Kerstin Ergenzinger focuses her work in the way we sense the space around us. Shifting between creating specific architectural spaces and addressing subtle variations of sound, she explores the conditions for perception in a series of installations that create delicate feedback systems. She has won the First Prize in VIDA 15.0 with Rotes Rauschen (Red Noise), an installation formed by a curved sculpture, suspended in the air, and a seismometer. This instrument detects vibrations in the environment and sends them to the sculpture, which becomes a listening ear and a space where the viewer can listen to sounds usually beyond human perception.
Rotes Rauschen is a work about the perception of subtle sounds, but what we initially see is a mysterious black sculpture suspended in the air. How did you decide on this particular shape?
As I was developing the piece, the shape became more and more important, because its purpose is to amplify the audio outputs, that can be heard when the viewer places her head inside it. So it became something like the inside of a speaker or an ear. In fact, it is a mixture of a visual inspiration and the need to amplify sound. It started with the idea of a curved leaf or the curved bark of a tree, so there is an organic or biological start. You can also think of a leaf on a string of a spiderweb, dancing in the wind, or a pendulum… I was looking for a way to translate these very low frequencies of ground motion into a physical shape, and it finally combined a visual form with its function as a sound amplifier.
Some of your installations are focused on visual perception, while others emphasize acoustic stimuli. How do you decide between them? In your experience, how does the viewer’s experience differ in each case?
It is really important for me to address anything beyond the visual, just because we are so dominated by the eyes: we always say “at first sight”, “what you see is what you get”, or “seeing is believing”… But we forget that we see with our body, not only with our eyes: we see with our physical perception. Following this idea, I am interested in concentrating on the peripheral, the subliminal, maybe also the emotional qualities of our surroundings, the spaces we are living in. In this sense, sound is very important because you can’t block out sounds the way you are able to block out or be selective with your vision. Furthermore, the machines I build produce their own sounds, so I realized how important the sound is, as well as the fact that it generates a certain feedback. In this installation, even the wire from which the piece hangs swings in a certain frequency and emits sound, so it has both a visual and an auditive quality.
Therefore, the sound in your installations is not predetermined, as in a composition, but rather an outcome of the process.
Yes, it is an outcome of the process. The sounds are not controlled. In Rotes Rauschen I created the whole installation thinking of the best way to amplify the sounds, but they are not controlled. It is basically only one frequency that is modulated by the thickness of the material, and the way in which it amplifies different ranges of the frequency.
Navigating Noise, on the other hand, is a completely new installation. It goes on to another level and it is still a work in progress, in fact I made the first version in November. In this case, the space is almost invisible, there is only an architectural structure on the ceiling, but I really try in this case to focus on the movement of the person inside the installation. I want this person to explore the space by moving through it and listening to it. Then, she may find out or not what is going on, where she is, how she can orientate herself, and what kind of associations come out of this experience. In this installation I have started to work with different controlled frequencies, but they tend to mix or interfere in very chaotic ways, so even in this case it is hard to control the sounds.
Some of your works are intended for a single viewer, while others can be seen by any number of visitors. What drives this need for an intimate or lonesome experience in some cases?
In fact, this last work, Navigating Noise, is the only installation in which I only allow one person at a time. You probably have a deeper, or different, experience if you’re alone because everything is more quiet and you do not interact immediately, you give yourself more time to explore the installation. Usually I consider that being alone or not just determines a different range of experience, but in Navigating Noise I decided to limit the number of people because I really don’t want somebody to talk to someone else while they are experiencing it. This installation is about how to orientate yourself in a given space, and this has to be done without the help of someone else at that moment.
Some of my works could be experienced better when someone is alone, but I just never imposed that limitation because it’s a weird decision and it implies a certain exclusion. So it is only in this last work that I decided to do it. Also, since we want to work more with the traveling of sound in space and with certain patterns, I think that it is important to experience it alone, otherwise you don’t have a chance to understand those patterns. I’m interested in having the viewer try to figure out what is happening and also ask herself whether there are certain patterns or if it is all just a projection from herself. I see the installation as a laboratory, in a certain way.
In a piece like Rotes Rauschen, of course, it is better if it is experienced alone, but I just don’t want to be so exclusive, because that is also a content and this is always something you have to balance. It leads people to think about other things, such as why do you have to be alone? So I’ve decided that it is better not to impose limitations in these cases. Anyway, usually exhibitions are not overloaded, so quite often the viewer will find herself alone in the room.
Your interactive installations consciously deny the viewer an instantaneous and visible reaction to her actions. What kind of relation do you intend to create between the piece and the public? To what extent is it interesting for you that the viewer understands that her actions modify the behavior of the installation?
I can only say what people have told me in openings and other occasions, and it differs between what people expect. I don’t create this one-to-one interaction because for me it’s mainly about questioning what is going on, and maybe even learning about myself during this questioning. I may ask myself: what I expect, is it given or is it not given? So, there is always an interaction, but it has a delay, and for me it is important that after a while the viewer can feel that there is an impact, a feedback, but at the same time realize that she is only a part of something. In that moment she may be significant and in another moment she may not be significant, something else is more important than she is. So, in the end, she can feel part of the whole noise that is going on. And it’s also somehow a philosophy, the thought of being part of a system, a whole, as well as questioning if there is really a signal or not. Maybe there isn’t, and everything is just a projection, a construction of our own. For me, it’s really important that the work creates a connection with the viewer and then suggests a question, a doubt. Hopefully, visitors will stay a while and investigate the installation. Actually this happens quite often, so I get a lot of different questions, and therefore I see a lot of layers coming out… particularly, some things that come out only after a certain time of observation, not right away. Of course, if people expect an immediate reaction and they don’t get it, they just go in and go out. But that’s ok for me, because I really don’t want to give that, I don’t want to fulfill this expectation.
Installations such as Rotes Rauschen or Whiskers in Space bring to mind a somewhat living entity, that listens to its surroundings and adapts accordingly. Do you intend to create a relationship between the viewer and an object that appears to be alive, or is it more about putting the viewer in a state of awareness towards her environment?
To me, it is important that it appears to be living, because there is something that we can’t really identify, we can’t pinpoint what it is, but it brings to mind some living forms. The living quality is in the motion and the sound, less in the shape. When an object appears to be living, we experience an unsettling feeling that enters our perception unconsciously and that takes us to ask ourselves what it is. There is an uncomfortable uncertainty, as if being in a dreamlike state and not being able to tell if your are sleeping or not.
Considering the “aliveness” in many of your artworks, how would you define artificial life?
To me, artificial life is when we think that something is alive, but when can see that it is a construction, an artificial object driven by some kind of technology. We know that it cannot be alive, but we project life in it.