Interview Karl Bartos, Galerie der Gegenwart, January 2009

Hamburg. A cold, clear day in January. Karl Bartos enters the café of the Galerie der Gegenwart. Somewhat in a rush he steers through the room straight towards our table, orders a double espresso, a carbonated water and after a few friendly introductory words we can begin. Camera: close-up Karl. Sound: restaurant noises, no background music, Karl’s Rheinian dialect meets our Viennese German.

Interview by Eva Fischer and Romana Kleewein.

sound:frame: What does audio-vision mean to you? How has it developed for you and how do you work with it?

Karl Bartos: (thinks for a long time) Unwittingly and without talking about it, we already did audio-visual performances in the sixties. When I look at photos from back then, there were already a few flickering TVs piled up in the middle of the stage! That was the big thing back then: multimedia show. In the USA Andy Warhol, Velvet Underground and the West Coast bands like Jefferson Airplane or Grateful Dead experimented with light and film. In England Pink Floyd worked on their light show. It was the time of liquids and slide projections. For us in Düsseldorf TVs worked well on stage, because interferences didn’t just look good but also – if you wanted them to – produced sounds. That’s how we started working with the waste products of the media – rather intuitively. I remember one performance where a ballet ensemble and we musicians were standing around a television tower dancing. Such a happening was euphoric and completely naive.

Sound:frame: Did you also work with film at this time?

Karl Bartos: I mean yes – there was this early experiment: We filmed our performances and projected the film onto the wall, set ourselves up in front of it and improvised with our recording. Of course we left pauses in the recording to allow for reactions. We thought we were pretty clever. Cameras were still pretty expensive, but of course there were always a few Super 8 specialists that would – if you were on their good side – record our concerts. Compared to today’s digital media it was rather tedious, because films had to be developed and cut.

Sound:frame: How did you spend the MTV-free seventies?

Karl Bartos: When I joined up with KW in 1975 I found an already existing visual identity. Looking at the record covers, a proximity to the visual arts was evident. Also, the stage design resembled an audio-visual installation. Everything was dipped into neon light and looked extremely artificial. And then there were our names Ralf, Karl, Wolfgang and Florian being fadet in as neon characters at dramaturgical points, every time causing frenetic applause. Even at my first concerts with the band we had slide projections, which were later replaced by video projections. In the eighties every musician had his own projection area behind him, which looked very symmetrical. The video loops, which couldn’t yet be synchronized, were either abstract or objective and always adjusted to the music. Interestingly, neon light was later thematized in a song on the album „The Man Machine“.

Sound:frame: Yes, I saw the clip „Neon Lights“ once. It was reminiscent of the productions of UFA.

Karl Bartos: The UFA films were a big influence, that’s true. Like the others, I was involved in the music films that were made to our songs as an actor. The direction was mainly done by my former colleague Ralf. By the way, some of our clips were played on MTV in the eighties and nineties and rose to a sort of cult status. When I was offered a guest professorship at the Berlin University of Arts, the articles of Walter Murch…

Sound:frame: …who was responsible for film editing and sound design in Coppola’s „Apocalypse Now“ and first used Surround Sound, so 5.1…

Karl Bartos: …yes, him! ...I engaged with him.

Sound:frame: When was that?

Karl Bartos: In 2003 I was first asked to co-develop the course Sound Studies. One year later, when I’d completed the album “Communication“, I was ready to start. To define my teaching in the area “Auditory Media Design“, I thought about what music – pop music in particular – would develop into. Since the end of the nineties, the music industry had collapsed after a rapid sell-out and thousands of jobs had disappeared. I don’t even want to get into the reasons much further, but obviously creativity and intelligence were not as present anymore as in the sixties, seventies and still in the eighties. Meanwhile they’re somewhere completely different, namely in the film industry, the electronic media and in the arts. So I studied everything related to film sound, read interviews, articles, presentations and books by Walter Murch, Michael Chion, Claudia Gorbman, Barbara Flückiger and others. The classification of the various sound layers – diagetic, non-diagetic, subjectively internal/external, onscreen, offscreen, ambience, acousmetre etc. – opened a new perspective for me. In short: I discovered the convergence of image and sound. For the first time in a conscious way.

