> CARSTEN NICOLAI & BLIXA BARGELD INTERVIEW by Rob Young
R: How did your aabb collaboration start?
BB: Carsten contacted me one day, we met a couple of times without playing anything together, just purely on a social level – I also know his brother. At some point we started facing the idea of collaborating on some music together. On my side I was not familiar with alva noto or Raster-Noton were doing. I think for a long time I lost my interest in other music, and I had to catch up with things. I know more now about my contemporary musicians.
R: In the 90s I met plenty of German electronic musicians who seemed fairly distanced from Enstürzende Neubauten…
C: For me it wasn’t true. Enstürzende Neubauten were really influential. Maybe it’s an East thing? Because Neubauten were, in the East, really big for us. Not in terms of the music, but it was more a way of living, this anarchic idea…
BB: Of course it’s also a generational thing. I think people come from that field; they come from various different directions. Maybe there are a couple of common denominators… I don’t think any serious musician would say Kraftwerk wasn’t an influence…
C- No – for me Enstürzende Neubauten was even more important than Kraftwerk.
BB: Depeche Mode…?
C: And then I found out, talking with Blixa, they used the same sampler. But I never connected those kinds of bands.
BB: We were in the same studio and had the same producer.
C: But for me Depeche was pop music and EN …
R: In this collaboration, is it a process of exploring common ground or pushing into terra incognita?
BB: I’m not much interested in doing something I already know. I need to have a challenge, and to explore something in a field where I’m not sure of the outcome. For me it’s a process of finding ways I can enrich this, and especially work with voice and lyrics in this context. Obviously I cannot just take my EN way of writing and singing and just put it there on a different project. That’s not my interest. So it is research, and it is finding common ground. But I guess its also finding terra incognita – something that we had not explored before. It would be too simple if Carsten did his normal bleeps and I did my normal screams over the top of it.
R: Tell me more about the track “Ret Marut Handshake”…
BB: You know who Ret Marut is? I think I etched the word Ret Marut in my table at my Gymnasium at school. I just had a fascination with that name, as well as the story – it has a mantra like quality… He was here in [London]. Not under the name Ret Marut – but as Torsten Torwalds – and then he made it on a half wrecked ship to America, and wrote a novel about that. And the funny thing is the meeting with John Huston, and John Huston making Treasure of the Sierra Madre and this guy coming out of the jungle and claiming that he is B Traven’s agent – when obviously he was B Traven…
R: Do you identify with the enigmatic character of B Traven?
BB: It’s a mantra-like quality, the story behind it, the association. I think for this project I do Google-supported writing. There’s another track, “Mimicry”, and I think about that, I Google every thing I can find, start putting the associations together, and out of that the language level of the track should form itself.
R: When you’re working together, is it a process of ‘just doing it’?
BB: It was Cosey that said that [at a talk the previous night]. That wouldn’t really be my words in describing it – Carsten has a very unique and personal methodology in doing these things – mainly everything is done by editing. There are no sources. There are no samplers – it’s created purely electronically, and most of it is done with editing, and there’s a very strong aspect of psychoacoustic phenomena in it. And my methodology is I’m trying to narrow down and pin to this particular project, to come to somewhere… but it’s not just doing it, it’s method, strategy. The method may be different.
R: On that track, it sounds freer than Carsten’s usual solo stuff – electronics off the grid.
C: I think this is what the whole collaboration is all about. This track came quite late. When we started we tested a lot of things. We had a little show at a disco, four days in a studio.
B: We went through all these numbered ideas, from AB01 to AB46 or something. He played me all different Alva Blixa sketches, and I listed and figured out what they were and gave them nicknames and then we narrowed it down to a couple here and a couple there. It became evident that the playing live, the show, the arch-problem of electronica – the playing live – it’s the arch problem from high electronic compositions from the 50s onto now, and it is also in the popular genre, the arch problem is the playing live. And it became evident that if it’s worth going anywhere, the live playing factor is going to become the key element. So the shows are constructed like trees – there is the possibility of going either this way or that way at any moment. So that you are actually constructing the whole thing – not that you build in errors or the possibility of errors, they are there anyway, but they are gonna have a treelike structure. That means I have particular things where Carsten gives me something I have never heard ever before, and so I will be forced to develop something… And he is giving me treatments on the voice, while outside Boris Wilstoff the engineer is doing treatments and different things, so the turnout will be different every evening, and there will always be new pieces created spontaneously following a set of ideas, which we can build on, refine…
C: In the recording studio, what we are doing is playing live and recording it. This is very new to me, for instance, as an electronic musician is really like a studio musician, sitting there, touching this track, move this here and loops this here. But we are not doing this – we say let’s play a song, maybe we take this version or another, but we’re always recording one thing in one place. I would normally have 50 tracks in the end, but we sometimes only have 2 or 3.
