Just a Little Brick in the Big House
Mārtiņš Ratniks, Artist; Elīna Dūce, Visual Arts Theorist
A conversation with the artist Voldemārs Johansons
New technology freak, sound sculptor and sound consultant – these are the descriptions which have all been linked with the name of Vol-demārs Johansons. He is one, along with four others (Tonis Saadoja (Estonia), Jonas Gasiunas (Lithuania), Viktors Alimpijevs (Russia) and Magnuss Vallins (Sweden)), who is in the running for the international Swedbank Contemporary Art Award for 2009. The winner will be announced on 10 December, when an exhibition featuring the works of the nominated artists will be opened in the Riga Art Space. The exhibition will remain open until 3 February, 2010.

Voldemārs Johansons. 2009. Photo: Jānis Ratnieks
Mārtiņš Ratniks: Voldemār Johanson, what are you? A sonologist?
Voldemārs Johansons: I have difficulty in explaining all those titles, because in other contexts I am introduced as a composer, an artist... I think that it indicates something, that the definition is...depends which way you look at it.

Elīna Dūce: How do you yourself feel?
V.J.: Good!

M.R.: Well, that is quite clear. But if you get called a sonologist, then there’s got to be some foundation for that, how would you explain it?
V.J.: Sono and logos – that is knowledge about sound. It is a specialism which I acquired academically. And that means sound in its broadest sense: starting from composition in time, to physics, programming, sound synthesis – everything about sound materials.

M.R.: But what do you mostly feel that you are – a sonologist or a sound artist?
V.J.: To me each definition feels more restrictive than liberating, although sound artist sounds better. To tell the truth, the renaissance ideal of investigating the world is much closer to my heart, that all fields – whether you watch with your eyes, listen with your ears or create images, forms in space – lead to the one thing: to a reflection of experience, a perception of the world and the gaining of knowledge about it. Therefore an artist, a scientist or a human being has to master the field that is of interest to him, and you don’t have to side with any particular professional grouping. In my opinion, art is not about how well we have mastered a certain technique.

M.R.: I would say that that is more appropriate to scientific research.
V.J.: This research dimension is relevant too. An artist is also a researcher.

M.R.: But an artist uses other methods of research. What is the method by which you produce your works?
V.J.: That’s a kind of kitchen question.

M.R.: Yes, but it’s the “kitchen” that is of particular interest to me in this conversation. You don’t have many works, and each work is different, both thematically and in the technology you have used. Is there a unifying factor among them all?
V.J.: The things I do are somewhat remote from orthodox science. That is to say, I roughly know what kinds of methods there are. The basic task is to systematise the sum of knowledge at the most diverse kinds of levels.

M.R.: Systematise your knowledge?
V.J.: No, knowledge of the world. Scientists don’t work solely in their own area of expertise, they seek to place a little brick in the total landscape of the world. For me the determining factor is the perceptible result. Let’s say, what it tells me and what it can tell someone else. If we were to agree that sonology is a scientific discipline, then in such a case I wouldn’t consider myself a part of that completely. There are some projects in which I have participated in a scientific context, where a concrete subject has been investigated and worked out, but in such cases, different rules apply than in art. In that respect, art is much more liberal and is freer. The scientific landscape doesn’t tell us all there is to know about the world. It is somewhere about the middle or in the synthesis of the various pieces of information about the world.

M.R.: What is the significance of the text that accompanies your work?
V.J.: It’s important because it is informative; it gives a framework or, as you say it in Latvian... provides a thematic background. At the same time, these texts are restrictive. Let’s say, drawing a parallel with music, where abstract music does not have concrete annotation. And that, I believe, is the moment where the imagination is unleashed.

Voldemārs Johansons. Aero Torrents. Fragment of installation. 2007-2008. Photo: Kristaps Kalns
M.R.: Which of your works do you think are worthy of discussion?
V.J.: There are three works which I myself think are interesting. They are: Gaisa straumes (‘Aero Torrents’), Iris (Varavīksne tumsas valstībā) (‘Iris in the Realm of Darkness’), which has only been shown in full once, in Liepaja, and Concord. What I like about these works, what I understood post factum was that when I began, I didn’t know what the outcome would be. There was a field of thought and method, and the form evolved as I unified it all together. All in all, my latest discovery is that “not knowing” is the best starting point. It’s like the situation where the material partly dictates what form it will acquire, similarly as in sculpture.

