INTERVIEW WITH ERIK HOBIJN
(Riga. August 24, 2000)
In September of this year, I had the good fortune to attend the Art + Communication Festival in Riga, where I met Dutch artist Erik Hobijn and saw his amazing Pipe Whistlers. This sonic sculpture consisted of 20 or so steel pipes of various lengths and diameters, which were played by a variety of burners and welding torches inserted at the bottom ends of the pipes. The burners heat the air inside, creating waves which become sound. This sound, played by several masked perfomers on a rainy Latvian night before a crowd of hundreds, was in turn both high-pitched and subsonic. My experience there was a visceral, intensely physical one, and the sound could be felt just as well as it could be heard. I had a chance to speak with Erik about art and threshold experiences a few hours before the performance, and the conversation we had shed some light on his methods and motivations.
Derek: What's your background as an artist?
Erik: I have a big range. I fooled around a lot with ovens for pottery in the beginning, so I got interested in heaters and stuff like that. Then I went to an art academy, but they kicked me out. After that, I had an art-group: SKG. In English it means City Art Group. We did all these actions. Some were humorous, some were really serious, all the way up to bombing. Some openings, we would bomb with smoke bombs or something, for the action. That was mainly because it was pretty tough in Amsterdam and I needed a platform. It was like a media event; we would use the action not particularly for the action itself, but for what it cost, and what kind of name we got in the media. They would try to guess where we were from, like if we're from the ARF or something. Later on, I did some technical school. I always used to make things with fire, but then slowly I went into more mechanical stuff and machines. Then I met Mark Pauline and all the others.
D: So you worked with Survival Research Labs?
E: Yeah, I made a machine with them actually. They asked me if I wanted to propose an art project, and we would split the cost, so I figured out the Dante Organ, which is an organ with flame throwers. But then, of course, we had no money, so we had to five finger discount materials--'obtainium', as Mark calls it--and because they were running around anyway I just scraped my thing together and built at the same time. To be really truthful, when they opened, they had big big problems in the beginning because of the Dutch rain. Just like here, it's raining all the time, and because they are from California, none of the electronics were closed or waterproof, so my thing was actually the only one that worked.
D: Tell me more about this flame organ project. You made a flame organ for SRL first?
E: No, actually for my own show. It wasn't integrated into their show. I had to do the show before their show, and then, after that I joined their show, but just as an operator. That organ was called Dante Organ. After that, I built the Delusion of Self Immolation. That was a machine in which you have three stages of burning. It's a machine eleven meters long and four meters high. There is a person standing in the middle on a platform, and on the back there's a flame thrower. It shoots liquid--not gasoline, but another liquid--on your back. While you're burning, the platform turns and then the extinguisher on the opposite side of the flame thrower extinguishes you. It puts out the fire by water, because water cools well. There are three states on the machine which I call "rare", "medium", and "well done". "Rare" means you survive without any wounds. "Medium" is more for, say, the SM session or for people who like pain to understand parts of life, or to have this experience of pain. The third possibility is death. It is possible to die in this machine; I just have to change the liquid, and I have to change the timing. This is adjustable electronically, but not with a computer. There are too many bugs, and it's not secure enough, so you have to use relays and electronics if you want to have no failure at all.
D: How many people have been in this machine?
E: I think about 32. Actually, a lot of women. I made this machine in a time when I had so much energy and couldn't lose it, and I didn't understand the source of the energy and it's meaning. I also had this desperate urge to look for the sense of why I was there. Probably because I was so wild and overboiling with energy that I didn't know where to look to concentrate and to find out what this sense of being was and what the sense of meaning was of the things around me. I was very worried about that question, so I started to get more into creating tools, which would create autoimmolation and pain to discover mortality. I thought at that moment that my understanding of what life was about had to be connected to the understanding of the experience of mortality, and so I built that machine for that reason. When that machine was functioning, I realized it was a kind of ritual, because actually the moment you burn is very little, so its anti-climactic, because its only 0.4 of a second to maybe one second. One second burning is enormously long, and that really hurts you, so a half hour before, we put all this gel on you to protect you from burning. All the people around, touching you to put this gel on, is like a ritual. I don't do it in public, I only present the machine to the public, to show that it's functioning, and after the public is gone I do private sessions.
D: It's never malfunctioned?
E: No, never. I have a team, and everybody in the team has a veto. They can say "no", "I don't understand it", "what's going on?", or "stop", and we have to do all the checks again, like an airplane.
D: What would be the connection between that project and the fire organ? Is there a sense of mortality involved in the fire organ?
E: Which do you mean? The Dante Organ, or this one?
D: This one.
E: I call this one a Whistling Pipe. It's not actually my original idea. There are other people who are doing this, and I like that because art is all about originality and I wanted to break that idea in myself. Not just to the outside, but to myself as well. I had the idea for a long time, because if you have a flame thrower and you have a flame--my flamethrowers are already tubes welded to tanks--so then this is just the next step. I wanted to work in the region of low frequency sounds because they travel very far, like whales, and I want see if you can create really low frequencies that go over water. Actually, tonight we should have some of the public on the other end of the river, to see if the sound will arrive there. But this is the first step, definitely not the last step. I have to build some bigger burners. I will use balloon burners and bigger pipes, which can create lower frequencies.
D: Would you be able to create frequencies, which would be lower than can possibly be heard?
E: Yes, definitely, you would only feel it. Some of the frequencies are actually quite dangerous, if you are too near to them for too long. The French were doing a lot of research on weapons with low frequency sounds.
D: What would be some of the harmful effects of very low frequency?
