Where Art & Technology Meet: An Interview With Bartholomäus Traubeck, Multimedia Artist

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Sometimes there’s an idea so clever, you wonder why you haven’t thought of it first. For multimedia artist Bartholomäus Traubeck, this is just one idea among many. 

Though it was completed in 2011, it was only a few weeks ago where news of Traubeck’s most recent piece, Years, was spread to various corners of the Internet. As succintly described on Traubeck’s website, Years is a piece involving, “A record player that plays slices of wood. Year ring data is translated into music.” The piece received some Vimeo treatment (as you can see below), and has also been featured in a variety of arts and tech-geek writeups which have praised Years‘ ingenious concept and implementation. In other words, it’s clever and I wish I thought of it first.

Even if you or I had the idea a long time ago (perhaps it was imparted to you while you were under the influence), Traubeck has been the first to successfully implement it.

Years is simply one entry among Traubeck’s growing list of artistic and technological experimentation. His work not only offers comment on the intersection of the natural and the technological, but also addresses/engages our interaction with this dynamic field of experience.

Fascinated by the concept of his work, and the ideas behind it, I got in touch with Traubeck to ask him some questions about his past, present, and future.

- – – 

Benjamin van Loon: What have you been working on lately?

Bartholomäus Traubeck: A lot of things: I just finished my last piece [Years] a few months ago. After that, last November, I had a residency, sponsored by Salzburg, about 50 kilometers outside of Rome. Beautiful scenery with a lot of history. Many buildings are over a thousand years old and you can walk on roads built during the Roman Empire. There I spent a lot of time working together with Karla Spiluttini on some ideas on how to work with our surroundings in that area.

It’s really hard to work with these surroundings because the area has this history of landscape painters coming over from Germany in the 19th century. The area was very close to the ideal romantic scenes they wanted to paint. It is really beautiful there but everything visual just feels so charged with that romantic history. Some places are so picturesque and romantic that one’s inspiration is just killed by the whole of it. So we tried to work with sound, because that medium is not so biased.

Our approach was to go where usually the tourist pictures were made and then to record sound instead of taking a photo. We recorded lots of room ambiance in famous places in Rome, but also at random places in and outside of the city. Right now we are sorting and analyzing those huge recordings to find similarities and interesting parts, building a proper concept around the material.

Apart from that I am trying to put together some sound from my previous project and tie it together for an audio release. Still buying new wood to get more interesting patterns. I am not really sure if it makes sense yet, but there are people that are interested, so I guess we’ll see in a few months how it goes.

(Actually that was just two things, sorry. But that’s always what it’s like… so many ideas in the head, so little that I have actually started.)

BVL: What is your educational and artistic background, and how has this background contributed to your current work?

BT: I studied Multimedia Arts in Salzburg and now I am doing an MA in Visual Communications in Linz. At the moment I am on an exchange semester in Rotterdam at the Piet Zwart Institute in a programm for Networked Media.

In terms of institutions I do not have a real artistic background, but since I started my BA studies I felt less and less at home in the realm of traditional graphic design (which I chose as a major in the Multimedia Art course) so I quickly started to dabble around with media in general, working with everything I thought of as interesting at that particular moment. Together with Lukas Novak I did a series of furniture designs and artsy videos, and after that there were things like motion graphics, websites, music videos, interactive installations and back again to conceptually driven graphic design.

It’s euphemistic to use plurals here because I often just did one work in a particular field and then moved on. I am very much of an amateur in everything, but it’s nice being able to follow your whims. Though, you don’t get paid very often for that.

Apart from that, I try to read a lot of theoretical texts, many on the topic of media, but also a lot of almost-random selections. If a subject sounds interesting to me and the book is not too expensive, I just buy it and put it on the ‘to read’ stack. Right now the stack is only 3 books high,

Daniele dell’ Agli: Gastrosophie – Essen als ob nicht [Editor's Note: There does not appear to be an English version.]
Umberto Eco – Die unendliche Liste (The Infinity of Lists in English)
Karl Markus Gauß – Die sterbenden Europäer (The Dying Europeans) [Editor's Note: There does not appear to be an English version.]

Haven’t started even one of them yet.

One book from the stack was actually responsible for part of my inspiration to do the Years piece. It’s called Das Wuchern der Pflanzen (The Sprawling of Plants?). They have a very interesting take on writing and engaging their topic. The critics describe it as “elegantly ironic.” Basically, they catalog plant-metaphors and strange facts of which you never really know if they are true, and with that, they redraw some kind of entertaining history of human sciences. Following their lines of thought gives you interesting perspectives, as many books do. With that particular book, it was a new perspective on plants, but even more on how humans use/see/catalog/research/think of plants.

An image of the record player/unit from 'Years'

BVL: What are some of the other ‘theoretical texts’ you’ve found interesting, or been influenced by?

