Listening to the future?

Colette Tougas: You have been interested in technology for quite some time now. I’m referring in particular to your interest in records, record players and their ancestors, the gramophone. To what degree is your work concerned with obsolescence and the disappearance of certain technologies?

Raymond Gervais: My work is actually concerned with change, and therefore as much with the obsolescence of technology as its complex evolutionary path. My work 12 + 1=(1976), for example, dealt with this notion of change: thirteen record players played thirteen different pieces of music, while a mechanical device ensured that everything ran non-stop. As the duration of each record was different, each automatic tone arm entered into another musical piece at a different moment. Thus the aural content had infinite variations.

It is true, however, that I’ve created works that relate specifically to technological obsolescence, to the disappearance of certain machines that have been replaced by higher-performing models. My installation Disques et tourne-disques from 1990 dealt in part with this theme. It was a kind of “technological tomb” related to phonography, but a “tomb” also in the sense of a memorial, a tribute. Without any nostalgic intent. For example, certain outmoded machines like phonographs and gramophones were presented as “still-lifes.” Conversely, I have also attempted to deflect this form of reproduction technology from its initial meaning in order to invest it with another, more active sense – for example, by associating the record player with a gong (by means of a bass drumstick). In this way, the record player can be viewed not only as an instrument of reproduction, but also of musical creation.

In a similar vein, I have often used the record player as a pedestal, not only to rotate certain objects but also to represent the very functioning of the universe. Depending on the work, the idea of the record was transferred to other objects: a slide carrousel in perpetual rotation, a circular mirror, a sphere of light projected on the ceiling, an oval photograph, circulating wind, etc. I attempted to explode the notion of the record as an object with finite grooves, and to open it up by questioning its identity, its selfcontainment. Technology, I believe, should serve to open up things, situations, people. This type of reflexion stems in part from the possibility of manipulating machines. Formerly, records ran at four speeds: 16, 33, 45 and 78 rpm. Even then, with only those options, it was possible to perform some interesting experiments, like playing a 78 at 16. In fact, that’s exactly what Nam June Paik did with a recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s La Nuit transfiguree (Merce Cunningham told him, “You improved Schoenberg”). With the record player, you always have the choice of (re)playing the past or the present.

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The record player is a simple form of technology, within the reach of everyone – the portable tape recorder as well. Every home has one. It’s a popular technology, with a certain vulnerability attached to it as well. Whenever I use it, it makes an immediate connection with the public. We all die eventually; so does technology. The record has always “killed” what it intended to save, to preserve for posterity, by freezing the content irrevocably within its grooves. Despite this, it gave the impression of life when it was replayed. The computer, on the other hand, as an open system and not a closed spiral, is a technology which potentially creates life. The computer network is not a “work” or an object. It is a context for dialogue, discussion, change. I don’t think, for example, that collective creation through such networks will replace solitary creation, the artist and the signed works. The two can exist simultaneously. In my view, it is important that works be signed, completed, assumed by an individual. Even the open-ended works of John Cage are signed. Which does not prevent anyone from using them, listening to them in a personal way, calling them into question, dialoguing with them, contributing to them. Nothing is closed or exclusive in that sense. Art belongs to everyone. It is up to each person to take what interests him or her, to make something else of it. It should be no deterrent that a work has a particular face, signature. Each human also has a unique signature.

How do history and technology converge within your work?

I’m interested in history from a number of perspectives. I have incorporated such historical figures as Claude Debussy, Thelonius Monk, Samuel Beckett, Charles Ives, Henri Rousseau, among others, in my technological installations. But more specifically, I’m also interested in the history of technology via certain key figures associated with the history of Quebec, namely Emile Berliner and Reginald Aubrey Fessenden.

Emile Berliner was the inventor of the phonograph record, and also the gramophone. Originally from Germany, he settled in Montreal at the beginning of the century. He produced and distributed some of his records from Montreal and his son carried on after him. Some of his 78s were later transferred to 33s and, more recently, to compact disk. The information has thus travelled from plastic grooves to digital mirror without going astray in the process. The revolutions per minute changes, but what about the sense, the meaning of all those sounds as one moves forward in time? And what will remain of all this in a million years? Dust? Possibly. Technology, despite appearances, does not make things eternal. It is mortal, and so are its products. Life is what will likely remain. In 1991 I exhibited a work called Roto-univers pour Emile Berliner in which thirteen record players were arranged to form a kind of “mechanical orchestra,” silent, waiting. The plastic covers of the thirteen machines were arranged in front to form a kind of podium, a podium for the audience-orchestra leader.

