Interview by Agata Kik and CLOT Magazine
The exhibition Proximity Music: Sensing After Thought, curated jointly by Rewire and iii – an artist-run community platform supporting new interdisciplinary practices linking performance, technology and the human senses that contributes to international developments in the field of Art, Science & Technology-, used the idea of interruption to enter a discourse on different states of human sensing, being and perceiving the world.
During Rewire 2022, Tactology Lab curators Dianne Verdonk & Roald van Dillewijn presented various self-made instruments that reflect on the tacticity of sound and reflect on their experimental work which finds new physical ways of interacting with technology for performing arts. As Sounds Like Touch, both artists stimulate interdisciplinary co-creation and function as a platform and springboard for artists and creators to experiment with physical forms and ways of interacting with technology. The creative processes after the workshop and the results were presented at the festival.
We discussed different aspects of the festival’s artistic programme theme and their Tactology lab with Dianne Verdonk. Diane is a performer, composer and instrument developer who seeks the ultimate, personal form of musical expression in the creation and performance of electroacoustic music. For years, she operated within different contexts as a double bass- and cello player, but her craving for making and performing electronic music roused her to start the creation of La Diantenne, and other electronic instruments like the Bellyhorn to fulfil her personal needs for expression and with which she composes and performs richly coloured songs, exploring performance contexts with a prominent role for visual and physical interaction with the instruments.
Recently, she founded Sounds Like Touch, a foundation that aims to create a tangible practice for both musicians and the audience of electronic music.
In relation to the Rewire 2022 art programme/exhibition’s theme, how are any intuitive processes in your practice or, on the contrary, ways to approach your practice more calculatedly, impact or balance in your practice? And what role do interruptions and afterthoughts play as well?
For Tactology Lab, Roald van Dillewijn and I curate a group of twelve makers from different backgrounds. Our programme is a pressure cooker, so we stick to quite a strict structure of the making process, to be able to create both new artworks from scratch and make a performance with these. Therefore, this part is very ‘planned’. Within that structure, the curated artists work together (picked by us and divided into specific groups), and I would say this is the ‘intuitive part’, where they bundle their skills and ideas, pick one and start building. We decide upon the time that they can spend on each stage of the process, but it’s in a very playful manner how they work together.
We interrupt the process for moments of presentation of the different stages/artworks in progress because we think this is interesting for everyone participating to witness works outside of their own group and to have moments of reflection. The other makers can give their feedback and ideas on these moments, and share their knowledge with everyone.
What is your relationship with the machines or instruments, the stochastic nature of algorithmic processes and if these figure in your artistic practice? if so, how do you approach the chance and unpredictability and loss of ownership when working with the machine?
For me personally, the unpredictability because of using machines leads to really interesting outcomes in the artworks. It feels rather human, too. Working together with other humans is also quite unpredictable. None would have thought of the outcoming artworks in advance while working on their own. This was only possible while working with specific people, in quite a chaotic constellation of skills and backgrounds, associations, etc., nonetheless performed in a very structured, timewise / stagewise programme. For me, machines are similar ‘agents’, like other makers to work with. It does feel like the same ‘loss’ of ownership to me, or, better said: the same sharing of ownership.
Even though the arts programme was based in Amare, some works will be distributed outside on the streets in den Haag; what are your thoughts towards the urban landscape in a city of a post-pandemic reality, and how do you think your works incorporate the thinking about the public space and physical proximity? i.e. referring to the exhibition title. What is your afterthought in the aftermath of the pandemic?
Personally, I think being allowed to touch cool artworks/stuff on the streets would be very good and healthy for people, it would invite them to play more, change perspective, experience new things. Especially in a world, that deals with pandemics like these.
We organise these Tactology Labs because we think this could improve expression in a stage context. It could lead to new insights and new techniques that could bring solutions to the ‘hidden link of actions’ that is being performed in a computer, and bring expression back to the humans operating/coworking with the machines. Or at least the physical input- or output side of this chain, we try to improve, to make these actions of expression more visible, more tangible.
A year ago, prior to the labs, we held two online co-creation sessions in order to see whether people in our networks would be interested in participating in the Labs and what they should contain or focus on. These sessions, and the large interest and number of applications for the labs, confirmed that we are working on something valuable for not only ourselves.
The importance of physical get-togethers and cooperation at the same location became even more precious to all participants, stimulated by the pandemic. I’m unsure if there would be the same interest in thinking along with us about the labs without the pandemic. Still, I assume it will remain important to be able to touch and express yourself by designing how to adapt your movements and body to the electronics/digitals that you’re working with, inside and outside the arts.
I cannot predict how our works would function on the streets of a city by themselves since Lab 2 was in the form of a performance and was not about making standalone creations on the streets that can stand the weather and other technical challenges. However, we would love to be able to show some works in, for example, a public hangout space, where people can relax and drink good coffee, which at the same time would be a small museum where you can actually TOUCH the artworks.
So not literally available at all times, like the streets are, but we would love to share it in a semi-public space. We’re not sure if Tactology Lab is the right format or programme to have lasting, public artworks as a result, but we are definitely keeping it in mind for later projects of Sounds Like Touch. And the durability of artworks is a very interesting discussion, for all art that is being made, I suppose! How to maintain more art in a public space without getting crazy (what would happen if you present all of the artworks ever made?? :D)
Rewire 2022 arts programme explored embodied experience in contrast to disconnected thinking. What are your approaches to affect and physical presence in your practice and the role sound has in augmenting the virtuality of the mind with the experience of the physical in general?
I think affect/affection is the main part of the expression and how the body of the artist is involved in that. Witnessing a piece of art or performance or experience, for me, it matters whether this person’s body is somewhere in the room (doesn’t need to be visible or to be the subject of the performance). That it is being expressed by someone of flesh and blood at that same time.
