Deutsche Welle's Bonn headquarters have a long history of creating radio in 30 languages from around the world. For the city's newly appointed sound artist, Norwegian Maia Urstad, the broadcaster is a playground.
Maia Urstad of Norway has been appointed Bonn's "City Sound Artist" in 2017 and will create a soundscape on the grounds of the World Conference Center. Commissioned by the Beethoven Foundation for Art and Culture under the heading "BonnHören" (Hearing Bonn), it will incorporate radio sounds in 30 languages from Deutsche Welle's archives. The exhibition is scheduled for the opening of the Global Media Forum in June, and again for the Beethovenfest in September.
An active contributor to the Norwegian and international contemporary art scene since the mid-1980s, Maia Urstad often works in the grey area between audio and visual art and has exhibited in cities including Berlin, Marrakesh, Buenos Aires, London, Johannesburg, Toronto, and Malmö, as well as in various venues in Norway.
DW: We used to call Deutsche Welle the "Tower of Babble" because of all the languages you hear here every day. Have your first days at DW been anything like that?
Maia Urstad: Yes, I've mainly been searching the archives for material, but it's quite curious to walk down the corridors or sit in the cafeteria and hear all these different languages. And it's an inspiration.
Will you be working with pre-existing material for your sound installation, or will you be recording your own?
I'm mostly focusing on archival material and radio programs, also historically. I'll be looking at the development of radio here over a long period of time, and will use that to develop an installation for a public space with many different sound sources.
So we'll hear different things. Is there a visual aspect to the exhibition, too?
I don't know yet - maybe. Much will depend on the space itself, and I haven't fully evaluated it yet.
That means you didn't come to Bonn with a pre-conceived idea?
Exactly. It's a process and a gradual development. I think the place contributes something to the work - and to the material as well.
When you talk about working with pre-existing sounds, it reminds me of the composer John Cage, who lived in New York City. He would open the window, listen to the street noise, and say, "This is my composition." That means that he took unorganized sound and organized it in his brain. When you hear random noise, do you hear music?
I do, definitely. I think that's one of the reasons that I'm reflecting a lot now on the transition from analogue to digital radio. I think all of those unintended sounds that have been part of the radio listening experience for ages - from the crackling on medium wave onwards - and that those sounds are also very musical.
Karlheinz Stockhausen made compositions out of radio static…
Yes, and Cage did as well - using sounds from tuning the radio. I did that, too, before I knew Cage had done it. It's part of our sound environment. Our emotions respond to it - and so do our memories.
I've always been interested in technical developments. When the portable cassette player came out, we went into a barn and recorded the pigs and put that sound on an LP with music from a New Wave group I was playing in. Later on, I used a small Walkman for that. After that came the four-track recorder, making it possible to experiment with these recorded sounds. I've also worked with instruments, but I find these concrete sounds very interesting.
Do you believe philosophically that there is meaning in everything, even random sound?
Hmmm, I'll have to think about that!
We are inundated with sound nowadays. It's just like light pollution: to see the Milky Way, you have to travel far from the urban areas. So if you go somewhere far from civilization, what do you hear there?
It's never quiet there! There are always sounds, in different layers.
Maia Urstad's Berlin exhibition "Meanwhile, in Shanghai…" also demonstrated her fascination with radio sounds
Do you use sounds of nature in your work too? Or do you have a preference for the sounds of civilization?
I've been through the period of wind, rain and things like that but am interested in change and technology now and actually prefer human-made sounds, particularly radio sounds. It's never-ending, like a Pandora's box.
With so much sound around in everyday life, what do you have to do to catch people's attention with the acoustical art form?
I don't know why, but many of my works turn out to be quite meditative or contemplative. I take noise and tend to turn it into a calm zone. I've seen people coming out of some of my installations moved, and relaxed somehow. A recent work I did with the artist Hilde Hauan in Bergen was based on the tuning of the guitar. We worked with fiber optics and sound. The response was amazing. People stayed in the installation for a long time, lying down on the floor or walking slowly around in the space, taking in the art work. It was a good experience for the artists.
Is what you do art for art's sake? Or do you have an intention: Do you seek to move and relax, to inform, perhaps to educate?
My immediate reply would be art for art's sake, because I cannot calculate this. I can only see the reaction. I actually think there is too much of this instrumental way of thinking in society in general nowadays, and I'm uncomfortable with that. But I trust that if I work properly, it will reach someone. It goes back to my experience playing in a band in the 80s and making a hit. It was always a hit-or-miss prospect.
One of my recent works was at an old fortress north of Oslo. It was commissioned, so for that, you have to communicate and to negotiate. It was in a former military area.
What sounds did you use for that?
Actually sounds from the world in combination with sounds that have always been at the fortress: short fragments from North Korea, or a local clock. It all had to do with the fact that the fortress was once defined as the Prime Meridian of Norway, serving as a geographical center. We introduced sounds from different cultures and even religions to this fortress.
Which brings us back to Deutsche Welle, with its mix of countries and languages - also a sound of the world.
Exactly, which is why I am researching DW's historical archives as well.