Artist and electronic musician Carsten Nicolai was born in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now known as Chemnitz) in East Germany and received his first solo gallery exhibition while studying landscape design in Dresden. Influenced by scientific reference systems and mathematics, Nicolai’s work crosses between visual and sonic media, often making manifest the invisible forces that shape the physical world at both a macro and micro level: magnetic fields, radiation, subfrequency sound and microscopic structures. Under the pseudonym Noto, Nicolai creates experimental soundworks, and as Alva Noto he brings this experimentation into the field of electronic music. During Art Basel Hong Kong this month, Nicolai presents a new work, α (Alpha) Pulse, in which light will course at a synchronised frequency across the facade of the city’s 490-metre-high ICC skyscraper.
ARTREVIEW ASIA α (Alpha) Pulse, your upcoming installation in Hong Kong, operates on the scale of a city (or at least a section of city proximate to the ICC Tower and Pier 4). Is this the largest visual project you have undertaken? Has the scale of it changed your way of working?
CARSTEN NICOLAI You could consider this my biggest outdoor project, but my work ∞ [Infinity, 1997] for Documenta, where I implemented a kind of ‘sound graffiti’, involved the whole city as well, albeit on a very subliminal level. This one, of course, in terms of the impact on the city and on the situation in Hong Kong, seems to be much bigger. But I never see projects isolated from their environmental context. So for me even a small project can have an impact on a macroscopic level. I work pretty much with the concept of micro/macro, where I don’t really distinguish between microscopic (smaller-scale) installations or macroscopic (bigger-scale) ones.
ARA Do you consider this to some extent to be an architectural project? (You’ve asked for changes in the city environment – that the city reduce its other light sources to a minimum.) What role has architecture played in your work?
CN I have a strong background in architecture, and in many of my projects I incorporate that knowledge: even when I compose, for instance, there is a certain kind of architectural feeling or architectural strategy behind it. For me ‘architectural’ means dealing with three major elements: time, space and social relations. The structural engineering of these three elements is always part of a project’s blueprint. Of course, by asking to reduce the light level of the city, I wanted to emphasise the impact of the installation by giving it a greater visibility – the cityscape itself can be a very disturbing distraction. Today a city is no longer primarily defined by its location, landscape and architecture, but by other elements, such as illuminations connected to advertising and infrastructure. Just to give you an example: when I visited Tokyo after Fukushima, I found the impression of the cityscape radically changed. In order to save energy, all unnecessary light sources were switched off. In this moment I was aware of how much the impression of a city depends on ‘additional’ light sources, and how little the classic elements of a city have an impact today.
ARA You’ve described the project as an ‘experimental construct’ that ‘deals with the effects of stimulation on human perception’ – do all your works (both in the visual arts and in music) operate like this? And is there some sort of ethics involved in experimenting through stimulation (when is it too much)?
CN I don’t think it can be too much. I always work on a level of experimentation and modelling. I am very interested in how we perceive our world – what we actually see beyond ourselves. I’m talking about elements or materials that surround us permanently and influence our behaviour. And in order to understand what we are dealing with, I always ask myself: what exactly are these elements or materials – things like light and sound effects, gravity, magnetic fields, radiation, etc? I can only propose individual models that are abstract, temporary and highly blurry, but they give me the basis for moving on.
I really hate openings. One of the most painful situations for me is having to explain my work. In music, nobody asks me before or afterwards what attracted me to a certain sound
ARA Do you think that working in music has changed your sense of what the public is?
CN Perhaps. There is something that I really like with music: in the moment of performing, you work with your audience as well. If the audience gives you positive feedback, you risk more, you get more curious, you get energy to move on. I never had this feeling when presenting a visual work. I really hate openings. One of the most painful situations for me is having to explain my work. In music, nobody asks me before or afterwards what attracted me to a certain sound, but in art there’s always that idea of reflection, explanation. I’ve always thought how weird it is that people always want the work again, but this time in words.
ARA How much do you think of the audience when you’re making an exhibition, or an individual artwork? Do you consider them, or are you very much within your own personal space?
CN No, the process of creation is totally isolated, and I think it has to be: you need to identify with what you do. It would be wrong to think about the audience. I try to ignore it. With a lot of the stuff that I create, the reason I’m doing it is because I don’t find it anywhere else: I compensate for what I’m missing. Later, you’re always surprised that other people can understand it. That makes me very happy – when you feel that it’s quite a radical work that’s not easy to consume and people can share that with you, then you have achieved something beautiful.
