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Spring 2008

| v.04 n.01|


Science Museum or Gate to Expanded Perceptions: Conversation with Kurt Hentschlager

  • Nevena Ivanova
  • PhD candidate, Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies
  • Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies
  • The University of Tokyo

Chicago-based Austrian artist Kurt Hentschlager is allegedly one of the most provocative new media artists experimenting on the edge of human perceptions for the last two decades. He produces audiovisual compositions in which both audio and video are molecularly synthesized and modified in real-time. His first internationally recognized projects are created in collaboration with Ulf Langheinrich as a part of the duo Granular-Synthesis. Employing large scale projected images and resonance acoustic environments, their multi-channel performances and installations overwhelm the viewer on both corporal and affective levels.

His solo performance FEED (2005/7) further develops the potential of digital media to reconfigure human’s audiovisual, spatial and temporal ratio. It combines two complementary parts, which together produce unique and extremely intensive experience for each participant. During the first part, computer generated humanoids float weightlessly on huge projection screen. In the second part, the participant’s three-dimensional vision and physical orientation are entirely blocked by artificial fog and replaced for flickering and pulsating stroboscopic light, which “feeds” directly the visual cortex of the brain; the sound becomes a vibration felt deeply into visitor’s body. All points of reference are distorted and instead, multi-sensorial, synesthetic connections are triggered in the brain: visceral, audio and visual perceptions are interlinked in a new way, far beyond the familiar sensations.

This interview was recorded on September 9, 2007 at Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, where FEED was performed as a special venue.


You’ve been experimenting with digital audiovisual performances for almost twenty years. We might begin by considering your first projects as early as 1991 when you created the duo Granular-Synthesis together with Ulf Langheinrich? What was the essence of your conceptual approach in the 1990s and how your ideas developed later?

In the beginning of 1990s there was a lot of excitement in big dramatic gestures. Our pieces Model 5 and POL are a good example. They were meant to be aggressive, even a little painful, in order to push the spectator out of his passivity: he had to decide whether to bear it or not. We avoided being nice by all means. In fine art and also in media art there is a lot of soft work – soft in the sense that it doesn’t really say much and it doesn’t really want much. Like some reactive environments, which pretend to offer something but are actually empty, besides their technological prowess. And that always annoyed me. At a certain point I started asking myself what is the genuine value – in artistic and conceptual terms - of all these abundant and ever so slightly changing ideas of interfaces and mirroring devices. Most of the so called interactive installations simply mirror the presence of the viewer in a repetitive way. It is not intriguing, it doesn’t involve. Of course there are always outstanding pieces. But the majority reminds me more of a science museum demonstrating new devices with the declaration, “Hey, look! This is possible now!”

Just consider the term new media art! There is a hierarchy hidden here: it is new, then media, then art.  And it works literally like that: the piece needs to be technically new and this becomes its message. There used to be time when gaining access to silicon graphic machines was practically securing your career! Whatever project you realized, just because the media itself was so unique and so fascinating – that was it! And of course that is exaggerated. There are many artists from these days whose works I do admire. However, there is such tendency in the main stream of new media art and in my work I try to avoid it by all means. I believe that artistic work has to appeal to the heart as well, to have a human message, rather than being limited to formal technological explorations.

If we go back again to Granular-Synthesis, could we think of you as the video artist, who did all visual data processing and of Ulf as the sonic director?

No, we both worked in both media. We both tried to be knowledgeable and competent in all media we used. Ulf and I are mostly self-trained. I studied architecture and then new media design with Peter Weibel, but didn’t finish any of those studies. Ulf studied photography and painting, but didn’t finish them. Most I know about computers, sound and video I learned by myself. I’m teaching sometimes and realize that nowadays everyone would learn the basics at school or at the university. However, in the early days of new media there were no established institutions and you had to be curious and intelligent in a non-conformist way in order to grasp the new tendencies. This challenge remains true today, though, since technological progress means constant change and demand for ongoing adaptation.

If you look at the work of Granular-Synthesis there is very strong fusion between sound and image. At the beginning of each work, we would sit down and conceptualize for quite a long period of time. And that was a truly intense and exhausting process - we were fighting each other a lot, each of us having strong ideas about how things should feel like. As a result of all these discussions we would construct the frame of the project and then go about producing it, developing it . . . .

Were you the first to achieve “molecular” modification of the image in real-time? Now it is a commonplace, but before you created VARP 9 in 1999 – software that could operate samples not only of sonic, but also of visual data in real-time – there were not many examples of such audiovisual manipulation, weren’t they?

It’s definitely a common practice nowadays, it’s part of the vibrant context. However, 1990s I don’t remember anybody else operating the audiovisual in such a way. There were obviously a lot of live visual processing in raves or film experiments like the one Martin Arnold did, but our method of composing the audiovisual data as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, without performers in flesh, was perhaps pretty unique.

What is the specificity of your immersive performances?

