Volkmar, what would be a short description of ‘Sometimes a Thousand Twangling Instruments’?
‘Sometimes a Thousand Twangling Instruments’ is an interactive, open-ended audiovisual work, which I developed in co-operation with snark.art, a New York and blockchain based art production platform. It is a work that is rather hard to describe, but pretty straight forward to experience. So I suggest you to get a first-hand impression of it under: https://snark.art/1000-twangling-instruments
On the snark.art site you will also find a lot of useful information on the underlying technology and blockchain concepts.
But back to your question: ‘Sometimes a Thousand Twangling Instruments’ is named after a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and is composed of a series of 2,000 unique digital sound drawings. In each sound drawing, a one-of-a-kind image is connected to a singular recorded sound, for which the image serves as a visual index. What happens is basically that each drawing acts effectively as a visual hieroglyph to an unknown sonic language. That the collectors can explore through audio-visual composition.
Collectors can participate in the project by purchasing sound drawings and arranging them in the Sometimes a Thousand Twangling Instruments player. These arrangements become a musical score composed by the collectors, which they can save and share with others. Buyers can also simply collect sound drawings, storing them in their private archive, which they can peruse at will — like a private collection, or personal gallery.
The collection in there is impressive — 2000 of separate pieces! How long did i take for you to make drawings and to collect the sounds?
Quite a while, quite a while. And the player app that you find on the website right now is just the start of possible developments in terms of interacting with the collection.
Was the idea to use the sound-drawings as a collage already there before you started making it?
The idea for the sound drawings developed out of my compositional practice. Writing pieces (even for traditional instruments like violin or piano) I would use whatever it took to find ways of pinning down sonic ideas for further development later in the process. This lead to colorful sketches of scores with layers of written notes in text, in traditional musical notation and drawings or scribblings all over the place.
Das audiovisuelle Archiv by Volkmar Klien (2019)
For the project ‘Das audiovisuelle Archiv’, which I have been working on over the past 5 years or so, I made cards combining a drawing or print with a specific sound recorded on analogue tape on the card’s backside. I also built a machine that allows you to view and listen to these cards.
In the digital world quite a number of things change. With the the concrete, haptic object disappearing new options and new ways of putting things into order arise. One of the possibilities is to explore the collection by arranging them in new and individual ways, composing them into new collections or pieces.
Can you tell me a bit about your project with blockchain sounds? What is blockchain?
It would be quite a task to explain the concept of the blockchain in one or two short sentences, so I stick to those aspects most involved in our project. You might have heard about Bitcoin or Ethereum, cryptocurrencies that use and helped popularize the concepts of blockchain technology. Roughly speaking it enables digital scarcity and decentralized tracking of ownership.
Could you say more about digital scarcity? When and why it is important?
In contrast to the physical world, in the digital world there are no original, concrete objects. Whenever you view something you actually make a copy (in your computer’s memory) to display it e.g. on a screen. And these copies are identical (contrary to a photo of a drawing, which is not the same thing as the drawing itself at all.) With the help of blockchain technology it is possible to define one digital item (token) as the original one and attribute it to specific owner. This opens up wholly new sets of possibilities for artists to explore.
Walter Benjamin once described a modern situation of art being mass-reproduced as a loss of artwork’s aura. He claimed that with the large circulation of copies, the original artwork loses its uniqueness and therefore it is no longer experienced fully, in its authentic context. What does original mean to you in this context of blockchain? Does it have anything to do with regaining that ‘aura’?
There is definitely a point to this. Benjamin talks about physical mass production though, digital cloning didn’t even exist on a conceptual level back then. It is important to keep in mind though that human interaction with digital artifacts takes place as unique performative acts which always extend beyond description and generalization. While blockchain enables the creation and documentation of the ‘original’, individual digital item, it is the community we hope to build around the project that will give it life and context.
Volkmar Klien in his studio
Yes, I agree, an interaction with art in digital world enables us to perceive them in unique backdrop of our individual experiences without requiring to reference the precise context of its origin as it was let’s say with renaissance paintings. But still how does the idea of original play in building this blockchain art community? How does knowing that this piece of yours is ‘original’ change the experience of interacting with it? (Maybe the means of designating a digital item as original is an attempt to make it more respected by the viewer?)