ARA Do your initial ideas for works already have, from the very beginning, a clear direction to them, that this is going to be audiovisual and this is purely visual, for example, or does it happen as part of a process of developing the project?
CN Sometimes it’s part of the process, but most of the time I have a very clear idea of what media I want to work with. In recent years there have been more and more moments where music and audiovisual works have overlapped, even if I try to separate them. I always develop a very straight, very clear idea about a project, but in the details, in execution, in the process of realisation, ‘unexpected’ moments can always happen. And these unexpected moments become part of the creative process. So many of the details change, but the initial idea doesn’t alter much. There is a kind of masterplan. If too many problems or too many mistakes and errors appear, I have to reconsider the initial idea.
ARA Do you prefer to keep audio and video separate?
CN When I release soundworks, I try to separate them. I want it to be anonymous. I really want to shift the attention to the music/sound without delivering any kind of personal context. I want to be unprejudiced. The name Alva Noto [under which Nicolai makes music] is connected to that.
ARA Was that a reaction to anything: did you feel pigeonholed?
CN Sometimes – afterwards, people tended to think that it was two different people. Which made me happy – above all because it produces a radical starting-point, in terms of there being no preconceptions. And I liked the idea of pseudonyms. In art it was once quite common – [A.R.] Penck for instance used a pseudonym. I like the idea of not connecting your real name with something that you create. In the 1990s, in music specifically, it was very common to change names – for almost every release. A friend of mine, Uwe Schmidt, aka AtomTM, has 60 different pseudonyms. It wasn’t a big deal. Of course, information leaked, but I liked the idea of being anonymous: just listen to the music, let the music speak. I think it was a counterreaction to certain industry structures. But in the art context we look for a personalised iconography that allows us to recognise, ‘OK, this is this artist.’ The name is very important. As a visual artist, it is very uncommon to change your name or use pseudonyms. In terms of a career, it’s suicide. In music it was possible, and I think that this was great. You could really feel that it was an anticommercial idea – that you’d countered the commercialisation.
ARA Do all ideas end up being commercialised somehow?
CN Of course, every pattern that we think is oppositional very quickly gets assimilated by the structure. We all know the strategy of promotion.
ARA Do you think that making music changed the way that you approached visual art?
CN Yes, very much. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I have a certain attraction to kinetic art, for instance. I really like artworks that involve processes and trigger a philosophical discourse. I like action and reaction.
ARA It seems like you’re also interested, sometimes, in the relationship between cause and effect.
CN Yes, there is something of that, of course. It’s a bit like an equation: you have a number of variables, and there’s a result. If you have too many variables, you’re in trouble.
ARA Do you think that you generally have an attraction to rules?
CN Rules are a part of our lives. But I’d rather not use the word ‘rules’; I have a huge attraction to models, specifically models that explain something. With knowledge as well, models have a lifespan – there is no truth in them, there is only the truth of the moment, and this moment can last for a long or a short time. The only thing that these models give us is a certain stability in order to process or reach another explanation; it’s not the final one.
ARA Do you also see your artworks as having an ‘explaining’ function, or at least in terms of a work like Crt Mgn (2013), a sense that it makes the invisible (a magnetic field) visible?
CN I am not trying to explain anything. There is no didactical background in my installations. In the case of Crt Mgn, I visualised magnetic fields. My interest is in elements that are fundamental to our lives but difficult to perceive: time, gravity, radiation, frequencies, etc. In many of my works I build ‘visualisers’ or ‘observatories’ where such ephemeral principles become perceptible. That’s one of the reasons I do not think in categories – in order to be able to build such ‘translators’.
ARA Let’s say that someone buys a three-dimensional work of yours. On some level, that person is thinking that what they are buying is an eternal, timeless construct…
CN That’s quite nice – the idea of an eternal lifespan of art; I think also that this has very much blurred in the last 60 or 70 years. Nobody expected that Joseph Beuys’s Fettecke (1982) would be preserved. But maybe it’s not necessary to keep all that work in the original condition. I think that there’s a big acceptance that work can age.
ARA But not decompose?
