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MENHIR, on how to explore matter through speculative sonic inquiry

Interview by Agata Kik

Menhir, an art collective based in Madrid, is a site-specific sonic study, inquiring into ideas of speculative territory and different states of the psyche. Situated in sound as its substance, Menhir’s artistic output takes the form of installations, performances, publications, videos and improvised ritualistic events. Their works are a form of activity which affects the energetic entanglement between space, material surroundings and the human body. Guided by intuition, Menhir directs experience towards belonging and interdependence, where meaning is found in affective experience.

The duo’s practice reveals a different understanding of the world, which they view as a web of enmeshed into each other animate and nonliving beings that constantly communicate with each other through affects and feelings. Thus, this creative collaboration between artist Coco Moya and musician and psychologist Iván Cebrián goes beyond human interaction to let them immerse into a deeper conversation with matter and its elemental existence. Relating to the matter of a certain place or context, Menhir opens our minds to space consciousness to which the artists adapt, attune and which they work with. 

Menhir is the name of free-standing stones dating back to the Bronze Age in Europe. The creative couple sees menhirs as technological tools, as one of the first human attempts to get in contact with the earth. Menhir’s artistic practice, thus, collapses the boundaries between nature and technology. It is a technology that lets the artists explore the unknown, intrinsic to the orb that the deluded human regards as their own. They treat music as a virtual menhir, a territorial marker, through which the space is activated.

Geomancy, in the divination tradition, as one of the forbidden arts during Renaissance magic, was based on drawing marks with hands or sticks, while modern practice incorporates computer technology in predicting the future. Revivifying geomancy as their methodology, Menhir can be described as an artistic practice of site-specific timeliness. 

As the winners of the 2015 LAbjoven Los Bragales Prize, the award directed towards emerging Asturian artists, Menhir developed ‘Installation 0’. The artistic process during their two-month production residency at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial in Gijón was devoted to the exploration of Asturias and Leon mountain landscape. The resulting interactive instrument installation, made of coal stones scattered around the exhibition room, presented the visitors with a collective act, a ritual, based on physical participation and turning inwards.

The work incorporated Arduino hardware, which received electric signals from the coal pieces, and launched sounds when activated by the touch of the wandering audience. The piece highlighted the observer’s bodily presence, as a quintessence to knowing the surrounding space and also the self. Characterised by constant change, material reality goes through continual cycles driven by the life force, the divine energy. Most recently, Menhir embodied contemplation around the processes of evaporation and crystallization inside the Salt Valley of Añana in Spain.

Their response to the site took the form of a multichannel sound installation, which consisted of analog synths, voice and acoustic instruments. The piece tried to imagine the sonic vibrations of energy released by matter during the process of transformation between its different physical states. New forms emerge while energy stays in balance in the environment. Interaction between physical particles, like during the evaporation of water and crystallisation of salt, points to the extent of how ephemeral the earthly existence is. Menhir is an art practice grounded in the matter but whose essence lies in resonating energy. 

Thinking about salt and water would be a nice way to reflect on your relationships as a creative duo. Water evaporates for salt to emerge.  How has your collaboration crystallised? What are your ways of working together? 

Coco Moya: Our relationship with our work is always changing as we do site-specific kinds of music. Every piece and composition emerges from a new relationship with a certain place or context. This gives us the challenge to adapt and learn, to understand and be careful with the needs the work is calling for. Another key in our process is that we are using different languages and materials: sound, sensors, video, and installation.

The result is that we are constantly translating, not only between us but also between different codes, shapes, temporalities or spaces. Usually, we pour a stream of ideas before, and after the first moment, we visit a specific place to understand the perspective from where we want to talk about it. The research includes reading philosophy and poetry books, going through meditation sessions or similar rituals, and improvisation sessions, for example. Our works require collaboration with other people or institutions, so the process is very often a compromise between the impossible and crazy ideas we come up with and the real possibilities to make them happen.

The virtual and the physical intersect each other in your works. What is your standpoint towards the collapse of the boundary between the two? What is your thinking process behind making the technological experience physical?  

Iván Cebrián: Some time ago, we thought we had to tame technology, put it in service of convictions. So we try to make our artwork an array of technological samples, using it to introduce ourselves, and communicate with, notions such as the unknown, transformation and knowledge.

CM: For us, there are no boundaries between nature and technology. We actually see the menhir as the first technology used to be in contact with our surroundings. Menhirs could be used to transform and relate to the energies of a certain place. We consider our music as a virtual menhir, a contemporary one, to activate these spaces through sound. Touching, walking, hearing or smelling are our inputs as humans, but we can use sensors in stones or plants to reveal an old-new way of understanding the world as a big network of beings living in contact, feeling each other, and communicating. 

Can you share your ideas on the relationship between sound space and the body and the importance of the viewer’s physical presence in your works?

