Oliver Hess uses art to challenge the way we think about public space and the built environment. Read this interview to see how giant squid tentacles, rooms brimming with origami and fish taco farms can help do just that.
You have several projects in the works. Can you give us an overview of what you’re doing now?
Our main art practice is called Didier Hess, which combines the last names of myself and my wife, Jenna Didier. We decided to create this umbrella organization for all the different projects we’re doing. We’re just calling things Didier Hess now.
Similarly, Jenna and I are co-directors of our non-profit Materials and Applications (M&A) — she actually founded it. Right now the Squid Capsule is on display in the M&A courtyard. It’s designed by Emily White and Lisa Little of Layer. It involves 50 inflatable tentacles that hang from a cable system and create these sort of different pockets. It’s meant to summon ideas about how space is mediated. It makes physical the sort of subtleties you wouldn’t otherwise recognize. They have mist systems and different kinds of atmospheric phenomena separated by these tentacles. They all look like they’re hanging in what’s meant to look like a physical breeze — a solidified breeze. And inside of that there are different textures and different kinds of experiences of the air itself.
It was Jenna’s idea to allow the front of the studio to become kind of a pocket park. It’s a semi-public area where we experiment with different ideas for building in public. So they are experiments for public art, or for architecture or design. We work with people to help to bring their ideas into physical reality. And in many cases it involves us running a larger social organization around that to develop those things.
What’s cooking at Didier Hess?
Jenna and I do public art projects now. I think it’s a genre that has been transforming a lot recently. It used to be the mosaics and giant sculptures and plazas and now it’s becoming more a matter of transforming public space. I’ve been heartened by how many people are interested in this same vision that we have where it’s transforming the actual experience of space, as opposed to just just decorating space.
In one project we’re working on we’re going to show a prototype made in paper at a gallery downtown. We’ll have laser-cut paper which is for a larger system that’s going to be brass, and it’ll be mounted on the outside of a fire station in South L.A. It has humidity and temperature sensors and an LED array inside of these origami brass vine networks. It’s a tension mechanism that’s attached to the brick façade of the building.
In the display, I think we’re going to show how we developed the origami. I have these 19th century kind of entomological sample trays — they’re like glass and wood cases and I’m going to put the origami inside of those and some of the brass flower prototypes and also a bunch of paper flowers-ivy network hanging from the roof.
That’s something Jenna and I really like to do. A lot of the work we do in our own studio we show in art galleries, and we like to show process instead of showing final products as much.
We’re also big fans of the EATLACMA project, which is curated by Fallen Fruit. We’re doing a thing called “Food Pyramid” which is a living system, a living machine that circulates water through nine IBC totes, which have been cut apart and filled with gravel and plants and made into a pyramid with a metal frame. It circulates water from the bottom, where there’s a pond with tilapia in it. The tilapia waste is pumped to the top and it circulates through all the totes and they’re all filled with plants that either are native plants that are good for filtering the water, or else they’re edible plants that will be part of a big fish taco party in November. So the tilapia and all the vegetables are growing, and it’s basically a fish taco farm.
What is Materials and Applications all about?
Materials and Applications is a non-profit outdoor exhibition space in front of the Didier Hess studio. It’s pretty much a volunteer-run organization. We do it mostly to grow the community around these ideas. The projects are cool and they get a lot of attention, but for us, we do it mostly so that we meet people, people meet people. A lot of valuable relationships have come out of Materials and Applications. So we keep it running primarily for that experience.
We’ve built probably five projects this year with M&A. Basically everyday we’ve been working on stuff. On the weekdays we build stuff for our studio and on the weekends we build stuff for M&A. I think I’ve had 6 days off this year. We build non-stop.
We wanted to start looking at building it in different communities — particularly in communities that could benefit from something that was beautiful, or something that was engaging, something that kind of changed people’s perspective about what the future of their communities could mean, and how easy it was to build things that are exciting, and maybe renew their opinions about a place. So it’s expanding beyond the courtyard.
You’ve said that the goals of M&A are to push new, underused ideas or materials for art, landscape, and architecture. Have those goals shifted to involve more of a community aspect?
The goal at the end is to build things. It’s really about breaking away from the computer, breaking away from the monotonous building process that is sort of traditional, where you have a lot more time spent on design and a lot less time spent on the actual physical experience of it.
When you actually build things and you actually have a set of parameters put upon you but very few limitations, it allows you to experiment with a much broader idea of what’s possible.
