[interview] Robert Henke and his installation "Fragile Territories"

robert henke - fragile territories

This interview comes from the 12th Digitalarti Mag.

Strange feeling when slipping between the black curtains that block the great hall of the Lieu Unique in Nantes: a mix of curiosity, excitement, but also anxiety… This is the first time we are faced with Fragile Territories, a tentacular installation by Robert Henke. We already knew some of his earlier, smaller devices (Transition machine, Traffic, Cyclone) that primarily relied on video and audio interactions. Here, the prime material is the light of laser beams, glittering, crackling and scattered like fireflies according to convoluted algorithms… all in a very dark-ambient sound atmosphere revealing the dark side of Robert Henke who is also pursuing minimal-dub and chaotic explorations as Monolake… Interview.

How did you conceive Fragile Territories? On which technical and conceptual basis?

robert henke portrait

For a very long time I have been fascinated by the specific quality of laser light. Around two years ago I decided it was time to actually explore this medium. The rest happened step by step, starting from a quite small initial idea, lots of research and it did grow into the current installation, where four laser projectors draw shapes on a wall and there is also sound.

The fascination for the medium comes from the fact that it is a very beautiful and intense light and at the same time it is really hard to control. The only way to create the shapes is by moving mirrors very fast and very precisely. This is technically very demanding, but also the limitation leads to interesting artistic decisions. You have to work with the medium and incorporate its limits in your work, which is great. 

The "soundtrack" that accompanies Fragile Territories seems like a drone/dark ambient loop which, like the trail of laser beams, has neither beginning nor end... Could you say a few words about it?

Some aspects of image and sound are very tightly synchronized, others have only loose connections or are completely independent. The most obvious connection is a black shadow that seems to move through the space every 4.2 seconds and which is accompanied by a sound of a big blade cutting through the air. The sounds and the visual side are both created using stochastic techniques, controlled random that allows for a constant variation within certain pre-defined rules. So, it is actually the opposite of a loop, but rather something that constantly changes. It stays within a similar field but it never really repeats and this is very important to me. 

Fragile Territories is an immersive work, however your previous sound installations were somewhat based on interactive devices and videos... Could you also say a few words about this new field of experimentation?

For me it is an old story, I always wanted to move in this direction, it just took me some time to convince myself that I actually should start it. In many ways the work on the laser installation was very similar to how I work on music. I define structures that create sounds. And in this case those structures create visual shapes. The difference is not so big, conceptually. 

Are you already thinking of new projects along these lines or resorting to new technical protocols?

I am not nearly done with that medium. During my research and preparation of Fragile Territories I came along a lot of highly interesting topics which I need to explore further. I deliberately decided to leave a lot of it out of the current work, because I wanted it to be focused on a few ideas. The risk if you do something for the first time is to get so overexcited by the technical possibilities that you end up with a showcase and not with a closed work of art.

During the opening night, you performed a live-set that started very quietly, in a "microscopic-music" manner, then, the general tone evolved towards more minimal/”dubby-groovy” vibes before ending with resolutely break-beat tunes as those that can be found, for instance, on your latest record Ghosts (cf. "Lilith", etc.)… Would you agree that this sums up Monolake's various musical approaches…?

I guess so. I try to create a lot of different results using a very limited set of underlying concepts. I enjoy the fact that I can navigate from drones and soundscapes to very rhythmical music and back within my world. I believe the more works I will do, regardless of the medium, the underlying principles will become clearer and clearer and some of the potential contradictions will resolve also for the recipients.

At the same time, the compositions you sign with your own name, robert henke, seem more ambient/experimental and incidentally very often meant for installations... what musical distinction do you establish between both signatures (monolake and robert henke)?

Monolake is for a standing audience that can move to the music and it is in general more focused on rhythm. Robert Henke is the more introverted, experimental side, and as far as concerts are concerned, I prefer a seated audience that can really immerse themselves in the music.

robert henke fragile territories

Your involvement in the making of the Ableton Live software (wikipedia link) is well known. Could you tell us, in a few words, what new applications, effects or interfaces you wish to develop there?

I am pretty much out of it. As much as I love developing software, I decided to dedicate my time to actually using it and other tools to create art. My current state is more that of an advisor. And as usual it is company politics to not talk about the future. All I can say now is that Live 9 is coming soon and that it runs nicely and contains a few new features I really enjoy a lot.

In the spring of 2013, you will be guest artist at the prestigious standford university where you will be teaching composition / computing and performance… could you tell us more about this residency?

For some reason beyond my imagination the music department thought I might be a good person to teach a class about the above mentioned topics and prepare a concert with my students. So, this is what I am going to do in spring. And I will take the chance to learn as much from them as I hope they will learn from me. I am very excited and happy about this. I enjoy teaching and I like the challenge to do so in front of students which in a lot of fields know much more than I do. I expect quite interesting and inspiring discussions to emerge from that. 

More details about Robert Henke : www.monolake.de

Interview: Laurent Diouf
images: courtesy of Robert Henke
published on Digitalmcd.com / Courtesy: MCD

Fragile Territories. Installation co-produced with La Cité, le Centre des Congrès de Nantes and the Utopiales international Sci-Fi festival, until January 6, 2013 at the Lieu Unique, in Nantes

This interview comes from the 12th Digitalarti Mag. Read it online, for free. 

Digitalarti Mag 12 EN