OUR TELLURIC CONVERSATION
Carl Michael von Hausswolff and John Duncan
cm: Carl Michael von Hausswolff
jd: John Duncan
jh: Jim Haynes
Image © Randy Yau
cm: The urge to develop the ability to percept and categorize sounds seems to be one of the main subjects when dealing with sound and music during the past one hundred years, along with a wish to unveil a possible representation of the various ranges of frequencies. How does this fit into your past and present work with sound?
jd: I'm very interested in the perception of sound, in playing with the perception and the audio source. I'm not interested in categorizing either of them. "A wish to unveil a possible representation of the various ranges of frequencies" sounds like composing, or seduction, and fits pretty well either way.
In your solo audio work, there are situations where visitors see projected oscillator waveforms or realtime passes on a radar screen, from equipment central to the installation that emit a flat, constant sound near white noise, or no sound whatsoever. Why does this at times completely silent visual element receive such emphasis?
cm: Well, as we know, ever since the first composer went into an anechoic chamber there is no silence…
jd: OK, relative silence…
cm: … and what appears to be silent can, with certain kinds of microphones, be amplified and put into action. This I did with the electrical systems in various cities around the world. Then to extend this into a visual situation creates an even larger impact. One aspect of it is the physical understanding of frequency surroundings. It's easier to grasp the phenomena of a person being allergic to electricity if can visualize this as well. A second aspect is, of course, the fascination for seeing sound. The earliest experiments with sound and vision using measurement technology is the famous chess game between John Cage and Marcel Duchamp whey the mikes up the chess board and attached an oscilloscope to the sound. There was also a famous scene in the film The Party where Peter Sellers fools around with the intercom system and an oscilloscope. In the 90ies we have seen Pan sonic and later Carsten Nicolai and other using this sound and vision device. This fascination is due to the fact that our senses are separated and do not fuse and the struggle for merging our senses is a constant matter. A cook might say that the food tastes better if it also looks better, a formula 1 race driver might say that a beautiful carriage will run better if the sound is good. For me the concept is the main and founding item for an artwork and therefore it is of no importance what media I use - sound or vision or anything else and it has been quite stimulating to use technology to experiment with this - to see if a concept can coincide in several media.
In 1990 I remember a live-installtion by you called RIVER IN FLAMES, where you threw thousands of Watts of white light in the faces of the audience while flooding out quite harsh music. This combination seems also to work on the same level - sound as light, light as sound. What's your comment on this?
jd: First, that you have a good memory. Indeed, the idea was to overload the audience's visual and audio perception simultaneously -- to make the sound physical, to awaken and charge a sense of heightened sensitivity in everyone listening, so that hopefully everyone who was there would leave the event more aware of sounds around them than they were before -- and perhaps more aware of the walls as well, as they went stumbling into them...
cm: This way of using a visual effect seems then to have the function of attracting the audience to the music, in the same way that you're drawn to the light when inside a dark tunnel or cave. The mind and the body automatically focuses on the white wall of light and the massiveness of the sound, trying to filter the two for to obtain subliminal information. In any case this is contrary to earlier works of art - at least a lot of audiovisual artworks and installations that I have encountered during the 70's, 80's and 90's where the audio has a similar function to a soundtrack in a film. Here the sound has a function to enhance the visual status and in many exhibitions including sound I have noticed this. The sound has been a secondary element in the piece. Nowadays sound has established an equivalent status and is "worth" the same as the visual part. It might also mean that one is more accustomed to sounds and by this requires more from the artist and the consumer. I still feel that the discipline involving audio is in its cradle. The very complex and structured electro-acoustic music composed from the 1960:s until now (which has fallen into the negative side of the academic world) does not yet function and the so-called new minimalist music and sound installations are very basic and filled with patches of curiosity on behalf of the artist. RIVER IN FLAMES very much introduced this "basic research". How do you feel about this?
jd: I agree that the general trend of multimedia in the 70's to the 90's was to 'incorporate' audio as a soundtrack to visual elements. RIVER IN FLAMES encouraged me to treat sound as something physical, with a tangible presence, and to use those qualities as tools for confrontation with the audience: if you're sitting or standing there, you don't simply listen passively -- you can't -- you give your complete attention, or exit the hall if you can. Audio has been a dominant element in nearly all my work ever since, because sound engages the mind, and the body, in ways that are more intuitive than logical.
I think alot of the 60's electro-acoustic music doesn't work because it was composed by and directed toward a very specific, select audience of fellow academics: groups of cloistered, protected clerics trading gestures with each other, all breathing the rarified atmosphere. Alot of "new" minimalist music and sound installations continue to reintroduce this same limitation -- following strict, predictable, thoroughly traditional guidelines of "what music is". From what I know of history, this has always been so: academics reinforce tradition and frustrate change. The exceptions to this -- frustrated outsiders creating change -- are exciting. That's where the real inspiration is, the energy that drives the creative process.
An interesting twist to this in our time is the attention paid to these trends in the pop music and advertising media, encouraging artists to entertain rather than explore. I'm not sure whether artists have ever had pressures quite like these before the last 40-50 years: pressure to become pop icons, become famous and rich in a short time by using, and accepting to be used by, the entertainment industry. Mechanisms of Hollywood icon-making, a.k.a. marketing, are clear enough by now to be taught, studied and followed, for the singular purpose of becoming a celebrity, often with nothing to communicate than having made the machinery 'work for them'. It's also clear that this attitude of 'bending the machine to their will' is an illusion and that they're basically slaves to the industry, entirely dependent on it whether they like it or not.