M.R.: In principle, your working method could be described as an experimental process.
V.J.: In a way, yes.

M.R.: But then what is there at the beginning, if there isn’t a concrete idea. Is it a summing up of influences?
V.J.: Information, facts, processes and knowledge. There is a book by Stephen Wilson called Information Arts. That, to my mind, has been the best thing, up till now, concerning various unorthodox artistic practices.

M.R.: What do you mean by “orthodox artistic practices”?
V.J.: There are so many new things appearing – science and art cross-over, biological art and similar. It all seems to me external, something new, characteristic of our time. And there are people who try to categorize it. You end up with a thousand compartments with narrow art niches. That doesn’t seem to me to be the right way of going about the way you think about these sorts of things.

M.R.: You counterpoise your activities to those types which could be described as traditional?
V.J.: Absolutely not. I only started to talk about information art because I think that the impulse behind it is knowledge. Of course, any kind of art involves the process of information. That is one of my primary motives, but information art also includes the element of knowledge, and in my case that could be descriptive.

M.R.: Are your works capable of being self-standing, of existing without a textual explanation? Are they accessible to viewers?
V.J.: The quality is important to me, so that the work should be accessible without explanation. At the same time, in music there is something called the educated listener – the more they know, the more they are able to discover other layers, other depths in the work.

M.R.: Similarly as in art, surely.
V.J.: But of primary or basic importance for me is that the information is inherent in the work itself, and no references are necessary.

M.R.: But then why do you write these explanations?
V.J.: It’s more like a tradition.

M.R.: Insofar as I have had the chance to read your texts before seeing the actual works, I have had some difficulty in making sense of it all.
V.J.: That’s a part of the explanation. Often enough it is a reflection of the points of reference of the ideas.

E.D.: What’s more important to you – the process or the end result?
V.J.: The result is more important. As far as I am concerned, it is important that the things I have achieved speak to me, speak to other people. And that in itself tells whether the work has quality or doesn’t. As with experiments – there is a successful outcome and one that is less successful. So it cannot be said that for me the process is important and the end result is in second place.

E.D.: Is the viewer’s opinion important to you?
V.J.: Yes, for me it is important.

E.D.: Have you managed to get any viewers’ comments?
V.J.: You know, I must have been lucky in that respect, because after the more significant works I have been receiving them. At the opening of my latest work Concord, it so happened – even though it hadn’t been planned – that I gave a presentation of the work and that afterwards there was a discussion.

M.R.: In your descriptions of the works you mention various facts and influences. Can you name a few influences from the art-world, which have left an impression on you?
V.J.: That’s a question I don’t usually ask myself. I can reveal a few influences which have been of consequence to me. For example, James Turrell, an artist who works with light and space. Perhaps a tenuous link, but also the works of Olafur Eliasson – that’s a direction that attracts me.

M.R.: I was asking you that with Nikolai Carsten in mind, because according to the formal features – if I don’t read those explanations – the form of yours and his works is very similar. I take it that I am not the first who has compared Aero Torrents with one of Carsten’s works wellenwanne, where there are baths of water with loudspeakers underneath them.
V.J.: I wouldn’t associate him with the result. I prefer his music to the things he does in the visual realm.

M.R.: He says that he is not interested in this narrative and message in art. That his works are pure – as an aesthetic, scientific model. In a way it seems to me that this thesis could apply to your works as well. I see an analogy there, but maybe you would oppose that?
V.J.: No, I’m not saying the one or the other. The story is important to me while I am creating the work, as a direction, as a field of ideas. But I absolutely do not insist on it being mandatory for the viewer. The thing that I value most highly is the moment of experience when in contact with the work. Art occurs somewhere between its creator and its viewer. So a common interpretation is not possible. A good text doesn’t make a good piece of work. A good work speaks for itself and the text is secondary. Of course, if you wish to start up a discussion with the artist, then that could be helpful. Clearly, art is about something that cannot be expressed in words, something that resonates in the perception, that can be sensed.

