interview by Travis Just (Object Colection) on soundwalks, earpieces and a performative audience

photo: No Music - Union Docs, NYC 2015

original interview:

interview with by Travis Just for Object Collection, April 12, 2016

Travis Just: hi! 

David Helbich: hi! my messages take 2 minutes to go through, I think. Hmmmmm. maybe I have to change rooms. 

TJ: no, i’m just still waking up, moving slowly.

DH: it's 10 at your place?

TJ: it is. i am in a cafe. it is raining, i have had a little too much coffee.

DH: and I can talk like wikipedia

TJ: we could just copy and paste wikipedia articles at one another for an hour.

DH: i didnt have enough coffee. just had a pea-soup in this Moroccan place next door, where I only now started going again. and they have amazing coffee, but I had no time. after this chat, i go back. the attacks made me head to the left from my door instead to the right, searching for coffee and food.

TJ: permanently or just for a brief time? (of course, one should always head left...)

DH: it's quite a change, but at one point I might get bored by the purely masculine energy. and the food is not so organic, you know...

TJ: and what lies to the right?

DH: hip restos, gay coffee shops, my hairdresser, manneken pis,...and old style belgian beer bars. like, also brussels

TJ: it all sounds like brussels.

DH: to open up this brussels image of images in images: my street has two names: Avenue de Stalingrad and in the middle, the footpath is called Rosa Luxemburg Path

TJ: that is practically Berlin

DH: they would not have a stalingradlaan

TJ: there are those buildings along Karl-Marx Allee, the Soviet Soldiers’ Memorial, etc. but no, not the name “Stalingrad”.

DH: yes, exactly. it changed the war, it was the start of germany’s losing

TJ: have you read Boris Groys talking about Stalin?

DH: no. but since 100.000 germans ate themselves in this place, it might be weird to celebrate it. i guess, that's why france and belgium have av. de stalingrad, but not germany

TJ: certainly. Groys is rather cheaply provocative in his writing about Stalin, but it has interesting points. he ties it to “totalitarianism” in reference to art (which is even more cheaply provocative, if interesting). meaning (I paraphrase heavily) an artwork that concerns itself with what it is doing while simultaneously with the language used to describe it and the environment in which it is received. and it’s criticism. at least, that’s how i read it. this seems relevant to your work. [check out that fuckin segue]

DH: like: we want everything from concrete experience to meta-leveled observation, that's why the works are total?

TJ: he doesn’t apply it to specific works (and only tangentially to art). i don’t mean to get bogged down on Groys-analysis. but in reference to your work, it seems that the focus is not just on the auditory event of, say, a soundwalk. but also on the physical and experiential fact of taking part in a soundwalk. the idea of the activity is as much a part of the piece as the resultant sounds.

DH: ha, the transition of this chat. well done!

TJ: and this is highlighted in how the work is presented. foregrounded in what you actually have people doing, how they do things, etc.

DH: yes, indeed. I think calling something a soundwalk is nothing more than a title strategy, but of course not the reality.

TJ: i find this approach to be unique amongst people i know who do soundwalks.

DH: it offers a focus but it also makes one blind. which can be ok: to concentrate. but that's where it gets too esoteric for me.

TJ: i find it interesting the stance and application: the sounds are not important, the idea is important. but then on the flipside the sounds are obviously important. it is both strategies bound up together, without taking a stance either way. i see this in several other pieces as well: audience intervention works, “Keine-Musik”, etc

DH: yes, I think this is the difference between conceptual art and art as practice: the first treats phenomena as examples for an idea, the second uses ideas as possibilities to experience phenomena. Or for sharing a practice.

I mean, the concept of a work could be one way (method) to get close to something, namely via the restrictions set by the concept. The aim of the concept is to leave the methods behind. It's merely an idea to trigger ideas.

TJ: this is where i think i often see a weakness in work that purports to engage ideas of conceptualism. work that explicitly self-identifies as overtly conceptual often deals with quite bland and simplistic ideas and concepts in order to smooth their reception. while work that tilts too far towards practice often has a fuzzy and poorly defined relationship to ideas outside of its own execution.

DH: hm, maybe. I think the problem with both lies mainly in their relationship with the public, the audience

TJ: what both tactics miss is that the bundling of concept and practice is unavoidable and doesn’t need to be either forced or ignored. which, yes exactly!, ties into the audience and how they receive work.

