This conversation happened on January 7th, 2016, in Johanna’s apartment in Berlin, Germany.
Johanna Gilje: So, I’m sitting here in my apartment with Tom and Kata, and we’re about to talk about a new project of yours called Minute/Year, which began this year on January 1st. Would you like to start by giving a description of the piece as well as the practical constraints of the project?
Tom O’Doherty: Sure. So, we have this new, open-ended piece, Minute/Year, which began on the first of January, 2016. It is a durational installation based around recycling sound.
Every day an automated process runs on a small computer (a Raspberry Pi) in our living room. This computer automatically records the audio of the space for one minute. While it’s doing that, it also plays back the previous day’s minute, through speakers in the same room. What ends up happening is that there is this layering process of sound which builds up and changes over time. These minutes of sound are then automatically published online every day, on our site, and on SoundCloud, as well as a couple of other places. They are uploaded both as audio, and an image of the sound called a spectrogram.
J: You use a method in this piece which reminds me of some of your other work. You define conditions or frames for something unexpected to take place. In other words, you set up a set of constraints for something to happen — something that you don’t yet know the result of yet — and then you set it going.
What do you feel you’re capturing in this one minute every day? What would you consider to be the material that is falling into this frame?
Kata Kovács: It’s a good question, and I think we’re still figuring it out. As much as we know what kind of sounds can be captured in the room, it’s still kind of surprising to hear what is in the frame — to realise that a particular sound is a computer keyboard, or a door closing, or people talking in the kitchen. Also, when the minute is happening in the room, you can hear it through the speakers. So, suddenly your actions are no longer normal — your actions start to become, in a way, performed. For example, during one of the daily minutes I happened to move my hand and hit it off the side of a cupboard. I realised that it made a nice sound and I thought about whether or not I would do it again. There ends up being a fine line between what’s just happening and what is performed.
T: Yes, and that relates to what you were talking about — about setting up these situations where we’re trying to draw a line around something that is inherently unpredictable. The unpredictability is part of what makes this interesting to us.
J: I read a description that you wrote of the piece in which you discuss a temporary collapsing of public and private spheres that occurs in this one minute of recorded sound. I think it’s interesting, Kata, that you bring up this point about becoming self-conscious when the recording starts — even if you try to be completely candid there’s still an awareness — a self-awareness — that maybe wasn’t there previously.
How much are you intentionally creating the conditions that you are capturing? Do you have plans to make certain things happen during this one minute time — or is that something you are specifically attempting to avoid?
T: I think that, as a sort of a rule of thumb, we’re attempting to avoid it. In a sense, we are placing ourselves on a virtual stage for one minute every day. So what we’re doing is like a strange variation on theatre — and we don’t want to be bad actors who are hamming it up.
So instead, our starting point was that, to the extent that it is possible, we should try to just continue with whatever we were doing in that moment. But of course it’s this paradoxical situation where, at the same time, you suddenly do become completely aware of some boring thing that you might be doing. A couple of days ago I was folding laundry when the recording started, and it suddenly became this performed moment, for just one minute, and then it went back to being normal again.
K: But we are also allowing ourselves to potentially change the rules as we go. We might have other people who will be in the room during the minute. So we can’t really have strict rules.
And I think this is where there is an element of surprise — you think you imagine this piece in one way, and then when you’re sitting there and you’re in it, it’s different. And you think: ah, ok, this is how it is — so, is this how we want it to be, or do we want to shape it, or do we want to make it sound different, or do we just want to go with this? All these questions are allowed to come up during the year and are allowed to be answered and acted upon somehow.
J: Listening back to the recordings is so personal and so soft — it’s like overhearing somebody in the next room. It’s something that’s really recognisable and familiar — but it’s not really possible, necessarily, to distinguish what exactly is going on. I mean, I wouldn’t have known that it was your hand that hit the cupboard —
K: Mmm-hmm. Or you wouldn’t have even known which sound it was until I told you.
T: I think that the situation that we’re creating is this kind of daily moment of turning surveillance inside out. We are deliberately broadcasting something, that’s true. It’s something that, on the one hand, is revealing, but on the other hand it is also not revealing what’s happening. Because it is not easy to make sense of what is in the sound.
There is an artist duo in Berlin, Sophia New and Dan Belasco, who use the name Plan B Performance. They have been working with similar ideas for many years now. They basically have worn GPS trackers for — what — 15 years? Something like that. So they have this permanent record, which they own and control, of everywhere that they have been in that time. And one of the kind of long-term ironies of their situation is that when they began, they were the only people on Earth who did this. And now there’s the situation where they are the only people who are doing this consciously. Whereas almost every other person on Earth is doing it unconsciously, because they just carry their phones around everywhere.
