Interview with ZEE artist Kurt Hentschläger

Inside ZEE Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Inside ZEE
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Elizabeth Pearce: Are you surprised by the amount of people having bad reactions to ZEE?*
Kurt Hentschläger: Yes. This is a very high rate. I’m not quite sure what to think of it. Usually, the statistics for photosensitivity – you can’t apply this globally because it must be different for different genetic groupings – in the States is one in four thousand people. That’s just generally, but for ZEE it’s much more, one in five hundred or so. The epileptic seizures are triggered by the flashes. It’s a very intense input, probably the most intense it could possibly be. In the first four days [of exhibiting ZEE in Hobart] we had three cases. That’s extreme. I’ve often contemplated whether I should stop showing it because I always dread that some day something really serious might happen. To have a seizure is very dramatic, but only a temporary event. It doesn’t mean you’ll have epilepsy from this point on or anything like that, it just means you’re allergic to stroboscopic light at that intensity and at certain frequencies. All these things that you do to begin with – sign a waiver and take all the precautions – form one half of the work, and then there’s the other half, the actual piece, which is quite benign. Really it’s a beautiful piece about the experience of the sublime.
EP: So for you, the piece is more about the sublime than about being terrified?
KH: I have no intention to make a terrifying piece, that would be boring. It is an intense piece, there’s no question about that. It demands a lot from you in that you have to overcome the initial moment of – to say the least – trepidation, when you enter this strange world. But once you are in it, it can be quite elevating. I must remember that you haven’t seen it [because you’re pregnant and therefore not permitted entry].
EP: Yes. I only get to see the first half of the piece, the introductory framework. I’m sitting here watching these queues of people snaking out the door – they’re like lemmings going to their death. I have been wondering whether you are affected by the seizures, and obviously you are. So what keeps you going? Why keep showing it?
KH: That’s a good question. There’s a rationalisation of an impetus to keep going because, built deep into our concept of civilisation is an illusion of safety – the idea that we can control our environment and, at least to some extent, have stability. You question that the moment you decide to take a risk in life – to make a leap of faith to experience something unfamiliar. I could compare it to hiking in the mountains. The higher you go, the more tired you get, the less oxygen you have, the higher the risk of sudden weather changes and exposure in a spot where there’s no shelter. The reward for taking the risk is that as you walk up you get this view – beautiful in the true sense. You’re lifting yourself out of everything.
EP: Does that feeling of risk motivate you as an artist more broadly?
KH: Yes, I think so. I grew up in the original punk days, when it was all about exhausting yourself with a visceral, crazy energy. What’s interesting about overwhelming stimuli is not that you are overwhelmed per se, because this feeling you can easily have in any blockbuster movie – you get bombarded and you’re excited, but then when you leave, you’re exhausted and you forget about it. This is an empty ritual of exhilaration, just to feel something. It’s not what interests me. What interests me is an emotional process, and a romantic notion of seeking to instil something that is bigger than life and that makes you see a wider concept or longer trajectory. In ZEE, what interests me the most is the idea of infinity. I often talk about perception, but it’s more about the habits than the mechanics of perception – the way we train ourselves from the beginning. Or maybe it’s better to say we don’t even train – it’s natural. When you’re born you’re this wide-open vessel, and everything is just pouring in. But only those things close to you. You don’t learn to see past a certain distance until you get older.
EP: So it’s about a rerouting, even momentarily, those worn channels of perception?
KH: Exactly. You can only do this so much, though. When you come out you’re back in what you know and what we all agree is the world around us. But we do know there are other things to our existence, like when we dream or like deep meditation or drug experiences. I read this book [Trance: From Magic to Technology by Dennis R. Wier] that said that one way or another we are living in a state of trance throughout our lives. The author made a distinction between productive trances and destructive trances, like addiction. Or think about working on a computer – you forget about time and space and that you are hungry or need to pee or whatever. Eventually you wake up because your urges have become too great and you’re taken from your state of trance. So what I’m saying is that perception is a malleable process. We define it over time throughout our lives to again support our ideas of stability. Everything becomes a habit, a ritual; a loop that we adhere to. One of the things that I do like about ZEE is that it takes you out of that loop, just for a moment.
EP: Some of the ideas that we’ve been looking at in The Red Queen exhibition at Mona relate to that notion of a comforting narrative or illusion of security. You can take it a step further and say that our entire sense of the ‘I’, the self, is a fiction, the function of which is to create an illusion of stability and coherence. What you’re saying is that you’d like to disrupt that illusion, to open a small gap for people to think in another way.