These attitudes and gestures all encourage research by offering negative examples -- including RIVER IN FLAMES, in a sense. If the audience is assaulted over and over again, they'll learn to expect that and become passive, disregard the work as entertainment.
cm: With Paul Virilio we could agree that the art of cinema has played out its role - it's finished, and what was left of interesting items in popular culture in the 70ies and maybe the 80ies - Ono/Lennon, The Roxy Music/King Crimson sphere, The German and the Italian films and so on has been ousted out by the industry of fake. What I find interesting the quite spartan new minimalist sound art is that it seems to be wanting to rinse off a lot of clothing. For me it's a positive form of "the emperors new clothes", where the installations and the music is free from ornamental matter. It seems to want to get down to the origins of sound. From an aesthetic point of view there are very few works of art from the past that can come up with the equivalent form - at the moment I can only think of works from the 50ies by John Cage and outsiders like Else Marie Pade (a Danish woman which music was released on CD only six months ago!), from the 60ies by the New York musicians around Tony Conrad and La Monte Young and, of course, the Fluxus movement in the US and Europe. The 70ies saw a bit more of these tendencies to break down complex and obviously unnecessary compositions: popular composers like Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, the sudden interest in Erik Satie and even traditional composers like Penderecki from the east and Steve Reich from the west seemed to, instead of using a traditional narrative A-B-C-B-A form (example!), moving more into the direction of a floating form - the way the river flows, the way the wind blows in other words how the flow of life runs: the ending formula. Now this has been established by adopting the theory of the rhizome by Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. If it is a thin line or a massive line doesn't matter now and if it concerns the flux of electricity or the flux of blood it's alright - the thin sine wave aesthetics of Mika Vainio, Ilpo Väisänen and Ryoji Ikeda might have Alvin Lucier as the forefather and the bloodlike stream of noise from Masami Akita, Zbigniew Karkowski and Russell Haswell might have Phill Niblock as an originator. It's true that these worlds are small and narrow and maybe they should be. Maybe there's a wish to be secluded from the rest of the world, maybe some artists have had enough of consumerism, capitalism and exploitation. How can an artist avoid being ripped off by an advertising agency or a designer? In what way can you release a CD without being used by the commercial factors surrounding you? I've been to tons of shows where braindead copywriters try to pick up ideas from artists and composers. So far I haven't seen any rip-offs taken from sound-installations yet, nor from noise music. How can we protect us?
jd: It looks as though we're talking about two different things. I completely agree with the 'new minimalist' desire to get rid of unnecessary baggage and strip audio to essential elements -- this is part of the research, and it's happening now because it's needed. On the other hand, I'd be surprised if Mika Vainio, Ilpo Väisänen, Carsten Nicolai, Ryoji Ikeda, Masami Akita, Zbigniew Karkowski, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Leif Elggren, Russell Haswell, Thomas Lilijenberg, Ben Nilsen or Ingrid Engarås suddenly declared themselves official founders of a movement, or cared anything about considering themselves embodiments of an aesthetic institution, despite Masami's occasional claim to be the 'king of noise'. The work of all these artists shows that they've developed their own ideas, and that they still are. This is where Guattari and Deleuze's rhizome theory applies, I think: the more these artists' actions interconnect, the more they (the actions and the artists) form a network that later on seems to have evolved into a 'movement'.
Academics and others follow such insights, mimic them, point to themselves as 'authorities' and turn these efforts into 'schools'. This is the false, cloistered atmosphere I had in mind, that develops in the aftermath of actual study. At the moment this 'second-hand' effect is clear in the arena of performance, for example, with its increased emphasis since the mid 80's on image and theater -- entertainment -- and relative absence of a key element in performance as psychic investigation: direct contact with the audience.
cm: How can an artist avoid being ripped off by an advertising agency or a designer?
jd: Some say by being a designer from the beginning! This reminds me of sitting in the audience at Ars Electronica a couple of years ago, listening Prix Ars Digital Music grand prizewinner Oval lecture us about why he didn't care about music. When I asked him what he imagined he'd be doing in 5 years' time, he said he'd hopefully be working as a software engineer for a game production company, perhaps in 2 years instead of 5... as he repeatedly told us that he was "willing to take the risks" to do this, it got harder and harder to keep a straight face. By now, I just hope he's found what he was looking for.
Others say to join artists' rights organizations, to help guarantee that you're paid if an advertising agency, designer, film production, etc. uses your work. It means dealing with a bureaucracy, with all the limits that implies, but it can be worth the trouble when some organization does decide to use your work. If you're a member, the producers will pay you through the organization. If you're not, the producers can do whatever they want with your work and are under no legal obligation to pay you anything.
