March 13, 2014 § 1 Comment
From March 14th until April 12th, RESONANCE partner Le Bon Accueil in Rennes, France, hosts the second installment of Stefan Roigk’s installation Bursting Confidence, a work that premiered last summer in Kunsthaus Meinblau in Berlin, Germany.
It was only at the end of the summer that I got the chance to talk to Stefan about his – and more specifically this – work, when we met early one rainy grey afternoon in his small studio in a nice old big school building in Prenzlauer Berg, a locality in Berlin that nowadays is the southern part of the borough of Pankow.
Then and there, all of Stefan’s Bursting Confidence was inside a pile of cardboard banana boxes…
He opened them up…
“I use papier-mâché for this piece,” Stefan explained. “That is great material and very easy to work with. And the other thing is: it is not heavy at all. All together these boxes weigh, maybe, 50 kilos… That’s really light. Fortunately. Because of course I wanted to hang them and that would have been pretty difficult had all of the objects been kind of heavy…”
Is it the first time that you work with papier-mâché? Did you have other material in mind before?
“Yes, it is the first time. Before I was thinking of silicon. But that is too heavy. It would have been really heavy to have these parts in silicon. As you can see, the thing that I did is… I used packing materials… plastic packings, wrappings, plates, cups … all sorts of packing material and stuff that I found. Actually, I have been collecting all of my trash. For two years, I kept my trash…”
You collected all of your trash for two years…!? But that’s fantastic…!
“Yes, yes, yes! But only the plastics. All the plastic forms.”
Two years of plastic trash…!? That must have been a LOT!
“Oh yes, it was a lot. All these menu boxes, chocolate things, cups for drinking, plastic plates… But it was great to have a lot of different forms. Because what interested me was the ways in which I could combine them. I combined a lot… plastic cups, and things like that… I combined all of that trash into forms. It was like firing up Pro Tools and then cutting and combining sounds.”
How did you make the papier-mâché prints?
“Let met try to explain… Take a plastic plate, the sort of thing that you get to eat from at parties, or when you’re having a pick-nick. I would take it, press it, tear it, deform it… and then put it in the papier-mâché… I used buckets filled with the papier-mâché. I would push in the forms of my trash, by hand. And then mold it. I had the whole studio full with forms and material! Originally I also wanted to make the papier-mâché myself. But, you know, that is a lot of work! If you want to make papier-mâché yourself, you first have to cut the paper. Then you need to put the slices of paper into water. Then you have to add glue. And then, after that, you have to take it, and use a lot of pressure to transform it into plates. Then it has to dry again. And then you have to shred it. It is a good work to do, but it is a bit too much. So I just went to the store, and bought the papier-mâché that they sell in boxes.”
A sort of ready-made papier-mâché?
“Yes! It is ready made. You only need to add water. And it’s really, really nice! A bit like plaster. You can get very thin forms. They remind me… of distortions. It is a lot like distortion on audio material! And though it looks like plaster: it doesn’t break like plaster. When you throw it to the ground, it doesn’t break. So I could hang it just with little holes in it. We drilled holes in the papier-mâché prints, and they didn’t break…”
“Combining the forms was a lot like doing music. I first wanted a lot of forms. Like when you do music, you want a lot of sounds. The real structure of the piece then emerged when I hung it in the room. So I prepared sets of smaller structures in the papier-mâché. We combined these, in the end, in the gallery space. We used nylon strings to hang the forms. You know, the nylon strings that one uses for catching fish. In the fishing shop they also showed us how to make the special knots that we needed, because we had to get all the knots in one single piece of string, in order to be able to do it while the string was already hanging. That was not easy. But in the shop they learned us a knot that made that possible. So we first did a lot of knots,” Stefan laughed… “And then we hung the forms.”
“My first idea for the piece was to create a structure like a storm. Something that is coming from the ground, and then flies up to the top. But what I really wanted was to built something like a musical structure. And that does not fit with a structure that originates at the ground, and then goes up. Because that would be something that you could only walk around. And not a structure in which you can follow the lines. You would mainly see the ground part, and the rest would be far away.”
So you wanted a temporality? A timeline?
“Yes. The strings had to be fixed from one wall to the other. So the idea is that you can follow such a string. Which is like a timeline. Time starts in one point, and while you walk through the room, you will see how the pieces change. How the relations between the forms change all the time. There are many different points of view. The strings change, The direction changes. Sometimes the forms together will add up to a sub-structure. And sometimes they will seem separated, just because you take another point of view. That again reminded me a lot of music. It is like walking inside a musical piece when it is presented in a sound editor: you can separate the tracks or choose to see them mixed together.”
Then the sculpture is like a 3-dimensional musical score.
“Yes. The molds combine into small structures. Like musical themes. And there are repetitions. Like with these plastic things that they use to put your salad in at the kiosk. It becomes like a rhythm. And it changes… first there’s 2 parts, then there are 3, again 3 parts, 4 parts, … 3 … and then 1, and it hits the wall… It is actually easier to discern these kind of rhythms when you look down at the installation, from above. And of course the idea was also that the lines are somehow like the lines on note paper.”
“Two trash things I used very often, because I really like them: these plastic plates and the cups. First of all, because they were easy to recombine when I did the moldings. They were really nice to cut and then to make something out of it. For the idea was: first I have these structures, and then I put some of them together. It is like when you record single sounds and then, afterwards, in your sound processing software you combine the sounds. And then it becomes one.”
They are also very recognizable, as forms.
“Yeah. Funny thing: many people asked me whether my idea was to make a work about trash… Well, maybe it was. But it was mainly forced, because I actually very often use these kind of sounds. And this time I wanted to have them also as sculptures…”
“There are 8 little loud speakers that play back 4 different stereo tracks in between the papier-mâché forms. The speakers hang inside of the structure. They are part of it. Just like the speaker cables. Often I use a sort of electricity cable as speaker cables, but this time I used normal speaker cables. Because they look more like the nylon strings. And I let them just follow the lines. They built lines, comparable to the lines that the nylon strings build. The loudspeaker itself is grey. When you stand inside the installation you can of course see that it is a loudspeaker. But because of its color it becomes part of the structure.”
“The sound itself is really concrete. They all come from microphone recordings, of paper and of all of these plastic things that I molded; the plastic cups, the plates and other stuff like that. Afterwards I selected parts, and did some digital treatment, for example by shifting the pitch. But not very much. I didn’t change the sounds very much.”
So a lot of the sound originates in the same plastic objects, the same trash that you used to make the papier-mâché forms. And the paper? Different kinds of paper may make very different kinds of sound.
“That of course is true. But I actually used mainly cardboard; and cardboard objects, like cups. And then indeed the plastic things. I played all of them with me hands, and recorded a whole night long. The material that I recorded lasted, maybe, I think, 10 hours.”
“The actual sound of the installation comes from an 8 track loop, made out of 4 stereo tracks. After one hour the sound piece repeats. One of the stereo tracks indeed lasts one hour, but it is pitched; originally it maybe was ten minutes. The other three stereo tracks last 20 minutes, so for the one hour loop these are already tripled. They are loops inside the loop.”
“In my previous works, the sculptures often had a somewhat artificial look, I think. They were like minimal art or something. But the sounds were concrete sounds, like in this work; it was concrete sound material. So the combination of a sound with the objects was more conceptual. There remained some sort of a gap between the sculptures and the sound. This time my idea was to bring the sounds and the sculpture really together, by letting them come from the same source. It actually was a big step for me.”
