When trash becomes the main attraction

Prior to the sixth CON_TEXT event, Florian Neuner met with the artistic duo of Cristian Forte and Harald Muenz, to get to the bottom of the trash. Translated from the German by Thomas Nießer.


Florian Neuner: How did it come to be, Harald, that you ended up working with a second partner? Could you not decide?

Harald Muenz: No not at all. I came to it by sheer chance. The selection process was such that after the speed-dating we had to come up with a shortlist of three candidates and on my shortlist happened to be Cristian as well as Mathias Traxler. At some stage I got the news; You’re getting both! I didn’t question it but I was naturally very happy.

Cristian Forte: I normally work with sound, which is why I chose Harald as a partner.

FN: It is noticeable in the performance, that speech is pushed right to the background. 40 minutes pass by before the first spoken word is heard and not just something which is written on a scrap of paper on the floor. I’m referencing the point where you can hear the original voice of the rubbish collector. Besides this is some writing, letters, which cannot be deciphered easily. Comprehensible speech emerges only relatively late in the continuum of noise. Why this restraint?

HM: We already knew early on, that we didn’t want to act like poets and composers in the strictest sense. And the sounds are not composed sounds, but come rather from the sound sphere. There isn’t a musical score.

CF: I work with the text material that I find in the paper rubbish. My texts are thus quasi-aleatoric. During the performance, I put all my finds into a collage.

HM: We had the idea of working with more text, but for Cristian it was most important that we generate a text live, rather than arriving with texts. I then picked that up, as I am also working with live sounds. From there on it is basically a double-improvisation.

FN: How did you go ahead as sound-installer?

HM: Right from the beginning I wanted to put the room under water acoustically. One way of doing that is to create feedback. If I turn up the microphone to the point of feedback, the listener gets the impression that there is water in the room. We played a lot with this feedback – it is an acoustic phenomenon that’s difficult to control. The other method was with the beat vibration. In every room there is a loudspeaker, and both loudspeakers have more or less the same frequency, but not exactly the same. The psychoacoustic phenomenon is thus that the marginally separated diverging frequencies adjust in the brain of the listener to become dynamic vibrations, fluttering tones, that do not really exist. It was on the basis of these two acoustic phenomena that I built it up.

© Evgeny Revvo

FN: So tomorrow it will sound significantly different?

HM: Absolutely

CF: Yes

FN: How do you rehearse something like that? There’s presumably just a rough plan?

CF: No, it can’t really be rehearsed. Every practice is a new artwork. An important part is also the installation, the dice in the back room.

HM: It isn’t a complete improvisation. We know exactly what we’re doing but the details are different each time. One could describe it rather as aleatoric rather than as free improvisation, whereby the course of events are always the same. I think we both enjoyed it, that one has to permanently be alert and react.

FN: So there is a rough plan, after how many minutes the bin will be tipped upside down, when the text will be projected etc. What happens acoustically however, is not set in stone?

HM: There is a set schedule, in that the frequency will slowly rise from 35 Hertz to ca. 580. And when the voice of the rubbish collector comes in, then the glissando diminishes. The rubbish collector is the soloist, so to speak. In a true sense he is the poet.

FN: You met him by accident here?

HM: Yes in May, and he was very keen to be interviewed. The interview is a kind of objet trouvé.

FN: How did you get to the theme of trash? Was that a given for you right from the beginning?

CF: I initially had the idea of doing something outside on the streets. I really enjoy putting on my performances in open spaces. However it turned out not to be possible. The CON_TEXT events have to take place in any case within the rooms of the Lettrétage. Hence my idea of bringing something inside with the trash and in that way linking up the outside and the inside.

FN: So that’s the paper bin from the Lettrétage?

HM: We found a few things from past CON_TEXT events, and also from the BILD newspaper…

FN: What does trash mean in the context of your respective fields of work? For an author, a rejected draft might be trash, an expression which is discarded. Actually, nowadays one has to do more with data trash rather than with trash on paper. A process of selection always decides what needs to be deleted.

HM: For me it is something else. Vibrations are normally an unwanted by-product. . You try to eliminate vibrations, for example when you tune a musical instrument. The same applies to feedback. This is what you avoid if you try to adjust microphones correctly. Basically, I play with two bits of refuse, which are normally frowned upon. On top of that come the loud footstep noises, which normally you don’t want either. Trash becomes what matters most.

CF: In my poetry I work with “bad” material. For me, this performance deals with metaphorically charged material. When I see this paper trash, laid out on the floor in the shape of a square, I see a city, the consumption and the refuse, which piles up. This happens as well in literature. I don’t work with products but with left-overs. Therefore, the collage technique plays a big role for me.

FN: The border between rubbish and useful material is very flexible. There are people who are able to support themselves well with rubbish, because so many products in perfect condition are thrown away. I’m thinking specifically of a restaurant in Wuppertal, which is called the “Rubbish-Museum”, where the most astounding pieces are on display, all of which were saved from the dumpster by the rubbish collector.

FN: Indeed, these have largely been disbanded. The public has been encouraged to freely walk around the space. Ok, nobody is going to trample on Cristian when he is on the floor sorting his papers, but there are no barriers.

