On the Spot with Francesca

Francesca Habsburg has always been an enthusiastic promoter and collector of contemporary art. The founder of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (T-B A21) talks about the current project “The Morning Line” and the importance of art in public space.

Could you explain the semasiographic concept behind the sound-sculpture “The Morning Line” created by artist Matthew Ritchie?

If you look at the way buildings are usually made, they are either made of brick or concrete or they are like these big football stadiums with a skeleton and a soft wrapping. This here is a new kind of structure we developed together with the architects Aranda/Lasch. It was basically created with simple tetrahedrons which can then be modulated using fractal geometry going from a very small model to a bigger. We have four different sizes or generations, as we call them, and by the time they get to generation 10 this truncated tetrahedrons would get down to the size of atoms. This structure is changeable, moveable, modifiable for each venue we go to. At the same time it is also the structure of a sound architecture. We are using these Ambisonic sound systems, which are developed mainly for the film industry to really turn the 3D imagery into 3D sound. To make 3D more realistic the 3D sound has to be as present as the visuals. This 3D sound techno- logy was studied at the Technical University in York. This whole ...

We are interrupted by a sound-check at the building-site at the Schwarzenbergplatz.

... wow. You are the first to hear some sound! Isn’t it amazing? When you walk around this space you really do have a second architecture, this very specific sonic architecture that you can not see but only hear ... To get back to what we were talking about: The Morning Line is influenced and inspired by our conception of the universe. Matthew Ritchie is an amateur physicist. He studied physics when he was a kid. He couldn’t afford to go to university so he used to go to the NYU campus and take all the physics and chemistry books that the kids would throw away at the end of the year. So he is a self-taught physicist if you want. He started to draw the universe with his own imagination, which I suppose makes the difference between being an artist and being a scientist, an astronomer.

So that is how Matthew Ritchie generated the ornament drawings for the truncated tetra- hedrons?

As I said the building blocks are designed by Aranda/Lasch. Matthew made these drawings. They are specific sketches that he made of his understanding of the universe. There are about five different ones, and they also change in scale. But to come back to this word semasiographic it means bringing a lot of technologies together. All of my projects have this sense of experimentation. I try to develop this as a strength on a personal level because I am an extremely curious person by nature. As I am a Gemini I always feel the need to discover things. I am fascinated by a million things. If you have a curious nature you may know a little about a lot of different things ...

... and you were curious about contemporary electronic music?

It was the same when I introduced the idea of electronic music to this project. I was not an expert in this area and I don’t know if I have really become one. I started to listen to a lot of electronic music and I became more and more interested in it and it became easier and easier to understand. But you need to make that effort. It’s the same with contemporary art and architecture. People are not prepared to make that effort. Because the word “popular” is a dilution of what is actually very sophisticated. So what people are used to accept is a simplification or in my mind a dilution.

Some people might find that provocative ...

If you want to stay on a challenging level and provoke people’s way of thinking and the way they see things and the way they appreciate them and interpret them for themselves you have to demand that they make a small effort. We make that effort and I want the audience to make an effort, too. By integrating a lot of different disciplines I think you create a number of access points. People might for example either be interested in art or interested in architecture. If you can bring one of these elements in, you already offer those people an entrance, an access point. Creating interdisciplinarity gives you two big advantages: one is variety of access points and the second is the possibilty to push the envelope and experiment - to go a little bit further than if you stick to one discipline.

That sounds like a multidimensional artistic approach ...

The Morning Line for example: The notion of infinity is described through the fractals, the notion of parallel universes is described by this sonic architecture which is like a parallel universe because you can’t see it. That sort of brings in the whole question of: “How many dimensions are we really living in?” You know this argument of some physicists that we only can see three dimensions. But maybe there are five or maybe there are twenty- five - we are just not able to quantify them, right? If we have a separate universe, I mean a separate dimension, it is possible that it is inside this structure. But we can’t visualize it or even imagine it.

Would you say this sculpture is site-specific?

No, I don’t believe it is site-specific. It’s a word a lot of people have been using for years. I understand site-specific to mean something different. If for instance the mayor of Vienna had said to me: listen, here is this square that needs some life and I would like you to help me find a public art project that would stay here forever. We would stay here for weeks and months thinking about what would look good on this square – that would be site-specific. But it came the other way around. We already had this sculpture and we were looking for a place to put it that made sense. For me this was the most perfect location here in Vienna and we applied for permission.

Do you think there is enough art in public space here in Vienna?

It definitely needs a lot more. It is interesting, I have just been asked to join the board of a public art festival in Rio. I am really getting into this. Public art for me has a lot to do with context. We talked about site-specific art - The Morning Line could be site-specific because it fits so perfectly in this square but it is not because the sculpture came before the square. What is amazing here are all these white buildings around the black sculpture, so you have this contrast.

So contrast is an important aspect for the visual perception of a public artwork?

A good public art project creates a contrast, it is not fitting in. You have a statement which is kind of bringing attention to the place. If we had more public art in Vienna we would have more dynamism in the streets, telling the people that Vienna is a very contemporary city. I think you should have public art for only five years and then ask the residents from the area if they want to keep it. That’s why I intended this sculpture for musical festivals. I want it to travel, so that it never gets “heavy” in one space.

Do you already know the next location for “The Morning Line”?