But the link between the sounds and the sculpture – the idea of a ‘music’ and a ‘score’ – remains abstract. That is a concept. That is not concrete …
“It is not a real score, no. But the idea of 3 dimensional and graphical scores is central in my work. For this I was, I think, inspired by artists like Jackson Pollock. When I saw Jackson Pollock, for me that was like a graphical score. A score which you can think of as having an endless time. It transcends the borders of the frame. It is really like a sound installation! And I wanted to put these kind of structures and forms in the room, in a space.”
Did you ever consider asking musicians to interpret your works? And then look at the sculpture as graphical scores, and play them?
“Oh yes, of course I did. And it is kind of nice. But, for myself, I have no real interest in producing music out of it. It is rather the idea of a score that interests me. On the one hand I like to produce graphics, on the other hand I produce sounds. And sometimes I like to combine them. Then it is an installation. And when you visit an installation and focus on one point, that is the now. The spot where you focus is now. And then, when you move, as a viewer, you are making a timeline for the piece. Because of your moving and the your shifting focus.”
So each viewer is putting her own time into the piece?
“Yeah, sure. Of course. I like to say: the viewer becomes a mixing board for the piece. Because the piece is continuously changing while the viewer is walking inside.”
But will not also the soundtrack suggest certain movements to the viewer? People tend to react to sounds. They might be tempted to walk from little speaker to little speaker, in order to ‘close listen’ to each of the channels, one after the other.
“That may be true. But the sound actually is changing very slowly. You can have the experience a little bit slower as well. You do not have to hurry to get to the sounds!”
“It is a main theme, I think, of sound art, that you fill the room with one structure. Which is not repeated all the time, but still, in a way, the dynamics and the proportions of the sound will be mostly the same all the time. When you go to a Rolf Julius piece, it is certainly not the same all the time. But after a minute, you will know what it sounds like… So the idea for my sculptures is, in a way, related to that of drawing: how do you fill the paper?”
“All the sonic material for this piece has more or less the same frequency shape. There is not too much droning stuff. And there are not many high frequencies. I use these sounds because I think that their materiality fits the papier-mâché. With its white, or light grey, color. For me sounds have a kind of color, and a structure and a form. Like sculptures. So all the sounds that I use here are quite light; but not too much. They are all grey. Light grey. And not too dramatical. The sounds are not very haunting, or stuff. And I did not use real voices.”
“The night that I recorded the sounds, I played them with some sort of a dramaturgy. Like this sound of a plastic bag, I wanted to have it playing very slowly in the beginning, with a very low volume; and then getting louder. So I recorded these types of dramaturgical sequences. And afterwards I did not cut in the dramaturgy. What also was important for me, was that a certain sound would only be represented in one place. (Or in two places, because everything is in stereo.) I did not want sounds to change places; the sounds are just in one spot.”
“Originally I wanted to make a very dynamical and cut up piece, with a lot of changes. I was considering something really haunting; psychedelic sounds, really heavy, like the soundtrack of a horror movie. And I thought of using a lot of singing as well, a bit like Nurse with Wound, or stuff like that. But when I saw the light grey material hanging, I knew that this was wrong. This wouldn’t fit. It would have been too… yes, let’s say: too much! Because the sculpture is not so different in all of its pieces. And it is a very light thing. Hanging, even…”
“So that is why I called the work Bursting Confidence: at first I was thinking of this really mind-changing, maybe even frightening, psychic installation. Of something exploding; and it should be an exploding mind!”
The piece still gives you the impression of an explosion. Frozen at some point in time. Like a still from a movie.
“Yes, but as I started working more on the piece and on the idea, it got softer and softer… It still is an explosion, but it is not so dangerous anymore. It became more like a molecule, where you zoom into with a microscope, and then encounter all of these smaller structures, of atoms, stuff and things…
It still is an explosion.
But it is soft.
It is more soft…”
May 11, 2013 § 5 Comments
[ david Helbich’s Kortrijk Tracks. A soundwalk. ]
“Louis the Sun King made a number of very strict scores for garden walks. He laid down, in Louis Quatorzian French, how precisely one should walk through his garden in Versailles. Louis walked with his entourage through that garden. And where the Sun King stopped and looked to the left, everyone stopped and looked to the left. So here’s this very complex garden, and it appears to be quite a different one when you are in this place and look to the left, or when you go a bit further and look to the left. There’s different perspectives, other details, other things… This kind of let’s say: absolutism, is something I love to play with. It is the composer, the artist, who decides when and where you will have this, or maybe rather that, experience.”
“The second of my Kortrijk Tracks is called The Garden. It is a track for the Houtmarkt. Which is a square that is called the ‘wood market’, but in fact is just a parking lot. There I put to use Guy Debord’s situationist technique to find your way somewhere, relying on a map from a very different place. Like stubbornly consulting the map of Paris while walking through a German forest. I project part of one of Louis the Great’s garden maps onto that parking lot and ask the users of the guide to move over the Houtmarkt along those lines, as precisely as possible. As a result, already at the outset the audio guide’s absolutism gets undermined. Because the situation there will not allow you to do so, at least not exactly. The place is full of cars. So you are forced to make your own decisions. “
“There is, of course, a touch of irony: ‘this Houtmarkt must have been such a sweet little square, and now they turned it into a parking lot’ … But a parking lot has its own kind of beauty, with its geometrical play of drawn white lines, delimiting the paths and spaces where cars are allowed to ride and stand.”
Which gives it a certain very formal quality.
“Exactly. It is like a score for the movement of cars. And drivers adapt themselves. They might simply ignore the lines. But they hardly ever do. They all stick to the choreography.”
David Helbich was born in Berlin in the early 1970s, and has been living and working in Brussels for more than ten years. Starting out as a composer (he studied composition with Daan Manneke in Amsterdam, and in Freiburg with Matthias Spahlinger), David soon manifested himself also as an installation and performance artist, as a choreographer and as a conceptual artist, while his main field of action gradually moved into public space. All of these interests and disciplines converge in Kortrijk Tracks, an audio guide commissioned by the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk and the RESONANCE Network.
“I started writing for air guitar. This means that as a composer, I left out the instrument. I wrote the piece for a guitar player, but it actually put me right in the middle of movement theater (bewegingstheater) and gave me a link to Fluxus, which I have always felt strongly attracted to. At the same time I remained attached to contemporary music, and in practice I ended up somewhere in between. So I asked myself: what if you would really compose these performative actions, instead of just developing them from movement? What if you’d write them down as scores? So I continued to be a composer, but left out the instruments. Somewhat later I started to do performance theater, with sound and movements. I worked with a dancer, and I let the audience move around: ‘Have a look at her here, and then go have a look at me there’… I was still composing, arranging things in time, putting them in a certain order. But what actually excited me most, was the movement of the audience. As a result, I left out more and more material. All that music. All those media… I was fed up. I didn’t want them anymore. I had already stopped using instruments, and now I also no longer wanted video beamers, no more slides, no loud speakers … I wanted nothing but an empty space, but then had to reflect upon what there was left for me to do. So I walked around with people in a theater. I continued to think of this as composition, because I still strictly organized things. But ultimately this was more about us being our own material, which is something you will also find at the heart of my audio guide. Then finally, at some point, I said to myself: ‘Hey David, you are still working inside a theater! Why not get rid of the theater as well?’ So I stepped outside…”
Like but few others David is aware of the rich history of his field. Between October 2006 and January 2007, he organised in Brussels a series of 12 Walks, each of which related to a different concept taken from the history of walking in the arts.
