SEBASTIAN MEISSNER INTERVIEW
The creative practice of Sebastian Meissner is scattered across numerous pseudonyms and disciplines. I am a huge fan of his work as Random Inc., Autopoieses, and Klimek and, until 2004, never even suspected these projects were all crafted by the same musician. I began a dialog with Meissner earlier this year when he was gracious enough to allow me to use the track "Sand" to score a short video piece. As we chatted back and forth, I learned about his photography and video and became increasingly curious about the atmospheric and spatial qualities that run through his diverse body of work. Sebastian was kind enough to take a considerable amount of time to provide a thorough contextualization of his art and music. This conversation addresses: aesthetics, Meissner's nuanced perspective on Israel, his thoughts on sound and cities, and his opinions on the evolving electronic music market in Europe. He also sheds some light on his new Klimek album.
GS: A good place to start would be your myriad of pseudonyms. You have recorded under close to a dozen projects under the following monikers: Bizz Circuits, Random Inc., Random Industries, Autopoieses, Klimek, and your own name. Could you discuss your perspective on identity in electronic music and how it relates to these many projects?
SM: I find the average relationship of an artist ego towards the topics/issues he/she is trying to address as quite problematic. The artist as the carrier/distributor of beauty and aesthetic arrangements has stopped working for me. Such works have little to do with the outside world which surrounds me; they deliver short-term entertainment and/or create new virtual spaces without bridging them to reality. Above all, what's important for me in this "game" called art is participating in public life and reacting to society. I am interested in proposals such as the one expressed by Artur Zmijewski in his essay "Applied Social Arts" which demands a new role of the artist in society, urging him/her to take active responsibility for the shaping of the society surrounding him/her. Each of my projects has its own perspective and its own focus, and thus need different names to make contextual distinctions possible. I started to title my works with project names to draw bigger attention to the subjects. From an economic perspective, it is of course more advisable to stick to the classical artist image where your first and family name (faked or real) are used.
I consider your record Walking in Jerusalem to be one of the most interesting records of the last decade. It is politica without wearing a polemic on its sleeve and raises all kinds of provocative questions about the digital musician as a new kind of flâneur. What are your thoughts on the rhythm and sound of urban space? Also, could you talk about your connection to Jerusalem and perhaps provide a bit of a back-story to that specific album?
Well, thank you! I have watched, read, and followed the many strains leading to the Middle-East region and its so-called "conflict" over the years but it was always a view from outside. On Walking in Jerusalem, I wanted to be confronted with real people, be with them in their homes, look them in the eyes. It could have ended with my first CD, Jerusalem: Tales Outside The Framework Of Orthodoxy, which was mostly about the mysticism of the city, but my visits turned out to be quite productive which encouraged me to keep on moving with the subject.
Lots of people on the outside who are debating the politics of the Middle East make it easy for themselves to jump on one perspective and defend it then by all means. Muslimgauze (Bryn Jones)—to whom I was compared a lot during this time—is surely an example. He never wanted to visit the region ("I don't think you can visit an occupied land. It's the principle. Not until it's free again"). Well, you can make an artistic point out of such neglect of dealing with the other side. It will stand like a monument erected by such an artist for the human right struggle of the Palestinian people. Fine, but as time has shown, this position doesn't solve anything and doesn't contribute anything positive in solving this "conflict"—basically, it only reinforces the victim status of Palestinians and does even worse by opening up a mistimed debate on the right of Israel's right to exist.
From the perspective of a person living in Germany, it's really difficult to deal with Israeli-Palestinian issues. On the far left, you have people who, no matter what, stick to Israel's right to defend itself (without even looking behind those actions of self-defense, like the "Jerusalem question": a matter of Israel's self-defense or a matter of marking a dominant position in the region?). Those people are very easily manipulated by key-slogans like"survival of the Jewish state," "war on terror," etc. Looking for a meaningful place in "Western" society, some people (like Mr. Jones himself) escape into allophilia (embracing cultures, ethnicities, gender and disabilities). On the political "far right" are those still using vocabulary like it was used some seventy years ago and living a strange, quixotic reality (silently supported by those who wants to get rid of this part of German history). On the representative level, those people can be easily muted, but it seems like nobody wants to deal with them which is causing a high probability for a (sub) cultural reproduction of those views and positions. The very center of German society is still too paralyzed, too dozy, or too afraid of everything which has to do with the Holocaust and/or the Israeli state. This is an uneasy starting point, but the most productive thing you can actually do is to take it as a challenge and to deal with it.
