I met Matteo Marangoni at the end of 2015, in The Hague. My first contact with him, and with the collective he is part of iii (instrument inventors initiative – an artist-run platform supporting radical interdisciplinary practices engaging with image, sound, space and the body), occurred on the occasion of the Reading Room, a series of group readings.
In this series of events contemporary researchers, cultural theorists, philosophers, and artists are invited to share texts with the audience, involving the participants to read together and discuss the selected topics. The Reading Room gave me the measure of the theoretical interest and research which lies behind iii’s activity. Among the latest guests: Wybo Houkes, associate professor in philosophy of science and technology at Eindhoven University of Technology, who discussed the text “Natural-Born Cyborgs” by Andy Clark and the future of human intelligence, and artists like Jamie Allen and Will Schrimshaw, who proposed readings from Friedrich Kittler, Michel Serres, Gilbert Simondon, and Gilles Deleuze, focusing on the concept of noise as pure potential.
The activity of iii (also part of SHAPE, a platform for innovative music and audiovisual art from Europe), though is not limited to this kind of experiences. It in fact expands itself actively to all sorts of institutions in The Hague, from the Gemak (unfortunately closed for good on December 4th 2015) to Stroom and Quartair, as well as in The Netherlands, with exhibitions recently happened in Enschede and Vijfhuizen, as well as in Amsterdam.
iii is now exhibiting at Stroom, the self-made performative media tools produced by some of the artists which are part of the collective, displaying a small overview of the researches carried on within the group. The variety of the performative media shown at Stroom ranges from the sugar percussive instruments made by Wen Chin Fu to the live electronic music drawn and composed using graphite and variable resistors by Jeroen Uyttendaele.
This couple of examples show how iii’s activity is focused on the production of self-made media tools, for audio, visual, and performative research. The mode of production of the collective demonstrates the value of autonomy within the arts, especially if put in relation to technology, going beyond the simple tinkering with machines, but giving machines what can be defined an ideological purpose. Any object is infused with a specific vision of the world, says the chairman of iii Matteo Marangoni, and this is exactly what drives the collective.
The material investigation unfolds itself in a variety of forms, from objects to performances to environmental installations, in an interdisciplinary approach which aims at tearing down the barriers erected between disciplines, which reflect the specialization forced by the economic division of labor. It is exactly the division of labor what is identified from iii’s artists as the problem at the core of the drift of the technological production as a mode to put the user in the corner, without leaving space for agency in the production and modification of the available tools for solving specific and individual problems.
I asked some questions to Matteo Marangoni about his activity as an artist, about his interest and involvement in the field of sound, but mainly about his role as an artist who’s also actively part of a collective like iii.
Martina Raponi: Tell me about iii and how it came to life. Many of the artists involved in the initiative have previously studied at the ArtScience Interfaculty. How does this detail influence your activity?
Matteo Marangoni: It is easier to state the simple fact that we met each other during our studies then to explain how that led to our ongoing cooperation. The ArtScience Interfaculty offers an exceptional program that attracts people with all kinds of backgrounds from all over the world. At the time in which we were students there was a fertile chemistry in the composition of the student body. iii was created as a space to maintain and develop this synergetic mix of energies, as a vehicle to channel autonomous desires and to shield them from the coercive influence of external agendas.
As a young artist you are extremely vulnerable on all kinds of levels, artist-run initiatives are very important in nurturing independent practices, now more then ever since there is an increasing tendency from entities that claim to support culture to exploit artists as advertising fodder. We have inherited from previous generations the amazing concept of autonomy of the arts. But it is up to each generation to defend that autonomy.
Matteo Marangoni: As organizers within iii we also take care of management, curating, fundraising, PR, so we try to take responsibility for every aspect of our practices. Being in control of our professional and financial situation give us also more control over our work.
When we describe our practices using a musical vocabulary, we say that we develop the instruments that we use ourselves to compose and perform with, summing up the traditionally distinct roles of instrument maker, composer and performer. But the term “music”, in the sense or “art of sounds”, is also too narrow. Our performative work seeks to engage with the totality of the senses: sight, sound, space and the body. That is very different from the typical electronic music nerd that is obsessed mainly with what sound comes out of a circuit or algorithm, disregarding how his work relates to the performance space, the audience or his own presence as a performer. As I see it during a performance everything is part of the work, from the power cables to the clothing the audience is wearing: the room and the audience are part of the instrument.
We are deeply invested in an interdisciplinary approach to creation that runs in contrast to conventional forms of specialization. I had training in many different fields, and in most cases the skills that are offered in conventional forms of education also function as blinders that make people unreceptive to anything outside of a very narrow field. There is still a very broad tendency of thinking of education, disciplines, and professions with categories that come from the industrial production line economy, which is totally anachronistic.
We are inspired by a number of radical avant-garde movements that questioned all of that. It is strange if you think of it that most of the ideas that still drive our work are more then a century old (think of the Futurists for example), but when compared to mainstream media culture they have retained much of their original radicalness. There is a lecture that Noam Chomsky gave at Google in which he cites an interesting chapter of Adam Smith’s fundamental textbook on free market economy, in which Smith admits that industrial economies make the majority of people stupid by forcing workers to carry out a very small range of repetitive tasks – he contrasts this with traditional societies in which people learn all kinds of different things and are able to solve a wide spectrum of everyday problems on their own.
