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ESSAYS Mousse 59

The Fleshy Interface: Erkki Kurenniemi

by Robert Barry

 

“Do you dream of information technology?” Erkki Kurenniemi was once asked. “I dream of different components,” he replied, “various small boxes containing screws, resistors, and capacitors. I get to fiddle with them and collect them. Often there are so many free components and I get frustrated not being able to collect them all in my pockets.”

 

The occasion was an interview of Erkki Kurenniemi (1941-2017) conducted by the Finnish writer Teppo Turkki for the magazine Suomi in April 1987. Kurenniemi’s response recalls the mise-en-scène of a short film he made more than twenty years earlier.

In 1964, when Erkki Kurenniemi was twenty-three years old and working as an assistant in the physics department of Helsinki University, he had been volunteering for two years in the university’s music department, building Finland’s first public electronic music studio. It was in 1964 that he constructed the first of several electronic musical instruments that he would build throughout the 1960s and 1970s. His Integrated Synthesizer was a huge, hulking thing, controlled by a mixture of electronic and digital technology, using logic circuits cannibalized from old Philips calculators. The whole thing took up several meters of floor space.

Like many figures in the early history of electronic music—Robert Moog and Don Buchla in the United States, for instance, or Daphne Oram and F.C. Judd in the U.K.—Kurenniemi was a tinkerer. The new medium of synthesized sound was first exploited and eagerly developed by such figures: hobbyists who grew up building crystal-set radios before advancing to using war-surplus oscillators and filter banks. Like Claude Lévi-Strauss’s mythopoetic bricoleurs, they would work with “whatever is at hand,” recombining structural elements in different combinations to build new worlds almost from scratch. For Kurenniemi, who would later recall visiting the Compagnie Des Machines Bull computer factory in Paris when he was a child, the results of his endeavors were important; but the primary locus of his wonder was the equipment itself—electronic gear as the promise of infinite possibility. We can see this clearly when, in 1964, Kurenniemi added another hobby to his already busy amateur life: that of filmmaker.

In Electronics in the World of Tomorrow (1964), one of the earliest of the fourteen films that Kurenniemi shot and edited between 1964 and 1971, electronic equipment and parts appear at first like a peephole into the dreams he would later confess to Teppo Turkki in that 1987 interview. He shows close-ups of circuit boards, resistors, and capacitors, some of them from the objects themselves, others from the pages of magazines. All are captured in lurid, oversaturated colors, the images flowing oneirically together as the camera pulls in and out of focus.

Then, at about a minute and ten seconds into the five-minute film, something strange happens. Kurenniemi cuts from the procession of technical imagery to a pastoral scene: a small group of young people, sitting and hugging each other in a field, shot in black and white. It lasts no more than a few seconds, but the effect is profound, destabilizing the interpretive frame we had previously applied to the work. About a minute and a half later, it occurs again. This time, we see a young man, alone in the frame on a boat on a lake, looking over his shoulder at a small hut on the far bank, then turning back and saying something inaudible directly to the camera (presumably to Kurenniemi, who was operating it).

The black-and-white images, lasting scarcely more than ten seconds in all, were originally shot for another Kurenniemi film from earlier that year, Winterreise. The people we see are all close friends of the director, and the scenes were captured in the vicinity of his family home in Taipalsaari, in a rural area of southern Finland—people and places Kurenniemi is evidently fond of—and there is much warmth on their faces and in their gestures toward each other. However, what is most striking about these moments is the way they change our reaction to of the rest of the film: The technical imagery shot in color feels more present, more real, while the black-and-white images of his friends seem like nostalgic memories of some real or imagined past, like the flashbacks in Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 feature film The Limey.

Mika Taanila, a Finnish artist and a friend of Kurenniemi, told me that such moments are quite typical in Kurenniemi’s oeuvre. “They don’t match the style of the rest of the film at all. I am very fond of his way of mixing unbalanced or seemingly wrong things together in all his films and music. Sooner or later, there’s a part that doesn’t quite fit.” Taanila and Kurenniemi first met around the turn of the millennium, when the former was planning a documentary about “people who misused technology,” as he put it—“do-it-yourself people who create their own musical instruments.” Taanila looked up Kurenniemi’s telephone number in the phonebook and called him, and Kurenniemi immediately invited him to come over for coffee. “After the first meeting,” Taanila said, “it was very clear to me that I would just forget about the documentary and instead would make a film portrait of this fantastic character.” The resulting film, Future Is Not What It Used to Be (2002), is an extraordinary mix of science fiction, found footage, and documentary that switches continually between the past, present, and future. Kurenniemi made available to Taanila his enormous personal archive of written diaries, confessional sound recordings, and home movies, which would prove fundamental to giving the film a special texture. The few seconds of Kurenniemi’s friends glimpsed in Electronics in the World of Tomorrow are among the earliest examples of this.

By all accounts, Kurenniemi has obsessively documented how he lived since he was in his twenties. Starting in the early 1960s, he began to record in extraordinary detail the minutiae of his life, first in writing, and later on tape, on video, and in a rapidly proliferating variety of digital formats, many of which, due to their technological obsolescence, are now practically inaccessible. “There were so many different kinds of recording methods,” Taanila told me. “When a new technology became available, he started using it to document his life.” In Taanila’s film, Kurenniemi confesses, “I register everything with manic precision—the most trivial things: how much a cup of coffee costs, what the people look like in a particular bar, and so on.” In fact, Kurenniemi’s self-documentation went far beyond such trivial details.