We have an offer to go to Paris but not until 2013 for the opening of Cité de la Musique. I’d kind of like to go to the States. There is a request waiting in Los Angeles and I don’t think we come back to Paris afterwards. So it is a question on giving up on Paris if we want to go to L.A. And there is also a possibility of going to Boston. There’s the MIT and the Harvard University. It is kind of a tempting place to go. This musical component gets more interesting if you are changing the continents. Now we did two European cities Seville and Vienna; Istanbul was more Islamic. So we then move to the United States and to South America and possibly to Japan – it really should go to Japan. We are staying true to the genre electronic music but we want it to be interpreted by completely different cultures.

How did you find the musicians, composers that are participating at the festival?

I asked Franz Pomassl here in Vienna, in Istanbul I asked Russell Haswell and in Barcelona I had invited – Matthew wanted to invite - Bryce Dessner who is from this indie rock band called The Nationals. So he introduced more rocky type of musicians like Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth whereas Florian Hecker who was the T-B A21 choice brought in a lot of much more electronic music and we have been trying to veer this project in that direction because we think that this is the future. This kind of distortion of classical instruments. People like Peter Zinovieff, taking snatches of classical or folk music and twisting them through a number of computer programmes. But we are also trying to encourage direct composition on the electronic keyboard.

And how did you select these 28 sound artists for this four day festival?

We have discussed them at length. Usually the curators put ten or twenty names forward and then we kind of run through them. We sit and listen to the different works. Sometimes it is really difficult because these people are very new and they don’t have a lot online. They might have a little sound bite on myspace or a little video of a clubbing they did but it is not really representative. We also try to select them according to different categories. So we have people like Yasunao Tone who is a Japanese in his late sixties, Peter Zinovieff and Bruce Gilbert, who are also rather old school. I would call them the godfathers of the movement, the originators from the 60s and 70s. On the other side we have Zavoloka from the Ukraine, who is only 23 years old.

And you also mix new and old The Morning Line compositions?

The way we draw out the programme is that we play two of the new compositions each day and an old one from Istanbul or Seville to sort of reintroduce some of the older works and see how they drive with the new ones. We try to diversify the programme. If you only group similar works it becomes very atonal and boring. So we introduced for instance Chris Watson from Cabaret Voltaire who is a very provocative musician. He records nature, so you can here water, the birds, vulcanoes. We have the sound of the earth and the animals around us. When you play that through The Morning Line it is extremely abstract as well. I mean he is an incredible composer, and we are working on a number of different projects. As well some of these compositions have led to another project where we are going to study whales this summer in the ocean between Greenland and Iceland. Jana Winderen is recording the coral reefs of the world over a period of time. You can hear how they are dying because the the reefs get less active. So we are doing a couple of projects with those two besides The Morning Line. The Morning Line sound programme is a bit of a mixture. It incorporates earth and nature, some of the very early abstract pieces and some of more rhythmic electronic music from today.

You also like to bring ideas in, for example you suggested the Turkish composer Mehmet Can Özer to record sounds in the region Cappadocia ...

It sort of came out in a conversation with him. We were sitting with a friend of mine who has a project of doing big land art out in Cappadocia and she was asking me if I couldn’t think of some artist that could go to Cappadocia to do a project. That would be interesting for her and she could try to help to develop this region not only as a tourist site but also as a place where contemporary art can happen. I asked Mehmet if he wants to do that. And he was so happy, because I could see that this particular musician was struggling doing a studio work for The Morning Line. I tried to image being in a cave in Cappadocia would be quite similar (to being inside the sound-sculpture) where sounds are bouncing off the walls. I asked him to go and make sound in the caves and record these three dimensions. So we gave him a 3D microphone which he had never had in his hands before. He immediately understood what the potential of The Morning Line was. Sitting in the studio with a keyboard and two speakers he would have composed something very two-dimensional. I wanted to push him into this 3D area.

You also call your foundation a laboratory. Can you explain this notion of a laboratory?

Public space is a challenge for us, installing art where it is not intended to be. We constantly try to explore how to interact with art. If you look at the museum as a traditional structure it is very 18th century as a concept. It hasn’t really moved on, you can change the exhibition format, and you can change the labels and you can change the shape of your catalogue but ultimately the room by room experience is what it is. Everyone in the art world is talking about that this not working any more. We had the White Cube and now they are saying the White Cube is dead. Let’s move on ... but lets move on to what? Nobody really knows. There is a lot of criticism and complaining going on about how art is represented – how uninnovative it is, putting art that is very progressive in a very conventional layout.

So you are searching for solutions?

For the next five years I really want to concentrate on experimenting with space. This is why we have introduced the idea of this box here in Vienna. It is presently under application for permission to install it in the Schweizergarten. If we do get the permission the box will become a place for a lab to investigate - studying different ways of presenting art, generating an interaction with the public which is much more than just getting a lot of people to show up at your opening ceremonies on every exhibition. It is important to think about how you treat your audience, how you actually interact with the audience and behave with it. That seems to be working quite well at the Kunsthalle on the Karlsplatz. A lot of people come in and come by, it is a very social place, there are lectures and small exhibitions.

Art places as social places, offering unexpected experiences?

I think quite often art doesn’t have to be much more than that. It just needs to be a place where people commute to and share experiences. Then you can offer a kind of experience inside the box which lends itself to people who are going to say: “Oh, that’s how it works”. Just by trying to explore things. Taking risks is a really important part of the foundation, being a little bit adventurous, asking the artists with whom you are working to have faith and than they also want to take the risk by doing something that is beyond their normal safety zone. Because artist very often get stuck in what is the safety zone. They know that this works, this goes well, this sells, the gallery likes it, and the collectors are buying it. How to get them out of the safety zone and say to them, let’s do something difficult again?