Contemporary art Interview Fairs China

Point your smartphone, get with the rhythm and relax

Artist Carsten Nicolai on why he’s transformed Hong Kong’s tallest buildng into a pulsating work of art

Nicolai performing at London’s Barbican Hall. Photo: © Chris Godet

The Berlin-based artist and musician Carsten Nicolai has created an audiovisual installation that is lighting up Hong Kong. An Art Basel commission, the site-specific work is titled α (alpha) pulse, and it takes over the city’s tallest building, the 490m-high International Commerce Centre (ICC), on Kowloon harbour. The skyscraper’s 50,000 sq. m facade pulsates, and viewers are able to hear a synchronised soundtrack via an app on their mobile phone.

Last year Nicolai was one of the artists in the group show, “Soundings: a Contemporary Score”, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He has created installations and performed works at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Centre Pompidou in Paris and Tate Modern in London.

The artist has carefully chosen the best sites around Hong Kong to view the installation, which include Tamar Park, Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park and the terrace on Podium 3 and 4 of the IFC Mall. The display runs each night 15-17 May, from 8.30pm to 9.20pm, with a special live performance on Pier 4 on 15 May at 7.30pm.

The Art Newspaper: The piece is complex and based on scientific research. Can you explain the research behind it?

Carsten Nicolai: There is a concept from the 60s and 70s that is largely forgotten. It says we get stimulated by sound and light impulses, that our body has a tendency to synchronise and adapt to that kind of stimulus. That is the reason we can adapt very well to music and why we can connect emotionally to it. This is the kind of stimulus I am interested in. The pulsing light is in a frequency that brings you a kind of relaxation and at the same time it’s good for learning processes. I don’t see the piece as a scientific work, I see it as an art piece.

Have you done other work with pulsating light?

I have a long history of doing audiovisual performances. I always synchronise classical light events with sound, mostly created from an analysis of the sound. The sound component is very important for the two-hour-long live performance I am doing, where the music will be synchronised to the ICC tower and additional little light towers we are installing on the pier. I really like the idea of creating something that is site-specific and only in this city. It’s a temporary piece that will disappear afterwards. But this will be an event for people to come and connect, not only visually and acoustically, but with the iPhone as well, and synchronise themselves.

How does the app work?

It has a very simple interface. The application records the light pulse with the phone camera and then the app synchronises automatically and the screen starts pulsating too. It’s not very difficult—anybody can use it anywhere in the city—you just have to hold the phone towards the tower. There will be some sound options too, so you can interact as well.

You said that people could use it as relaxation. Why do you think that is important?

My work is about perception and how we perceive things in our brain, how our brain computes things. It will create awareness of how we perceive things and maybe expand our knowledge of how we react to light sources, how we get stimulated by light and sound being synchronised. If you think about how we listen to music, for instance, we have few words to describe how we can be so strongly influenced by it.

You also produce music under the name Alva Noto. Why do you keep art and music separate?

I personally don’t separate it. At the beginning when I thought of releasing music, I wanted to start with a blank slate. I come from a visual arts background so I wanted to have a pseudonym. It’s like a band name; I am just a one-man band.

You also collaborate with contemporary composers. Which have been the most significant?

I collaborate with wonderful people. One of the longest collaborations is with Ryuichi Sakamoto, well known for his early pop career and later for his movie soundtracks, and Ryoji Ikeda, a close friend of mine—we like working on similar ideas. They are mostly technically oriented, testing applications, as opposed to using synthesisers. We try to reduce the elements, to use the most basic acoustic signals we can find and try to strip them down to a singular element. We are very influenced by ideas of quantum physics. If you look at research of the atom where you look at the small particle that holds the world together, this is what we try [to do] in music.

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