CN For me decomposition is a beautiful process. It’s too little involved in art because of the commercial aspect of selling. I think that the few artists who do it turn out to be in a very radical position, but I think that it is very underexplored. That’s a reason why I use sound. In sound, it is already implied that it has no lifespan – it is only possible to experience it in this moment, and you cannot preserve that. You can preserve parts of it. You can have, maybe, documentation of it, but you can never preserve the energy of these moments.
Does mathematics really exist or is it an abstraction that we have invented in order to explain ourselves? I think that this is perfect for how I see art
ARA Do you think that an interest in mathematics underpins everything that you do?
CN What I understood from mathematics is that it’s a belief system. Mathematics is a part of our nature, and we always project beauty and harmony inside of it. This belief is a strong belief in a bigger force, something like a mastermind. Mathematics expresses something else that is really important to me. It’s not clear if mathematics really exists. We all know that we can apply it to certain processes in nature and explain what’s happening, but does mathematics really exist or is it an abstraction that we have invented in order to explain ourselves – similar to the idea of the models? I think that this is perfect for how I see art. For me, naturalism is very uninteresting; art needs a level of abstraction. I’m not talking about abstract painting; I’m talking about how we think and how we perceive art; the level of abstraction where you don’t have to reflect one-to-one. It can even occur in realistic painting; there’s still a level of abstraction. This level of abstraction is, for me, incredibly important.
ARA You’ve travelled and worked in various cities over the years. Do you find that the work that you might make in New York is very different from work that you might make in Chemnitz, for example? Does the environment really affect you?
CN I think so. We all know that New York from the late 1980s to the mid-90s was an exciting place, and we all know how much it changed. We all know the transition of Berlin, from a local centre to an international one. People enjoy the city and the roughness of the city or the possibility that the city offers. If you live in such cities, you have different options.
ARA Chemnitz, for example, was a controlled environment.
CN Yes, but I struggled a lot; for instance, in East Germany it was almost impossible to rent an apartment or a working space. You could squat or could just take over spaces, but only in the knowledge that it would be for a brief moment. This is a strategy that creates a performative situation. Today, specifically in bigger cities, our environment is very regulated. The term ‘public space’ doesn’t make sense any more.
ARA Is α (Alpha) Pulse an attempt to create a kind of public space? Particularly in Hong Kong, a city that celebrates private wealth?
CN As I said, I grew up in a situation where public space was defined very differently. I can only see that more and more public spaces are disappearing. Basically in very densely populated areas there is no public space any more. Or at least, if they are called public spaces, people cannot use them freely. We are losing free space, and not only in terms of property and ownership; this kind of space is really important for how we think. That’s a big difference, for example, between Hong Kong and Berlin. Berlin still has this unlimited free space – because of the political vacuum that existed after the unification, there were many vacant or undefined spaces in the city – which has been a huge inspiration not only for artists living here but also for the residential population as a whole. α (Alpha) Pulse might perhaps show the possibilities of how to engage this idea of ‘public’ space again.
ARA α (Alpha) Pulse includes apps. Is this to do with a desire to create (rather than include) a public?
CN You have to be aware that the use of an application does not automatically mean that you create a ‘public’, because it is a limited kind of public. What I like to do is to create tools through which people can participate on a very simple, basic level. Most of us own pocket devices that are screens, so why not think about using those screens as a part of an installation? I think this shows the potential for involving people who don’t necessarily have access to the artworld or to art in the first place. It might provide an understanding of how art works. Art is an important part of our society that should not be restricted.
ARA You say you don’t think much about audiences; why do you have exhibitions?
CN In order to finish a sentence, you have to make a point. The point can be an exhibition or a finalised project. This is the moment at which you release a work and it has to create its own life.
ARA Do you need friction to make you work?
CN I think that in recent years I have looked for less and less friction, because in one’s private and artistic lives there is already a certain complexity. Friction is never welcome, but in the end it is very much needed.
ARA Do you think that it’s more productive to make work when you’re happy or when you’re sad?
CN I’m German, and we are incredibly good when we are depressed. I call it ‘positive nihilism’.
Carsten Nicolai’s α (Alpha) Pulse will be on view each evening, 15–17 May, between 20.30 and 21.20, at the International Commerce Centre (ICC) on the Kowloon harbourfront, Hong Kong
This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of ArtReview Asia.