Erkki Kurenniemi, also known as QRZ, is a Finnish pioneer of electronic music and media art. He was the founder of the electronic music studio at the Department of Musicology at the University of Helsinki in the early 1960s and the head of planning at the Finnish Science Centre Heureka in the ’80s and ’90s. Indeed, Simon Reynolds, in his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction with Its Own Past (2011), described Kurenniemi as ‘a hybrid of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, Buckminster Fuller and Steve Jobs’.
Kurenniemi is indeed a mathematical genius, a specialist in digital technology and a musical visionary, all at once. However, the curator of his archive (which was donated to the Finnish National Gallery in 2006), Perttu Rastas, faithfully describes him as a science hippie – a lover of all creation. Another way of approaching his simultaneously curatorial, artistic and technical oeuvre, as proposed by curator Lars Bang Larsen in his recent lecture at Kiasma, is through the lens of ‘unbearable non-artistry’. Kurenniemi’s work is epistemologically disobedient: it is often incomplete, and it does not fulfill scientific criteria. In exceeding the parameters of conventional author–work relations, it creates a field of its own.
In his retrospective at Kiasma, ‘Towards 2048’, a series of unfinished 16mm short films and sketches for computer art are displayed next to musical instruments that he designed, which constitute, in fact, almost the only fully completed pieces in the show. The main focus of the exhibition is Kurenniemi’s obsession with documenting his personal life and environment as a template for an artificial form of intelligence. Over the years, he has been building an archive of audio-visual-textual material to make a digital ‘back-up’ of his lived experience – a kind of software, or a script to be performed in the future. According to Kurenniemi’s profound techno-enthusiasm, by 2048, a quantum computer should be able to make sense of all his photographs, videos, diaries and drawings (which fill more than 17 metres of shelf space) and use this material to create a virtual version of him. An excerpt from one of Kurenniemi’s life logs reads: ‘11/3/1987 Zeus = ((1 1 2)(1 2 2)) = (((1 2)(1 2))((1 1)(3 3))((2 3)(2 3))). Will not be solved today. Will probably dream tomorrow night. Please note that I don’t want to rush. It’ll surely come and I want to play with this pleasure. These are my orgasms.’
In the concurrent publication Erkki Kurenniemi – A Man From the Future (2013), Susanna Paasonen aptly outlines how the theoretically speculative and the manifestly banal coexist in his work. To paraphrase her text, for Kurenniemi, both theory and carnality involve potential pleasure, affectation and intensity of experience: they are all about some kind of high. Another contributor to the book, new media theorist Jussi Parikka, writes about Kurenniemi’s open-mindedness and dilettantism: his DIY sort of engineering practice and a DIY sort of scientific thinking that cannot be contained within the narrow confines of science.
Another of Kurenniemi’s notes, placed next to a drawing of a back of a head with holes and wires coming out, caught my eye in one of the vitrines. ‘Next nice project: […] Play EEG files at a suitable speed. […] Aha, I’ll approach Laura by asking her to shave the EEG patches for me.’ In the next room is Dimi-S, or Sexophone, an interactive instrument based on biofeedback. The instrument generates sound through the electric conductivity of the skin. Four players are connected to it through wires. Clothing is an effective non-conductor, so it should be taken off. By repeatedly tapping each other’s bare skin, the players produce musical sequences. Beyond its technical properties, it is interesting to think about the instrument as something of a sexual revolution turned into technical media, to borrow Parikka’s words.
The glimpses of Kurenniemi’s life on display – both life data and life work – opened up a view to a world much less conventional, ready or outdated than that of the orderly, retro-futuristic exhibition design. Sitting on lounge-style audio chairs, surrounded by interactive sound visualizations straight out of the media lab, it felt like Kurenniemi’s production had been effectively contextualized in the late 1990s, the last era of techno-utopianism since the ’60s. No link between his thinking and our time, or the imminent future, was created. Instead, past futures appeared to be meticulously conserved, orgiastic life and work intensities reduced to a graphic timeline, when the exhibition could have played up the resonance of Kurenniemi’s ideas in our current culture.
For example, let us go back to Kurenniemi’s quest for immortality, the main topic of the show. Instead of the glossy image of singularity as we know it – the eternal world of the fittest and the bulletproof – what is particularly interesting about Kurenniemi’s database body-in-progress is its spontaneous, inconsistent nature and unhealthy maintenance. On the one hand, Kurenniemi seems to be getting rid of himself with different intoxicants and hedonist tendencies in this life, while creating blueprints for a new one. On the other hand, his archive ultimately raises the elusive question of what makes life life. Unlike those regulating their health with complex medicinal and athletic rituals, avoiding all risks in an attempt to stay alive forever, Kurenniemi seems to strive towards maximum life intensity via a lack of control. In this way, he pursues the more evolutionarily novel choice, one that inherently expands our horizons – an exciting algorithm, much better than a million years of life as we already know it.