We keep everything up for six months, so there are pretty strict limitations on what’s possible. We want these things to be prototypes for people to go out and build them again. And ultimately, what we’d like also is for those prototypes — the building process of them — to work in a viral way where it inspires other people to build that way or to experiment with different ideas. Different ideas of how to build, different ideas of the tools, the materials, the technologies, to expose those to as many people as possible and to inspire them to think differently about how to build.
And it’s mostly to increase the social value of what we build. In Southern California there are endless amounts of cinderblock buildings with stucco on them, and they sort of have no identity. They’ll have maybe a fluorescent sign in front that has some kind of message about what they sell, but there’s no attempt to do anything other than the minimal mercantilist investment in the space. And so you wind up with neighborhoods where there’s really no place for people. It’s just these shops and then parking lots. So it’s a matter of addressing how simple modifications to space could reward people with places where they could actually spend time together, places where they can grow some identity and some interest and some caring for the place.
Did you always know this was the kind of work you wanted to do?
Well, my dad was an electrical engineer. And my mom was kind of a punk. So I started out oscillating back and forth between doing pretty hard-core computer stuff and I guess anti-mainstream stuff, for lack of a better term. My whole youth was benefited by the fact that the computer was just coming into its popularity and accessibility.
The things that interested me when I was young were real-time graphics, and human-computer interface — the sort of stuff that would become virtual reality and then kind of burn out in the same genre and then probably get reawakended now by video games. Back then it was much more primitive, but it was really fun to try to make graphics back in the 80s and early 90s. All this stuff was getting developed that required a lot of computing power and that produced these very sophisticated results that allowed me to have a lot of freedom as I grew up. It really allowed me to escape from the normal trajectory of school.
I started working in visual effects when I was about 14, and I worked professionally for about 10 years doing stuff in movies and machine art for other people. And it was fun.
And then the Internet hit. The Internet totally took care of me. And then at a certain point, in the late 90s, it became clear that even that was a little too short of a road. So I stopped being interested in the Internet mostly because of pets.com type of stuff. It was a troubling thing. It was the late 90s — I’m sure most people have put it out of their minds.
So then I basically just started over doing all the things I’d done before, but better. I recognized that really what I wanted to do was something totally different, that I didn’t know existed. And then I found Jenna and she had basically come up with the perfect kind of situation already. So I started working with her, and that was Materials and Applications.
You’ve mentioned you’re really into video games. Which is your favorite?
Rez. It’s basically a music sequencer. It’s kind of a hallucinogenic graphic arts explosion and everything you do plays sounds. And then all the sounds are composed to go together. So you kind of make techno music by flying around. It’s an unbelievable game. It’s beautiful, it’s simple to play, but it’s incredibly rewarding at the same time. It’s got it’s own cult following.
It’s got such an enchanting beauty to it. It’s a great thing to put in the background of like a party or something. It’s an amazing game. In Japan they released it with a vibrator so you can have sex with it and that thing is like really, really popular.
You obviously love your work, but what are the frustrating parts of what you do?
Building codes in general are beyond belief how complex they are. More time and energy goes into meeting the needs of the bureaucracy than goes into satisfying the needs of society itself.
That’s something we see everywhere. That’s the kind of disease that we’re fighting against. It’s this sort of malaise of everything being concrete and everything having to be smooth and everything having to have very specific guidelines about how high the fence has to be, how dense the openings in the fence have to be … it just creates a situation where everything looks the same. There’s no real personality.
Technology can make places more relevant to a community, because it allows you to build things that have much more sophisticated structures and interactivity. It can help you implement different sensor systems and different lighting systems and create these beautiful organic experiences.
We’ve got one we’re doing right now in downtown L.A. It’s got a bunch of seismometers that’s measuring vibration both in the earth — particularly induced by the different directions or flow of traffic. It’s on bridges so it has a naturally amplified or attenuated experience to begin with. So turning those into lighting systems is a project we’re really excited about.
You have an incredible array of really unusual projects!
You know, the interesting thing is, there’s a complete explosion in almost every field I’m interested in. All the things that we do in our studio, there are cultures coming out of the ground. These people, I suppose, were the same as us and were really just waiting for the tools to become accessible and the support of society to exist for these types of work to flourish.
You know the machine art scene is really taking off — inexpensive microcontrollers are becoming easier to program, there are a lot more vendors of obscure sensors and actuators — the playing field has changed dramatically because the D.I.Y. movement has made this stuff so popular. I imagine there are whole communities of people who are in the suburbs messing around with these things in their basement, as well as people in the city who are doing it right on the street corner.
These days it’s so easy to explore technology that now the challenge is figuring how to apply that technology so that it has the maximum impact both from a scientific standpoint — that’s beneficial — but then also from a cultural standpoint: how it inspires people, how it excites people, how it adds to their lives.