Still others say to keep your work as far from the public as possible, to avoid the possibility entirely. This may seem the 'purest' way to avoid being exploited, at least for awhile: if they don't know about you, they won't come after you. How long that can last is anyone's guess -- music considered 'underground' several years ago is now anything but. In Italy, grunge and speed metal tracks are used in tampon ads, hip-hop acts sell yogurt, and Oval tracks have been used to sell cars.
cm: In what way can you release a CD without being used by the commercial factors surrounding you?
jd: Up to now, simply by releasing it, period! 'Commercial factors' have basically ignored my corner.
cm: How can we protect us?
jd: By continuing to do what we often do already: encourage each other, discuss ideas and developments, share information. Naïve as this may sound, all of these are essential elements in forming that rhizome.
cm: Tell me something about the process of your interest in sound. As I understand it, you were studying at Cal Arts in the late 70ies. If those studies were focused on the visual arts, why did you slowly move into the sound issue?
jd: That story actually starts in high school. In Kansas, David Salle, Tom Otterness and I had a very special teacher, Betty Dickerson, who gave traditional anatomy drawing classes with side lectures in sacred geometry, 20th Century art history, the physics of light, the biology of human visual perception, and psychological responses to color, where 'color' was understood as a wavelength of light. In 1971 David told me about CalArts and suggested I go. I was at CalArts in 1972 - 73. Soon after I got there I started getting frustrated with the school's emphasis on career-building at the expense of research: administrators there were encouraging me to crank out more and more big paintings, as I became obsessed with looking more deeply into the relationship between the maker and the viewer. Within months the administrators were at a loss and I was in the school library, reading Antonin Artaud, Arte Povera, Jerzy Grotowsky's "Towards a Poor Theater", concrete poetry, texts on Aktionismus, land art, concept art, dance, feminist art, performance, political art, and 'dematerialization of art' while listening on headphones to Cage, Kagel, Oliveros, Penderecky, Reich, Tudor and any other record I could find with names I didn't recognize. Performance, Aktionismus and feminist art all inspired me to put myself in front of an audience and make art directly, without the icon of a painting between us. At this the administrators threw up their hands -- and watching them in lectures, entertaining their students rather than giving them actual answers to their questions or information they could use to grow with, was all the encouragement I needed to look somewhere else for mine.
The creative work in performance involved focusing on abstractions and concepts, understanding personal experiences as reflections of broader social situations, then translating the experiences into events that connected to something universally human. The more I researched, the darker the results became. After awhile I started to feel a serious longing for the lightheartedness of playing with color, the security of a connected system of stimulus-response that had proven reliable yet was still largely unexplored, and for a way of creating that would rely more on making decisions solely with my heart. Instead of going back to painting, I decided to apply the visual techniques I'd learned to work made for hearing, a perceptive sense I hadn't developed. With no formal musical training to get rid of, it felt very much like starting over. Most of the time I worked alone, making tentative atmospheric and breath recordings with a microphone and a cheap cassette player. I began to meet other artists doing similar things.
Then the Punks showed up with the attitude of "I'm here, been brought up on poison, planet contaminated beyond all hope, we're all doomed, so I'm doin' just what I want, I'm doin' it for me and I don't give a fuck if it's even close to what you wanna hear!". Just the enema we needed. But it didn't take long to realize that they were mostly thinking like rock bands, making short tunes and playing them endlessly, always with the same instruments. So I started looking for an instrument that would be nearly impossible to play in that sense, that I could guide to play itself. When Gary Jo Gardenhire heard me describe that idea, he pointed to a portable shortwave radio on his shelf and asked, "Something like this?"
cm: Radium, or to use the full name Radium 226.05, was founded because of need. Göteborg was a city full of people wanting to do something with their lives and at the same time wanting to be independent from the academic and political/social life. Around this time, 1978-1983, there was a vacuum on the cultural side - progressive leftist music and art was a bit outdated and the anarchic post-punk and post-industrial scene was scattered around town. I was concentrated on audio/visual arts, mostly performance art and live-installations, executing works in abandoned buildings and galleries while living on social security. In 1983 I basically needed an office and a base for my work so meeting the German photographer Ulrich Hillebrand in 1980 began a 10 years collaboration. With Ulrich's connections to William Burroughs and Brion Gysin and my connection to the Swedish scene including the Stockholm based Fylkingen (that included artists like Sten Hanson , Åke Hodell, Leif Elggren and Lars-Gunnar Bodin) we established Radium 226.05 as a name for a magazine. Working with logotypes and general design we agreed upon the fact that everything we do should have an underlying aesthetic base and the approach to everything that concerned us - and this didn't exclude anything - should have an artistic finish. In this way we realized that we could practically do everything we wanted to: electro-acoustic music, rock music, sound art, poetry, documentary photography, conceptual art - whatever. During the period 1983-1990 we produced over 70 records, 3 festivals for computer music, contemporary art exhibitions, film festivals and 2 issues of the magazine. As Radium grew Göteborg grew, and a lot of other activities sprung up. Göteborg was a very vital place at this time and the different scenes met in a natural way - sound and vision, design and philosophy, energy and finacial poverty ... In 1991 it was over. Instead of letting the organization becoming a static institution we sold it away and founded the label Anckarström instead... and you where contacted. You were in Amsterdam at this point. I met you via Andrew McKenzie. How did you end up there?
jd: Yes, the hundred-year ban on speaking or printing the name Anckarström -- the name of King Carl Gustav's assassin -- had just been lifted, and the label's first project was a 12-CD collection which most other label directors claimed would bring you immediate financial ruin... I remember you were the first person I'd met in Europe who offered to produce artists' work exactly as they wanted it, rather than try to censor or modify or 'soften' it in some way.
