Emerging Narratives. A Conversation with Emptyset

Interview by Neja Tomšič

In the Transitory Series

In this interview, Neja Tomšič discusses with Paul Purgas and James Ginzburg about the creative process behind Emptyset and how they see their role as creators transiting from curatorial to artistic work.

 

Neja TomšičUpon seeing you live with Emptyset we wondered about the name. How does it relate to what you do?

James Ginzburg: The name comes from mathematics in which it is used to describe a set that contains no elements. In the context of the project it evolved to have a connection to the idea of the living-void and the insubstantiality of concepts. Emptyset’s overarching narrative is a cosmogonic myth reduced to its skeletal or rawest form and is looking at the underlying principles behind emergence, complexity and intelligence. In other words, an exploration of how thingness is born from voidness.

Neja TomšičIt seems that Emptyset is based on aesthetics, be it visual or aesthetics of sound. It is more experiential than textural or argumentative; it works on the fine line between sound art and club music. How do these different contexts influence the work? What about the audiences?

Paul Purgas: The project focuses on certain aspects of structure and material, be those in sound and composition or video and moving image. Any sense of aesthetic is essentially born out of the processes used rather than considering an aesthetic as a starting point. An area that personally interested me a great deal during my time at the Royal College of Art was studying the legacy of Structural Film and Video, essentially an outpost of Conceptual Art that explored the physical nature of moving image through the fundamental properties of celluloid or video electronics. This resulted in artworks where form was determined by the process or method that was applied by the artist. It seemed like an inspirational territory to consider the relationship between technology and artistic production, and reapply these methods now in a time where both old and new media have the potential to interact. This perhaps had as much influence on my thinking as electronic music or the history of sonic art.

In terms of how the context shapes the work, having to think about engagement is something that is both a practical and artistic concern inevitably along the way but it is something that up until now we haven’t integrated within a feedback loop with the work itself. It has definitely been more about developing projects and then finding the right context for them.

Installation and setting up at Ambika P3, London. Commissioned by The Architecture Foundation. Image courtesy of James Ginzburg. Image © Emptyset. Used here by kind permission from Emptyset and MoTA. All rights reserved.
Installation and setting up at Ambika P3, London. Commissioned by The Architecture Foundation. Image courtesy of James Ginzburg. Image © Emptyset. Used here by kind permission from Emptyset and MoTA. All rights reserved.

Neja TomšičYou are working in a wide variety of media. And apart from being artists, you are also producers, curators, writers, etc. How and where do you see your role in the whole?

Paul Purgas: I think within Emptyset the natural working model was to approach the project more within the spirit of an artist’s studio or architectural bureau, allowing the choice of media and materials to best serve a vision, rather than having a predetermined format or method that would then have to be moulded or adapted in order to accommodate a set of intentions. Equally it’s without question you have to be aware of the area you are intending to work in, whether that is a practical awareness or an awareness of the historical lineage in which your work is located. Perhaps it’s a product of the diversity of our backgrounds in art, music and design that’s allowed us to move between these fields with a certain appreciation of their meaning and equally explore the scope for new possibilities.

Neja TomšičWhat are your roles, aims and tools as artists? Are they very different from other professional role sin your life – I am aiming at your understanding of the role of art today. What can you hope to do with art? See it as a pure means of expression in a romantic way (artist as genius) or as a tool with which to transmit awareness, knowledge?

James Ginzburg: I think we have to be very careful with ideas and notions about our roles and aims as artists. I feel that fundamentally it is in those moments that we escape the limitations of our concepts about ourselves and our worlds that interesting or genuine things emerge. I see defining roles and aims as a way of creating a form or a framework to work within, but I see the creative moment as the one in which the form dissolves and something mysterious happens. I don’t believe that we truly know where our ideas and inspirations come from, and the more we acknowledge our relationship to that mystery the more we are able to play with the line between our contrivances and the hidden depths of both our minds and the world. It seems to me we have art because logical and rational communication is unable to touch on the invisible world of meaning and emotion that we are in a continual process of trying to relate to and communicate to others. Perhaps it is in those formless moments that we are able to make some kind of connection to it and express some aspect of it as directly as possible through the limitations of the medium we are working with. The major limitation always being that what we end up with is another form, another symbol, but this symbol becomes a possible point of interface for an audience between the form of their own conceptual universe and their own hidden depths.