Martina Raponi: What is the role of technology in iii’s activity?
Matteo Marangoni: I think we are really interested in the old concept of “man as tool maker” in opposition to the contemporary notion of “user”. The word tool can be misleading as it has an utilitarian connotation, but the proliferation of gadgets shows us how technology can be everything other then utilitarian. Tools are inscribed with specific world-views. If we want to influence our culture a good place to start is by redesigning the tools. When we leave this up to so called experts, we are abdicating an important responsibility. With standard tools you easily end up with standard results, the confirmation of the status-quo.
Within iii the development of new instruments serves the purpose of enabling us to access new experiences that otherwise would not be accessible. As we work mostly alone or in very small teams the tools we develop are often simple. The simplicity is an important aspect in making them understandable by other people who like us are not experts. Most of the potential of conventional instruments is anyhow not used by any one single artist. Successful instruments like the piano have been designed to allow a infinite number of compositions that can serve an infinite number of composers. We develop instruments that are used perhaps for only one composition by one artist sometimes only in one specific occasion, so it’s a completely different notion of what an instrument can be.
Matteo Marangoni: I am personally interested in thinking about the history of technology from an acoustic perspective. Modern science owes a lot to optics, think for example of the influence of optics on visual arts, architecture and urban planning before it was applied to astronomy. The science of acoustics was developed much later and to date it remains a domain for specialists that is applied in a narrower, but certainly growing, range of contexts.
I am interested in rethinking our every day experience from an auditory perspective. What kind of tools and what kind of experiences can enable us to renegotiate the spaces that we inhabit through listening and sound making? I imagine the instruments that I develop as artifacts from an alternate history of technology in which sound, performance, and embodiment are placed on a level plane with the visual, fixative and disembodying technologies that form the bulk of our recent technological and cultural history.
Martina Raponi: Do you think there is a fine line between the overloading presence of technology and human capacities/capabilities? Which problems emerging from the encounter of the human and technology you consider most important to consider?
Matteo Marangoni: I don’t think we can separate humans from technology at all. The fact that we have separate schools for humanities and technical schools is perhaps the biggest problem. It is rooted in the detrimental classicist notion that the ruling elite should be dedicated to theoretical intellectual pursuits while technicians put in practice their vision in the material world. This is exemplified in places like IRCAM in Paris, in which the composer Pierre Boulez was able to conscript schools of developers to realize his musical vision.
When we are in charge of making our own tools, then we are much more aware and responsible on how those tools function and what their effects are. Obviously it would be nonsensical for everyone to reinvent the wheel for themselves, but being open to invent our own solutions for our own specific problems gives us a completely different awareness also when using any kind of technology. So rather than accumulate all sorts of standard techniques and then see what we can do with them later, I find it much more effective to develop personal techniques that are useful to address a specific question arising within the context of a personal research.
My work is based on a process of trial and error, I never know in advance what will come out of a project. The results of the experiments that I make with different processes and materials are what guides my intuition. When you delegate that process to someone else, so many opportunities to learn and make something your own are lost. We have so many possibilities today, what really takes courage is to narrow your choices down and decide to give up a lot of what others think you ought to do, in order to find your own focus.
Matteo Marangoni: We are used to focus our senses on a small range of things that become easily recognizable to us, both in everyday situations when dealing with goal oriented tasks such as crossing the street as well as with aesthetic experiences like listening to a song. But the realm of what we can experience through our perceptions is of course much broader. It is fascinating to expand the boundaries of what you can perceive and recognize in the world.
Learning to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the sounds of a construction site for example can help us to find enjoyment where previously we would have only been annoyed. I find great pleasure and amazement in listening to how sounds echo in the open spaces of a city, or how gradually scanning the acoustics of a completely dark, silent and reverberant room can open up a totally new way of perceiving a space. The early scientific discoveries dealt with phenomena that were perceivable by the senses. Galileo’s telescope or Newton’s prism relied on human sensors. Today’s world is founded on concepts that are validated by machines (think of theoretical physics or the stock market). But our biology evolved to deal with things that we can feel and interact with through our bodies. I am interested in expanding our senses and our bodies to match the variety and complexity of our conceptual creations.
Matteo Marangoni: A couple of years ago Mariska De Groot, Dieter Vandoren and myself started working on two parallel projects concerned with composing sound and light environments through the multiplication of autonomous nodes in a space. Mariska and Dieter developed Light Field Synthesis, in which a small number of rotating light planes triggers a scattered array of 30 light sensitive modules composed by soviet-era plasma tubes coupled with electrostatic speakers.
During the same period Dieter and I developed a swarm of artificial creatures that interact between each other by sensing and emitting light and sound. One creature triggers another and a set of simple mechanisms causes chain reactions that are fascinating to observe. These two projects came together in the installation Beacons at Tetem Kunstruimte in Enschede, an art center in the East of the Netherlands that hosts a media-lab exhibition program. Beacons is a kind of ecosystem of artificial life forms, different but conceptually related to the series of sound installations Rainforest that David Tudor started making in the late sixties.
In Beacons you walk into this dark space filled with haze and find yourself in the middle of something like a botanical garden or aviary, an environment from another world. It’s a fun but also challenging, to make something life-like out of cheap electronics. We are still working on expanding the compositional potential of our creatures.