BB: There is an example of what we did – we did a cover version of Harry Nilsson’s “One”. Carsten knows even less about music than I do, so I had to not just give him the chords, but I had to tell him which notes are in these chords. He looked them up on the internet to find out which frequencies these notes are. And then he built each chord from the sine notes up. So then a simple sine notes, shifts as forming the chords, and then they are purely edited… Purely sine notes, and the original has this one note – ding-ding-ding, which you can wonderfully do with a beat. So we have a very recognisable version of Nilsson’s “one”, absolutely musical, and I’m, singing it exactly, but it’s purely made from sine notes.
I have another cover version which we haven’t recorded – Hendrix’s “Will I Live Tomorrow”. It has this feedback note which always fascinated me in the original, because sometimes Hendrix did such strange and unpopular things very often. I think this could be very nicely translated into electronica.
C: Not electronica, electronic.
BB: Electronica – is that lounge music?
C: It sounds like a sweets or something…
BB: I always feel funny when people call it Industrial – what is that, Nine Inch Nails? The terminology is not a nice thing.
R: Another way I was thinking about your work converging was with your Rede [Speech] performances…
BB: That certainly finds some of its way into that too. This is certainly an element that is a common point. In another interview Carsten explained that he was always trying to break out of the reference system because art is always self-referential to other art, and…
C: A lot of things referring to natural science rather than to art history.
BB: From day one, when I started recording music to now, I do that very often – 30 per cent of pieces I have written for Enstürzende Neubauten, are references to natural sciences, astronomy, biology and physics. And as you know, when I do Rede, I do build scenes based around pseudo-scientific experiments. I say Google-supported writing – it’s the same approach – a bit to do more with research. I would love to make a record where every piece is like an essay. But it doesn’t follow the classical way of just writing an essay, but you actually make a musical essay. That means you research about everything it is, you make a statement, and at the end there are four minutes of music that go in all sorts of directions, but it is about something that cannot be said in any other way. But the difference is, you have to do research. You don’t normally have to do research to write a song.
C: One thing that was important for me with Enstürzende Neubauten was the texts. I really can understand the lyrics, and I like poetry, I read poems… So, when you talk the lyrics without the music, they stand on their own. I was always fascinated by the pure lyrics.
BB: Thank you, but I know this is not very understandable to the non-German speaker.
R: A lot of your art and music have the quality of an essay – the elegant expression of a mathematical truth…
C: This makes the collaboration interesting to me – I’ve never really been about narrative. And Blixa is very narrative, so it’s a total opposite way. There are things I can‘t do at all. I would never imagine including voice in one of my tracks – it’s so far away from me [laughs]. But Blixa is perfect, my first choice.
BB: It first became clear to me that this was going to work out, because it had the qualities of both electronic music and what is good about rock music – there was definitely a live and physical dimension of the whole thing, and it had the elegance and cleanliness of electronics. The duo voice and electronics is almost an extended form since the 1980s.
C: It’s quite classical, the keyboard and the singer. Only the drummer is missing. Like a mini-band. We like to travel with the laptops. Now you can even travel without anything.
BB: Yeah, I want to be an iPhone artist now.
[talks about displaying the screen during live performance, dispelling secrecy]
C: The iPad artist!
R: Are you excited by the music scene in Beijing?…
BB: It’s amazing that Beijing is a youth place. 15 million [people]or something, and still you have a scene there, in a sense which is as big as the underground scene in West Berlin was. Which was totally appealing to me when we first moved there. I felt I could be in West Berlin, except that they were all Chinese. Walking down somewhere to a supermarket to buy some booze to sell behind the bar, and you have these musicians without any chance to become pop stars – not this attitude, and you don’t sell records in China anyway. You make a record with the state record company, they press 400,000 and they’re sold the next day. After that, that’s it – it replicates itself. So you get a one-off payment. For a while we were thinking about starting a record company in China…
C: I played in a club in Beijing named after a Neubauten track [laughs], Yu Gung.