In her essay “Fleshy Intensities,” feminist scholar and professor of media studies Susanna Paasonen details the contents of some of the material she found in Kurenniemi’s archive: “The details of theories ruminated upon, attempts at writing science fiction, various people encountered, erections and ejaculations achieved, sandwiches and bottles of wine consumed, commutes and travels made, defecations planned and performed, hash smoked, casual yet systematic observations made of friends and passersby, things planned, imagined, and remembered—all follow one another and overlap, with only occasional asterisks separating one strand of thought from another.” But as she trawled through the files, one particular theme kept cropping up: sex. “Pornography abounds,” she writes, “as homemade videos, images harvested online, clips and still images grabbed from films, television, and magazines.
The fleshy and the pornographic characterize—and even animate—these personal logs.”

In his comprehensive approach to recording his life, Kurenniemi might be compared to Andy Warhol, whose diaries contain a similar accumulation of mundane details, and who grew so attached to his tape recorder that he took to calling it “my wife.” More recent examples are two works involving Christian Boltanski: One, The Life of C.B. (2010), consists of eight years of twenty-four-hour-a-day video surveillance of Boltanski’s studio streamed live to David Walsh in Tasmania beginning in 2009, for which Walsh agreed to pay the artist a monthly stipend until Boltanski dies; the accumulated video footage is stored on DVDs, which are now on permanent exhibition at Walsh’s new private art museum in Tasmania dedicated to sex and death, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). The second is Boltanski’s project Storage Memory, launched in January 2012, comprising annual subscriptions of ten original, one-minute-long, soundless films sent each month by e-mail (available to anyone for 120 Euros), which, somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle, create “a kind of self-portrait depicting his experiences and emotions and sensations, a work in progress of unknown duration which only death will put an end to.”1 Though superficially similar to the approaches of those two other artists in recording and accumulating the data of his life, Kurenniemi’s intentions were different, and he did not share Warhol’s ultra-prolific communal production methods and fondness for “boredom” or Boltanski’s conceptual investigation of online identity. Kurenniemi’s manic collecting and obsessive recording was, in a sense, eminently practical. He intended to produce a record of personal data sufficiently complete that, come a time when quantum computers will be powerful enough to reconstitute the human mind—an event Kurenniemi confidently predicted to arrive in time for his 107th birthday, in 2048—he could be digitally resurrected from these traces.2 His was an archive with a specific future goal.

Even more than contemporary figures such as Boltanski and Warhol, one can see links to Kurenniemi in the ideas of two men as bewitched by the mass media of their own day as Kurenniemi was with his. Nicolas-Edme Réstif de la Bretonne (1734-1806) may have been the first person to use the word “communist,” but today he is commemorated more for his vices (in France, a shoe fetishist is called a “rétifist” in his honor). Réstif worked as a printer from the age of seventeen, at a time of rapid expansion in the publishing trade; and in his thirties he became a prolific writer. He was said to write novels “faster than one could read them,” wrote sixteen volumes of his autobiography (1794-1797), forty-two volumes of short stories, and speculated feverishly about the future in L’an deux-mille and other plays, and in novels such as Les Posthumes. The Marquis de Sade accused him of “flooding the public” with prose, and claimed that Réstif slept with a printing press on his nightstand. Along with “communist” and “rétifist,” we also owe to Réstif the word “pornographer,” thanks to his 1769 plan for the regulation of prostitution, Le Pornographe.

The writing of Charles Fourier (1772-1837), born almost thirty years later, was almost as notorious as Réstif’s. They shared a peculiar kind of pan-sexualism, which explained the movements of the heavens by the “copulation of the planets.” Fourier earned his living in the Lyon silk trade at a time when the Jacquard Loom was revolutionizing the textile industry, introducing automation by punch cards not dissimilar to those Kurenniemi might have spotted at the Bull computer factory as a child. From 1808 to his death in 1837, Fourier wrote obsessively of his plans for a future utopia lived in “phalansteries,” which he described in painstaking detail—including its architecture, food, labor, and sexual relations. He has been called “the nineteenth century’s complete utopian.” Everything, in the world of his projections, was conditioned by the logic of music.

This mutual entanglement of technology, aesthetics, and sexual desire, so prominent in the writing of both Fourier and Réstif, finds a strange kind of fulfillment in one of the last musical instruments designed by Kurenniemi, in 1971. The DIMI-S, also called a “sexophone,” was an interactive instrument based on biofeedback, controlled by the natural resistance and electrical conductivity of bare human skin. In order to play it, a group of participants, handcuffed together, were required to touch and caress each other, producing polyphonic tones from intimate encounters. Much as in Fourier’s utopia, music and desire become the model for a cybernetic sociability.

In his final years, Kurenniemi’s futurism remained undimmed. He still looked forward to a technological singularity of man–machine symbiosis. However, his speculations were increasingly tinged by nostalgia. He spoke often of a project to preserve Earth as a museum, once its inhabitants have abandoned flesh to live as pure data floating through space. He imagined our future selves without bodies of their own, poring over archives, eager for physical sensation. “I guess,” he says in Taanila’s documentary, “they’ll just watch porn.”

 

[1] Entry describing Storage Memory, on Boltanski’s website; at http://www.christian-boltanski.com/eng/2/presentatio-oeuvre.
[2] See, for example, http://dinca.org/erkki-kurenniemi-essay-radical-documentation/11962.htm.

 

Robert Barry is a freelance writer and composer, based in London. His book The Music of the Future was published by Repeater in March 2017.

 

Originally published on Mousse 59

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