Artist Herman Kolgen seeks out universal emotions in his world-traveling, multimedia work
Robyn Fadden - February 28, 2012
Herman Kolgen’s art can at once be complex in its high-tech execution and compellingly simple in its concept, or mind-bending in concept and uncomplicated in form. In either case, the Montreal-based artist, who has participated in the Venice Biennale (2006) and constantly travels the world creating site-specific iterations of his work, places his ideas of human universality and the organic connections between all things firmly at the beginning of his artistic process and at the centre of his creations. His work, either solo or in collaboration, as in duo Skoltz_Kolgen (1996–2008), always tells us where he’s coming from, but where it goes to is up to us, participants in the immersive experiences he creates.
Multidisciplinary art - a discipline in itself, has been showing up in galleries, museums, and even on Montreal’s busy music-and-culture festival circuit, with its image of being more public and accessible than “traditional” art forms – or maybe it’s just all the rage - as a complex merging of media and ideas perfectly suited to the times we find ourselves in. Montreal artist Herman Kolgen came along at the right time – his multidisciplinary ways come naturally, as if there were no other way for him to create art.
“I’m an autodidact,” says Kolgen, whose work is an ever-altering blend of sound, video, performance, installation and sculpture, each medium fully interacting with the other. His artistic self-education began with music, when he started playing drums around the age of 12 and, in his mid-teens, after discovering Brian Eno’s experiments in textual music, bought his first synthesizer. “I began to see music in a more architectural, structural way, so I could construct pieces that had less beat to them – my music became more textural and organic.”
At the same time, he began to seriously develop his skills as a painter and quickly saw parallels between his music and visual art. “When I started bringing the two together, it was more complicated,” he says. While he could conceptualize this interconnectivity, expressing the relationships he saw between sound and image required new artistic forms and new tools. “These days everyone is multitasking, crossing disciplines, but back then, we were asked to make a decision between these disciplines, which to go in a more professional direction with. It was complicated; I felt a fracture inside me.”
Kolgen kept his artistic vision intact partly by his own luck in coming of age along with the advent of personal computers. “With my first computer, around 1986, I had the ability to mix audio and image in the same place – that changed my life,” he says. A Macintosh computer with a mouse replaced abstract pages of code and worked more in sync with Kolgen’s natural creative process. “This period was very energetic, to blend everything, to experiment with everything – this was the starting point to connect all my mediums in if not one type of work, in one place.” A starting point, because Kolgen’s work always begins with ideas searching for avenues of expression, some high-tech, some less so. “Twenty years ago, it was very exciting to use computers, but at the same time it was frustrating; the computer wasn’t fast enough and the software wasn’t friendly enough,” he says. “We could imagine that this was just the beginning and the possibilities for it seemed great, but frustrating because it was impossible to make more than two tracks in music, the computer would freeze, and so on. As new hardware and software evolved each year, I would wait to push all the aspects of my work further.”
In his waiting for technology to catch up to him, he delved deeper into the organic aspects of his art and how they connected to the digital, realizing through his experimentation that as computers became more powerful, more room was made for the organic. “I find it very interesting that to push the computer very far, to enter the organic, things that are less geometric, less flat, into the computer interface, you need a really powerful computer with good software that can deal with the layers inherent in the organic – the problem of the real world, the poetic side of the world.”
At the same time, a project like the recent Urban Wind, in which accordions are hooked up to wind sensors via surgical tubing, uses available digital technologies to express a simple, organically inspired concept using a wind sensor in an urban space and a way to analyze the readings. “We worked hard to program everything, but it’s not a complex installation in concept,” he says. “And it works very well because of its human connection.”
It’s Kolgen’s determination to align his aesthetic with his process of creating art that often pushes his pursuit of new digital technologies. “Now that the computer is more open, we can construct our own personal interface,” he says. “I need my connection to the computer to be very near my way of thinking or creating. A lot of good software that exists now doesn’t work like I like to work – the way I talk with the computer, I need to change the interface and create a more natural way. It’s different for each artist and now we can at least do it, so the computer is not just a strong tool for us, but has become more and more flexible and adaptable to each person, not only artists.”
In alignment with his theories of representing organic forms and spaces, Kolgen’s art, whether employing new technologies or not, shifts our perspectives about the environments were live in, and in fact often creates challenging immersive environments for the purposes of emotional exploration.
“I have technical skills but my first reaction is very artistic and emotional,” says Kolgen. “The way I’m projecting myself in my art is with emotions first. It’s strange because I use a lot of technology and some people ask me why I want to connect with the audience emotionally – I want to have a strong concept for my work, but also something more universally human, something I have inside me that I want to share.”
