According to Petra Bachmaier, her hometown just outside of Munich was a small place with little to do but dream of the places you could one day go. Now as a founder of a prolific art and design studio undertaking some of the most ambitious video installation pieces in the United States, Petra is not only fulfilling those childhood dreams, but allowing others to step into them through immersive displays of light and color.
Petra Bachmaier has made her impact on the Chicago art scene as one half the art and design studio Luftwerk, a collaborative project between her and her husband that produces immersive installation pieces centered around the concepts of light and color. Their work by its nature cannot typically be confined within a particular space, but instead springs up in various locations with inspiration drawn from each new scene. The transient and exploratory elements of Petra’s work mirror her own inherent wanderlust and curiosity.
“I grew up outside of Munich in a small town where there’s not too much to do, except have ideas of where you would someday go. In general I was a very restless young person who wanted to move around a lot.”
Petra took an interest in art at an early age, which eventually grew into an appreciation for performance art in particular. While in Hamburg, Petra came under the tutelage of professor Henning Christiansen, a member of the international Fluxus movement which explored experimental approaches to a variety of artistic disciplines.
“He was really fun for me as a poetic influence. He was a composer, and he’d do things like incorporate birds into his compositions to add an element of chance into his music.”
As her fascination with new and playful expressions of art grew, Petra moved to Holland where she made a fortuitous connection with the performance artist Joseph Ravens, who regaled her with stories of the burgeoning performance art scene in Chicago. The two developed a quick friendship that endured despite Petra’s travels. Some time after, Petra found herself working with a cobbler in London when Ravens reached out to her.
“One day in 1998 he just sent me an email out of the blue and said “I have a room for rent in Chicago, do you want to come?’”
It did not take long for Petra to make her decision.
“From London I hopped on an airplane. It was an overnight decision. I got excited about seeing something I didn’t know; exploring something that has yet to be explored.”
Initially what Petra found remarkable about the United States was its unanticipated familiarity. As American culture circulates on a global scale through film, music, and other forms of media, Petra wandered the streets of Chicago feeling as if she had been there before. The one aspect that caught her off guard, perhaps, was the scale.
“I remember I was sitting on the stairs of my apartment in Wicker Park waiting for Joseph to arrive, staring at this enormous moon; I think it was a super moon. I had noticed just how big the streets and sights felt. The dimensionality of everything surrounding me felt a bit overwhelming.”
Over the next few years, Petra traversed between Chicago and Germany while completing her studies, a Bachelor’s in performance art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then a Master’s in Hamburg. During her time at SAIC, Petra met with Sean, an art student from New York who would go on to become her husband and cofounder of the Luftwerk studio. Petra explains how their relationship is far more than a marriage, but also a prolific partnership.
“I met Sean and we started collaborating on a lot of work. We clicked because we had a similar aesthetic sensibility. Overtime you get a deeper understanding of each other through that synergy.”
Once she had completed her master’s in Germany, Petra and Sean decided to settle in Chicago. It was the place they had both met, and it was relatively neutral territory as they had both come from somewhere else. The two married and worked a series of odd jobs for a period of about 7 years, all while working on a few commissioned projects on the side.
“He worked at a flower shop, I was teaching German. Besides the odd jobs, we had commissioned projects. When we did the Skywall installation people started asking what our studio’s name was.”
After Skywall, where Luftwerk projected images of clouds onto 60 ice blocks, garnered the two significant attention, Petra and Sean decided to pursue installation artwork more seriously, which led to their founding of Luftwerk. Through the studio, the two have produced a plethora of highly regarded video installation and media projects. Luftwerk has woven their dazzling tapestries of intertwining lights atop a host of different spaces, from public parks and bridges to iconic landmarks such as Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate. In discussing upcoming projects, Petra revealed a teaser of Luftwerk’s forthcoming installation.
Luminous Field | Millennium Park, Chicago 2012 Photo Credit Peter Tsai
“We’re working with Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to illuminate the towers of four church steeples. It’ll be modeled after morse code signals and a poem of Thoreau.”
Petra’s artwork is built upon a sense of place, the opening of a dialogue between a physical landscape and the artist. Since her journey to America has provided her with a new type of canvas with which to engage, we asked her heritage has influenced her work, and how her work has changed with her life abroad.
“Travel opens your mind and how you see things. When I go back and meet an old school friend who’s never left home. I realize I’ve been away for over half my life. You realize you don’t even know where to start telling your story, with all the people you’ve met and the places you’ve been.”