by Tom Moody

This essay originally appeared in VERY magazine, No. 8, October 2000. Right: Carsten Nicolai, Telefunken, installation view. (C) Uwe Walter, Berlin, courtesy EIGEN + ART, Berlin/Leipzig

Berlin artist Carsten Nicolai works with both image and sound, often exploring the nexus between the two. In a piece titled Frozen Water, he bombarded a container of H2O with ultra-low, overlapping frequencies, causing ripples on the surface to immobilize through the phenomenon of “wave impedance”; in an installation at the Liverpool Biennial, he created aqueous peaks and valleys inside glass beakers using a pair of oscillators and eight speakers. Giving form to what is normally invisible, these ephemeral sculptures are throwbacks to the high Modernist era of the '50s and '60s, when the pursuit of formal beauty was inextricably linked with scientific investigation (think tensegrity sculptures, serialist synth compositions, Fuller domes).

Yet unlike his forerunners working exclusively in the ivory tower of the museum and the university, Nicolai also operates on the fringe of the popular (techno) music underground, releasing CDs on the Raster Music label under the name "noto." Marketed through indie distribution channels such as, the CDs make it possible for consumers to enjoy the avant garde experience at affordable prices: noto's most recent offering, Telefunken, arguably fulfills one of the unrealized dreams of the Futurists, Russian constructivists, et al, of making an abstract, industrial sublime available to everyone (or at least everyone with a TV and CD player).

To activate Telefunken, you simply plug one of the stereo outputs of the CD player into the audio input of the television and the other into its video input. The same electronic signal that produces sound in the speakers interferes, in real time, with the horizontal scan of the TV, creating linear, minimalist patterns that move in synch with the sound. The soundtrack is a riveting procession of hums, clicks, and test-tones--the type of palette also favored by Finnish audio-sculptors Pan Sonic (one of whom, Mika Vainio, has collaborated in the past with noto). Balanced on the knife-edge between pleasure and pain, these pared-down, eerie sonorities conjure electricity in its raw, pure state (as Rob Young of The Wire has suggested), shorn of the synthesizer's user-friendly filters and modulators.

Visually, Telefunken harks back to the tube-tweaking experiments of video artist Nam Jun Paik, in particular Participation TV (1969), where viewers made sounds into a microphone plugged into the TV's video input jack, causing looping lines and streaks to appear on the screen. Nicolai makes a more disciplined, choreographed use of such effects, however, carefully working out which sounds yield which video effects and creating an extensive repertoire of lo-fi patterns. In Telefunken he organizes them into layered and reprising themes: a kind of electro-Art Brut sonata.

At the beginning of the piece, fleeting white horizontal lines on the black screen accompany clicks on the soundtrack; as the clicks double in speed the number of lines increases proportionately. As the lines continue to form new patterns, the sound becomes a continuous, all encompassing buzz, gradually rising and falling in pitch--an effect reminiscent of psychedelic "phase-shifting" effects. Midway through the 20-minute opus, a side-to-side movement of faint linear debris invokes a sensation of great speed, as if one were looking at painted lines on a tunnel wall from inside a bullet train. Near the end, a tone begins inexorably rising in frequency, accompanied by a geometric doubling, tripling, quadrupling, etc. of lines on the screen; what starts as horizontal Barnett Newman eventually becomes screen-filling Bridget Riley, a cacophonic, stroboscopic climax so jarring it may send you scurrying protectively for the pause button.

The best thing about this project-cum-product is it gives many people the opportunity to have a seductive, out-there, New-Music-Festival experience at home, and to do it by abusing consumer products--or at least using them in ways the Global Amusement Empire (Sony, TimeWarner, AOL, Microsoft et al) never intended. Instead of passively sucking on the cathode crack pipe, for $14 plus shipping and handling you can watch your home entertainment center go noisily, blindingly to hell. Telefunken doesn't actually hurt the TV, but for a few moments you think it might, and that's strangely cathartic.

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