And he asks others to share too. When re-building an installation in another country, the territory and materials are part of the artistic concept, so residents of the country contribute materials indigenous to the land, making the installation more personal to them. Pieces that begin with performances may stay for a month in one place, continually evolving as an installation. “We need some technology, but the concept isn’t about the technology,” he says. “My main concern is all about the main idea and concept – that directs the way I’m going to work and the instruments I’ll use.”
In his 2008 multi-media performance piece Inject, Kolgen explores the limits of the human body. A man is immersed in a water-filled cistern, where he stays for over 45 minutes, as the water pressure builds and oxygen depletes, affecting his nervous system and causing him to lose touch with the reality of the tank and the room it is in. We see these changes, bombarded by Kolgen’s video and audio representations of the event, altered temporally and spatially. It’s a jarring experience, but also an emotionally fascinating one, which holds a distorted mirror up to the universality of existing within our human bodies, where biological and emotional reactions are intertwined.
“My focus was on the vital thing that you don’t have in your life that you need,” says Kolgen, who takes this concept to the literal extreme in Inject’s oxygen deprivation. “For some people it’s love or work or to live in nature or whatever it might be they need, and some people don’t recognize what they need, so they are out of phase with themselves – when you miss something that is deeply important inside you, you miss something that can help you to live more in harmony or, less esoterically, live more fully, feel that you’re in the right place in your life.”
Kolgen looks at Inject now and sees its emotional charge, how it is aggressive and extreme but at the same time a “perfect example of how my life is mixed with my art,” how his art is very personal and has always progressed that way.
Kolgen’s work, as personal as it is, also depends on the people who interact with it and other artists and technicians he works with. When talking about his projects, he rarely refers to audience or spectators, rather to the “people who come,” as they are respected participants. The wide array of different people who experience Kolgen’s work ends up mattering as much as the content of the work itself.
Though much of Kolgen’s work is created alone, he doesn’t consider himself a solitary type. “I work with friends sometimes, but do most of my work myself; it depends,” he says. “For instance, I need to have good technicians who can interact with me on the human side, brainstorm and push something.” From 1996 until 2008, Kolgen often worked with Dominique Skoltz, as a music-focused duo Skoltz_Kolgen (http://www.skoltzkolgen.com/), presenting at multi-media and digital art festivals around the world. Working alone for the most part these days, his own ideas push him along,but not without ties to other artists and thinkers. “I usually I work alone, as a closed cell even if working with others – for me that was the way to go very deep into a project, but now I really appreciate having fresh air from the outside, letting others’ ideas enter my thinking process, build something more rich with them.”
Again, Kolgen is looking for something universal between us all, taking his installations to countries around the world and exploring what that universality really means: “I saw that when the people came to see the installation, some had technical questions, but overall, it’s the strong emotion that the people react to.” As in his recent installation at the Cinematheque Quebecois, Dust Restriction (May 2011), Kolgen continued to explore the concept of an invisible line of connection, abstract or not, between people: “For me it’s to create another entity that is strong, but in that invisible way – we are very connected, but don’t necessarily understand why, but we feel it anyway. It’s a responsibility for me to make something where I can take the audience from one point to another point emotively.”
In his performance pieces, usually featuring heavy bass and other sounds and images that have a physical impact, he focuses on the trajectory of the performance, including the emotional trajectory and what will stay in the body and mind after the performance is over. “I don’t want to be too precise,” he says, “so it will be a different experience for everyone.”
His installations, on the other hand, have more to do with the decisions of the people who take part in them: “What I want to do to create an environment, but after that I don’t have control of what happens. The audience is very free – they come inside, they can choose how long they’re with the work. In Mexico, as well as in Geneva, for the Dust installation [he built 9 in different countries], I put seven inches of dust on the floor and I arrived one day to see four people lying down in the dust – you never know how people will react. The dust isn’t allergenic, but they didn’t know that, they just knew they wanted to lay down. Each person with an installation will take their own trajectory.”
His Dust installations perfectly present the point where the invisible and the visible connect between people and their environments, where we are both able to see and feel the dust as another entity and let it become a part of us, on and inside our bodies. “You are with something you’ve never seen before, yet it’s also something that feels close to you,” he says. Kolgen’s work illuminates how even in the experience of something new, we find there is always already a place inside us where it is recognizable, where we can connect even if we’re not entirely sure why.