IC: The viewer, or ‘perceiver’, is also part of the artwork, considering that he/she is an interpreter and even transfers some energy to it. We understand the piece itself is born from those who create it, but once it’s out there, the world completes it through these interpretations. So, for the piece to be whole, it must be placed somewhere in the world and perceived. This often involves some wear and tear because of the way our work is made known to others, but we understand this is also a part of the art.

CM: We understand our works as a kind of collective instrument. Also, during our composition process, we start with improvisation sessions where we have to be in a certain state of mind, a certain kind of active presence that we also invite the people to have at our concerts or installations. We hear not only with our ears but with our whole body, with our skin, and also with our eyes and ultimately with our mind. The goal is to perceive music as a density that one has to experience by oneself. In order to enter there, you have to give yourself to the act of listening and letting the music drive you for a while in another state of being. 

Could you tell us a bit more about the process of making one of your most recent works – the multichannel sound installation, ‘The Water Meditation’? How did you arrive at this specific localisation? What did bring you to salt and the mines? 

IC: We were thinking about where to go after having worked with the mountains and coal. In some ways, Coco is very fluid, just like water, and we thought that perhaps water was a good element to work with after having done it with more forceful and heavy materials.

So we were looking for some material that had to do with water and its transformation, and salt came about. We learnt that a lot of the salt we use is a by-product of this water transformation. Usually, in order to decide where to work, we use our intuition as if it were a compass. After visiting some active salt mines in Spain, we arrived at the impressive salt valley of Añana. It was then clear for us that our piece on the topic of water transformation had to be there.

What were the technical challenges of installing the piece? 

IC: From the start, we wanted many sound sources for the piece, as if it were a choir of speakers. The salt valley of Añana is really big, and although we knew that we could not cover the whole place, we wanted the installation area to be quite large. This was a challenge that, in the end, and as always, we had to limit based on our budget. Aside from that, getting electricity to such distant points was also very difficult. Many times we’ve used generators, but the noise they create often becomes another problem.

At the end of the day, whenever one makes an outdoor piece, one finds an array of issues that have to be foreseen and managed during the production phase to the best of one’s abilities, but then there are always some details here and there that make the coming together of the installation difficult. The truth is that the price we have to pay for doing these works in ‘places of power’ is very high.

All of your works share a huge sense of belonging to specific geographical coordinates. What does your creative process look like? Do your ideas tend to originate in a particular physical place, or do you find your inspiration mostly in theory and through conceptual thinking? 

Both: Normally, we start going to a place and wander around. For Music for Mountain, we were for some weeks in a mountain area in Leon. In the morning we went to the mountains, looking for special places, and also visiting small chapels up on cliffs or mountain peaks, which normally are situated in very interesting spots. In the afternoon, we pour all that “information” into improvisation music sessions. 

With all that material, we started to conceptualize and imagine a way to translate that experience into a museum context. Both works, anyway, were emerging from our own personal searches, our own needs. Menhir is internal research that we try to manifest in the world. With that in mind, we look for places where we find a kind of similar resonance. In then when our intuition compass guides us, we have to surrender. 

Your collective interdisciplinary practice involves installations, moving image, performances and also sonic albums. How do you arrive at these different formats? Do you recollect any experiences that you might have had in regard to the choice of format?

Both: The forms we arrive at are varied because each of us belongs to a different world. Iván comes from ambient, experimental and minimal music, and Coco comes from the visual art and photography world. The evident intersection of both worlds is sound installations. But we are just trying to express a feeling, a concept, that we have experimented with into a device that someone can relate to. For the desert series, for example, we were asked to compose a soundtrack for a documentary on the Sahara’s refugee camps in Argel.

After visiting the camps, we decided that we wanted to publish a special series of 15 stones inspired by the desert rocks we saw there. In order to access the music, you had to break the stone. It was a way to confront yourself with the fact of destroying something you have just bought. The final format was an invitation to take part in a material process that triggers an emotional, mental and somatic relationship. For us, an art form is not a form but an internal transformation possible thanks to the matter. Our commitment is to develop an environment, or a device, that can open up new kinds of connections with ourselves and with the world.  

What is your chief enemy of creativity?

IC: Oh, there is too much to say, just one, so we could name fear, comfort and compare ourselves to others.

CM: When we start conceptualising so much and get too mental in our process. It is important for us to be in contact with our intuitive intelligence. It is not about not thinking or removing a critical approach to what you are doing, but about trust in what you need as a whole being, not only a rational and logical one. Creating is a very delicate process that involves great faith in what you are doing and being prepared and ready to learn new things. The only way to know if you are is if you are having fun, even if you are having risks and challenges. For us, It looks very much like climbing up a mountain. 

You couldn’t live without…

IC: Music for god shake, music.

CM: Donuts. And breathing.

(Media courtesy of the artists)
On Key

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