“What especially mattered to me in the context of those walks, and which also is central to my Kortrijk Tracks, is that you have to be aware that, in a manner of speaking, ‘you never walk alone’. Whatever form you choose, you are never alone with your medium, with your form, with your content. You are always part of this immensely complex world. So you have to find out how much of that world you want to let in, and to which extent you want to lock yourself out in order to do your art. That complex world is the outside, but it also includes the audience. And the agreement – I like to call it a ‘conspiracy’ – to get involved in … well, yeah, in a work of art. In what I sometimes call ‘the offer’. The word ‘soundwalk’ of course is deceptive. For it always is also a walk-walk and a visual walk, it is a traffic walk, an architecture walk and an urbanism walk. And it is a social walk, as in general you will be with a group of people. So you are walking next to who? And how is the group moving?”
A couple of years ago in Brooklyn I participated in a soundwalk where the participants were led through the streets blindfolded.
“I myself have worked with earplugs. Because the more you are shielding off your ears, the more you will be focusing on your hearing. And obviously also when blindfolded you are not walking by your ears alone.”
Touch becomes very important. We were going hand in hand, like a little train.
“I find some form of minimalism to be essential. I offer but little, which makes the experience all the greater. That’s my minimalist principle. The world is chaotic, but what I offer is highly structured. In that sense I am still very much composing. Those walks were usually very strictly timed… ‘and then we go to the left, and then we are here, and then there is another group coming from that side, suddenly crossing our path’ … That’s a score. But there are no ‘offers’. Like actors that suddenly appear and do something. I will not suddenly come out and say something, or show you something… I say nothing. I show nothing. The thing is showing itself. That’s because there is a context, a framework. It makes the audio guide far more than just a piece of sound art. Above anything else, it gives you a context for very different experiences and a very varied focus on a town. And it all starts with the decision to go to the tourist office and pick up a set of headphones, an mp3 player and the book.”
The sounds that we hear in the headphones, are they sounds from Kortrijk? Or do they originate in very different places?
“I want to think of them as functional sounds. There’s a certain number of effects that I like to create. Some of the sounds are field recordings that were made at a number of different places, but there’s also recordings made in Kortrijk. This is related to a basic technique that I already usesd in the very first audio guide that I made, in 2008, together with the Belgian composer Paul Craenen. We recorded the streets in the vicinity of the art workspace (kunstenwerkplaats) in Elsene (Ixelles), with binaural microphones. The idea for the sound walk then was to have people listen to a street while they were walking in that same street, thus effectively doubling the sound scape. It’s a very simple method, but one that creates a fascinating shift.”
You are walking in the street and you hear its sounds. And simultaneously, over the headphones, you are listening to a sonic transposition in time of the very same spots in that very same street.
“You do not know whether the car that you are hearing is real. You think someone is passing by, but when you look, there’s no one there. Or the other way round: you hear somebody walking and think it’s the recording. But then suddenly a real person appears. This corresponds head on to the reduction that I am looking for: the reduction of material, the reduction of composition… You reduce all intervention. And the result no longer is a composition, because you simply are listening to that same street. But again, it is very strictly organized. I then used this principle in an audio guide for the Elsensesteenweg (Chaussée d’Ixelles). This is a busy, quite narrow and sloping street in Brussels. A lot of people get off the bus at the foot of the slope and walk to the tube station at the top. Often that will be quicker. The bus regularly gets stuck in the traffic. This struck me as a particularly funny social phenomenon that I wanted to make use of. The audio guide should, in some way or other, relate to the city. Then, pretty soon, I mix in other field recordings. First these are sounds from the neighborhood, like from inside a shop somewhere along the street. It will give you the impression that you are listening through a wall, because the basic track continues to be a recording of the street’s sounds. This confusion somehow opens up a space. As soon as you are no longer sure about what you are hearing or what you are seeing, as an artist I can do to you whatever I like. I actually prepare you to become receptive to surprises, because you are no longer sure about what is real and what is not. And then I add more exotic field recordings, from Caïro and other Arab cities, which (for example because of the Islamic prayers) have a soundscape very different from that of Brussels. So people start their walk in Elsene, and in the course of some fifteen minutes, via Caïro I lead them back to Elsene.”
It reminds me of your installation Public Sound, which was part of last year’s Flanders Festival in Kortrijk. There you had two loudspeakers mounted at the top of the gate of the Begijnhof, and played back recordings that were made in Nablus and Jerusalem.
“Indeed. One of the Kortrijk Tracks is based on that installation. It uses the same sound material, but in combination with a little choreography that tells you how to listen to the sounds. ‘Walk around the tree, stand still at a certain spot…’ The title of the track is Holodeck, please. You remember that? The Holodeck in Star Trek? It is no more than an empty space, but it will give you the illusion of a virtual reality. It will fool you into thinking that you are somewhere else. This also was the crux of my Public Sound installation. You find yourself standing inside this Begijnhof, but are given the impression that there’s a different city on the other side of the wall. The Beguines that used to live there always stayed within the Begijnhof’s confines. They only heard the city outside. Its sound was all they had.”
“When I started to work on the audio guide, my first idea was to limit myself to this technique of audio doubling and to pick a number of places where this technique would be the most effective. I never wanted to make one continuous walk. It’s more interesting to choose a number of different spots, and make more specific relations with the city. I even thought about sending people outside, to the outskirts. Because an audio guide has to be more than just an mp3 player with a set of headphones and a set of sounds to listen to. It should be a tool for much more than only sound art. It gives you reasons to do certain things, reasons to act. I can send someone somewhere to go. But then what should happen when he or she gets there? This I where I began to radicalize things. And because I found there was still something missing in my idea for an audio guide, I decided to accompany it with a booklet, which to each of the track adds a score, a set of instructions for performative actions at that particular spot. This is how I obtained a very close relation between the Kortrijk Tracks and the rest of my work.”
So what you offer is much more than just the listening to tracks via a set of headphones, at selected spots in Kortrijk. There’s a number of other, very different, activities involved. Each track comes with very explicit instructions on how to listen, how to move, where to stand, what to do…
“There are nine tracks, and nine places. The walk starts at the tourist office. From there it makes a helical movement, which leads you in a number of steps to the center of the city. And each of the nine tracks tries to redefine the meaning and the potential of an audio guide.”
