Interview: Carsten Nicolai

Interview and portrait: Andrey Bold

Carsten Nicolai (a.k.a. Alva Noto) projects a strong distortion field: the interview recording is overwritten by surrounding noise, most of his photos wind up somewhat flawed, and when he drops his iPhone the screen cracks into a small gem of perfectly aligned geometric patterns closely resembling his larger, less incidental, artworks. All of that is to be expected of the artist whose work is occasionally considered robotic and cold, unlike genuine human warmth he radiates. Carsten may always wear black, but typically sports neon bright socks and sneakers.


Artist Carsten Nicolai

  • ABLet's talk black, what is it to you?
  • CNAbsorption. The definition of the color is it doesn't reflect the light—which is very difficult to achieve—but actually, it's not a color. It also goes back to French existentialists, who only wore black to express their philosophical view. Black has many meanings, but for me, absorption is the best definition.
  • ABGiven your background in gardening and landscape design, did you ever consider integrating organic elements into your work?
  • CNI think they're always there. To me, nature is the main inspiration. When you look closer, you'll see how much my works are inspired by structures of nature or how it works. I did a piece, polar m, together with Marko Peljhan, at The Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media, where one of the key elements was radiation and its random nature. The radiation we receive from outer space, or from stones and ocean, is pretty random. It is a completely natural element, absolutely essential to our living. It was a few months before Fukushima, but we were already well aware of the specific situation in Japan [its dependency on nuclear power], so the work created a strong context in the local environment.
  • ABThere was a big wave of awareness in the wake of Fukushima disaster, questioning nuclear energy, but it quickly died off. Many people seem to accept, that regardless the consequences, it is simply the safest and the most sufficient source of energy for Japan.
  • CNFukushima was a terrible accident, but it triggered something very positive for me, as a German—based on this event we opposed atomic power. Of course, if you think of an immediate outcome, nuclear power is the most sufficient and the most profitable way of producing energy, but if you take into account how long power plants have to be maintained after you stop using them, the whole economic plan is absolutely not working anymore. The amount of time you need to properly shut down a power station is far longer than the time it produces energy. Furthermore, somebody has to take care of it, we can't just leave it, so people have to take responsibility, not commercial companies.
  • We have five big power companies in Germany and they almost gave up their businesses. They know, they've made a huge mistake investing in nuclear power, that they will eventually go bankrupt. We're shifting responsibilities to our future generations, who's inheriting a terrible amount of work.
  • Germany decided to exit nuclear power and everybody agreed to it. We have one of the strongest economies in the world and this move creates a new understanding, brings attention to sustainable energy, and maybe will even create a new market based on sustainability and reliability. Without Fukushima this would never happen. So, in a way, Fukushima triggered something important for our future generation.
  • ABIs there a film you wish you have scored?
  • CNThere are many films I wrote music for, but they all don't exist. (Laughs) I think when you make music you have a very strong vision, you write about something that excites you, and music is the only way to express it. In press release for “Xerrox Vol. 3” [2015, Raster-Noton] I wrote that this is the music for a non-existing movie. It was such a stupid thing to say, because probably every album is. I was so much into it, that I have only realized afterwards. (Laughs)
  • ABTwo reoccurring themes in popular culture recently are human race extinction and colonization of space, what is your take on it?
  • CNIf you look from a long-term perspective, it's clear that the human race will be eventually extinct. We're just searching for ways to survive and mainly look to outer space in science fiction and movies. We are far far away from colonizing other planets. It's mostly about orbiting the Earth or exploring Mars. In reality, we're having a hard time even maintaining a little space station. As Buckminster Fuller said, we have our spaceship already—spaceship Earth—we only have to learn to read the manual properly. We should put more effort into environmental issues rather than focusing on how to leave this place. Think global act local.
  • ABIs there a scientific theory you're into right now?
  • CNI'm really enjoying reading books about quantum physics and spirituality. One book I'm reading now is “The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama.” It's incredibly inspiring. The Dalai Lama is introduced to recent theories, researches and concepts of quantum physics and neuroscience and raises a simple question he always wondered about—why Western culture separates spiritual and scientific views of the world. A quote: “Many of the great accomplishments in modern Western science became highly problematic because of the new developments in physics. We are at a stage where new knowledge will have to come from a much broader collaborative effort. That collaborative effort my involve people from many different disciplines and different traditions but with a precision that has been advanced by science.”
  • ABEast Vs. West, Capitalism Vs. Communism, now, when the wall is long gone?
  • CNSocialism was a utopia of being equal, but it definitely never happened. You had to shrink yourself in order to fit in a box, so everyone could have a better life. I think it was a wrong idea, it should be exactly opposite. We need to have more freedom in order for everyone to have a better life. I think this experience was very very important, I'm still carrying it inside, and very thankful to go through this kind of [society] test. It thought me two important things: one is importance of money—the idea of money having no meaning is already utopian, the other thing is time, we had much more time back then. When I'm watching [Tarkovsky's] “Stalker” now it's so incredibly slow, like a slow motion. Time has completely changed.