M.R.: Yes, but for Aero Torrents that explanation is important.
V.J.: Yes and no. If it were important only because of the explanation, then I would consider the work to be a failure. In addition, of course, you could have the discussion that there have been works involving the dynamics of liquids even before Carsten Nikolai. This is not a competition about who is doing what for the first time. In music also: there are the 12 notes, how they are arranged and the drama that has been created – I think that that is more important. Let’s say, water and movement.

Voldemārs Johansons. Iris in Realm of Darkness. Installation. 2009. Courtesy of "K.Māksla" gallery
M.R.: I wanted to find out more about your latest work Concord. In the accompanying text you referred to many and various things. You mention the Sumerian cuneiform tablets, Pythagoras, the meteorologist Edward Lorenz, and the whole thing is prefaced by a citation from a Psalm. I, for instance, get confused, because when I saw the work I couldn’t see the connection. Perhaps you can tell us now, post factum, when the work is complete, what is it, concretely?
V.J.: I’ll do my best [laughing]. The reference to Pythagoras is the most salient in this particular instance. At the beginning, from a physical aspect they really are the proportions, relationships, the lengths of bodies or strings in ratios of whole numbers. In that sense it is a lesson about harmony.

M.R.: The lengths of the strings and the resonators are purely functional?
V.J.: Yes, functional. They amplify the sound, make it louder, like the body of a musical instrument.

M.R.: How do you make the strings resonate?
V.J.: Actually it’s been known since the 19th century as the Faraday effect, when you pass an electrical current through a conduit...

M.R.: So an electrical impulse.
V.J.: Yes, in the magnetic field it gets repelled as the opposite effect of an electromagnet. And when the frequencies of the currents coincide with the parameters of the physical resonance of the string, then the strings simply begin to resonate and to sound. And that is directly connected to the length of the strings, the dimension in space that they occupy.

M.R.: And a visual effect, in that you can see them in the dark?
V.J.: That’s a kind of focus for perception. Precisely the proportion between the space and that which we hear, the pitch of the sound. These two things cannot be separated.

M.R.: I thought of it in a much simpler way. The strings reson-ate from the electricity, and become visible because of electricity, they heat up...
V.J.: Exactly. The greater the amplitude, the more volts – because, in simple language, they heat up more.

M.R.: And how does the sound composition form?
V.J.: The strings have been tuned using just intonation method, which was known to the ancient world. There is an algorithmic process, in which chords are chosen. The chords are played, using these seven tones, and that happens in relatively free order. A set number of combinations has been elaborated as to which strings will resonate, and then they are activated by the current being switched on. In its idea the programming works as if a piano was being played, and it’s all automatized. The programming there is quite basic. Returning to what we were talking about, part of the whole thing is about proportions. This subject is of relevance to me. I mentioned in that Concord text, with a good analogy – in my opinion – from the economic world, that the maelstrom which we have had until now has taken on the parameters of deterministic chaos. That is why I referred to Lorenz, who has characterised meteorological chaos. But there the acceleration and the effects are no longer linear, natural numbers no longer exist, nor do proportions. It is a new paradigm for the era in which find ourselves.

E.D.: What are you researching at the Mathematics and Infor-mation Institute of the University of Latvia, together with Rolands Kronlaks?
V.J.: For the moment it is a draft for research. The subject is chaos and information science in the context of music. Let’s say, to use our knowledge about chaos (they are more like models, or, of course, experimental data), utilising these in the synthesis of sound, as well as in composition, as the principles for organising sounds. In music this area of research is not new. The new direction that we wish to research is how the results of sounds or music which have been obtained in this way correlate with statistical analysis or post-analysis, looking at why is this sound different to that one, what is its algorithm, what are the relationships? If we are concretely speaking of granular synthesis, which is an innovative and interesting form of synthesis, then, in my view, it offers great prospects, even though it was discovered back in the 1980s and already had been conceptualised even earlier. This is to do with extremely tiny sound particles (they can be many hundreds or thousands per second) and each of these particles, in the process of synthesis, has a number of parameters which determine what it will be like, how it will combine temporally and vertically. That is an enormous quantity of information, it can be linked with various processes which create and order the parameters, but the volume of information is so large that you cannot simply observe it, like musical notes on a piece of paper, in order to understand what is going on. So there is an idea to create interfaces or to bring in statistical analysis in order to find out exactly what it is that really alters the quality of sound. That is one of the more interesting branches of the research.

