BERLIN — One of the most prominent figures of the international electronic music scene, Robert Henke has been making music since the beginnings of Berlin techno, after the fall of the wall. Known by many as “Monolake,” Henke also records under his own name and was co-creator of Ableton Live, the now standard software for electronic music production that has completely redefined the practice. Using computer generated sound and, more recently, visuals from instruments and algorithms he developed himself, Henke explores the blurred boundaries between music performance, sound art, audio visual performance, and installation with a focus on creating and exploring sensory spaces.
Fascinated by what happens at these border points, I met Robert Henke at the Krake Festival for Experimental Electronic Music in Berlin, which this year held a parallel visual arts exhibition featuring a number of artists, all of whom use sound in their installations. Destructive Observation Field was up for the duration of the festival and the undoubted highlight. Currently on international tour, Henke’s audio-visual performance “Lumière II” is a cinematic laser performance that programs light forms in relation to specific electronic sounds. Together we discussed these projects in relation to his other visual works and considered the connections between sound and vision, and what happens when you bring the world of electronic music into the gallery.
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Rebecca Partridge: You have performed your audio-visual works and exhibited visual installations internationally, in numerous performance venues but also in art galleries such as the Tate Modern in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin. How do you feel about placing your work in this context coming from the very different world of electronic music?
Robert Henke: I see many more similarities between galleries and clubs or concert halls than most people would see on the surface. They are all spaces where people meet and have an experience, which is different from what they experience on the street … in all cases there is a single focus. I really enjoy spaces where the setup asks for a certain type of perception. At Berghain there are no windows, the outside disappears, and you are in another space. If you are in a museum you are looking at a piece of art and you are not at the same time in 20 different mental spaces.
RP: The audience may, however, approach the work in a different way, depending on the context. When I look at your work in a gallery I think of early modernist experimental film, like Oscar Fishinger and so on, of Robert Irwin (who of course began as a painter), of James Turrell. When you think about the visual aspect of your work in this way, where do you locate it?
RH: I was always interested in art, in abstract 20th-century sculpture especially, and in early modernist abstraction. The Zero Group was a big influence and of course James Turrell is high up there. It just never occurred to me that I could become a visual artist. I come from an engineering family and I discovered sound engineering and electronic music, and this was my entry path into the arts. Only at a very late stage did I think, ‘hang on, who says I can’t do anything else?’ and I understood that there is absolutely no rule which forces me to constrain myself to only making music.
RP: Were you worried about how it would be received? You already had a big audience as Monolake, so you must have been quite nervous about revealing a visual side to your practice, no?
RH: What I wanted to avoid was the cliché of the musician doing something in the arts — ‘the rock star makes paintings’ — so I was a bit worried, but I think my advantage is that since I work with computers I didn’t really change the medium. The strategies I apply visually are strategies I also apply to sound, so in a funny way this is very close as a working process to my music making and therefore it comes quite naturally. I solve the same problems, I use the same software, I ask the same questions … about timbre, about time, and about structure. It’s visual music for me, very close to how I perceive sound.
RP: These are somehow timeless dialogues, though they can be difficult to discuss critically. Do you think there are ideas that you can approach through sound that become difficult when they are made visual? For instance a criticism of Turrell’s light works could be that they rely too much on affect.
RH: This is exactly why I chose lasers. Everyone said ‘ooh lasers, difficult,’ but from the beginning I was convinced that I can do something that goes beyond the medium. If I think of the laser as a paint brush, I cannot just show people a nice paint brush, I need to make something with it and by using this difficult medium in a different way I immediately reach a step that would probably, for instance, be really difficult to reach with video … With my technical knowledge and aesthetic I could do something which has not been done before. With James Turrell the magic does not come from the fact that it is light, the magic comes from the mastery of how it is used. You know what is going on but you look at it and you still can’t believe what you are experiencing and this is for me the ultimate beauty in art, which radiates back to music.
RP: I would argue that what is so interesting about your work is precisely that it is cross-disciplinary. When we look at your larger practice, both visually and sonically, deeper structures and dialogues emerge. Sound theory is bound up with physics, so if we think in terms of deep structures, what are we looking at here?
RH: One preface to this discourse must be that I am very skeptical when artists talk about science. I wanted to study physics when I was young, I spent time in research facilities and I have science friends. What I and every single artist I know does is really very different from that; therefore, I would be very careful in using those models to understand the work. However, if we try to find deeper levels within that there are plenty of ways of approaching it. “Destructive Observation Field” behaves like a microscope — by simply pointing a strong laser on a black, reflective plastic sheet I create microscopic bubbles on the surface which are reflected on the glass plate we are observing. This amplifies the effect by a factor of maybe 1,000–5,000, so therefore we are observing things which are normally unseen.
RP: You are making the invisible visible.
RH: Yes. This is thermal movement, heat at a microscopic level, which you can actually see here.
RP: How does this visual phenomena then relate to the sound element?
RH: In this work the sound has a very loose coupling to the image in such a way that it operates on a similar time scale and similar principles of movement as the movement of the laser over the glass plate. But there is no strong relation between the sound and the visual side for practical and philosophical reasons. The practical being since I can’t really predict what is happening visually, it would be nearly impossible to create a hard synchronization between the sound and the image without throwing a lot of technology on the problem, which for me seems to defeat the purpose. The philosophical problem is that our brains are so good at making connections, just as we see all kinds of structures here, we construct all kinds of shapes which do not really exist. It’s all two-dimensional but we experience a three-dimensional world. We see things in the foreground and the background, cells, stars, galaxies, architecture, whatever we want … And so my idea for the sound was to create something that is open to facilitate these ideas but at the same time has such a loose synchronicity that sometimes the sonic and visual movements connect to each other and sometimes they act as a counterpoint, encompassing everything in between.