K: I don’t think we really have an emphasis on private space in particular. It’s true that the piece is in a private residence, and that has effects. But before we began, we had a lot of talks about where and how to present the piece. The private space of a living room was just one option amongst many others. So if in future years, it was in a courtyard, say, then I’m not sure that there would be so much emphasis on privacy or reclaiming.
T: Yeah, or in a train station or something like that. The choice to put it in a living room for the first year is at least partly practical. In a sense, we are ‘micro-surveilling’ one minute of our day, every day, but it’s not really a reclamation — more so a kind of absurdist indexing.
J: Ha. Nice word.
J: Another pattern that I see between this piece and some of your previous work is an interest in structures of repetition. I am particularly thinking of your piece, Increments, in which you loop sounds over a period of five hours. What do you think can be gained by repeating an act over and over? Is there something that you are hoping to learn by repeating this process throughout the whole year, and other years to come?
K: It certainly is a common point between Increments and Minute/Year. However, in both of these pieces, what happens is not only repetition — it’s not something that stays clean. Through repetition, sound becomes layered and it degrades. In this, we were influenced by I Am Sitting In A Room, by Alvin Lucier. We are repeating an action but the outcome is not a repetition, rather a further development.
T: Yes. The daily occurrence of the single minute is a repetition — but the outcome is a process of layering. And so if we were hoping to learn anything, I suppose we’re hoping to learn what happens when we do that, because we also don’t know yet.
It is similar to Increments in that it is a situation that we set up, which contains elements that are inherently unpredictable, and we kind of follow them through. Although we have a frame around things, we also at some point don’t know what’s going to happen.
K: I think that, out of all of our work, this is the one where we know the least about the possible outcome. In Increments, we know quite strictly what our tools are, we know that we’re playing on drums and that they get layered, so we have a very strict score. We don’t know exactly what the end will sound like, but we know what kind of elements are building up this process. Of course it still has a lot of open elements, like what exactly happens with those drums and other surrounding things, but it’s still quite contained. But with Minute/Year, we really have just set up a limited frame: what’s happening, where, at what time, with what software. But what’s actually happening in that minute is not limited. So in that sense, the tools are unlimited. And we also don’t really know what’s going to happen in 365… 366 days. We will only know it by the end of the year.
J: It’s also interesting to me that the record of the minute is a digital record and it exists on a platform, on the internet, which we all use every day. It really opens up this question of audience — because people anywhere could follow this project online, you can’t really know who your audience is. I’m wondering if it feels different for you to be presenting the work that way, as opposed to in a theatre or a gallery, or a space you might be more familiar with.
T: Yeah, absolutely. We set it up very much with the idea that it can be followed along with online. People can check in however often they might like, as the piece unfolds. On Twitter or SoundCloud or Tumblr or Telegram. But it’s true that this very much shifts the emphasis of what an audience is for us. Or, we hope so.
One of the things we found curious about organising this piece is that it basically wouldn’t have been impossible without modern web infrastructure. It wouldn’t really have been possible to have done something like this even 5 years ago. But it now is. And one of the things we were thinking about, while we were setting all of this up, was the Today series — the date paintings that On Kawara did from the 1960s until 2013, I think.
One of the interesting things about what Kawara did was that for years he made these paintings kind of privately. His audience was basically himself and a couple of friends. There was a sort of monomania that kept him going. Whereas we now have the possibility to do something every day, and in a sense to publish it to the world more-or-less immediately. The idea that the internet has changed the nature of what comprises an audience is something that many people have already talked about. So that’s not new. But it certainly is a shift in emphasis for us — to consider that the primary audience of something that we do might be people that we will never see, who only experience this piece digitally.
K: One other thing I wanted to mention is that there are going to be plenty of minutes where we won’t be there, where the room is just empty. So what gets recorded is the recycling of the previous days of sound into an empty room. We’re curious about how the piece is connected to memory — not only creating sound, but also listening to a record of sound, a ghost of moments that are now gone.
Also, the audio of every minute is accompanied with an image, a spectrogram, which is the visualisation of the frequencies that are happening during the minute. This is automatically generated right after the minute has been recorded. This image is generated and then that’s also posted online.
T: Yes, and we’re also curious to see what happens to these spectrograms. Because obviously the more sound that’s happening in the space, the more these images fill up with lines. This is another one of these things that we can’t predict. We’re kind of creating images without quite knowing how our actions will connect to what is part of the image. There’s an unpredictability about those images that is also interesting to us.
K: One of these unpredictable surprises happened during the first two days of the year. When the project started we were away. So for the first two days, there was an empty room, and a recording of the silence of the empty room. This ended up creating a basically empty spectrogram, or something like an almost-empty spectrogram. This is not something that we knew, or we had thought about. But I was so happy to see these first two ‘blank’ pages that then started to get filled up with the frequencies in the following days.
J: And they look pretty.
T: Yeah, they look cool.
J: Sort of a lavender colour.
T: Yeah, we had long talks about the colour.
K: We really did.