But, then again, I didn't want to do a work about the inner German controversy but something which could have been viewed from every other global position as well. National affiliation doesn't play an important role within my identity. When you step outside of this construct, you realize that you don't have to speak for Germans, for Poles, for the culprit, for the victims, but just for yourself. This exercise enabled me to develop a kind of natural-born curiosity and a specific curiosity towards Israeli-Palestinian issues.
The Israeli society is divided into many parts. The traumas of the Holocaust and an anti-Arabic (actually an anti-Islamic) climate make it an up-to-date possibility that this joint-venture "Jewish identity in Israel" remains to the outside world in a uniform appearance and remains a strong identity-shaping instrument inside of the Israeli society. Israel is build upon the traumas of the Ashkenazi population (East/Middle European rooted Jewish population). The Sephardic (North Africa and Iberian-rooted Jewish population) and the oriental/Iraqi migration of the '50s were, theoretically speaking, a big chance for Israeli society to approach the Arabic-Islamic population inside of the state but also in the states surrounding Israel. Upon arrival in Israel, those immigrants had a strongly Arabic-shaped identity—first Arabic then Jewish. The state of Israel tried to assimilate those people by all means and made them adapt the mainstream attitudes of the Ashkenazi-dominated mainstream society by dispossessing them of their Arabic roots. But the biggest challenge for the Israeli state of all time will be the immigrants from Russia, who arrived there mostly during the '90s. The second generation of those immigrants is producing new distortions such as "Nazi Jews" who vandalize synagogues and violently assault religious people.
It was definitely not my goal to deliver a sort of well-reflected exoticism to the average electronic music lover, not as it was proposed (for example) by Freeform's Audio Tourism (an audio artist equipped with microphones goes to an arbitrary country, collects a lot of interesting sounding source material, and decorates his own composition with that ambiance, using an exotic looking picture on the front cover) or Deadbeat's Journeyman's Annual (hotel, sound check, party, motel, taxi, airport). I wanted to open a door for a deeper, more complex/diverse view of this region, and also to look for a little bit more than pure aesthetics and the love of new software and hardware technologies. This album and all my other works refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and part of my own journey and part of my own studies about how to approach a situation seemingly with no way out.
I was studying Jewish history and the history of the Holocaust way before I started to play with sound. My interest is rooted in my childhood and adolescence. I grew up in a family with half-Polish and half-German roots. On the one side, there were several members of my family exterminated by Nazis; on the other side, people who served in the Wehrmacht. It is also a story about how I was trying to understand what happened in Europe during the '30s and '40s.
The next step I undrtook was to focus on the era before that time, and look for indications of what could have made National Socialism possible. But somehow naturally my focus shifted to post-World War II history. What happened to all those survivors who decided to leave Europe and create a new state? My releases document this approach: Jerusalem—the view from very far away, Walking in Jerusalem—wandering through the city streets, Intifada Offspring—arriving at peoples' homes, and finally Into The Void which offers a view upon the roots of what later shaped Israel.
Eskimo by The Residents is for me an incredible album and a perfect example of how to avoid the aspect of a flâneur. The written stories on the album that accompany each track are so deep and so disturbing. They don't create in you the desire to travel to Greenland or to become part of the Ennui society, but they make you think about human societies and their behaviours. Another good example is Geir Jenssen's Field Recordings from Tibet album, where the journey itself is the topic.
Art (aesthetics) is for me just a vehicle to a deeper understanding of the world around me. The politics of the Middle East are so present in our globalized Western society, but so far away from a deeper understanding of the socio-cultural dynamics happening there. There are more identities at work in this region which divide and connect people with each other, more than religion-centered mainstream debates want us to believe.
