Sensory Geographies. A Conversation with Kurt Hentschläger

Interview by Sabin Bors

In the Digital Art Series

Sabin BorsYour art describes a meditative and aesthetic experience, a passage through the void of representations, a momentum where senses recalibrate perception. How does your work “imagine” without being representation?

Kurt Hentschläger: This refers to one series of my work mostly, particularly FEED and ZEE, in which the focus lies on the absence of representation and familiar cues for orientation. In our regular daily experience it’s almost impossible to pause the realm of representation; we are entrenched in it and rely on it as much as time moving forward.

That said, what I am attempting in my work is an articulation of a representational void, in staging a “collapsed” space, stimulated by both a sensory override and – overload. A simultaneous impression of both absence and abundance in many visitors instills a feeling of inexplicable joy. Partially, I feel this is triggered by the intense, encompassing light, but also because most visitors report an experience with no prior cognitive reference or label and thus, for a moment, feel immersed in pure abstraction.

Sabin BorsThe physical screens you use for some of your works create an intimate screen that we pass through in order to perceive ourselves in our most intimate nature. How does a screen create an active perceptive field where passive viewers internalize their experiences?

Kurt Hentschläger: The screen or canvas dissipates as such in the very moment we emotionally connect to the work on display, by feeling a resonance to and with the work in either an emotive or cerebral manner, ideally both. So the passive viewer persists only as long as she or he feels no personal attraction to the work. The screen can be seen as a membrane that fades out the moment an intimate dialogue between the viewer and the work itself ensues.

Apart from that basic principle, in Cluster, and most of my “Body” body of work the screen is part of a projected architecture (behind it), in that it becomes the front glass end of an artificial 3D space, similar to an aquarium tank. So from the viewer’s perspective it is as much about looking into something as onto something. Reaching through the screen is an extension of the physical space the viewer inhabits and so a sense of inhabiting a common space is suggested. Also the screen is not just a visual screen, but an equally important part of the work is sound, diffused in the given space via multiple loud speakers. Dedicated sub-bass, at the low frequency end of sound, adds as physical rumble that both envelops and moves the visitor’s bodies.

CORE, Ironbridge, audiovisual installation as part of the cultural program of the UK summer Olympics © Kurt Hentschläger, 2012. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
CORE, Ironbridge, audiovisual installation as part of the cultural program of the UK summer Olympics © Kurt Hentschläger, 2012. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsOn the other hand, ZEE is one of the most complex works you created. It relies on density and fog to create an incredible atmosphere. An envelope or an encirclement. What is the idea behind ZEE and how did you achieve such an intense environment?

Kurt HentschlägerZEE follows a quite simple idea and setup. The concept emerged out of my frustration with screen based video (film) work being projected on a flat plane rather than having a spatial presence like sound. I re-discovered and started working with video-flicker during the second part of my collaboration with Ulf in Granular-Synthesis. In using flicker, light – as the carrier of the image content in video / film – moves to the foreground via the abrupt contrast & brightness changes from single frame to single frame. Light then starts pulsating throughout a space, dramatically activating its architecture. Still, the flat nature of 2D screens in regards to projected content remained a source of frustration, as was increasingly the ”activation” of the given venue, which was often distracting from the work itself. I imagined creating an immersive visual impression, without using projections and/or screens while also obscuring any given space. The audience should come inside the work rather than looking at it from a (safe) distance.

One of the initially scary aspects of ZEE is that it “swallows” you; it cuts you off from trained distancing and measuring mechanisms. For the time being, ZEE takes over. The loss of control of one’s sensory apparatus, or rather the perceived loss of control – as really the environment is radically changed not ones sensory apparatus – can be initially disturbing. Shortly after then a sense of wonder sets in.

The work is based on wave interference phenomena. External stroboscopic frequencies and internal brain / visual cortex refresh frequencies are interfering with each other, creating patterns not unlike moiré, or similar OP effects, in animated form that is, amidst the fog induced void.

ZEE, immersive audiovisual environment, artificial fog, stroboscopes, pulse lights and surround sound, 2008 © Kurt Hentschläger. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
ZEE, immersive audiovisual environment, artificial fog, stroboscopes, pulse lights and surround sound, 2008 © Kurt Hentschläger. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

The aspect of re-animation here is a core element, in my work both then and now; (re-)animation introduces the elements of puppeteer-ing, motion control and remote control.