Sound:frame: So you also had a theoretical approach?

Karl Bartos: Yes, actually. I knew it was going to go towards music and media. During my time with KW I’d been interested in German film. Fritz Lang’s „M“ or „Metropolis“, Walter Ruttmann’s „Berlin – Symphony Of A Great City“ or Robert Wiener’s „The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari“ were as much classics to me as the films of Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau. But it’s only now that I’m really engaging with them. Through my research – it couldn’t have happened any other way – I rediscovered Bauhaus, where artists like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky connected their images with elements of music, or where Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack worked on his “Reflektorische Farblichtspiele”. They then led me to Hans Richter, Walther Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger. And at some stage the terms “absolute film” and “visual-musician” popped up and they began to fascinate me. And “visual-musician” is what I see myself as today.

Sound:frame: How do you approach your work as a visual-musician on a technical level?

Karl Bartos: Well, that path was a little longer! In 1999 my partner Mathias Black and I began to create an audio-visual program and I bought myself a digital camera, three video recorders und a small Panasonic mixing board. On top of that there were a whole bunch of used TVs, cables, switches and adapters – a lot of junk. We named the group “AudioVision” – after the title of Michael Chion’s book, by the way. Karsten Binar, then the art director at DMC (Design for Media and Communication), helped me create the first visual base loops. He brought the professional knowhow that I lacked: he recorded the motives, edited them and copied them to DV tapes. I then ripped that stuff to VHS tapes. In the end there were more than 100 tapes. And then all the backup copies… Quite an effort, this kind of production! (laughs). Of course I had to create a score for the complete 90 minute set, so that the whole visual direction worked. At this stage I treated the video loops basically like an instrument or, more accurately, like a chord structure. The verse had its own visual loop, just like the chorus or the middle section. I used this pattern for many songs. That’s how I could communicate the structure quite well despite the initial line-up changes. During the performance, these sources – three VHS recorders, a laptop with FinalCut and a live camera - were mixed in real time. The visual direction required one hell of a concentration, because the videotapes were switched during the songs. Later we switched to the program “Modul8” which simplified the complete workflow.

Sound:frame: And how do you work today?

Karl Bartos: We work with completely edited films that are synchronized to the music, with improvised sequences and with camera recordings. If it’s possible, we project onto three screens with either three of the same or three interchangeable sources. However, during this show I’m just a musician, while my colleague Robert Baumanns deals with the visual direction. It’s different with the live cinema concept: Here I perform the visuals myself, improvise a lot, let myself be taken and maybe even take a risk, so that it doesn’t quite work out like planned. Then I tend to concentrate more on the rhythm of the music and try to bring the rhythm and the images into unison. In this case that means much more to me than content of the message. Then I have Legér’s “Ballet Mechanic” and Fischinger’s “Murratti Gets In The Act” in my head. (laughs) Often this kind of performance is described as “visual music” or “optical jazz”.

Sound:frame: Does the visual layer influence the way you compose music?

Karl Bartos: Of course. For the new material from my workshop it’s important to me to immediately create a visual layer, to attach beat strokes with images, to not just think in musical structures. At the moment I’m trying to create rhythmic, audiovisual patterns, where it is clear though, that visual loops work differently to auditive ones.

Sound:frame: What do you mean by that?

Karl Bartos: One feels a beat that is played or programmed well as something that flows. This is known as swing or groove. It divides time and gives it a purpose. A film sequence that is edited to the same time signature is rather boring. Here the constant fulfilment of the expected is not particularly clever.

Sound:frame: Okay, I understand what you mean. Karl, how do you view the international VJ scene? Can you predict how it will develop throughout Europe or internationally?

Karl: I read every now and then that not much has changed in the past few years. At least in the last two, three years there hasn’t been a major leap. One shouldn’t forget however, that the early works of Richter, Ruttmann, Fischinger or Len Ley were so innovative, that they still seem modern, even timeless today. Don’t you think? Even in the sixties…

Sound:frame: …the liquids?

Karl Bartos: Exactly. There are a few young colleagues today, who work with liquids. They build complicated sets with cameras and mirrors and it’s quite amazing what it all amounts to. But to be honest, I don’t have access to a particular scene – I’m more of an outsider.

