Perfect Sound Forever

Leif Elggren

Interview by Daniel Varela
(July 2005)

Sound Art is a (still) strange territory in which many disciplines overlaps. Regularly understood as sound installation projects, working with sounds, spaces and concepts is a very complex matter. Swedish artist Leif Elggren proves that is possible to deal with sounds as conceptual art since early eighties. His projects are challenging and take things to extremes.

He was also a pioneer of "virtual art," creating in 1992 (with the other king, CM von Hausswolf) the strange concept of KREV (Konungarikena Elgaland/Vargaland The Kingdoms of Elgaland/Vargaland)- this was a world created on the Internet, formed with people from around the world. KREV has its own geographical, mental and digital territories, its own Constitution and a plethora of ministeries on Digital Food, Secrets, Digital Police Corps and so on.

In "Pluralis Majestatis" (1997), Elggren took a metal bed as prime sound matter with contact microphones and with 102 cans and has let it run for an hour, while in "Talking to a Dead Queen" (1996), the sound source was the drone from a copper pipe. In 1999, Elggren recorded the words that he had "composed" with sound artist Thomas Liljenberg. The work was named "The Party" and has been the proposal for a party platform they took part as a registrated political party in the Swedish General Election 1994.

Another project like "Extraction" (2002) includes strange sound sources recorded in his "biological mother's uterus with my not yet developed teeth used as a fundamental and simple recording device few days before my birth." If you think that is not enough, try to listen to "Virulent Images-Virulent Sound" (2003), a work that includes health warnings on biohazard due to its highly aurally and visually contagious sounds and images taken from HIV, Rabies, Influenza, Ebola and Smallpox among others biologically lethal agents.

There is special and fertile territory in Elggren's collaborative projects. Maybe the best known one the suggestively name "Guds Soner" (The Sons of God), done with another Swedish conceptualist, Ken Tankred.

Elggren and Tankred has been performance artists for many years. Many of their works encompass furniture, everyday actions, electronics and a very particular balance between the quotidian and inner life. Elggren has composed an interesting and shocking piece in collaboration with Aicha Boman entitled "ge. nos 0911b" (2003), using sounds taken from seismographic technology spectroscopy. Combining artistic intuition and science; metaphysics and naturalism, they composed a work in which earth can be heard linking natural phenomena and September 11th terrorist attack.

This interview was done by e-mail during first months of 2004 while Elggren was traveling between Buenos Aires and Stockholm.

PSF: What were your first steps in music? Could you comment about this period and influences on your musical thinking?

I am, from the beginning, a visual artist, I started to make music for my performances, as a sort of soundtrack. I also started to generate music/sound from my work with the more visual stuff. It came as a sort of side effect as I started to listen to what I was doing. What I have been doing for so many years without thinking about is generating sound/music. That was a revelation.

PSF: How could you describe your musical language? Do you some kind of working/composing method or does it depends on each project?

Yes, it definitely depends on each project. I believe I have my roots in a conceptual attitude, but sometimes I work more free, with a "music ear" and that can sometimes be a relief. But mostly I work with a certain project that gives the frame for what should be done. I often create the fundamental circumstances and then just let it go its own way. I am then the observer, the registrator, the nurse.

PSF: Is it possible to think about any relationship between your music and performance and installation art and/or Fluxus?

Yes, I have often used my music for my performances or generated my music out of my performances. These are closely linked to each other. I can not really separate the different disciplines, I do not want to separate them. I think they all are part of the total body of the work. You know, like pieces, different pieces fitting together and creating a larger structure. This is not aesthetics, this is a working tool.

Fluxus is fun and interesting, but I have not been involved in that or interested myself especially in that. I think they had a lot of fun these guys who was/are part of that movement.

PSF: Can you tell me about the development of your "Guds Soner" project and the aim behind it?