BT: As I said, the texts I read are very diverse. Picking out just a few is difficult, but what I found very interesting just recently was Heinz von Förster’s work on cybernetics, KybernEthik. Thinking about rules, means, and regulations on a very fundamental level is exciting. It can be very philosophical but also very close to computer programming at the same time. Combining that with texts for example by Lev Manovich on databases gives you very interesting perspective on modern media.

It intrigues me to look at machines and their workings. For me, learning about and looking at machines is the same as learning about the human mind and its way of working. This is one reason why I made the Perspective and Projection series, where I basically use found footage, in the form of satellite images, to display the intrinsic pattern of the human mind (actually, I think these are also derived from the human cognitive system; the way we recognize things by ideal shapes) engraved  in the Earth’s surface.

BVL: It seems that a lot of your projects seem to focus on this intersection between the mechanized and the natural. Is this something you intend, or is it incidental to something else?

BT: I don’t actually know. I do not preselect the concepts I start to work on. But since my artistic field is mostly media in some form, the mechanized part is almost inevitable. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve been working long enough to give a proper answer to that question. Maybe in 10 years or 15 I will be able to grasp the structure behind the things i find interesting.

But the theme you described seems very fitting for these times anyways. It’s not actually news that more and more parts of our lives are being transferred to a mechanical and digital domain. The term ‘media’ can be understood as intersection of domains, spheres, etc.

BVL: What do you make of the role education and academics have played in the formation of your work and career?

BT: Education and academics had a very great impact on my work since university. At school, I got in touch with media theory, aesthetics and philosophy. I have been an avid reader ever since I mastered first grade, but it was only during my studies when I started to really enjoy theoretical literature. Please do not get me wrong here – this does not mean I have a profound knowledge of the fields and themes I am reading about. Because I do not have to actively work with these texts and ideas, I often do not fully understand them, so I just let them rest on the bookshelf for a year or two and then take up reading them again. But it is important to me, because that is what the interesting thoughts are made of. Some kind of foundation for creative thinking I would say.

So I guess my studies (not school) really gave me some hints on where to go next in terms of research I couldn’t have found on my own. But then again, I never really studied fine arts or media arts and I think you can tell that by looking at my work. My approach is probably very visual and analytical.

As for my career, I don’t feel that I have one yet, so I can’t really say.

BVL: Where do you see your art taking you in the coming years? What are some things you’d like to accomplish in the coming years?

BT: For me, it usually gets interesting where art and technology meet. I think I want to go further in that direction. Maybe get some more training in programming to be able to bring my ideas into life more easily. I have a few things I want to build, but they require space to build, and some funding, so a vital step would be to write a lot of applications to organizations and funding programms. If it works out, I would really like to focus on working in the field of media arts for a while.

BVL: Can you talk a little more about the Years piece? Was it a difficult concept to implement? What were the main ideas you were trying to communicate with that piece?

BT: The concept itself took some work to make it into a working physical prototype, but after some time of playing around with a wide range of input mechanisms, and having to experience a lot of setbacks, I had something that almost worked like I wanted it. Finding an aesthetic form (visually and aurally) for it was rather hard because I wanted to avoid any implications supporting tendencies like emotional kitsch or esotericism, which wood is prone to do when presented in a certain way – especially when the combination of wood and music (which is emotional) already supported this notion. So I tried to build something very reduced and formalistic around it. I painted it completely in black to draw the focus to the matter itself: the wood and its structure.

As for the main ideas, I really do not think I should or can answer this properly. Some thoughts may be very obvious by looking at it, others are not. My intentions in making this should not be important to the recipients.

I usually dislike very suggestive descriptions of art-pieces. I’d rather have a description of its composition, its workings or some context. The rest is up to the recipient. The most intricate works for me are usually those that start a thought process in my mind rather than just installing a very concrete message in my brain; those I forget instantly.

A wooden 'record' from 'Years'

BVL: What are some things we can look for from you in the coming months/years?

BT: In general, I am fascinated with something that is called ‘trained judgment’; those perspectives we can only acquire by using technological and cultural means. I think this is what my next few works will thrive on.

Right now, with a friend, I am working on an installation that resembles an audiovisual feedback loop, fed by a single and short A/V signal that is then put into a loop of effects generating a possibly endless stream from this one initial signal, diffusing it constantly with every repetition. By that, we want to expose the innate qualities of the audio and video production algorithms used in this process and at the same time create something that still has a tangible starting point. You probably know this story that says that every breath you take contains at least one molecule of air (or at least at a 98.2% chance) that was part of Caesar’s/Mozart’s last breath. The stories differ but they all recall a mathematical experiment by physicist Enrico Fermi (which was then corrected by John Allen Paulos, who adjusted it to the 98.2% chance). But hey: still pretty possible. Anyways, this was the starting point to translate this thought into the world of pixels and bits, digital audiovisual processing, and their completely different ‘diffusion rates’.

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