Flashes of inspiration are as material as a chair
A Conversation with Bettina Munk about John Cage, Intuition and Quantum Physics
By Carmela Thiele
When did your involvement with John Cage begin, and why?
I’ve been involved with John Cage since my involvement with quantum physics. I found it interesting to be able to go back to another artist in my investigation of chance. I realised that I was working within the tradition of an artistic concept. Cage’s approach to composition and chance enthralled me. I knew some of his work, but only really discovered him in 2004. When the Academy of Arts in Berlin put on a Cage exhibition in 2012, the project director Angela Lammert asked me to contribute something. And then I incorporated compositions by Cage into a chance work of my own.
Cage takes up Zen and the I Ching; I refer to the insights of quantum physics. Interestingly, there’s no big difference. This needn’t be a contradiction. I think that the same insights have often occurred in world history. And I’m fairly certain that the I Ching deals intuitively with insights about the holistic principle of nature. The I Ching, the Book of Changes, isn’t just some kind of fortune teller, but in my view is a book of profound insight. It simply came about at a different time; it results from a different mindset.
Has working in parallel on drawings and computer animations influenced your world view and your attitude to art?
Not really. It wasn’t that I programmed something and then it suddenly looked different. On the contrary, I found the opposite intriguing: that it looked the way I wanted it to; that I could create images with scripts. I’ve always found this the most fascinating thing about the programmed code. Many people have worked with code before me; code is beauty, code is truth. You can produce something that’s right for you, through coding alone.
Where’s the element of chance?
I can produce chance through the chance modules. I wanted to renounce control of the composition. In the animations I give it over to the chance module. This fascinates me. It’s somewhat different in the drawings, as I’m closer to them. I throw dice for the composition, like people used to dice for their destinies. In the animation, which moves, I renounce control entirely.
Do you have phases in which you don’t want to programme but draw?
Of course. There are times when I get fed up with sitting at the computer, and want to smell paper and pencils again. The studio always has a particular odour. Sometimes I get up and say, today I want to spend the whole day drawing, and then I do so with great pleasure. You need a particular attitude for this. If I don’t have the right attitude, the drawings aren’t successful, even though I dice for the positions.
What role do your freehand drawings play, your notes?
The notes come about because I want to record suddenly occurring ideas. They’re small sketches, quite different from my systematic drawings. They go back to my original drawings. Even as a child I felt like describing my world: wind in the woods, flowing water. Drawing the notes connects me to myself.
Your notes have been interpreted in the context of psychoanalysis and surrealism. How do you see this?
For me they’re linked to intensive moments. We’ve talked about intuition, and how the term is associated with the concept of genius. I think it should be detached from this. Intuition really exists; genius is a construction. Intuition is something you experience when it happens. You can describe it in different ways. One of my favourite physicists, Wolfgang Pauli, has described the content of consciousness as essential and even existent factors that function like material particles: thoughts and notions arise spontaneously and come into consciousness as ideas. He suggests calling the occurrence of ideas and thoughts phenomena, too, just like sounds, colours and impressions of touch. He has raised the concept onto the physical level, so to speak, which is of course interesting to me. Flashes of inspiration are ultimately as material as a chair.
Why is this physical analogy so important to you as an artist?
Because intuition has also been abolished along with the concept of genius, and yet I experience it. I can dismiss it as a subjective impression – or I can say there’s Wolfgang Pauli, who says that what I experience really exists; that when I’m in tune with a drawing it isn’t just a fancy, a subjective impression, but something manifest in my body, in my brain, and perhaps also has to do with something quite different. That is, not with something subjective, hypothetical, handed down, but something that really exists. And Pauli was interested in this existence, this description of an occurrence. He says that theories, that is, discoveries, come about through an understanding inspired by empirical material, a coincidence of inner images with outer objects.
So it isn’t something that Pauli just thought up; it really exists. I was intrigued that this was said by a physicist, who otherwise dealt with formulae that I can’t read, or only rudimentarily.
There’s the famous Pauli exclusion principle, for which he won the Nobel Prize. Pauli found out why we don’t fall through our chairs when we sit on them. It’s because the electrons that belong to a proton can’t be in the same state at the same time. Pauli discovered the meaning of spin. Photons, on the other hand – laser, for example – can combine energetically. If all material consisted of photons, we would fall through our chairs. And we initially have to be able to conceive this exclusion principle; Pauli couldn’t simply measure it. The physicists of the early twentieth century sat at their wooden desks and developed something as abstract as quantum physics. This was only possible with intuition.
Would you apply the concept of intuition to your early spatial constructions? Through them you also provoked intuitive decisions.
That’s right. It was probably all in there already, but it hadn’t yet caught my attention. It’s a development you go through. In those days I thought linearly; today I think in more complex terms. I think that chance, the essence of information and its connectedness, which I think about today, is simply an increasingly complex thought that I already had in outline in the eighties. I was building these labyrinths then. That was simpler, a decision for left or right. Yes, actually I was already focusing on intuition, but I hadn’t formulated it yet.
Was the processual aspect important to you?
Time is always an important element in my work. You can only have experiences in time. Intuition is certainly something that happens in a flash. I think that everyone has experienced a brainwave. When you’ve been thinking about something for a long time without getting anywhere, and the next day you wake up and there it is. Perhaps the brain has carried on working all night, but it could also be that you don’t think at all. And then you see something or other, and something completely different occurs to you. Intuition is based on experience. If you have no experience, you can have no intuition.
I’ve noticed that during the time of your spatial installations you collaborated very intensively with the public. The work was basically only existent if someone walked through it.
And then there were the spaces in which you worked with the opposites of light and dark. Paradoxically, in the dark people could read concepts that you made visible with fluorescent paint. When the light went on there were only a few panels hanging from the ceiling. Here too you staged experience.
The conceptual pair of information and experience is also interesting here. Our general concept of information is really quite out-dated. We think that information is just lying there waiting to be collected. In reality it comes about through inquiry, as quantum physics tells us. Back then, in my passages through the labyrinths, you only received the information for which you had intuitively decided. Now, if you watch my animations for a while, you receive information that comes about during the viewing time in this unique form only.
When I look at my animations, they’re self-organising processes, as I work with chance modules. But they’re also images. Just as you draw a landscape, which also isn’t a landscape, my animations shouldn’t be equated with processes in the world. But everything happens by chance, organises itself. Of course in the long run our behaviour can intervene in nature. But we can’t move it; it does that itself. And it’s the same with my animations.
It’s correct that you become a viewer through my animations, and no are no longer moved physically. But I’d like to change that in future.
Chance as an equivalent to life. So you’re fascinated by making this claim?
Yes, and it’s true. You experience something that no one has seen before. This is of course a very concrete form, if you like. You could also put film edits one after the other and generate continually changing sequences. Drawing, by contrast, is a quite different process from building a labyrinth, which animates you to walk through spaces where as the artist I’m not present myself but have only predetermined the possibilities.
With the drawings I’m there in person, someone who wants to capture something and get to grips it. This has to do with the idea that you order your life when you make a sketch.
You make a narration out of your life. You have to, otherwise the whole free floating of events would be unbearable. And so in succession these drawings also become the description of an attempt to hold onto something that disappears irretrievably in the animations.