BB: Beijing is the new Berlin.
If you go for the glitzy magazines they always talk about Shanghai. But Beijing – that’s the difference like Munich and Berlin.
R: Is there any critique of society going on??
BB: It’s not up to me to say anything about that.
C: As I talked to them, I really felt like back to the East. Can we do this? And I smiled during the interview, but…
BB: There is an underground and they let you have an underground.
R: You were associated with the culture of Berlin…
BB: I was born and raised in W Berlin, and I live now in a much more normal city nowadays. I don’t want the Wall back – but it’s definitely a different city.
Have you ever taken a private plane? The weirdest thing is, on these private planes, they have Playboy and Penthouse as the magazines. And they put an extra cover on the outside.
I went in an aeroplane once and it was really disturbing – there was a guy reading Walter Benjamin, but while he was reading he was always trying to touch the tip of his nose with his tongue. I have a whole folder on my computer that just tells air stories. I could write a whole novel…
R: We should mention the voiceover you did recently on adverts for the German DIY retailer Hornbach.
BB: I got the Golden Lion at the Advertising FM festival. Reading the exact text of a German DIY store chain, while you sit at the Mediterranean sea on a table, and this expressionless poetry about drilling machines and cement. I loved doing it, and was proud when I got the glove. And then all these Technical DJs came and wanted to make a record of that stuff. It was awful.
C: I’m sure colleague Unruh is doing all his shopping there…
BB: Colleague Unruh is still doing his shopping at night… But nowadays I’ve got three pieces hanging at Annecy, they did the art and the Building Site… And they wanted to rent a coupe of the instruments because they wanted to put them into an exhibition of ‘the artist and the machine’. Once you do a spectacular thing you always have to live up to the spectacularity of that.
R [turning to Carsten] Maybe we should talk about your stuff. Where you are now, have you moved on from your solo exhibition at Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle back in 2005?
C: That was really important for me, like a retrospective. There is a certain continuity in this, of course, and pieces that are… it’s difficult to say. But I did a lot of installations, and recently I am thinking very sculptural at the moment. I’m not so afraid of stepping into more traditional forms. Before I tried not to even mention the word, so I’m not afraid of this classical classification.
R: People often miss the Romanticism in your work, part of a longer Germanic tradition, typified by someone like Goethe, in which Romanticism and science were closely linked.
C: I totally related to the Romantic movement Most of the time the problem is the name itself. But actually it’s a total construction. It’s not so much about Romance, it’s very scientific, it’s really interesting.
BB: Did you read that new monograph about Romantik? It’s one of the continuums in my life…
C: It’s really important when you’re from Germany, because it’s a source. Even if you don’t know you have a relationship, you have a relationship. Like Caspar David Friedrich, it’s a totally construction.
BB; He went round with friends doing drawings of this tree, etc, and then he went home and constructed this thing.
C: These landscapes don’t exist – they are virtual reality you could say.
R: In Britain the landscape is generally more associated with a sense of nostalgia for pre-Industrial paradise, conservation, and so on.
C: Not for us [Germans] – it’s scientific. Maybe for the Italians, Renaissance is the big moment when things converged…
So… natural sciences are a very big source. For the Germans the more younger art situation is more Romantic. Look at Runge, making the shadows coming out of plants on black paper. It’s not only wonderful; it’s a very contemporary way of doing art. And the other end there’s this more scientific ideal of research, morphology… Plants, shape… And it’s true as well, many people say my installations are very clean and cold, but I don’t feel that – actually I think they have a very lyric aspect too, in a way a Romantic aspect.
I’m really interested and not afraid of beauty, for instance. Beauty for a long time, especially for German art, when you look at expressionism when people try to break any rule of beauty, and continues until the 80s, I would say, and people like Kippenberger, being the opposite. But I’m a little bit… I’m not afraid of it. OK, I can create something, and I can touch the term ‘beauty’, but only because I have this differential system, because beauty in mathematics or physics, is really very beautiful defined, it’s basically a beautiful formula, and it expressed something complex in a really simple way. And if it’s more and more simple, then it’s beautiful. And I it looks really simple – only a few elements – then they say, wow, that’s beauty. So I like to work with these topics.
