On Peter Ablinger's installations
translated by Volker Ellerbeck
Five successive gallery rooms, each leading on to the next by a single door, have been fitted with loudspeakers which are fed by one CD player each. The five vowels, a, e, i, o, u, were employed in the studio to colourise the noise resulting in five CDs of noise each coloured by one vowel. A noise coloured by one vowel can be heard in each gallery room. The volume is reduced in such a way as to make the noise barely discernible, unless one goes in search of the noise, perhaps on account of one of the information sheets on a music stand in the centre of the room. On entering the ensuing gallery room, however, where a noise quietly resounds that is coloured by a different vowel, one suddenly and without instruction becomes aware of a change in spite of the low volume. At first, the effect is not that of an auditory change but it seems rather as though the room had changed colour or as if the optically perceived scale of the room does not correspond to the - not least acoustically evoked - expectation of the size and quality of the space. The five consecutive rooms with their variously coloured noise are listed in the catalogue raisonné of Peter Ablinger under the title "Weiss / Weisslich 15. Installation und Hinweis, 1995. 5 Räume, 5 Lautsprecher, gefärbte Stille in den Farben A, 0, U, E, I" (White / Whitish 15. Installation and instruction, 1995. 5 rooms, 5 loudspeakers, silence dyed in the colours A, O, U, E, I). Even the observation just mentioned, that it is evident that not so much a colour itself but rather an acoustic colour changes from one to the other, seems to be given in the catalogue. For the above description forms part a) of the artwork. Part b) reads: "any change, from one room to the next". This does not (or not only) refer to the change from one of the five rooms to the next but the obvious conclusion from this artistic experimental arrangement to life outside the gallery. The very phrase "any change from one room to the next" brings out a fundamental characteristic of Ablinger's art: often it envisages a utopian in-between while perhaps the inevitability of failure is the art of it. Equally often it is not the static at least definable in-between but rather this moment of change, a never to be delimited, always elusive moment of transition of one thing into the other. Yet it is not metamorphosis that is central to characteristic works of Peter Ablinger but rather, perhaps, the difference or more precisely the fleeting experience of permanent difference.
Exactly which difference is central in this is sometimes less important than the original marvelling at the difference in observing moments, points or transitions where none had been expected. The titles of the installations and series of pieces "Weiss / Weisslich", however, suggest that small alterations in the white texture are a pictorial metaphor which approximates to the auditory ideas of the series. Many pieces of this series are variations on what is different in and about the noise, some are - should that not be the same - what is different in and about mere realities. Wherever one sees a set of headphones which are obviously provided in order to be used one puts it on in the expectation to hear something alien to oneself, mostly music or an explanatory text being read. Putting on the headphones in Peter Ablinger's installation "Weiss / Weisslich 36, Kunstkopf / Kopfhörer (head-mic / head-phones)" something strange happens. The first expectation that is disappointed is that there is precisely nothing "alien / strange" to be heard. The technical set-up transfers into the headphones precisely that auditory situation which would be heard without headphones at a place one step removed from the hearer with headphones. Here, the play on the difference of realities of weiss-weisslich begins: contrary to the initial expectation that what is heard within and without is the same anyway, it turns out that it is, at best, alike. However, that is already a euphemism: the difference between the hearing of the same environment with or without headphones is enormous. The uncovered discrepancies are those in our perception: not only are the actual sound waves that hit our eardrums others than those that reach them when we hear the same sounds through headphones but it is our habitual handling of the situation which creates differences. Every other predator filters from an open set of incoming sound waves by means of immediate self-reference which is felt in every situation - ordering less on account of volume or any other physically defined criteria but according to sociobiological criteria such as which sound signals important information, which signals new arrivals or approaches or, at least, impending discomfort like the low beat of the first raindrops on the roof. Instead of this tried and tested everyday selection, the headphones place us into a completely artificial world even if it pretends to map out the same acoustic world. Everything is wrong: the scraping of one's own shoes, hitherto unnoticed, becomes unbearably loud; and what that interesting person over there is saying just now is utterly incomprehensible because dozens of voices suddenly have approximately the same volume. That this should be so has been known for quite a long time. Both situations taken on their own have often been employed in art contexts - by radio play and film - as electro-acoustics. Peter Ablinger does not use the marvelling at the difference in order to tell a different story. He is interested in the story less for this state or that but for its transition. "So what one hears", reads one of the early descriptive sketches to this piece, "with or without headphones is the same - or: a difference. This difference is the piece".