DH: The problem is always the self-referentiality: when a conceptual work celebrates its own originality more than the usage of the concept by the audience. or, when an improvisational showing doesn't realize that watching someone having an experience is not necessarily communicating "experience"

TJ: right. i think artists often tragically underestimate their audience’s capacity to read and process work. i am struck by your pieces that directly engage the audience. almost as a role of guide, advocate, and professional representative of this rather ridiculous collection of practices that comprise experimental music and performance. a quality of outreach, almost of audience therapy. but without compromising the practice with kitsch or simplification. and at times openly funny. immer gutmütig.

DH: gutmütig: sure, we are all in this shit together! :)

TJ: it helps that you are charming and funny.

DH: thanks. I think, what gutmütig could mean is what I think my self as self-performativity. like, trying to create an atmosphere where whatever happens, it is not for the artist’s sake, no one has to simply help me to get through my show, but you might get curious to discover things for yourself

in some days or weeks the audience might have forgotten about me and the show, but the concept will come back up now and then, when thinking about hearing for example, or about group situations or ...

TJ: do you have to perform yourself in these situations? is it theatre (beyond the obvious theatricality of it)? “is it fiction?” is perhaps a better way of putting it.

DH: yes. of course, it's anyway not possible to not perform, so it is better to understand this and try to control it, more or less. even though I am a quite chaotic performer, which can sometimes be charming, and I have to carefully surf this thin line between charmingly chaotic and apparently unprepared… if it works, it can be a nice surprise. if it doesn't, it's a hard fall….

TJ: without wanting to wallow in failure, can you describe one of these failed performances? it is interesting to discuss the practicalities of how this sort of work can fail. i mean, you can’t miss notes or have the violinist get lost or the actor forget her lines. but of course it CAN fail.

DH: indeed. one way would be if I dont manage to convince people that they do this for themselves, even though they follow my instruction. That is, if I dont reach the field between entertainment and exercise, where the fun part is clearly just to make it enjoyable, but the stuff is actually serious and deep. This needs trust and a vulnerable performer who is still sure about what should more or less happen. which leads to the second possible failure: if the concrete material, which might only be there to show something general, if this material sucks, doesnt work or is uncontrolled, then you lose the openness of an audience to follow your thought for this bit of time you have. does this makes sense? Like, if you say: listen, and there is really nothing to listen at, then I appear pretty pretentious

TJ: yes certainly. the audience is a sort of instrument in the piece, as well as a performer themselves.

DH: yes. nice.

TJ: is it fair to say that your work (some of it anyway) is not necessarily aimed at a contemporary music or performance audience (though they are obviously welcome), or even a modern performance audience. the work seems to even try to peel away these self-identifiers that a viewer/listener may bring to an event - the goal being an audience of people, full-stop.

DH: yes and no: no, because I like to perform for audiences in specific contexts and then try to use this as a departure. Like, lets say: people expect another sound piece and you arrive via sound at a time experience and then body and then movement. I love for example to do stuff (perform, teach, workshop...) for dancers about sound and for composers/musicians about dance/performance. but indeed: the main goal is the understanding of: we are all in this together. (now it rains here too)

TJ: ah, maybe i just see the final result because i have mostly encountered your work via documentation, not at the festival/concert/gallery/theatre itself. so I am not involved in the setup of expectations.

DH: I mean, the event at UnionDocs was great, because the audience was of course mixed, but also experienced in a very specific subject: namely documentation in the broader sense. and suddenly the earpieces became about documenting the acoustic space and how it is connected to your individual and collective experience. or maybe it was more in general about how we are connected to space. Architectural, social or whatever space. still, it was somehow a concert without music. so speaking about musical experiences, but then about other stuff as well.

In 2015 David stayed in NYC for a 4 month residency at Residency Unlimited. In this period he also performed No Music - earpieces - a performative rehearsal at UnionDocs.

TJ: then the question is how to build these expectations into the performance itself: when is it necessary to define yourself as a composer, when to define yourself otherwise.

DH: yes, this is a social game. some scenes (music…) need more 'credibility' than others. Which is historically determined. But people are so open to play around with categories. As long as they see where it starts (the game).

TJ: people ARE open to play around with categories, but artists themselves often get so hung up on these categories which then precludes playing around with them. the side-stepping you do with this is one of the things i find refreshing about your work.

DH: yes, the trick is: you start suggesting a category and then changing it, meanwhile. Also, dont play the expert-card. Like: this needs this or that pre-knowledge. I am totally convinced that one can continue the big progressive discourse and at the same time start all over again. kind of.

let me say a word about my performance next week, ok? by working on 'Seven Scores' for the Oude Kerk ("Seven Scores for the Church, the Building, the Body and the Audience", 16th of April 2016 in the Old Church in Amsterdam) I run into two major questions or contradictions, one about the situation of production (which is part of the deal) and one content wise.

