Reasons to be cheerful. Reality check part 3

Why don't you get back into bed
Why don't you get back into bed
Why don't you get back into bed
Why don't you get back into bed

Reasons to be cheerful part 3

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Place: Café Mir
Date: 12.04.05
Time: 18.45

I arrive at Café Mir to find the place almost empty. Only two of the three speakers are present, and one of them is helping the event's host, Per Platou, to sort out technical problems with the sound system.

A few guests are slurping beetroot soup and it looks like Reality Check 3 is going to be a flop.
18.55: Trine Falch, the third speaker turns up, cool, calm and collected.
18.59: The audience has arrived! 30 or so people flow into the cafe, but still no joy in the sound department. Crackles and pops mix with frenetic jazz music as plugs are pulled in and out of their sockets.

19.00: The first scheduled speaker, Håkon Lindbäck, jumps on his bike to fetch a replacement for a faulty cable from his studio nearby.
19.10: Trine, scheduled to be the second presenter, offers to speak first as she does not require technical aids.
19.15: Per decides to wait for Håkon and announces that technical problems have delayed the start of Reality Check 3. Nobody seems too concerned.
19.25: Håkon returns with a cable replacement, and all is well. Per briefly presents the theme and format of Reality Check 3 and Håkon is introduced as the first failure. He quickly takes his place on the podium and Reality Check 3 is underway.

Reasons to be cheerful 1 2 3

The spring session of Reality Check focuses on 3 artists who share a common attitude that failure can act as fuel for creativity. But this is no guarantee for success. I liken the 3 presentations of Reality Check 3 to Plato's allegory of the cave where the prisoners would mistake appearance for reality, thinking the shadows they see on the cave wall were real, but know nothing of the real causes of the shadows. Both Håkon and Jørgen Larsson (the last speaker) presented us with projects where their inability to see beyond their own shadows hindered them in producing successful artworks, while Trine took us on a reflective, philosophical journey of the adventures of the notorious theatre group Bak-Truppen (1), splattered with anecdotal episodes of both their collective history, and stories from her everyday life.

Håkon's presentation centered mainly around the development of an "(untitled) interactive installation" (2002-2003), first staged by the performance group Force Majeure (2) at Grusomhetens Theatre in Oslo. This installation emerged from the combination of two separate ideas - sound feedback generated by walking over a floor with hidden sensors, and automised telephone answering machine systems, or talking robots. The set-up was like this.

The floor of the theatre was painted red. A large projection screen covered a wall. The actresses/actors took turns to sit in the dressing room and dub telephone answering machine messages which they listened to on a cassette via headphones. They also dubbed video recordings of themselves dubbing automated telephone answering machine messages! A curtain covered the dressing room window (visible from the stage area) hiding their activities from public view. Their projected image, sometimes recorded, sometimes live, appeared on the projection screen. The projected imagery was processed such that when the public moved across the red floor, the imagery moved from being abstract to concrete. The sound of their voices was treated in a similar manner, but in opposition to the visual imagery. So when the visual imagery was concrete (showing the actresses/actors, either live or played back), then the sound was abstract (more like a soundscape) and vice versa. From this description I hope you will gather that the group had many ideas about recorded and live presence and diametric movement. They also expected the public to recognise the pattern on the curtain covering the dressing room as being the same curtain as on the projected imagery, and thereby discover that the actresses/actors were actually in the dressing room.

Another feature was the triggering of a loud crash sound when a hot spot in the centre of the space was stepped on. The group envisaged that the public would intuitively find out that their movement was affecting the theatre environment, but in reality they had no idea that the installation was in any way interactive. Most people just stood still, thinking it was just another obscure video installation. And of course, as they failed to move around the space, nothing really happened to make them think otherwise. Those who did have an inkling of an idea of the nature of the work were disappointed that they were unable to link their movements to any direct responses in the audio-visual landscape. Those who did hit the magic spot and trigger the loud crash were offered a moment of instant gratification, which soon dissolved into disappointment when they tried the trick again. Håkon had designed the system such that the crash was not immediately repeatable but, once triggered, generate other types of sound modulation.

Basically Force Majeure were so caught up in their own ideas that they failed to see how the public failed to realise that they were participating in the creation of the work. Neither did they make the connection between the dressing room and the rest of the installation. Both the artists and public were trapped in their own separate caves. Håkon and his group eventually learnt that when dealing with complexity and interactive environments there must be something that allows you to make contact with the system. It would have been much more interesting, said Håkon, if the dressing room curtain was opened, so the public could witness the activities going on inside.

Saying okeydokey, sing-a-long a Smokie
Coming out a chokie

A similar dilemma was later described by the third speaker, Jørgen Larsson, when he worked as part of a team who won a competition to develop and produce “Elektra” (3), a national water power monument in Tyssedal.

