Energy flow

BMW in collaboration with artist Es Devlin

Hydrogen as a sustainable and versatile source of energy and motion was the central theme of BMW’s program at Art Basel 2024. The London-based artist Es Devlin was commissioned by the car manufacturer to create a series of multimedia works, with which she managed to deliver one of the highlights of an art fair that was not short of high-caliber contributions. The dialog between the artist and BMW engineers in particular represents a remarkably interesting component of the overall project.

If you talk about technology and contemporary art in the same breath, it is very likely that it is about the fusion of the two. But what happens when the focus is placed on the intrinsic creative process of art and technology? When artists tap into the solution-oriented creativity of engineers and integrate the supposedly sober quality of their work into the flow of their own reflections?

BMW demonstrated this as part of this year’s collaboration with British artist Es Devlin at Art Basel 2024. The creation process and the final realization of her multimedia work SURFACING is based on the in-depth exchange between BMW engineers and the artist. In a recorded conversation, we gain an interesting insight into the mental dynamics, the associations that form when supposedly contrasting disciplines come together, with Devlin emphasizing the act of creation as a common link: »I find it very fascinating that while driving along we are actually creating something, it’s not a burning or distraction, it’s a creation, we’re actually building water out of molecules—of hydrogen and oxygen—that seems to me quiet extraordinary that that’s what’s happening.« She thus refers to the previous explanation of the technical aspect and potential of hydrogen, simultaneously drawing parallels between art and science and continuing her 30-year-long exploration of the close interplay between humans and technology.

Based on her own artistic considerations and those of the BMW research team on the subject of hydrogen as a sustainable source of energy and movement, the multimedia work SURFACING was created—consisting of a total of four works. The impressive installation Surfacing (2024) masterfully combines water, energy and movement—elements that are also implemented in the BMW iX5 Hydrogen vehicles—a pilot fleet that is testing hydrogen fuel cell technology in selected countries under everyday conditions.

The BMW iX5 Hydrogen is regarded as a pioneer and trailblazer of a technology that ascribes a key role to hydrogen as a versatile energy source in the energy transition and thus in climate protection. »I learned a lot from the BMW engineers about the wonderful symmetry of the system that works in the hydrogen fuel cell: The energy used to separate the hydrogen atoms from the oxygen is recovered when the hydrogen is recombined with oxygen in the vehicle. The only by-product, in addition to the energy released to power the vehicle, is water,« the artist breaks the complicated process down to the essentials and provides an insight into the part of the advanced technology that is essential to her.

What is particularly interesting about this collaboration is the simultaneous forms of cognition between art and technology, whereby the underlying statement is as universal as it is topical: »As we move forward, we realize the crises that we face with climate, that sense that no borders are getting in our way, that sense that porosity—from Germany to Japan and from your minds to the minds of all the other engineers—allows collective thinking and connected solution finding to me seems to be very much how an artist would approach it and it sound very much like engineers are doing as well,« the artist aptly states, thus describing two different and simultaneously interwoven forms of reflection and knowledge acquisition, whose creative potential BMW has precisely demonstrated with this exciting collaboration. [DM]