Karl Kliem, Music Visualizations

"The heavy, robust and massive machinery on the farm excited me. "

By Nota Tsekoura, on 25th May, 2013 06:00

Karl Kliem | visual artist | music visualisations + interactive audio + video & sound installations 

Interviewed by Nota Tsekoura & Mirto Xenaki

The interview  

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- You have mentioned something about your studies in Art & Design, “As a product designer you were encouraged to build things using the least amount of material as possible...”. Do you believe that influenced your music visualizations &installations work to the minimalism? 

You are right that I learned about functionalism at the design university.But they taught us, that functionalism is just another style and not the quintessence of a product design evolution. But still we learned that we should use as less material as possible.

I think that my preference for minimalism is partly inherited by my mothers taste and partly adopted by education. 

For me there are actually at least two kinds of minimalism. The obvious one is the aesthetic minimalism. The other one, the one that I was raised with, I would call 'pragmatic minimalism'. That would be things that solve a problem with little effort and that are built intelligently with stuff that you have at your disposal.

- Do you have any people that you admire and have inspired you in your work? It could be as well a character from mythology, or a movie, a comic, someone that you could call a personal “hero”.

There is not the one personal hero, but there are several people that come to my mind. First of all that would be the many farmers that live the 'pragmatic minimalism' that I mentioned before. There once was, and probably still is, a column in a German farmers magazine which is called "Know-how!", where the farmers were encouraged to send their own inventions with a photograph and short explanation in order to receive a reward of DM 100.- for publishing it. There were brilliant ideas where they would reconstruct old gumboots to irrigation systems or the like. Usually these were very funny conversions of stuff that they had lying around and transform into something useful. Albert Höck, an older farmer in my hometown for example put his old upholstered sofa on steering casters and used it at the workbench in his garage. He could move it around and it was much easier for him to stand up from it, as the seat was elevated – he had a stiff leg.

Other than that I could only provide the names of the usual suspects I guess. Donald Judd , Buckminster Fuller , Tadao AndoRay and Charles EamesFerdinand KramerHans GugelotDieter Rams, Kraftwerk - these come to my mind when I think about minimalism.

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- Would you like to give us some more details about your early life? As we know you built your own cd player, receiver and loudspeakers by rusty I-beams.

I grew up on a farm near Frankfurt am Main in Germany. When my brother and I got home from school we had to help my parents with things like sorting and packaging eggs, harvesting potatoes and so on. Everything was quite rough, dirty and stinking. At the time i didn’t like that so I decided I didn’t want to become a farmer. And as my brother was older it was kind of a natural development that he would run the farm later on, which he did. But today I glorify the old days!

The heavy, robust and massive machinery on the farm excited me. 

I learned how to weld and when my art teacher in high school got me interested in design I began to experiment with the material from the farm or a junk yard nearby. So I built an uplighter, a telephone and a HiFi system out of these I-beams.

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- Could you recognize and decode any impact to you and your work from your youth?

I remember that my brother and I rebuilt all the tractors and other machines with Lego when we were around five years old. With the difference that I searched all the red bricks to make the Massey Ferguson harvester model as accurate as I could, while he would just use any color. He was really restless and my father didn't know better than to buy him a piano, so he could work off with it. Today kids that behave like him are diagnosed with ADHS. In elementary school the class teacher once actually tied him to his chair! To get back to your question -I guess that my brother had the impact on me that I wouldn't talk too much, as he was always talking. I became more introverted and got gratification by tinkering, I assume. Today my brother is managing the farm very successfully, btw.

- Do you still create your own apparatuses for hobby or for work? Could you characterize yourself as a self-sufficient artist able to produce all the tools that you need for your practice? How much depended are you on the market?

I was lucky that I was trained in the wood- and metal workshops at the university, so I am able to build my own hardware, indeed. I just recently designed and built some minimalist furniture! I am also able to build my visual tools with a graphical programming language and have a bit of knowledge about basic electronics with Arduino stuff. But when it comes to electronic circuit layouts or real coding i have to ask others for help.

- As we noticed usually you use neon and LEDs to visualize sound, like in your Minus 60° project at Hertz Festival. Can you explain us that preference and how do you understand the “materials“ light & sound?

For me neon lights are next to immateriality. They consist of gas that is enlightened by electricity. They are homogenous and very minimalistic. An icon of the modern age. My first idea when working with the Rasterdeck grid ceiling element was to imitate the flickering of neon lights caused by broken starters and combining that with sound control. LEDs are different. They are very tiny and dot-shaped, but they actually consume about the same amount of energy as florescent lights. They will probably soon be surpassed by OLEDs which will be capable of illuminating large flat surfaces. Each of these light sources has its own aesthetics and there is still room to explore their specific idiosyncrasies.

