Usually my works are conceived and developed for a specific context – for example, a commission for an installation at a festival. For the Mülheim project, the situation was very different. Because the project was defined as a research situation, the approach was open from the beginning. The setting really was experimental: our interventions/installations were ‘mock-ups’, not finished, self-contained artworks.
I first visited Mülheim alone, for a weekend, and I consciously didn’t try to come up with any concrete idea of what one could do in the project – I walked around the city, went on a boat trip up the Ruhr, visited a Middle Ages festival at Schloß Broich, and I observed and listened. Having no fixed expectations can be a radical starting point for any project, because it can serve to re-examine basic questions of one‘s artistic approach.
Connected to his concept of ‘small music’, Rolf Julius once asked why one wants to put new sounds into the world at all. ‘I do not want to introduce a whole lot of new stuff into this earth. The earth is filled up already. If we work carefully with small things, it is better for the whole system of the earth’ (Julius 1995: 164); ‘Ich möchte diese Erde nicht massenweise mit neuem Zeug befrachten. Die Erde ist schon voll. Wenn wir sorgfältig mit kleinen Dingen arbeiten, ist das besser für das Gesamtsystem der Erde. 10.2.1992’ (ibid.: 153).
In many or most of my works the starting point is a place/a space. In this case, Mülheim was a given (chosen by the research lab of ZHdK as an opportunity to investigate changing urban areas through artistic research – weblink). Still the first question to ask would be, why Mülheim? My main impression during the explorations on the first weekend was that Mülheim is indeed quite unspectacular. Its one particularity, which it shares with other Ruhrgebiet cities, is that it seems to have no centre. Urban and suburban areas blend into each other, one city bordering the next, with patches of countryside in between: a space with no gravity point, resulting in a strange feeling of looseness.
On the other hand, my experience of working in non-black-box situations, especially in places with their own reality, namely in the outdoors, shows that one will find something specific, even spectacular everywhere. The reality and the history of these spaces is so rich, that there are always reference points if one looks closely and ‘zooms in’ on a space (Reese 2012: 31).
Looking for a site for an installation for the SPOR festival 2013 I ‘found’ a ‘cofferdam’ – a structure intended to serve as a sound-damping system to reduce the noise level during offshore wind turbine pile driving – at Aarhus harbour (weblink). While working on Zoobrücke, an audiowalk on the pedestrian bridge crossing the Karlsruhe zoo, I coincidentally recorded a conversation of a child and her grandmother standing in front of the lion’s cage. Their short exchange exemplified a hypothesis in John Berger’s text ‘Why Look at Animals’, which is quoted in the walk, concerning the ‘historic loss’ of the ‘look between animal and man’ in the culture of capitalism. One of the other artistic research projcts within the Mülheim research lab of ZHdK, the project knowbotiq (Yvonne Wilhelm and Christian Huebler), was also exemplary in this context, because they found and focused on a dramatic aspect of Mülheim: the underground landscape, invisible yet unstable due to extensive underground coal mining, an aspect which they connected to African/immigrant street art dancing practised by young people in the Mülheim area.
The act of focusing generates that on which it is worth focusing. In this sense, every place can be a starting point.
Who is listening ? Aesthetic and social impact
‘Traditionally composers have located the elements of a composition in time. One idea which I am interested in is locating them, instead, in space, and letting the listener place them in his own time. I’m not interested in making music exclusively for musicians or musically initiated audiences. I am interested in making music for people.’ (Neuhaus 1994: 34)
Max Neuhaus’s programmatic statement from 1974 is still constitutive for sound art in public space today. Not only does creating a sound installation shift the compositional focus to space instead of time, but moving from concert halls to the public domain results in a change of audience. Neuhaus’s statement shows that opening up the circle of potential listeners – of who is listening – was initially of interest to him. Simultaneously, his works are devised ‘at the threshold of perception’ (Neuhaus 1994: 34); he wanted people to find them ‘in their own time and on their own terms’.
‘The impetus from my first sound installation was an interest in working with a public at large. Inserting works into their daily domain in such a way that people could find them in their own time and on their own terms. Disguising them within their environments in such a way that people discovered them for themselves and took possession of them, lead by their curiosity into listening.’ (Neuhaus 1994: 82)
The artist gives up (aesthetic) control of the audience. There is no direct communication with or feedback from individual listeners. Furthermore, there is no or little follow-up to the question of how many are listening. As most of Neuhaus’s works are permanent installations, the process of discovery can take time, and the audience will accumulate over the years. Consciously or not, the question of how many take notice of and receive a work, although essentially an economically oriented question, today seems to have seeped into our thinking about what makes sense, even with regard to sound art that is definitely at the fringe of the music business/art market. Devising works ‘at the threshold of perception’ seems to contradict the idea of attracting an audience, attracting attention, being noticeable, etc. When discussing what kind of interventions we wanted to try out in Mülheim, the idea came up to create an installation with loud, invasive sound (and in so doing also do something different from what we usually do). With Neuhaus one could argue that there are aesthetic and ethical reasons why the sounds implanted in public space should be soft and fitted into the environment. ‘When I work in the public sphere, I am not interested in generating a confrontation. I feel like I am working in a space which is theirs; I’m in their territory’ (Neuhaus 1994: 64).