The rhythm and sound of urban scenarios can't be uniform, as companies advertising fashion accessories would have us believe. Drum'n'bass and Downtempo-Jazzy-Beats might also have found a home in India or Tajikistan, but the urban sounds of such places (Jerusalem included) might not be the songs we would like to hear (like "cheesy" Arabic pop-songs). The trap is that if you want to look for sounds which represent a specific local vibe/way of expressing yourself, you have to move closer and not end your search at the local copy of a New-Wave, Doom-Metal, or Electronica act, etc.
It is clear from your recent Ghetto Ambient project, that you are interested in the aesthetics of the city above and beyond sound. How does this project and Autokontrast fit into your creative practice?
Within the Ghetto Ambient project, various aspects and different forms/methods of my work melt into each other, and display Ghetto Ambient at the present time in a stage far away from having reached its final destination.
It started by linking my newer audio-compositions with my "animated photography." Here I cut some chosen motives from my pictures into numerous zooms and apertures and arranged them into a new whole, and tried to develop an abstract narrative over a given time span. The pictures show predominantly specific symbolic places from geographic regions I have visited over the last few years. For example: construction yards and sites of house demolishing in East Jerusalem, suburban housings on outskirts of Algiers, the Bullring Shopping Center in Birmingham, Kazimierz, former Jewish neighborhood of Cracow, anarchistic stencils in Porto, and many others. I assign those movies to a specific track, which is sometimes from my Klimek repertoire and sometimes a newer composition, which mostly develops into a darker, slow motion dubstep-like mood.
Recently, I started to expand this platform for my installation works. For example, I will incorporate a series of installations dealing with socio-cultural and economic changes in the Upper Silesian region in Poland (where I grew up), as I already did with my work "Business Never Personal" for the Barents Spektakel in Kirkenes/Norway, a work about "arrested" Russian ships in the port of Kirkenes and those seamen who are maintaining those vessels.
City above and beyond sound? Yes, definitely beyond sound or using sound in a new context. I think the Music To Fall Asleep album portrays this step very precisely. Working with the motive from Jean Cocteau's Orphée and using a dirty slop as a mirror, my attention started to shift (as someone described) to "forgotten places at the edge to the globalized world." By providing the listener with associative tracks titles—with double names—such as "Pathways to Work," "Accompanying Guilty Thoughts of Unauthorized Candy," "Kingdoms Here We Come," etc., I wanted to create a pool of keywords/verbal parameters that would allow the listener to develop his/her own storyline while listening to the compositions.
I really like to see the comeback of the "walkman-culture" (now: "IPod-culture"). While walking through cities with my favourite music on my headphones, I experience magical moments. Taking the music labeled as "ambient" to places outside safe environments such as chill-out launches and comfortably and stylish living-room couches ("The world isn´t a safe place," Artur Zmijewski), I want to create an everyday life soundtrack for subways and places that pass you by, while covering distances in urban scenarios. So "falling asleep" means not relaxing into a siesta-like atmosphere but into an uncontrolled passing away, losing control over your body like people suffering from narcolepsy or like people exhaustedly returning from work on public transport.
Autokontrast is the output for my photography. I have been taking pictures (and working in video ) for quite a long time now, way longer than I have been involved in composing sound. The web site documents a selection of my scanned and celluloid-based works, divided into various aspects and themes, where intuitive navigation is part of this work.
Your Klimek project seems to oscillate between an almost confrontational sparseness and an incredible warmth and assurance. While these moods are polar opposites, the consistent theme seems to be an incredible attention to the slow, nuanced "pace" of melody. Could you describe the atmosphere you are creating and exploring with this work?