“Three of the tracks – one in the beginning, one in the middle, and one at the end – are exercises. They are called Warm-up, Keep-warm and Cool-down. The first is meant to warm up your ears, the second to keep them warm, and the final one is kind of a finishing off. They emphasize the fact that this is all about your ears; though it remains to be seen whether that indeed always will be the case. For the Warm-up, the beginning of the walk, I composed the gestures of mounting your headphones. You carry them to a small hill in front of the tourist office. It’s a spot where you can look out over the city. There you begin by warming your ears. You’ll need both hands free, so you put the headphones down. You then bring your hands slowly closer to your ears, press you hands against them, and so on. This is of course a highly conceptual way to prepare a soundwalk, leading up to this grand gesture of: now, now it begins! You pick up the headphones, you very slowly put them on, the track starts playing … and then what you hear is the sound of hands that manipulate a set of headphones. It’ll make you very aware of the fact that you are wearing this… thing… this plastic contraption. So here I directly address the materiality of the headphones, and the idea that you have to push buttons, that you will follow instructions. In a way it explains what an audio guide is. I explain the machine, then the audio guide, and finally the situation of you walking through Kortrijk. So this makes for quite a bit of reflection and self-referral. But of course it will not always be as pure as in the first track. After having enjoyed this fine view of the city and the Begijnhof, for the second track you turn around and within seconds will find yourself in the middle of the parked cars on the Houtmarkt. Or maybe it’s the garden of the Sun King’s Versailles. And so you spiral onwards through Kortrijk, from one place to another, through a shopping mall, across the Schouwburgplein, the Grote Markt, the Begijnhof, the parking in the Magdalenastraat, the busstation… There you perform what everyone else is performing: you stand and wait. And like quite a few others that will be listening to music on their iPods, you are wearing headphones. The difference is that you are not waiting for a bus. You wait for nothing. But it is only you who knows. So in fact you are cheating. But then, well, first of all nobody cares, and second nobody will notice. You have become an integral part of that particular situation. It is an act of perfect integration.”
“I had a related experience as a young man in Paris. I was waiting for my father, who was there for work, and I had some free time to spend. I loved Paris. I was from Bremen, it was a beautiful day, there were all these people speaking a language that at the time I did not speak myself, and it was all like… Maybe you know the feeling: you are in a city that fascinates you and, especially when you are still young, you very much want to become someone who’s at home there. You almost envy all those people that know all the unspoken rules and to who all of this is nothing special. So I tried to integrate. For those couple hours I wanted to become a real Parisian. I threw my jacket over my shoulder and began to walk fast, like everyone else. I stood and wobbled impatiently at pedestrian crossings, waiting for the lights to turn green, so that I could rush over to the other side. I was in a hurry, like everyone else. I was going somewhere, and I had to get there as quickly as possible. Well, I was not going anywhere, of course, but this is how I adapted myself to the city, to the situation: this is where I am, there is where I’m going… And during these few hours in Paris, people just kept on stopping me and asking for directions. It was hilarious. Suddenly I was no longer a tourist, I was someone who belonged there, someone who knew his way around. I found myself integrated in Paris… But I was just acting. And the same holds true for the audio guide. When people are walking around wearing headphones and holding a booklet, the world for them has become a theater. But it is also a stage. And they are the actors.”
May 1, 2013 § 7 Comments
At the time of this conversation with Signe Lidén about her ‘Writings’ (an installation commissioned by the RESONANCE network, that premiered at this year’s Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, Belgium, as part of the Festival’s Sounding City sound art program), the space that would come to host the work, on the Buda tower’s ground floor, had nothing in it and still was little other than a hole, a cave, a cavity in the former brewery building: a floor, a ceiling, three concrete walls and a fourth one, made of glass. With words and gestures Signe tried to evoke an image of how that ‘cave’ would look like in a few weeks time. Not an easy task. But in this case it was an appropriate one. For holes, cavities, caves – ‘things’ that are both nothing and not nothing – are key elements in Signe’s work.
“Holes are a fascinating phenomenon. They consist of nothing, they are nothing in themselves,” Signe explained. “Holes are always defined in terms of their surroundings. Holes are matter-less. We perceive them because of the matter that surrounds them. And it is in this sense that a hole nevertheless is not a no-thing; it is not nothing. This is part of what I’m trying to come to grips with. I try to understand what this not nothing is. A hole has more in common with a material object than something abstract like, for example, a concept. Holes are localized, they are somewhere in space and time. A hole has dimensions, a form and a whereabout.”
“Throughout history holes and caves have functioned as time capsules. The earliest works of art were made and found in caves. But also these days works of art are being created in caves. Caves have always been places for religious and magic rituals. Because they offer protection. But also due to their acoustics, which transforms the sound of voices. And of instruments. Because of the way in which holes and cavities filter sound, I very often choose these types of places. In different holes sound has different qualities; it gives the surrounding another kind of layer, or the feeling of really being in that place.”
Holes are time capsules… This also refers to the fact that many important archives are kept at a safe distance from the turmoil of our big cities, where bits and pieces of our culture are stowed away, hidden indeed, in ‘holes’ and in ‘caves’. During much of the Second World War, for example, Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch was kept safe in a limestone cave not far from Maastricht. Also the Voyager Golden Records spring to mind, that in 1977 were put in a spacecraft and sent off into space, which, of course, is the ultimate hole…
Over the past couple of years, Signe was inspired by a number of rather special ones of these manmade time capsules. Like the Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, sort of a botanical Noah’s Ark halfway between Norway and the North pole, where the seeds of as many as possible food crops are being preserved. And Onkalo, a repository for nuclear waste, which is currently being built, deep underground, on an island in the southeast of Finland. Or the Temples of Humankind in Damanhur, Italy, a ‘new age’ complex of caves and tunnels, hand-dug between 1978 and 1991 and filled with murals, sculptures, mosaic and strained glass with motifs and structures inspired by religious and occult societies from all over the world, dedicated to the divine in man and the preservation of spirituality. “I find that very special,” said Signe, “for how do you preserve spirituality? Pictures of these Temples of Humankind show some sort of a spatial choreography, in which all imaginable religious and spiritual images collide, in a kind of mega-kitsch ballet. But the question continues to fascinate me: how could one preserve intangible things for the future?”
Signe’s most recent source of inspiration is a mysterious Archive of Invisibility and Lost Knowledge (she doesn’t know its actual name, and invented this one herself), located in the vicinity of Yangshuo, China. It is dedicated to the storage and systematization of knowledge about traditional crafts, literature and art, that was lost during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). “As with the Temples of Humankind also here I asked myself: how would you do that? How do you save knowledge that has gone extinct? It is no longer there. So is it written in books? Is it in drawings, maybe? Are there still traces? I have been trying to figure it out, but it is very difficult to get information. I sent a number of mails, but didn’t get any answers. So the question remains: can you keep the knowledge of a craft without keeping the objects that it produced? Can you keep what surrounds a thing, without keeping the thing itself? Is it possible to preserve the aura of a work of art, without the actual work?”
Then the thing or the work of art becomes a hole itself…
“Yes, without the thing one would say that there no longer is any material memory. You disconnect memory from matter. If you make something, then there is the thing that you make. But there is also the ritual of the making. The thing corresponds to the technical part of its making; the ritual corresponds to the non-technical part. Does the non-technical part maybe generate as much material memory as the technical part? But then how can you preserve that kind of knowledge, which is not pronounced, but experienced knowledge? Knowledge that relates to ritual, to a practice? Who or what creates the aura of a work? This is the starting point for my Resonance installation. ‘Writings’ wants to be a work about material memory, without creating something that is specifically material. Its focus is on the process, and the process is something without an end. What is being created, remains unfinished forever. It opens up a field of continuous molding, without a final result. It is the idea of inscriptions as a ritual. But also as something auditive. What you hear is part of the things that happen. And visitors will obtain an auditory access to the interior space of the things they are looking at. But for this they will have to move to smaller, separate, spaces within the space.