Regarding questions of noticability and of who and how many are listening, Neuhaus’s works, although most of them are permanent installations, can be called transitory. Does this also mean they have a marginal aesthetic and social impact? Rolf Julius’s performative installations/short term interventions, for example in his Berlin concert series from 1981/1982, were witnessed only by a very small audience. In his Chamber Concert for Three Loudspeakers he placed three small speakers in the huge empty space in front of the Philharmonie in the Potsdamer Platz area (which at that time, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, was literally ‘at the end of the world’). What traces remain of a transitory work, a (non-permanent) sound artwork in general? The documentation of the Chamber Concert consists of a sound document on CD, a short poetic description by Julius, and a photo (Julius 1995: 43). The photo in particular conveys a strong atmosphere; it can be seen as an example of how a photo or a sound document can create an imaginative context in the mind of a viewer/listener with an aesthetic impact in its own right. This connects to the issue of the documentation of sound art/spatial installations. Regarding our project, when writing the log of our daily explorations and interventions (part 3), it became obvious once again that recordings, photos, and videos really are different media from language, which ‘say’ different things and/or show other aspects than descriptions with words …
Usually when working on a sound installation for a specific context I think a lot about the prospective audience, especially if the work takes place in an open, public space that anyone could accidentally stumble upon without the framework of a presentation in an art context. I examine the social context of the space where the work will be presented and how people use this space, thinking about the way this might link to the work I want to develop. This stems from a genuine curiosity about what is going on in that place. These investigations are inspiring and feedback into the work.
With our experimental setups in Mülheim, the question of who is listening? was something we discussed on a more abstract level (for example at the Stadtmitte bus stop, see part 3). If one wants people to listen in contexts such as the ones we set up and follow-up on questions of aesthetic and social relevance, it is necessary to present projects within the infrastructure and framework of an artistic or social local context. In this sense, one could imagine an art project in Mülheim with many small-scale installations running at different places but within a certain timeframe, linking sonic experiences dispersed throughout the city to one event.
On the other hand, the idea of putting sounds, albeit ‘small sounds’, into the world and then letting them go, as illustrated in the works of Neuhaus and Julius, is a radical yet relevant artistic standpoint. It loosens the control of the artist and frees up the audience as autonomous artistic subjects. It also evades the often implicitly pedagogical approach of projects or statements in the tradition of the original soundscape movement of the 1970s (people should listen more, teaching people to listen, etc.).
One aspect that became clear is that even with the truly experimental and expectationless approach of the Mülheim project, the starting point was nevertheless the place and the giving of attention to a place by being present. All the questions and suggestions concerning the work – what is possible in the situation and context – arose from being there for a defined amount of time, with open senses and an open mind.
The motive of being present is especially important when working with technical media. In the final product, audio players and loudspeakers emit sound by themselves (there are no performers mediating the work through their presence, as in a traditional concert performance). The knowledge a sound artist has accumulated during the process of conceiving the work while being present is contained in the work.
The artist may be regarded as a seismograph, sensing a place, sensing an atmosphere. It is an outsider position, the position of an observer – the artist knows less about the place than the people who have been there longer, but being an outsider makes it possible to see things others might not see. Transforming ‘what is there’ may become possible (see part 3 and Reese 2012).
In Vor dem Tag (2010), a landscape composition and installation by Lukas Berchtold, Helmut Lemke, Urban Mäder, Daniel Ott, Kirsten Reese, and Enrico Stolzenburg, for a mountain in Swiss Vorjura, which took place from two a.m. until sunrise, we closely communicated and worked with the people of the nearby village, conducted interviews, and recorded choir songs and sounds of tradespeople working, and so on. A group of villagers also took part in performances during the night. Describing the impact that this event made on them as performers or audience members, the locals said it completely transformed the way they experienced ‘their’ landscape, a landscape they and their ancestors have known for centuries. (weblink)
In ‘sensing’ a place, the act of listening is of central importance – and this includes listening in a communication situation, talking to other people who are present, who live and/or work in this space.
For example, the relaxed manner in which we explored Mülheim led to a long, in-depth conversation with immigrants in a Croatian restaurant in the inner city on one of the first evenings there, during which they told us very personal stories. If we had been busily working into the night to finish a specific project, this might not have happened.
Conversations with people we were in contact with while setting up the interventions/installations are telling for the whole process of our interaction with Mülheim, and are therefore mentioned in part 3.
In Vexierklang Hardenstein (2011) the most interesting exchanges about the work took place with passers-by during the set-up of the installation in a public space in the outdoors, a recreational area by the Ruhr river.