Amsterdam. I ended up there 'by chance', as far as that concept goes. My first wife (Japanese) had a job with a company (Japanese) that transferred her there from Tokyo to work from their European branch, and of course I came along as well. By then, Andrew and I had been in contact for a couple of years. My pirate radio station RADIO CODE had broadcast one of the few programs he made under the name Hafler Trio, basically a 60-minute BBC-style 'documentary' of the Robert Spridgeon fable he was expounding at the time, which was later produced by AQM Japan as a cassette release called 'Hotondo Kiki Torenai' (trans.= 'something unheard of', or 'something you haven't heard'). Andrew had also called me to offer to release a solo LP after RIOT; we were still talking about when and how to do that when I arrived in Amsterdam. That led to a period of working together, which was peaking when Andrew introduced us.
jh: By the way, earlier you talked about RIVER IN FLAMES as a 'live-installation' but John calls it a 'concert'...
jd: True. Thanks for pointing that out, Jim. In our time an 'installation' usually implies an event, possibly including audio, where the start and end moments are irrelevant, which the audience experiences as an open structure that they can enter and leave at will; and a 'concert' usually implies an audio event with a determined start and end moment that the audience witnesses. In these terms, whatever they're worth, RIVER IN FLAMES is closer to a 'concert'.
These fixed categories and the expectations they encourage, especially on the part of audiences, have already started to blur and become redundant. You and I are partly responsible, Michael, and I'm glad.
cm: Before going further into the Amsterdam sequnce, can you tell me bit more about your "piracy". Today I'm surprised that no one has used transmission technology to hack into satellite systems. it would be a piece of cake to use the frequencies used by MTV and other commercial stations. It's a very powerful tool for the distribution of sound and vision. You worked with radio but also with television transmissions, right?
jd: Right. The pirate TV station was called TVC 1, the FM radio broadcasts were made as RADIO CODE. At that time, Tokyo's television broadcasts ended just after midnight and the FM band was largely unused.
TVC 1 was set to broadcast over the frequency of NHK 1 (equivalent to BBC in the UK). Knowing that many Tokyo residents had the habit of late-night surfing through all TV channels including ones they knew were off the air, the idea was to provide these viewers with images that I myself wanted to see, that no licensed Japanese television station would ever allow. Documentary images from the Tokyo Riots -- the work of Rudolf Schwarzkogler, no sound, the first time his work was ever seen in Japan -- a post-coital couple playing with their onscreen image using a video camera they think is private -- a simple, beautiful experimental video shot entirely in a one-room apartment by an electrical engineer who knew little or nothing about visual art -- a concert by O'Nancy In French, two Japanese artists who perform by creating feedback with amplified oil barrels, then controlling it by gently touching the barrels at various points -- all in a form that would be coming out of nowhere, with no explanation or context whatsoever, seeming like some sort of fluke or technical error that became more interesting as you watched.
It was important to me to always begin transmitting after NHK had gone off the air, in order to add to rather than interrupt what was already onscreen. If you break unexpectedly into someone else's signal, that implies that you judge your own 'voice', your 'message', your programming to be more valuable than theirs. Since the images I wanted to see and hear on air were already generally assumed to be unthinkable over Japanese airwaves, I figured that this exclusive attitude was already prevalent enough in the media and refused to repeat it in my own contributions.
Everything was aired with a portable transmitter, VHS recorder and collapsible antenna, which all fit into an old briefcase my father had used for selling insurance. I'd power them by borrowing the 6 Volt battery from a moped chosen at random on the street (too impractical and conspicuous to carry, especially on a commuter train), then replacing it again when the broadcast was over.
The routine was to find an apartment building higher than the others around it, with an easily accessible stairway open to the roof. Among the tools I carried was a small pair of bolt cutters to get through any locks or chains on roof-access doors (most were already open, to allow fire escape). A week or so later, I'd check and pack the equipment, catch a train to the station nearest the site, pick up a battery en route, enter the building and go directly up to the roof.
Ten years earlier, the Chukakuha (Middle Core Faction) of the Japanese Red Army hacked directly into NHK's transmitter during the noon news broadcast and replaced it with the image of one of their members reading a manifesto. After that incident, the Dempa Kanri Kyoku (government telecommunications bureau) installed a network of sensors that covered the entire Tokyo metropolitan area, to pinpoint the location of any stray transmitters operating and alert the police nearest the signal. This took about 30 seconds. The police would then respond with a truck equipped with a special locator antenna, and hand-held detectors for officers entering the broadcast site. This took anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, depending on whether or not their equipment was on hand when they got the alert. Every TVC 1 broadcast lasted a maximum of 12 minutes, to allow for transmission, repacking and exit to take a total of 15 minutes maximum. Each broadcast was made completely unannounced, 30 to 40 days after the one before. I worked in this way in all seasons and types of weather for about 2 years, was never caught, and still have yet to meet anyone who actually saw a broadcast.
RADIO CODE was a portable pirate FM radio station operated with equipment even more compact than TVC 1: a walkman, a stereo microphone with earphones taped to it to allow stereo playback of background music from the walkman while you spoke into the mic, and an FM stereo transmitter with a range of 7 kilometers.
Broadcasts were made from my house, from an abandoned US military hospital nearby, or from the site of a special event -- a solo Horikawa Hisako butoh performance before a live audience -- a Fushitsusha studio session -- live broadcast of a private concert of Chie Mukai's 5-member band Che-Shizu performing in a closet-sized apartment -- a Japanese woman who attempted suicide in front of a video camera, sitting with her and watching her videotape on the night she returned from the hospital, our comments broadcast live from her apartment.