Do I make myself clear? Do you understand what I mean? “
Could you describe the installation as you now envision it?
“The space in the Buda tower is particularly suitable for this work. Long and narrow, and with a large glass wall. Outside, in the small garden that you can see through the windows, I want to do an archaeological exhumation. In the garden’s soil there must be a lot of things that come from the old brewery. The result of this exhumation of course is a hole, a dug out space, that you can see from the inside, through the glass wall. Inside I will make piles with the sand and soil that I dig up outside. On the ceiling of the space there will be an electromechanical construction, with chains driven by gears of different sizes, which will cause movement in different directions and of different durations. This time aspect is very important. The mechanism will drive circular plates, from which sticks are dangling down. The sticks touch the sand piles. Via their movement they will shape the piles; a shaping that, at the same time, is a writing. They inscribe, they make inscriptions, leave traces. I will put (contact) microphones onto the sticks. The signals from these microphones are sent to boxes attached to the walls. There will be four of them. In one of the boxes there will be a score, with drawn patterns, similar to the patterns that the sticks will be drawing in the sand. Via loudspeakers in the other boxes you will be able to hear the intimate sounds, the sounding interior, of the inscriptions that the sticks are making.”
Is the score pre-made, or is it drawn as part of the process?
“In a way both are the case. I already drew the score, but there’s also the play of light and shadow, that continuously will give rise to new constellations.”
The moving, writing and wired sticks are the heart of the installation.
“The sticks are tapping sticks, that are sort of scanning the piles of sand and soil. You can think of them as blind man’s sticks: – ‘I am a blindfolded person walking within a landscape where I attempt to resonate everything I come across with a tapping stick. And at the same time I am a deaf person walking on the same road, trying to understand which language the landscape is speaking’ – . It is a thinking, an understanding, a grasping through listening; and then analyzing the absorbing complexity of the landscape that surrounds us. I also mean the cultural and social landscape. This image of a blindfolded person is closely related to my phonographic practice. I do a great many recordings, and I connect them to an awareness, a sensibility of places; or of surroundings and things; of the places within things. All this is quite essential for the work. Gaining knowledge through abstract listening, or gaining abstract knowledge, through the sensing-knowing-understanding part of the brain, through listening to sound and its resonance in matter. This is material memory, which is one of the most important, interwoven, concepts that I find useful for talking about my work. It is a concept that is directly linked to ‘Writings’.”
Did you ever have, or tried, to find your way blindfolded? With a blind man’s stick?
“Yes I did! As a kid I went to school blindfolded. Almost every day. A friend picked me up at home, and the game I played was that I still was so tired that it was necessary for me to continue sleeping on my way to school. My friend made this possible by guiding me. He held my arm and led me with instructions like ‘step up, step down’, et cetera. And I could hear him, for I was not really sleeping, of course. But there was no light entering my eyes. Later I also often used a blind man’s stick as a way to investigate the resonances of a spot or a space. It is a great way to get to know the acoustics of a space.”
In all of your earlier works field recordings play a crucial role. In works inside you integrated recordings made outside, in a different place and time. You are not going to do this in ‘Writings’. All of the sounds will be generated by the installation itself. There is an outside (the hole in the garden) that you can see from the inside, and an inside that you can see from the outisde, like two poles; like a negative and a positive. But once inside, the work is entirely self-contained. It is a closed system…
“It is indeed for the first time that I create a space in which everything is related to one spot and happens at this spot. As such, ‘Writings’ combines in a very direct way the two sides of my practice as an artist. That is pretty exciting, en I am very curious to find how it will work out. Because, of course, I haven’t seen it. Yet…”
[This conversation with Signe Lidén took place on March 27th, 2013.
The technical realization of the work, during the first three weeks of April 2013, will be done by Signe in collaboration with her Norwegian colleague Roar Sletteland.]
Four weeks later, in Kortrijk…
What ‘Writings’ looked and sounded like, and what had become the material form of that what Signe had imagined and described in our earlier conversation, I found out four weeks later, on April 21st, 2013, at the opening of the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk’s Sounding City.
The space in the Buda tower was filled with the low rumble and clanking sounds of the mechanics of the installation, very present, but not too loud or obtrusive. The windows were covered with tracing paper, permitting the light to fall through, but not giving visitors a chance to look out, thus isolating the work from the rest of the world. It felt like stepping into an abandoned factory hall (which I guess are fine examples of contemporary manmade caves and which, in a way, in this former brewery building, it indeed was), where a number of machines had been left working, indulging themselves in a mechanical routine, the purpose of which had been forgotten a long time ago. Six limbed sticks were being moved around by the three circular plates on the ceiling, hitting and thus, though ever so slightly, re-shaping the piles of soil below them on the floor, that, for some reason, had been left there, and by the contingency of their material substance and form now were commanding their proper tracing, for ever and ever. The amplified sounds of the sticks’ hittings and tracings could be heard inside the two pairs boxes, as through a ‘sonic microscope’. One pair of boxes was facing the brick wall of the room. The second pair faced the covered window, combining the sounds with the sight of ‘writings’, the tracings of Signe’s score (pictures of which are illustrating our conversation above), making it reminiscent of what – in Dutch – is called a kijkdoos.
‘Writings’ in Kortrijk turned out to be, in sights and sound, an atmospheric, but also a rather hermetic work, impregnated by a sense of ‘formality’ and ‘philosophy’ that seems to be teasing the visitors, asking for a sudden flash of insight, an illumination, on their part, to make sights and sounds fall into place. “Yes, it is strange,” Signe said. “Several times during these weeks of creating ‘Writings’, together with my collaborator Roar Sletteland, it felt as if nature took us by surprise. I think it is the strangest piece I ever made…”
April 14, 2013 § 7 Comments
by Joost Fonteyne
Tourist offices will make any effort to seduce people to visit their cities or regions. The key word is experience. Visiting a city needs added value, we have to feel the city. Hip tools such as tablets and smartphones are thrown in to make it happen. In this context also soundwalks have been discovered. Equiped with smart tools, visitors are sent into the city. Just have a look at soundwalk.com to get the idea. Then take e.g. the walk in romantic Paris Saint Germain des Pres. To quote the website: ‘Virginie Ledoyen saunders through the streets once walked by the likes of Baudelaire, Appolinaire, Prévert and Sartre. These wandering ghosts of French poetry lure around here, creating a dreamy atmosphere as she enlightens us with the richness of Saint Germain des Pres. Strolling the streets aimlessly at first, the young beauty is captivated by the aura of a young man…’ Through the app you become part of a cinematic, augmented reality. You boldly go where fellow app-owners have gone before.
It’s all nicely wrapped up in an ‘infotainment’ package. The apps are made in a professional way and artists collaborate to make your visit unforgettable. Apparently creative entrepreneurs do good business. Soundwalk.com lists already 32 different soundwalks on their website. And they are not the only providers who make money with these touristic apps.
From 2013 onwards, Flanders Festival Kortrijk in Belgium starts a collection of soundwalks for the City of Kortrijk. Also these walks will be quite an experience. And made by artists who will guide people through the city. We start with two walks and in the next years we will add new projects to the collection.
So what’s the difference?
Well, we will not make money with it. But most important, the starting point is the production, presentation and promotion of art projects, the work of interesting sound artists and composers.
