Dark Matters: An exploration of space, memory and imagination

From nightclubs to museums, Dark Matters is called upon for their distinct visual expression that accesses our shadowy inner world. But while this small company has enormous vision, it can be hard to market a product that arrives to them like magic

Why doesn’t anyone talk about Lady Gaga? She’s mental. And she’s got balls,” says Rune Brink Hansen, a skinny, animated man. His colleagues, Lasse Andersen and Ida Kjær Sejrsen, laugh. Together they make up Dark Matters, a small company in Nørrebro that produces visual projections and scenography for live shows and installations – though that’s simplifying it a bit.

The company rarely works alone, collaborating instead with musicians and artists who call on them for their crisp and impassive graphic animations, textured iconography and desolate three-dimensional fictive universes. Cryptic, murky, and opaque, their work is designed to stimulate our dormant imagination and question our familiar everyday world.

The weaving together of video and music performance is a longstanding tradition in both the mainstream pop industry and underground club culture, but the Dark Matters team argues that many artists still fail to appreciate the opportunities embedded in visual worlds.

“It was full of clichés,” Hansen says referring to Justin Timberlake’s recent concert in Parken.

“Ink in water, 3D mountains and simple mapping. It may look amazing but there’s nothing to it. There’s no story, so it doesn’t make any sense.”

Hansen and Andersen learned their craft as so-called VJs early in the new millennium, producing animations and visuals to accompany gigs and DJ sets. After teaming up as Dark Matters in 2010, and hiring Sejrsen in 2012, the company has risen to prominence thanks to their ability to transform live shows with their unearthly visual universe.

Their clients range from the DJ and sampling group Den Sorte Skole to the Eurovision Song Contest. But whether they are making high-brow art or populist entertainment, the trio are wary of the clichés inherent in VJ culture. Instead of producing mere eye candy to satisfy the audience’s impassive gaze, they want to develop a visual lexicon for interacting with audiences and triggering reactions in their minds and bodies.

“The change came when we became very aware of the audience and how the visuals affect them. That’s where the communication part comes in. Through our background with live music, we learned how audiences reacted. They were a test audience for developing this language. We could see how they would start to float or move or react in ways that we can’t put down on paper,” Hansen says.

Bringing history to life
This approach made them the perfect candidates to bring history to life at the Danish Castle Centre, a museum housed in the ruins of Vordingborg Castle, built in the 1160s by King Valdemar I. In an underground exhibition space, Dark Matters created six large video installations to draw the audience into the Middle Ages, a time driven by power, violence, and the fear of hell.

“It was important for us to find the feelings and senses of the time. What is the essence, the smell, of the Middle Ages? And what would appeal to the greatest number of people? We needed to create six independent installations that introduced physical feelings and gave visitors a knot in their stomach,” Andersen says.

As visitors enter the newly-opened museum, they are confronted by the first installation, a bubbling red waterfall that flows upwards from the scorching heat of hell to the heavens above.

“It deals with the duality of Heaven and Hell. Purgatory didn’t arrive until several hundred years later, so at the time, everyone, from kings to peasants, lived to enter the after life. The constantly flowing waterfall demonstrates this duality, and gets the visitors to raise their eyes to the heavens and to God. In between there is the blood and dirt of the physical world,” Andersen explains.

Another installation illustrates the tragic life of Valdemar the Young, who reigned as co-king of Denmark between 1215 and 1231, together with his father Valdemar the Victorious. During this time, both kings were kidnapped by Germany, the Danish empire crumbled, two queens died in quick succession giving birth, and ultimately Valdemar the Young died in a hunting accident, aged only 22.

“The installation shows that everyone, even royalty, can all fall victim to destiny and accidents,” Sejrsen explains about the installation that is projected behind a wide length of cloth.

Museum guests can also examine artefacts from the Middle Ages, and use iPads provided to watch interviews with prominent Danes in which they discuss the relationship between church and state, and the nature of power, at the time. Dark Matters’ installations supplement this information with an atmosphere that helps visitors feel what it was like to live at a time when God, Heaven and Hell, violence, and death were part of everyday life.

“Stimulating people’s imagination can help spark an interest, so that when they go home they’ll open a history book, which is probably more likely than if you presented them with a load of facts,” Hansen said.

“It’s like a concert. Good DJs know exactly where the moments are in the music and how to use them. And when they are used properly, the audience responds. The feeling in the music connects them to the physical things they were doing at the time. The same goes for the museum, at least that’s our theory,” he adds.

Marketing the Magic
All three agree that while Dark Matters has a style, it’s hard to pin it down exactly. While discussion and conversation are central to their creative process, they have found that they don’t always have the language to describe what they’re trying to achieve.

“We can never give up our connection with space and its aesthetic opportunities, nor the idea that our audience is our primary actor,” Hansen eventually manages to express, before admitting that they may benefit from being more clear about what exactly their audience provides. Until they do, Hansen admits that they may have trouble attracting bigger – and wealthier – clients.

“We have a product that we sell, but it can’t be mass produced. It’s like magic! We go into this zone and create, but we haven’t examined the process and analysed it and put it into a box. When we do that, we might convince bigger customers about our capabilities. Until then, it’s just hocus-pocus. Even though the product might be good, if you cannot communicate its value, it’s hard to convince decision-makers to make the investment,” Hansen says.

Despite Hansen’s concerns, Dark Matters appears to gaining momentum as they move toward producing more immersive and experimental work. This spring they launched the visual research lab Næsus at the Tycho Brahe Planetarium in collaboration with other artists, and in May, they held an installation called Blackout, in which guests close their eyes and are bombarded with flashing images that are supposed to activate memories, thoughts, and feelings.

Dark Matters has performed the rare feat of managing to run a creative business that continues to explore and push limits while also making the right compromises to pay the bills. While their competition creates things to look at, they want to create worlds to live in.  Space is their language, and they want to use it to elicit a reaction in our imagination and to enrich our cerebral existence.

And perhaps this is apt, given what dark matter is – the theoretical and invisible material needed to keep the universe stuck together. Perhaps our imagination is the dark matter of the soul, the intangible and invisible substance that glues our mental experiences together, and without which we too would become unstuck. M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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