At that time Jørgen was employed as the manager of BEK (Bergen Electronic Art Centre) (4) who were responsible for the audio part of the monument. With no previous technical experience save that of a half-studied pianist, his job was to produce the interactive, generative sound system for the installation whereby the the musical parameters of the composition would be modulated in accordance with the shifting daily parameters of the workings of the water power station itself, including visitors. Many people were involved in the project, including the composer Natasha Barret, who promptly backed out when she heard the word “generative”. One intriguing detail that Jørgen mentioned was that, as part of this system, Elektra could receive emails which automatically updated the compositional parameters of the soundscape.

Regarding public participation, recorded water-related sounds were triggered and modified in a computer when people walked across a metal platform that formed part of the monument. Complicated rules were made for this interaction, the most absurd being that if you managed to figure out that when you ran four times round the platform you would trigger the sound of Tyssedal's (and also Norway's) largest water turbine starting up! The turbine had to be shut down and re-booted in order to acquire this recording. That the public were unable to grasp the interactiveness of the installation was but one problem. The sounds that they unknowingly generated were inaudible, covered over by the rushing sound of the water works, and that the speakers were not even waterproof was a detail that the design team had overlooked!

The installation opened in 2000, and ran for a grand total of 20 minutes. It then crashed and never restarted. The sculpture is now a crumbling wreck of its original grandeur - a complete and utter disaster. Elektra received NOK 275.000 in support from Arts Council Norway, with an additional NOK 125.000 in artist consultation fees, not to mention resources from additional sponsors.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Trine Falch stood in front of a backdrop of burning logs projected from Per's computer screensaver. The projector light shone in her eyes, so she carefully re-positioned herself so she could make eye-contact with the public while she talked about 20 years of Bak-Truppen's lisence to fail, Trine style, pointing out that there are seven other renderings of her story corresponding to the current seven other members of Bak-Truppen. Persian rugs are designed with a fault, says Trine. Only God is allowed to be perfect. But as we are people, we can put as many mistakes into our work as we wish.

Trine sees failure in everything around her and she wishes for a life without deadlines. She tells the story of her neighbour, once a respected trombonist in Bulgaria, now unemployed and depressed in Norway. He occasionally plays with dance bands, but otherwise potters green-fingeredly in the backyard. Trombonists do not enjoy the same respect in Norway as in Bulgaria. Following a disastrous attempt to make a comeback in Bulgaria, where time was too short and rehearsals so long that his lips became very sore and insensitive. He played so badly that after one concert he was taken off the programme. He returned to Norway with a only a poster and a programme to show for his efforts - and then his wife left him. Trine knows when he's really down because he plays Norway's national anthem over and over again with great vigour from his balcony.

Reasons to be cheerful 1 2 3

If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your style, says Trine, quoting Tarantino. If really good things can get even better, then imagine how good really bad things can get. This is a translation of a Chinese saying Trine has picked up on her travels with Bak-Truppen. Which brings me back to Jørgen, and his story about the birth of BEK.

According to Jørgen, BEK came into existence in 2000 due to an application for project funding in 1998 for something called pl0t. pl0t was an ambitious net-based art project where artists from Bergen could create collaborative, complex, chaotic artworks via a web browser for the whole world to see. It is described on BEK's website as “an ongoing development, net collaboration with midi, visuals and text. A control unit and communication tool.” If you click on the pl0t link to discover more about this ongoing development, you will find the following comment,

pl0t project # 1:
phase 2 is coming soon to a browser near you !

Nothing more, nothing less! In reality, project #1 was the only pl0t project to be realised. It was a nice one - though I say it myself (being one of the involved parties). Lights were installed in the tower windows of a building that once housed Bergen's Electricity Board and is now part of Bergen Art Museum. By clicking on a web browser interface people could control the colour and pattern phases of the lights remotely. The project was exhibited as part of Motherbord's installation “Sement” (6) commissioned by the National Annual Art Exhibition in 2000. The Max Light Tower was realised in collaboration with Gisle Frøysland, director of visual arts at BEK.

Bullshit project, says Jørgen suddenly, who introduced his presentation as “funding application art”. Never before have so few cheated so many! He adds. He told us that the grant application was designed to fit in with the aims and values of Norway 2000 who supported the pl0t with NOK 100.000. Arts Council Norway provided NOK 60.000 and Kunstnett a further NOK 40.000.

Was it really bullshit? asks Per Platou.

