in Features | 01 NOV 07
Featured in
Issue 111

Torsten Lauschmann

Science, sociability and restless optimism

in Features | 01 NOV 07

In his chapter on tree houses in the 1973 bestselling eco-anthology Shelter, Hugh Brown noted his enforced ‘co-existence with insects’. As ants marched through his tree dwelling, he decided to let them ‘do their thing’, only once intervening – by putting out a dirty saucepan hoping that they would ‘eat it clean’. Torsten Lauschmann’s work creates opportunities for similarly intense scrutiny, moments where mechanically marching ideas seem to be deliberately diverted into a cul-de-sac in the middle of a street party. He dismantles natural phenomena into twitchily refracted Techno doodles; willing technology to do what he wants and become part of a body of objects in revolt. Shelter was a seminal book of ideas for the self-build generation, in much the same spirit as The Whole Earth Catalog (published bi-annually between 1968 and 1972, and thereafter occasionally until 1998) attempted some kind of cosmic summation of mankind’s endeavour. This kind of unwieldy venture is something to which Lauschmann brings a sympathetic 21st-century understanding. His meandering ‘trans-Europe busking tour’ as Slender Whiteman (2001–ongoing), with solar-powered music equipment, has been documented in amusingly King Canute style. In one photograph we see the artist squatting in front of the Matterhorn in the classic electro musician’s hunched pose, awesome crags towering over him. In another, he looks out across a lazy Mediterranean sea from an improvised cliff-top stage.
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Not to insinuate that Lauschmann is some sort of blissed-out shed dweller, but there is a Professor Brainstorm-ish character to his endeavours. His lack of a singular art-making mode parallels a doubter’s fascination with science’s lofty structures. Take the quasi-Utopian viral jam World Jump Day (2006), for instance. As fictional academic Professor Hans Peter Niesward of the Institute of Gravitational Physics in Munich, Lauschmann suggested that the world’s orbit could be altered to halt global warming by a collective jump on 20 July 2006 at 11.39 am and 12 seconds – something that people appeared to want to believe and that Lauschmann, allowing himself a wry smile, describes as ‘successful’. There is a delicate balance of whimsy and optimism in his works, confirming that shared experience is important to him. Critic Neil Mulholland has noted the Glasgow art scene’s debt to his influence – not just hyperbole when you sift through his projects with their variously democratic outpourings and brows both high and low. His 2004 show at Transmission Gallery, ‘Suburbia in 3D: Chasing Butterflies’, included the typically inclusive basement performance WUNST, where musicians and non-musicians alike were invited to step up and play an unfamiliar instrument.

His recent explorations in new software have prompted a body of work that removes the need for him to appear; in his place haunting hybrids of digital and sculptural media assume an anthropomorphic presence. A programme called Cinema 4D sounds pretty daunting (an extra dimension anyone?), yet Lauschmann has used it and other tools to curiously human effect. Further exploring his interest in science, Lauschmann uses the voice of Hungarian mathematician Pál Erdös in The Mathematician (2006). With the wit of a Saul Steinberg illustration, the film uses letterforms to imagine a face; we have to join up the dots to make a head with a recumbent infinity sign for eyes. It’s like calling a constellation of stars ‘the plough’ when it looks more like a runaway shopping trolley: a state between knowing how something functions and just guessing. The soundtrack of Erdös’ chuntering has a beguilingly similar effect. In the film he tells the story of Jack and Jill in a version where they are awarded new names: mystifyingly Sam and Joe. We know the ‘process’, but we still need to do some decoding to make a successful, but no less bewildering, connection. The strength of these kinds of links seems to be determined by a comically skewed system, not too dissimilar from the six degrees of separation theory. Erdös’ friends invented the Erdös Number to describe just such a web of convoluted referencing. Erdös was represented by a zero, with direct collaborators on papers getting a one and so on. The theory eventually circulated that most mathematicians would have an Erdös Number of eight. As in World Jump Day, improbable connections between people around the world are made apparent. Erdös mutated into Dean Martin and Julie London for the multi-screen work, Sway (2007), at this year’s Beck’s Fusions. Numbers and letters dance in space, fragmenting and reassembling to a remix of Martin and London’s eponymous 1954 song.

Music of a more unpredictable kind forms the core drama of Piecework Orchestra (2007). Part of the ‘Locws’ festival this year in Swansea, Lauschmann’s installation was located in the National Waterfront Museum. It takes an enormous jumble of elements (from vacuum cleaners to drills) and harnesses their whimpering, whining orchestra. As the beats per minute increase, each sound becomes smaller and quieter, the pitter-pattering of electronic whispering. The performers are part of a modular system (documentation of the work at Locws is subtitled ‘performing Comfort Killed the Cat’, which suggests that this band has quite a repertoire), and as each musician ‘plays’ the camera zooms in as though capturing the nimble hands of a guitar hero.

Lauschmann professes a suspicion about work that is ‘fixed’ or expunged of excess meaning, preferring instead to develop pieces each time they are shown until they achieve some level of acceptability for him. Advances in the availability of data storage devices have enabled artists such as Lauschmann to keep hours of moving image footage on home computers, inviting endless tinkering. Such constant manipulations are evidence of a questioning sensibility whereby multiple readings can be grasped momentarily, only to become part of another enfolding of meaning, as we delightedly watch Lauschmann knead and shape recurring elements for each new project.