Klimek tracks are mostly based on edited/processed acoustic samples taken from songs/compositions/composers which/who influenced me over the years. For example, the tracks "Milk" and "Honey" are based on guitar plucks by Fred Frith and Bill Frisell. By disassembling these tracks, I carefully listen and pay attention to the composition on a nearly microscopic level and pick up those elements which "speak" to me the most. Maybe you could compare it to what I was doing when I was a little kid taking apart my grandparents' cameras. Screw by screw, I got deeper and deeper into those machines and discovered hidden yet invisible elements. Later, led by thoughts of guilt, I tried to put back the cameras to their primary shape but ended up constructing three or even more new objects with temporarily no practical usage. Maybe with a similar portion of passion and curiosity, I am approaching my method of sampling and creating new arrangements out of it.
Slowness/slow motion is a very fascinating aspect in music composition for me. Working on Klimek tracks, the question for me always is: "How slow can I get before I lose the perception of a movement/rhythm?" This aspect you could also convey to the Ghetto Ambient visuals as well, where I try to move the picture layers so slowly that it's hard to realize when a transition has been completed, a phenomenon we experience everyday: realizing that on our way to work a new building has been completed or looking in a mirror and realizing that our face doesn't look as it did some years ago.
So accordingly I don't associate my compositions with so-called electronic "ambient" (or even "drone") music but rather with composers and bands who explore the slow-motion aspect in music such as Swans, Bohren & der Club of Gore, and The Melvins. I hope the Klimek sound can create other powerful perceptions ("violently sad sounding music" as the German magazine SPEX wrote about this album). Here we might come back to the aspect of losing control while listening to music—not in an ecstatic mood—but more out of a loss of control about one's self-perception: making you forget about time and opening doors to a new perception of the place where you dwell and creating a mood of anticipation for a change.
Your next Klimek release is due out in November on Ezekiel Honig's Anticipate imprint. The album, Dedications, seems to dive further into the realm of tribute that you describe above. With this record you work through a range of personalities including artists including Ol' Dirty Bastard, Marvin Gaye, Charles Mingus, your grandmother Zofia Klimek, an ex-partner/collaborator, and even the fictional Jimmy Corrigan. Is this attempt at autobiography through aknowledging the work and influence of others?
Inevitably it draws attention to work by people who—in one way or another—have influenced me (though I wouldn't say that the selection of names on this album is necessarily representative of my biography). I want to draw attention to the relationships and tensions between two characters symbolizing opposite values, different discourses, or personalities.
For example, using Spielberg's name on one of the tracks goes back to my work "Into the Void" (installation + concert + composition + collaboration with Israeli artists Ran Slavin and Eran Sachs), done for the XIII edition of the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland, where I used parts of the Schindler's List soundtrack to point out the aspect of virtual Jewish places/virtual Jewishness: klezmer nostalgia meets concentration-camp tourism meets pilgrimage to spots such as sceneries for film-shots, while being served by dressed-up Poles in orthodox Jewish "costumes" with semi-kosher food to the sound of second-hand klezmer. Azza el-Hassan, a Palestinian filmmaker, urged Spielberg in one of her works to finally start working on his movie about the "holy-land" which he (meaning his production company) had announced years ago and in which he supposedly wants to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It deals also with the artistic relationship between Grant Hart and Bob Mould, the Lennon-McCartney of post-punk. It deals about working and doing art about work (Michael Gira versus Russian seaman Vladimir Ivanovich). It tries to point out how "fame" can influence the "real" life of an artist (Ol' Dirty Bastard versus Marvin Gaye) via cocaine (ab)use, about real and staged loneliness, hopelessness and despair (my grandmother Zofia Klimek versus Gregory Crewdson), and about different approaches towards life (Lia versus Jimmy Corrigan).
The idea on this album is to confront people from different "worlds" with each other.
Mille Plateaux was an absolute hotbed of experimental electronic music from 1993-2004. The label was a vibrant testing ground for digital aaesthetics and yielded all kinds of new permutations of house and techno and speculations on pop and more experimental soundscapes. Could you talk about the culture surrounding the imprint and how being involved with it influenced you as an artist?