Jørgen defends himself by claiming that naivety in relation to the technical requirements of the project at that time was partly responsible for its failure, but before I go any further, I would like to add that the pl0t engine has since been used for several other art projects and is freely available for downloading on BEK' s website.(7)

Jørgen claims that pl0t, though not really achieving its aims, was never the less responsible for getting BEK off the ground. Apparently, a member of the funding committee for art and new technology told him that, as Arts Council Norway are unable to provide funding for general management costs, they used pl0t as an alibi to support BEK anyway, suspecting that pl0t was over ambitious and likely to fail. pl0t provided BEK with sufficient funds to establish a functional infra structure. It also helped to unite the BEK team (Jørgen, Gisle Frøysland and Trond Lossius), as did another project called “The Living Room”.

The Living Room (2000-2003) emerged from two seperate project ideas that were merged together, and was produced by PNEK (Production Network for Electronic Art) (8). As one of the potential participating artists approached in the early days of the project, I understood that The living Room was supposed to be an installation made up of everyday objects that came to life via various modes of local and remote public interventions. I was therefore interested to learn that The Living Room was actually intended to be an extensive, competence-building project that, through collaborative explorations of the technical and artistic potentials of DVD, would result in a large exhibition.

The focus on DVD as a medium was ditched and the large exhibition never happened. The Living Room ended up as a series of workshops led by the PNEK nodes, and culminated in a final worklab and public presentation in Trondheim in 2003, produced locally by TEKS (Trondheim Centre for Electronic Art).

If you have to attend to the mere surface of the incident, the reality, the reality I tell you, it fades ...... (Emilie Brecht, 2004)

Based on an initial application for funding, Jørgen's description of The Living Room process was brief and somewhat vague, possibly due to the fact that he was interrupted by questions from the public, which led him to refer to other projects. This made it more confusing as to how and why The Living Room failed to live up to its original intentions. It is obviously an intricate story that can be told from several perspectives.

Bullshit project?

Janne Stang Dahl (the current leader of PNEK) was quick to point out that, in her opinion, The Living Room should not be considered as a failure, but as a project that was modified by the shifting times. It acted as a catalyst that helped to strengthen the resources and connections between the PNEK nodes, she said. In retrospect, it is easy to laugh at project descriptions and grant applications that now seem over ambitious and full of outdated trends and jargon, while at the time of writing they seemed to make sense.

A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it
You're welcome, we can spare it - yellow socks
Too short to be haughty, too nutty to be naughty
Going on 40 - no electric shock (Ian Dury, 1979)(9)

Well, no electric shocks so far, but explosions. Yes. In 1992 Bak-Truppen performed “OFmü P18. A post wall tragedy” in Berlin, a piece that proved so problematic for Trine that she made herself a dog costume in which she could disappear.

Working in a Berlin art milieu that hated the DDR but hated the west more was not without tensions. That the theatre text was badly translated and deconstructed to the extreme making it hard for anyone to grasp was an understatement. That the audience asked for the 10 mark entrance fee back was not encouraging either, but the worst tragedy was that several of the performers were badly injured during the first (and last) performance. The technical details are not exactly clear for me, but due to Erik Balke using the wrong saxophone, pyrotechnic devises sewn into the performers' costumes were detonated at the wrong time while the performers were in the wrong place. Erik sustained the worst injuries, and when Trine posed the famous question, “is there a doctor in the house?” a doctor came forward with the following advise - drink lots of cognac!

At this point I realise that the Chinese saying quoted earlier loses its ambiguity in translation. If really good things can get even better, then imagine how bad really bad things can get, could be another interpretation.

Reality is our aim, said Trine earlier in her presentation. Unpredictability and the possibility of failure are more desirable qualities than correctness. But we are fragile. We are different people with different opinions. Our relationships are fragile. They become more fragile when approaching deadlines. It is a fine balance between order and chaos, and we never know how much of it we can take.

Bak-Truppen emerged in the mid-eighties (10) as a collection of post-brechtian performers where everybody did everything - whether they could or not. Those who couldn't, but never the less tried to do their best, seemed to succeed in capturing the hearts of the audience more than those who could. Hopeless but charming. It's not what you do, but the way that you do it. That's what gets results.

Bak-Truppen never deliberately try to fail. They rarely rehearse for long, if at all (with the exception of recent works such as Do.Undo, a series of very demanding choreographic works). Or rather, they rehearse in public.

In 1991 they performed an untitled work at Black Box Theatre in Oslo built up of 11 modules of texts and songs. They cast a dice to let chance decide in what order these modules would be performed. Now Black Box has two stages, and on the other stage the Dissimilis (11), a group of intellectually challenged musicians, were holding a concert. Their sound system was so powerful that their music seeped into Bak-Truppen's stage and mingled with their own equally weird-but-charming music. The fact that Bak-Truppen were performing from the dressing room and were therefore hidden from view, made it difficult for the audience to figure out who was a part of what.

