Kovács/O’Doherty: The Berlin Agenda Interview

By Fridey Mickel, 17th November, Berlin 2014. Originally published in The Berlin Agenda.

Increments by Kovács/O’Doherty — performance stills photographed by Davide Maione at Ausland, Berlin 7/11/2014.

Kovács/O’Doherty create work that defies specificity of discipline. Their practice lies at the intersection between performance and durational art, contemporary movement-defined processes, video, and minimalist music.

Their work has been exhibited both in conventional contexts and in non-traditional and atypical spaces. Recently, in the exquisitely converted cellar space of the esteemed Ausland Berlin, the “territory for experimental music, performance and art”, the Hungarian-Irish artist duo showed Increments, their latest performance/installation/soundscape, as part of the Place Rhythm. Pulse series of events.

The aptly-named Increments uses minimal installation, sound, and a light performance element to break five hours down into thirty, ten-minute-long increments of building sound drones, which are created through the performative process going on before the viewers’ eyes. In what would perhaps be imagined as a tedious, excruciating sojourn of waiting, time instead passes by quite fluidly, and the overall experience is tremendously cathartic. An hour suddenly seems like fifteen minutes as the waves flow through space and audience, somehow extrapolating each individual thought in the room and looping that into the flow that’s already swirling around.

Fridey Mickel: What are the origins of Increments? How did it start?

Kata Kovács: The piece from which Increments originates was the very first piece we did together, about four years ago. The idea of using the accumulation and layering of sound was already there, but it was in a different context — we didn’t use instruments, for example. It was also very short, because we were asked to present it at Sophiensæle as part of a shared evening, with a time limit of ten minutes.

Later, at residency in Budapest, we worked on a version of the same idea, extended to over an hour, creating more sound and introducing this aspect about listening back to it. We started to have problems with that piece — we were unsure of some aesthetic choices, and the sounds we were creating were not satisfying to us. We needed to bring in a more diverse sound field. That earlier piece was then archived — we no longer think of it as part of our repertoire — and Increments became the new thing that came out of it.

Tom O’Doherty: We had this idea of repeating sounds, and creating something around that repetition. It’s literally as simple as that. So we had this first attempt to make it work and then this second attempt, and then finally deciding we needed to stretch things out, to create a different mode of contemplation.

Most of our pieces are like this: there’s a spark of something related to how sound is present in space, or how an image relates to sound. Sometimes we try something and realize it’s just not happening, and then we dump it. But the pieces that make it through get refined to a coherent endpoint.

The press release focused a lot on the sonic elements of the piece, so I went there sort of expecting more of a sound piece, but the sound is just part of it. What role does imagery play in your pieces?

Kata Kovács: Imagery is central to the piece. We have drawn inspiration from video art that works with still images — ‘still’ video, that moves and changes little by little. The visual element of our piece is somehow thought about this way — a still image that’s moving. Echoes, another piece we did, had cyclists riding in circles in a courtyard, singing. This image of five cyclists going in a circle is straightforward — there’s not so much to describe about it. But it still sort of burns itself into the viewer’s brain. The sound develops in a linear pattern, but the image doesn’t — it acts more like a constant container for the sound. With Increments, it’s similar. The image ultimately remains interesting and strong: two drums, two speakers, us acting in a repetitive motion, creating the sound, again and again. It’s a moving image that’s basically always the same, but still in constant movement, and the sound develops in parallel with this.

Tom O’Doherty: It’s something that is hopefully as interesting to look at as to listen to. We talked for hours about details like what direction it should go in — clockwise or counter-clockwise — and other tweaks to the purely visual elements. These elements are just as important as the sonic experience — for instance, the stones don’t make any sound, but they’re just as much a part of what’s happening as the sound is. We don’t tend to think of what we are doing as being sound pieces, per se. They are pieces involving people, time, sound, and a sculptural relationship to architecture and visual form. It’s difficult to make sense of that without saying all of these things.

How do you describe to people what you are doing?

Kata Kovács: We started by calling our pieces ‘performative installations’, then ‘durational installations’ or ‘installation performances’, but we just usually try to describe that they are installations involving sound and people. And we call it ‘installation’ partly to give the viewer the cue that they don’t have to sit down in the beginning, and stand up at the end.

Tom O’Doherty: It’s always a challenging process to try to describe what we are doing — it doesn’t easily fit in a box. However, we try to ensure that the words that we write about our own work are clear and understandable — we quite consciously avoid ‘art-babble’. When people ask about our work, we tend to give a literal description of what happens. People are then either curious or not.

Why is it five hours long?

Tom O’Doherty: The research process helped us make decisions about how long the piece should be. We didn’t start out saying the piece was going to be five hours. It came through working out the details, the way the structure of the piece happens. It’s broken into ten-minute increments, where there’s five minutes of adding sound, then another five minutes of us listening back to what’s been recorded. So, we stand up to add the sound, then we walk, then we sit down to listen. Stand up, sit down, again and again. It goes in this clockwork pattern, and we mark each segment with these pebbles, thirty of them. We realized that the best sound tends to happen in the first thirty iterations of this process: thirty times ten minutes is five hours — that’s the length of the piece.

Through the pebbles, it can be understood that what is happening is being measured. The piece constantly changes over time, so, in theory, somebody would have to watch the whole thing in order to get it. Yet, any observer can understand the process once they’ve been there for a few minutes. We wanted to present it in such a way that people could choose their level of involvement, making it fairly obvious that people are not expected to stay for the entirety of the event.

Increments (Layer 10), Ausland, 7. Nov. 2014
Increments (Layer 20), Ausland, 7. Nov. 2014
Increments (Layer 30), Ausland, 7. Nov. 2014

Is it a personal experience you want to give the viewer?

Tom O’Doherty: Sure. However, in the performance, we create this sort of paradoxical situation, where people are experiencing a piece directly, but also through imagining the parts they did not see — the memory of what came before.

Kata Kovács: With our work, we want to provide material for contemplation. We want to give a more complex experience, rather than something just for the ears, or just for the eyes. The visual part of the piece is, in a sense, intentionally un-engaging, so that the viewer has the possibility to follow their interest, to extrapolate themselves from what it is they are observing.

What do you want people to take from Increments?

Kata Kovács: We leave that open. However, as the sound of the piece builds and changes, it really becomes a quite strong sound experience. It becomes more and more difficult and loud, and then afterwards there’s this long moment of silence. This silence somehow reflects on what was just happening before. This is something I myself really looked forward to: these five hours of accreting sound — and then silence.

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