I have a very strong biographic connection to the label group of Force Inc. /Mille Plateaux. I guess it started with Boy-Records (primarily a fashion store chain from London which was famous in the '80s), one of the first record stores in Frankfurt where you could find a solid selection of late-'80s/early-'90s dance culture. I spent lot of time there listening to new house and techno records. Achim Szepanski, who was working there at this time, founded Force Inc. in 1991 and Mille Plateaux in 1994. Force Inc. released at this time a colorful mix of Acid-Techno, Break-Beats, and banging rave music. Thomas Gerlach and Ian Pooley, Alec Empire, Wolfgang Voigt, and Thomas Heckmann were responsible for the main output. One day I found out that, instead of paying more for vinyl in record stores, I could call a local phone number printed on every Force Inc. vinyl and get the records for 1/3 less than the regular price. Force Inc. started to get boring after a while, and I became ( like others) exhausted by the club culture, which had been absorbed by the mainstream. At the same time as WARP started to release its Artificial Intelligence series, Mille Plateaux started to release its series of Modulation Transformation compilations, which contained many adventurous tracks and were at that time really hard to classify. Another unique aspect of Mille Plateaux was the link from Deleuzian/Guattarian philosophy to abstract electronic composition, which made it possible to attract new audience/listeners at the doorsteps of universities. Most of the main Force Inc. artists also began to produce abstract (most of it slightly downtempo) electronica tracks for Mille Plateaux. The real turning point started when Oval (later also Microstoria) began to release their albums on the label. They were the first seriously demanding act on Mille Plateaux with a fresh sound-design and lot of love for acoustic abstraction who reflected on their mode of production. Mille Plateaux wasn't the only label releasing abstract electronic music at the time but it had the popularity (achieved through well-selling Force Inc. releases) and so the strength to make new (and little bit older) abstract sound composers visible. The well-acknowledged compilation series Electric Ladyland started out quite abstractly but ended up reproducing styles between Trip-Hop and darker down-tempo tracks (marking also the expansion of the label group to the Drum'n'bass sub-label Position Chrome ). The next character-defining new entries were Pluramon, Terre Thaemlitz, Ultra-Red, Thomas Köner, Curd Duca, and Gas (aka Wolfgang Voigt). At the same time—1998—as SND, Vladislav Delay, and Frank Bretschneider entered the release catalogue, I and my former partner Ekkehard Ehlers offered the label our first release La Vie A Noir as Autopoieses.
I think we were quite a good example of those new "bedroom producers" who emerged around the globe, helped along by affordable personal computers and Internet connections. You could maybe compare that boom with the one which happened during the '80s when, in Japan, music hardware became affordable and influenced/created a lot of new house and early techno producers in the USA. By the end of the '90s those producers, who were skilled enough to write their own programs (and/or using platforms such as Max/MSP) could shine with a new digital sound at the edge of noise by using—like many times in music history before—sound effects which weren't originally intended to be used: "clicks"/"glitch" (like for example: guitar feedback = Jimi Hendrix, Roland 303 = Acid House). Talking about any possible culture surrounding the imprint of Mille Plateaux (but also lot of other exciting labels) you have to face the geographical axis between Western Europe, North America, and Australia. If there was any culture surrounding the output of that time, then surely it had a predominantly virtual character.
By 2000, I was working for Mille Plateaux and was beginning to gain a new perspective on the scene/market through this involvement. Between those young labels, young producers and the new media reviewing it developed a productive flow. The global aspect of this scene and its allocation beyond (post) rave cultures—in galleries, established theaters—allowed (at least in Europe) financial support by government and local state funds to cover expensive continental flights.
I realize (Mille Plateaux is, practically speaking, gone) that, right now, what I miss in the midst of this so-called electronic music scene is the"rhizomatic" way of thinking and releasing music. Nowadays it seems like most labels (dedicated to abstract electronically-produced music) have a very strict and specific vision about sound aesthetics or are following a chosen sub-genre. The artwork is uniform, the releases/products are adjusted, the focus is on creating "stars" and being represented at big festivals. Surely this is an economic/pragmatic/market-orientated approach but this development also lacks new (creative) vision. I still believe that electronically-produced music can be and is exciting.
This interview first appeared in serial consign.