KH: Well, just to point to it. I have no expectation of making people change in big ways. That would be preposterous. But I think the important thing is that a lot of people find a strange joy in ZEE. I feel it still, even after all this time. Often when we’re installing there’s a moment of true, deep joy for me. It must be related to the intensity of the light in a complete void – what feels to me like a space, or rather a sphere, of pure light.
EP: You’ve been exhibiting your work since 1983. Did you know at that time what you wanted to achieve?
KH: No, but I did have clear interests. I did a body of work in those days with absurd machines, like machine sculptures. Then in ’89 I got my first computer and that changed my whole idea about the process of art making. I stopped drawing, for instance. [Visiting The Red Queen exhibition] was very inspiring because I saw a lot of drawings that I really liked. The drawing machine [by Cameron Robbins] is absolutely fantastic, and I think I have to pick up drawing again. Like, a hundred years later, go back to where I started.
EP: Technology is obviously a very important part of your work. Do you feel unfettered celebration about the speed at which technology is evolving? Or do you ever feel a sense of alarm?
KH: Yeah. I’m sick of it. I will not develop software anymore. I’m not going to go into any more serious engineering efforts because they take so much time and I think it often leads to an imbalance, where the technology is only half expressed, and the content itself is also half expressed. A long time ago I thought that what is now called ‘new media art’ was very interesting and exciting. There was a challenging discourse and so many brilliant people, and the scene was very experimental. Everything was wide open. Now, with the process of institutionalisation, there’s much more of it but a lot feels quite empty. Nowadays, if I order a computer or related tool I’m already annoyed because I know when it comes I will spend all this time preparing it, setting it up, checking whether it works and so on. Of course it’s part of the craft and I do think media technology is my particular craft. There’s no question I know a lot about it.
EP: You’ve grown with it, really, from the 80s onwards.
KH: I often say when I teach – and I don’t even mean it as a joke – that I come from before time. I was eight years old when my family got its first television. I’ve seen the whole thing come in ever-faster cycles. You can spend your whole day just trying to keep up. But of course, on the positive side, it is a huge and very powerful toolset and opens aesthetic possibilities that I still find interesting to some extent.
EP: It’s reconfigured, over the space of one generation, our very consciousness, our engagement with reality – language, thought, time and space.
KH: That was a very acute sense of mine in my mid 20s, even before I got the computer – that this would change pretty much everything. I wanted to inundate myself because I thought, ‘This is going to be the world, and I must know about it if I am going to be able to make any sort of informed artistic statement about it’. My early pieces with [audio-visual art collective] Granular-Synthesis – particularly Model 5 – were these single-frame, edited, resynthesised human heads. They were very intense, very aggressive, brutally loud. Model 5 would have been completely impossible without a computer. We used a non-linear editing system that had just come out. The system was a complete game changer, allowing us to do things in a month that would have taken maybe two years. So in that regard, certain technologies really bring about aesthetic progress, or certainly accelerate aesthetic processes. I don’t know whether it’s meaningful progress, but –
EP: The question of progress is a difficult one.
KH: Yes – whatever progress is. But this interest in what these media machines and networks will do to change the world, to change our behaviour, to change everything, has formed into the question: How do we operate and perceive to begin with? As for our immediate future it’s clear what will happen. It’s going to go further, and eventually there really will be cyborgs. Currently, everybody has this blue glow in their face [from the screen of a smart phone]. At the moment this [smart phone] is state-of-the art, but it’s still awkward. You have to carry it still. There will be something that will be smarter and more merged with the person.
EP: I admire what you said before about how when you first started getting into technology you decided to completely immerse yourself in it. I’m not interested in technology. How something like that works doesn’t capture my imagination. It’s a bit disturbing that I’m using things that are fundamentally changing my life, without understanding how. It happens, magically, inside the black box.
KH: Yeah, but on the other hand there are lots of things we use that we don’t understand – I was never interested in knowing how exactly a car works. In the beginning there were these huge boxes, modems, on the telephone that made these funny noises when you connected. It was very slow and there was always something not working, so you had to know a lot in order to be able to fix things quickly. But ultimately, like I said before, it takes too much time. What I want to do now for a while is wilfully slow it down, not change. Dig in, and work on something until it becomes substantial. I think at the end of my life I’m going to be a photographer and musician. I want to learn the accordion. I’d like to do something with my hands – direct, rather than just sitting in chairs, making these minimal, almost disembodied movements with a mouse.