E: Well, each part of your body has a certain frequency, and each activity of the brain has a certain frequency. Reading has a certain activity frequency, and writing, etc etc. I don't know exactly what damage it does, but I take for granted that if they wanted to create a weapon with this, then it must have some effect on you. I notice the effect on me if I'm playing for a while is that I continually hear low frequency sounds. The spectrum of low frequency opens up for about three hours, so while all the cars are passing, and the big trains, I hear the low frequency. And also, when I fall asleep, I hear the low frequencies.
D: Actually I noticed a very similar thing after I left you practising. I was walking through the streets of downtown Riga, picking up the trucks going by. The low frequency sounds, just like the whole environment, are equalizers where you've cut the top end of the sound off. You know, there's that fabled low frequency that makes you loose control of your bowels. Do you know which one that is?
E: No, I don't know the frequency itself.
D: But you know it exists?
E: Yes, I do.
D: What's the musicality of this project? It seems like you're giving people a lot of room to improvise, but also you've told us that you are going to go and write a score.
E: Like I said, this is the first time I'm doing it. I'm not interested in the perfect music piece. I'm more interested in the quality of sounds and the organization of moments where each of the parts is falling into its place. I like the moment of accident in it. Most people are busy with a good project; you see it all around. They want a good design, they want a good music piece, they say "it's nice, but when are you going to write down a good music piece?" That's not what I want because it's the fertility in the sounds of the sculpture that I find most important. For that, a structure has to be open, it should not be fixed. Other people can do that, they can write a beautiful piece. In that sense I'm not a musician, I don't know all the frequency, but this is not accidental. The reason why I pull out a bit is because I'm not really a musician in that sense, so I think I should leave room for the musicians. Next time I want to play with professional musicians. There are three guys who are really into it, and they pick up fast. I would say it's like sculpting with your hands. It's like working with clay, but with sounds. The burner is really like a light tool in your hands, and you move it towards the mouth of the pipe, and you go into it, and you go out to it, and you play with it. It's really tricky.
You play with the valve and you open it a bit and then all at once it starts to have this frequency interference and starts to tremble and then you feel it go out again. So this is the thing you play with. It depends on the temperature, it depends on the wind, it depends on the other sounds created.
D: Are there musicians of specific backgrounds who might have a more intuitive idea how to play these pipes, for example a saxophone player?
E: I know Gordon Monoham. He is a composer, and he knows all about this and how to really compose a piece, which I think really I should do one day. Now, the pipes are sixteen feet as it is. Divide sixteen feet by half, you get one octave. At sixteen feet in length, the sound is almost not hearable, its on the borderline, and so I cut that according to the quints and the tets and the octave, etc etc, for one little organ only. The others I didn't measure at all, and actually I like the others more. The sound is more full, more rich, and these first are more dead. I don't know what it is exactly, but that's what we had to find out by doing many many times. We only had ten days to build this one.
D: So it would be possible to build a scaled organ?
E: Totally, but then you have to build it, test it, build it, test it, play it. Its not Western Europe here. This is the Baltic, and things are done roughly. But actually, that is exactly what I want. I don't want this killing perfectionism. I'm from Holland, and in Holland, everything--wherever you go, whatever you touch--is organized. There is no piece of land, which some office or some person hasn't designed or created, and this makes me crazy! So I like this rawness, and I want this soul back in the machine. I want to go back to the roots of industrial music. That's where I'm coming from. I used to organize concerts with my brother; the first concerts in Holland of Test Department, Laibach, Last Few Days, 23 Skidoo, and all those bands.
D: A lot of the very early Industrial music was very processed-based music. It was not very processed, but was process, where what you were trying to do was explore how the sounds were produced and not necessarily how they were orchestrated. I'm thinking of Throbbing Gristle or early Einsturzende Neubauten.
E: Neubauten really had control about it, though, they were absolutely great musicians. You can't change your roots, you know, and I don't want to. Actually, I didn't do this for a while. I was more into the visual, but the Dante Organ is also sound. It makes the very rhythmic sounds of pneumatics and valves clicking, and this huge sound of a flame, but it's like whistling. One flame thrower goes up 35 meters. If the weather is good, it will reach 40 meters. The next step flame thrower is 25 meters and the other ones are like 15, and I have 12 of them altogether. I can shoot sixteen hundred liters of gasoline in only a hundred eighty seconds if I have them full blast--which is impossible. In reality, the whole thing takes seventeen minutes.
D: These aren't being shot through tubes, though. They're just going straight into the air?
E: Yeah, just the flame throwers shooting straight into the air.
D: Is this instrument still in commission?
E: Yeah, it's still working. Its like a spear performance. It's really heavy, its like the aesthetics of war, the aesthetics of violence. This is something I'm always fascinated by. Even though the Delusion of Self Immolation is very controlled, it's still of course violence against the body, against the meat of the body: the skin, the sense, the nerves. My idea was that this contact with the nerves, this danger, must create another level of awareness, and that creates another level of knowledge which you cannot reach by studying or by another input. You need this physical input, and what we've done in our culture, first of all, is that we have used all the techniques we have to cut out danger. Look at the medical knowledge; it's all to make life gentle and soft and safe. Cars look so safe, you don't even feel you're driving. I want to understand the driving of the car, for example. I would rather have the accidents. If I were to be telepathic, and I would know where an accident would take place, I would not try to stop that accident. I would actually try to build a stage and sell tickets so people would see the accident, because the accident is the contact and the awareness of the driving. You don't know this if you're driving, you don't know the danger, you don't experience the speed, you don't experience the flying, none of this. But you do when the accident is there. It's only when something disturbs, when something breaks, when there is some demolition or disordering, that it becomes clear what is going on, and it becomes clear what life is about.