Sabin BorsIf your first works were based on frontal images and expressions, your latest works involve the body and its complete immersion into the environment. Why did you change this perspective? Does the topology of the body reflect more on human experience than the topography of the face?

Kurt Hentschläger: In respect to “the body and its complete immersion into the environment”, there is a familiarity that connects the hazy clouds of motion-blurred bodies in my 3D work with my fog spaces. Body and space are defining each other. Our body is finite both in size and life span. We define space (and time) from within our limited body experience.

The human body and head are obviously one, so being presented with an image of either just the head, the torso or the entire body always evokes in us a sense of alter ego, in that we are recognizing a fellow human being. But also the head sits on top of our body, and is both the site of visual, auditory and olfactory perception, our language and communication center and with the brain, arguably the center of our intelligence and consciousness.

Such (debated) head / body dichotomy seems amplified in our times, where one often spends days sitting in front of a screen, the body muted and in the background, really mostly reduced to a support system to prop up one’s brain-head-consciousness. This is still one of the most radical changes during my life time, the amount of not just sitting but sitting still for extended periods of time, my conscious mind halfway out my body, peeking around the world. In a kind of trance if you will, an off-body experience. In contrast, we deliberately “work out” our bodies in gyms or else, switching on off-mind mode.

I used to call the early iterations of my floating body work “zombie orbit”, as the movements of these cloned bodies, all equipped with a head but without faces and means of expression beyond their somewhat creepy body language, clearly seemed human and alive, but without much coordination, structure or anything hinting at higher intelligence.

The now Cluster body of work, lost the seizure style, total lack of control motions and instead focuses on more choreographed group patterns. Still no traits of self-awareness, nevertheless the work strongly connects with the audience.

The concept of Modell 5 in some aspects was not so different; it suggested that our “hard-wired” alter ego recognition was maintained, despite the drastic (cyborgian) re-animation implanted onto the alter ego in view.

The aspect of re-animation here is a core element, in my work both then and now; (re-)animation introduces the elements of puppeteer-ing, motion control and remote control. So something – whatever material, matter or media – is being animated. It would suggest that the animated object is dead, not alive or conscious. And further that a human life without consciousness, without a soul if you will, is impossible, that a living body without brain activity, a body by itself, is organic matter without meaning, direction and chance of survival (that is without animating machines).

Finally, part of my considerations comes from early reading I did in my 20’ies. I think Elias Canetti in hisCrowds and Power (if memory still serves me) describes how at the end of big battles in ancient days, the victors would go around, behead all their dead enemies and then pile up these heads into pyramids they left behind, as the final ritual of the battle. The abundance of zombie movies these days go along – if you want to kill somebody for good (even though supposedly dead already), you need to destroy the zombie head.

In conclusion, I keep being absorbed by the human body, head (mind) conundrum.

NOISEGATE, MAK, 1998 © KLOMFAR & SENGMUELLER OEG / GRANULAR-SYNTHESIS - Kurt Hentschläger & Ulf Langheinrich. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
NOISEGATE, MAK, 1998 © KLOMFAR & SENGMUELLER OEG / GRANULAR-SYNTHESIS - Kurt Hentschläger & Ulf Langheinrich. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsAnother interesting aspect is the passage from hybrid or automated humans to expressive and harmonic bodies, but also from an identifiable to an undifferentiated expression. Why this change?

Kurt Hentschläger: What you call passage still lies within one common area (of research). For me its less of a change in work, but a shift of focus within a central interest throughout my work – in what sets the threshold of the human condition and what do we emotionally and cerebrally both accept and expect as human nature. This remains a moving target, in regards to what is genetically present in our primal setup as well as what is culturally informed and updating along with our civilizing process.

Some of the change in energy and attitude of my work is related to the process of aging, at some point in my late 20’ies and early 30’ies I just needed to “hammer away”, which made for quite more aggressive tones. That interest has faded, or rather transformed into a more ambiguous form of intensity and spectrum of expression (I suspect.)

By default, we have no sense of an inner space inside us. So then that suggests we carry a perceptual void inside us. Then space, as we normally can sense it, starts right outside our bodies.

Sabin BorsOver the years, your approach passed from automated repetitions to almost rhizomatic harmonies and multiplications. What did repetitions relate to and how do you interpret the harmonies in your current works?

