For years the Austrian artist Kurt Hentschlager has been creating sound-and-video environments that either bombard viewers with eyeball-jolting intensity—in the form of hyper-accelerated footage of piranha attacks, for instance—or suck them into a meditative void. His latest work, an installation called ZEE that recently toured through New York, combines these two effects for a unique psychedelic event: billed as “A Rigorous Mindscape; A Hallucinatory Architecture of Light; A Dream Machine,” the mind-melting piece consists of an empty room where rapidly flashing stroboscopic lights and droning music play against a thick fog, immersing the viewer in an overwhelming, three-dimensional vortex that blurs the distinction between the mind and the external stimuli. In some cases, it causes hallucinations; on rare occasions, with photosensitive people, it can cause seizures.
A veteran of Austria’s punk and techno scenes, Hentschlager originally trained as an architect before coming under the influence of experimental music and film in the 1970s. I sat down with him to discuss how ZEE works, the pursuit of the sublime, and why the best research on his kind of art comes out of torture studies.
Motherboard: When I was inside ZEE, I was going in and out of a dreamlike state, and I had difficulty at times differentiating what I was actually seeing and what was purely in my mind. It was much closer to a psychedelic trip than what one usually expects at an art gallery. What’s going on here?
Kurt Hentschlager: Well, a psychedelic experience is really triggered by a chemical change in the brain and then synapses firing and reconnecting in different ways. I think ZEE is much more simple than that, a rather basic interaction between the visual cortex and outside stimuli that are rather minimal. You have flickering flashes, sequences of flashes from the stroboscopes that are evened out and dispersed by the fog, which wipes out all spatial cues. I think the result is hard to describe, because everyone who knows stroboscopes knows them as a very hard kind of flashing light, sequencing motion mostly. If nothing moves there’s nothing exciting really, but the moment something moves in strobe light you get these spectacular Muybridge-like impressions.
So what’s the connection between what I experienced in ZEE and what is actually going on in the room?
There are really two layers. There are the external triggers, like the flashes and the color. The strobes by default cast a very pure bluish white and then there are only a few prime colors that appear in the composition of the work in different sequences. The individual strobes also differ in frequencies, so frequency interference patterns come out of their interaction. Then the sound is another layer that immerses you and adds to the intensity. What the brain synthesizes out of this is a kaleidoscopic, three-dimensional spatial impression, which really is not present in the space but inside your cortex. If you put a camera in the room you can’t record anything other than a flat, rather uninteresting flicker image. [Note: this unauthorized video, for instance, gives only a poor indication of the experience.]
Some people hallucinate, is that right?
Some people see things that, you know, are really generally not in there. Everybody sees those kaleidoscopic, psychedelic patterns, fractal patterns—that is general for all people, because the visual cortex is a rather basic and primal station. Most people will also be in an alpha state, a relaxed, intensive moment. The scanning rate of the visual cortex will be somewhere between 8 to 13 cycles per second, so that’s not enough of a change to create too much of a difference in what people see. But some people do go in there and see all kinds of things on top of that: people appearing who are not there, memories coming up. I think it’s generally because your brain gets overwhelmed.
That sounds like it has potential for a horror movie scenario, like in “Flatliners.”
Haha, yeah, but I haven’t heard any reports yet of dead people. It’s not a wormhole to the other side. Predominantly it is sublime aesthetic experience that creates a moment of serenity and joy. For me it’s a little like bathing in light, it has this element of being in an ether of sorts. It has an uplifting quality.
Haven’t some viewers had bad reactions to ZEE?
Yes, of course. But it would be very interesting to discuss whether the bad reactions are really bad. They’re certainly disturbing. So-called photosensitive people have had seizures. They can literally not digest stroboscopic light. Their brain is overwhelmed and they go into an internal hyperventilation of sorts and the brain temporarily shuts down. And for some people this work is capable of inducing seizures, a benign form of seizure that takes a couple of minutes and they lose their short term memory for a moment and then, after a time, everything goes back to normal. Over the years I’ve seen a couple of cases, and I follow up with these people and they tell me that it’s almost a deathlike experience where you see all your memories coming out in one moment, vividly and very beautifully, and then they don’t have any memory because it breaks off once they go into reset mode. But we’ve seen close to 8,000 people, and I think there were four seizures.
Tony Conrad’s landmark 1966 film “The Flicker” also caused some people to have seizures.
Absolutely. It’s a canonical piece in experimental film, and there is a whole generation of film artists, like Paul Sharits, who work exclusively with flicker film, and that was always an issue. And it’s always been an issue in clubs, too, with stroboscopic light. In ZEE we screen viewers obviously, and then we have people to monitor visitors for the first minute to test if they have even a slight reaction. But it’s impossible to screen perfectly because a lot of people who are photosensitive just don’t know that they are.
What inspired you to make ZEE?
