In 2011, Nohlab was established as a design studio, founded by Deniz Kader and Candaş Şişman, as a result of long-term friendship turning into a creative collaboration. Istanbul based design studio Nohlab is an ever-evolving entity working on both commercial and commissioned, international projects that revolves around art, design and technology. The studio’s projects have the flexibility to shift between various fields such as video art, motion design, projections mapping, kinetic installation, holographic installation, audio-visual design and art direction. Their main focus is to design personal and interpretable experiences for people.
Since 2011, their work has been exhibited in major festivals at home and abroad: ARS Electronica, Signal Festival, Sónar İstanbul, Contemporary Istanbul, OFFF Festival, TedX. The studio also worked with many brands including Chanel, Pink Floyd, Target, Audi, Nike, Scriabin Museum, and EA Theater. With the latest rapid developments in technology, in a world that is soon to be taken over by artificial intelligence, virtual reality and alternative realities, the projects of Nohlab determinedly follow a delicate path of bringing feelings to the fore by designing inclusive and participatory environments through the unity of audio-visual layers appealing to our various senses.
Their latest project, site-specific commisioned work, Ab-ı Hayat, meaning Water of Life, is placed at Memorial Hospital in Istanbul. In parallel to the duo’s objective, the work exists to interact with passersby, providing them anxiety free, positive moments. Ab-ı Hayat speaks to feelings, thus having a transformative impact on the state of its visitors’ minds. Additionally, Nohlab collaborates with Osman Koç for a side project, NOS Visuals, a real-time, sound reactive visualization engine that is also a collaborative platform allowing them to collaborate with musicians in a performance-led way. We talked with Nohlab about how they started out in new media arts and the future possibilities that will point the way to controlling perception, memory & reality in arts & technology.
Yonca Keremoğlu: You run both commissioned art projects and commercial projects. As a studio, how do you adapt yourself to both commercial and artistic projects?
Nohlab: We are mainly design studio, focusing on collaborations from institutions and firms who request custom-made projects. On the commercial basis, projects unfold collaboratively, whereas commissioned projects develop according to our artistic approach. We’re open to both commercial and commissioned projects. Commercial projects are design-based projects that we think over a specific problem based on a brief, whereas in art you create your own questions from scratch.
Designing and sharing experiences for people is the main motive in most of our projects. Our essential intent is to design inclusive and participatory environments through audio-visual works and performances. It’s a great pleasure to present an experience to people at a festival or an event. Festivals provide a platform for us to create audio-visual structures for crowds to experience. For festivals, we find platforms to share our inner world, combining it with the layers of the history of the location of the festival and turning the history into an inspirational element for crowds. We aim to create places of experience and exploration for the festivals that we attend such as Ars Electronica.
We find ourselves lucky to work on both commercial and commissioned projects, and that they balance each other. We think of on how we can integrate innovative ideas parallel to the expectations of commercial field. Generally, clients do not want to take risks and prefer to stay in a safe zone. We always encourage our clients and commissioners to take more risks and be more courageous. It’s a great chance to work with open-minded clients for their projects, which allows us to create daringly. The commercial field is filled with creative opportunities that are open to indirect narratives.
Yonca Keremoğlu: What kind of role does visual memory play on your work practice?
Candaş Şişman: It’s not possible to create without external factors and conditions. Our reality, and the environment that we live in are accumulation of our past, present and future. The chaotic structure of the city we live in, Istanbul, cultivates us. The differences between Eastern and Western culture, the diversity that comes within with chaotic structure of the city and contrast of differences living in the same environment inspires us. Starting to work in this field in the beginning of the 2000s, we had the chance to observe the developments in new media at home and abroad through Internet. Realizing what is lacking makes one understand himself and his surroundings better. We turned our steps toward the work we want to create through realizing the deficiencies of this place. The foundation of our way of thinking as hybrid thinking, combining two different senses, is laid on to childhood experiences. In time, as we become more aware of our synesthetic abilities, this way of thinking has become our work. It’s highly connected to what we observe mostly as a child. I know that when Deniz was a child, he used to throw plastic soldier toys into the stove and watch them melt. Observing the process of transformation when he was a child, his way of thinking evolved into what he does now, such as liquid simulations on the computer.
As a child, it took a long time for me to begin to speak. I used to express my needs by making sounds until the age of 4-5. I used language in an auditory way through making sounds instead of using words for self-expression.
Even if you do not know how to speak a certain language or have the ability to implement it, different ways of communication are discovered and constructed as a child. Deficiency becomes an advantage at this point such as being blind providing you with an improved auditory sense, perception.
Deniz Kader: For us, doing is creating. In time, creating turns into passion harbouring ambition. It’s a form of expression, a way of existence. To share and to create is the basis of what we do. It’s an ongoing process that comes out of nothing. All that you see and live, through your whole memory is the main part of this process.
