NEXT WEEK A luminous event will take place on Hong Kong’s harbour. It’s not the usual 8pm Symphony of Lights – this new display will start at 8.30pm, will only be on for three nights and involves a single building: the International Commerce Centre (ICC) in Kowloon.
To refer to it merely as a show would be to misrepresent both its timing and purpose. The first night, May 15, marks the official opening of Art Basel Hong Kong, and the plan is that the ICC – the tallest building in Hong Kong – will become a 484-metre work of contemporary art.
The man behind it is Carsten Nicolai, a German visual artist, musician and record producer. As the work, titled a (alpha) pulse, begins throbbing across the facades of the ICC, an app will simultaneously provide an audio track responding to the illumination. For 50 minutes each night, anyone in the city with a smartphone will have the opportunity to hold a mood-altering artistic masterpiece in the palm of their hand. The idea of mass mood shift is key. In neuroscience, alpha waves are known to affect the brain in positive ways.
Last January, Nicolai came to Hong Kong on a location hunt to try to envisage something that would involve as many people as possible. “I thought, ‘What can you do on such a scale?’” he says, sipping rhubarb juice between frequent cigarettes in the garden of his Berlin studio. “I chose the alpha pulse because it’s the most relaxing. It’s a great frequency, it’s slow and it can stimulate better learning.” He smiles, unexpectedly, and adds, “That sounds a little bit spooky.”
Anyone who’s only seen various photos of Nicolai looking like a mix between Morrissey and a young Klaus Kinski, might be inclined to think he’s a little bit spooky, too. “I’m actually funny,” he protests, quietly. “Of course, I’m not a big joke teller but humour is very important.” And it’s true that he has the wry expression of a man on the verge of secret laughter, which befits someone who, in 2009, collaborated with the English composer Michael Nyman on an opera about a dead budgie. (While it wasn’t exactly Monty Python, the title of this opus, Sparkie: Cage and Beyond, also contained a pun on the American composer John Cage.)
Still, he’s fairly intense about what he does. You might expect his studio to hum with noise, but there is no music, and his mobile phone is set to vibrate. “I used to make my own ringtone, of course, but I haven’t had one for three years.” His studio walls are almost as bare as a monastic cell. It’s a mild shock, amid the duct tape, spark generators and computers, to discover a child’s stroller parked in a corner. (He has four children about whom he prefers not to speak. Later, when asked, he says the red thread on his wrist comes from a visit to Cambodia where one of them is living.)
The impression is of a man immersed in a parallel world of sound and light, which he has brought to institutions such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Tate Modern in London. One reviewer has said his work is as provocative “as a Duchamp urinal” (although this wasn’t exactly what another critic meant when he said the “low, juddering oscillation” made him want to pee).
Nicolai once said in an interview about working with computers that it was increasingly difficult to understand what’s happening “and to avoid the possibility of being manipulated by the machine”. Where does that come from?
“I think it’s from different sources,” he says. “I grew up in a controlled environment and part of my security structure was being aware that someone was trying to manipulate you.”
He’s referring to the days when his country was divided; Nicolai, who’s 48, grew up in East Germany in a town called Karl-Marx-Stadt, now known as Chemnitz. It was famous for its textile industry and Nicolai likes to point out that the Jacquard process for weaving was one of the first instances of mechanical programming. (He has a large collection of “beautiful” Jacquard punchcards he found in an old factory.) He says he was a sickly boy who was prone to accidents. “I lost an organ,” he says, at one point. “The spleen.”
He says of East German hospitals: “You never forget it … I’m very sensitive to very little things, like specific light sources, colours and sounds.” He doesn’t do drugs, he adds, because they also made him feel manipulated. “Also, I never had the feeling I need this because I could produce similar sensations in different ways.”
Those sensations came from music, particularly the higher and lower reaches of sound frequencies. “I’m not a person who sees colour when he hears a sound, but I’m interested in finding translators who can visualise things we cannot perceive with the ear.”
As it happens, East Germany seems to have been an ideal environment for a boy of such interests and, sometimes, when he talks of it, it’s as if he’s longing for the simplicity of a lost past. “I was 15, 16 years old, living with my parents and with close friends, inside a private environment. We had a lot of time. Our society was incredibly slow. And when the system collapsed, when the machine stopped, another machine appeared.”
It was also in East Germany that he learned self-reliance. “It was a very enclosed landscape with a lot of limitations, but, inside that, you could improvise and we liked that. All my friends of my generation are not interested in hiring other people.
We always think: how can I do this myself?” That mixture of the striving individual and the collective is, presumably, why he went on to cofound an electronic record label called Raster-Noton, play in various groups (Diamond Version, Cyclo and Signal) and collaborate with the Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. His work is distinctive, but he wants a world where there are no border controls, one where art, music and science meld. “I’m not interested in categories,” he says.
“It’s not what I do.”
Why, then, has he segmented himself under the name Alva Noto? “I wanted to start with a blank sheet of paper, with no preconceptions, no gender. I believed in the sound itself so I stepped back.”
Recently, however, there seems to have been a shift. “In the last few years, these different fields have been growing together,” he says. He smiles, surprised at the thought of a personal reunification. “In Hong Kong, the project is under my name but, theoretically, the music is by Alva Noto. I think maybe it’s the first time I haven’t incorporated the name.”