I was a gardener before I started landscape architecture. This was actually strange for me, because I’m a city boy. So working with landscape was forcing myself into something where I had no relation in the beginning. I was, as a boy, interested in this, but not really sticking out.
R: In the past you have cited an academic research article from 1996, “Active Mutations Of Self-Reproducing Networks, Machines And Tapes” by Takashi Ikegama and Takashi Hashimoto, as a huge influence on your artistic development. Could you talk a bit more about that?
C: I don’t understand the paper fully. But I was reading it as a poem almost. What do I take out of it? And what I found fascinating was the fact that somebody loops into a machine, what obviously is made to repeat or execute algorithms, and what they did was just repeated this execution, so much and so quick as the machine can do it, and waited for something like an error.
And this was a really fantastic moment; we grow up in the situation we are supposed to do no mistake, right? And it’s defined as something negative. But then you see people doing research and finding intelligence in the moment of mistakes happening, and then you understand, OK, evolution is connected always to errors, mistakes, unusual moments. It’s not gonna change so it’s gonna adapt. So error, the mistake, is really important for us to move on, for developing. So I saw the error as something really positive. OK maybe you have to pause the situation. And like Blixa was saying, I like to make it difficult. Maybe you force it to collapse or maybe something interesting will happen.
R: What would be a concrete example of that?
C: Badly programmed software for instance really good example -buggy software. I had a bunch of musicians who always have this great story of a broken synthesizer finally producing something that they’d never heard before, and then they recorded it. Or the elph project, the ghost in the machine. We all know that. And in the beginning, in terms of music, I was forcing software, it was very easy 5 or 6 years ago, I was forcing software to crash. There was a moment there, when software was better than machines. Now it’s the opposite – machines are better than the software. Which means it’s not so easy to force the application to break down. Before the G3, it was very easy to collapse something, and make the software not do the things it was supposed to do.
For example, for the collaboration with Ryoji Ikeda we used the idea of changing file formats. And through changing the file formats, you produce overtones, and other strange things happen. We all know what happens with a rough MP3 – it adds this real thing. In a way we used this thing. And later I used this in the Xerrox project – you copy the copy the copy, then you get it more rough, like an old copy machine. The new ones are really good again; it’s not as successful any more. But I bought an old copy machine to make these movies about copying onto black paper. And it’s interesting how it graduates from a white piece of paper into a black piece of paper. I was interested in the process of forcing things into a process. And many of my installations are involving these mechanisms of… When I’m inventing a principle, there is one little sculpture I did; I bought 300 table tennis balls, and a balloon. And I put all these balls in the balloon, and you have this strange balloon with hundreds of table tennis balls, and then I just pushed one side and they shaped differently. And I gave it to a company that does bronze casts, and cast them in a chrome steel. And then I got the model back, pushed it again, and got them to make it again. It was more the principle I was interested in. And you can produce hundreds and hundreds of different shapes. This principle is really… I like this idea of finding more principles rather than final results.
R: Do you spend a lot of time playing around with physical materials?
C: Actually I have a lot of knowledge about materials, maybe because I studied architecture, but I was also playing about… I do research about materials always. But most of the projects happen in my head. And I’m thinking about it, and say, this has to work like this. And then of course you’re testing things. Just now I’m building three new installations for New York in May. And the idea is how to construct moirés. It’s a phenomenon that you can produce, but you need to know how the principle’s working – from a specific angle they appear, but from another angle they disappear. So I read all these books, and we are going to publish a book about how to produce a moiré… I’m constructing these installations, and we never tested them, but I know it’s going to work. I’m making the drawings… I have a little workshop, and people are helping me, assistants…
C: Sure, that’s one of the main reasons I moved and became so interested in sound – music came much later – it was basically that I wanted to have a material that incorporates time. I was always fascinated, and it was always the dream of the artists of the 20s, let’s change time. Let’s make a piece where we can shape time differently. There are a lot of movies as well about perception of time. And we can change our perception easy, but what is time, and how can we deal with this, it’s great. And at the same time I experimented with sound, and I realised, wow, it’s a sculptural material actually. And it has this immateriality, which I like, it’s numeric, and it sound can only exist if there is space and time. These two elements need to be to there otherwise sound disappears. So sound is a sculptural material. There’s one installation, it’s very simple, it builds this invisible membrane in the middle of the room, just having two speakers facing each other, and actually it’s the same sound, but playing a noise, white noise, out of this other file, the sound file is phase embroixered[?]. So if there’s a perfect absorption, this kind of theoretical moment is not a space, it’s a membrane. So you go from, when you stand between the speakers you go from one side to the other, and it’s like someone turns your head, or you are moving form one room into another room. I love this piece, it’s very simple, and I love building this kind of sculptures with sound.