As for Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, he was a pioneer in Canadian radio broadcasting who is unjustly neglected. He had actually surpassed Marconi in his experiments involving sound-transmission, long-distance voice reproduction, but the Canadian government nonetheless chose Marconi for the construction of the country’s first stations. (Marconi’s laboratory in Signal Hill, Newfoundland is now a museum.)

When I was young my father would sometimes talk to me about Marconi, who was considered an almost mythical hero of technology. He was known all over the world, just like Thomas Edison. My maternal grandfather was a member of a Marconi club in Montreal, and my father built radios of all descriptions, as well as repairing them for his family and friends. He had a passionate interest in the old tube machines and was constantly building or tinkering with them. He also installed rooftop antennae, each more sophisticated, and higher, than the last. This desire of his to communicate with some distant elsewhere, to improve signal reception by erecting higher and higher antennae, has remained with me as a kind of image of the existential quest. Like Charles Ives’ Unanswered Question, each new antenna reformulated the same question over and over: Is anyone listening out there, anywhere, far away – and if there is, can you send us a sign, a signal, an answer? In the old black-and-white photographs of Reginald Fessenden, you can also see these enormous towers, soaring upwards, which he erected in remote places to better transmit and receive signals. I also see these towers as antennae soaring into the skies, as observation posts of the technological era listening to the universe, to noises, voices, music….

The musician whom I most associate with this call from the future and the new instrumental technology is Edgar Varese. His first biographer, incidentally, was a Montrealer, the poet Fernand Ouellette. Quebec has a number of such links with the history of technology.

What role does memory play in your works dealing with technology?

In 12 + 1 = for thirteen record players, the audio result was something that was impossible to memorize. It was much easier to remember the visual aspect of the work, to form a mental image and recall the mode of operation from a conceptual point of view. But the sonic mass that resulted eluded all attempts at memorization. It was an experiment with the limits of our auditory perception, with what one is able to assimilate, and also with what is lost and can never be possessed…. I opened up the phonograph records, which are closed and finite by nature, by combining them with each other, provoking new and constantly changing aural material which could not have been obtained otherwise. Here technology allowed us to live something completely different, previously unheard, rather than reproduce the same listening experience and situate oneself via memory. Technology here upsets our normal habits.

I also approached this question of memory from a different standpoint in the performance work Le Derviche mecanique, presented at the Sound Symposium in Newfoundland in 1984. The “mechanical dervish” was a portable tape recorder placed on a turntable which recorded, while turning, the entire performance from an acoustic point of view. At the end of the piece, which lasted close to thirty minutes, I rewound and played the tape. The tape thus took the place of the solo musician in the configuration on the ground, while the clarinet in the latter was placed on the turntable. It began to turn at the precise moment that the tape recorder replayed, from the very beginning, the entire piece that the public had just seen and memorized. The public, as a result, was able to compare the corporeal, biological recording with the mechanical recording. Two memories were thus in operation here, side-by-side: the body’s and the machine’s.

Isn’t the viewer always part of your installations?

In 1980 I made a work for radio entitled Mot a Mot, in which two alternating voices read out a series of words that were designed to identify or target all possible audiences for the work. The listeners would theoretically retain only those words which corresponded specifically to themselves, which identified them and thus marked them “present” in the work. The piece had a minimal structure with a repetitive inner rhythm, a relaxed and unagressive beat. It extended a hand, as it were, to the audience.

One may participate in my work simply by watching, listening, walking about. I think that a work of art that speaks to someone always creates a movement within that person, within his or her psyche, an activity of reflexion. The work is living, whether it be silent or resonant, static or moving. What is important for people is to be actually there, fully present; what is important is the quality of the experience, in real time, the quality of the act of viewing, listening, and one’s attitude as well, depending on the context. The work is open.