I have always been very interested in collaborating with other people. The traditional image of the artist is the lonely creator. It is of course important to be alone, to be one's self, but we are humans trying to live in a social situation because we know that we are totally dependent of each other. We can also be so much stronger if we collaborate, we can reach goals that are totally impossible to reach by your self. An information flyer about the Sons of God describes their art thus:

"The Sons of God work in the borderland between performance, installation and music; everything contributes to the whole and provides the basic structure for that inquisitive and expansive spirit which is apparent in the Sons of God's working method. Sound objects, pre-recorded compositions, physically demanding movements, the voice, the staged meetings and conditions, the objects: all of this constitutes the foundation for an attempt to gain access to those hard to those rare moments when daily life merges with the heroic nature of the inner self."

(From a longer interview by Daniel Rosenhall)

Q: In many of the productions of the Sons of God, you seem to be more interested in investigating and describing different phenomena and objects than creating art for aesthetic purposes.

Kent Tankred: We did a performance where we tried to make a carpet fly. We failed, which naturally is totally beside the point. There were people who thought it was a bad performance since we failed. But what was the point of the performance? We tried to fly using the carpet and if it was successful or not is totally uninteresting. What is interesting is to arrange new situations.

Leif: What we did was to stage an attempt to fly, whether it was aesthetic or not is beside the point.

Q: In your art, you often work with basic elements as a means of gaining access to the more complex truths. Large and small, high and low become blurred. This is evident in your name, the Sons of God, for example.

Leif: Through the name we categorize ourselves as something very select, as if we were two Jesus Christs. On the face of it, we create an image of strong hubris, but when you come to think of it, we are just saying that we are human beings, but with all the human worth every individual is entitled to.

Kent: Through the name, we invite all people to become just as exalted as we are. Divinity is thus nothing we lay exclusive claim to."

PSF: How did you develop the "virtual worlds" idea? Is this related to "The Party" project? As you consider ideas about electronic/virtual worlds, is it possible to think some tension or even contradictions between the ideas radical democracy and "emperors" in the KREV project?

You know, working with art is a great privilege and a responsibility too of course. You can handle and do things that are not possible in any other human discipline. You can develop certain ideas and thoughts, you can test them and let them go ahead and live their own life. What you can do in the field/discipline of art is similar to what you can do in your dreams, but with the "art-tool" you have a little bit more of control- you can gently force your subject-matter in a more wishful way than in the dream world. A little bit like in the so-called Hypnagogic state of mind we often experience when we are about to fall asleep or about to wake up.

PSF: Some times it that seems that exists some ideas of violence behind projects like "Virulent Sounds/illnesses AIDS, Smallpox, etc" Could you explain this side of your work?

I think you're right- the fatal is always violent, the end is always a consequence of violence in some way or another. The background is as follows: according to new but classified reports from scientists inside the NASA medical research laboratories, they have found evidence that virus diseases like HIV, Ebola, etc. are transmitting infection through visual aspects and methods. The viruses carry their infection capacity in their shape. To see the virus is the same risk as we earlier thought- this was the danger of physical contact. Even a slight look at a photograph of, for example, a Ebola virus is enough and causes the risk of being infected by Ebola. The visual structure in the virus system strikes the eye and transform its information in the human brain back to a substantial living virus that will attack certain parts of your body, a sort of dematerialization-materialization process where the photographs are being used by the virus as a very patience but effective vehicle to be spread and to have the possibility to exploit new ways of taking over the world. If images can be virulent, can sound be virulent too?

PSF: I'm very interested in the concept "music for the unborn children" and musics "before your birth." Could you comment about these concepts and, if you have some conceptual links to artists like Ingrid Engaras. Also, are these projects related to some philosophical/ideological field?

These projects emanate out of the insight that with the attitude that everything is possible you can be totally free as a human being and that the tools are free to use for everyone of us and that Art is one of the most powerful tools that is possible to use in this life. You know, what we can imagine today become reality tomorrow.