I’ve done a lot of video work in the last 15 years, big-scale, multi-screen audiovisual concerts and installations. Then in 1998 with my then-partner in Granular-Synthesis [Ulf Langheinrich] we developed software that could flicker two streams of content into each other, kind of reviving the idea of flicker but not looking at it as a deconstruction of film but more as a means to lift the image of the screen. As you know, the difference between sound and projected image is that sound is always three-dimensional while image is always glued to a screen. So I tried working with flicker as a way to modulate film and video projections, and there were promising results and satisfying results, but you can never quite overcome ultimately the presence of the screen as a two-dimensional plane. So one of the inspirations was to find a way to create images in a kind of holographic way in three dimensions.
At the same time the other big topic in my work has always been making sense of the void, erasing familiar space around it and thus creating a sense of isolation and a feeling of falling back into yourself. If the screen is inside you, like in ZEE, it’s hard to tell where it actually starts or ends. That’s the interesting part—it blurs the inside and the outside, and it makes you forget about your body to an extent. That fascinates me.
Another inspiration you’ve mentioned is the special German prison unit that was built to house the Baader-Meinhof gang in the 1970s.
It was not an inspiration—I’d much rather label James Turrell as an inspiration, or the desert—but I thought it was a very good reference. There’s very little research done on areas like this of extreme settings of perception, and most often it is in relation to the research of torture. With Baader-Meinhof, one of the goals of the prison was to create this super-observable and hyper-inescapable setting, where not only they could not escape physically, but no action could escape observation. There was no communication allowed between the prisoners, everyone was in a single cell. It was like being put into a white void, where the light would never go out, ever. And all of this is actually defined in the U.N. charter as torture.
But this is a longstanding tactic. If you read the Gulag Archipelago there’s a lot about that in there too, how the KGB would break down prisoners over time through these methods.
In the wrong hands, could ZEE be used as a form of torture?
That’s because it’s disorientating and it cuts you off from your familiar environment. Normally that’s meant to destabilize you, to break you. If you were forced to be inside ZEE for a month it could actually flip over after a while and become the opposite. I do think it would take a long time, but still.
Trent Reznor and Pearl Jam were petitioning the government to find out if their music was used to abuse prisoners in Guantanamo. We already know Britney Spears and Marilyn Manson were played, among others. Do some songs—or works of art—lend themselves to torture more readily than others?
Well do you remember Clockwork Orange? They played Beethoven. I think generally what creates the torture element is that the world in all its variety is replaced by one instance only, and that one instance repeats over and over again. And that after a while creates a sense of hell. It really doesn’t matter what. If you were locked in a room that was essentially a void and your favorite item, say your favorite piece of music, was played loud continuously over a year, it could actually kill you. But I do believe the difference is that ZEE generally triggers a very positive response. Nothing in it feels like torture. I do believe that if you forced me inside of ZEE for months, there would be a breaking point when it would turn upside down and become very oppressive, and that’s just because you can’t escape it.
You’ve described yourself as a capital-“R” romantic. What does that mean for your work?
I think in ZEE it’s very obvious, I think it’s a very Romantic work just by the fact that it has this experiential result in most people. Romantic in the sense that emotion comes before the rational analysis, that is the predominant definition of Romanticism for me. I like to have intense experiences, to have things grab me physically and emotionally and only later on become a cerebral event. A lot of art, a lot of conceptual art, comes from the opposite angle, and that can actually work as well. But I prefer the angle where you don’t have to describe, you don’t have to know something, you can just have an experience that just by its nature might start a thought process.
Your work often seems to aspire to the sublime. I’ve heard you mention the experience of climbing the Alps as a reference point.
Yeah. In our civilization it’s very hard to have real or actual intense experiences. A lot of it is mediated, like in going to the movies, and it’s supposedly safe so you can dip in there and have the experience without being exposed to any danger or risk. I think that takes away a lot of what I would consider an intense, authentic experience. It’s very hard to have sublime experiences in that way. Climbing the Alps is a classic Austrian thing to do, but being in New York, it’s harder to have such an experience.
But let’s say you could walk all the way up the side of a skyscraper and there were no handrails, just stairs up, and the higher you go up the more lethal a misstep becomes, and the air gets thinner, you get more tired—but also the view opens up as you climb every flight of stairs, it gets more grand and more beautiful. It literally removes you from the lowly regions and the lowly concerns of everyday life. It’s a kind of authentic experience, a very refreshing and replenishing experience. It’s a happiness-creating zone. I think this is certainly one of the things that inform my work. I have given up trying to rival landscapes like this. I remember the first time I went to the Grand Canyon I looked down and though, oh my god, this is negative Alps. I didn’t understand that this was possible. As an artist you have to acknowledge that you can never rival that, that’s not what it’s about. What interests me is creating the intensity of such an experience
INTERVIEW BY ANDREW GOLDSTEIN
Kurt Hentschlager has 2010 projects scheduled for Mexico City, Rome and Florence and Brussels. Check his website for additional locations and dates. ZEE was an inaugural project of FuturePerfect, a new performance, media, art & technology initiative, and Hentschlager is developing a new project for the NY festival launch in spring 2011.