There was a whole art of participation in the 1960s, where the public was asked to touch the works, manipulate them. In 1993 I created a piece where exactly the reverse happened: it was the work itself that literally touched the viewer. It was called Le vent tourne, an installation which blew air towards the public, a tactile work whose matter (wind) was invisible but which touched the viewer anyway. Even if you turned your back, you could still “see” the work, i.e. feel it on your body, on your skin. A large vertical mirror on the wall made it possible to place the experience in a dimension which was both sensorial and existential. It was physical and mental at the same time.

Another work which involved the public, this time in a more conceptual way, was Elementa Musicae from 1987. It consisted of a poster put up all over the city, as well as on the exterior walls of the Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal, which announced three imaginary duets uniting an American improvisational-jazz musician with a European classical composer (for example, Charles Mingus, string bass and Manuel de Falla, piano). Each of the musicians, all deceased, actually played the instrument attributed to him, and each of them had made recordings. As they were from completely different eras, they had obviously never met. Their paths could only ever converge in the minds of the public. On this same poster was a large picture of a Berliner gramophone, with a horn, which suggested the interaction of a game. The audience could here be seen as the tone arm of these imaginary duos, the cartridge/interpreter, reading the record/score and playing the resulting music in their heads. I know from the comments of certain people that this can work, that there is an audience for imaginary music.

Do your works based on technology represent a break with an art that some technophiles call “traditional” and that is sometimes described as being frozen in an imitative world of appearance?

Whether it’s technological or traditional has no importance in my view. It’s the quality of experience offered by a work that is paramount. In this respect, there are traditional works which are more satisfactory than technological ones, and vice-versa. It depends. Again, I don’t believe in any break in the sense of a radical rejection of the art that preceded the technological artists. That’s mostly myth–most artists don’t think that way. It’s necessary to question all that went before in order to situate yourself, to find your identity. It’s healthy, necessary. But you can do that without destroying all that came before, without being nihilistic. Sometimes, of course, artists will go through a period of “tabula rasa” in developing their art. Certain Fluxus events, in this regard, and rightly so, criticized art and technology by destroying, by deflecting objects from their primary meaning: the piano nailed shut, the violin shattered and dragged along the ground by a rope, the broken records of Milan Knizak, etc. In the act of destroying, Fluxus also created something else, opened another door. It’s like the two sides of the same paradoxical mirror. And it’s the same thing with the new technology.

I see my work as following the same basic lines as certain artist-musicians of the 20th century: Luigi Russolo, Marchel Duchamp, Jean Dubuffet, Nam June Paik, Michael Snow and others. The intona rumori of Russolo, for example, are very much reminiscent of the old crank and horn gramophones; Marcel Duchamp’s rotary disks were very much in the spirit of the turntable; Dubuffet used the tape recorder and multi-track recorder to produce his records, etc. I think there’s a plausible line of descent there.

As for Duchamp, I have already tried to recreate his Nude Descending a Staircase on an auditory level, by means of thirteen portable tape recorders in phase playing, simultaneously, a work for mechanical piano: La Mariee mise a nu par les celibataires meme. Erratum musical. The result approached a musical equivalent of the process involved in Duchamp’s work. Another of my works, Les Disques noirs (1992), now seems to me like a “stripping bare” of the record player. The black rubber decks from each of the thirteen record players were placed in front of each machine, on the ground, thus exposing the hidden metallic faces underneath. Here the support of the record became much like the record itself, its silent twin, uniquely visual. There’s an exchange of roles, a transfer of meaning, a confusion of functions, of identities. Technology allows this, this game of doubling, of recreating, reinventing objects and people – as well as the traditional art we were talking about at the beginning.

Is there always a presence/absence duality operating within your work?

Yes, this duality of presence and absence has been at the very heart of my artistic practice for some time now. Over the past fifteen years, in fact, I’ve been producing imaginary concerts, especially in the form of imaginary records (since 1989). This type of duality is very much inherent in these works. What is present, visible, in the case of an imaginary record is the album and liner notes, i.e., the support. But the disk itself is invisible, absent. It only materializes, so to speak, in the public’s imagination. It still exists, in my view, but in an “immaterial” way. Virtual reality suggests the same thing. We can exist in other ways.

