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Instrument of Sound

Media artist ::vtol:: uses robotics, experimental musical instruments, sound, and science to create his technological art.

Moscow-based media artist and musician Dmitry Morozov, known by the alias ::vtol::, dreams up experimental musical instruments and modular synthesizers. Here, he discusses his creative process, DIY ethic, the paradoxical nature of circuit bending, and why technological art has become more relevant than traditional mediums.

MD: You work in the field of technological art. Which job title do you identify with more: artist-scientist or artist-engineer?

DM: Both sound completely pretentious. I very much respect both professions – science and engineering – and, simply by virtue of my dilettantism, I don’t fall into either category. Although I’m probably closer to being an artist-engineer, my inclusion in that category is only based on my technique. Instead of canvases or sculptures, I use technology. But it would be wrong to say that this is some kind of modern technology. I use techniques which have long been available to the masses and cannot be called high-tech.

MD: But these techniques do help engineers in certain ways. Do you consider yourself an inventor?

DM: Injecting a weird, overblown artistic method into engineering can do it no harm. It can only bring about something new. Of course, I’m not an inventor in the true sense of the word. The only project of mine which has actually found its way into academic literature is my project with tattoos. This kind of art is useful.  It brings us closer to the world around us. It’s trite to say so, but we probably spend two hours a day tapping away on our phones. But aside from tapping away just for fun, we can critically reflect on this process with the help of art.

MD: One of the main instruments of your work is sound. How does sound for an artist differ from sound for a physicist?

DM: Physicists look at sound as a physical phenomenon, whereas I look at it as a cultural phenomenon. This isn’t in opposition or a contradiction. The physical lies behind the cultural in this case.

MD: Nonetheless, in contrast to traditional musicians, you’re much closer to working with the nature of sound.

DM: At the moment, I don’t see myself as a musician. It’s not that I have finished with music, it’s just that in music there is an important categorization of time and structure in and of itself – there’s a beginning, an end, and processes of organization within time. Whereas I’m interested in working with sound as a social and cultural phenomenon and, in this way, sound becomes a sort of media.

MD: Why did you start working with sound?

DM: I started with experimental music. Or rather, since I wasn’t a musician, I experimented with music. And I soon moved from acoustic sound to electronic sound, from computers to synthesizers, from synthesizers to strange devices capable of producing sounds unlike any other. The obvious next step was creating my own instruments. That’s basically how it all started.

MD: It’s quite rare for a contemporary musician to create their own instrument. What served as your inspiration?

DM: It was the specific nature of the time – 2005. YouTube came along, and people started sharing anything and everything, including their skills. This gave DIY culture new momentum. Circuit bending appeared, in which musicians would dissect musical toys, cheap drum machines, old synthesizers, and games consoles to extract strange noises. You could achieve interesting sounds using very cheap tools. I immediately threw myself into it, and soon achieved good results. Of course, at that time it was far from art. As soon as I got into it, I thought how great it would be to spend all my time doing this. But in order to do what you love, it has to provide some kind of income, so I started creating instruments that would interest other musicians. I quickly found a market.

MD: How did you move from instruments to larger-scale projects?

DM: I moved to larger-scale work when a local community arose. While selling instruments, I got to know people interested in this kind of experimentation. Not even from the perspective of playing music, but in terms of organizing educational events, exhibitions, and holding lectures. A “stage” began to form.

MD: Did you have some kind of name for yourselves?

DM: The community was initially called LoveLiveElectronic. It has since turned into the project Soundartists.ru. It’s a formal community based on a love of working with sound, but it involves many forms of media. There was immediately work with light, video, interactive systems, and installations. And that’s where I got the idea to branch out from producing smaller devices to creating larger-scale objects. I needed to increase the scale to create an interface that would be accessible to the public. But creating instruments for other people remains important work, even now.

MD: How does the idea for a sound object come to you?

DM: Sound is very often simply a medium. Many of my works could take the form of a video, text, or graphics. But for me, it’s most natural to realize them by means of sound. Sometimes ideas are completely abstract, with no underlying concept. Sometimes you turn to social experiments, practices, criticism. A work might be inspired by some technical engineering idea, or when you experiment with new materials and achieve an interesting result. Recently though, ideas for projects have been coming to me in one piece. Of course, the actual realization will involve significant amendments, but these are usually positive moments. Most often, the project will end up smaller than I originally envisaged, but better.

MD: How have you managed to produce such a prodigious number of objects?

DM: My main explanation is that I belong to the DIY world. I only produce things which I can make myself – it’s my motto, and it saves me a lot of time. Of course, I go to other people for help, I have assistants and co-creators, but it’s the DIY ethic which leads me to the things I make and how I make them.

MD: What’s the most exciting new technology you use in your work?

DM: A hammer. [he laughs]

MD: Come on, you can’t be serious! Alright then, has anything interesting come along since Arduino?

DM: I like everything to do with the Internet of Things. Wireless technology is making more and more advances into every area of life. It has suddenly become possible to make devices that work with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GSM, and similar technology. I’m not a pioneer in this field, but one of my favorite projects this year was “Wi-Fi Poets” – little Wi-Fi hotspots where the network name rotates through lines of poetry.

MD: How did you conceive of such an idea?

DM: It’s very simple. At home, people often call their Wi-Fi network “Hello, my dear friends” or “Neighbors, eat shit.” A friend told me that someone in his office named the Wi-Fi network “Car for sale.” I thought: that’s it. You just take a completely obvious idea already in existence and transform it into something more aesthetic. You do this totally independently, and then call it a creative work.

MD: Do you find it easy to cope with the chaotic nature of what you do?

