Notweed: Interview with Otto Muller, Sound Artist, Composer and MFAIA Guest Faculty

Otto Muller at Notweed Installation.

This conversation between Otto Muller and Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts faculty member, Cynthia Ross, took place at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont on March 6, 2019.  In addition to being a frequent MFAIA guest faculty member, Otto is a member of the Undergraduate Studies Faculty and the lead faculty for the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Socially Engaged Art. — editor

On one of my campus visits, I ran into Otto Muller, who mentioned that he was part of an exhibition at Northern University in Johnson, Vermont.  I was intrigued and asked him if he would be interested in talking further about it.  The following is an edited transcript of our interview. — Cynthia Ross

C: Can you tell us about your project?

O:  The project is called Notweed, without the K.  It is sort of play on words, about what is a weed and what is not a weed, and invasivity.  What are invasive species and how do we relate to them – is one of the ideas that the piece is exploring.  In terms of what the piece is, actually, there’s a gallery space with 300 stalks of dried Japanese knotweed suspended from the ceiling, filling the space so that as you walk through it the stalks of knotweed can clatter against you like a giant bamboo chime.  There is also digital synthesized sound, based on the sound of knotweed, that is coming from a 4-channel surround.  There’s an interactive feature, with a camera sensing movement

C:  How long are these lengths of knotweed hanging from the ceiling?  

O:  They vary from 9’ to 3’. All the knotweed was harvested from the land where I live, and there’s also going to be a display outside the gallery, a museum display exploring our relationship to invasive species.  This is a collaboration between myself, Sean Clute of Northern Vermont University, and choreographer, Pauline Jennings.  There will be an opening on March 14, with an Artist’s Talk, and then there will be a performance in the space, choreographed by Pauline Jennings and including the Northern VT New Music Ensemble on the 28th of March.  

Notweed installation.

C:  How does the technology work?

O:  There is an inverse relationship between the electronic audio and the movement of the Japanese knotweed.  The more the knotweed is moving, the less sound comes from the speakers.  When we did a smaller version of the Notweed installation at the Feverish World Symposium at UVM (University of Vermont) one of the fun things we found about the acoustic experience was that you really hear the knotweed clattering when you are the person walking through it.  When someone else is walking through it, it’s not very loud.  So this idea of entering the space of the Knotweed and having this subtle transition from hearing this artificial sound to hearing the actual sound of the knotweed and having one blend into each other, and having the electronic sound fade out as you immerse yourself in the experience of the  knotweed itself is the dynamic we were going for.     

C:  Is the sound something you’ve composed?

O:  The sound is co-created.  Sean’s been working on the dynamics of the interactive audio and the way that the camera is affecting the synthesized sound, and also the timbre of the knotweed sound itself in terms of what pitches to use.  The idea that I came up with for the pitches was that each of the speakers is more or less tuned to one harmonic series, so the closer you are to any one speaker, the more consonant the synthetic sound is, and as you move into the middle of the space it becomes more dissonant because you are hearing the harmonics of 4 different harmonic series. But each of the harmonic series has slight inaccuracies programmed in to create a less synthesized sound.

C: In terms of programming – what activates the sound – does the camera measure near and far – or how does it work?  

O:  Sean programmed interactivity to measure the presence. It is a visual frame to frame analysis, in which the program determines the change between one frame and another, and the greater the difference frame to frame, the less sound there is. It picks up movement versus stillness primarily and translates that into density of sound, inversely.  The more noise the knotweed is making, the less sound is coming out of the speakers. 

C:  Who are the people involved in this?

O:  Sean Clute is a professor of interactive art at Northern University in Johnson, and has a background in music composition, electronic music, and digital media and interactive arts. He’s done a lot of work with choreographer, Pauline Jennings.  They call their collaboration Double Vision.  Jennings does a lot of rule-based choreography and choreography related to ecological themes.  Sean often does interactive electronics that take data from the choreography.  

C: Then there’s you.

O:  My background is in composition, but I am also happy to identify as a Sound Artist. Sean & I have done work together before, with other folks, under the name Rural Noise Ensemble.  

C:  Is that how you met up?

O:  Well no, actually we met up because an MFAIA alum, Hanna Satterlee, hired us both to do the score for Animal, her culminating project in dance and choreography.  She knew us through different venues and said she wanted the two of us to make a score together. 

Notweed installation.

C:  So, tell me about the Rural Noise Ensemble.

