What if Dadaist and constructivist artist Kurt Schwitters was living today, and he had a knack for music? He would have definitely built his own recording studio in the style of the Merzbau. This kind of architecture is part of the “merz” —a nonsense word Schwitters assigned to his personal process, philosophy, and lifestyle.

Interview: Selina Ting
Images: Courtesy of the artist
2017 JULY 18

Xavier Veilhan, Studio Venezia (2017). Recording session by My Cat is an Alien. French Pavilion, Biennale di Venezia. Photo © Diane Arques © Veilhan / ADAGP, Paris, 2017
Xavier Veilhan, Studio Venezia (2017). Recording session by My Cat is an Alien. French Pavilion, Biennale di Venezia. Photo © Diane Arques © Veilhan / ADAGP, Paris, 2017

This hypothesis is actually the conceptual basis for the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, called “Studio Venezia”. Visitor are welcomed in an immersive installation which replicates an unconventional recording studio. In a Merzbau fashion the space has been transformed into a walk-in abstract collage composed of sharp surfaces, stylized grottoes and found objects, all made of wood.

During the Biennale period, musicians from all backgrounds are invited to create their own music live inside the space. We spoke with artist Xavier Veilhan and curator Christian Marclay to understand their fascination with music, architecture and time.

Xavier Veilhan, Studio Venezia (2017). Installation view. French Pavilion, Biennale di Venezia. Photo © Giacomo Cosua © Veilhan / ADAGP, Paris, 2017

Xavier, you are the artist representing France for the French Pavilion this year. Can you tell us the idea behind “Studio Venezia”?

Xavier Veilhan: The initial idea was to escape the normal Biennale ritual where everything is concentrated on the very first week of the opening. I wanted to take advantage of the fact that the Venice Biennale is up for seven months; it is interesting to interact with the city using this long time. The concept of time is very strong in this project because of the obvious link with music. However the idea of time is also tied to architecture, space and the relation between aesthetic and function. 

To me, the exhibition space is a place where you can activate some functions, but it is also existing like an environmental sculpture. I wanted to develop something with a soft feeling and not too competitive, because there is this kind of Olympic games of art here in Venice with all the different pavilions. What I wanted to do is to escape the benchmarking. For me it is more about creating a space for a certain fragile moment to appear, a moment of creativity where musicians are taking a chance and trying to create something which is not immediately ready to be broadcasted. It is an attempt, and that’s what I want the public to share with the artists. I want them to take this chance together.

Left: Xavier Veilhan, Lionel Bovier and Christian Marclay; Right: Portrait of Xavier Veilhan. © Diane Arques ADAGP Paris 2017

Christian, can you tell us how you came on board as one of the two curators of the French Pavilion with Lionel Bovier?

Christian Marclay: A year ago, Xavier approached me to see if I would be interested in helping him realise his project. For years I have been trying to bring music in the visual arts field and that has always been a challenge because of the architecture and its resonance. From the very beginning of this project, Xavier wanted to recreate something that resembled Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau architecture. The actual Merzbau architecture was destroyed during the Second World War, so what we are left with are only photographs. However, we can imagine that the sound in the Merzbau must have been soft and non-resonating.

So we decided to build a recording studio in the Merzbau style and the result has been perfect. The sound is beautiful.  There are two different rooms, one with a more resonant space and, and another one with a muffled sound.  We have created this perfect recording space with a great sound equipment and artists are invited to come and work. As what Xavier has just said, what you see are not really concerts, but working sessions. You’re witnessing music in the making. Recordings have always been in these studios without daylight, tucked in a basement somewhere, with nobody to see you, and then people would only hear the final recording. Conversely, we wanted to make the creative process visible to a general audience.

Xavier Veilhan, Studio Venezia (2017). Installation view. French Pavilion, Biennale di Venezia. Photo © Giacomo Cosua © Veilhan / ADAGP, Paris, 2017

You both have been working around music for several years. Nowadays contemporary visual artists are increasingly expanding their practices to include other genres which have been traditionally separate from visual art. How do you look at this kind of inclusive or expansive methodology?

Xavier Veilhan: I think it’s very much linked to technology. The camera is capturing data of the sound and the image, and putting them at the same level in the moment it’s transformed into digital material. It’s all frequencies. Sound is a frequency, so is colour and light, and you can combine both in one single work. However – beyond the digital – the blending of different arts is not entirely new. I see it more as a cycle. I think it is because music has so much more impact than the images. You definitely want to make something strong, not by adding things, but by multiplying things.

