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Seeing Music / Positions

Artistic Strategies for Spatial Staging

The jury members Sandra Naumann, Sandeep Bhagwati, and Lars-Christian Koch as well as the curator Elke Moltrecht in a conversation on the evaluation of the two exhibitions, “lichtklangphonogramm – an exhibition of historical and invented, optical and mechanical sound machines from the era of the wax cylinder phonograph” and “participants and objectives – 8 takes on filming music.”

Moderation: Uli Aumüller. Editing: Barbara Schindler

What were your impressions of the exhibition “lichtklangphonogramm” by the team of Cruz, Kolkowski, Marangoni and Wellmer?

Sandra Naumann: I found the work very well-made as a spatial staging. It marvelously transported that magical character associated with old media devices—just remember that apparatus like the camera obscura were often used by magicians. Some members of the audience criticized that no original devices were used in the media-historical perspective. So we had to repeatedly emphasize that it was an artistic “reinvention” taking up elements of these originals (episcope, phonograph etc.) but employing them in a different way and recombining them. The piece mainly visualized the mechanical aspects of these devices by enlarging the cogs, grooves, or the tone writing on the cylinders. For an audience that has grown up in the digital age and therefore has almost nothing to do with haptic carrier media anymore, I found it quite charming to make all these things tangible in a playful way.

And what is your assessment of the project “participants and objectives – 8 takes on filming music” by the team of Kötter, Klein, Beck, and raumlaborberlin?

Naumann: Their idea was based on the question: How do we actually take in foreign cultures? Because not only ethnologists, but we, too, assume an extremely voyeuristic position when looking at life in an African village on a flatscreen monitor in our centrally heated bedroom. The analysis of how ethnomusicological films function in terms of editing and camera techniques was also meant to make the gaze of the spectator at home evident. Unfortunately, the realization did not go far enough. Perhaps more condensed material and more precise editing would have been required—something not achievable in such a short period of time—to really convey the idea. As a result, many visitors regarded the work as an analysis of media techniques.

Which insights from the Humboldt Lab projects can and should be included in the plans for the Humboldt-Forum?

Sandeep Bhagwati: The Humboldt-Forum should be allowed to once more realize the same projects—both exhibitions of “Seeing Music”—with more time at hand. What we have now is a “demo version.” We looked into a possible form of presentation, and now things must proceed.

How do you picture scientific and artistic curating and further experimentation?

Bhagwati: I can imagine organizing a symposium with artists, curators, and scientists, who would view the original films of the ethnomusicologists as well as the edited films of the artists and then ask: Okay, how do the scientists and artists respond? As a composer, I would say that some of these edits work well, but that the sound material was cut in a rather brutal and not expedient way. A symposium would also be useful because, in the present artistic-aesthetic world, we can no longer assume that an individual artist creating an artwork is a genius, but that the processes are so complex that they can only be solved by a team. The teams were formed ad hoc in these projects—it was a really short-term call. But they would have been even better...

Naumann: …if they had had more time.

Elke Moltrecht: It must also be mentioned that the ambitious timeline is one intention of the “Probebühnen.” They grasp themselves as a “free leg” and do not seek to present completed results, but instead to raise questions and visualize the process.

How do you evaluate the two installations in regard to contents, form, and innovation?

Lars-Christian Koch: The real question is: What do we do with the insights gained from this “Probebühne” in the actual exhibition later on? The preparations for the exhibitions of “Seeing Music” were very work-intensive and demanded a thematic debate. It is not enough to just visit the exhibitions and enjoy the nice atmosphere. As an ethnological museum, we have an educational mission. We are not an art museum. If we want to seriously convey what other music cultures are like, how they treat sound in their processes, how they shape sound, then the question is, how much art or artistic design we require to optimize this conveyance.

Bhagwati: What was lacking in the two “Seeing Music” projects from a museum-educational point of view was that the reference material was not made accessible to the audience at all. I compare that with the “Game of Thrones” exhibition of “Probebühne 2” where, in a room of the Humboldt Lab, four appropriations of a Chinese imperial throne were presented; one could view the original in the adjacent Museum für Asiatische Kunst. If one could have seen the original films, uncut, and then the meta-films, one would probably have seen “more.”