Yonca Keremoğlu: Could you talk to us about your aspirations and your ideas regarding the origins of the latest project, Ab-ı Hayat (2018)?
Candaş Şişman: Most of the projects of Nohlab are transient works, custom-made projects for festivals, buildings or events. The Ab-ı Hayatproject differs from others being a site-specific commissioned project for Memorial Hospital. Its name means water of life. The project exists with its surroundings. We like its organic connection to its surrounding environment. In a similar manner, in 2011 we have transformed the old Haydarpaşa train station for the Yekpare (2010) project, which was a project that unfolded in a public space that is experienced by the visitors. For Ab-ı Hayat, it was exciting to embed the project in a permanent space. We like the fact that this project allows us to design a feeling for visitors of the hospital.
One of crucial intents whilst realizing this project was to provide anxiety free, positive moments for passersby. We aim to design a transient feeling that would transform their state of mind. The theme of nature was coherent to our intent of removing people from their concerns and anxieties and find momentary peace of mind. Hospitals are fragile places, so it required a lot of trial and error to find the best approach to affect the psychology of people in a positive way. It would be risky to go abstract or use specific color such as red. Though people do not go to the hospital to see art, the installation was dominant in the space, taking people in. Like a bouncing ball, it creates an immediate distraction for people to change their point of view and current state of mind.
Deniz Kader: Building a permanent work was fulfilling in many aspects, such as thinking as an architect providing a living space for people. It’s a work that creates its own mood for its own surrounding. Nature was a significant tool for this project. Though you’re not actually in nature, it provides a part of nature, leaving an immersive effect to the visitors. It was a challenge to design the experience without making the aspects of technology apparent. Another aspect of designing a project for a social space is that it leaves a trace on the visual memory of the visitors as it did for Haydarpaşa train station in the Yekpare project. Manipulating the memory of people on how they remember a certain public monument or adding a layer of a new experience related that place are ways to leave a lasting impact on people’s memory.
It adds a transformative effect on how they remember a certain place or how they feel in it. The project allowed us to add a layer both on the history of the building and a lasting impression on the memory of visitors, of how they perceive Haydarpaşa train station. For future, we would like to continue to experiment with the idea of creating experiences by intervening in public space. We would have like to have built an experience ground in a public space. A space within a space, an alternative reality within a physical reality. There are many ways that we would like to play with the idea of public space. It could be a permanent corridor on a public square, that lets people experience a new reality apart from its physical environment.
Yonca Keremoğlu: The works you’re creating in new media arts, plays with human perception, having the potential to transform other creative fields into new experiences. How was the process of making of projects based on theatre design; Yaşar Kemal’s novel The Sea-Crossed Fisherman (2016) and Lucifer’s Fall (2012)?
Deniz Kader: The projects in which we took part in stage design were highly collaborative processes apart from their differences. For The Sea-Crossed Fisherman, we fictionalized, a vital scene. For Lucifer’s Fall, the environment of the story was based on a religious concept and we interpreted a visual story telling on a pre-existing building. Lucifer’s Fall was written and directed by the director, whereas The Sea-Crossed Fisherman was a mise-en-scene, a multi-layered, novel-based theatre. Lucifer’s Fall was a solo theatre performance. Balance and harmony are fundamental. What we’ve experienced through stage design projects is that it’s really important to understand each other, especially with the director. The director is the substantial part of the stage design projects.
You use an idiosyncratic language through the design process, while the director has his own version of the story, a certain way of telling a story. At times it’s easier for the director to see the big picture, while we are focused on a specific part and forming it aesthetically, as if taking part as an instrument.
From introduction to conclusion, it is a long process to configure the whole story. Along rehearsals, the point you start at and the point you arrive at differs. There are many factors on the way. Even the performance of the actors changes the way of the narrative. It’s not possible for a single discipline to manipulate the whole play. It’s all about process.
Candaş Şişman: On stage design projects, each element of the project supports one another without one of them becoming too prominent. Dancers, actors, the story and the set design act as instruments for the same purpose. The idea is to create an experience, each part standing equally and together to tell a story. It’s a challenge at the same time. From the stage direction to light & sound direction, it was a collaborative process. While creating your own part, you have to think holistically, taking each figure of the play into consideration. The important thing is to balance it with constructive thinking and open-mindedness. We’re up to a new project with the same team that we worked with for The Sea-Crossed Fisherman. It will unfold as musical opera/music theatre in a more contemporary approach compared to The Sea-Crossed Fisherman. We’re excited about the upcoming projects on this field.
Yonca Keremoğlu: Music and visuals are well integrated with one another on your projects. Does either one has the priority?
