Felix Hess – Low-tech, highly interactive

pieter van bogaert


Low-tech but highly interactive – about Felix Hess

Paper for Almost Cinema (2009)

(lees verder in het Nederlands)

Felix Hess’s art is humbling. You can only fully experience it when you are aware of your place as a visitor in this work and of the work in its surroundings. This may sound very serious, but it’s actually incredibly playful. The work is simple and looks as if it has been cobbled together. It is smart art – what else to expect from a man holding a PhD in mathematics and physics? And on the other hand it is very straightforward – from an artist in spite of himself. ‘It’s in the Air’ is the culmination of this movement, this simplicity, that carefully considered and yet aesthetically pleasing experience. Three hundred tiny flags that move to the rhythm of the air. It is the synthesis of an oeuvre in which air, space, light and time play the lead.

Movement (in the air)

Felix Hess’s career started with a boomerang. This object plays a light-hearted and amusing game with the laws of aerodynamics. Its movement in the air is completely logical, yet so hard to explain, as Hess – who embarked on his studies in Physics in Groningen in 1959 – soon discovered. At the time, his interest in boomerangs distracted him from an ordinary career as a physicist. After he obtained his PhD with a study on the movement of boomerangs, he conducted postdoctoral research in Australia for further exploration of the subject. It’s 1975 and Felix Hess packed his bags for his first trip across the globe.

It seemed obvious, just like the shift Hess made from exact science to art. This change was related to a new fascination, one for frogs this time. He first heard the frogs in his backyard in Adelaide, Australia. These frog concerts led to nightly listening sessions that became more and more intense as he moved further and further into the Australian outback, in a quest for silence and the ultimate listening experience. Hess first distributed the frog recordings on tape, switching to LPs later on. These were his first, albeit subconscious, steps in the art world. It’s 1982 and Felix Hess returns to the Netherlands. This marked the start of a long oscillation between science and art. Just like a boomerang – it all seems so logical.

Listening (in space)

The shift from science to art was also one from aerodynamics to sound (and back again – inevitably). When listening to frogs in Australia (and later in Mexico and Japan) Hess started looking for other ways to share this unique listening experience with the audience. Instead of two-dimensional recordings on tape and vinyl, he wanted to create a three-dimensional evocation in space – one that incorporated the listener in the sonorous environment. He had previously done something similar: his dissertation on the movement of boomerangs was accompanied by three-dimensional images that had to be viewed with an accompanying stereoscope. He wanted to achieve this experience with the invention of electronic sound creatures, which had to convey the frog concert experience in the space. It’s a transition from a simulacrum (the recordings of the concerts that only gave an illusion of the actual experience) to a simulation (a new experience that replaced the original concerts).

The motivation for this new development in Hess’s research had to be found in his diagnosis that the frogs did not only produce noise during the concerts, but that they also listened. This meant that on top of the musicians becoming listeners, the listeners and the surroundings became part of the performance as well. For the creation of his sound creatures Hess got all the help he needed from Steim, the association for electronic music in Amsterdam. These creatures were actually small see-through boxes filled with electronics that produced sound as well as being able to receive it. Boxes with a speaker as an electronic mouth and a microphone as an electronic ear. Thirty of them were mounted to the ceiling of the concert space to produce noise and listen to each other. A built-in sound filter made sure that every creature could determine individually what was a ‘good’ sound produced by other creatures, or a ‘bad’ sound produced by the audience or the surroundings. The quieter the audience, the louder the creatures, and vice versa.

Observing (in the light)

The concerts of the sound creatures usually took place in darkened spaces, for an optimal listening experience: sound and nothing else, similar to the translucent boxes containing nothing but electronics. This was not a simulacrum, but not a simulation either. It is what it is: a situation in which the audience, the electronics and the surroundings reacted to each other. In the best case this situation lead to a different way of observing. Or more precisely, to a certain sensitivity, as Hess prefers to call it. All his work revolves around this science of sensitivity. A system that he continued to refine as it evolved further and further away from technology.

The culmination of this development can be admired in ‘It’s in the Air’. Just as with the sound creatures, the artist assembled each of the three hundred tiny flags in Vooruit personally. Cybernetic bricolage, with the difference that no electronics were used for these wholly interactive flags. Each flag consists of a wafer-thin sheet of rice paper, a pole made out of balsa wood and a small piece of lead as the counterweight. This construction rests on a pin which turns around in a small glass bowl, made from a broken bike light and mounted on a silver stand. A structure of endearing simplicity, which is so sensitive that it reacts to the slightest current of air. Currents caused by an opening door, the sun entering the room, or a visitor passing by. Nothing more, nothing less. A pure Zen experience.

Becoming (in time)

This is a work of art to enjoy in silence. This is also Hess’s view, who still seems to struggle with his title of artist (just like he places himself on the sidelines of science). This piece makes itself. It is based on an admirable respect for the space and the visitors, who, through their presence, movements and observations, become just as important as the artist and the work of art itself. This is a work that moves the focus of the aesthetic experience from expression to impression. The result is a shift from awareness of the outgoing to sensitivity to the incoming. The frogs and sound creatures listen, the flags react.

When visiting Hess in Groningen, surrounded by two ‘crackers’ – a loudspeaker, made from a piezo plate clenched between a flat stone and a piece of balsa wood that reacts to air currents – that have been sitting on the windowsill for so long that Hess considers them his pets, a dozen of sound creatures in the corners of the house, a flag on the TV and ancient art by Japanese Zen monks on the walls, I have to think of John Cage. The late American composer based himself on the same Buddhist-inspired Zen philosophy and a similar sensitivity to the surroundings and the audience (just think of 4’33’’, the composition in three movements for a stopwatch and a pianist who doesn’t touch the piano) and to his own physical presence (think of his visit to a soundproof room where he was confronted with the high-pitched tones of his own nervous system and the low tones of his blood circulation). This kind of art is a process that makes the invisible visible, the inaudible audible, the intangible tangible.

Being (as a whole)

In one of his last creations Hess returns to sound, the element it all started with. Not the sound of frogs this time, but that of changing air pressure – the same natural phenomenon that is used for the ‘crackers’ and the flags – both going by the title ‘It’s in the Air’. Changes in air pressure produce infrasound, which is inaudible to the human ear. On the album that accompanied his book ‘Light as Air’, he accelerated these sounds 360 times, so that they became audible. On this album you can hear the cracking sound of thousands of doors opening at the same time at the start of the day, passing airplanes and the rushing of the ocean, miles away. By compressing one day in four minutes, a whole new rhythm is created. This rhythm is essential for a proper understanding of Hess’s work. It’s the rhythm of the scientist on the sidelines, of an artistic outsider who does not have to survive on the proceeds of his work and does not have to perform under pressure, who can afford to remake existing work and refine earlier processes.

The rhythm, time and attention for the viewer and the surroundings that Hess shares with an artist like John Cage are essential for an optimal experience of his work. You can look at one of his flags and be amazed by the simplicity of the construction. You can blow your breath on it and be impressed by its sensitivity. But it only works if you take your time and are open to the movements that produce this beauty. The rhythm, the sensitivity to air, to light and the space make this work the abstract and at the same time the culmination of Hess’s work. You can only be amazed by the simplicity of it all. A simplicity that is always in direct relation to the world. A humbling simplicity.

‘Light as Air’, the book featuring texts by and about Felix Hess was published by Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg in 2001. ISBN 978-3-933257-65-9