Kurt Hentschläger: In the recent body-works the dynamic unfolding of the bodies in space micro composes the sound, the organic fluidity of individuals and their encounters with each other enable complex spectral content, wide dynamic range and spatial dynamic within the 3D space. This is the defining difference to earlier video based work, in that there is a prominent element of chance and unpredictability, within a scripted framework that defines a potential rather than a rigid state. What binds the work over the last 2 decades together is the concept of the loop, whether mechanic repetitions or generative iterations (variety in repetition within a set frame.) The loop (and layers of loops) introduces the element of infinity and timelessness, and has trance inducing potential, it’s been present in all rituals and music throughout the history of mankind.

But sure, in my current work harmonies and, equally so, disharmonies appear most prominent. As more complex musical forms, one way or the other all loop based still, they feel more musical, as the mechanics are less obvious and less minimal. Looking back, the video work with Granular Synthesis follows a distinct curve, over the 11 years Ulf and I collaborated, from a rather mechanic, sample based early aesthetic to more of an ambient and musically more ambitious work towards the end of Granular Synthesis, where “sampler” style repetitions got cocooned into ambient textures and drifting harmonies. Still liking the lingering harmonic fields.

I feel changes in my artistic approach, concepts and aesthetic happen organically, one work usually informs the next, and be it as a gesture of antagonism. The string like, almost classic, drones of the Cluster body of work, emerged from a certain fatigue with digital and electronic sonic appearances, but also knowing that the immediate recognition of string sounds act as cultural trigger rendering a sense of familiarity.

Sabin BorsIn Cluster I see more than just an aesthetic experience, I see the movement of bodies as generating a vibrant matter. Could this vibrant matter reshape and redefine our body experience? Does the medium hold the power to inform the body?

Kurt Hentschläger: Holds at least my longing to go to orbit and be weightless once in my lifetime! Simulation, and that is what we also talk about here, goes only so far in making us “believe”. It can act though as a desire-inducing instance, apart from the more mundane applications, like flying a camera inside our body – which otherwise remains visually inaccessible to us (short of cutting into it…). So that enables a quite radical change of the view of our body. By default, we have no sense of an inner space inside us. (There is also no color inside our body as there is no light reaching inside, beyond the skin layer.) So then that suggests we carry a perceptual void inside us. Then space, as we normally can sense it, starts right outside our bodies. Thus the now possible scientific simulation of the inside of our bodies literally fills a void and how could it not change our awareness and sense of our bodies, at least over time.

In similar manner, our worldview changed most dramatically when for the first time a photograph of the earth floating in space was taken. The perspective from space back to earth illustrated the planet as a (space) ship of (very) limited expanse.

Everything we think and create reverberates and feeds back to both our own existence and the world we live in. Technology per se is feedback on steroids, for better or worse.

CLUSTER, generative audiovisual live show, single 16:9 screen, 4.1 sound, 2009-2012 © Kurt Hentschläger. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
CLUSTER, generative audiovisual live show, single 16:9 screen, 4.1 sound, 2009-2012 © Kurt Hentschläger. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsThe bodies you create also function as semiotic agents, yet they are bodies devoid of any signs or gestures referring to contemporary cultural or media constructions. Where does the expressive power of the body lie in, in your opinion?

Kurt Hentschläger: It lies in exactly their stripped down, unattributed, generic human form, as a kind of lowest common denominator, open for interpretation. Their “pull” derives from their unending motions, interactions and an appearance of blowing in the wind, being equally driven and caught.

There is all but one decision to take, to stay and accept the setting or to leave, returning to a safe distance.

Sabin BorsWhere does the confrontation actually take place – in what we perceive, or in the interpretation of what we perceive? Furthermore, is perception something that is given or rather something we learn?

Kurt Hentschläger: Takes ultimately place in the interpretation of an event, based on one’s overall intelligence and state of mind at the time of input. As an example, from either a paranoid or, in contrast, overly trusting worldview, outside events are perceived, then analyzed and processed in an already pretuned manner, wherein one chooses to selectively focus on (and that starts with perception) and ignore elements in the given setting. That doesn’t mean we imagine events that actually happen, but the way we interact with them, more or less appropriate, calm or confused, etc makes obviously all the difference, like in moments of life and death.

Our sensory perception apparatus is given, so structurally the nature of perception is given. I look at it as an instrument, some people become virtuosos in learning an instrument and others barely understand the basics.

Sabin BorsHow can immersive mediums generate real symbiotic relationships?

Kurt Hentschläger: They can’t. Only life forms can generate (reciprocal) relationships. As long as mediums are not becoming independent and (somewhat) intelligent, there can’t be a symbiotic anything with them.

