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To Live Free or to Die

Raul Keller (4/2015)

Raul Keller talks about the exhibition "Silence d'Or. Ilmar Laaban and Experiments in Sound and Language".


4. IX 2015–3. I 2016
Kumu Art Museum, 4th floor, B-wing

Artists: Tomomi Adachi, AGF aka Poemproducer, Georges Aperghis, Hugo Ball, Lucas Battich, John Cage, Henri Chopin, Bob Cobbing, Marcel Duchamp, Öyvind Fahlström, Sten Hanson, Raoul Hausmann, Bernard Heidsieck, Åke Hodell, Richard Hülsenbeck, Takahiko Iimura, Isidor Isou, Roomet Jakapi, Marcel Janco, Bengt Emil Johnson, James Joyce, Raivo Kelomees, Kiwa, Ilmar Laaban, Jaan Malin, Ladislav Novák, Robert Pohle and Martin Hentze, Cia Rinne, Kurt Schwitters, Gertrude Stein, Tristan Tzara, Robert Wilson.
Curator: Ragne Nukk.


A continuous and rather hidden line runs as a side stream referred to as sound art. It manifests itself in Berlin on the top shelf of a well-hidden record store Rumpsti Pumsti, in the vinyl collection of the Onomatopee gallery in Eindhoven and probably also somewhere in the bottom drawers of antiquarians and members of secret societies who live in Paris and Stockholm, and in other places that remain in the dark away from the main current. The line is stubborn and does not allow itself to be erased easily; it constantly finds itself new streambeds and new generations who carry it earnestly, frenziedly and playfully on. I say "line" on purpose because sound poetry, which mostly consists of air that has been given a shape by lips, has started its journey as a word printed on paper or written on staff paper as a stripe, which in our culture runs from left to right on the paper and carries a certain linguistic meaning. From there on the linear line, which has been given a meaning, starts to stumble and tangle, its letters getting in its own way, the words about to fall from the lines of the staff paper until the typewriter keeps repeating the same mistake, the brain keeps reciting the same vowel. Aaaaoooooouuuaaaaaaa. Sound poetry is a systematic mistake. Sound poetry is the system-free appearance of a systematic mistake. It is an analogue TV that has been left on in an empty room and plays an empty channel with white noise, in front of which the last partygoer has fallen onto a soft, round, woven carpet. This line is a tape from a magnetic tape recorder. It is above all a tape from a magnetic tape recorder.

The exhibition "Silence d'Or" at Kumu Art Museum is dense and I am not sure whether this density is good or bad. On the one hand, the accumulation of the material corresponds to the inner logics of the matter; on the other hand, the dense material starts to eat its own tail. Having put on multiple headphones next to the many little tables for two-and-a-half hours, it all starts to blend together. I allow myself to have a small break and hope that something starts coming out of this pile.

But let us rewind the tape back to the beginning and listen. Not so far back that the tape could run off the reel. There, at the beginning, there would probably be something that accumulates as feedback throughout the entire tape, a kind of a protolanguage, the first sound of a human, which resembles a baby's babble. Let us fast-forward the tape from there quite a bit. In the meantime, the language has developed; it has gone through thousands of transformations, lived in countless shapes and heights. In the first decade of the 20th century in some dim avant-garde corner in Switzerland, Hugo Ball stepped next to a tape recorder and turned it off for a moment. He doubts. He doubts the capability of a word to convey meaning. He has made the move and does not settle with anything less than poetry that would not consist of words. His move has opened poetry to foreign neologisms and he is not alone. The entire modernist avant-garde wants to push this button to rewind and fast-forward the tape. It seems as though this tape recorder has something that fills one with satisfaction.

The tape has run forward on the reels. Our own Ilmar Laaban meets Marcel Duchamp in Stockholm. It was impossible to avoid Duchamp at the beginning of the century as he was touring around everywhere with his little suitcase, the same way as John Cage did a while later. Duchamp gives Laaban a wig and a costume, which he takes from his suitcase, and Laaban leaves the railway station as Rroosi Selaviste. Laaban, of course, does not settle with only a wig. The end of his anchor chain and the beginning of his song has already found its way. In the 1940s in Paris, Pierre Schaeffer set up an AEG tape recorder that was received as a restoration from the Germans. The tape recorder does not play speeches through loudspeakers in German towns anymore. These towns do no longer exist, nor do the loudspeakers. Now Schaeffer is cutting and pasting something more concrete from the tapes of this machine together. His concrete music consists of pieces of sound that represent nothing. Our tape also has a trace of this. It is Henri Chopin – a French sound poet – who glues these two tapes carefully together. In his later work, it is not possible to recognise the voice apparatus any more, which is shaping the sound. It has become an abstract, technological, electronic vibration. This end of the tape runs until today. The Japanese artist Tomomi Adachi has this same end of a tape in one hand as he glues sensors onto his shirt while taking a microphone into his other hand on the stage. In the meantime, John Cage is writing six answers on a paper and has the viewers ask him corresponding questions. The viewers are smarter the second time and will not ask any more. Then he takes a packet of I Ching out of his pocket and has the cards re-compose the diaries of Henry David Thoreau – the American anarchist and "eco-philosopher". At least two compositions are born. One of them is a lecture-play "Empty Words" (1974). Robert Wilson – the hero from the "Arvo Pärt saga" – directs a 12-hour play with three intermissions and it is possible to watch it on one of the soft, round woven carpets in the exhibition hall.

But what has become of our tape? It travels around in Stockholm. It is being recorded on once at the EMS studio, once at the Swedish Radio, then at Fylkingen Records. And it is good – because of this others have the opportunity to have the tape, not only our Laaban, who stubbornly prefers his own voice apparatus to technology, and allusions and equivocalness to semiotic freedom. And there are lots of others. They are from different generations – artists, poets, pacifists, radio amateurs, autodidacts, the Swedish, the Czechs, the French. All of these recordings will start to come together somewhere, and, as was mentioned before, they will probably come together even too well so that the previous lines from underneath are erased and melt together. This line comes quite close in time and space in the Kumu exhibition to our own sound poets Roomet Jakapi and Jaan Malin, of whom one has a pastoral, the other a farce-like effect. It is quite a good mixtape altogether.

And with this, I would like to praise the curator for her thoroughness, the graphic designer for the clear form and simple practicality. Thank you for the sand on the floor, but here comes the pebble in the shoe: Kiwa's work becomes thin wallpaper and only illustrates the topic. Is the problem in the chosen work or the places it is exhibited ? I do not know. And another pebble: why does such a voluminous and dense exhibition not have a catalogue?

Another detail. In the last exhibition room stands a high, inexpressive industrial ladder. There is no reason for it to be there. As a curious person I climb up the ladder and nobody tells me not to. There is a little platform on top of the ladder. The only thing I see from this platform is the backside of the suspended ceiling where four luminophore lamps, which are turned off, each contain two dusty pipes. Later, as I am walking back home through Kadriorg Park, I am thinking about the ladder and I remember the tractate of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Maybe this ladder was one of the keys.


Raul Keller is a (sound/installation) artist. He works as the head of the Chair of New Media at the Estonian Academy of Arts.


Exhibition view at Kumu Art Museum,
photo by Stanislav Stepashko

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