E.D.: What are you going to do with the results of your research?
V.J.: It’s what we talked about at the beginning. It’s just a little brick in the big house. But it is interesting for me as a composer, that I can discover something new.

Voldemārs Johansons. Concord. Installation. 2009. Photo: Kristaps Kalns
M.R.: How do you feel in the context of Latvia? There aren’t many artists here that work in this area, you don’t have any competitors and no such process is evolving. You end up being on your own, a little lonely. No competitors, no like-minded people. Do you see yourself working in Latvia or somewhere outside?
V.J.: I see myself more as being part of the wider world.

M.R.: That’s obvious, in the current situation of open borders. But would you like more things like that to be happening here?
V.J.: Yes, absolutely, definitely.

M.R.: So it’s still important for you to keep working here, nevertheless.
V.J.: Yes, but that’s more for personal reasons. Because this is a place which I feel acutely, where there are people with whom I find it interesting to communicate. And that configuration of rules and location for me seems to be very inspiring. About fellow-thinkers. Gints Gabrāns is someone with whom a discussion is developing, with whom I can communicate on similar subjects, ideas. I have just started lecturing at the University of Liepaja.

M.R.: What are you lecturing on?
V.J.: Rolands Kronlaks and I are presenting a sound course.

E.D.: You’ve never had the thought – whilst studying in The Hague – of not returning?
V.J.: When I was studying, I knew perfectly clearly that I would come back. I can’t exclude that I may travel for a longer time, but right now I feel that this is where it’s at, and interesting. These days geographic isolation is not so relevant. There is an exchange of ideas, and works also travel across borders. So that effect has been reduced – at least I don’t feel it that much. If you were to make a simple comparison between Amsterdam and the place where I am working now, then friends and like-minded people who are working in similar and parallel areas, of course... it would be a simpler surroundings. That may explain the fact that... I counted up that I produce one work – that I myself consider interesting – per year.

M.R.: But that is connected with domestic matters. Surely you don’t only work at making art, you’ve got to make money as well.
V.J.: Maybe that’s the external factor that I find restrictive.

E.D.: You say that you find it interesting to be here, despite the fact that you are lonely in the artistic field. What is it that you find of interest here?
V.J.: The environment. It resonates with my perception of the world. The thing that I really like here is the nature. Here it is relatively simple to find yourself in some beautiful location in nature, which in Holland or Germany, for example, is not such a simple matter. There is a lot of untouched nature in Latvia; there are, of course, the occasional traces left by humans, but for the main part it has mostly survived in its natural state. Europe has been shaped by civilization. If there is a forest, then it has been planted by people, engineered, or the coastline has been created artificially. It is difficult to live without nature – at least for me it is.

Voldemārs Johansons (1980) was nominated for the Swedbank Contemporary Art Prize for his solo exhibition Iris (Varavīksne tumsas valstībā) (‘Iris in the Realm of Darkness’) at the K.Māksla gallery in Liepaja in 2009 and the project Aero Torrents, which was exhibited in Riga, Liepaja and Dortmund (2007-2008). Johansons participated in the art project Survival Kit with his sound and light installation Concord. He has been sound and music director for a number theatre productions and was nominated for the Latvian theatre prize Spēlmaņu nakts for the 2008/2009 season prize for ‘Author of the Year for the Musical Score for a Dramatic Performance’ for the show 1906. Trakāk vēl kā piektā gadā (‘1906. Even crazier than 1905’) at the Latvian National Theatre. In the competition for the design for a memorial to the victims of Soviet occupation he gained first prize for the project Vēstures taktīla (‘Tactile of History’), created together with artist Kristaps Ģelzis and architect Ilze Miķelsone. In 2007 nominated for the Purvītis Prize. Studied at the Institute of Sonology, Royal Conservatorium, The Hague, from 2003 until 2007, and graduated with the bachelor work Information Structures for Organization of Sonic Events. One of the creators of the Gaismas pils (‘Castle of Light’) presentation for the Latvian exhibit at the 8th Venice Biennale of Architecture (2002). Together with Linards Kulles operated the internet radio station RigaSound and has worked in the creative association 99% svaigs (‘99% Fresh’).

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