Unfortunately it seems like building owners and/or architects have discovered outside mounted LEDs as a means for distinction within the last years. I can only hope that this will be perceived as a tremendous light pollution and that the dark sky initiatives will gain ground in the near future. I especially can’t see the ubiquitous blue LED lights anymore!

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- Also, most of your work is interactive. How important is that interactivity in your creative work and how do you deal with the built environment? What would you say is the most interesting relationship generated between the physical environment and your work?

That is a difficult question and I don’t know if I understand it correctly.Interactivity allowed me to delegate the final outcome of the music, the video or whatever the interactive installation was about, to the users. Often I couldn’t decide which version of an arrangement I should use. So I thought, why not keep it open and let the user decide. I offered some alternatives and set of rules that could be combined. Though I have also learned that too many choices lead to cacophony. But if you keep it simple and comprehensible, then the visitors or users of an interactive installation can have fun and learn something about the structure of contemporary loop based music or visuals at the same time.

When I am invited to show an installation I usually don’t have a choice for the architectural environment. Most of the time I need a dark space for projections or light installations.Of course the surrounding has a big impact on the experience of an artwork. 

But sometimes you have to make compromises and have to take the conference room with a fluffy carpet instead of an industrial building with concrete walls.

- Does your everyday life and other people stories reflect to your work or is it something more special? Could you give as some insides?

I don’t think my everyday live reflects much to my work, except that I regularly read some RSS feeds and blogs and see videos of things currently going on. All this info somehow sediments into my brain and sometimes it probably inspires me. But I stay away from Facebook. There is already enough other information that keeps me away from work!

- Does built environment create more challenges or difficulties combined with your work?

It depends. I like artworks that are specifically done for a certain location. In this case the built environment is the inspiration for the artwork and thus essential for it. But when I bring an installation to a new space, which I didn’t know when the artwork was created, it usually is a challenge to adjust the space to fit, if it is possible at all. As sound and light are being reflected from the surrounding surfaces the environment will always make the work appear in different way. 

- As one of the founding members of MESO you worked a lot on realtime & collaborative systems. How do you think that collaboration between art and technology is evolving now? 

What are your speculations on the combination of those in the following decade? I think there is a big potential for artists that are fluent with technology and computer science in general. When i see all the new inventions and Kickstarter projects for 3D printers, modular electronic building blocks, smartphone accessories and so on, I am tempted to dive into all of these areas at once.

User interface design, data visualisation and E-learning are some areas that will stay exciting for me in particular, as an artist as well as a designer.

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- Finally, as we can understand you are traveling quite often, but also you can apply your work by distance, as with the Mouse On Mars US Tour, Minus 60°. Do you have any favorite location on the globe and how often do you visit?

I didn’t see too much of the planet yet. But in general I like places with a nice overview of the landscape. The Pão de Açúcar in Rio was such a place. As well as the view from the Mori Art Museum onto Tokyo at night. The place where I have been most often for vacation are the Canary Islands, where I have been about five times I think. But I prefer the capital and the mountains to the tourist areas in the south. I heard that the WHO stated the Canary Islands have the best climate on the planet. Good for me, as I can’t stand too much humidity!

- Is there a story, or song or video that you like to hear or read again and again?

Fortunately I am not stuck in the ‘what-i-heard-in-my-youth-is-the-soundtrack-of-my-life’ loop. Although I don’t listen to music as much as I used to, I’m still more interested in new things than repeating the old. I also don’t like to watch a movie twice. The only thing that comes to my mind is a quotation by the entity which stirred up some internet newsgroups in the last decade and which went by the pseudonym ‘Netochka Nezvanova’ aka ‘=cw4t7abs’: “Repetition teaches humans”.

- Could you name the most inspiring moment in your life?

Very inspiring have been the underground Drum & Bass parties on the shabby and demolished slaughterhouse area in Frankfurt. Just fog, strobe and loud and dark drum&bass music.

I also remember a moment when I felt very happy. I was working on the potato harvester in the early morning sun at about 6 a.m. sorting out the clods of earth. My brother was driving the tractor, my father was working next to me. That was the summer when I was accepted by the design university and I had the feeling of an exciting time lying ahead of me.

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+ learn more about Karl Kliem