January 10, 2009

Paul Devens; The inquiring artist

(previously posted in Dutch: Paul Devens; De onderzoekende kunstenaar / October 2008)

text: Robert Muis.
GONZO (circus), August, 2008.

His meanwhile extensive body of work includes installations, performances, visual art, video and music. But a constant part in all of this is his acoustic work.
According to Paul Devens sound art is a part of music that has the potential to fade into other disciplines.
Paul Devens (1965) studied at the Academy for Visual Arts and the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, the city where he still lives. But there is no need to live in the cultural epicentre of the Netherlands when your work was or is performed in art establishments and museums from Hasselt to Oslo, Grenoble and Nantes. Or on festivals in Gent, Istanbul and New York.
In his own country too he keeps busy creating a distinct profile for himself.
At the beginning of this year a sixteen-channel sound installation called "Earshot", adorned the gardens of the Government House at the Meuse in Maastricht.
In June his work "Pavilion 2" in Brunssum was delivered and before very long his CD "exwork" will be released. The CD contains compositions based on electronic sounds, field recordings, manipulated samples and acoustic instruments. The tracks can freely be situated between noise, soundscape and compositions of contemporary music.

You are working in various disciplines, such as music, sound art, visual arts, installations and performances. How did this come about? And which do you prefer?
Paul Devens:
I have always been looking out for various disciplines precisely to put things into perspective. Moreover, I don't feel enough of a challenge working in one discipline only. But I have noticed that in various disciplines the same issues can arise. At the start it was not very clear to me that those disciplines influenced and supported each other mutually. But when a certain question is outlined more clearly and the work grows more personal, it becomes difficult to indicate a boundary between disciplines. There are performances that take place within a certain time-frame, in which an event modulates the situation and where I as a performer am not needed.

Does "Testing Ground" (2006) qualify as such a performance?
Paul Devens:
It has many aspects of a performance. The public enters the room - it was a room at the side of the Belgium Hall in Hasselt - in the expectation that after a certain amount of time they will exit again and have undergone an experience. That also means I have a limited timeframe at my disposal to produce a confrontation.

This confrontation has more to do with my questions than with the expectations of the public. That is the space available to me.

A physical- and a time frame and maybe even a mental space?
Paul Devens:
With regard to this performance even literally, because I did something that could have a psychological impact. People were not aware of it, but I had installed in the room an artificial ceiling, behind which a system with pulleys and counter weights was hidden.
There were three tripods in the room with each three speakers above ear level, which were directed towards the ceiling. Because of that you heard the middle and high notes via the reflection from the ceiling. The composition itself was rather bare and strongly made use of the acoustics of the room. To get this effect I had used modular software in order to realize less obvious ways of sound generation. In this case I used the Reaktor-programme, not only to make the sound, but also to programme a specific 'route' in which sixteen separated sounds could be heard alternately along the six loudspeakers.
The repetition of the routes was shifting mutually as well, because of which a different pattern was generated per loudspeaker.
The visitors could walk around and, for instance, determine which sound was the loudest. During a time span of 20 minutes the false ceiling was lowered from 4.20 to 2 meters, therefore right on top of the people. This also changed the reflection: what was originally an acoustic mix became ever more individual per loudspeaker and in this way you heard that the six-channel composition had accents that gave rise to various beats. And to more individual experiences for the public.

Which expectations of the public did you play on?
Paul Devens:
"Testing Ground" was based among other things on the expectations
that people have of a live concert or a deejay set. I depart from a certain atmosphere
connected with social codes, behaviors and expectations; these are only partially
redeemed here. "Testing Ground" does not offer any focus, no artist on the stage, as
it were. The focus lies with the visitor himself. Because of this shift in the division of the roles producer/consumer, she herself becomes part of the performance.

Art and rock culture.

Several times you mentioned your issues, which can prove to be the same in various disciplines. What exactly are your issues?
Paul Devens:
I am often interested in space and cultural prejudice. Space and time are very fundamental concepts that by themselves mean little, really. Cultural prejudices determine how you experience matters, in a way that is prescribed beforehand. When you look at contemporary art or listen to contemporary music you can, maybe, experience completely new and renewing things. They are framed, however, in knowledge you already possess. You need this framework in order to give a place to experiences and to apply criteria, for instance criteria of appreciation. I am not able to say directly whatever my question is. There are generalities in my work, generalities with which I like to play, like the things I just mentioned. But every work has its own issues.

Can you explain how you go about your work generally?
Sometimes there is a vague question, which I want to see confronted by something three-dimensional.
In other cases there is, for instance, a certain technique I want to explore, but of which I am not exactly clear how to use it.
I make a lot of drawings. This log with drawings acts as an archive I can fall back on. Sometimes I am working on something that combines with earlier work from my archive.
For "Testing Ground" I had been engaged in discussions for half a year already with reporter and curator Ive Stevenheijdens. So the preconditions and the covering subject matter were rather clear beforehand. It was, among other things, about what the mass media are doing to the public.
I had been occupied myself with reflection and space-reduction already. I could make this coincide with the theme, even though I laboured and revised the subject a lot.