If it’s not, what is there to convey? From who to who? However, there’s the unpredictability of machines again: it has been very inspiring, at least for me, to listen to the sound of machines without expression as the main role of that thing/moment/purpose. For example: flying on a plane, while it takes off, there are parallel drone sounds at the same time, and the pitch is going up at the same time.
I remember being very fascinated by that, and this could be something else (or maybe not even that different?) than an expression: that people are able to make such complex machines, it really moves me at these moments. But the sounds are maybe a certain expression of these machines… Machines also have physicality, especially large ones, like planes or machines used on construction sites.
Maybe it tells me that the physical presence of both machines and humans is important when they work together. I don’t think that the mixer, generator for current, lighting engines, computers, etc, should always be on stage with us. I think it is still the human being that we can relate to, but this body that is performing and expressing something to us will have to show how it interacts with the machines/agents it is coworking with… I guess. It’s guessing, really, and a bit of intuition as well. Or maybe a lot of intuition, I don’t know.
Your practice is very much about physical contact with an instrument, so how does electronic technology figure out in your work? Meaning the integration of your work with Roald’s? How do you balance between calculability and unpredictability in your work?
As mentioned earlier in the first question, Roald and I make the programme and curate the artists based on our experience in our own skills. I would say Roald is very skilled in working with software and hardware. He’s a good didactics, too: he’s teaching-related subjects at the HKU University of the Arts in Utrecht in the Music and Technology department.
My background is in music performance, conceptual thinking and working with materials. I’m a classically trained cellist and bassist; large physical instruments where everything my body does influences how it sounds. Playing these instruments feels very specific and direct. Electronic potmeters and faders (especially when you use the same interactions for very different outputs) are functional but specific and indirect.
There’s still a lot in the chain – starting from input by me and ending at the (audible) output – that is invisible. Not everything has to be visible or comprehensible, but there’s a threshold/tipping point somewhere. And I cannot give a formula for how that works in every situation. Many aspects have an influence on where this point/moment appears.
That’s why I have a personal drive to be able to control/interact with the electronics I want to work with in a physical way: by attaching sensors, mechanical arms, changing movements, etc. In such a way that it feels like I’m able to control the parameters I want to control, and that I can express myself as a body, my body, with a soul in it.
The body is, in a way, also a manifestation of the ability to express what’s not physical. What is inside of us and wants to be heard/seen/being communicated (with). Instant thought: maybe this is to me why a machine should, like us, have a body/manifestation and adaptation to our body as an interface: where does the interaction of our bodies go otherwise? I want to feel that as a performer. I need feedback, physical feedback is what I prefer personally. And I want to be able to see, feel or experience that in another way when I’m in the audience.
Another thing that might be of importance: maybe there’s a balance in what a single human being can cause on its own, what we interpret as realistic, what it can express by itself, and what seems real? I assume that there’s a ratio/proportion balance in how big the event/output is that can be caused by the actor that’s worth taking into account when working with electronics.
Electronics work with a current that is ‘just there’, it can amplify above a level that we can amplify with our own bodies. The ‘war on loudness’ is to me again about a physical experience, but it’s a result of being able to over-amplify our expressions, and it’s maddening our senses. It should be more designed, thought of and – through, how much we would like to amplify, ‘just because we can’, or how we can amplify just enough that it really amplifies our thought and feeling: what to me is expressiveness.
There’s a lot in this answer, I notice! But it’s a big theme to me that interests me endlessly.
And what are the workshop participants’ responses to the workshops? What’s people’s behaviour when interacting with the instruments? Is there any difference between musicians and non-musicians?
The participants are very dedicated to what they’re making in the Labs; we have noticed and received positive feedback in evaluations between and after the first lab. Especially working together and meeting other artists is very valuable for all of them. Corporations from the last lab have remained, or new collabs have sprouted from the labs. Roald, I and the Sounds Like Touch team are really proud of that. In our own practices, Roald and I noticed that we, as artists in this multidisciplinary discipline (working with hardware, software, design, performance, concept, materials, etc.), have been working on our own in our small attic rooms.
It’s not evident to be able to meet other artists from other disciplines in order to improve your own process. It also needs time, steps, willpower, and structure to meet the right people who understand what you’re dealing with. In the labs, we combine all of these disciplines, providing a structure to the artists looking for collaborations and new projects and specific knowledge that will help them continue with their artworks and their art practices.
For this Tactology Lab, we’ve worked with a theatre director and so-called ‘tech dramaturg’ to be able to work on the interaction of the artists with the instruments and how to relate to the audience. That has helped a lot: huge steps were made by everyone in the last two days prior to the performance at Rewire. I think there was a noticeable difference between the performers and non-performers, mostly in the way they direct their attention to all the actions they’re performing on stage.
And how they have a feeling about how things could come across to the audience. The director and dramaturg helped the artists to work on this where needed. Examples of advice they brought along: ‘make your movements go slower, take more time, take another route while getting towards starting to play that specific part of the instrument, this and that makes your fit even more to the character of the instrument’, etc.
In the previous Tactology Lab, most of the instruments were presented as installations, and there was only one set of instruments that were used during a performance (with the possibility to interact with these instruments in between the performances). The artists presented their works in a gallery setting, very different from the performance at Rewire festival.
That also worked out nicely because there was more actual ‘touch’ involved by the visitors than during the performance at Rewire. I don’t know whether there was a clear difference in the interaction between musicians and non-musicians. Visitors were invited to experiment and play the instruments themselves: which needs an open and curious mind, like the visitors at Rewire Festival as well!
Both worked out fine for us, just very different experiences.
Our goal with Sounds Like Touch is to develop and encourage a tangible and accessible practice of the electronic performing arts. This involves both ‘gallery’ settings and stage performance settings.