HM: Of course, you ask the question, ‘shall I go in there now?’ ‘Am I allowed to go in there?’ The audience will ask that question.

FN: What is the meaning behind the subtitle “An asemic intervention”? I looked it up in two foreign language dictionaries and couldn’t find the word “asemic”.

HM: That goes back to Kenneth Goldsmith, “asemic writing”. Asemic symbols are symbols which don’t appear in any existing writing.

© Evgeny Revvo

FN: There is a passage where you write such symbols on a slide.

HM: On a musical level it is exactly the same. One can hear the triads and intervals, but ultimately they are an accidental product that don’t fit in to any musically-syntactic context.

FN: Now, it is the idea behind this CON_TEXT series, to break up the format of a literary event by including neighbouring arts. How do you relate to this? Or, to ask in another way, Harald, could you operate in the same way in a New-Music-Framework or would this require considerations and criteria?

HM: We simply said, we will make a joint performance and we bring our strengths together – regardless if in the end music or literature emerges. We make a joint art project. Starting point were the room, a budget and one week of time. From that we wanted to make something. There is also a clash, as we work in very different ways. We were both intrigued to see how you can measure up against the personality of another artist. This is the result. We never really thought that either literature or music has to be the outcome.

CF: I found however that there was actually a lot of literature in this performance. For me, literature doesn’t mean just writing a text. It is about binding my reality with the reality of another person or situation. In our interview with Tino, the rubbish collector, I found a lot of literature. Tino’s story is the literature and we work within this frame. He tells two stories and is that not literature, story telling? He is absolutely authentic.

HM: You say that literature is narrative, but maybe this is what it is not. It is everyday life and it is much better realized there. Literature can then take care of other things, beyond the narration of everyday life.

CF: I am always searching for the limit of what can be defined as literature. In Argentina I was part of a surrealist group, which also appeared in demonstrations on the streets. I’m interested in literature where a book is not necessarily the aspired end product and I refer to the avant-garde tradition, where the body of the performer is at the centre.

FN: When I compare genres and fields of art, it appears that in terms of medium everything seems possible in fine art. At the ‘documenta’ a contribution could be that one reads from a book. Equally, however, it could be that a string quartet is performed – apart from quasi journalistic reports from the Middle East. This is not implicitly possible in literature and music. In these fields, one drops out of the established event formats much quicker, one feels the pressure of justification. The CON_TEXT series stands under the heading ‘We’re doing something entirely different’, so nobody will be surprised, if no normal reading takes place. But generally, the frame is set relatively narrowly. It is similar in the New Music. Even the so-called sound artists make a kind of living at the margins.

HM: I think that literature and music come close, when it is about a conservative holding on to a certain concept of literature or a certain concept of music. Anything that drops out ends up in a niche. While the niche is accepted as the exotic other, nobody wants to have anything to do with it. But when you jump out of this niche even, and you say, I make art, music as art, then this is not self-evident. Of course, there could be a great precedent and that’s John Cage, who said he also makes literature and he also makes music, call it what you want.

FN: Thinking about this softening of boundaries, which in the individual genres happens in a centrifugal way, in the very end the result would be that you have to leave this classification into disciplines behind.

HM: Well why not?

FN: This has not happened, despite all ruptures and fraying, despite the Fluxus movement and so on. Quite the opposite, I get the impression that during the last decades the atmosphere has become increasingly conservative. In literature, for example, the genres are cleanly separated again.

HM: I consider this as a completely ridiculous tendency. If one takes art seriously as a utopia of freedom then drawing of such boundaries is completely unacceptable. I understand it of course, that one tries to find criteria, but in the end the notion of art has to stay wide open. To the very least we have been further in that. Cage is only one example, Beuys another one. It is the said that these were ‘historical positions’. But, we have fallen back behind them. It gets tighter again.

CF: I have just been in Chile. There are many authors there, who do artistic-social projects. That also has to do with the fact that there isn’t so much money for art and literature. But that’s perfect as people then do what they feel like doing. There are no boundaries and conventions, but only the power of creativity. We artists are standing in the rain, and that is a very positive situation. The problem is the hegemony of the European perception of art. Europe says what is art. But this will no longer persist in the 21st century. Artists and groups of artists are nowadays well interconnected and informed. It’s not like in the 80s and the 90s. Today we know, what is going on in other countries. There is no great art anymore, there aren’t the 10 important artists in South America.

HM: They’re all in Europe!

CF: There are no longer five, but hundreds of interesting poets. We can now search and find. The hegemony of institutions and publishing houses has become a lot weaker.

FN: This is certainly an enormous opportunity. But these bastions will not surrender without a fight. There are still the big publishing houses with enormous advertising budgets. There are still critics, who believe that their word is decisive. They still try to defend hierarchies and mutually ascribe importance to one another.

CF: A democratizing of information is taking place. One can easily create a blog or a website. If I go looking for information, then there are many offers.

FN: Now a person with interest in literature or music could object: This is all well and good, but I don’t have the time to surf the net all day in search for the genuine pearls. I need somebody who gives me directions.

HM: I know from my previous work at the high school: When people come from faraway countries they are extremely well informed. The flow of information works really well in this direction. When they publish their own stuff, however, it will not necessarily be noticed.