With these imaginary records, all the basic components are still authentic, factual, historically verifiable. It is merely the situation, the context, which is invented. The nature of this absence-presence duality may also vary from project to project. Sometimes, for example, I create an imaginary record which may have already existed in the past (“Samuel Beckett, piano solo,” let us say); sometimes I invent the situation (the Charles Mingus-Manuel de Falla duet cited earlier would be a good example). Sometimes it’s something else entirely. For me it’s enough to construct the support, the album jacket, and to exhibit it for the record to exist. In the same way that Beckett, Mingus and de Falla, all of whom are dead, still exist in records, theatre, concerts (paradoxically alive and dead at the same time), so the imaginary record exists without existing, without being visible, tangible, material as soon as the album jacket is created. The jacket summons the music in some way with a kind of existential magnetism: insistantly, on the edge of the absurd. We are thus in the realm of both presence and absence here. In fact, there are many dualities in my work – seeing and hearing, silence and sound…. Music, of course, is always something invisible and yet very real. With music, with the listening experience, one is at the heart of this question of presence/absence.

Which reminds me of a story about Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor, who was the first popular artist in the history of the phonograph, who almost single-handedly launched the world’s record industry. Anyway, Caruso also appeared in two minor films from 1918. Since this was the silent era, the most famous singer of the time sang in films without sound! It’s a paradox which echoes, with a bit of unintentional humour, this theme of presence/absence. The greatest tenor of the century was mute on screen. Technology had transformed him, striking him dumb.

Today, of course, Caruso exists through recordings, through technology. There’s a photograph of him listening to one of his records, another showing him looking through a camera lens, and yet another showing him on his death bed, the object of all eyes. Technology followed him everywhere, becoming at the very end his own tomb. Caruso is as much ever-present as he is ever-absent. For me, the record as document or the photograph as archive are still entombments. There’s a fascinating work by the American composer Charles Dodge called Any Resemblance Is Purely Coincidental, in which Caruso is literally “resuscitated” by means of technology, his voice manipulated at will. The tenor here rises from his phonographic ashes. In itself, it’s a subject for opera. And a disk too, compact.

How does the human presence come into play in your technological works?

That varies from work to work. For example, I’ve placed busts of musicians alongside record players, thus drawing a parallel between the body and the record – both are multiple copies. The body as record…. I also saw a link between the 19th-century practice of making a facial or hand impression of the deceased musician and the practice of photography. The photograph is also a death, an entombment through the permanent fixing of the subject. In Cap T, presented at the CIAC in 1985 (based on Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question), I placed tiny figurines on the ground in a specific configuration, in the context of various audio devices which appeared gigantic in comparison: a record player, two portable tape recorders, an electric metronome. There was a real game of scale operating here. The public could project themselves into the tiny figurines on the floor (potential doubles) and feel minuscule next to the audio devices. Someone told me at the time that it reminded him of Giacometti (Giacometti transplanted into the context of technology). Here the body seemed somewhat dominated by technology. The audio equipment acted as “architecture,” or rather technology was the architecture, the space. Today we circulate in technology. Time is becoming more and more dominant.

exhibition at Outpost Art

With regard to the body, I’ve so far only spoken of my installations. From the standpoint of my performances, the body of the performer is always a component of the work, the performer interacting with the public, in real time, a kind of hand-to-hand struggle which includes that of the performer with the manipulated technology, which he installs in the process of performing. When a musician enters into a live dialogue with one of my electronic devices, with tape recorders or metronomes or electronic tuners, the audience witnesses a kind of “combat” in the arena of technology between artist and machine. It is both playful and tragic, and perhaps a failure…. Because you can’t “dialogue” with these machines as you can with human beings, in flesh and blood, before your eyes, in real time. This distance, this fundamental limit inherent in the relationship may also be felt by the audience as a lack, a void which is impossible to fill, a wall impossible to scale. The dialogue may be an illusion, but there’s still something there; something strange is happening in the performance site. There’s the activity of a game here, quite valid, not in the least ridiculous. I wouldn’t call it simply a “dialogue” but rather a soliloquy, one which has the appearance of a conversation. The result is a kind of hybrid body-technology presence.

In that it uses technology, is your work able to transpose reality, our perception of the real, or is it rather a reflection, a portrait?

