Whitehot Magazine

December 2010, Interview with Joe Diebes

Detail from anachronism 1, 2008
Erased pencil on pad of manuscript paper, 12" x 16" inches
Courtesy of the artist and Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery


Interview with Joe Diebes


Joe Diebes' show, CHRONOLOGY at Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery fuses his background as a composer with a unique conceptual approach to video and works on paper. In the video installation, Scherzo, short film clips of a virtuoso cellist are edited by a computer in real time to produce a frenetic and infinitely suspended musical climax. Also in the exhibition are several works that use music notation as a metaphor for living in a perpetual present. Curator and producer, Michele Thursz talks with Diebes about this body of work.

Michele Thursz: Let's begin with the work one to one which shows a video of your hand tracing a musical score in time with the recording, as well as the drawings that resulted from this process. When looking at the tracings as handwriting or glyphs, your action of transcribing becomes your mark. And that's very interesting in relation to other practices, such as graffiti, where this glyph is given a personal voice through a long trajectory of styles.

Joe Diebes: I hadn't thought of the relation to graffiti, but I'm definitely appropriating or really, liquidating, musical symbols for my own ends. Since I'm tracing the notes way too fast to actually end up with something legible, all that's left is my style. But the thing is, I'm just doing a process and I don't actually have time to think about how the lines will come out, so the style isn't an expression of anything conscious.

Thursz: In the history of drawing, the beauty of drawing is translated through the weight of the body on the line or an immediate response of a gesture. So in this gesture is your presence?

Diebes: Yes, though it's the residue of a mechanized gesture, so it's more the presence of a body under duress rather than my personal expression. It's really the errors that are important. I'm only organic insofar as I'm veering off the score – otherwise I'd be a music recording and writing machine.

Thursz: I'm glad we've touched on error. It's more like nature itself. It's almost like replication of the thing that happens before conversation.

Diebes: Yeah, like that's what we do a lot of talking about – to get back to that thing that happened before we started talking. And I think art is a lot closer to that pre-verbal state.

Thursz: That's a very elusive subject. Possibly in the instance of error is where a lot of things happen, especially in the automatic process of these pieces; a process that expresses the “natural” as a non-biased conversation with the medium, subject and public.

Diebes: I like that you bring up nature. By most accounts the elements in my work are very un-natural: video, computers, referencing the “high culture” of classical music, and even the artifice of presenting objects in an art gallery. But there's something about how these processes actually play out that's very connected to nature. I discovered this first in the piece called anachronism 1, where I copied and then erased each page of a Bach score on the same piece of paper, resulting in a worn out and torn up manuscript pad. What struck me was how much it looks like the result of a natural erosion process, like a landscape or a topographical map. In the end my repetitive machine-like activity operates like water or wind on rock.

Thursz: Is technology trying to mimic nature without understanding what nature is yet?

Diebes: I think it's all a matter of viewpoints. Technologists look at nature as mechanistic and the brain as some kind of computer. It can go the other way too, looking at machines in organic terms – like that technology has a certain life and evolution of its own. I tend to think that our concepts of nature and technology, especially these days, are not that distinct. That's why in my work I like to have humans doing machine-like activities, to get at this messy crossroads of the organic and the algorithmic. That's a lot of the reason why I chose classical music as the starting point for this work; I feel there's something very technological at the root of it. The musical instrument as a constructed extension of the hand can be thought of in cyborg terms.


Video still from Scherzo, 2010
HD video installation edited in real time by a computer, infinite duration

Courtesy of the artist and Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery

Thursz: Let's talk about Scherzo and virtuosity in relationship to this concept of systems, and how it engages with the emotions or an ecstatic / trance state.

Diebes: Much of what the virtuoso desires are the machine traits of speed, precision, and endurance, so Scherzo was about taking this desire all the way by fusing the virtuoso with a machine. I worked with one of the best cellists around, Rubin Kodheli, and filmed him as he played small fragments I composed at maximum speed. I then made a computer program that takes this to a whole other level by endlessly recombining these fragments in different ways to create a relentless rapid-fire montage. My hope was to suspend Rubin in an ecstatic present. That's an exciting but dubious tension for me – achieving an ecstatic experience through machines. In the 90s I made a lot of electronic music, and I was always fascinated with how you can generate these sort of trance states or go into the libidinal unknown. Machine music can be more seductive, in a certain way, than live music can be, because it's just so engineered. You can find a thing that tweaks the body, let's say a certain pulsating rhythm at a specific speed, and really dial it in. It's almost like designer drugs, it's a designer experience anyway...

Thursz: When installing a generative video object in a gallery can you talk about giving the audience options to engage the work in different ways? Naturally the public thinks of video as a narrative with a beginning and end. Why did you choose this endless option in relationship to what we have talked about?

Diebes: The fact that Scherzo never repeats is essential to its concept. It's about focusing on the moment of musical climax, which is usually the anchor for a time structure that has a beginning, middle, and end. I was interested in taking that moment and infinitely extending it. All instant gratification all the time. As for the viewer/listener, it's important that they can stay in the climax as long as they want, and there's a huge range. I find that people stay anywhere between ten seconds and thirty minutes before their tolerance gives out. But what everyone's experience has in common is that eventually they have to leave without the satisfaction of the film coming to a conclusion, so the difference between the viewer's organic timeframe and the machine's algorithmic timeframe makes itself felt. Usually people have reached a point of fatigue or exhaustion when they leave, and this draining is also an important part of the work.

Thursz: You work with a lot of different mediums: history as medium, different languages such as music or computer code as medium, paper, pencil, and video. How do all these mediums relate to process in this exhibition, a process that is reforming information into an experience which is very natural?

Diebes: If I try to identify my medium, I think it's the algorithm. Sometimes this involves actually programming a computer, which I did in Scherzo, and sometimes I set up a situation where I subject my bodily activity to a strict set of rules. All the works on paper in this show are just simple algorithms basically. Like: copy page one from someone else's music, erase that page, copy page two, erase that page and so on. In all these processes I'm looking for a balance between between control and raw life doing its thing. That's what the algorithm is really about. There's a basic idea in our culture that in order to move forward, you have to constantly be controlling uncertainty. Counter to that idea, I think I'm embracing uncertainty in this work, and using the algorithm to generate more of it rather than clean it up. It's interesting that you talk about the reforming of information. The technological spirit in us is always trying to produce information – to sculpt something out of the noise or chaos of nature into something very precise and controlled that we can use. The main project of this work has to do with de-forming information, allowing codes and imposed orders to drip away and dissolve back into what I guess we could call a natural state: what exists before things get informed.

Video still from one to one (Third Suite), 2010.
Black and white video with sound, duration: 13'45"
Courtesy of the artist and Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery


Michele Thursz

Michele Thursz is an independent curator and consultant. Her current actıons are under the umbrella of Post Media Network; Post Media is a term and action demonstrating the continuous evolution of uses of media and its effect on artists practice, and culture-at-large. Post Media Network acts as a source for creative industrıes, cultural institutions, collections and art and design advisors internationally.

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