It’s not only what’s there. Of course, one could look at the significance of individual references, but more often than not a whole archive of material informs Øystein Aasan’s work. This begins with his personal archive, Never Ending Memory (2006-), into which he introduces everything he works on, in the form of two-dimensional representations glued to a piece of board. So in effect, it consists of his transforming every work, however small or large, into a modular element, which accumulate into a continuously growing structure – a hybrid of a presence library, a complex stacking device and an interactive sculpture. As a constantly changing multidimensional whole, it could be regarded as a model of the artist’s way of thinking, since the individual elements have no fixed order, but are constantly shuffled around as the artist removes or replaces them. While the internal order changes, the overall structure stays pretty much the same: it just grows, and by staying the same and simply growing, it radiates authority.
Maybe this authority is primarily experienced by the artist himself, who made the conscious decision to incorporate all of his work into this system. Photographic reproductions of works, however, form a crucial part – it’s a little like a collection of mug shots. In this way the whole history and theory of photography, from Roland Barthes to Susan Sontag, from John Berger to Geoff Dyer, and so on, weigh on the project, and will continue to give it body, unless the artist decides otherwise. But – and this is the interesting thing – at the same time it tells us something about the history of image-making, the capturing and laying-down of an idea, and what this tells the viewer about the things beyond themotif: what is outside the picture, what can’t be pictured? Recognizing the importance of underlying ideas informs us today about how the picture was conceived, reflecting inside the invisible a powerfully present imaginary.
But what does this have to do with the temporary insertion of curved bands of steel into a row of ground-floor windows of the Department of Physics and Technology at the University of Bergen, an intervention so subtle it is easily lost on the casual passer-by? The rooms to which the windows give visual access are those of the Museum of Physics, usually a somewhat improvised, even slightly shabby-looking display of old electronic instruments for various purposes. Based on strictly analogue electrical processes and electronics, these have become obsolete as applications running on computers have become more precise, if not more reliable, even if they ‘only’ emulate the processes of their predecessors. As a museum, this could be regarded as a junkyard of history, a collection of outdated if often still functional technical equipment, knowledge of which has already largely been forgotten by current student and largely even by teacher generations. As an archive it is situated in a strange space between historic significance and contemporary cluelessness, in other words between function and dysfunction. The architecture emphasizes this: the row of rectangular windows turns the space into a vitrine of architectural proportions. As pieces of furniture, vitrines have their roots in reliquaries, containers of physically and often historically precarious relics, too sensitive to be exposed to human touch.
There is a little analogy here between the shelter for a fragment of the body of a specific person presumed saintly, and the existential shelter that architecture provides for the universal human body. It’s a funny thought, given the way contemporary urban architecture, whether as in Berlin Mitte it has a predilection for large window fronts which appear to reference display cases or in fact actually produce displays where the private can be performed in public, or is merely a display of success (if not necessarily the success of education about the aesthetic merits of modern architecture – but that’s another story, the interrelation of puritanism and ignorance, worth exploring elsewhere).
Visually, the bent sheets of metal the artist has inserted in the windows create a surprising overlay that evokes associations with an architectural style clearly at odds with the cool, airy and angular modernist architecture presented here – that is, with the round arches of the medieval Romanesque architecture of cathedrals, castles and cloisters. Since the renaissance these rounded, dense, crouching, massive buildings were termed "gothic" and considered ugly remnants of a dark and primitive era in European history. At the beginning of the modernist era however, these historic buildings were at the heart of an intense discussion among art historians and architects – what to do with them? In The Stones of Venice (1851-53), the fruit of several winters spent on location, taking notes with a sketchbook and increasingly with a daguerrotype camera, the English art historian John Ruskin argued in favour of leaving historic buildings untouched, the rationale being that nothing was ever destined for eternity, and greatness was only to be found in the study of ruins. His pathos helped spawn a Gothic revival in Victorian Britain.