Naumann: So an environment should have been created in which the exhibits would have been presented not solitarily, detached from the context of the collection, but embedded, for example, in an exhibition of original cylinders? But we only had one room available in the Humboldt Lab and it was outside of the actual music department.

Koch: The phonograph archive, the devices, the media archaeology, everything belonging to the collection will be given a 150-square-meter exhibition space of its own in the Humboldt-Forum. This needs to be designed in content-related terms as well. A certain mediation structure has to be created for the contents. We will have media stations in each exhibition area. But what should it all look like? Will there just be a screen or do we have other mediation concepts? In general, we are faced with very important questions, which in my view have been partially answered by these two shows. But they have also raised new questions, which is also quite positive.

Moltrecht: What succeeded in “8 takes” in your opinion?

Koch: In “8 takes” I always ask myself how much can be conveyed directly with videos. It is difficult to show a really long video, because in most cases people don’t linger more than two minutes or so. It would be more interesting to ask how I can use short clips to stimulate people to watch the complete original material. Under the aspect of mediation, that would be the interesting question for me.

Naumann: Does that mean that the Humboldt Lab Dahlem ultimately serves as a source of various mediation approaches?

Koch: Yes, but without neglecting the artistic aspects. Numerous discussions resulting from the ethnological exhibitions revealed that the contexts from which the exhibits stem cannot be constructed. And I can’t just simply display the objects. I therefore exhibit them — to say it in a short and exaggerated way — as art objects. However, I have a general problem with that, because there’s a lot more to the objects. But if I bring both aspects together, that’s where it gets interesting again. This means that I use art to focus a bit on this aspect of mediation. Why not? Why shouldn’t art serve this purpose?

Naumann: So this implies that the Humboldt Lab projects are not primarily concerned with interpretation, but with utilizing artistic strategies for the exhibition design. In this discussion, we are trying to assess whether the projects have been successful or not. But successful in regard to what? As an independent artwork or in view of new mediation strategies? Do they succeed as spatial mises-en-scène or as scientific strategies of explanation and cognitive aids?

Koch: Several things have already changed in the planning process for the Humboldt-Forum. In my view, this has quite a bit to do with the “Probebühnen.” For example, in the ethnomusicology section we will no longer have two rooms, which were planned as being separate, in this form. We will open the entire space to create room for action, in which productions in the field of mediation can be realized. That alone is already a positive result.

Moltrecht: And in my opinion, the fact that all these questions have been raised is also a very good outcome of this “Probebühne.”

Sandeep Bhagwati is a composer, theater-maker, and scholar in the field of artistic research. Following his Professorship for Composition and Multimedia at the Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe, he has held the Canada Research Chair for Interdisciplinary and Intertraditional Art at Concordia University, Montréal, since 2006. His works and productions have been shown worldwide at festivals, and his academic and journalistic writings are regularly published in Germany, India, the United States, the UK, France and Canada.

Prof. Dr. Lars-Christian Koch is the director of the Department of Ethnomusicology, Media Technology and the Berlin Phonograph Archive of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin. He is extracurricular Professor of Ethnomusicology at the Universität zu Köln and Honorary Professor at the Berlin University of the Arts. His research focuses on the theory and practice of Indian, especially northern Indian, raga music, organology, intercultural comparative music aesthetics, the interpretation of non-European music in the context of history, and music archaeology.

Elke Moltrecht has been the CEO of the Academy of the Arts of the World in Cologne since March 2014 and was previously the managing director of the national Netzwerk Neue Musik “Musik 21 Niedersachsen” and of the “Hybride Musik” project. She studied musicology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and was the director of the music section of Podewil – Zentrum für aktuelle Künste and the director of Ballhaus Naunynstraße in Berlin. In 2013 she founded the Ensemble Extrakte für transtraditionelle musikalische Praxis und Forschung.

Sandra Naumann is a curator and media historian living in Berlin. She has curated programs for the transmediale, CTM, Werkleitz, sound:frame, Shift, Elektra, and other festivals. As a scholar she has worked on projects such as “See this Sound” and “aux écoutes des images.” She is the coeditor, with Dieter Daniels, of the two-volume publication “See this Sound – Audiovisuology.”

Uli Aumüller lives in Berlin as a freelance author and director of radio features on contemporary music.

The conversation took place on September 23, 2013; it was edited in September 2014 for the online publication by Barbara Schindler.