certain feeling in light that I’ll try to extract from my mind and materialize in a physical installation. I’ll keep notepads on me all the time, next to me in bed, and I even have an underwater notepad to take notes when I’m in the shower. It can be very hard for me to sleep, so I will take notes at night so that I can empty my mind and focus on getting some sleep.
I’ll sketch most of my ideas on notepads, and if they’re any good or get stuck in my mind, I’ll make more precise drawings in SketchUp and even do renderings, before I store them as a project that I can pick up another time. I really don’t work with an A to B process, where you kind of investigate something. I have a very clear idea on what my work should be or look like, and the process for me is actually getting there. I start at B and work my way backwards, trying to find a reason to come back to A.
RBH—Which of your installations/jobs would you highlight as the most representative of your style?
JK—I work both with music, architecture and installations. Sometimes I get to combine all three fields into one creation. It very rarely happens, since the music has to correspond to the given architecture it inhabits, while both of them are combined through the light. I did this kind of concert last year. It took almost two years of planning and it was a one night only event, so I only had one chance to pull it off. We used a round building to create a 360 degree lighting installation where the musicians would face outside in, with the audience placed in the center. We created an installation where there was no point of view, but instead the audience would be surrounded by sound, light and architecture that was ingeniously combined into a super installation. I’m proud that we managed to pull off. It will probably never happen again.
RBH—We have worked together on the stage shows for WhoMadeWho in the past – do you still do concert lighting or is your main focus installation work now?
JK—My main focus is on installations, but I still do concert lighting from time to time. Right now I’m working with artists such as Quadron, Reptile Youth, Mont Oliver and When Saints Go Machine, which you are also doing a concert with next month.
RBH—What are you working on right now?
JK—Right now I’m working on my first solo exhibition ‘Any Color You Like’ at Vesterbro Showroom that premieres on December 1. It will be a further development of my previous work with color chromatics and uniform light. I’m building my own lighting fixtures this time, so I’m really looking forward to see the result! I’m also exhibiting this in Iceland in February, and doing Frost Festival here in Copenhagen, which is a music and art festival that utilizes architecture and light to create unique concerts in the cityscape.
RBH—Are you taking your work in a specific direction in the future?
JK—I really want to work more with color chromatics, but I have also other concepts in mind which involve lasers, natural light and water! Right now, however, I’m really into developing the use of colors for many applications, always improving the next installation over the last one. My ‘Any Color You Like’ installations are really about the transitions between the colors, and how you can’t see the difference between two adjacent colors, unless you broaden your horizon and change your perspective. It’s really about the small everyday changes in life that somehow forms you and defines who you are. Only in the back-mirror are you able to see the choices, good or bad, that you’d have taken, the paths you’ve chosen, and that’s really what the colors represent to me.