The influence of the mass media and the expectations of the public often play a big part in your work. Is this meant as criticism?
Well, I am critical, but I don't want my art to become moralistic. I am interested in the effects of mass media, in what politics does. I don't know whether my art is committed. Art has a functionality of its own.
In the first place I believe my art can stand on its own; people should be able to come and see it with as open a mind as possible.
On the other hand my commitment to social themes or with society itself, is a decisive factor for the choice to make something. I try to watch from a distance what I am really communicating with my work. But because I am also the artist I can pull it back and adapt it afterwards. In the end, my commitment is visible again in my work.
Take the CD "Gunpop" from 2005; you can see it for instance in the title. I make an association of pop culture in relation to instruments of power. I find that particularly interesting because this liaison determines our - Western - lives to a great extent.
But the range of the title is at most ironic and suggests a way in which you can listen to the CD. Matters from mass and pop culture also find their way in my work in other manners.
The music of "Gunpop" but also from the 'Reset'-performance is loosely based on stereotypes and forms from pop music, dance and related culture. The choreography of "Reset" loosely refers to it too, because I asked the dancers to invent a language of moving that is derived from the motion stereotypes of R&B- and pop-clips. By abstracting these themes an image comes to life that is standing by itself, but also sometimes semiotically and formally gives feedback to social themes.

It is my understanding that a lot of your material and instruments are made by yourself. Is this a kind of social criticism, of conscious independence?
That is a bit my ambition, but because I am working especially from the necessity of art, I am not really very strict. I can't imagine making music only with hacked Nintendos and hacked software. I use ordinary computers and software made by developers. As far as this goes I am in the system. But I am aware of that and I think it is important that wherever independence is feasible, you do it that way.
That you are aware that via the internet and communities another kind of distribution comes about and that with open source software you can work inside a realistic budget.

But also in a physical sense I find it is important to keep things as much as possible in one own's hand. I want to know what kind of material I am dealing with, what it does and what it means to work with it.
When I am working on a big project I farm out the manual work, but in that case I know exactly what I am putting out.

You said: I work from the necessity of art. Do you mean: I have to make art? And what, according to you, is the significance of art?
It sounds a bit pathetic when you put it like that, but, indeed, I can't imagine not being occupied by art. And as for the significance: art doesn't have significance as such, it absolutely doesn't serve any purpose. It does have a secondary effect: you could say that art acts as a mirror for a society.
The quality of a society manifests itself by its arts. I am not only a product of my time, but of my biotope, also the spiritual biotope. People have a need to get things mirrored and put into perspective. Even if it is in relation to the unnameable, also relatively. That unnameable part could be called poetry, or energy, or confrontation, that differs with each work.
Looking at my own work: I want to see or hear something made concrete. I have a kind of basic curiosity and want to present something - in every respect - and verify it with reality. And then I am interested how it checks out with other people's reality.
I always want to confront the public with my work. Art is only art in the eye of the beholder.


Is art also an inquiry for you?
You could put it like that. Art generally is an inquiry. Whenever you want to represent something, want to make it concrete, this is a non-scientific way of research. There can come about links with science, like history, psychology, sociology. Also technique. This is very concrete: how do you give form to something. I also investigate in the sense of doing research to arrive at a result that agrees at all levels.
It is not only about my own issues, or of an abstract society, but I also ask myself what kind of surroundings it ends up in. That could be architecture, but it can also be a social environment. In Brunssum I was allowed to interfere with the surroundings in an energy-efficient residential area. The houses have solar cells, an atrium with a glass roof, and a roof garden. The construction license had been complied with regarding incidence of light, so the architect did not think it was necessary to have many windows in the front outer wall. And because the occupants did not have a garden but a roof garden, they scarcely made any contact spontaneously. I took that into consideration in my work for this place: a concrete slab with a very low table, with built-in barbecue and two stainless steel benches. It referred to a place where people could make contact with each other.
At the unveiling we organized a party with small barbecues, refrigerators, and music from a dj and a brass band. In this way the occupants understood better what it was I wanted to say with my rather abstract work. Because it is absolutely not user-friendly, you would have to wriggle yourself into a very odd position to really take a seat at the table. It was actually very strange to see that people only got to know one another at the party.

Are you also concerned about a specific aesthetics in your work?

I find aesthetics treacherous. In my own work I don't make any decisions in order to beautify something, but only on the basis of functionality. There can only be one best solution in every respect: how something looks in a certain space, how something works out.

Perfection also has a kind of beauty. The mathematical formula that is watertight, is considered by mathematicians and physicists to be of great beauty.
I think that is a good example of a kind of aesthetics that does not serve any purpose without the background information. the function of the formula itself determines that it is aesthetic. this also goes for art; the aesthetics can only be ascertained from the work itself. The rest is noise.