To be honest, I find the concept of ownership generally speaking quite puzzling and because of this highly interesting. Being able to state that ‘this is my piece of meat/plot of land/etc.’ with other people — usually without much questioning — agreeing, gives our world some sort of stability, sets hierarchies and (along with many other factors) defines who is authorized to do what where. In the digital domain a claim of ownership is of course quite far removed from the statement ‘my chunk of meat’ while pointing to the plate on the table in front of you. But: a claim of ownership always extends into the future and is based on faith that a specific object, or even just the concept of owning it has a future. People invested (on an emotional or financial level) into a specific work of digital art will be more inclined to engage with it and also look after it.
Blockchain technology aims to document and hence stabilize agreements between parties unknown to one other without a central authority or rule of law watching over the interchange. In some ways it can be thought of as the technological equivalent to an agreement between friends as in ‘this is yours and that is mine.’, which only makes sense if it is based on trust on a personal level. On the blockchain this interpersonal trust is replaced by (theoretically) tamper-proof book-keeping.
What I am saying I guess is that regardless of the (valid) claims that blockchain automates and outsources trust there still is a strong aspect of faith into future behavior of fellow humans. For after all it is this future behavior that will define future exchange values of concepts and objects, which really is quite fascinating.
Talking about the future, there is this idea of NOwnership. When we get more and more things without owning them, like Netflix, Spotify, AirBnb and Uber and in general owning things has become much more accessible, the value of owning in itself become not as appealing for especially newer generation of consumers as some symbolic value ascribed to it. Therefore it seems there is this shift towards owning as means of experience, belonging, connection. How do you see your project in the context of this?
There are owners though to all the companies you mention and they are not at all into giving away things for free. They strive for global power, are in the process of erecting global monopolies and generously leave the ‘not owning’ to the others (for a small monthly fee of course). I don’t see it ‘sharing economies’, I only see a drive to monetize all forms of human relationships.
When I say the idea of ownership puzzles me, I am not saying ‘Let’s just rent stuff from the big guys.’ at all. This is why I find snark.art’s attempt of opening up new avenues for experiments and new forms of ownership as well as funding of art projects highly interesting and important.
Agree, not owning doesn’t mean any less dependance from the big guys — perhaps even on the contrary. But how do you see snark.art initiative in terms of monetization? Of course most of art these days doesn’t shed from being sold and it’s participation in the market is very natural thing, but there is still some space for things to arise for example out of artistic need to reflect the world or out of, so to say, inner necessity. While I feel that in this case when the starting point is a platform for ownership, the possibility for art being there just for reasons other than being sold is eliminated. Am I wrong? Aren’t you afraid that your work in this context loses this possibility to be experienced outside of the market?
If you take a closer look at how ownership of sound drawings is organized in Sometimes a Thousand Twangling Instruments you will see that it enables pretty open access to people not financially invested in it. And: Owning one single sound drawing, as long as you keep yours available for others to use in the project’s shared library, gives you access to all the sound drawings there. I see this as a multi-layered experimental approach to new concepts of ownership made possible through smart contracts much rather than an attempt to hide digital art behind collection’s gates.
Yes, it sounds like an interesting option — by owning just a part you get an access to the whole. Is it the first precedent when blockchain is used to distribute art?
Art on and with blockchain technology is definitely a recent thing, but there has been quite a lot of activity out there in the last couple of years. All emerging still, but no, we are not the first ones, but definitely at the forefront. This is especially true for the people at Snark.art, who have done a couple of other projects, amongst others with Eve Sussman, Simon Lee and Tommy Hartung.
Were you thinking about the potential audience for this work when you were making it?
Definitely not in terms of a target group I would optimize a product for. But there is always the hope for the ideal recipient, who ever he or she might be, similarly fascinated by the issues at stake. Which is also why ‘Sometimes a Thousand Twangling Instruments’ allows for such an active part on the recipients’ side.
What is your main inspiration in your arts? Is there much of improvisation, intuition involved, or is it more constructed rationally? Does experimenting play a big role in your work?
That’s a difficult question of course or rather an avalanche of big questions. Generally speaking I would say composing and making art is fundamentally part of my trying to find out a little bit more about questions like: ‘how come we are around at all?’ ‘what could it all mean’ or ‘what should we make of it all?’. So one could think it to be a rather hopeless endeavor, but at the same time it is all rather enjoyable. And I am involved in it with all of my capacities; improvising, constructing and deconstructing; sometimes failing miserably, sometimes failing gloriously.
Interview: Viktorija Damerell (http://viktorijadamerell.com/)
This interview was published in its Lithuanian translation by Viktorija Damerell on www.lrytas.lt.