Do you think it’s easier to reach the public with music than with visual art?

Xavier Veilhan: This is a very good point. I generally think it is easier for music to reach the general public compared to visual art. People feel in awe towards contemporary art, but with music is more like with clothes. Everybody has more or less an opinion about it.

Xavier Veilhan, Studio Venezia (2017). Installation view. French Pavilion, Biennale di Venezia. Photo © Giacomo Cosua © Veilhan / ADAGP, Paris, 2017

Just now, you both mentioned the time element. I noticed that the performances are totally by surprise. There is no fixed schedule that audience can follow. Does this represent your own playing with time?

Xavier Veilhan: To me it is very important to disengage this contract around art and especially around music.  When you go into a concert hall you know the date and the hour and how much you should pay. Moreover, the band or the artists have to perform something specific. But for the French pavilion we wanted to show something different; it is about working on the music and not just playing. In the digital age I want to show the very moment where the music is fabricated and appearing in front of the audience.

Christian, do you think the Studio Venezia project bears similarities with your video work The Clock, a looped 24-hour montage that functions as a clock, which was also presented here in Venice.

Christian Marclay: There are similarities between the two works, because the audience is participating, witnessing and even influencing the results. With The Clock you are constantly aware of what time it is.  It is about the present and the experience.  Even though the work is finished, every day is a different day for the viewer. It is your own decision, how long to stay and when to leave. It’s about the moment. Experiencing something that’s happening right now.

Christian, you are a very well-known artist in your own right, but this time you assumed the role of the curator. How do you experience these different roles in your career?

Being a curator is interesting. It’s just being on the other side. I tend to work as a curator also in my own work because I’m always collaging, taking things from different parts and putting them together. It’s a similar kind of process in music, DJing and mixing records from different sources. When I’m doing my visual collages or my videos I feel like I’m curating. For this Biennale project I helped Xavier find experimental musicians that he wouldn’t normally encounter. I also tried to bring my usual collaborators.

In Venice it was also a collage of people. It’s a social experiment in a way. The first week of the Biennale the studio is full of people and it’s a bit difficult for the musicians. Past that it is going to be much slower and I think people will spend more time here to see how things work, and see musicians who don’t know each other to collaborate. The exciting part is that we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not like a pavilion where you bring in a finished object and that’s it, it’s a statement. This is more of an experiment. Things will evolve. What artists will produce will be influenced by the different crowd and atmosphere. The final result might put online, artists might make a vinyl recording or cassette recording or whatever, or they might just use that as a sketch for developing other ideas. It’s open to possibilities.

Thank you Xavier! Thank you Christian!

“Studio Venezia” by Xavier Veilhan
French pavilion | 57th Venice Art Biennale
May 13 – November 26, 2017]
LIVE Music performances : http://www.studio-venezia.com/

About Xavier Veilhan

Xavier Veilhan’s sculptural interventions are bold and transfixing, while complementing existing architecture and altering how viewers look at their surroundings. His “Architectones” series pays tribute to Kasimir Malevich’s “Architectons,” three-dimensional models that blend architecture with philosophy. In “Architectones,” Veilhan installed sculptures in celebrated, modernist homes; each work was unique to the setting and placed in dialogue with the building’s architecture. A sixty-foot bust of Le Corbusier was set atop the architect’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille, for example. Through faceted, distorted shapes, Veilhan’s structures capture energy by revealing the movement surrounding them. In 2009, Veilhan’s work was displayed in the Palace of Versailles and its surrounding gardens, juxtaposing traditional architecture against minimalist, futurist-inspired sculpture, with the ultimate goal of enhancing the former.

About Christian Marclay

Christian Marclay transforms sounds and music into visible, physical form through a prolific range of performances, collages, sculptures, installations, photographs, and videos. “I’ve always been interested in how sound is visualized,” he explains. Marclay began exploring sound in 1979, in performances in which he would manipulate turntables, playing them as if they were traditional instruments. More recently, he has explored his interest in a related abstract concept—time—by compiling clips from an enormous range of films into a 24-hour, single-channel video titled The Clock (2010). Part working timepiece (it runs in sync with the local time zone), part aural and visual montage (the work includes snatches of dialogue about time and sounds and images of every kind of clock imaginable), the film is a meditation both on time and the depiction of it.

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