Zeno van den Broek’s newest work has us all speaking in temporal fragments

J.Scott Stratton & Zeno van den Broek

Meeting with the Copenhagen-based, Dutch sound artist to speak with him about his cross-disciplinary installation and sound art before his upcoming premiere of ‘Panauditum’ at Spor Festival

Walking into the Copenhagen home studio of Dutch sound and installation artist Zeno Van Den Broek, I was confronted by wires, cords, duck-tape, soldering irons, strange home-made electrical devices, half-finished paintings, piles of speakers and a host of other hodgepodge apparatuses. My immediate reaction was it felt like I was visiting the home studio of an electrical engineer. Based on the audio-visual work that I had seen of Van Den Broek’s work prior, I was expecting more of a mixing studio, where most of the work was done in programming and software.

As I made myself more comfortable, kicking off my boots and pulling out my camera, Van Den Broek flipped open an older Asus laptop sitting on a small table piled with electrical equipment, wires, and tools. Mounted on the wall in front of him was a wooden panel with soundwaves laser cut into it, along with four speakers jerry-rigged to the wall with wires connecting down to this older plastic home music system. He reached over and turned in on and the speakers mounted to the wall began emitting this subtle chirping sound—the sound somewhere into between a static electrical tick and a drumbeat. It had a sort of rhythm, but it was syncopated.

We began to talk as I took photos of his set-up, jumping in and out of an impromptu interview, all while the subtle sounds emanate from the wall, slightly shifting in tempo, resonance, and depth. At some point, my curiosity became too much and I ask how he had created the sounds. Was is a recording playing through the old stereo system sitting on the floor? What program did he use?

He looked at me, and with a simple understated tone said, “I didn’t create that, it’s us.”

That was went when the recognition of the sound hit me, and when I realized that Van Den Broek was no ordinary sound artist. He had managed to hardwire a device that would pick up the sound of us speaking, chop it into small micro-second audio sections and play it back in a randomized syncopated structure that would only reveal as a section of voice at contingent times.

The installation was that I was hearing was the test for a work titles Panauditum, (which was still in development at the time of the interview). The fact that Van Den Broen was a self-taught, ex-architect that had managed to teach himself not only the software to develop his Audio / Visual works, but also the electrical engineering involved in order to develop something to this degree, was fascinating to me.

Armed with that new found enlightenment, my questioning shifted in focus. Yet, I also wanted to be able to establish a history with Van Den Broek, and also speak to him about his past work, so I suppressed my desire to keep drilling him about this Panauditum piece and dive a little deeper into his history as an artist.

So back to the basics, can tell me how you made the shift from architect to artist?

During my studies at the Technical University of Delft in The Netherlands, I focused on the relation between architecture and society, the philosophy of how these fields relate, and the way a project evolves from a concept to a building. It was vital for me this implementation of philosophy and the “why?” behind design decisions. During my studies and work, I always played guitar in bands and founded my solo-project Machinist. This project gave me the freedom to develop a more abstract musical language and to discover the relationship between architecture and music.

After some time, I discovered this way of approaching spatiality through art and music suited me much better than working with bricks, steel, and glass. The temporal aspect of working with sound and the ability to create work founded on philosophy like I studied at the University fascinated me immensely. It led to the decision to fully focus on my art and music and to continue my work with spatiality through the artistic means I’m currently working with.

It’s been a slow process in which I explored various methods and mediums of working, while discovering the beautiful synergy of sound and space. There’s such a rich history of interconnectedness between the two and the way they complement each other continues to amaze me every day.

Over the years, I’ve been lucky to have had various opportunities and commissions to create work in amazing places and to work with inspiring people who push me beyond my boundaries. In 2016, for example, I worked on a commission from Gaudeamus to compose a piece for organ, vocal ensemble, and electronics in collaboration with Gagi Petrovic, this resulted in Ob-literate. This year I’m working on this installation Panauditum which was commissioned by the Danish SPOR festival in collaboration with Gaudeamus. Next to these commissions, I continued to create autonomous work like my audiovisual Shift Symm (as seen in the video above) triptych and performances.

What led you to make the change to Copenhagen?

The main reason was the postdoc position my wife got at DTU Biosustain but we had been looking into moving abroad for a while, searching for a place that offers both good opportunities for her field of work and has a healthy cultural climate for me to extend my work in a more international context. We have been quite fond of Scandinavia for some time and after spending 48 hours in Copenhagen we decided it would be great to live here!

What has been one of the largest obstacles in shifting your central base to Danish soil?

One of the things I had to get used to is the geographical difference between the two countries. Over the last few years, I lived in Utrecht, the most central city of The Netherlands, which is easily connected to all bigger cities like Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam in less than an hour by train. Every city would have its own scene and focus but would also be connected to the other cities and scenes, creating one big cultural world with different circles and perspectives.

Living in Copenhagen is quite different due to the fact that other cities are no a short train ride away (although Malmö is of course nearby) so everything happens within this city itself and on a different scale from what I’m used to.

