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October 8, 2014

Artist Interview: Ryoji Ikeda, creator of superposition


superposition production
Photo: Moment in superposition. Photo by Kazuo Fukunaga.

superposition is a performance created by visual and sound artist Ryoji Ikeda. Inspired by the mathematical notions of quantum mechanics, Ikeda employs a spectacular combination of synchronized video screens, real-time content feeds, digital sound sculptures, and for the first time in Ikeda’s work, human performers.

The work will be premiered at the MET in New York City immediately before it arrives in Ann Arbor on October 31 and November 1.The interview excerpted below is between Ryoji Ikeda and Peter Weibel, and was recorded at ZKM Karlsru­he on July 31, 2012 by Manuel Weber and transcribed by Wolfgang Knapp.

Peter Weibel: First, thank you for the time and opportunity to speak about your work. My first question would be about title: superposition. Are you referring to the quantum mechanical idea or are you referring to the cinema, where you work with superpositions. What is the idea behind the title?

Ryoji Ikeda: I have never specified anything. How did you feel when you heard the word “superposition”? I am very curious about people’s can impressions when they hear “superposition.”

PW: Well, I would think of the wave function of Schrödinger, from quantum mechanics. Then I would think of the super-imposing of image on image, and then I would think of the observer who has a position superior to anything else.

RI: Because you are a very intellectual person. When you hear the word superposition, you are inspired. But, for example, my mother just thinks, “Super! Position!” The word has a very wide spectrum of meanings, and I think that’s good. People can get many meanings. And of course, I am obsessed by that quantum mechanical meaning. And also, the other superposition principle, the fundamental principle of physics. For example, the harmonics that superpose and that make our voice and sound.

superposition performance trailer:

PW: So you are also thinking of musical notations? Of the superimposition of frequencies?

RI: Yes, exactly. But the core topic for me is the quantum mechanical meaning, the fundamental characteristic of quantum physics.

PW: When did you become interested in the quantum nature of reality? And why?

RI: I read some books when I was a student. Of course, it was really difficult and pretty counter-intuitive. But it stunned me to discover quantum mechanics. After that, I became an artist, but it was absolutely impossible to describe quantum mechanics for my art. So, I just make a piece of art. It’s a performing art piece, which never explains quantum mechanics. It is rather inspired by quantum mechanics. Some of the expressions are scientifically correct. I use lots of data sets from NASA and so on, but the construction, the composition is very intuitive because I am an artist. So, it’s hybrid.

PW: I see. I can imagine that when you have to make a decision between the classical world view — that means causality and mechanics — and quantum mechanics, I think that, as an artist, the idea of uncertainty or of many different possible worlds is more attractive. I think all these possible worlds give us — as artists — more freedom.

The people who help you working on the superposition performance – your assistants; are they programmers? Musicians? What is their profession?

RI: They are basically programmers. And architects and all kinds of artists. They are very young, in their twenties. They can program almost in every language. Super.

PW: I have a question for you as an artist. How do you solve the following problem? Morton Feldman, the wonderful American composer, said that music is structure. Normally it is time-based structure. But Feldman disliked most kind of music because it is a slave of time. Rhythm and beat – these things control the music. Time tells music what to do. But Feldman wanted to destroy this control. He wanted music that was not slave to time. How do you solve this problem? Can we create a music that is superior, music that destroys our structure of time?

RI: I really like most of Feldman’s music and his philosophy, but I can’t really follow him. And after John Cage and after that generation, you know, and the generation of computer and programming, my direction is super-precise, it is the direction on “control.”

PW: So, no chance experiments like Cage. Control instead of chance.

RI: I try to control randomness. This is a big counterpoint, the encounter of randomness and control. The contrast is more interesting. If you really control a millisecond, there are other possibilities, even if they are microscopic. You can’t perceive the change directly, but if you pay very close attention, the entire composition changes. So, I try to add randomness, and I like to see the counterpoint, the counterbalance.

PW: Schönberg in his book Style and Harmony stated that the composer’s challenge is to move from one note to the next. You don’t work with notes but with waves, continuous sine waves. A note is a discrete model. As an acoustic artist, how do you see this problem?

RI: Of course, I use sine waves, pure waves, but if you reduce the waveform to its function, this point is very, very tiny and is called the impulse. It is so short that when you listen to such a sample you don’t hear it. The point is what makes the acoustics. Sine waves are continuous, they have no direction. They never contribute to acoustics.

It’s the opposite of white noise, which is random. That’s a different thing, but I use lots of impulse, as you will hear. I’d never use one hundred speakers like [the composer] Stockhausen does. No. Mono! At the center of a church or some very large space, maybe just an impulse on a single mono speaker. That would make you feel the very acoustics spatially through some rich reverb created by that very short impulse.

PW: I see. The acoustics of a wave is a kind of point you…

RI: …you slice.

PW: Exactly.

RI: Any point.

PW: Brilliant idea. So I see that you are now investigating not only a new organisation of sounds but a new series of harmonies on a technical and mathematical basis.

RI: Yes. That is my basic research. This is not really the work of an artist but basic research for basic knowledge to find my language. To develop my alphabet and the grammar is my structure, my music. And I don’t want to use the normal alphabet.

Interested in learning more? See Ryoji Ikeda in Ann Arbor as part of the Penny Stamps Lecture Series and also the Saturday Morning Physics Series. Details on