I would say that the primary tool of an artist is that of creating these forms and frameworks to use as springboards into formlessness. Perhaps part of that is developing proficiency with particular crafts so that one is able to, without thought or hesitation, crystallize whatever emerges back into a form that others can interact with. Although the aspect I am most interested in is the way that the narratives within a practice or project function in a way analogous to a sculptor’s mould, something that gives rise to the work but then disappears. I think that in reality everything we do, however mundane it might seem, could be framed in the same way, so while I don’t necessarily experience my other professional roles in the same way, I feel some sort of inspiration – that there are underlying principles that connect them.

I’m very wary of didactic approaches to art. I think that irrespective of the subject matter of a particular work we are doing something else other than making art when we try to educate or create awareness of a particular subject or issue. We might use our artistic crafts in order to create an experience that is able to communicate a particular story or idea, but I think there is an often-confused hinterland between propaganda or pamphleteering and art, and I think it is important to differentiate between those two modes. I ask myself the question, “What would the difference be in a particular work that contains an ostensibly factual or non-fictional component if we considered that component as fiction?” Any experience we have of a “non-fiction” is always a product of our own internal symbolic world meeting a particular narrative, which means that we implicitly fictionalize the narrative and feel our own internalized response to it in order to have any relationship to it. I find it very interesting to consider, for example, the difference between the pathos in a work of fiction and in a tragic story in the news. A particular work or object can have the potential to be engaged with and evaluated in multiple ways, but I think that the question of is this “good” art and the question of does this successfully communicate a particular idea are two very different things.

Installation and setting up at Ambika P3, London. Commissioned by The Architecture Foundation. Image courtesy of James Ginzburg. Image © Emptyset. Used here by kind permission from Emptyset and MoTA. All rights reserved.
Installation and setting up at Ambika P3, London. Commissioned by The Architecture Foundation. Image courtesy of James Ginzburg. Image © Emptyset. Used here by kind permission from Emptyset and MoTA. All rights reserved.

Neja TomšičAnd to extend that question to Paul, as he is working both as an artist and curator – how is curatorial work different from the artistic, being that both are also about providing the context for your works?

Paul Purgas: The primary difference for me between an artistic project and curatorial one most likely lies in the area of reference. Within an artistic project the rules and parameters are internally governed within the particular methodology of that artistic approach, with external issues of cultural context being secondary to production. Conversely within a curatorial project the cultural meaning and theoretical implications of a project or exhibition must always be in the forefront of your mind as primarily there has to be a reverence and respect for how you are positioning and locating another artist’s work. In effect one is about thinking from the inside out and the other is approaching it from the outside inwards. Artistic production often requires a certain insularity – call that an internal logic – which can be at times counter intuitive to the more encompassing demands of a curatorial practice.

Neja TomšičSound and cinema are said to be the most powerful tools for direct impact on the audience and apart from being about fun, they can also be about manipulation. It seems that musically you are trying to offer a rather different experience for club goers. How do you see the role of electronic music in clubs? Do you think about the power of sound? And being in such a role, are you taking responsibility?

Paul Purgas: The physical potential of sound is something that we have definitely integrated as a central component of our work. We haven’t intentionally set out to create an alternative experience within a club context; this has been more of a by-product of taking the material out of a studio and into a live performative setting. In some ways I think of these types of spaces as environments with a certain technical setup and sonic potential rather than a nightclub space. I’m more interested in music that pushes forward the experience of being in a nightclub.

I think as artists we create fictional worlds and invite or even seduce an audience into entering them, and I think this is especially true of music, which has always been seen to have an entrancing or seductive quality to it. I think that for it to really "work" one has to become possessed by it, if only for a moment.

James Ginzburg

Neja TomšičThere seems to be a kind of broad disappointment or boredom with club culture prevailing, while it is at the same time as successful as ever. Is it because electronic music and the format in which we mostly enjoy it (clubs, festivals, party context), are only appropriate up to a certain age? Or is the problem in the context in which this music is shown – could it be that it is outdated? Would you say that electronic music is currently in a phase of recycling, not inventing and slowly dying (as is often said regarding art in general)?

James Ginzburg: I think clubs and cinemas are the contexts in which most people are introduced to the idea of a specially designed environment for experiencing loud physically affecting sound. But clubs have a certain mode, they are for the most part about creating the same moment over and over again and that moment only touches on the smallest patch of what is possible with sound and space. Club culture is a bit like a sushi conveyer belt: always moving, always displaying different objects, yet perpetually performing the same function. The function of dancing all night, a social focal point, a place to let go of inhibitions, etc. When I was a DJ I would measure the success or failure of what I was doing in terms of whether people were moving physically to the music. In contrast, for me the best “performance” of Emptyset was when, having finished our first album, we invited 50 people to a cellar we hired out, put an overwhelmingly loud PA in there, set up chairs and handed out earplugs. We turned off the lights and pushed play. Perhaps it was about creating a sound world as free from reference points as possible and trying to create a situation in which there was an environment that was conducive to this.