O:  We started the Rural Noise Ensemble with the idea that the rural is often presented or conceived of as the pastoral or bucolic, this Eden-like image based nature in the past.  But in fact, the rural is always this kind of living periphery between human civilization and what it projects as its other.  The rural is always this edge of human civilization, and as an edge it is always messy and it’s always contemporary, and it’s always a point of friction.  So it’s always noisy — a characteristic of the rural is this friction between this projected image of the pastoral and the reality that it is still contemporary and it does exist in the contemporary tendrils of civilization.  I think that has always been the case of the rural, and noise aesthetics is a critical lens for looking at what the rural actually is.  

C: What kind of sounds did you evolve as an expression of this middle world of friction?

O: We’ve done a few things.  We’ve done stuff with homemade instruments.  Sean had a project which involved live electronic stuff with a river as the sound source, which we performed a couple years ago at Bread & Puppet with a lot of homemade instruments.  One of the things that the rural generates is scrap wood and old nails, and garden hose and things like this.

C:  and old junk cars.

O:  All of which create a nice soundscape.  We had an ensemble of garden hose French horns and nail fiddles and instruments of that nature, along with a tuned air compressor, and Sean was playing the dirt floor of the Dirt Floor Cathedral with a contact microphone. And now we are working on this piece about invasive species, which feels like a noisy thing.

C: Why invasive species?

O: Where I live I have goutweed coming in from one direction and knotweed coming in from a different direction, and then there’s chervil coming down the road.  It hasn’t made it to my house yet, but we’re completely surrounded by invasive species so it’s kind of a day-to-day reality.  It requires maintenance to keep them from taking over more than they already have.  One of things I find interesting about invasive species is this whole language around invasivity, which I think also relates to xenophobia, and to this idea of a pristine natural environment that is static.  This relates to idea of the rural as Eden, as pastoral, as original, that our ensemble is critical of.   I find this language around invasive species – as invaders, as intruders, as this threat that doesn’t belong here and is going to kill the things that do belong here – relates to xenophobic language that people use when they want to kill them off.  Does this make sense?

C:  Yes, I think so. It also relates to conquerors, vulnerability, and power dynamics.

O:  Yes, in spending a lot of time with Japanese knotweed (I cut 300 stalks in 3 feet of snow – we had to shovel out each stalk.  It was laborious and cold), I thought about the knotweed as creating a monoculture in relation to colonialism, thinking of it as a colonizer rather than thinking of it as a migrant, and thinking about its relationship to the colonizer, and the roles that the botanical gardens at Kew (in London)  had in intentionally spreading invasive species throughout the British empire — things like that, and how that relates to my own identity as a settler/colonial/inhabitant in land where I participate in a destructive monoculture.  

Notweed dance.

C: Can you say more about your monoculture.

O:  I’m thinking about Europeans settling in this land broadly and creating a culture that is “American” – that being the monoculture that is destructive and invasive, and in which I am a participant, regardless of my feelings about that.

C:  That’s very broad, since American culture is made up of so many peoples who have come here for various reasons.  

O:  I don’t ascribe bad intentions to the Japanese knotweed just as I don’t ascribe bad intentions to my Irish great grandfather who fled to America after he killed a cop in the troubles.  I don’t think that the Japanese knotweed is trying to create a monoculture, and I don’t think that I am trying to create a monoculture, but I think I am a participant in it.  

C:  So one can look at in several different ways.  One can be part of it, one can see knotweed as a stand-in for one’s own culture, or we could see it as an invader. You can see it both ways, reciprocally.  In terms of  subjectivity, one can identify it with incoming people or one can see it from the perspective of the ones who were here, like the plants that the knotweed is overtaking. 

O:  But I don’t know that I can see myself as a native species of Vermont… 

But , what has been happening in the course of making this piece which I find interesting is the way that I can relate to Japanese knotweed through the complex relationship that I have with my own identity as colonizer. Being a colonizer, being a part of settler/colonial culture — I have critiques about that, and there are also things about that culture that I have appreciation for.  So I have that relationship with Japanese knotweed where on the one hand I don’t like that it is destructive, I don’t like the way that it is encroaching, and I do feel a need to fight back against it, and at the same time realizing that the knotweed and I are not so different and that our agendas for the land that we’re battling over are not so different. 

In our collaboration  there has been such evolving thinking about our relationship to the topic that it can be a little frustrating.

C:  When you feel one way and your collaborators see it another way?

O:  Right –  when at one point we’re having a conversation that’s framing it one way, and then 3 weeks later we’re thinking about it totally differently.  