Some people are rather sceptic and raise questions. Are soundwalks sound art? Is the effort worthwhile when ‘deep listening’ as a practice is vanishing?
For some academics and professionals sound art relates to the interaction between sound and space and takes ‘installation art’ as a point of departure. This point of view is e.g. deeply rooted in the German tradition of Klangkunst. Personally, this question seems less important. Sound art and consequently soundwalks were revealed to me through musicians who experimented with the boundaries of music. Artists who take music – or let’s call it organised sounds – to another dimension. Out of this grew numerous exhibitions and performances. And a rather childlike definition of sound art: art that makes sound. Not an attempt to make a stirr or to evoke cheap discussion, but a way to not isolate the genre. A way to allow artists who work with sound in a relevant way to be ‘part of the game’.
The loss of the ‘deep listening’-tradition is indeed problematic. But let’s elaborate. Is it not a problem of concentration in general? We can easily make an analogy to e.g. ‘deep looking’. The Metropolitan Museum of Arts (New York) found out that the average time visitors watch one painting is 17 seconds. It is even worse in the Louvre (Paris). Leonardo de Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ is worth an average look of 15 seconds per visitor. Of course the enormity of paintings in display does not help. But still, we are talking about exceptional historical world heritage.
We are told that we live in a world that sends us thousands of visual stimuli per day. But we hardly hear about the equal amount of auditive stimuli. And even no one seems aware anymore of the auditive quality of her or his direct environment. Maybe, just like Steve Roden in his latest exhibition in Singuhr – Hoergalerie (July/August 2012, Berlin), we should do more 4’33”-practice (in reference to John Cage’s so often wrongly called ‘silent’ piece). Becoming aware of what our lives sounds like.
Already, more then a century ago the question about sound awareness was raised. With the industrial revolution from the end of the 19th century onward, our sonic environment has changed drastically. Factories and machinery and its noise were new phenomena. Even to the point where noise pollution and noise itself became a source of inspiration for artists and composers. Next to the experiments of the avant-garde, scientists studied acoustics, psycho-acoustics, techniques of recording and sound analysis. We learned that eye and ear are well connected to perceive our surrounding world. But still today the auditive is underestimated, hence the proverb ‘to see is to believe’. Already in 1916 futurist Luigi Russolo stated that when looking at a landscape painting we miss an important – if not the most important – component: the sound of the landscape.
And this is precisely the point where soundwalks can be helpful. Artists who invest in soundwalks – of course also a relation between sound and space – invite the audience to ‘deep listening’. Each in their own way they use techniques to provide a context for listening, to discover sonic environments. This can be done by filtering sounds, being silent and listening, using compositions with city sounds, via the use of ‘artefacts’, adding comments to the sonic environment or narrative elements.
In 1974 soundwalk-pioneer Hildegard Westerkamp defined it as following: ‘A soundwalk is any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment… The intention of soundwalk is listening. Soundwalks can take place in the mall, at the doctor’s office, down a neighbourhood street or at the bus stop. The focus on listening can make this a meditative activity (…)’.
With this quote we plunge in the history of soundwalk. The text ‘Soundwalking: creating moving environmental sound narratives’ by Dr. Andra McCartney (draft for a publication in ‘The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies’ by Dr. Andra McCartney, Associate Professor, Communication Studies, Concordia University Montréal) is strongly recommended. She brings us to the first use of the term by the World Soundscape Project, under the leadership of composer R. Murray Schafer. Hildegard Westerkamp was a member of this research project that expressed a strong concern about noise pollution. Interestingly enough, her text touches the historical practice of ‘listening while walking (…), as well as practices of walking meditation, in which attention to listening figures prominently’. In the prolongation of this more philosopical approach, it is worthwile to investigate the work of J.F. Augoyard at Cresson (Centre de Recherche sur l’espace sonore et l’environment urbain) founded in 1979. Their research includes ‘acoustic architecture, urban acoustics, anthropology of space, sonic environment, urban sociology, and theories of architectural and urban ambiances. Auguyard is a philosopher and musicologist (…) His doctoral dissertation (…) is a methodogical and theoretical consideration of ways of walking in an urban environment’.
Dr. McCartney guides us through the history via listening walks by Gregg Walgstaff, blind walks by Francisco López, electrical walks by Christina Kubisch, the sound pilgrimage of Olivier Schroer, the shadow walks of Viv Corringham, the audio walks by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller and finally – the starting point of this text – soundwalk.com.
Strange enough her text does not mention the LISTEN-project by Max Neuhaus. From 1966 until 1976 he organised some 15 listening walks in Canada and the United States. In the context of the work of Gregg Walgstaff, Mc Cartney defines listening walks as ‘led by a guide with the intention of encouraging active listening among a wide audience to the surrounding sound environment’. Max Neuhaus’s approach was simular, but different. Het did not add sound to the environment, but unless others he did not have a sound ecology point of departure: ‘As a percussionist I had been directly involved in the gradual insertion of everyday sound into the concert hall (…) I became interested in going a step further. Why limit listening to the concert hall? Instead of bringing these sounds into the hall, why not simply take the audience outside – a demonstration in situ?’ (Max Neuhaus, Listen – 1988, 1990, 2004). In this context he should be added to the historic gallery.
But let me take you through a personal history of soundwalks.
Here are four examples of influential projects:
In 2005 the exhibition ‘Her Noise’ was organised in London (South London Gallery and Goethe Institut London, 10 November – 18 December 2005, by Electra Productions). It presented the work of female sound artists and musicians, a.o. two ‘electrical’ works by Christina Kubisch. One of them was the ‘Electrical Walk London’. Kubisch develops these walks since 2003 as a result of her research on electromagnetic induction as a sound source for her sound installations since the 1970’s. These sounds emerge by the interaction between magnetic fields, such as electrical wires traversing space in which sounds circulates or selfmade headphones with magnetic coils. In her walks you are equipped with one of these headphones. The headphones respond to the electrical fields in the city environment. Or you could say, they unveil hidden sounds. Experiencing this for the first time is quite a treat. A map suggests listening spots chosen by the artist: ATM’s, shops security panels or tubular lights to give a few examples. Each of them has a specific sound, ranging from respectively white noise, to heavy noise and a string-like sustained sound. The fun begins when you take time to explore it yourself. London – but also Kortrijk where it was presented for the first time in 2007 – has a lot of deep listening to offer. To be continued from April 2013 onwards.
plan b are Dan Belasco Rogers and Sophia New, who got to know each other in the British theatre company Reckless Sleepers. Not unimportant to understand their work. Dan Belasco Rogers’s strong interest in sound was presented through performance, while Sophia had a strong performance background. This explains the more narrative and performative context of their projects. Peninsula Voices is a sonic walk through the spaces of the Greenwich peninsula area, London. It talks about the huge transformation of this area through personal journeys of the participants, sounds and comments added by plan b. These form a new map, with sound as guide. The GPS-software triggers the sound: entering a certain spot will distribute the connected sound through headphones. For a few hours you are drawn into the history and the present of this London borough: an abstract narration in a non-linear way. From the rise and fall of the East Greenwich Gas Works with its gas holders to the construction of the much debated Millennium Dome.
A similar project was produced by arts centre Buda Kortrijk for the area known as Buda Island under the title Into the Light of the Night (plan b in collaboration with the great Belgian field recording artist Els Viaene).