Obviously most of the contexts we find ourselves in are festivals, clubs or spaces in which we are doing installations. All three of those things are full of reference points; particularly in the context of installations in which the place you choose carries with it so many layers of meaning and suggestion. I feel that because of the nature of the materials we use sonically, the contexts end up becoming to a certain extent embedded in the sound, or the sound is a derivative of the meeting of context and sonic material, which means irrespective of the context, the experience is the interface between material, process, space and audience, rather than being bound up in a particular culture or context.

It’s interesting how certain contexts are bound to certain social worlds, and those social worlds attract certain demographics of people. What is placed in the context often becomes more about providing a totem for people to rally around and something for the individuals in that social world to define themselves by, and that social function often supersedes the particulars of the content itself. The social function creates an economy around itself and that ends up driving what the context is filled with musically or artistically. This is very true of club culture.

Trawsfyndd Nuclear Power Station External Wall, Snowdonia, Wales. Image courtesy of James Ginzburg. Image © Emptyset. Used here by kind permission from Emptyset and MoTA. All rights reserved.
Trawsfyndd Nuclear Power Station External Wall, Snowdonia, Wales. Image courtesy of James Ginzburg. Image © Emptyset. Used here by kind permission from Emptyset and MoTA. All rights reserved.

Neja TomšičShould we then invent new ways of listening to music socially? Is this also something you are interested in achieving with Emptyset?

Paul Purgas: It seems possibly to be too excessive a gesture to consider a new context for engaging with sound and music publicly. In some ways there is already ample infrastructure available for people to engage with and it’s more a case of thinking about ways of creating cross overs between the current spaces of consumption within music, art, cinema, theatre, etc. Overall, exploring these boundaries is not something we have strategically set out to do, it is more an outcome of the way we work. Within Emptyset we’ve always developed the project from a purely ideas based approach and considered context as a secondary dimension. For us the context emerges from the initial premise and this determines the mode of production whether that is performance, installation, moving image, etc., then it becomes about placing that into the external world and working within either an institutional or non-institutional framework to present it.

Neja TomšičJacques Attali said that “What is called music today is all too often only a disguise for the monologue of power.” He also said that never before have musicians tried so hard to communicate with their audience, and never before has that communication been so deceiving. Could you comment on that?

James Ginzburg: I take inspiration from Vladimir Nabokov’s idea of all art being deception. Perhaps all communication is. What we communicate or express is never the thing itself, it is an approximation or an analogy. I think as artists we create fictional worlds and invite or even seduce an audience into entering them, and I think this is especially true of music, which has always been seen to have an entrancing or seductive quality to it. I think that for it to really “work” one has to become possessed by it, if only for a moment.

The second part of this quote “Music now seems hardly more than a somewhat clumsy excuse for the self-glorification of musicians and the growth of a new industrial sector” is interesting to consider in terms of trying to pin down what he means by monologue of power. If we are talking about the “industrialization” of music, we are talking about commodification or function as motivational factors in the creation of music and its subsequent channels of distribution. This has existed throughout most of the western musical tradition, though it has been refined and accelerated, particularly over the last century. I think ultimately we can ask, “Is this about the ego of the musician?” and “Is this good music?” as two separate non-conflicting questions. We could look at choral music as being created as a result of it performing a religious function, but that doesn’t mean we can’t engage with it as a purely musical, aesthetic or sonic experience. (In fact, the question “does this help create a communion with the divine?” has a somewhat comic feeling to it.) The function or teleology of creativity acts, from my perspective, as part of the form that I referred to earlier. More specifically, it might be interesting to think of Attali’s comments in terms of the concept of a room with a PA in it. In a sense the PA is the ultimate deceiver; irrespective of what is happening on stage, the experience of it is always mediated by the presence of amplifiers and speakers. From an experiential point of view there would not be a difference between a band recording their performance on the stage before the audience arrived and then playing the recording back as they mimed performing with the audience in the room; it would be an electrical signal being played back over speakers. There is a huge amount of pretense, and this is particularly true in “live” electronic music. In the end a more generous way of thinking about it could be to think of it as being more analogous to theatre; one creates the sense that something is happening and the audience buys into it. No one complains that the actors on stage in a play are not actually the characters they portray.

Material EP Cover art. Image courtesy of James Ginzburg. Image © Emptyset. Used here by kind permission from Emptyset and MoTA. All rights reserved.
Material EP Cover art. Image courtesy of James Ginzburg. Image © Emptyset. Used here by kind permission from Emptyset and MoTA. All rights reserved.
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