RADIO CODE attracted a group of high school kids who started showing up and making their own broadcasts after school. It was fun to open the house to them, to see them doing and saying exactly what they wanted in their programs. I could almost never follow the Japanese dialogue, but it never seemed to matter. And the fact that they talked with me about discussions they'd had with friends over what they'd heard in my own broadcasts proved that the station did have a listening audience.
Making pirate broadcasts with satellite technology means that you have to somehow hack into the equipment itself, the satellite or a ground station which, as I understand it, is at least one order of magnitude more difficult at the moment than assembling your own transmitter and broadcasting on a known frequency. The ways that 'pirates' are dealing with this situation at the moment mainly seem to be centered on receiving, rather than sending: variations on the voyeurism of surveillance cameras, or collaging captured satellite television signals not intended for broadcast -- collar straightenings, incidental comments and emotional reactions, throat clearing, nose picking, etc. This has to change, of course, and it will be interesting to see how it does.
cm: As we, everyday (and perhaps night), are easy targets for the market we're also expected to sit still and receive an ongoing bombardment of sound signals and visual propaganda, we're also supposed not to react upon the intrusions. We're not any longer "sitting ducks", we're stuffed turkeys. Using radio signals is a good way to change a situation - if it's done in a secure and correct way. Sometimes the correlates are wrongly calculated. In 1991 I managed to get some funding for doing a project in Iceland with Andrew McKenzie. Having recorded the sound from 28 runes (made in steel) we played these sounds back and recorded them at various locations in Reykjavik, Hveragerdi, Thingvellir and at the foot of the Hekla volcano. One rune for each day in 28 days. Apart from this major project we also brought some other material including walkie-talkies and a 4-channel portastudio. In Hveragerdi we tried out the walkies from one mountain top to the other, playing back the Icelandic national anthem. When doing so we were interrupted by an American voice asking who we were and where we were. Automatically we realized that the American NATO forces in Keflavik were scanning all radio traffic in Iceland. Back in Reykjavik we were also told that NATO recorded all signals in case they were forced to decode a possible crypto. We also realized that nearly all the Icelanders were pretty disturbed by the presence of NATO and wanted them out. We decided to do something about it. As I had, the previous year on tour in the US, recorded the sound of every city we performed in (used live and on the Phauss CD "Nya Sveriga - Nothing But The Truth", Anckarström, Sweden, 1991) we possessed the sound from 14 major cities in the main NATO country. Andrew also had the sound of the Challenger space shuttle accident that happened in the late 80ies. We mixed those sound into one tape and took off, assissted by Johann and Gummi of the group Reptilicus, to the Keflavik base. There we positioned ourselves by the protection fence, one on each side of the base, and made a transmission with the walkies using the mixed stream of noise. Then we went back to Reykjavik. This method, to make something happen to something by playing the sound of itself to itself - a type of homeopathy - we had learned from William Burroughs' tape recorder experiments executed in the 50s and 60s. To enhance an effect we had also contacted Annie Sprinkle in New York and Dale Travous in Seattle and asked them to, at a certain Greenwich time, in private or public, do something special. Annie invited a couple of friends to her apartment and had 33 orgasms with them and Dale activated his gigantic Tesla coil and projected 1 million volts on an Icelandic map drawn on his lab wall. So, sitting in Cafe 33 sipping on a beer after the mission, we felt pretty sure that something would occur. At least we had tried and we knew that NATO had the recording of our transmission and were probably feverishly trying to decode it. A few days went by and suddenly we read in the paper that the volcano Pinatubo in the Philippines had erupted and that the US Army had to evacuate the whole Clark base because of the lava threatening to destroy the place. This time maybe the correlates were a bit off course, but it showed that using a simple radio transmission system could make a world fall apart.
jd: Or maybe the effects actually were on target and weren't reported, who knows. Runes -- made of steel? As I understand it runes are poems based in the practice of magic, written using characters of the old German alphabet. Please describe this a bit more...
cm: Well, it's a rather complex thing, but basically every letter has a name and contains specific information. When we used it we focused on the actual sound of each rune. The construction of each rune was based on the length between my index finger and my elbow. Even if we knew quite a lot about each rune we decided to concentrate on the sound quality and its supposed magical output. There's a great book written in Swedish called "Runornas talmystik och dess antika förebild" by Sigurd Agrell dealing with the function and history of runes. Maybe its translated into English - I don't know.
jd: This story brings up a couple of interesting cultural transformations that we've been seeing and living through. Starting in the mid-80's or early 90's a sense of complacency started spreading, with an emphasis on using media, on 'taking advantage' of it rather than making gestures against it. Pirate television in Amsterdam, for example, became supported by the cable network -- hailed as a 'coup' by the 'pirates' -- and within 2 years had programming content that was indistinguishable from the network's other local features. Political and financial events in the US over the last year or so have amplified this situation into the equivalent of several electroshock sessions. The police and especially the press are ready to distort and seize on any actions that could be seen as 'threats to national security', real or imagined; media is now more than ever a behemoth that can turn on anyone. The social atmosphere has become stifling, paranoid, and change is inevitable.
