BY Bert Rebhandl in Features | 10 SEP 03
Featured in
Issue 77

Good vibrations

Carsten Nicolai

BY Bert Rebhandl in Features | 10 SEP 03

Einstein once remarked that God doesn't throw the dice, because luck has its rules, too. One of Carsten Nicolai's main interests is precisely the relation between chance and causality.

Installations, picture panels, music, books and websites are all constituent parts of a body of work that questions the logic of determinism afresh. The smallest unit in Nicolai's work is an acoustic sample lasting 0.00002 seconds. On his computer screen this sound appears as a set of lines; in the air it's a vibration. Nicolai - known in the world of electronic music as noto or alva noto - operates in an area where the laws of physics are at least as important as the freedoms of art. One of his most famous works, bausatz noto infinity (Construction Kit noto Infinity, 1998), consists of four turntables, each bearing a record - from Nicolai's own label - pressed with a series of locked grooves. A total of 48 loops can be played by dropping the needle, adjusting the speed and scratching, as with any normal DJ set. More importantly, the sound can be altered by virtue of a second hole placed off-centre, which spins the record in an irregular loop. This creates a thoroughly idiosyncratic minimal music, which unmistakably recalls the music of the spheres - here, however, the result of technology and skill.

Nicolai, born in 1965, is from the East German town of Chemnitz (Karl-Marx Stadt in the days of the German Democratic Republic), which has a rich tradition of textile processing (although until the 1990s it was 20 years behind West Germany in terms of technology). Here he gained first-hand experience of old-fashioned, mechanically programmed looms, which gave him a taste for Alan Turing's universe of codes. (In a corporate design competition for the Frankfurter Kunstverein he proposed a constantly varying system of holes punched into headed paper and invitations, based on the idea of punch cards.)

In 1995, Nicolai founded his own record label, noton. archiv für ton und nichtton (noton. Archive for sound and non-sound), in Berlin. The label had links with every avant-garde music organization in the country at that time: with Mille Plateaux in Frankfurt, where Nicolai released works as alva noto; with Kompakt in Cologne, whose Wolfgang Voigt made a contribution to the prize-winning audio journal 20' to 2000 (1999), for which musicians were asked to create a musical interpretation of the last 20 minutes of the millennium; and with colleagues in Berlin such as Frank Bretschneider and Olaf Bender, whose rastermusik label later merged with Nicolai's to become raster-noton.

The CD autopilot (2002), accompanied by a book of the same name, gives a good overview of the sound pieces Nicolai has made over the last few years. It starts with the four-second long 'error', followed by 'weisses rauschen' (White Noise) and the short, 'hi random'. The longest sections are excerpts from his most important installations: 'snow noise fragment' and 'kristallgitter' (Crystal Lattice) as well as 'sinus pulse'. Part of the work draws on Nicolai's upbringing in the GDR, where Western radio stations were frequently jammed by Soviet broadcasts transmitting nothing but a stream of spoken numbers. Searching for radio stations on short-wave and waiting for the interference to go away became emblematic of a search for knowledge, at that time mainly in the areas of politics and culture. But during the 1990s Nicolai developed an increasing interest in science. The experimental project frozen water (1999-2001), for example, consists of a row of tables, each with two sub-woofers pointing at two glass flasks containing distilled water. Sounds, of a frequency too low for the human ear to register, create a vibration that makes the surface of the water undulate. The piece looks much like an experiment in a school science lab, but is a microcosm of Nicolai's whole project: an experience that is inaccessible to one human sense organ may be revealed to another. The eye 'sees' the sound, yet the actual wave pattern on the surface of the water is so short-lived that it can only be seen with a microscope or captured in a photograph. A variation on the project, milch (Milk, 2000), which uses an opaque medium rather than a transparent one, includes diagrams of how the surface changes with each acoustic vibration.

The Japanese thinker Takashi Ikegami (along with Stephen Wolfram's book A New Kind of Science, 2002) has been an important source of inspiration for Nicolai. Ikegami's principal interest is the 'development from a simple self-replicating loop to a complex network'. In 1998 Nicolai came across this quote in an article on 'Active Mutations of Self-Reproducing Networks, Machines and Tapes' in the journal Artificial Life (vol. 2 no. 3, 1998) and was inspired to create snownoise (2001). The work is an attempt to replicate the formation of snow crystals under laboratory conditions. The constituent parts of the installation are in effect a sophisticated chemistry set: acrylic tubes, polystyrene boxes with copper pipes, dry ice, magnifying lamps, acrylic and steel tables, gloves, a wall drawing, random noise generators, instructions. The piece snownoise is as much about a documenting a process in the natural world as creating an image for thought itself. The classification system created by the Japanese researcher Ukichiro Nakaya, who documented six regular shapes of snow particles (as well as many irregular ones, each with many sub-groups), is analogous to Nicolai's own principle of organization. The varieties of dry ice are, like those of random noise, irreducible but not completely devoid of logic. This contradiction goes to the heart of Nicolai's work. In the white room that houses the installation he confronts the model with the experiment. It's not about verification though, rather the theoretical material becomes a means of expression. As the title of the work indicates, the snowflakes react to the sounds in the room, taking on delicate forms. If you overlaid all the different shapes (which Nicolai documented photographically), the result wouldn't be a mathematical table, as in Nakaya's work, but a layer of monochrome white. This is Nicolai's counterpart to Malevich's black square - a vanishing-point.

Such a vanishing-point is, however, only possible once there is the concept of infinity. This has important consequences for the status of the work, which, in accordance with the principle of autopoiesis, is never actually 'itself' but is instead always only in a condition of transformation. Likewise, the 'paintings' that Nicolai makes are suspended in a precarious relationship between being a picture and being its physical support. In Eigen & Art, Berlin, two such works were on display in the 2003 summer show. They are made up of two layers of Perspex with lines running diagonally across the transparent surface; the background is divided into black and white halves. The layering produces the effect of a picture without a specific support and the piece itself functions like a wave. The two panels seem related to a series of works about visualizing sounds, made by Nicolai in 2000 and entitled 'telefunken' (a famous but now outdated German television manufacturer).

Since exhibiting spin (1997) at Documenta X, a work that involved playing 72 short tracks in public spaces around the town, each consisting of a very simple sine wave - aural graffiti to complement his logo, the 'snowman symptom', visible all over Kassel - Nicolai has become more interested in interior spaces. He makes these as unspecific as possible, so that their only effective function is to act as a barrier to the sound waves. Music (or rather, the musical code constituted by pitch, frequency, amplitude and wave type) seems in Nicolai's work to be closest to a non-denotative language, which is what scientific research may be heading towards. The smallest unit in this mode of expression is the dot, manifested in (undated) as a specific sequence of dots on a line and which loses everything that could be construed as content in the process.

On the other hand, these dots can make music visible, as in (1999), for which Nicolai generated a succession of ever-changing patterns made by metal balls which he placed on a loudspeaker. He later took Polaroids of these patterns, photocopied the Polaroids, copied them out by hand and then had the copies made into his logo. This subtle process of transformation, so that the origin of the work remains visible only in ghostly, vestigial form, is Nicolai's most explicit acknowledgement of the fact that most of what happens in nature is invisible - we can actually only see the superficial traces of complex processes.

Translated by Alexander Scrimgeour

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.