«My audio compositions are less focused on getting from A to B but rather to create static sound architectures and spaces. They should be entered and explored acoustically like a building.» Zimoun

The Swiss artist Zimoun claims he is an autodidact. During the following interview he will make clear he didn’t study art and he doesn’t have a solid background at his disposal, and least of all he never thought about confronting himself with other artistic or vanguard movements which came before him. As this article is trying to focus on, he is one the most interesting and visionary artist of our time. In the sound art international panorama, he is one of a kind for his research on the expressive potentialities of analogical (mechanical) sound in relation to the space, as well as for his aesthetical analysis on a possible visual translation of the sound mechanism implied by his works.

Awarded with an honourable mention at Prix Ars Electronics 2010 in sound art category, and founder (along with Marc Beekhuis) of Leerraum [ ], one of the most dynamic labels for CDs, DVDs and international networks (organizing events, conferences and exhibitions) gathering artists who work with audiovisual elements on the science-art front, Zimoun is a tough artist, difficult to read and categorise. Nonetheless, to schedule artist into categories is one of the most useless and constrictive actions, and seems inappropriate for describing the wide complexity of his work.

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His sound installations are in fact wonderful complex systems, composed by mechanic motorized units, organized by very rigid project and exposition rules: these works are vivacious living organisms, capable of inhabiting their space through a smart and never banal relationship among sound and measurement of volume.

A careful study on the composition potentialities of the sound superimposition produced by the different used materials, and a strong irony in his mechanisms’ kinetics, almost seeking for the observers’ attention, are further chances of analysis and reflection for the lucky ones who have experience of his works. And of course for everyone who can see and appreciate them thanks to the net (It is possible to view all of his works on Vimeo, starting from http://www.vimeo.com/7235817).

Voluntarily composed without a title and described to the public only on the basis of their mechanical components and materials, Zimoun’s kinetic sculptures may require the observer to make an effort of imagination, acting subjectively on the completion of the work, as the author himself suggests at the end of our chat.

All of these elements were widely known in the world of art, but in Zimoun’s works they appear as they are made up-to-date in relation to the contemporary culture of the sound seen as process. They seem like an aesthetic translation of a smaller and smaller technology, miniaturized and closed on the expressive level within complex systems which would otherwise explode as a sum of each expressive element.

Yet, to mention Constructivism and Bauhaus experiences, reproducibility of Programmed Art or Munari‘s or Tinguely‘s Useless Machines doesn’t make sense, for the reason we hinted at the beginning: Zimoun is an autodidact, he works by instinct, he has no points of reference. And I think that in this freedom lies his true artistic value…

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Marco Mancuso: I would start from the beginning. Which are your backgrounds and how have you come to your actual artistic research? Let us know more about you and the label Leerraum [ ], of course….

Zimoun: Since a little kid I have been interested in exploring sound through playing instruments and creating compositions, in addition to visual activities such as paintings, cartoons, photographs and so on. So, from a very early age I was fascinated and somehow obsessed by being active in all these fields: sound, music and visually realized projects. Now, through my sound sculptures and installations many of these interests are coming together.

Leerraum [ ] serves as some kind of a a label and a networking hub of artists working in similar fields. It has become a platform for creative exchange among those who explore forms and structures based on reductive principles and careful yet radical use of materials.

I founded Leerraum in 2003 together with the graphic designer Marc Beekhuis. In Leerraum [ ] different interests are coming together. On the one hand, the project tries to build up a network of people working in related fields, with related concepts, with similar attitudes. For example there can be an interesting common ground for an architect, a musician and an installation artist. But also different points of view and different methods of seeking solutions. So, the desire is to create a pool to exchange visions, knowledge, information and ideas in general. On the other hand it’s also about a curated platform and archive (physical and digital) for small objects, releases and ideas.

Marco Mancuso: In your artworks, there are some evident references to kinetik and programmed art movement, to the idea of multiples, of reproducibility, typical of Gianni Colombo and Gruppo T researches. As well as a sort of homage to the Bruno Munari and Jean Tinguely ideas of playful machines, to the futurist and constructivist dreams of poetic use of everyday machines and materials. In other words, what touches me is your attitude to belong to a long developed artistic path: from the avantguard experiences you’re finding a very interesting contemporary analysis with the use of modern technologies and contemporary references to the technological (industrial) world around us. What do you think about that?