Sabin BorsAll your works involve a minimal but firing interaction, a tension between intensity and relaxation. I would also call it a state of transportation, as you literally transpose the subject into this multi-scape immersive field. What is the relation between immersion and interaction?

Kurt Hentschläger: Immersion puts you into the middle of something and so you become a part of something whether you choose to or not. There is all but one decision to take, to stay and accept the setting or to leave, returning to a safe distance. The traditional gallery experience suggests on looking, studying, quickly moving on if interest abates or any discomfort arises. I ask (in some of my work) from my audience to make a commitment to “enter”, at least for a moment. My interest here lies in “loaded” environments, to create indeed a sense of transportation into an unfamiliar and stirring ambience.

POL, 1998 © E. Valette / GRANULAR-SYNTHESIS - Kurt Hentschläger & Ulf Langheinrich. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
POL, 1998 © E. Valette / GRANULAR-SYNTHESIS - Kurt Hentschläger & Ulf Langheinrich. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsIn spite of all interaction, there is a sense of isolation in your works, an intimate dialogue with yourself that reduces the outside to a question of inner experience. How would you define the reality of this experience? How do you define reality?

Kurt Hentschläger: I can’t define reality. Yet it’s one of the most vexing question I can think of. While I feel reasonably sure about my existence, my motives, passions, thoughts, limits etc, it’s quite clear that all else that is around, outside me and thus likely not me. And while I can feel one with humanity, the world, the cosmos at times, for most of the times I can’t escape the realization of ”me on the inside, world on the outside”.

There is a reason that we can’t (psychologically) survive without social contacts and exchange, it makes us transcend our sense of isolation, being locked inside our bodies. Nevertheless, in so many ways and moments, we are singular entities.

The question is more about time horizon, as in when do we perceive a sequence of events to be spread out enough to appear as ambient rather than progressive.

Sabin BorsBoth KARMA and FEED are based on various transitions, exchanges, and transformations. These transitions are both physical and spiritual. What is the shared vision of these two works, and where do they differentiate?

Kurt HentschlägerFEED, in its first half, is a drawn out end to my late 90’ies state of mind, kind of torturous, if not self-torturous. Romantic elements mix with quite severe, if not punishing scenes, vaguely projecting an idea of indiscretion. Once the “fog cut” hits, the work becomes something entirely else, and people still keep asking me how these 2 parts possibly go together. I don’t comment. KARMA is post FEEDand matters have settled down into a form of benign purgatory, bodies in eternal free fall, though never hitting a ground, never coming to rest either. Individual bodies also aren’t recognizing each other, are dissecting each other when their paths cross, appearing as a group while clearly being ignorant of each other’s presence.

Sabin BorsAnother particular aspect of your work is the use of progression to emphasize a certain state. But while there is an obvious progression, there is no destination, no end or aim, no narrative line. How would you interpret this progression? Where does one progress to?

Kurt Hentschläger: I experience life as a process of orbiting rather than a progression from here to there. Which connects back to the idea of dynamic and generative loops, with each new iteration changing one’s orbit ever so much, and subsequently the perspective and outlook. No doubt still there is a vector from one’s birth to one’s eventual demise, which (expiration) date can never be known. So progress progresses until all ends. This is not meant to sound fatalistic.

I don’t think there is any such thing as non-narrative, the human brain habitually turns (compresses, expands or edits) perception events into meaning. The question is more about time horizon, as in when do we perceive a sequence of events to be spread out enough to appear as ambient rather than progressive.

FEED, performance for unreal characters, fog, stroboscopes & pulse lights, 2005-06. A creation for the Theater Biennial Venice © Kurt Hentschläger. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
FEED, performance for unreal characters, fog, stroboscopes & pulse lights, 2005-06. A creation for the Theater Biennial Venice © Kurt Hentschläger. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsWhat you create are not spaces or landscapes, in my opinion. I see them more as calm imaginary and sensory geographies describing a state of serene oblivion, an acceptance, a reception, a transportation… There is no certainty, but there is confidence. How would you define the “space” of the encounters you create?

Kurt Hentschläger: I often label my work as landscapes (for lack of a better word) in regards to the ambient, non-narrative (for lack of a better word) nature of it. You just described the character of the work so evocatively, it’s a pity you stopped and returned to asking a question again.