One other thing that is different here in Denmark is the level of organization, I was quite surprised there are at least four different organizations for composers and the existence of an organization like SNYK. It’s great that there are so many professional organizations that solely exist to support artists and composers.

Tell me a little bit about your process?

The foundation of my process is always based on concepts. These concepts emerge from fascinations based on mathematical, physical or acoustic notions which I research to be able to dive deep into the subject and to set the right borders for the concept.

I try to go as far as being able to relate every decision to the concept, ranging from the big scale such as the build-up of a forty-minute piece to the smaller scale such as the relation between the pitch and vowel of a vocalist.

To me it’s very important to work with this kind of ‘logic’ within my arts, it’s not enough if a melody sounds beautiful or a rhythm sounds groovy, there has to be something more, something that has an indispensable role for the concept and the work as a whole. Over the last few years, I think I have become more strict in my execution of my concepts and have learned to stay closer to the core without adding much ornamentation, resulting in a more minimalistic and formal language.

As I can see now, your work is sometimes installation, like Panauditum, yet other times it’s purely Audio/Visual with pieces like Shift Symm. Can you tell me how do you determine that when you set out to create a piece? Is it dictated by the concept?

Yes, the decision for the medium is often dictated by the concept. For this new installation Panauditum, the concept is based on an auditory “Panopticon”: an all hearing observer which we are aware of but can not see or hear. This concept asks for a form of art based on an autonomous system and thus the most fitting form is an installation. If I would perform this piece, which technically is possible, it would harm the concept and whole project because I would be the one who performs and observes, changing the role of the observer and destroying the crucial aspect of the asymmetric relation between the observer and the observed.

Yet for some concepts don’t dictate a clear form or medium. For my audiovisual triptych and performance Shift Symm, I investigated the idea of creation by shifting. By displacing very simple elements like lines, grids, pulses and sine waves, I looked for unexpected and in a way uncontrollable events and results.

This was related to the idea of Zizek on the ‘breach of symmetry’ which he describes in his book “Event”: the notion that a system which is in an equilibrium, in which all energy and movement is in symmetry, can be brought into a trajectory of unpredictable events by shifting elements within the system until the symmetry is breached.

This eventually leads to a new entropy. I used this concept in my compositional methods to explore new and unexpected images and sounds, the video works can be seen as one outcome of this process, while during live performances I’m being confronted with new results and feedback from the system and I’m shaping the visual and audio output on stage.

Live, I work with the visuals as a graphical score, to which I perform the music that has an immediate effect on the projections, which forms my score, so in a way it becomes this feedback loop between sound and images, melting it all together into one.

I’m working on extending this concept of the symmetry and the shifting beyond these forms and creating a new and interactive version, inspired by how Ryoji Ikeda takes a single concept and extends it into different fields of work. But the concept must be suitable for this kind of execution if the concept asks for just one form, one form it is.

Alright, so tell me more about this installation piece ‘Panauditum’ that you will premiere at Spor Festival?

The installation is based on the concept of the Panopticon (Latin for ‘all seeing’): an architectural and philosophical idea of Jeremy Bentham, dating back to 1791. The name is also a reference to Panoptes from Greek mythology—a watchman giant with a hundred eyes.

I’ve always been fascinated by how our constructed environment is supposed to interact with the inhabitants and society, being utopian or dystopian, and I realized that even James Orwell couldn’t predict the level of observance and big data gathering that is common nowadays. There are so many examples of devices that we love, such as our smartphones, that have this hidden agenda of harvesting data. Many of our phones are constantly listening to us, to hear us produce a combination of words like ‘Hi Siri’, or ‘Ok Google’, but nobody really knows what happens with these recordings. While it might be smart to have second thoughts about the goal of one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies to create operating systems for phones and many services ‘free’ of charge.

Another example are those beautiful Bose headphones with noise cancellation that were in the news a few weeks ago: these headphones have to listen to our surroundings in order to be able to cancel out the noise, but we never agreed on the fact that these recordings were sent back to Bose to be processed for uses we have no knowledge or saying in.

I think most of us are quite aware of the privacy and the intimacy of our image: there are laws that regulate filming in public areas and if someone takes your photo you are probably wondering what it will be used for, perhaps followed by some action to get more information or to prevent unwanted use. While our voices are just as personal and intimate as our image we are much less aware and sensitive to the recording and use of the sounds we produce.

My Panauditum installation is doing just that: recording every sound the visitor to the museum makes. These sounds are then cut up into tiny temporal fragments: losing the semantic content but retaining the character of the voice, which is just as personal as a fingerprint. The installation constantly plays back an evolving abstract composition buildup out these tiny fragments, creating beautiful polyrhythmic structures based on the input on the visitor.

With this new installation, I want to make the visitor aware of the role sound and language plays in their daily life, and the value and intimacy of these sounds, while simultaneously exploring the use of various voices and languages in relation to musical notions such as timbre, tone color, and rhythm.

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