RP: Do you have synaesthesia?
RH: Not really, if I see images I have sonic ideas and if I hear sounds I see images, but not in an extremely strong way.
RP: So with “Lumière II,” where you have directly connected sounds with shapes, how did you come to the decision that ‘this sound is a line, this is a circle,’ etc?
RH: In some ways it’s very clear, like if you have a chaotic, noisy shape you hear a chaotic, noisy sound. It also makes sense that if you have a shape which is very geometric and repetitive that you have strong, repetitive elements to the sound. It’s, in all cases, the in-between where it becomes difficult. For Lumière my point was to first define a language, which means I created both visual shapes and sounds and I paired them. From that moment onwards I just pretended they belonged together as a working hypothesis. I just said ‘a circle sounds like this,’ period. While the decision itself is arbitrary, it adds to the fact that once the decision is made I could easily create meaning because I had agreed on an alphabet.
RP: Are you aware of Heinrich Kluver?
RH: Actually not.
RP: He was a child psychologist working in the ‘60s. He noticed that in small children there was a common occurrence of geometric repetitive dreams. Correlating these findings with research into mescal hallucinations, he built a visual alphabet of geometric forms which he called ‘form constants.’ Apart from synesthesia, these forms — grids, lattices, and vortex patterns — also appear in other states of altered perception, migraine headaches. This is fascinating when we look at “Lumière II,” because your visual alphabet is almost entirely built on this language. Aldous Huxley takes us a step further, in heaven and hell he described these patterns, seen at the beginning of a mescal hallucination, as having an inner light, emerging from darkness like gems with a dynamic movement from within which any image can emerge. Not only could he could be describing your performance, but this links back directly to what you were just saying about how the brain builds connections and sees images which are not there.
RH: This is a nice reference.
RP: It is a nice reference, because it really is heaven and hell, collapse and order at the same time — an experience that could be beautiful or an absolute horror trip. I had synesthetic childhood dreams myself, they would begin very peacefully then develop into something quite sinister.
RH: This is interesting. Actually as a child, for years, I had some strange nightmarish dream which considered a shape, but I couldn’t really nail it down so I couldn’t tell you what it was. It was some kind of a blob thing, but the one thing I know, it was a shape. That was very clear.
RP: And was it a nightmare?
RH: Yes absolutely, and it came back again and again. It was really depressing, in a literal sense, pressing me down … a massive solid shape pressing me down.
RP: So it also had a spatial aspect to it.
RH: Yeah. It had a spatial component and it was greyish, dark grey. It was nothing but a shape, there was no narrative, no sense of space, it was just a shape… So that is interesting.
RP: We’re talking about inner, neurological experiences in the body, yet you are also using and basing your work on code. In a way, you make a connection between mathematical structures with the inner workings of the mind, which is fascinating.
RH: Absolutely. One thing that might also go in this direction is the fact that due to the very abstract nature of what we see here it is very small and very large at the same time — intimate, but also containing a largeness within it. What I always found fascinating, which has become a cliché only because it is so striking, is that very often microscopic and macroscopic structures have these amazing similarities so the smallest things we can observe look like the largest things we can observe. This, for me, can be seen in relation to organizing chaos in the kitchen versus trying to organize the chaos in the world, the only difference is the scale … (laughs)
RP: It’s interesting to look at your work and think about how you are tackling such timeless ideas while using the most up-to-date technology. However, you strike a fine balance; some artists can be seduced by new technology that 10 years later looks dated.
RH: But we never know beforehand. There is a lot of art which relies on technology and some of it obviously has a huge impact simply because what you see has a higher resolution or a higher frame rate than what you can experience at home. And two years later everyone can do it. But the good pieces don’t rely on that novelty value.
RP: I recently had a conversation with one of the 4D Sound team who are also at the forefront of sound technology. We discussed meditation and how sound potentially shapes a contemplative space. Your work can be both contemplative and at moments frenetic. Is that something that you think about, emotional spaces?
RH: Yes, this is a key motivation. And it brings me back to the fascination I have in technology as means of artistic expression. I want to touch people and change their mood. Ultimately, I judge my work on whether it creates a nice atmosphere.
RP: But it’s more complicated than that, no? One of the things I like so much about your work is that it also embraces destruction, collapse, and darkness.
RH: Perhaps I should clarify my idea of nice — I spend a lot of time when I am making music avoiding cliché chord progressions and cliché beautiful sounds. My idea of nice is much more informed by metropoles, dirty cities, dust, and debris. I embrace complexity and the things that I find nice always have an inherent ambiguity. I like to achieve works which have a certain dark shimmering, like in painting, like the light which comes out of darkness in Rembrandt or in the night paintings of Casper David Friedrich … As a child of ’90s techno culture, we went to abandoned spaces. Those spaces were not beautiful — they radiated oil and sweat and machinery, dust and toxic waste — but by putting a few strategic neon bulbs in a space, placing a couple of loud speakers and equally choosing the music this space was transformed into a cathedral. If I just talk about it I get goose bumps.
RP: Wow. I love this connection between techno culture and 19th-century Romantic decay.
RH: Yes, these are universal concepts. I do something which completely relies on technology but I do it with the intention of transcending a space, to emotionally paint a space. We can talk about content, or some politics or a structural idea, it might be all that, but for me the emotional result is the thing that really counts, and this is timeless.
Robert Henke’s “Lumière II” is on tour. The next performance takes place on September 11 at Malmö Live, Konsertsalen (Malmö Live Concert, Dag Hammarskjold torg 4, Malmo, Sweden). The performance will travel to several other cities in Europe and the US.