In the summer of 2008 the Japanese artist Akio Suzuki realised for the Singuhr – Hoergalerie his oto-date in Berlin. oto-date is a series of works in which Suzuki only uses the existing sound of different cities. His walk is very close to the soundwalk definition of Hildegard Westerkamp: ‘…any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment…’. In the case of Suzuki we need to add: perceive the environment. The 72 years old artist makes ‘audiovisual slices’ of the city. He creates points of listening and points of – literally – view. On chosen spots he paints ears that resemble feet on the ground. By using these positions you enter his world. Two examples make it clear. Suzuki lets you face the edge of a house. With your left eye you look to the street left to you, with your right eye to the street on your right. The same ‘split’ happens in your ears. Next situation: Suzuki offers a close view in front of a tree trunk. Your left eye looks into a street with a tower at its end, your right eye is focussing on the trunk. Again the same dichotomy happens to your ears. This project seems so simple, yet it is so precise. The perception the environment becomes totally different. Regardless if you live around the corner and you have already walked there many times or if you visit the neighbourhood for the first time.
I never had the occasion to experience a walk by Janet Cardiff myself. But this book totally hooked me up. ‘The Walk Book’ is ‘stricto senso’ an art book. It remembers several art projects – immersive walks – Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller presented in different cities, a.o. ‘Her Long Black Hair’ for Central Park, New York. This publication is a book, a cd, text of the walks, texts about the walks, drawings and inserted photographs. Of course you do not get the real stuff, but Cardiff makes it happen while you are sitting at your table and you listen to her voice, giving instructions to browse the book in a non-linear way. From the moment you hear her voice a mental soundwalk is commencing: ‘Do your headphones on. You won’t get the full effect of the audio unless you do. This is the right ear. And this is the left ear. (…) I’m in Berlin right now, sitting on my coach with the walk book in front of me on the table. Maybe the book is also on your coffee table. Open it up. Turn to page 233. I took this picture of an arrow the other day. I don’t know why it was in the park, directing me as I walked, pointing at things. Like stones and trees. I’m gonna go back there today and see if it’s still there. Now turn to the last page in the book. (Sneezes) Excuse me. I used to collect these types of photographs from detective magazines (…) Put the book down now and go over to your window (…) I woke up really early this morning, this is what it sounded like then. Sit down again, I want to show you something else in the book. Turn to page 121 (…) I want you to walk with me…’ (The Walk Book, Janet Cardiff – cd, track 1). Please do, I can only recommend it.
These four projects do work with ‘deep listening’. You need to reserve time to discover them. No hurry. These are not projects that have the ambition to promote a city or a region. They grew out of a necessity of artist and their artistic pratice. They do not have a commercial goal. These projects are reflections, contradictions, comments, raised questions, different points of listening, of view in relation to space, in case the city environment. Please continue dear artists. Doing so is a stimulant to not be superficial, to go deeper. To listen deeper. To look deeper. It’s a pleasure to concentrate on your propositions on our daily environment.
On Sunday 21 April 2013 the first two soundwalks for the new collection of sound walks for the city of Kortrijk will be premiered. Christina Kubisch did an update on her ‘Electrical Walk Kortrijk 2007’. The city went through a tremendous change. Blocks of houses were demolished since her first visit in 2007. They made place for a completely new commercial centre. Curious to hear how she will deal with this.
The Brussels based artist David Helbich presents ‘Kortrijk Tracks’. It started 2012 with his installation ‘Public Sound: Kortrijk-Jerusalem’ for last year’s edition of Sounding City. The sounds of two totally different cities merged in a field recording composition and was distributed at the entrance gate of the Kortrijk beguinage. For ‘Kortrijk Tracks’ Helbich prepares several tracks, field recording compositions, for different places in the city. These will form a spiral on the city map. A spiral that leads you out of town, or inverse, that brings you from the outskirts to the centre. To be continued.
Oh yes, these walks will be available in a permanent way from 21 April 2013 onwards. They will be made available to the audience via … the tourist office. I guess nobody’s perfect.
March 11, 2013 § 5 Comments
Over the past couple of years, the Dutch duo made up of designer Jitske Blom and sound artist & composer Thomas Rutgers has been creating quite some public hubbub (Openbaar Kabaal), by their occasional invasion of public spaces with a small army of remotely controlled ‘ticking devices’. Little percussionists, like tiny electric woodpeckers, that Jitske and Thomas stick, in the abstracted form of transparent wireless boxes, to lampposts, litter bins, traffic signs, benches, doors, shop windows, and to whatever else that through its materiality will provide an interesting sounding response to the ticking stimuli of the mechanical mini guerrilla musicians. And then they have the little buggers play… To the often not little surprise and astonishment of unsuspecting passersby.
“The pretty unobtrusive small ticking boxes (they’re almost invisible) incite us to have a new, fresh look at the space that they – and we – are in,” Thomas said, “because through their ticking, they all of a sudden make us hear that space. This public hubbub work actually started out as a fixed composition, for eight of such tickers, that was performed at each of the different locations that we installed the piece. Later on it became more of a live improvisation, in which I manipulated the ticking via a Pure Data interface.”
Openbaar Kabaal / Public hubbub was the starting point, the genesis, for The Beaters, a work devised by Jitske and Rutger for the Resonance Network, which will premiere at the ECI Cultuurfabriek in Roermond (the Netherlands), between March 15th and April 15th 2013.
What is the precise relation between your variable public interventions with the ticking boxes, and The Beaters? Is the new work a more formal version, a dynamic public intervention captured in a more static installation?
“It actually involves quite a major shift of attention,” Thomas explained. “In our work with the little boxes the goal was, so to say, the creation of a little ‘symphony’ made up from existing objects; the objects that we glued the boxes to. In The Beaters our attention has shifted from these objects to the subject: from the thing that is being ticked against, to the thing that is ticking. The focal point now is the ticker itself.”
“It is still all about materiality,” Jitske added. “But now it is about the material of the ticker itself.”
And the ticking, the beating, will be all the time agains the same object?
“Yes, for The Beaters we actually built sort of a gigantic wooden sound board. It is almost like a fake wall,” Thomas said.
“It really is like a wall,” said Jitske, “wooden boards separated by a layer of air. We made four of them, that function like modules that can be put together in different ways, depending on the space that is available. Each of them is about 2 meter and 20 centimeters by 1 meter and 20 centimers. In Roermond we will put them together into one huge rectangular panel, but elsewhere we might make two little walls out of the four boards; or even place all four of them separately in the space, like four musicians.”
Did you pick a special kind of wood?
“Not so special; it’s just wood,” Jitske explained. “We ended up choosing a type of plywood, not for some deep technical reason, but because that was what to us sounded best.”
So The Beaters are the black things that we see on the wooden panes in this picture of the work under construction? They really look like ‘stylized’ woodpeckers, don’t they? They also remind me a bit of little pumpjacks (jaknikkers).
“They are all of different dimensions, all have different sizes, and all are made from different materials,” Thomas said. “Some of them are solid, some are hollow. Some are made from plastic, others are made of wood, metal, rubber, styrofoam… They form a family. Like you have families of classical instruments: violin, viola, cello, et cetera.”
Or maybe even more like the different kinds of sticks, of different sizes and materials, that are used by a percussionist…? Did you compile this collection of sizes and materials in some sort of a systematic way?