For the Extraction CD, the basic sound material was recorded in my biological mother's uterus with my not-yet-developed teeth used as a fundamental and simple recording device a few days before my birth. This sound material was kept and hidden until recently inside one of my wisdom teeth, but has now been brought to daylight and exposure. It was digitally mastered, reproduced and sent out into the room which we all mutually share and which we usually call reality, the world. Sent out with the main purpose to change that room. You do not necessarily have to listen to this CD, the sound material should be considered more as a tool, a tool with a special purpose, favorable but dangerous. For best results: load this CD in your CD player, confirm that sound is coming out through the speakers, and then just leave the room. When you come back everything will be totally changed.

PSF: I saw some references about the point that all "are born like Jesus Christ." There were even some quotations to biblical texts in works from the Fireworks catalogue. But on the other hand, there were also some other clear cut statements against religious thinking and institutions. Could you comment about these factors and seeming contradictions in your projects? Are some of this concerns/tensions related to the "abolition of death" in KREV?

Man has always, in one way or another, turned to the other-world in his attempts to deal with the angst of being aware of the inevitable end to all of our lives that is death. This awareness of death and the concomitant fear of it has been the natural starting point for all religious creeds; the fashioning of an explanation, the possibility of some consolation, the dampening of the worst angst. This has always come at a cost, however. Right from the beginning, organizing remedies against the fear of death was a viable option for anyone wanting to gain power over his fellow men.

Out of this, religion was born, and it is no coincidence that all religions have been organized alongside and walked in step with the interests of the worldly powers-that-be. An ingenious method for those who thought that they might achieve immortality was by taking on the role of earthly god. A devilishly clever manipulative trick which to this day, and now perhaps more than ever (!), makes people abandon their own individual lives and entrust them to someone who claims to be God's representative on earth.

But there are no God's representatives on earth! We are all God and equally people with the same unquestionable worth, wherever we may be in the world and on the social ladder. God is not outside us, God is in us all and we can all say: 'I am God!' But today we are witnessing a more comprehensive monopolization than ever before of this interpretive privilege. Perhaps this is due to the growing inequity and insecurity in the world. For example, we can see how the Catholic church is expanding as never before, and this with a leader who calls himself Papa and who is presented as the only person on earth who is in direct contact with the only God. The arrogance of it! And what a clever way to manipulate and preserve the iniquitous social structure!

PSF: Some aspects of your work seems linked to broad, abstract preoccupations (life, death, equality of rights) as well as other, much more ordinary facts of life (as seen in the "Pluralis Majestatis" project, "Guds Soner," "Refurnish").

You know, we are all born equal in this world, we are all born as Jesus Christ. Jesus is not the Other One or the idol; he is you, he is me. It is a point for projecting your self to understand that we all are extremely valuable to ourselves and for each other.

We are all the sons and daughters of God. We have all a mission to fulfill between our birth and our death. Our responsibility is to make it possible for every living thing on this planet to create a life that have all potential possibilities wide open. But, unfortunately, as we all know, the situation for most of the human beings on this planet is not that the whole of life is open for exploration and growth.

Organized powers have since the beginning of time taken over the fundamental and most important symbols to serve their strategies; the visualization and interpretation of the Gods, the incarnations of the Gods, the roles of Kings, Queens, Priests, Politicians, Soldiers, Managers, etc. Power itself has always legitimized itself by pointing out its close connection to the over all covering mysterious unknown (often named with different names of a god (like economy!). They have pointed out the important structures like talking about their relation to this almighty power as similar to the "peoples" relation to them (in a hierarchic system), working since the beginning of the beginning, a model that has been steadily. A fantastic and completely secure strategy because it is built on the basic and eternally present fear of death.

In the history of madness you have a well-known caricature of a madman with a paper crown or something on his head, proclaiming his kingdom and his power. That is always an image that generates laughter and ridicule. It is of course compensation for the lowest position, a caricature of a person who lost all his power, everything. The circle is closed and the identification and the confusion of these two human positions (the King and the Lunatic) are total. These symbols still have their evident validity; they are fundamental and simple, they are filled with historical and social power that can generate an inner energetic image for everyone that can be useful for the future. They can be silly, filled with humor and they can be extremely serious (dangerous).

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