On the other side of the Channel, Ruskin’s contemporary Eugène Viollet-le-Duc also employed photography to prepare highly detailed drawings for his ten volumes of a history of French architecture from the 11th until the 16th century. With his training as an architect, he was thus able to make a very well argued case for his ideas for the “restoration” of existing historical structures. But his pragmatic approach included advocating contemporary technical solutions to contemporary problems, so the buildings restored by him often ended up with completely altered overall appearances (earning the efforts of himself and his students the pejorative label vandalisme restaurateur, ‘restoratory vandalism’). Even if it could be said that he simply produced proto-modern architecture on historic ruins, he was to become one of the first foreign honorary members of the British Royal Academy of Arts, and received the highly publicized Prix de Rome, arguably rather as an expression of commonplace nostalgia than for the merits of his radical approach, which remains as popular and controversial today as it was then.
Viollet-le-Duc and Ruskin both had a strong influence on modernism: Ruskin’s ideas influenced Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus artists, architects and theorists; while Frank Lloyd Wright called Viollet-le-Duc’s Entretiens sur l’architecture one of his favourite books. Viollet-le-Duc and Ruskin also shared an interestin the experimental use of modern technologies of image-making, as reflected in their use of photography to help them outline their respective arguments, which appears in a very interesting light today: thinking of architecture in terms of visual representation makes their thoughts oddly contemporary. Rather than directly opposed, they seem to be looking at the same thing in a technically similar way, but from quite different angles. The argument is about continuity, and how to present it. In the end it became a question of reform or restoration – until modernity presented an even easier option: revolution. Just forget about it, and start from scratch.
It may have been the unapologetically authoritative language that Wright loved in his favourite Viollet-le-Duc text. But then again, what archives, buildings and collections of photographs share is the way they represent systems that construct visual and symbolic perspectives, offer access, create and obstruct space, erect walls, permit doors, thresholds and windows, present points of view and new angles. By doing so, they navigate a difficult terrain, mediating the real and the suggestive, the simulatory and the simulated.
Which brings us back into the Museum of Physics and Øystein Aasan’s installation Coil. The title refers to electrical circuitry – and not only at the level of the electrical and electronic instruments present that were used for scientific purposes, generating pure information, and in terms of their physical appearance emanating an aura of pre-digital scientific engineering. In his intervention the artist cleaned up the space and elected to keep several machines in place, selecting those with functions he was familiar with from his musical background as a singer, guitarist and songwriter, and from his experience with electrical instruments, amplifiers and effects as well as recording equipment, microphones and speakers. It may not look like it, but this is a piece of work that comes from long nights studying magazines on music engineering and the basics and history of electronic effects.
The surprise in the collection was finding equipment that was familiar from music, but was used in a diametrically opposite way in science. One instrument, for example, was a kind of receiver for signals emitted from sensors attached to balloons that were sent high into the sky to explore the composition of the atmosphere. The findings, for example measurements of radiation from the sun, were recorded but transmitted via sound waves, specifically as complex, multilayered acoustic signals in massive volumes that could then be filtered with the help of an early, still very primitive and completely analogue computer. At the time this was state-of-the-art, built on site in the labs of the University to the same standards as equipment built and used by NASA. But the biggest challenge was managing the information, extracting what was relevant and not getting lost in sheer abundance. This is where the idea of the imaginary comes in: the scientists had to be able to imagine what to expect so they would be prepared to handle the incoming information.
So the tools for clarifying and deciphering incoming signals can also be used to encode or distort electrical signals produced by a musical instrument such as a guitar. Sound waves also informed the more spontaneous impetus of the artist's intervention in the rhythm of the window front as he bent pieces of thin sheet metal slightlyto create a series of arches, as in the waves some of the vintage oscillators would produce; but also as an easy, soft, almost decorative reference to the arcades of a Romanesque cloister. The intervention also subtly picks up on the large blue metal sculpture just outside the building. This resembles a slightly unravelled coil, but makes a reference to ‘the flight of thought’, Tankens flukt (1975), by Anny Birgitte Aak (1928-). The coil was of course an important and powerful invention in electrical engineering: a wire in the shape of a coil or a spiral creates a magnetic field; inversely, a magnetic field passed through a coil produces electrical impulses in a conductor, a technology still used in many speakers and microphones.