DM: Yes, because that’s where my roots lie – that’s exactly what circuit bending is – even though that’s not exactly what I do anymore. That time has passed and the trend has passed with it. But at the time it was something Dadaist, dilettantish, almost punk. Chance was at the helm. Everything was done so that this chance remained stable, which is paradoxical. With the help of circuit bending, I made an unstable situation stable, I drove electronic equipment to insanity, to some kind of schizoid condition. Nonetheless, the art of circuit bending lay in preserving the original function of the instrument, so that the schizophrenia could be turned on and off. 

MD: Is there a general formula for your creative method?

DM: I simultaneously fall victim to my art history education on the one hand, and my own practice on the other. My work is pretty intensive, and I move through it intuitively. Thinking up ideas is done consciously through intense concentration. I entrust the more general conceptualization to someone else or put it off until later. In general, this is normal for an artist.

From the point of view of a theorist inside an artist, I delegate the thinking up of projects to my subconscious. So sometimes these fully-formed ideas come to me, having taken shape somewhere in the depths, or even outside, my consciousness. It sounds paradoxical, but at the same time it’s in keeping with the modern understanding of neurobiology. Experiments have shown that our subconscious often gives the correct answer before our conscious mind is able to think it through. Overall, I would say that, for me personally, any substantial theoretical elaborations would be detrimental.

MD: But you must identify yourself in some way?

DM: I very much like the concept known as “hybrid art.” At the moment, my range of interests is so wide that it’s a very useful term. However, I don’t consider myself a mature or accomplished artist. I see myself in the position of a student, in the process of forming a method.

MD: There are lots of little machine-mechanisms, almost robots, among your work. The creation of automatons was popular in the Middle Ages and in the ancient world. Do you feel that you are part of this tradition?

DM: Yes. First, it’s incredibly close to me aesthetically. Second, the idea of media-archaeology is very popular at the moment. It’s an area in philosophy and art that believes all new technical equipment works with exactly the same phenomena and processes which have always existed in society. More often than not, such art is rejected by conservative, modern art.  For the most part, modern art is nothing more than what I squeamishly and completely arrogantly, ignorantly even, call “rags hanging on a fence.” This is a light-hearted trope for what really exists in contemporary modern art.

MD: Some people believe that technological art does with modern art what modern art once did with traditional forms of art. In other words, some people reject it. What’s your opinion on this?

DM: To a large extent I agree but, as a whole, it’s a very pretentious point of view, even though it contains some irony, self-deprecation, and a degree of pretense. My completely subjective opinion is that technological art, thanks to its language, addresses far more issues relevant today than many traditional mediums. However, it’s safe to say that painting will never die out. It’s clear that, as an art form, it will live on forever.

MD: You have a work in which you allow the viewer to become the conductor of a robotic orchestra. Have you ever thought to combine your dozens of autonomous sound objects into one large orchestra-organism?

DM: There are plans for something like this. The idea of an orchestra itself is very apt, but I would want to create an orchestra akin to a single living structure. I would want to delegate isolated functions to each element within the orchestra, so that they complement each other but don’t turn into a chaotic cacophony in which their individuality is lost. I would want it to be a chorus of many voices,

MD: What happens to your works upon completion?

DM: They go in a box. If possible, I try not to dismantle the objects. Not out of some perverse desire to cling to the past, but because while the work is in its complete form, it has structure and substance. In dismantling it, you’re essentially killing it.

MD: So you feel yourself a kind of creator in regards your works.

DM: Yes, I feel the responsibility of a creator, like with children. Of course it’s not in the same league as maternal instincts, but while working, you begin to love your work. Perhaps it’s a completely infantile feeling of solidarity with your creation, but leaving it, giving it away, or dismantling it is a shame. There are sometimes works which don’t go to plan, and those are taken apart with pleasure.

MD: Since we have spoken about media-archaeology, it would be interesting to know whether you see yourself as part of the Russian tradition. Do you identify with such figures as Léon Theremin or the “Prometheus” Research Institute?

DM: Many of today’s active artists in Moscow are in some way connected to the Theremin Center and to the people who work there, such as Andrei Smirnov. He who works on the archaeology of media and sound in the Soviet Union, starting from pre-revolutionary times. It’s a huge honor for me to be even slightly involved with this. Working with the Special Construction Bureau (SCB) “Prometheus” is very inspiring and very important. As for Léon Theremin, I wouldn’t dare put my name in the same sentence as his. He was a truly great man. A person of his caliber comes along only once every hundred years.

MD: Is there a distinction between life and work for you?

DM: There is a distinction between work and leisure.

MD: Do you use any methods of self-control?

DM: Art is itself a serious exercise in self-control, especially if it becomes your profession. I have to be very focused, collected, and organized. And this kind of yoga-work brings me a great deal of satisfaction.

MD: Because you sometimes work with social and political subject matter, right?

DM: I am always very careful with these themes and I’m not a big fan of political art. But I have a work called “Pistol,” which works through the prism of American political reality. When released, I considered it a joke. Everyone in Russia interpreted it as a fun gadget, but when it reached the U.S. community, it became my most popular work. Hundreds of thousands of views.

MD: Nonetheless, are you critical of the exhibition of politics in art?

DM: No. For example, I really like the works of [Petr] Pavlensky as well as his activity. It’s always a bold mix of flawless image and self-sacrifice. I’m totally for political art. It’s just that, because of my views, I find myself outside this sphere of activity, although I recently started to realize that technology can draw attention to global social processes very beautifully. And it’s not that I have somehow become passionate about this, but when such an idea comes to me, I definitely embrace it.