Deniz Kader: It is at the core of our way of thinking. As a feeling, each takes an equal part. Sociologically, visual memory is stronger than auditory memory. It’s more common to fictionalize something visually. Though it depends for each case, there’s a delicate balance between visual and aural.
Candaş Şişman: The courses I teach at Bilgi University are highly connected to our relationship with ways of thinking, in visual and auditory thinking. Though music and visuals take equal part on most of our projects, it depends from project to project. Primarily, we are concentrated on designing experiences.
Visual, auditory and tactual aspects co-exist in these experiences. It’s not solely about visualization. Experience design is relatable to each sense. Each has an equal value thus all senses are embedded in the process apart from the audio-visual aspects. Spatial sense is also a part of it. It’s different to design a motion or an image visually and auditorily. Compared to visual thinking, it’s easier for me to think in an auditory way, speak with sound effects and design the timing & aesthetics of a visual.
In most of our projects, hybridity, the conscious blending of different senses, is what matters the most. A flat 2-D visual is not instrumental without audio-visual effects projected on it. Auditory communication is more inclusive and due to its structure, audio frequencies create more immersive experiences. Projection is not as immersive as auditory factors. Adding an auditory layer, properly designed sound effects to a 2-D visual creates a holistic, stronger experience for the audience. Seeing something crashing in mute is not as the same as seeing and hearing it together with a sound effect.
In 2012, for 20-25 seconds, we gave out the solely the sound of the performance as we have dimmed the visual effects for the Under An Alias (2012) project at a public space. This episode of the performance took part as depicting the whispers inside the memory of a person. It could have been made the other way around such as presenting the visuals without the sound. It’s about cutting off the expectations of the audience by cutting of a visual or sound effect. It’s similar to what John Cage aimed to achieve in his piece 4’33, with periods of silence creating the music.
Deniz Kader: Throughout the process, we also think as an experiencer. We think of the work as an experience and a feeling. By putting ourselves in the shoe of an experiencer, we feel and think as an experiencer and design the experience accordingly. Eventually, its reflections differ from person to person as a feeling of color or sound varies from person to person.
Candaş Şişman: One of the pleasant things about designing experiences is that it’s universal. It’s not giving informative data based on education levels, age groups or IQ levels. For us, experience takes precedence over information. Experience is more fundamental. Every person feels and experiences.
Experiences focus on essential points of human understanding. It’s possible to learn something only when information combines with experience. Theoretically knowing that fire will burn your hand does not provide a full understanding of it. You have to experience burning your hand in order to truly learn it.
Experiences are interpretable and subjective. As a design studio, our basis is to create environments to provide interpretable experiences for people. Everyone can draw different conclusions as a result of these experiences.
Designing experiences is a tool for us to create our own method of producing flowing, organic story telling, far removed from stereotyped, didactic narratives.
Yonca Keremoğlu: Apart from Nohlab projects, you’ve also NOS, the real-time visualization engine, functioning as an instrument on collaborative performance-based project. How did NOS Visuals come about?
Nohlab: Following our first attendance at Ars Electronica in 2012, we’ve gathered as a team with Bager Akbay and Osman Koç. In the light of our experience at Ars Electronica, we decided to design a visual performance tool that can be manipulated according to our needs. What we did in 2012 was a real-time visualization project. After 2012, we wanted to design a software system that allows us to collaborate with other musicians and artists working in multi-disciplinary fields of art in a sustainable and performance-led way. Our collaborations vary through the guidance of the festivals and our proposals. It’s a continuously evolving process. In 2014, Markus Schulz requested visual software that could be used with his music performances. We worked for 4-5 months with Osman Koç who was working in creative coding. After we shared our proposal with him, this process set the ground for NOS turning into a collaborative project platform.
Since 2014, we’ve turned the visual engine into a collaborative project platform, which we continue to collaborate on with other musicians. Due to rapidly changing nature of technological tools, it needs to be developed constantly. We always question how we can use this instrument in the most efficient way. We’re planning to share the software as an open source resource since there aren’t any similar tools in the processing world. It would be nice for people to contribute and we would like to open and provide a platform, which everyone can access and contribute to, in order to make it grow together.
Yonca Keremoğlu: You have known each other for more than 20 years, studying Plastic Arts in high school and later studying Animation and Motion Design together and working together as Nohlab since 2011. How has your partnership have evolved in time?
Deniz Kader: We’re in a special and advantageous position due to working with a close friend that I have known since the times when mp3 players, walkman and CDs were fashionable, and long before the widespread use of Internet. It’s not common to be able to have a second opinion from a work partner that you fully trust. In this respect, we consider ourselves lucky to have a past and future together.