Sabin BorsThere are several rather “musical” and “symphonic” aspects that I find intriguing. On the one hand, the constant play between abstraction and emotions; on the other hand, the relation between the intensity of your immersive environments and a certain tonality… How do these relations shape the meditative field and to what do you owe your influence?

Kurt Hentschläger: Emotion, music and abstraction live under one roof. From a wave / sonic perspective, emotion could be described as self-resonant, feedback prone oscillator with both an internal fundamental wave and external modulation input. It’s a complex resonant system, with ultra high dynamic, from just an internal hum all the way to a resonant feedback catastrophe.

Abstract color fields (color or musical harmonies, sublime light) inherently exert a meditative aura, triggering our “primordial” self and fostering an intuitive connection with the work at hand. For the rest it’s not unlike baking, a potential released from combining a few reactive ingredients, time and amount of heat. As for tonality, I suspect, the predominant tonality of my current work might give me away as a melancholic romantic.

Sabin BorsHow do you interpret the relation between technological forms or mediums and the social and political content they get to express? Is there any divide, or is it part of our cultural constructionism?

Kurt Hentschläger: There is no divide, historically all cutting edge political movements and most religious cults are early adapters of innovative media technology. They understand the value it holds in successfully indoctrinating a population before less savvy opponents can catch up. So technology, although emerging from a science driven worldview (which is not necessarily secular, but that’s another discussion) is looked at as something non-ideological (outside of a few traditionalist tribes). Technology is commonly embraced and it feels fair to say that at this point in time, by its omnipresence within our society, it has become a primal need, ranking just after air and water. The one problem I am seeing is the near absence of technology or media skepticism. We are in a collective state of euphoria, mania even, drowning out dissidence.

Sabin BorsYour work deals with meditation and introspection at a time when art is more about representations and exteriorization. How would you position your art in relation to current tendencies? And how do social, political, cultural, and economic realities inform the imagination and production of the sublime?

Kurt Hentschläger: I can’t answer that. The sublime can’t also be produced, that’s what makes it interesting, it’s a fleeing, ephemeral and volatile phenomena, which makes it difficult to produce (quite impossible) or market. Imagine it yes, encounter it out in nature also, but otherwise can only be an attempt to framing it, to capturing an idea of its splendor and haunting beauty.

KARMA - CAVE, interactive, stereoscopic virtual reality environment, ARS ELECTRONICA Festival, 2004 © Kurt Hentschläger. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
KARMA - CAVE, interactive, stereoscopic virtual reality environment, ARS ELECTRONICA Festival, 2004 © Kurt Hentschläger. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsIn a recent article entitled Digital Divide, Claire Bishop raised questions on the current state of digital media. I found the very last phrases of her article curiously interesting in relation to Anti-Utopias – “If the digital means anything for visual arts, it is the need to take stock of this orientation and to question art’s most treasured assumptions. At its most utopian, the digital revolution opens up a new dematerialized, de-authored, and unmarketable reality of collective culture; at its worst, it signals the impending obsolescence of visual art itself.” Could you please comment on this? What is your perspective on today’s use and understanding of digital media in art?

Kurt Hentschläger: With all respect to Claire Bishop, and while I appreciated that article and the discussion it started, to suggest the possibility of the “impending obsolescence of visual art itself” as a consequence of the digital revolution, appears to me as coming from a remote, out of context position. First off, if such obsolescence should indeed be a likely consequence, then all art forms would be equally endangered, not just the visual arts. What seems to happen is that the wider art world is waking up to a world changed… In the meantime we are still in the early days of this paradigm shift, check out 2050…

Sabin BorsDo you believe your work to be allegorical? And if so, what types of allegories do you create?

Kurt Hentschläger: Allegories surface almost by default when working with the human form. I prefer not to elaborate further, to stay away from explanation of my work. Suffice to say, I often find myself surprised by my audience’s allegorical reactions to it.

Sabin BorsThe momentum in your work refers to a certain ritual, a silent yet tumultuous catharsis, magnetic yet healing collisions. But your collisions are never violent… they are almost redeeming. Does art hold the power to heal, to reconcile or to redeem?

Kurt Hentschläger: I am attracted to the idea that art could have such influence, and I wish for art to having existence rattling powers. To experience an artwork that resonates with one’s core is always a (re-)informing event and ever and so often can be a life-changing.

Art / the artist is a free agent, it’s what ensures arts potential to upend, to change, to cross-fertilize, to open new channels and invites us to question, contemplate and learn.

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