Sound:frame: Well, the theme of sound:frame 2009 is “EVOLUTION REMIXED!” It’s about the evolution since the 1920’s but also about the topic remix, which, through the work of FoundFootage, symbolizes an important strategy within improvisation.

Karl Bartos: FoundFootage, Remix, Mashup… I’m asking myself whether the remix hasn’t already become the original today. Everything is reversible. Actually I’m quite used to spending quite a while on a record – that’s an old-fashioned way of describing a sound recording –, in the meantime also in an audio-visual way, like, for example, an author writes a book. Part of that is research, the pilot study, the scrapping of ideas, basically different stages of development. Many colleagues don’t do it in this way anymore. We have a culture with different quality criteria. The product is defined differently, the artist statement consists more of using a particular software or plugin and the preliminary result is already good enough. Occasionally this is appropriate, because the concept is often the actual achievement. How do you work, Eva?

Sound:frame: I constantly remix, but we also produce ourselves…

Karl Bartos: It’s true: FoundFootage can be used really well. But careful! Lately it’s all been a matter of establishing a unique visual identity. It becomes clear quite quickly, whether an artist finds his own voice, is authentic or, whether he’s led to use cool footage just because it’s cheap. Who can resist that… Sometimes I think we live in a great “mashup-recycling-remix-matrix”. Isn’t there something missing when you just produce products from other products? Influences are important, but we should use them in the forms of expression of our own identity.

Sound:frame: Do you work with installations?

Karl Bartos: At the moment I’m doing an exhibition entitled “Techscapes” with the photographer and film artist Jürgen Scriba at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. He photographed machines in the museum and I composed a soundscape for it: a sound installation that highlights the technical visualizations through random acoustic listening experiences. The sound material is from processing machines, electric tools and robots. This constantly changing sound backdrop creates an interaction with the perception of the images. Yes, sound installations cause the hearing to be conscious. As a musician you primarily pay attention to your technique and expression. You concentrate on the lyric, work on the interpretation and the articulation. The performance takes center stage. An installation however, allows for a new perspective of listening. It’s an art form that is gaining more and more importance. By the way, as a musician you have a hard time. The sound artists arrange it among themselves… and with Brian Eno. (laughs) For example, if you fly to the Balearic Islands there’s guaranteed to already be a Brian Eno installation there. He was already there before you! (laughs)

Sound:frame: What do you think a performance or an installation must be able to give to the audience?

Karl Bartos: Oh God, no idea. Everyone hears sound differently… I have a very simple, not at all intellectual answer: It shouldn’t bore me! I suspect that in order for the experience of listening to not be influenced by citations, sound artists avoid musical motifs or the timbre of ordinary instruments. Now that leads me to ask whether it isn’t possible to work with musical structures.

Sound:frame: All right, but how?

Karl Bartos: I’m planning a new installation, which will be exactly about that. However, I’m not allowed to reveal any of that yet.

Sound:frame: Does video or audio stand in the foreground for you?

Karl Bartos: I can’t separate that anymore. I’m simply a visual-musician.

Sound:frame: Do you believe that perception and mood among the audience have changed in relation to the setup? Back in the day it was TV-towers, today it’s ten beamers and five screens. Do you think that the audience has come to need this?

Karl Bartos: I don’t know that. In my opinion, you can’t imagine a big club without visuals. Visual candy is quite nice, but it gets boring pretty quickly. You only need to watch for about five minutes to know whether you should stay or go home and read a book.

Sound:frame: Or you stay because you like the music…

Karl Bartos: …and close your eyes to watch your own film, like Karlheinz Stockhausen suggested.

Sound:frame: What do you want to achieve in the near future?

Karl Bartos: We are working on a big new live show and I’m not sure yet, whether we’re going to be able to create the 90 minutes of audio-visual this year anymore. We do have the concept of the triptychon, of three projectors and screens. My dream would be to rehearse a performance for weeks, like in the theater. But well…

Sound:frame: One last question: What do live shows mean to you?

Karl Bartos: Like our audience, we’re at the same place at the same time to experience the moment together. But that also means that the moment is irreplaceable. If it was good, we’ll remember it. That means a lot to me, because through that it becomes clear how transient music is. Only a few beats – just like our life.