Candaş Şişman: We have known each other for a long time, we’ve gone through similar phases and been inspired by common concepts. Similar thinking may cause some downsides. Partnership in every sense is difficult to sustain. On the top of it, creative partnerships are even more difficult. The tricky part is to know when to transform advantages into challenges and vice versa. Now and then, we must diversify our similarities to create challenges for one another, break our patterns. Due to similar way of thinking, differentiating might be beneficial through the expansion of our team and including different perspectives. We like to grow together with open-minded people with fresh viewpoints. As a result of our relationship based on trust, we harmonise with each other when we draw our parts of the same project together. In the initial stages of a project, we accumulate our perspectives that add value to one another without any significant conflict.
In the end, the idea and trust and respect for one another is what counts. When the idea is good, it comes naturally to us to look objectively. We also lean towards to the idea of one of us undertaking the direction of a Nohlab project. Individually, I also create works as an artist which contrast sharply with producing collaborative work for Nohlab. Differentiating this experience is something to be experimented with. I would be pleased to work on a project that is directed by Deniz.
Yonca Keremoğlu: Do you think the significance of new media will develop in future, having a vital impact of human kind? What kind of future possibilities do you predict in new media arts that excite you?
Deniz Kader: With every passing day, it’s getting harder to make predictions about the future. We are being manipulated through what we experience through up and coming developments of technology. Though we plan to realize a project in 10 years, we don’t know where technology will take it. Technology has a great impact on what we do. I find Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The London Mastaba Project at the Serpentine Lake fascinating for the fact that the original concept for the floating Mastaba dates back to 1960s. It’s interesting that they’ve been able to realize a project that they had predicted decades ago.
Candaş Şişman: Technology has entered every part of our lives. It’s in the core of what we do, they way we tell a story in our works. A new field is appearing and will intervene in every domain of our lives, creating various future possibilities for everyone. From augmented reality to virtual reality it’s spreading to social life in every sense. In 30 years, we’ll be wearing augmented reality lenses/glasses. The structures of these technologies are turning into more immersive forms. In parallel with the course of events, artists working in new media field will begin to create works that are integrated with public life.
For instance, instead of sculptures, there’ll be works that can only be seen via augmented reality. Primarily, the ruling class will benefit from the possibilities of the new technologies. The level of privilege among people will increase. Human kind will divide into two as improved human beings and pure humans. These differences will also evolve in terms of physical abilities.
We have come to a point of increasing power of thought through technology such as wearing certain devices to gain new perceptions. The most significant theme on this subject is the search of immortality, which can also be considered as a disease.
We as designers & artists will be in league together with scientists in order to combine different senses. There’ll be new possibilities in nanotechnology that will cut loose human perception from physical reality, allowing it to exist in a virtual reality that is specially designed by artists and designers. When we get to the point of controlling and understanding the brain, we’ll be able to have full access to its senses and cut the brain’s relationship loose from the physical world. We’ll reach the point of creating different realities where people will be living as if it’s the sole reality, in environments created by us.
Technology has its own evolutionary process in which almost everyone has a smartphone. Artificial Intelligence is now everywhere in our lives. Yet, artificial intelligence does not possess the parts of human nature such as emotional intelligence and its creative perspective. It’s important to identify the points where humans differ from artificial intelligence. I read a quote from the founder of AliBaba Group stating the only way to cope with artificial intelligence is to raise our kids in a way that is dissimilar to educating artificial intelligence, by putting distinct human emotions forward. Artificial intelligence is good at problem solving as it is automatized to work in that way. What’s distinct about human nature should come to the fore in order to stay human. Creating problems is something that pertains to human kind. So focusing on creating problem in setting an education system may be a way of overcoming artificial intelligence.
Deniz Kader: In today’s technology conferences, it is being questioned of how far technology had come and the possibilities or dystopia it will leave in its wake. As the concepts change and new terms appear in new technology, art will also evolve into new dimensions. Due to the rapidly accelerating pace of new technologies, new media arts will become the playground in which to experiment with the developments in science. It will be attractive for many industries and it will advance by branching off into different perspectives instead of following a single direction.
Candaş Şişman: Concerning future possibilities, we’ve come to a certain point in designing humans and designing one’s self. People from different disciplines such as scientists, artists or philosophers need to design together. Another point is designing yourself. From now on, we’ll design perception instead of designing for perceptions. How you see the world forms your perspective. We perceive a limited range of frequencies in a sense we perceive limited reality of the physical world, only %10 of it. At the point of being able to design ourselves, we’ll be able to change the way we perceive the world by wearing specially designed devices.
Thus we’ll be able to change the world we exist in, the way we think and the entire mindscape. By changing the perspective we’ll manage to change the reality we’re living in. One of the most exciting things about the future for me, is gaining ability to manipulate reality.