[the event in Amsterdam was a 1,5 hours performance where ca. 100 people got a score for seven self-performative pieces, all tasks for physical interactions with the huge hall of the church (touching, watching, shouting, leaing,…), then were led in different choreographies through the space, while 11 helpers slammed doors, progressively getting more and more (6 seconds reverb; amazing sounds!). In the end, I asked the audience to stand with me in a huge circle all around the church, sending a vocal actions around in circles. It went incredibly well, considering that singing is the biggest of all threats of participation for most people.]

TJ: so next week then…(i say in my late-night interviewer voice)

DH: smooth! So:

TJ: i need a tv show

DH: let me be your make up artist

TJ: yeah! So:

DH: production: I am trying once more to make a kind of work in the environment of a different kind of genre: this time a total performance event within the production circumstances (curator, communication, budget, space availability,…) of visual art. the danger is: to not rehearse a theatrical or musical situation but to still want the result to be as good as these situations. diving into more forms of expressions necessarily also means adapting more forms of production. it's what jenny walshe always says: if you want a boxing scene in your piece: go and train the shit out of it in a boxing studio for 3 month.

TJ: just to clarify, is the ‘not rehearsing’ because of the involvement of the audience as participant?

DH: no, the involvement is the solution. not rehearsing is simply the reality of the place: there is neither time, budget nor people (I need people helping me with some parts). they give me time to build up (like in a gallery) and then the audience comes in. still, they want a site-specific performance.

it's a difficult contradiction, because you have to teach these super willing and open curators what genre switching means in reality (man, I was involved in this mega-huge weekend in Palais de Tokyo, where they showed tons of performance art works, really diving into this genre as if it was just made to be exposed. and then it was a total mess for performers and audience because the conditions are not the same and they absolutely underestimated this).

But let me get to the content part. my solution for wanting to make a piece with different audiences, like having people relating differently to their own role as ‘audience’ throughout the evening, but not being able to work in the space for 3 weeks with co-performers and makers (like you would do in dance or theater). the solution is to ask a lot from the audience ...

i present, but at one point i ask. after I first 'present' the space for some pieces of self-performativity ("you perform for yourself, so no judgments…the artists don’t even know what you are doing) and even elements of entertainment (a sound piece where we slam the church doors for 20 minutes; an incredibly fascinating and very metaphorical sound event) I will ask them to help me get an experiment done.

I will put the entire audience, all one hundred people, in a huge circle around the church and then send sounds (voice mainly) clockwise through the church (amazing sounding church, Sweelinck played the organ there in 1580 or something). the most simple concept, but with a very complex outcome, socially and acoustically.

singing is hard though, because lots of people have traumas in regards to their experience with singing. pitches are evil and stuff like that. so I have to find a way to create an atmosphere where it all doesn't matter. where we just produce sound. because it sounds great for the other people, the ones on the other side of the circle (whom we cannot see). I hope that I can prove that this is still "intro-active" instead of interactive. only this time not "intro-" yourselves, but "intro-" the group

TJ: what sounds will you have them produce? yells, sustained syllables, words?

DH: yes, all of these three sounds. humming, singing, random pitches…

TJ: and how is it delivered, via paper that they hold or visual cues from a director?those variables are immense in determining how the entire situation is framed of course.

DH: no paper scores. there is not a single person that we can all see at the same time. I will tell them before that we will send sounds around and that this is an experiment. this happens after I did a very open "do what you want" piece and a very strict walking piece with them.

TJ: and what is the attitude of the person communicating these things: funny and disarming or sombre and serious

DH: exactly, that is the question.

TJ: at what point do you decide?

DH: My rehearsal is actually about my style of presentation, not the sounds. I had a small rehearsal this sunday. the choir of the church helps out with 10 people and gave me 20 minutes after the service to explain them the project. (20 minutes…).

I want to be ready for, and open to, the possibility that the people wont exactly repeat what they hear or, that they will not follow at all. It's Amsterdam after all. People will want to fuck up the situation. I at least expect this and want to make this valuable for the evening. no, for the others. in the end, I imagine this entire performance as one open rehearsal. or something like this.

TJ: right, that is a challenge: what to do about audience (or spectators) who want to sabotage a public performance.

DH: yes, in 2004 i had this sabotage thing in amsterdam. traumatic, because sabotage means dominance.