Zimoun: Well, to be honest, I never really thought about my work or decided anything in a historical context. My knowledge about art history is pretty small and I also never studied art. I’m an autodidact by heart and my work grows mainly through the process of doing it. I’m influenced and inspired by the present, the world and universe I’m living in every day. Tonns of things are inspiring, fascinating and activating.

The beauty and complexity of nature, its systems, function, chaos and order. But also mechanics, tools, human beings, science, factories, individuality, insects, brains and ideas, solutions,simplicity, swimming in the river, activity, materials, great food, artificiality, humor, absurdity, architecture and space, philosophy, doing nothing,… it’s an endless list.

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Marco Mancuso: It seems you have a vojeristic approach. Just like some digital artists and interaction designers who like to show (and to hide) the connections, the cables, the technologies behind some digital processes and the machines that allow them (I’m thinking about Limiteazero, in example, and their “aesthetic of the machines”), you work on the exposition and put in scene of micro-mechanisms, of engeneered motors, of material characteristics behind your artworks and installations.

What do you think is the relationship, the emotive connection, between you (or your creations) and the audience in front of them. Do you think there is more a sensorial kind of feedback, a sort of reference, a fascination attending your artworks? And, in case, how do you play with that?

Zimoun: The reduction in my work makes you concentrate in what’s there. What you hear is what you see. So the relationship between the materials, movements and sounds is very obvious. This simplicity, directness and immediacy interest me. I’m trying to bring visual, sonic and spatial elements together into one essence in my installation work. It’s also an interest in repetitive and reductive principles, raw materials and the properties related to sound, motion and space.

It’s a careful but radical use of materials I’m looking for. I try to pay attention to the tiny things to shell the materials and concepts to their essential elements. Through this reduction the works can stay abstract – more like some kind of a code or system behind something – but at the same time they also open a large field of connections, views, associations and interpretations.

Marco Mancuso: You make a strong use of plastic, polymeric, card and steel materials working at the same time with wires, motors, compressed air, ventilators, grids, pendulums and balls. What I’m asking is which are the characteristics of a specific material that inspires you: do you choose a material for its beauty or maybe for its characteristics and functions?

Zimoun: Most the time it’s a combination of both. The function and characteristics but also the material itself. At the beginning there can be an idea about a sound or a movement, a vision about a space, an interest in a behavior or a system, or a fascination connected to a specific material.

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Marco Mancuso: It is absolutely clear that you pay a strong attention to the aesthetic impact of your artworks. A precise and detailed work of surgical operation of cleanliness of all unnecessary details, rebounces for a minimal and aseptic mis en scene of the pieces. All your sets reminds a sort of laboratory, a parallel universe of precise and setted mechanisms and behaviours…

Zimoun: Well, there’s not one specific hope from my side of how to look at it and I appreciate different points of view, connections, associations and interpretations. I see it in many different ways myself too and I create it based on many different interests coming together. I think it’s just more than enough if the listener/viewer is able to get inspired – somehow activated – by the works and if he/she starts to make his/her own connections, associations and discoveries on different, individual levels.

Subjectivity is something very interesting. That way the viewer starts to play an important and creative part as well and great thoughts about the works show an activity of an interesting individual. As the creator of the work, I can help to give this freedom to the viewer by not explaining concrete ideas from my side. Also by keeping the titles of the pieces very technical, just based on the used materials.

Marco Mancuso: Speaking more about your exposed pieces, I noticed a sort of obsession for the idea of matrix. Many (not all) of your artworks reproduce the idea of a matrix. Matrixes of pieces, matrixes inside pieces or moreover pieces included in concrete matrixes that work as sort of frames. Matrix is a mathematical formula, a repetition of patterns, that again reminds to computational processes and suggests a possible connection with the digital art world. Could you tell me more about your idea behind the use of matrixes?

Zimoun: The order, the matrix, is often the technical situation, the system, the set up. And then the chaos and individuality is coming out of it’s activity. That way the individual behavior of the single, multiplied elements are getting attention and are evident. It’s the interplay of both, the mass and the individuality, the order and the chaos, the artificiality and the organic. It’s some kind of an examination of simplicity and complexity at the same time. That might sound like a dichotomy – but this things seem often to be quite close.