The second transformation is that we have very concrete examples that show simple systems can make a world fall apart -- which shows how important it is to have a very clear idea of what we want to do with them. You and I both have experiences of what it is to work with them directly, and why it's necessary to approach them with focus and attention, as well as with openness. This awareness of responsibility may actually be new, something that hasn't been seen in art before, something that hasn't really been necessary before now.
cm: McLuhan's message didn't work from this point of view (The Medium Is The Message). It might still be valid in most homes, where the status of possessing a certain machine is more important than what comes out from it, but that what comes out from an older tube seems to be more vital then that from the latest chip. There are some artistic work that seems to be quite important considering what surrounds us and effects us. Scanner's first recordings using radio scanners was extremely beautiful, making a point of being aware of what you say and do over the telephone network. Earlier you could only be paranoid about the fact of being bugged by the police or the military, but now you can be certain of it. This maybe makes you a bit more open on the phone or through the net, avoiding to have something confidential or obscure to communicate.
One can also turn things around! On a few occasions I have, together with Erik Pauser and Ulf Bilting, constructed a system using a Mac and a phone, that called up an entire city's numbers (Gothenburg, 1989 and Linkoping, 1990) and gave the receiver the information: "hello, you're called up by Phauss! we want to take control over your life! you have 7 seconds to comment on this ..... thank you" - Simply by reversing the system we showed how easy it was to create a very uneasy situation randomly. That the police came a few weeks after the Gothenburg show was over didn't make it worse (well, we had to change the message in Linkoping to: "hello, you're called up by Phauss. we know exactly what you're doing right now! you have 7 seconds to comment on this ... thank you!".
The presence of the law just showed who's running the place. A lot of people seem to think that technology makes things more complicated, but I think it's just technology. It's in any handbook! Just read it and proceed. It was more complicated before when you had to learn how to communicate using intuition and feeling, when you had to access systems like telepathy or ritual, veiled systems that was not written down but transferred orally.
jd: I think recordings using radio scanners tend more to encourage a sense of voyeurism, of listening to someone else's conversation with the relief that they are being tapped and not you, more than they point out that the technology can be -- is -- used to invade anyone's privacy. Telephone operators were well ahead of artists doing this, according to a friend who worked there, with their practice of putting certain calls, especially erotic calls, over loudspeakers to help pass the time. Beyond that, making music with these sources raises the issue of whether or not they, too, can be music -- the answer is very obviously yes -- and whether or not the result is interesting to listen to more than once, answered by the fact that most people who were doing this a decade ago have long since abandoned it.
The Phauss project sounds more interesting: it puts this threat to privacy in the face of people contacted at random, including yours, simply by having your phone part of the local network. The story reminds me of the final scene of the Cuppola film "The Conversation" where the surveillance expert, playing the clarinet for stress relief after tearing up his apartment, including the floorboards, in a frantic search for a hidden microphone he's failed to find, answers the telephone only to hear a recording of the last several notes he's played -- and we see that the unmodified telephone receiver itself is the wiretap, that nothing else is needed. These days this point is put literally in my face every time I collect email and get ads for photocopy toner, herbal viagra and the world's biggest cocks. Once is amusing; daily for years is tedious in the extreme. Try turning that system around. Please.
Communication with intuition, feeling, telepathy and ritual are going to stay with us, in fact there's a general direction in developing programming software that includes these aspects. Which I'm all for, frankly; after spending so much time and energy learning how to cope with a variety of technology's inexplicable nuances, I think it's time technology learned to cope with a few of mine.
cm: Speaking about "threat to privacy". You're very early work Scare could, I suppose, also be called a sound piece. I'd like to know a bit more about that work. It must have had a lot to do with privacy etc?
jd: For me, SCARE had to do with how emotions can change from one extreme to its 'opposite' in a fraction of a second. Inspiration for SCARE came from an experience that Jim Welling and I had on the street in LA one night, walking back to his place. A car pulled up and stopped several meters behind us; three kids got out and called to us. As they approached, one guy kept nudging his partner and saying "Gimme the gun, man, gimme the gun", while the third guy walked away from them and came around behind us. While the first guy was distracting us, the third attacked us from behind, smacked me across the neck with a stick that cracked when it hit. I fell and for a split second thought I'd been shot -- put my hand over that part of my neck, and felt a literally cold terror -- then in the next split second pulled my hand away, saw there was no blood, got back on my feet and started shouting back at them, feeling a literally hot anger. When they were gone, I kept thinking about what had just happened and more than anything else was amazed at how fast I'd gone from feeling cold to hot, scared to furious... and that this experience was art. From that moment I started 'dissecting' this change, thinking about how it could be created for others as art.
The elements of shock and doubt (alive? serious injuries?) seemed essential to the experience, so I kept as much as possible to the sequence of the original event: a sudden, apparently life-threatening attack by a stranger, then the stranger is gone as the attack proves to be harmless, all in a matter of seconds. I decided to actually fire a gun at them using a pistol loaded with blanks (made to look like a bullet was being fired), and to entirely avoid speaking. I wore a rubber mask that completely covered my head and neck, with a turtleneck sweater and knit cap to hide the seams, so that a split-second glimpse would leave the witness unsure of whether they'd seen a mask or a real face.
It also seemed obvious that my actions would have to be performed with people who were chosen carefully rather than picked out at random, as Jim and I had been. More than this, they would have to be people I knew well, selected to be as sure as I could be that they'd be able to appreciate the event as art once the shock had worn off. Paul McCarthy and I were in agreement, at that time, about the importance of perceiving and creating art that took place outside of a fixed art context. Tom Recchion was open to a variety of creative experiences. Both were generally prepared to give serious consideration to art actions.
I approached their houses on successive nights and knocked on the front door. When each answered I pointed the gun at his face, fired once and took off. A day or so later I called to let them know I was the one who'd done it, and to talk about their responses. Both told me they agreed that the event had worked as I wanted with the effects I'd been trying to create, and accepted it as art. At that point it became unnecessary to perform SCARE with anyone else.