But the shape of the metal directly influences the signal, and can be used for example in a sound effect. An example is ‘plate reverb’, a classic effect in electric musical amplifiers. It’s a simple construction, consisting of a thin sheet of steel, preferably stretched tightly over a stretcher, a drive coil (in essence a magnet) and a pickup (or two, if you were planning to record stereo). The sound vibrations travel across the metal like ripples on the surface of water. As the sound travels much faster through metal than it would through air, it gives the acoustic impression of a very large room, quickly growing to enormous proportions as the sound is reflected from the edges of the metal. As there is hardly any loss of energy, the signal ‘bounces’ around for a very long time. The rectangular form of the plates distributes the sound waves similarly to the way a rectangular room would. (This is why echo chambers are built in irregular shapes.)
So, to our ears, it creates the sonic illusion of a very large space. The tension of the metal is never exactly regular, and this influences the speed of the sound across different parts of the plate, creating unforeseeable resonances that sometimes take the form of a ‘sparkling’ aural haze. The size and thickness of the plate also have effects – a small and thick plate would produce a more metallic sound, a large and thin one produces luscious resonances. Although plate reverbs can be used with any instrument, they can be most effective in vocals, separating the voice from other instruments.
There is an analogy to imagery here in the way a flat plate can produce the simulation of a three-dimensional space. But the space created by electricity running through a plate of steel is somehow more magical, as well as relatively new. Echo and reverb as acoustic effects in music have been around since the beginning of the recording industry, first as unwanted effects, but later they became instrumental. In early country-and-western recordings, big echo effects were added to suggest wide open landscapes or canyons, as a sound effect illustrating the ‘go-west’ nostalgia of America in the fifties. A famous band of the era called itself The Sons of the Pioneers.
Often the singers were recorded with added reverb, to separate them from the instruments or background singers, as if calling from a distance, adding urgency and poignancy to the singing. But the effects were not limited to a specific style of music: Hawaiian music and Exotica revelled in effects to create a mood of magic, mysticism and the otherworldly. A good example can be found in Howlin’ Wolf’s 1956 Chess recording of Smokestack Lightning, where a falsetto moan is given an extra boost of reverb, elevating his performance towards the supernatural, using the effect to open up the recording of a real event to the listeners’ imagination.
The symbolic effect of the echo can be traced to the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus. An encounter with Hera, the wife of her lover Zeus, left her able only to repeat the last words spoken to her. When she later fell in love with Narcissus she was unable to tell him about her feelings and had to watch him fall in love with his own reflection. In terms of sound, reverb is clearly narcissistic, self-absorbed, whereas echo is eponymous, signifying a shift in the relationship of self and self-image.
But there is a clear relation to architecture and its history. Buildings have their very own aural signature; here reverb and echo have a very specific, even literal meaning. Not only is the sound of the human voice altered by speaking in large spaces, a cathedral or a dome, in stadiums or in courtrooms; music has also been played and composed taking the specific acoustic properties of reverberant rooms into consideration. As manifested in the repetitions in Baroque and Renaissance compositions, these could even be regarded as site-specific. This was an exercise in the use of accumulating layers of sound, what these days can be simulated easily in computer programs for sound engineering, which emulate precisely the reverb of an existing building. Aready in semi-professional recording applicationsadditional effects can be downloaded within seconds as add-ons. At this point aural space has become not only digital, but completely virtual. Where is the difference between musical effects and the information that used to be created, processed and reflected on with the help of the machines in the Museum of Physics?
The dizzying speed of digital technology has allowed for changes that by now have far surpassed the imaginary spaces of the pioneers of electrical recording. You only have to look at computer games and the fictional spaces created for them, their disorienting wealth of detail in design and narrative. Any open spaces of imagination the games create appear to get lost in the abundant imaginary overstimulation of visual and aural effects, moving the imaginary away from form and back into the narrative.
The supernatural sound of Howlin’ Wolf’s moan, more than half a century ago, not only sounds cute by comparison – it’s from the Stone Age, but it’s still pure magic. Does it still work and conjure up images in the imagination? Maybe imagination has moved away from the image; maybe, like an echo, it is bouncing back, to be found in another location – maybe exactly here in a space full of old instruments designed to record the real, but that in reverse engineering also give form to the imaginary? It creates a dilemma: after all, only what’s not there can be imaginary.