  • ABDo you think the trauma of Soviet occupation made it easier for Eastern Germans to overcome the guilt associated with WWII?
  • CNPropaganda was a big part of it. I grew up in East Germany and was told, as a child, that we are the “other” Germans, but to be honest I never believed it.
  • There are many differences between East and West, not only economic, but social as well, even for people who never experienced it first hand. Identity. I think it's very human to easily forget the past, make it ideal. We call it “ostalgie.” Yet, if there was a choice to bring it back, nobody would want to repeat it. Which is really weird.
  • There is so much to learn from history. At least we're trying to confront it, unlike some other countries with fascist past.
  • ABMan-machine, we're already well into melding with artificial, how do you think we'll evolve as species?
  • CNWhat we're looking for basically is to recreate ourselves, but I think it's a stupid idea to be honest. I see AI development as an effort to better understand our world. I believe this effort is not going to succeed. I hope. What makes us really human is that we're making mistakes. A machine, a robot, will always be designed mistake-free. A mistake is the key element, that's where creativity is born.
  • ABWhat if you program an error?
  • CNYou can program it, but you can't possibly program it with a single script. It has to be incredibly complex. At the moment, if you look at a programming language, it's still a string of code. We need a completely different way. We may talk about it when we have a quantum computer, but we're still far away from it.
  • ABWhat about things like iPhone, how quickly it changed the way we communicate with each other?
  • CNI don't think it's a very big progress. I grew up without this sort of communication and I can tell you—everything was possible. We are dependent on being online, having connection, or having a phone. It brings an issue of being addicted, giving away our freedom. We're thinking we're reaching more, because it's much easier to collect information, but what for? If there is too much information it becomes garbage. We need to filter it. So, the filter, this is the real challenge. The right information at the right moment.
  • We all know social networks are not going to replace social life. We'll be fed up the moment social networks are completely commercially utilized. I think it's already happening. We don't want to be a part of the system. I mean, can you imagine that the biggest companies that we're talking about are not producing anything! Their main income comes from advertising, analyzing what we will buy tomorrow and directing us there. I think it's only a matter of time, I mean, we're not stupid.
  • It's a very paradox situation. On one hand we complain about invading our privacy, but at the same tame we give information to [social networks]. For free.
  • ABAs a co-founder of Raster-Noton, what is the future of indie labels?
  • CNIt's a very good question, because Olaf [Olaf Bender, founder of Raster-Noton] and me discussing it for the past fifteen years—what is the future of our label. (Laughs)
  • I think there will be a big shift in the music industry. The classic label model is going to die. That, I'm sure of. What I think will survive is an idea of an artistic group. Raster-Noton is more about artistic expression, rather than a label putting out records.
  • ABDon't you think the whole notion of “indie” has changed dramatically with the Internet? Everything spreads around so quickly and just as quickly becomes irrelevant.
  • CNIt became much more difficult for newcomers. It's ironic when Radiohead pretends to be alternative, “challenging” music industry by releasing music on their own. They already achieved a high level of recognition. It will be very very difficult for newcomers in the future to reach this level of public attention.
  • There is no chance to survive, to make a living, on recording. You have to play. So basically, we're returning to the time before record industry has started—a musician has to perform live in order to survive. A record is only an advertising for a tour. Young people, who live online, won't buy records. They'll just stream. It was only a question of time. Everyone knew it's going to happen and now it's really happening.
  • I think the next step will be giving albums away for free. I was thinking about it, but actually, it's not free. Someone else will make money on it. There is no option of giving your album away free on iTunes.
  • ABExcept for U2.
  • CNOne U2 album we all have. (Laughs) Oh my god. Do you know anyone who actually wanted it?
  • ABWhat in your opinion is the most relevant scene at the moment?
  • CNSocial environment. We are the first generation that have to deal with digital communication and social networks. There is a strong notion that classical social models will be replaced by virtual social structures. I strongly believe we have to exercise a natural understanding of how to handle this. It's more about extensions than replacement.
  • When I think about what influenced me to become an artist, it was basically social environment—performances, concerts, activities, lectures, books, conversations—existent in this relatively small city of Karl-Marx-Stadt. Today we deal with a global phenomenon and only metropolitan cities can maintain this kind of environment. In order to trigger next generation you need an inspiring local scene. This is the reason I started teaching.
  • ABWhat are you teaching?
  • CNI became a professor of the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, specializing in time based media. I return to the city where I was studying, maybe it's time now to pass on knowledge and experience to a younger generation. Let's see how it works.

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