TJ: i mean, I understand that impulse to sabotage. I can still empathize with the dumb teenager attitude of sabotaging something. it could also mean vandalism though.

DH: you would be a saboteur, I know, but you would make it clever. so I have to make these clever people want to show me a better idea, instead of just fucking up my idea without a counter-proposition.

TJ: vandalism certainly can have the effect of dominance but can also be a form of unconscious resistance, or just bad behavior. which can be interesting or fun at times. it is a risk you expose yourself to more than the person presenting a controlled theatrical performance in a black box with lights and microphones. (like me).

DH: and: my advantage is the phenomena. I mean, that connects with what we said before:

TJ: phenomena in what sense?

DH: like with the ear-pieces “No Music”: every one laughs, because it is somehow funnily weird how we all do this weird stuff. and suddenly it sounds great. if I can suprise the audience with my pre-knowledge that whatever we do it will sound fucking amazing and that this space is a blast, then the social situation suddenly is not there only for itself.

TJ: right, and having a disarming personality be the one communicating the piece and activity also mitigates the situation.

DH: and then it is like: oh, this was actually serious. So, humor with an interest.

TJ: these pieces are so tied to where/when/with whom they are presented, does it make them impossible to repeat? or to imagine someone besides yourself presenting?

DH: i have had others present them. i loved it.

TJ: is this line of questions completely irrelevant? i can see how it would be.

DH: its a very good question. and we had to solve it very concretely by rewriting the gestures and even the order of things for one show. my style allows a certain order, a dancer, who did my ear-pieces had to do something completely different with it. Which proves: it is not only about ears, but also about a performance. or about performativity. or about bodies

TJ: at what point in your practice did you become aware of this? many composers and musicians who are involved in performative work seem to not be aware of their physical performative presence. that it, too, is the content of the work. i know my earlier pieces and performances with gestures etc. weren’t necessarily very well engaged with these ideas. i had to learn how do it, like i learned to play saxophone as a child.

DH: yes. I mean, I starred at my daddy conducting all my childhood. and this is highly performative.

TJ: oh, you had a shortcut! bastard!

DH: :) … and then I fell in love with a dancer. next shortcut. and i could never help myself but seeing the performativity of the audience, the social games in concert halls and how different(-ly more sexy) these were in, for example, theater or dance shows, art shows.

I wrote 5 guitar pieces and the last one was for air guitar. and i thought, i could simply give people the score. I performed the pieces and also this last piece myself. the differences in the versions were amazing. i mean the differences between me doing them and the someone else doing them. so, even though i thought about a hand movement, it was apparently all about the feet and the clothes etc… as well

TJ: when i asked earlier about the irrelevance of this line of questioning, it was because one might as well ask Bach the same about violinists playing the second Partita or Beckett about actors doing Krapp. it will, necessarily, be different.

DH: yes, but it is a difference if the consideration of a context only means the singer needs a dress that is not too revealing, but still sexy enough for lincoln center, or if the piece invites the entire environment into the perception/experience/reading.

I remember that choirs in the 70s tried to implement the habit to sing in their street clothes, but then (in the 80s) it was once again felt to be distracting from the musical event because the audience could not concentrate on the absolute representation of the scores. So: back to uniforms.

TJ: yeah, and that’s the thing about this general sudden interest in performance and theatre in music: it has been there all along.

DH: yes, we always had bodies. and it is nice that someone finally sees it, as it was nice to totally forget about it for a while.

TJ: my old pal Doug Barrett has a book coming out in the Autumn that deals with the interest in ‘non-cochlear’ and ‘sound art’ and so forth. i might have his ideas wrong, but i think his attitude is that the term ‘music’ is broad enough to include these ideas. and has been doing so.

DH: yes: thats my field of work somehow: instead of saying: fuck music, it is all so conditional (me with 25), I like to love it! I like to take it as an advantage: there is something there to work with. It is all possible from this point forwards. I think visual art has a much bigger problem with its total openess and is also therefore much more sensitive to the market etc

TJ: the thing is not to discount or obliterate recent modulations and developments. but simultaneously not to treat them as fashions or obvious movements.

DH: i mean, my answer to the question of conceptual music is: music is conceptual. music is a concept already.

TJ: that is what i’ve been trying to articulate, yes.

DH: yeah!

TJ: we need to avoid, as Rosalind Krauss said, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths”. (as I hijack her book title for my own purposes)

Conducted over internet chat between Brooklyn and Brussels on April 12, 2016.


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