“We wanted to use as many different ones as possible,” said Jitske. “But with the condition that they’d all have a similar visual appearance. As you can see, the beaters all look the same. Their materiality is being disguised. We don’t want the audience to be able to see what kind of material a particular beater has been made of. So that has driven our selection: use as many different materials as possible, but sticking to the condition that they all should look the same. That has been an important part of my research, experimenting with all sorts of different kinds of plastic, et cetera.”
But all the beaters are powered in the same way?
“Yes, they are all moved electrically, by small electric motors,” Thomas replied. “And it now is an essential part of the work that you actually can see the movement. The little transparent boxes of the Openbaar kabaal series all contain the same small ticker, and there is actually not much to be seen there. But in The Beaters, the visual information conveyed by the movement of the beaters is an inextricable part of the composition.”
So that the composition will actually also be sort of a choreography?
“In a way The Beaters are not unlike kinetic art,” added Jitske.
But each of them has its fixed spot on the wood. They do not move along the panes, from one spot to another, do they?
“No, each one has its fixed spot on the board,” Thomas confirmed. “And that’s where they are going back and forth. An important part of the composition consists in bouncing mouvements, like that of a ball bouncing on the floor.”
But then vertically …
“Indeed!” Thomas smiled. “So that is one little devious play: it suggests that gravity is being defied. A question that is at the heart of the work is whether it is possible to manipulate the sound, or one’s expectation of a sound, via the visual information that comes with it. If I pretend that I am going to hit you, you will startle in a backward direction already quite some time before I will actually hit you. So with the movement of the beaters, long before you hear a ‘hit’, you will feel that it is coming because you react to the visual information entering via your eyes. Also, the bouncing effect and the bouncing movement convey a sense of time. If we disregard friction, two objects on earth will bounce in the same manner. So what if things suddenly seem to be bouncing slower, or faster?”
Because you are hiding the specific materiality of the beaters, it will not be easy for a viewer to anticipate on a beater’s sound; unless he or she already has been watching and listening for a while, and formed sort of an auditive catalogue of the work…
“We use a number of ping pong balls,” Jitske replied. “Their sound is very recognizable; so these you will be able to pick out rather quickly.”
Are there more duplicates? Or are most of the beaters different?
“There are some duplicates,” Thomas said, “but most of them are different.”
How many beaters do you have beating? And why?
That question made Rutger laugh. “There are 31 beaters,” he said. “And why 31? … Well, you know that often when programming things, or putting things together with electronics and computers, you end up working with powers of two. So this is … well, it’s odd, so maybe it’ll give you one as an extra …
31 is the 5th power of 2 minus 1. So it is more than just ‘odd’. It is also a prime number. Actually it’s the 3rd Mersenne prime. OK, I guess that’s a good enough reason to pick 31… Joking apart, what I have been wondering about in the context of specifically the Resonance project, is why you decided to construct something fixed, something that is like an instrument, instead of taking the opportunity to ‘invade’ spaces like you have been doing before, and use the beaters to investigate the different locations that the work will be presented in, make use of the different materials and their different acoustic properties, etcetera.
“That has been the outcome of quite a long process,” Thomas explained. “Our starting point indeed was closer to that of the public hubbub, but while thinking and working on the project it occurred to us that for practical reasons it would be much better and far more convenient to build, say, our own wall, and bring that to the different locations. And actually, I am very curious to experience how this will work in the different places, each with its own and very different acoustic properties. In Roermond it will be in a very open, very high space, and floating freely as one large rectangular panel, at some distance from a wall. In April, at the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, The Beaters will be in a very different space, much smaller, and far more closed; also a space that in relation to the visitors fulfills a very different function… All these are very interesting aspects, and it is in this respect that the work will still continue to be a work in progress. It is a composition. But it is also an installation. It is the relation between the two that fascinates us.”
You are still working on the details of the composition. Which will indeed be a composition, I mean, a piece that has a well defined starting point, a fixed development, and a well defined end.
“Yes,” Thomas said. “It will be a fixed composition, with a duration of about 10 minutes; a composition for clicks, and, of course, to have nothing but clicks is a major limitation for a composer. A click in itself is not short or long; it has no duration, and therefore gives you almost no means for expression. There is just the moment of ‘click’; that’s infinitely short. So what I will be investigating is whether the visual information makes it possible to add expression to this click. Can visual clues make a click last longer? Or shorter? The beaters are pulled towards the wooden panel by some sort of a gravitational force, but sometimes, halfway that movement suddenly will stop dead. This gives a kind of tension that is being released, or not released; almost like in a classical harmonic progression. So these may provide equivalents of musical building blocks that can be applied in a visual manner. This is the type of research this composition will be concerned with. Research that is situated somewhere in the borderlands between choreography and sound; somewhere between sound and music.”
Isn’t it also typically a work, a situation, in which you would expect some sort of an interactivity? Between the actions of the beaters, and those of the visitors of the installation? With the density of beatings depending on the number of onlookers? Or vice versa?
“That would of course be possible,” said Thomas. “And certainly not too complicated to implement. But of course, it would add another infinity of possibilities. And personally I am not very interested in such forms of interactivity, that necessarily imply that the music gets some sort of a generative character. I find it difficult to make that interesting, because it mostly implies a relation that is very one to one; or, if it is not one to one, the relation is unclear… so… No, my preferences lie very much with a fixed form composition.”
But does a fixed form composition, of a very limited duration, that is continuously, literally, being repeated (a sound track), not contradict the idea of an installation work, which in itself does not impose any duration, no beginning and no end? Which would suggest some form of variability or evolution (not necessarily interactivity or generativity), instead of strict and unrepentant repetition. Sometimes, also for that reason, sound installations make use of a number of fixed composed parallel tracks, each with a different duration, which upon playback therefore will result in continuously shifting layers. Which, I guess, is more of a pseudo solution than a real solution…
“For the time being I am going to stick to the fixed composition, of about ten minutes, that will be continuously repeating,” Thomas insisted. “It will be a piece with very gradual changes, and of course people can step in somewhere in the middle of it; or leave in the middle. But it will be a relatively short cycle, that’s true. It remains a fascinating problem indeed, how to compose for a sound installation. And a problem, that, I think, does not have an easy and straightforward solution. When you use such shifting layers, to me that feels like giving up control; you then already switch to another level, far more abstract and far more ‘macro’; which can be OK. If you are willing to accept that. For me it remains a challenge, to look for forms that continue to provide me with enough control, but that also allow me to make something that remains dynamic…”
Even though it was maybe not intentionally conceived as such, The Beaters is – besides many other things – also clearly an instrument, a percussion instrument. And Thomas now is writing the first score (in Q-Base) for this instrument. Could he imagine inviting other composers to write pieces for The Beaters?
“Yes, that is definitely a possibility,” Thomas replied. “For this of course is another border that we are investigating. Is The Beaters an instrument that is playing a composition? Or is it one piece in which image and sound tell one story? The fact that this is not at all clear is, we think, part of its charm and its force. And I am actually considering using The Beaters in the future in performances. One can easily imagine pieces for The Beaters and all sorts of different ensembles… That would be fantastic to do!”
… “The Beaters” has been produced for RESONANCE by Stichting Intro in situ in Maastricht, the Netherlands, with additional support from the Dutch Province of Limburg.