What is real? What is reality? The question of true versus false is at the heart of artistic practice. Orson Welles’ film F for Fake comes to mind here. Welles was a pioneer in experiments with radio: War of the Worlds in 1938 about the invasion of the U.S. by Martians was already a questioning of the real, a distortion of the real by means of technology. Through technology, art can be created, the real can be adulterated. Glenn Gould, for example, pieced together an entire musical performance from several takes in the studio. Michael Snow, with The Last LP, also created a masterful work about technology and illusion in which he became all the traditional music of the world. It was a veritable tour de force, both ambitious and very critical of this technology which is destroying the “endangered” cultures that it claims to want to save. Where is truth here? What is real?

Outpost Art @ Ello

To some extent, this fits in with my theme of the aural imagination in which elements from the real world generate phonographic fictions. We may recall that Thomas Edison, the inventor of the cylinder phonograph and a pioneer in this rechnology of recording and sound reproduction, was himself deaf. It is a paradox but it is part of the real as well, part of life. The kind of art that interests me embraces this type of ambiguity: the true and the false, the real and the fictitious, the possible and the impossible, simultaneously. What kind of relationships do your works have with time?

With music, one is always in the realm of time. All my visual works based on music and sound have to do with time. More recently I have become interested in the question of the future. It has often been said that our future is linked with technology, to new technology. For Buddhists, our future is contained in death. Is there a connection between these two assertions? May we deduce that technology has as much to do with death as it does with life, that it speaks to us as much about death? This notion brings us back to our earlier discussion about the disappearance of technology, about its eventual obsolescence…. And it reminds me of a phrase of Giacometti’s: “All living things were dead.” There is a spiritual dimension in technology.

With regard to the future, I created two works in 1994 called, respectively, Arthur Rimbaud ecoute Lennie Tristano and Odilon Redon ecoute Albert Ayler. They were based on the same premise: that the past is listening to the future. The poet Arthur Rimbaud, for example, could not have known the jazz pianist Lennie Tristano or heard him play because he died well before the other’s birth. They are from neither the same century nor place. I also conceived some imaginary compact discs in which, this time, the past performed the future (for example, Frederic Chopin joue John Cage or Jelly Roll Morton joue Thelonious Monk.) This game with time is possible only through the reality of the auditory imagination (with deceased figures therefore, recreated with the help of an imaginary technology).

When I watch or listen to a work from a past century, I am conscious of the fact that I am in the future with regard to this work, with regard to the moment it was conceived, created. I am in the future in the present. If, for example, I listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, I am listening to a work composed two centuries before my birth. Bach could not have imagined me listening to a digital recording of his work at my home or in my car or anywhere else. I am thus already in the future with respect to this distant past, to Bach, to his works and the precise time of their composition. It’s a question of point of view, a game with time, with “past shock.”

So if we, the “future,” can establish a dialogue in real time with the past (and not vice-versa), a fascinating game can be played by reversing the proposition: the past in a dialogue in real time with the future. The technology that allows us to do this is the one corresponding to the imagination, the aural imagination. The works created in this way are silent so that they may resonate within us. There is also a technology of silence.

Speaking of this notion of time, how does it figure into the relationship of your works with space?

When you listen to music in the dark, whether from a disk or radio, you abolish space, you are in the dimension of time. If you close your eyes, you open yourself up to time, to a magnified time. One’s consciousness of time can be amplified without technology, by defining one’s relationship with space. In 1980, for example, I exhibited a work called ou je suis at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. You had to use a flashlight to see the work. You had to walk around in the dark, make your way through a series of adjoining rooms. On the wall of each room were immense black-and-white photographs of the same place, taken in the countryside. To see them, to examine them in detail, you had to illuminate each picture yourself.

With the aural imagination, space is completely transposed in the mind of the viewer. The viewer does see something in the space of the gallery, the imaginary records exhibited on the walls or in a display window, but what is seen is only the support for the real thing. The disk itself is not visible or audible in the traditional sense. The disk is somewhere else, but where? What space corresponds to this music? In what space does one listen to an imaginary record? In fact, several times and spaces are experienced simultaneously. The aural imagination thus functions like the flashlight in ou je suis. It allows one to move around within oneself, within one’s own body, to illuminate the things inside – a poetic light. One comes full circle, like a record, but a record that is more like an open spiral towards infinity than a closed groove. Which might also be a good definition of the new technology.

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