The above description probably puts a gloss on what will really be heard through the headphones. We will be less able to filter the information clearly both in the quasi natural and in the quasi artificial constellation. A high degree of barely identifiable sounds, perhaps within a noise that is stirred, will meld into it. Commonly - and in particular in situations such as this - this is experienced as a disruption of the information transmission. However, Peter Ablinger has time and again explored and described how noise itself becomes information both as the bearer of information and as information as such. In "Weiss / Weisslich 22, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, 4'" the symphonies of the composers mentioned are condensed to 40" each by means of a computer programme specifically designed for this task. The result is a coloured and iridescent noise. However, the information on the peculiarity and character of each composer which the noise contains is unmistakable to anyone who knows their music and what is more is not communicable in this way in other constellations, at least not inside forty seconds. This aspect of informing may be one of the less important ones of this work since the piece imparts more decisive insights into the relation that an "everything", which is to be represented, bears to a represented condensate; in effect, into the relation of representation and presence. Perhaps the most immediate if rarely consciously perceived role of information noise can take is that of the informant on space and proportion. When Peter Ablinger began to explore the phenomenon of noise many years ago, one of the dogmas he ran into was that white noise was categorised by sound engineers, generally and pre-emptively as it were, as "everything". However, even the merely phase-delayed overlay of two white noises, which, if the dogma held, would have no effect at all, was clearly audible. It was, recounts Ablinger, actually less perceived as an acoustic communication than as the impression that the room had changed slightly, as though the walls had slid apart and the ceiling dropped a little. This result laid the foundations for Ablinger's conviction that art does not represent anything, depicting it by substitution or by having to put something in place at all but that it can simply show being as such, as something that creates space "like an architectonic intervention". Within the fine arts a conviction such as this is far from being self-evident but it stands to reason and thus, to all intents and purposes, the spacechanging works of such artists as Richard Serra or James Turrell form points of reference for Ablinger. Richard Serra used black chalk on two facing walls, in one room on the lower halves and in another room on the upper halves. The rooms seemed to take on completely different identities and proportions. The subtitle of a work by Peter Ablinger, "Wall drawing", is directly related to Richard Serra: the uniform white noise from two loudspeakers in the front and at the bottom as well as two others at the back and above has been changed only slightly by a simple adjustment in the controls for treble and bass. Walking through the room, which was most recently realised in Städtische Galerie in Kiel, one feels the room tipping in a peculiar manner, an irritation due to an invisible intervention into the visible space. Robert Musil once called something similar the "disturbance of the equilibrium in the awareness of reality" and it was the same author that characterised this art form most beautifully by the phrase: "It was not even a happening but, although it took place, a state".
Cantos ("Gesänge") appear to be, according to convention and lexicography, firstly sung and secondly used by people as a means of communicating to other people. Inherent in the latter is the difference to song ("Lied") and it soon appears that the concept of cantos may be seen as a literary one leading back to the great cantos of Western civilisation: the "Odyssey", the "Aeneid" and "The Divine Comedy". Ablinger is a composer and sound artist, not a poet yet he works with the notion of cantos as if he referred to the great mythological epics. In "Das Buch der Gesänge" (the book of cantos) there is no tone word to be heard clearly but a world in auditory fragments. The fragments are recordings of sounds, in this case "100 Gesänge" (100 cantos) which seem to speak of the most mundane life imaginable: the din of traffic, the murmur of a bar and the diffuse noises of an environment. One CD player with headphones is installed on each of six tables. A portion of the one hundred cantos can be heard on each set as fragments of between roughly 35" and 7'30" in duration. In addition to the noise, Peter Ablinger stages cantos: next to the exploring of a particular nothing, the white noise, there is - to vary one of his notes from the autumn of 1997 - the search for the mundane nothing, the everyday noise. The nothing of the (white) noise is also an "everything" - just like the nothing of everyday life turns into everything through the very word "everyday". The fragments and clippings from reality are ambiguous to the precise degree which does not leave anything by way of a radio play, any intelligible words or sounds evoking definite associations. The sounds through which the "Buch der Gesänge" tells of the word forgo the game of references and representation. At the same time that is the mythology which they report: that there may be a utopian world without representations, at least in the artistic imagination. It takes time to perceive this, as listening always takes time for the sounds are a "happening". However, it turns itself into a "state", "although it took place". Yet this remains so only as long as the sounds retain their ambiguity; only so long hearing remains a state of bliss. As soon as the sounds depict anything hearing steps into the background and categorising comes to the fore and paradise has been left in favour of knowledge. Information, unambiguously associable because it is representing, proves itself as the antithesis to hearing, to the presence of observation. The state of perceptive listening cannot be disentangled from the "happening" and ceasing to be of sounds but it may very well be detached from the systematic, pictorial-symbolic cataloguing of thought. Perception of the world which is projected upon itself and - in the utopian and ideal case -unrastered emerges as the essence and narrative of "Das Buch der Gesänge". The fey, detached, that is, from classification, cantos allow a myth, a mechanism of world-cognition to become observable which tells of the quest for the utopia of everything and nothing.
Static's Music - Noise Inquiries: fundamentals about Peter Ablinger's work, by Christian Scheib
"Weiss/Weisslich 7": white noise received through the ether, documentation