Notweed dance.

C:  That sounds like that’s part of the evolution — frustrating, but also exciting as you as dig into the various possibilities of its meaning(s).

O:  I think so.  One thing that has been in my mind lately is this story about my people in the “Twa Sisters” ballad of the British Isles, or the “Singing Bone” in the Grimm’s fairytale.  The basic story line is that there are two siblings who vie for power, and one kills the other and leaves their body unburied and then an instrument is fashioned out of the bones and when the instrument is played it sings the song of everything that happened .

C:  Beautiful.

O:  So, for me, part of what this installation is about is listening to the singing bones of the Japanese knotweed.  It’s a sound piece, listening to what they have to sing and hearing within that a story of how I am their brother and why I killed them.  It’s a dynamic of simultaneously accepting relationship of brotherhood with the Japanese knotweed and at the same time accepting that I do want to stop it from encroaching, whether we call it management or killing.  I have this antagonistic relationship with the knotweed even though we are not so different — and maybe because we’re not so different.  That’s in there in the piece.

C:  Do you think that will come across to the audience?  Are there clues that people will get from this experience?   Or maybe not – maybe they won’t know this inside story.  

O:  That has been a big topic of conversation amongst us, and one thing we’re doing is taking some museum cases and creating a display outside of the gallery, with objects, found things, and pieces, including handwritten exchange between me and Pauline about what we’re thinking about, and the document about how we are going to dispose of the knotweed (it is actually illegal to move knotweed in the state of Vermont because it is a controlled plant substance), and other objects related to what knotweed is and what the rural is.  This is a part we don’t have completely figured out yet, but the idea is to create enough of a constellation of bread crumbs in the museum space to bring up the questions. 

C:  Do you see this project as coming from something you have done before?  Is it moving towards something, is it suggesting a new trajectory for you?

O:  For myself as an artist?  It does feel like a new trajectory.  I hadn’t really worked in installation before. And I’m excited about the participatory aspect of having these conversations about invasive species (because a lot of the people I talk with have relationships with them).  If we had not been doing this in the middle of winter, there would be other things we would have pursued – such as having participatory elements in the building of the project, that would be combined with community conversations about invasive species…  

C:  Has this given you any further ideas as a composer working in this interactive way, in environments?  Is that a new thing?

O:  Yeah.  One thing that I’ve realized is that composing can be such a solitary thing, so that the idea of working as a collective where decisions don’t belong to an individual but come out of a process of bandying things around – can be fun for the big creative stuff to come out a collaborative process. 

C: Hearing you talk, I think about the whole metaphor of what you are creating in the installation, and I start to think about forests and moving through woods and listening, and thinking about what you said about the rural as being about the edge between the wild and the civilized, or the rural and the urban.  I’m wondering if that metaphor will come through in the experience of this. It sounds like it might with the contrast between electronic sounds and the natural clacking of the stalks. 

O:  The rural always exists in relation to how it is imagined by the urban; it is always a projection of the urban, it is always an imaginary.  So, I like that the sounds of the electronics are synthetic sounds.  They’re an attempt to represent actual real objects that you’re walking through.  So that’s a relationship between a thing and its representation in the imaginary.

Notweed dance.

C:  I imagine then what art will do to activate one’s sensitivity and awareness of what is around one, and how art can point things out

O: It may be a matter of taste.  There is such a context of ecological threats where what is required is the activation of people around solutions that do already exist, but people are not enacting them.  I think there is a real role and value for ecological art that is propagandist, in that it uses the evocative power of art, the emotive power of art to make people rise up to do the thing they should be doing. There is a place for that.  But this isn’t that.  This doesn’t offer any solutions but hopefully says, ‘hey this invasive species thing is complicated.’

C:  I think art doesn’t have to be propagandist.  It can present a situation and open a space for contemplation and multiple metaphors and perspectives, and generate both appreciation and concern.  

O:  Art can do either of those things.  And I personally feel good about the NOT propagandist way that this piece is not.

C: Well thank you, Otto, I look forward to visiting and experiencing the installation, with its music, objects, story of the knotweed and its challenges here.

For more insight into this project, Jane Lindholm of Vermont Public Radio interviewed Otto and his collaborators on March 13, 2019. 

The Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts (MFAIA) program at Goddard College is a unique graduate experience at the intersection of contemporary art practice and Goddard’s landmark method of low-residency, human-centered learning and teaching. Information about Admissions to the program is available at goddard.edu

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