*Since opening on June 14, 3185 people have visited ZEE; ten have required medical attention as a result.

Entering Zee Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Entering ZEE
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Everyday Happiness

I mentioned in my interview with Daniel Mudie Cunningham meeting the artist Nell (no surname) the same day. I left it in the transcript because I wanted to segue into this.

Nell’s currency for us lies in the fact her silver poo has been selected for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition at Mona.

© NELL, Everyday Happiness

The exhibition is large, and curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, in collaboration with TMAG (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery). The thrust of the show is silent aesthetical resonance: to not teach anything about art history, but to place the onus of pleasure on the viewer, via their visual register. Homi Bhabha calls this register the ‘scopic drive’, in reference to the desire to visually possess and categorise that which is different to the self. Homi Bhabha is a postcolonial theorist. I mention him because the show raises some hair-raising questions about power relationships between France and Tasmania, TMAG and Mona, indigenous and non-indigenous art. I’m not sure where to start with those yet. In the meantime, I missed a vital piece of information: the show places all sorts of art and artefacts, zoological, historical, decorative, functional, from different periods and places, alongside each other, under the rubric of visual congruence. It’s called ‘Theatre of the World’.

So Nell’s silver poo comes from a long line (or, not that long) of her other things with smiley faces on them – tombstones for instance. Hmm. I’m not sure how I feel about the smiley poo. I’m not sure how I feel about Nell’s work in general, namely:

Me: I’ve seen bits and pieces of your work and I cannot for the life of me pick a thread. Is there something that holds it all together?

Nell: Yeah. Me. I’m different every day. I think people end up with signature styles, kind of an accent in a way, but my accent is just who I am. Maybe it’s not really so good in the market place, but it’s just who I am and what I do. I feel like I can do anything or be anything in a really freeing way. 

Please note: my first ‘I’m not sure about’ is a euphemism for ‘I don’t like’; my second means what it says. Her answer, above, helped me understand and categorise.

Me: There’s obviously so many different ways in which people make art – if it’s conceptual, like if you really want to pose an argument or raise questions about the world we live in, you find a way to do that. Or if you just compulsively draw as a child, and then one day people start to buy them. How did that happen for you?

Nell: I think because when I grew up I was pretty bored for stimulation.

Me: In Maitland?

Nell: Uh huh. I went straight from high school to art school, and just tried to be curious about everything. Maybe it just came from that part of my nature, I’m not sure. Then I heard this quote that says, ‘The job of a Buddha is just to be awake’. And I thought, okay, just to be awake, just to be awake. So my job is just to be awake, twenty-four hours a day, just to be awake and open to things. That was the defining moment of how I wanted to live my life, and my art practice is the same.   

I like this. I feel the need to say, I’m no Buddhist. I asked Nell a bit more about happiness, forgetting, really, that that was the name of her work, the smiley little poo. Some say you make better work, better works of creation, when you are unhappy. I have been wondering lately, in happiness, whether I would still want to write about anything, for instance. David my boss says he keeps things incomplete because he needs to let human feeling seep through the cracks. He said this when he was going out with a woman who made him unhappy; I wonder if it’s still true.

The other currency, that’s running out fast as time passes, is that Nell performed for us at MOFO this year: she put on a triptych, a three-paneled piece, that included a chanting group performance, an installation, and a truck-ride through Hobart singing ACDC’s Long Way to the Top.

Image: Chanting To Amps © NELL

Image:  Let There Be Robe © NELL

Image: Long Way To The Top © NELL


The cohering motive of the triptych, she says, is ‘kind of that simple: I love rock and roll. Rock and roll and church were my first aesthetics, and Buddhism was my later one, and they all just mish-mashed’. She said she had always wanted to play music, but had ‘absolutely zero’ musical aptitude:

Nell: I thought, well if I can make mosaic and tapestry and make bronzes and glass works and all these other things, why can’t I just apply that same open-hearted, open-minded mindset and get people to help me, and just learn how to play?

Me: When you get in a cab and the cab driver goes, ‘So, what do you do?’ what do you say?

Nell: I say I’m an artist. I imagine most people you interview would say they are artists, right?

Me: It splits, it goes either way. If you think about making art as looking askance at the system, or being sensitive to the system in a way that directly creates something, then to identify professionally, ‘That’s my career’, it can be a bit of a conflict. But you don’t seem to be conflicted by much.

Nell: No. I’m not sitting here torturing myself. When you pay studio rent – that’s when you know you’re an artist. 

Me: Right. It makes me think about last time I was in Sydney when I interviewed Del Kathryn Barton, and she was saying the exact opposite of what you’re saying, that it’s all about self-torture, that’s her whole game with herself. 

Nell: I know. You know she’s my best friend, don’t you?

Me: Oh really?

Nell: Yeah, she gave me my [bunny necklace]. Yeah, she’s my bestie. No, we’re very similar, and very opposite. I told her, ‘When you learn to be lazy in your paintings you’re going to be a really great painter’. 

Me: But maybe that just works for her. Maybe self-torture works for her.  

Nell: Of course.

Anyhow, so the poo’s in the show, and we’ll see with what it visually resonates when things kick off in June. In the meantime, we’ve just hung some fresh Bartons.

-Elizabeth Mead