I can imagine that for your kind of art too prior knowledge or background information of contemporary art, or your work especially, is important in order to appreciate it, or at least understand it. Does this not leave a small, well-informed group of people that can appreciate the work it is confronted with?
Í don't think so. There is, of course, l'art pour l'art, where very clear connections are made with art itself - contemporary or historical - and that often deals with the dynamics of art itself. This kind of art becomes very hermetic for outsiders, but also very affirming to itself. When it has to be described a handle is easier to find, because the examples are well-known.
But let me give you this example: punk music from the end of the seventies was made out of dissatisfaction with society, but also with all the melodic and symphonic rock. Why would it not be possible to get by with three chords. A strong do-it-yourself mentality dominated and a passion to experiment. When you hear this music now, you immediately feel the energy and the aggression. It has a clear emotional impact, even if you don't know anything about its social background.
By analogy with this I think that when you come to my work with an open mind, you can feel the energy, the anger or the positivism. And at the moment you get engrossed in it, you will discover that more layers are possible. and then even a rational and maybe social link comes to the fore.

Your reputation does not compare to e.g. Atelier Van Lieshout.
I did not choose to work for a small public, but that is a situation that is brought about. I also don't think the public should have a certain intellectual capacity, but the things I am interested in are maybe not very obvious and then it comes in handy if you are a bit knowledgeable.
Van Lieshout started out like me, there is also a clear similarity in both our earlier works. He made a clear step into usability. And why not. However, the way he is now producing like a superstar, does not do much for me. I can only conclude that we have developed in different ways.

Sound physically.

Whatever you are working on, sound is the essence. If it is not a performance or a concert, light is for, instance, transformed or forms are translated into sound.
Yes, that is the material that occurs most. With hindsight, I started out as an artist by embracing everything that fascinated me. Working with sound as medium and as a discipline got firm shape in the end. This is also what I know most about. But I work with sound in a multi-disciplinary manner, so I am also grounded in other ways.

Do you work starting from music or from sound?
Music is organized sound, others have made this clear already. When I make a repetitive tapping sound, audible in a room, that tap is not on its own anymore. It is now inalienably related to the echo of the place. The tap was maybe not yet meant as music, but only as a boost, as modulator. It can become music as more conditions - posed by the artistic function - are complied with.
When it can only sound as an acoustic constellation and is exclusively united with it, it becomes site specific, but it is still music.
Sound art is really a part of music that has the power to fade into other disciplines. I don't have a musical background, so I don't think in notes or scores. I approach music particularly on the level of sound pitch, volume, intensity, modulation of time, in events.

Do you know beforehand what it is you are going to create or are you still unaware of the sounds or the development there is going to be?
I leave something to chance, of course. Intuition is important. So, things happen which were not thought about beforehand. But by now I know better what to expect than when I had just started working with sounds and was not very informed. Only now can I say that my compositions begin to get a certain density.

You speak about compositions. How do you set them up, how do you construct noise?
When I am composing for a CD it is in any case different then when I am working on something for an installation or a site-specific composition. Or, for something that is going to be presented in a concert-situation or a performance, live before an audience. And whether the public is sitting or standing is also an issue. As far as CD's are concerned, it can be said that I am not only thinking of the research into different forms of making sounds, of the instruments. I make use of circuit bending, acoustic and electro-acoustic instruments, all kinds of children's toys, sometimes field-recordings, but by itself it all means nothing. I myself don't feel it is sufficient to present this on its own. I think I value it more when I can add intensity, time, space, a tension span.
Sometimes I have very abstract ideas while constructing a composition. E.g., I want to create a tension by putting rhythms opposite each other, which make a connection. Sometimes I have a vague idea, because I have made a patch with software that is modular. At other times something develops at an unguarded moment.
Actually, my compositions come about exactly like the installations, or images, do.

Sometimes you expose your audience to a nearly unbearable noise. Why do you choose to do that?
That kind of aesthetic 'pleasure' often is uncomfortable and disagreeable. Discomfort is also a means of communication, with all possible kinds of nuances and specifics.
The advantage of discomfort is evoking a kind of attention that offers me many possibilities.
Like this, loud noise can be a means to make sound physical, palpable even. In this way I am working like an architect; I make a space by staking it out with loudness. This space becomes colourful and meaningful by the shape of the mass around it. Silence exists only by the grace of non-silence.

Jazzmusician Eric Dolphy once said: "When the music stops, the sound has evaporated in the air. You can never get it back". Are you, for whom music is so important in your work, not sorry that it is so fleeting?
Yes, but still there is left a residue with the listener. The experience afterwards causes a change. We can still talk about performances of Dada or Fluxus, which are gone just as well. But in the end it is not of inevitable social importance. Art maybe always makes a helpless movement, but, statements are being made and they stand.
When I make an installation or a composition that presents a different kind of reality, I can only express the hope that afterwards something has changed for the spectator. A lot or a little, that does not matter - when something leaves an impression a change has taken place already. But for people who lost the roofs over their heads because of a tsunami, this is of less importance.

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