First artist to present the Audemars Piguet Art Commission, composer Robin Meierreceives me inside his installation, “Synchronicity”; a biosphere in the middle of the the Volkshaus Basel, filled with crickets and fireflies stimulated by sounds and lights. In the moist air, under a red light inside the tent that encloses the biosphere, Robin answers my questions, while I worry that the constant sound of the crickets singing in unison might cover his words.
Claudia Malfitano: in your installation fireflies and crickets synchronize and beat together as driven by the same force. What does synchronicity means to you?
Robin Meier: What I find interesting in synchrony is how it emerges, the process of going from something chaotic to something ordered. This is something that happens spontaneously in nature; there is not one conductor, like someone telling everybody to do it, but it emerges out of the chaos so through the interactions of the insects or the elements that synchronize. And I find that interesting because it shows how order can evolve out of something chaotic without somebody having to organize it, it just self-organizes and this notion of something self-organizing is very interesting to me because it’s also the question of how can life evolve, or how can life emerge out of the soup of proteins and chemicals and something living organizes into cells and cells organize to form organisms. This notion of organization it what is driving the idea behind the piece.
CM: and how did you get to this idea?
RM: Actually through many different ways. Originally I was trained as a musician and composer and played the violin and the piano first as a kid. Music was always something very spontaneous and intuitive for me: we would sing at home and make music for fun. And then I studied computer music and when you do computer music you start programming, and you have to write codes and do electronics so is a very long process and it’s very deterministic; you have to write a code you have to determine every single parameter of the sound and it creates a great distance compared for example to singing where you just let out what you think at that time. Still I was fascinated by electronic music but I was always kind of frustrated by this distance which the machines put between me and the music I wanted to produce and that’s why I started looking into artificial intelligence. The things I was looking at mostly were systems that are inspired by biology for example neural nets which are neurons simulated on the computer to act like a biological brain or other systems so it’s actually neural network systems on the computer called self-organizing map which is a system that self-organizes like fireflies basically. So it’s maybe to make the machine softer or to bring some life into what the machines do that I got interested in the mechanics of this biological evolution because in order to have it on the computer you have to understand the mathematics behind it, the way it works, and once you understand it and you implement it on the computer you suddenly see a behavior that resembles the biological behavior so that was maybe 14 years ago or so. It’s quite a long time and I did a lot of work, computer based work and programming work and after a few years I started to get interested in actual biology because I was always studying it to understand for the program so I thought “maybe it would be interesting to combine artificial biology with actual organic biology”. That’s how I did one of my first pieces which is called “Truth” which is a piece with mosquitos that sing together; they all sing at the same pitch and they sing an Indian song of Dhrupad.
CM: I was going to ask you that, because the result of your installations is usually very soothing and unexpectedly gratifying, especially when sound is involved. And it reminds me of mantra chanting and the benefits it gives to your mind, taking you to a state of meditation…
RM: When I worked on this mosquito project at first I was following the protocol the scientists had written about in the paper when they discovered this behavior that mosquitos tune into each other. So they used mosquitos recording and sounds, pure electronic sounds, and at the beginning I did it like that. But after a while I noticed that when I was singing myself like: “aaaaaaaaaah” the mosquitos would go “bzzzzzzzz” on the same pitch! So I said, “Wow it works with my voice!”. And then me and my colleague at the time, Ali Momeni we were working on this piece and we were thinking about what music, what sound could be used and we listened to the mosquitos and the mosquitos did a lot of descending and when we had two, they sang together. And we were actually listening to the mosquitos and we were reminded of a style of music which we both love very much, which is called Dhrupad which is this North Indian singing tradition, a very old tradition, maybe 2 thousand years old; it’s sung by families, by clans, dynasties; very often is sung by two brothers that sing together; and so the two of them sing together at the same pitch and it has a lot of “oooooooooooh” (sings) so it really sounds like mosquitos!!
CM: How is the Audemars Piguet Art Commission helping you achieving your goals?
RM: Financially obviously, but also through some logistic for the set up. I think the curator Marc-Olivier (Wahler, Ed.) was very helpful. It was very good to have him around just to bounce off ideas. I would show him my researches, and what I was working on. So, it’s good to get some outside feedback every now and then, that was very helpful. Most of all they gave me a platform, the means to create this project.
CM: What do you have in programme after this installation?
RM: The next thing will be an installation for the Ricard Art Prize in Paris on September 14th, so we have got to prepare that over the summer!