Word of all this soon started spreading. Some tried calling SCARE a form of revenge, which it obviously wasn't and clearly transcended even then. Several people tried to bring up the "threat to privacy" issue, sometimes quite amusingly indignant as if they themselves had been attacked, assuring me that they'd have beaten me senseless if I'd done it to them. My answer was that I hadn't -- that the people I'd chosen had appreciated the intended effects as art, that they agreed this was more interesting than taking offense to being unexpectedly involved, and that they were chosen exactly because they wouldn't feel threatened in this way.
cm: Reading about SCARE the sound of the shots seems to ring in my ears. Of course, without the sound there wouldn't have been any results! I wonder what would be considered best? To experience a war deaf or blind? I have also noticed that when my kids watch a scary movie, they protect their ears when it gets a bit too much. Without the sound it doesn't seem to be so scary any longer. SCARE is certainly a sound art piece. I come to think of a very early work, done in 1904. This work is not considered a work of art but I think it has creative values that coincide with the process of artistic behaviour. In 1904 the first mail bomb, probably the first one in the world, was sent to a Swedish business man. The sender was an inventor called Martin Ekenberg. I wrote about him in the fifth issue of Cabinet magazine. I can picture him sitting at his working desk composing the piece, putting it all in a box, writing the address and heading for the post office. What I cannot understand is why he didn't wait for the result to happen. The sound of the blast must have been tremendous. It's like writing a new piece of music for an orchestra and not attending to the first performance. Maybe he was only interested in the damage. Thinking about it I also find it strange when people talk about Chris Burden's piece "Shooting piece" (1971) that they never talk about the sound of the gun, only the damage. Maybe this is symptomatic in the visual art world. So much sound has been produced but few words (or discs) seem to capture them.
In 1984 I did two pieces, a kind of a diptyk, using an air rifle. The audio documentation of these are to be found on the LP "Gothenburg 84" (Radium 226.05, 1984) in the piece "The Will of Tupi-Tupi, the Rooster, and G.K., the Dove" (later heard on the CD "Rays of Beauty", Sub Rosa, 1995). The work was called "Brytare" (transl. Breaker or Switch) and "Kopplare" (transl. Connecter) and they were executed in Kleinsassen, Germany and Stockholm. In them I used a rooster (for Germany) and a dove (for Stockholm). I built a cage for each of them to stay in. Each day for one week I shot a bullet through the cages onto a target situated on the other side of the cages. The time when to shoot was selected by a random system. This way I couldn't decide when to pull the trigger myself. If the birds would've been unfortunate the bullet would've hit them. Every day I grew more and more attached to the birds and this meant that every day it became harder and harder to shoot a bullet. Luckily they were never hit and I was truly happy when the week was over. Later when the rooster was being transported to Sweden it was confiscated by the Swedish customs and killed. The dove I let out in the forest in southern Sweden. The next day I found some feathers from it and realized that it had been eaten. Strange how chance operations function, eh?
jd: Very. This work makes me think about a couple of others with birds or animals involved. The first of them (chance operations) is the installation you did in Rotterdam -- among your best so far, I think -- with a flock of parakeets or budgies, let loose inside the exhibition space to fly around at will and leave droppings everywhere, including over the other artists' work. One from Los Angeles (attachment to the birds) is called "Blinky, the Friendly Hen" where Jeffrey Vallance buys a prepared chicken at the supermarket, then gives it a full burial ceremony at a nearby pet cemetery. Then there's the landmark 1976 "Rat Piece" performance (attachment, threat, audience reactions as chance operations) by Kim Jones, at that point recently returned from surviving 18 months of constant incoming mortar and rifle fire in a muddy hole in Vietnam, where he came out in his improvised mud/stick camouflage carrying a pet rat in a cage, set the cage on a table and explained that he and other soldiers with him had kept their sanity by setting captured rats on fire, then did exactly that to the rat in the cage. Sitting in the audience I found this event profound, moving. Others didn't. Outraged audience members -- arguably the same people that sent Kim and his fellow Marines to Vietnam -- went to the police and filed animal abuse charges against him, sending Kim to jail for 6 weeks. When I asked him several years later how he felt about that, Kim's response taught me a lesson that's stayed with me ever since: he simply accepted it, refused to allow himself to feel angry because their hostility was their responsibility, 'natural' in a sense, demonstrating their unpreparedness to witness or accept a part of their own character. Why be angry at people who can't do any better?
Maybe Martin Ekenberg was only interested in the results, as you suggest, or with the idea that it wasn't necessary to be anywhere near the action to know it was happening. With Burden's piece "Shoot", people were intrigued with the idea, then with the images -- and in the video soundtrack the sound of the shot is amplified considerably by the cement walls and floor of the space where it was performed. Shots fired out in the open from the small handgun I used in SCARE make less sound than a small firecracker -- no big deal unless they're fired point-blank at your face. The context is crucial to so many of these events... Another aspect that is sort of passed over in discussions about this topic is that the act of listening still seems treated by certain traditionalist curators and others in the visual art world as something of a threat. These people tend to be afraid of taking audio installations and experimental music seriously, despite the complexity, variety and history of this work, because they define music and organised sound in very limited terms (Josef Stalin demanding "Give us music we can sing!"), haven't trained themselves to focus discriminately with their ears anywhere near as intensely as they've trained themselves to do with their eyes.