R: Could you talk about operating, as you do, across the very different economies of art and independent music?
C: It’s totally different of course. In the art world you are selling one piece, in the music world you are selling as many pieces as possible, to match your price. What I like on one side, is that you are producing a piece that only one time exists, and this singularity and solitude is the whole story of being an artist. I like this, because I have these moments when I really want to be in this space. But I like the other part too, that you can distribute ideas, and that’s what I say – we are not distributing CDs, we are distributing ideas. And we all know that to sell a CD is a strange situation, we don’t know what will happen – maybe it will disappear, maybe it will recover, be rediscovered. And I always thought it is really great to distribute ideas – and whether the internet of peer to peer, it doesn’t matter to me. It has a great democratic level that everyone can really share. At the moment the art market is really in focus for some reason. It’s not really true, because art happens outside the art market. The market is only where the economics is happening. Small independent spaces, they still exist and they are doing great jobs, and this is the place where things are happening. It’s only press attention on big auctions at the moment.
R: Is there a particular focus in your research at the moment?
C: Right now there are two projects. I just finished the moiré. And, maybe you know, I did a book on grid systems, with a publisher of design books. And it was a really successful book, sold 10,000 copies. Now second printing. And the same style, I publish a book about moiré. And there is a third book coming, finally we made it with Ryoji, the Cyclo, and we are producing a ‘Cyclopedia’ in a way, about phase correlation, sound in imagery, about what sound can create what image. It will be a dictionary about a sound and what image a sound will produce. So, we’re producing these thousands of images at the moment.
Oscilloscope is the waveform, but we are also measuring how they are out of phase. It’s the device you usually use for mastering, to avoid strong phasing problems for cutting vinyl, for instance. And we are using this device as a creative tool. Recreating what a mastering engineer would say, ‘fucking hell, how can I avoid that?’ And this is a project we started ten yeas ago, and finally we will publish the book at the end of the year.
C: It’s very interesting. In the beginning, I was more struck by this visual phenomenon. But then actually doing this research, I realised that the superimposition of line and dot colours and similarities to optical magnification and transformations. They work almost as a lens. And I found this really interesting because it shows one thing is, you have superimposition of 2D producing a 3D effect. When you move them, you see 3D. It’s only 2D information, making us think it’s 3D, so it’s adding one more dimension.
And the really interesting thing is, that what makes it 3D is obviously our perception, and then how is our perception working, and why do we perceive it as this? But at some point, there’s this big question – is it our perception or is it reality? And this is really a good question, I’m really interested in this. Do we see it magnified, or is it only constructed, we are building it in our brains.
I am really in this maelstrom of quantum physics at the moment – it’s breaking down a whole way of how you see the world. It’s so different.
BB: Read Arthur Tsaying – The Entwined History of Light And Mind.
C: I think there are a lot of things especially when you are an artist, you know it exists, but… you have this beautiful world of ether… what is it? And quantum physics would actually explain that!
BB: There’s this concept of Phlogiston – some matter that has been constructed to explain physical phenomena that were not explainable. [Consulting iPhone] “Phlogiston posits the existence of a fire like element released during combustion. To explain rusting, burning; a substance that burns.”
C: I’m in a deep-shit place. On the one hand I’m really into physics, but I also love thinking about philosophical questions, like what is the world about, what surrounds us? Those are the main questions.
R: Do you ever find these thoughts drawing you towards mysticism?
C: Quantum physics would even explain this! And it’s probably the most revolutionary discovery, but we are having a theory in front of us that can maybe revolutionise our understanding of the world, but we cannot understand it. And then you come to this great sentence from Wittgenstein, from one of my favourite books, when he is saying; only what you can think of exists.
BB: “Welt ist was der Fall ist”.
C: … “The world is what is the case.”