This dressing room incident brings me conveniently round to the last project I want to write about, where blindness on the part of the group led to deafness on the part of the audience. "Null, a multi-interactive live installation" by Force Majeure, is the title of the piece. It has been performed in several different versions from 2000-01.

To cut a long story short, several actresses/actors performed texts which were provided to them by the audience via five serial-connected computer keyboards. Additional interactive elements, such as a sensor on a highly pregnant actress's stomach, modulated the general soundscape. Force Majeure had not bargained on the way that the trigger-happy audience would use the keyboards. Here is an example of audience input I snapped from their website:

mpHeAl09LVmpeE loKmpeUNNE VÆLRompTp

Now, imagine that you are an actress and a computer voice is reading realms and realms of similar twaddle into your ear, which you must directly relay to the audience. Not an easy job. When I saw Null performed at Stenersen Museum in Oslo it was in fact hard to hear what the performers were saying at all as the generative soundscape overrode their voices, sometimes completely. So how do you capture people into a complex system that also seduces them to act with some degree of sensitivity? Håkon ponders.

Make it simple?

I am pleased to say that we heard that Force Majeure overcame at least some of their problems, both with Null and the (untitled) interactive installation described in the beginning of this report. The solution for Null was partly to provide the actresses/actors with a text basis that made sense, which they could combine with the input from the public. The solution for the untitled interactive installation was to re-assess and redesign the interactive system and to provide the public with some pedagogic clues. For example, in the new improved version, each time someone took a step on the red floor they triggered a tapping sound. Tap. Tap. Tap. Onomatopoeia is the name of the game. It is a simple solution but if you take a look at the quicktime documentation of the Gothenburgh version of the installation (12) you will see how the public were immediately drawn into the piece. You will see the old and the young playing and dancing, and you will see their projected image moving in relation to their own movements.

We will, we can! Said Trine, at some point in her presentation.

Yes yes dear dear
perhaps next year
or maybe even never
in which case

Reasons to be cheerful part 3 (repeat x7)

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Reality Check 3 was less showy than the previous event. Less entertaining, more concentrated, and just as informative - if not more. I have failed to note more questions from the public because, in my memory, they seemed to blend in with the presentations. Per Platou took on a more relaxed mode of being, less like a TV show host and in keeping with his lack of enthusiasm for allowing NRK TV in to the seance, despite repeated requests. The dramaturgy of the evening was understated. People arrived close up to the kick-off time (despite the free soup). Some left after Trine's presentation, which ended in a strange phenomenon that I have never got used to - “allsang” (singing together), while the majority of remaining public left soon after the last speaker was finished.

Reasons to be cheerful part 3

Incidentally, but not coincidently, Trine chose Alf Prøysen's song called "The Christmas Present" for us to sing together. It describes an intention to transform an old wooden crate into a wonderful gift - a sewing box for the lady of the house. After a process of trying to make a sewing table, then a wooden chest, a box to keep letters in and a bird table, the original idea eventually ends up as a simple wooden platter. So much work for such a modest result. Per Platou used this song when he unsuccessfully applied for funding for Reality Check. The story goes that a certain committee of Arts Council Norway apparently thought this application was a joke:)

Reasons to be cheerful part 3

Reality Check 3 was the first of the events that lacked the presence of a presenter from outside Norway, which seemed to change the flavour of the evening. What has struck me while writing this report is how incestuous the Norwegian art arena is, especially apparent when you enter the interdisciplinary sphere of art and new technology. How fragile the intermingled relationships become when deadlines have to be reached and limited funding is competed over, not to mention the issue of where credits are dealt out. With a point of departure from the 3 speakers, or myself for that matter, I could draw a complicated web of interconnections and professional and informal networks between artists from various fields, funders, producers, curators, writers, art centres, institutions, etc, not to mention the role-swapping that goes on, too. I blush as I see the web growing wider in my mind's eye.

While it is easy to jump on the drawbacks of such a situation, I think it is as Trine mentioned - that in reality the balance of order and chaos (if such dualities really exist at all) is not stable and creates unpredictable situations. As individuals, we (and I really hate using the word “we”) don't know how much of it we can take. Most of us are only trying to do our best, aren't we? Whether we like it or not and though we each have our own special voice, we are all part of the same song. One thing I am perfectly sure about is that, having been a presenter at the first Reality Check and written reports for the second and third a new voice is needed. Therefore Per Platou should choose someone else to write the next Reality Check report - a cook, a librarian, a deep sea diver, a nurse, whoever. Just not me!

(image by Jonas Eggen)

repeat to fade


Amanda Steggell
18th April 2005

(7) Try here:
and here:
and here is Jørgen's browser-crashing anthem melody:
(10) Since 1986 people have come and gone, and come again and, as far as I can tell from the Bak-Truppen archives, Trine has worked within Bak-Truppen since 1988.