As we know, the most effective way to deal with such resistance is with perseverence: to ignore this fear, prove it's unfounded by making and publishing more and more work until there's so much of it that whether or not they understand it becomes irrelevant because so many other people do -- unless of course intimidation is a deliberate part of the aesthetic.
cm: Have you worked with chance operations in your sound works?
jd: Absolutely. As far as I can remember, all the audio work that I've ever done is built on sources that come from sessions of "Let's see what happens when..." One of the attractions of shortwave radio, computer generated audio and experimental music in general is that the act of listening for these sources calls for an acceptance of sounds that are (relatively) unfamiliar, a sort of active 'not-doing' -- intently waiting for sounds that spark something impossible and completely unnecessary to name -- an acceptance that is anything but passive. PHANTOM BROADCAST is the most extreme example of this that I've had so far: the sound of the source suggested a particular processing technique, then a particular mix, in a session that was started and finished in a single day. Very unusual for me, because this process often takes months, sometimes years, which is fine and I think worth the wait. At the same time, I admire your approach to making sound: holding such 'research' sessions in public, playing with whatever happens. Do you go back later on and add to or change what you've recorded?
cm: I find the "live" situation quite different from the recorded one. The live-recordings I do of concerts doesn't satisfy me particularly. If I would release some of them on record, it would mostly be for the documentation of the event rather then for the quality of the music. This might be because I find the concert (or live-installation) a very site specific work. The merge, or harmonization, between sound and architecture is very important for me, and as each space has its own characteristics these recording seems out-of-place when listening to them. i rarely change anything when it's finally recorded. My mastering processes are very fast. What takes time is the conceptualization and the making of a decision. This work takes place within me so I don't need any machinery for that. You could say that I'm not very studio minded. I have a hard time spending time adjusting a specific sound. I'm what you could call "a dirty composer and artist". Dust doesn't bother me, on the contrary it can even be of a certain benefit. It's like Duchamp's Large Glass - it looks even more interesting when there is a layer of fine dust on the surface. Most of the sounds I use are also quite "real". They're not particularly altered from their original sounding. Sometimes they're pitched, but that it. Natural sounds comes in such masses and most of them still feel unused. Even pure sinewave tones I must say! They have a mystical internal quality and doesn't need to be morphed, mutated or shaken.
jd: Several years ago you set up an installation at IASPIS in Stockholm: 'The Ether Bar', a white-cube space with one entrance, no windows except for a skylight, no chairs, a chest-high bar at the far end made of glass and welded steel, and a high shelf behind it stocked with sealed rectangular cans full of ether. Background music came from two oscillators set to a low frequency. A oppressive, reserved, politely social offering of poison. I remember watching people at the opening -- very few stayed in there for longer than a couple of minutes -- most sort of peeked in the door, marvelled, then blankly steered their drinks elsewhere. When I saw it again last year, other artists had filled it with wallpaper, stuffed chairs, reading lamps and other debris trying desperately to make it 'comfortable', turning it into a visual cesspool.
Public responses aside, I've always wondered what inspired you to think of a bar based on odors rather than drinks...
cm: The piece you saw (and heard) was the "Thinner and Low Frequency Bar". This was a piece I did for the Momentum Pakkhus exhibition in Moss, Norway, 1998. After this exhibition I didn't know what to do with the piece, so it was shipped to my gallery in Stockholm. Daniel Birnbaum, then director for IASPIS and co-curator for the mentioned show, heard about it and wanted it to be installed at IASPIS, permanently. For the inaguration of the Kiasma museum in Helsinki I collaborated with Tommi Grönlund and Petteri Nisunen; we constructed a semi-abstract/semi-social installation called "Untitled - Frequented Etherics, Spheres and Bars" where the use of ether was prominent.
As many other artists during the years, I have been quite interested in drugs and the response from drugs by politicians and moral preachers. Living in Sweden this has been a very hot point of discussion. Establishing a zero-tolerance towards Hashish and heavier narcotics and a very strict programme on Tobacco and Alcohol, the government has created an underground system for alternative and more dangerous drugs - the domestic chemicals. Considering that anything can be dangerous if you use it wrongly, I decided to create these social places as a comment to these hypocrasies. Realizing that thinner, ether and later glue and gasoline work in a very immaterial way, I added sound to the installations. The purity of the gasses made me combine it with the purity in sine wave frequencies, and these combination are straight subjective. i fell that the use of glue is corresponding to the 11 000 Hz signal - a very painful frequency for me and very brain-infecting. The low bass frequency corresponds with thinner functions as a very omnipotent and sedative sound - a structure collapsing kind of system.
As for the IASPIS installation, artists staying there could, if they wanted to, leave a track of their pre-existense in these premises by putting up a painting or something else in the room. This is why it looks a bit chaotic nowadays...
Have you used drugs in combination with sound before?
jd: Caffeine, yes. In Japan I drank about three liters of French roast coffee a day, usually between midnight and 6am, to stay awake during the peak hours for shortwave reception. At sunrise I'd put on shoes and run 3 to 5 kilometers to burn off the remnants of caffeine buzz, then sleep until noon or go catch the train to work, depending on the day of the week. In Amsterdam this routine became unnecessary because the shortwave reception period there was several hours shorter, so coffee went back to a morning ritual. And then I dropped the habit altogether, on the suggestion that the bags under my eyes would disappear...