Collegium Helveticum
Thread Game © Christoph Oeschger
In conversation

Artistic Research
A Conversation with Sarine Waltenspül and Rahel Zimmermann

The Collegium Helveticum brings together fellows from the humanities, arts, and sciences. Mario Wimmer spoke with two former fellows, the film and media scholar, Sarine Waltenspül, and the composer, Rahel Zimmermann, about their work and their understanding of artistic research.

Rahel, how do you work as a composer?

Rahel: At the beginning there is a concept, a theme, a question, a form, or a mood. From this situation, my search for suitable sounds and formal or dramaturgical arcs or spatial concepts develops. I usually record the sounds to process them, for instance by sampling. The composition process is experimental, conscious decisions and serendipity coincide. It requires fascination, craft, imagination, experience, a back and forth between detachment and complete immersion—and luck.

Would you refer to this process as artistic research?

Rahel: That’s an interesting question. Is the exploration of sound and sound aesthetics in a compositional process already artistic research? Is artistic research defined by a certain type of systematic investigation? For me, compositional work develops from a relationship with the material, which is not defined by language, but on a deeper and sensual level, through experimentation and listening, in order to assess the experimental material. Of course, there are underlying concepts and considerations, but the immediacy is paramount.

Sarine, how did you come into contact with artistic research?

Sarine: I got into the field as a grad student. During my doctoral work in media studies, I was part of a transdisciplinary team at the Zurich University of the Arts and was confronted with the institutional reality of artistic research: the tedious search for methods and formats, which sometimes seemed to make it impossible to get to the content; the attempt to introduce disciplinary standards to a field such as art, which inherently rejects disciplinary rules; and of course also political and financial interests connected to the question of whether art schools should be allowed to award doctorates. Nevertheless, I see significant potential in artistic or rather in practice-based research: it allows us to approach things differently, and thus allows for new perspectives.

Where do you see the potential in your own work?

Sarine: The variety of formats forces me to rethink my position as a researcher in relation to my object of research. It matters whether I do research on something or with something, such as a scientific film, for example. The combination of different approaches—through words and visuals—allows me to learn more about both the subject matter and my own blind spots.

This seems to correspond with recent theoretical efforts at rethinking the relationship between researcher and the researched object: the work of Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, or Anna Tsing were also taken up heavily in the arts. Do you see a convergence of scientific and artistic research?

Sarine: Yes, absolutely. I see this convergence as a movement from both sides towards each other, but at the same time as very different movements. This convergence of artistic and scientific research sometimes provokes demarcations that play out in emotional debates. It seems more productive to me to combine the best of the two worlds instead. Rahel, your work Listening to Changing Shapes, which you created during your time at the Collegium, is about the perception of dynamic and moving shapes in sonic space. Can you explain what you were trying to achieve?

Rahel: The central idea of the project was to transform moving shapes into an auditory, three-dimensional space. I borrowed shapes from other disciplines (such as live mycelium) and experimented with them to find out how they can be transformed into sound and space by testing how people perceive them. The ramifications were particularly exciting: Can you perceive with your ears how the growing of the mycelium takes shape in space? Sound is something that tends to merge, especially when the sounds are similar. So how can you translate a coherent structure in such a way that the subtle differences become perceptible?

Visualization of the process of translating shapes in space into sonic shapes. © Rahel Zimmermann

You tried to find an answer to these questions. The picture is a visualization of the process of translating shapes in space into sonic shapes?

Rahel: In the foreground, you see a schematic representation of sound sources that change in pitch (y), intensity (represented by the thickness of the lines), and structure (dotted vs. solid), over time (x). This schematic representation precedes the diagrammatic representation of auditory space, which is the blueprint of an ambisonic space. The inner wavy circle is the auditory space played through headphones, the outer one is the auditory space sounded through loudspeakers, the crosshairs are x-y. Both representations come from the attempt to create a kind of transformation catalog that shows and systematizes the results of my investigations in a three-dimensional room where people can listen to different sounds. The background of the picture represents, for me, in a palpable way, moving sounds, which unite to form an overall sound structure.

Sarine, in recent years you have worked with Mario Schulze, particularly in the context of your fellowship at the Collegium. I remember a seminar on string figures that you gave together. Is the string figure a suitable image or metaphor for describing the practical collaboration in a web of people and things that are intertwined with each other?

Sarine: Absolutely, because as Donna Haraway says, “it matters what stories tell stories.” If we use, for example, the more technical image of the network, it implies other relations than those of the embodied string figures. In that case, the research that Mario and I have been doing refers first of all to the model or metaphor of string figures as method and practice in cultural theory as suggested by Donna Haraway. Second, we are also practicing this method as part of the research project Visualpedia, in a transdisciplinary team with performer Ute Sengebusch and designer Moritz Greiner-Petter. Third, we are researching string figures in anthropology. These complex figures, which were often linked to narrated stories, have fascinated many ethnologists since the late 19th century. But unlike other objects of fascination, they could not be transformed into material possessions. As a result, these string figures possibly produced an imaginary surplus that inspires the theory of Haraway and others.

Would you recommend a fellowship at the Collegium Helveticum to your peers?

Sarine: I experienced the Collegium and the people there as very supportive—also in terms of experimenting with formats. And I was able to focus on my work during my time there. So, yes, definitely.

Rahel: I could not agree more. I enjoyed meeting so many interesting researchers and artists, the mixture of different fields, all the interesting and stimulating events, and the freedom to work on what really inspires me.