There is a variety of methods to create an immersive and artificial environment – the “granular” manipulation of the image and sound helped us construct specific spatio-temporal continuums. We tried to erase completely the presence of any given space. And in the process, of course, time become very malleable as well.

What I like about life shows is when people come to a certain place and the whole performance leads them towards a new perceptual experience and different state of mind. 

Time become malleable in what way? In 2001, in an interview with Dieter Burchhart(1), you describe time in terms of loops and vibrations?

Loop means that you freeze a moment in time; that you create a unique temporary continuum, which lasts as long as the loop continues. It goes back into the ancient times – if you look at all those rituals, whatever tribal festivities, dancing, chanting, all of these are based on loops, repetitions. You create this intense spatio-temporal dimension. It’s more like an expanded moment, time perceived not as a sequence but time as a cycle or as a point actually.

Do you think there is a specific change in our perceptions, which comes with the digital technologies?

Might be. I think it’s all about acceleration.

You mean acceleration of speed?

I mean acceleration of everything – of our perceptions, of information, technologies, changes in everyday life, of our own capabilities. There is also something called multitasking. In multitasking you are working on a stack of layers in parallel. So the general acceleration of speed comes from here as well: doing more things simultaneously.

What kind of time-image have you been creating recently as a solo artist?

In the second part of FEED one feels frozen on the spot and it is because one’s spatial perception is on reset. Thus, the perception of time as something progressing disappears for the moment being. But this is not unique. If you look at not only mystic experiences, but also at any intense moments in your life – time comes to a standstill. It’s quite fascinating.

Recently I did some reading on neurological sciences about how our brain works. The field of neuroscience is exploding, and there are still so many guesses and question marks. One of the books, which especially impressed me was about brain defects. Mostly concerning visual perception. Not visual illusions but physiological defects: some people are not able to see colors, others to track movements, for example. When you cannot grasp the movement of a ball you don’t really know where it is. You see it like frames frozen at each moment.  Another fascinating thing is synestesia – some people have hard wired connection in their brain between areas, which are normally not connected. You hear color and see sound or vice versa.  A lot of composers for instance show that ‘defect’. For them colors always come together with its specific sound. They call it ‘defect’. Whatever the name is, the fact remains that some people have connection between audio and visual processing parts of the brain that other people have not. And I was of course looking into these phenomena, because of FEED and all the problems it raised. In two years four people had epileptic attacks or complete blackouts – they don’t recognize anybody for a while, they don’t know where they are – very scary. It’s ephemeral, after short time they are fine again, but it’s obviously very powerful. I knew about the condition of photosensitive epilepsy from before, but after those cases I really wanted to understand what’s going on.

In the course of my research I realized something, which is defining in respect of the perception of time: that the brain is a highly dynamic instrument, where various areas within the brain work at different refresh frequencies simultaneously. Although such comparison is quite simplistic, we can see the brain as multi-parallel super processor, where various parts work independently. The processing speed is never just one.

And of course, the visual sense and the analyses in the brain are interdependent. Whatever you see with your eyes is first fed into the brain’s visual cortex. And the visual cortex works at dynamic refresh cycles. In FEED, before the fog starts, you are likely to be in alpha state – highly attentive, but relaxed and not active. This means that 8 to 13 times per second the brain checks on your eyes, what’s coming in.

If you are in a life and death situation – let’s say, if something happens that requests your body to go into hyper mode – everything is getting activated into an emergency status – more blood goes to your brain as does adrenaline, etc., all sensory perceptions are going high resolution like in a super human being. Obviously, this is possible only for a very short time, due the extreme energy demand it goes with.  In such cases, the brain speeds up the refresh cycles – imagine a super slow motion camera. I don’t know whether there is a limit but it must go up to thousands of frames per second. Your high speed decision making requires higher detailed vision and hearing. There are few times in my life, when I escaped death very narrowly, and I still remember everything so clearly. The memory of time standing still. It stands still because time resolution, in terms of “frames per second” is infinitely expanded. I never thought about that before my recent readings. Time standstill also happen when the resolution goes really low – during deep sleep, for example, when you are in delta mode. That means ~2Hz cycles per second.  Obviously then time stops completely, in a way. You know that dreaming is a super dynamic state – you can pass 1000 years in a snap or go through the classic horror situation when time is frozen and you cannot move.

You create experiences on the edge of perceptions in your performances. How? Why for example you choose stroboscopic light and not laser? Many artists use lasers to create immersive environments – like Edwin van der Heide for example. Laser-based performances are also very powerful in their interaction with the body.

I love Edwin’s installations and find them truly beautiful. They are different from what I am doing, though. He creates a dynamic audiovisual architecture within a given space. It’s immersive and mesmerizing, but you still remain within your own self and in your own sphere. In my artistic experiments I also use dynamic light, but the effect is quite different, I believe. It cuts you off the original surrounding and transports you into another space, which you have no references for.

What other specific technique you use to create this transformative experience?