Or it’s like exploring infinity: you can ether do this by making your area of focus larger and larger… but also by getting smaller and smaller and smaller… on both sides there’s no end… Exploring complexity based on simple systems somehow helps me to get at least a little bit closer to it. Otherwise I would just be totally overstrained (laughing).

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Marco Mancuso: The idea of repetition, of algorithmic sequence, of regular distribution in the space is functional to your audiovisual research. The work on sound as well as the work on visual phisical behaviours of wires, tubes, balls seems well determined, almost composed. Also the choice of specific materials seems functional to an audiovisual result and behaviour. How do you work on the compositional stucture of your artworks?

Zimoun: My compositions in general are less focussed on getting from A to B but rather on creating static sound architectures, which can be entered and explored acoustically like a building. The focus lies on the altercation between void, density, space, structure, interfacing, statics and balance. I‘m interested in a selective mix between living structures that are continuously generated or evolving by chance and chain reactions, and a specifically delimited and contained space in which these events are allowed to happen.

My intentions are manifested through deliberate containment and cautious monitoring. Thus, I‘m not preoccupying myself with chance factors and generative systems to discover unexpected results, but rather so that the works can attain a higher level of vitality. This vitality grows out of the generative systems and the specific behavior of the materials.

Marco Mancuso: Repetition brings also a strong idea of time. How do you work with this element, time I mean. The time of your artworks, the time of a single mechanism behind them, the time of the audience in front of them?

Zimoun: Mainly I create somehow static spaces, situations, architectures. It will always be different in it’s micro structures, but at the same time it’s also staying the same situation somehow. Like a field with a heard of sheep: a lot is going on in there, it’s never the same and continuously changing, but five days later it’s still the same field with the same heard of sheep. Maybe one of them got sick and a new one was born. Probably there’s less grass after a while. So the time is some kind of a tool to realise and examine the progress, the activities and structures as well as to give space to the process and it’s micro events.

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Marco Mancuso: This idea of repetition, of parametric structure, of fractal distribution of a singular micro-starting shape, which is present in your artworks, remind me some natural spontaneous growing processes typical of the natural world surrounding us. So, how do you work on the passage of scale from a micro-structure to a macrostructure?

Zimoun: It can work both ways around. Starting from the small single element or starting from the vision of an activated space. Normally it’s a mix of different things. For example, the work often starts with a specific space that I am invited to present in. I think about the possibilities of how to work with the space, how to use it as a body and what kind of piece would make sense in relation to that particular space. At the same time there are always ideas waiting in the pipeline.

For example, working with a specific material or a specific kind of prepared motor, or perhaps a physical movement, behavior or sound. Many ideas often buzz around at the same time for me, from this I start to pick out small, single elements that seem to be most interesting in relation to the specific situation or space. I then begin making experiments and prototypes. Through the process of physical tests things become more concrete and comprehensible, I start to see what could work and where the problems are hidden.

Normally many steps of prototyping are needed. Each step is vital in order to build the next one and to optimize performance along the way. Through prototyping sometimes totally unexpected results show up and can influence the whole process as well. But once a prototype satisfies my criteria I start to calculate how many elements I need to work with and I stat refining and optimizing all spatial aspects.

Marco Mancuso: Do you think there is a kind of aesthetical and conceptual metaphor among mechanical behaviour and animal/natural universe, within your artworks?

Zimoun: Yes sure. There’s some kind of an exploration of the beauty of nature. Even of course on a very primitive level compared to the nature itself. It’s more about associations and abstraction than about rebuilding something. Maybe similar to an abstract painting of the nature. The association, the process happening in each single brain, the individual activations are somehow completing the pieces on individual levels.

I try to develop very simple mechanical systems which allow or which let grow complex behavior in sound or motion. Simple mechanical elements which allow a somehow “living” behavior, generating and degenerating patterns, textures and forms. In some pieces each single element can do this on its own, in some other pieces this happens through the mass, the multiplication and the interlocking of many small sounds and movements.

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Marco Mancuso:This constant reference to animal/natural world brings also a strong irony to your art pieces. This sensation of hyper-cinetic authonomy, of indipendent behaviour of mechanisms, of swarm behaviour as a process of artificial intelligence, has a strong poetic and funny impact, in some cases. Do you agree?

Zimoun: Hehe… sure. I really appreciate how you get activated though the work. Nice to meet you Marco!