Karlheinz Essl

Playfully Earnest

Notes on my collaboration with Jonathan Meese

deutsche Fassung

Our first meeting is on 14 March 2007 at the Rotunda of the Essl Museum. Jonathan Meese wants to use this room as a central hub for his installation FRÄULEIN ATLANTIS - as a subterranean volcanic power vault that discharges its energies in an uncontrollable and unpredictable eruption up into the main hall. He wants to use sound to achieve that. The sound is generated by a monstrous machine that looms up large from the Rotunda.

Jonathan Meese & Karlheinz Essl

Jonathan Meese & Karlheinz Essl during the setup of FRÄULEIN ATLANTIS
Essl Museum - Rotunda / Large Hall (16 Sep 2007)
Foto: © Martin Vukovits

Leaning on the banister we engage in a long conversation. Hypotheses are developed and discarded casually and without prejudice. Our thoughts revolve around the autonomy of art, the notion of humility and the unleashing of creative forces. Sound is to play a critical role in all of this, as a driving force and emotional transmission medium.

Another meeting on 18 June 2007, in my studio this time: all I want is to record Jonathan’s voice, that he uses with so much versatile brilliance in his performances, as the material for my sound environment. I had prepared a plan for this purpose and to set Meese certain tasks to perform with his voice.

Then Jonathan arrives after a strenuous meeting with the press. Still fired up by the interviews, he barges onto the next battleground. For a warm-up I ask him to improvise with his voice – and thereby witness an amazing vocal performance encompassing the entire range of human utterance. He prattles and babbles like a child, with constant repetition, obviously devoid of any rational control. Completely unguardedly he carries on vociferating, the chatter getting more and more compacted and finally derailing. Then I ask Jonathan to imitate animals and machinery, which he performs masterfully. The most difficult task comes last: imitating the eruption of a volcano. At first he is hesitant. But then he starts with the bubbling of lava and the hissing of a chimney. He cranks up the speed and ends in a scorching vocal eruption that takes him to the edge of exhaustion.

Video stills from Karlheinz Essl's MeeseMixer
© 2007 by Karlheinz Essl
  Sound machine

In the following weeks I took a lot of time with the voice recordings and listened to them repeatedly. I segmented them into sound snippets and ordered them according to syntactic criteria by designing a sound typology of Meese’s linguistic cosmos. At the same time I developed a computer programme for the Maschine in the Rotunda which will – unpredictably like a volcano – eject high-energy sound masses. Although the initial material was only Jonathan’s voice, it is not meant to be recognisable but merely to provide a hint of him. I achieve this by massively transforming the basic material, deconstructing it by generative composition algorithms and re-composing it into new entities of sound. The natural time flow and the original pitch are radically deformed in the process. The result sounds like a subtly layered lava stream of sound which is compacting more and more until it is discharged in an eruption.

Sound example from Fräulein Atlantis (5:02)

Generative floods of images

The recording session was captured on video by the Berlin-based photographer and documentary filmmaker Jan Bauer, as was the ensuing conversation between Meese and my father that can be found in this catalogue (page ???). During the conversation they talk about the variability of the installation. Does it have mobile aspects? Meese says no and explains that the sound was changing all the time anyway and would thus be heard differently at different times. My father wouldn’t relent. But the visual aspects, did they have to remain static? Couldn’t one use video and generate dynamic images?

I take inspiration from this idea. As I have been studying the transfer of generative composition algorithms to visual material for years, I have a pretty good idea of how the video level could be made just as unpredictable and surprising as the sound-generating machine in the Rotunda. The video footage made during Meese’s visits to the Essl Museum is of excellent quality. Jan Bauer has also filmed the artist during two private performances without an audience in the storage facilities of the Museum, with a moving camera and very dynamic images: wonderful material full of abstruse narrativity and excellently suited for profound manipulations.

In the mid-1990s I had started to experiment with video footage. What happens if the time flow determined by the material is suspended by “scratching” a strip of film – as you would scratch a vinyl disc on a turntable? Technologically speaking it is a random walk on the time axis: a video sequence is read in varying speeds with the direction of reading changing all the time. With the help of time-variant and randomised computer algorithms, which I have implemented in the Jitter real-time programming language, it is possible to generate an infinite stream of images from a finite video sample: a rigid and reproducible object is thus transformed into a fluid and unrepeatable process.

The two dimensions of the video frame are a further level of manipulation. Again I wanted to break up the rigid spatial dimension. Explained in simple terms the image information is not contained on a rigid support but on a somewhat flexible film which can be stretched or compressed along both spatial axes. These deformation processes that occur at varying speeds are again generated in real time by means of algorithms.

In my video installation MeeseMixer for FRÄULEIN ATLANTIS two randomly selected video sequences are “liquefied” independently of each other – by manipulation of the time axis and the spatial dimensions. Subsequently they are mixed together with the mixing ratio changing aleatorically over time. This is not a simple fade-out/fade-in process, but a technique that is called “chroma keying”. One colour (white, for instance) is defined as a “window” in which the other video can be seen. The result is a strange form of hybridisation reminiscent of an alchemist’s transformations.

The generated image stream is then subject to another change of the colour space by permanently adjusting parameters such as lightness, contrast, saturation and colour temperature by means of time-variant random operations.

On the basis of a limited number of short film sequences (showing Jonathan Meese in preparations for the exhibition) this multi-layered algorithm creates a never-ending stream of images which unfolds unpredictably like a natural process which never repeats itself. This takes its cue from the artist’s claim that art should develop in an autonomous and unbridled manner, without subjective control: the computer programme turns into a launch pad that catapults the spacecraft ART into the universe.

View of the installation

In the Essl Museum’s main hall “the stage is made razor-sharp” in Meese’s words. Scattered wooden huts give the feeling of a deserted boom town. In between are sculptures and on the walls large-format oil paintings by Jonathan Meese. The Rotunda is transformed into the crater of a volcano that now and then hurls out mighty eruptions of sound from a monstrous machine.

Some of the huts have window-like plasma screens showing the video I described above. From horn-loudspeakers mounted on the roof Meese’s voice can be heard, mostly as abstract sound, but sometimes as quotes or appeals. The huts are linked by catenary lines transmitting image and sound signals. They converge in the machine which is the energetic heart of the entire installation.

in: exhibition catalogue Jonathan Messe - FRÄULEIN ATLANTIS
Edition Sammlung Essl Privatstiftung, Klosterneuburg 2007, p. 40-41. ISBN: 978-3-902001-38-2. - Reprint: Prestel, München 2008. ISBN: 978-3-7913-4110-1.

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Updated: 10 Aug 2015