Another specific tool, I like, is sub bass because of its noticeable sculptural features. Actually, Edwin and Sensorband were one of the first to use sine generators to create this really low rumbling bass. It constructs an immaterial, invisible sort of architecture. If you are in a space and you are sending a 50 Hz sine wave – such a very low bass sine wave – then the wave unfolds, hits the opposite wall and is reflected. At a certain point it hits itself and at that point the now two waves either double or cancel each other, depending on where in the cycle the other one hits it. This phenomenon is the same for all waves but only in the sub-waves it becomes that physical, you feel it with your whole body. It has this quality. So you walk around in such a space and you walk in and out of bass, almost as if there exists such an object: the bass. You are standing here – no bass. You are walking one meter and your whole body is shaking. It’s absolutely fantastic!

I noticed that phenomenon on the performance of FEED. If you close your ears you realize that the sensation of that low sound comes from somewhere else, it hits you at your abdomen!

The sine base is too low for the ears to hear it. It is so low that you can perceive it only as a vibration. It passes through you body and actually touches you. That’s a whole other thing.

Why did you call your performance FEED?

I’m not telling.

How long do the first and the second part of FEED last?

Twenty and thirty minutes respectively.

What is your participation during each performance?

The images in the first part are both procedural and scripted, meaning that I control the general motion and intensity but not the micro motions or the flight paths of the floating body images. The second part is all live – I manipulate the lights, the fog, and most of the sound in real-time during each performance.

Are there any references in your art to past artists who inspired you? I found distant similarities between some of the images produced by Granular-Synthesis (Feld, 360, and especially Minus and Lux) and some pieces of Nam Jun Paik (Zen for TV) although in a totally different fashion.

Of course, there are always connections. The interesting thing about Nam Jun Paik is that I was never really so intrigued about him until I went a couple of times to Korea. All the museums there have those enormous Paik’s sculptures and I really started to like them – like new media temples. He was anticipating in a way all that media noise, multi-channeled and omnipresent. There is richness in his work. His Buddha looking at himself – fantastic! So I changed my appreciation about him dramatically. And I like Bill Viola. He is a Master artist. What I like about him most is that he takes risks. Hi is walking that very fine line between the kitschy subject matter and its refinement in a minimal gesture. His art provokes masterful experiences on the boundary of perceptions and at the same time his images are awfully beautiful. He uses the technology when seems appropriate for given project. And he doesn’t make a big fuss about it. He manages to master it as anything else. 

I’m always looking for something, which enriches me in a human way, rather than looking at another example of a very sophisticated new interface. Technology has this aspect that you can hide behind it. Definitely, I love it high-tech, but there should be balance. I started going to classic fine art museums again and I’m just stunned by the masters of the old days. I recently saw Francis Bacon in Chicago. He is so economical, so minimal, so powerful! What I like about painting is its stillness – I mean, it is just one frame! And yet, it speaks in so many ways to you and brings that element of free association, so everyone can connect to it in a very personal way. And then something happens! That is what I call interactive! Interactivity is very complex.  Like the way now we are talking – that is interactive.

And what about new media artists? Are there some whose work you really appreciate?

There are many: Dump Type, Ryoji Ikeda. His last piece (Datamatix) is so alien, so splendid! And I was blown away by Ben Ruben and Mark Hansen’s Listening Post, which received Ars Electronica’s Golden Nica for interactive art in 2004. It’s a wonderful piece!

 Mentioning Japanese artists what distinction could be made between European, Japanese, American new media art?

In new media art, distinction means going beyond the technological "wow". Technology in itself is the same, it is standardized everywhere; it is a par excellence globalizing tool. So that serves positively as a common ground and new global language. In aesthetic terms, Japanese techno art seems by tendency more detailed and precise, it has particularly high design value. And it is also often bizarre in a quite an alien way, they have a sense of unique humor. European art has a variety of scenes. British one often demonstrates a very strong social and political component and is not shy of intensity, ok to disturb your audience. German art seems more tending towards the conceptual and fully embraces what can be described a techno culture, cooler and very well designed. French can tend towards historical quotations, it seems almost like an unspoken rule that within an installation you need to place a voice reading philosophical text etc. Of course all of this is as much a cliché as a valuable differentiation but it might serve as a starting point.

And one final question: FEED is your last realized performance conceived in 2005. Is there any new project you are working on at the moment?

FEED is a work in progress; I normally stay 2-3 years with a piece, until eventually it gets a final form and becomes part of the catalogue.

My future next projects are two installations: one is elaborating further on FEED, an immersive space with fog, stroboscopic & pulse lights; the other one is about overtone clouds emerging from a computer controlled matrix of tubes, analogue sound sources on a "bed" of infra bass. Both installations change over time without beginning and end.

I am also preparing a new cinematic live show, ambient video and sound – another meditation on concepts of "nature". And finally, my theatrical show for a solo singer/performer in the flesh, best imagined as a hybrid of various forms, with elements from performance art, opera, pop concerts.


1. Dieter Burchhart, "The Art You Produce Is Very Elitist. Interview with Granular-Synthesis," Kunstforum, Vol. 156, (August – October 2001), p. 330.