MERZmuseum - Hank Bull
This recording documents a live, multi-point webcast which involved the interaction of contributors in various towns and cities around the world. Each participant generated an audio stream inspired by the Kurt Schwitters sound poem, "Ursonate". The event took place as part of a Schwitters symposium held in Ambleside, Cumbria, UK, in September 1999 and was broadcast simultaneously on Kunstradio, ORF, Vienna and on various other radio stations around the world.
The result is collage. A collage of sounds, but also of people, aesthetics and histories. It has no single author and no fixed frame. What you hear is a collection of fragments that is itself part of a larger collection of fragments. My place in the collage is different from yours but it is possible that somewhere, or at some time in the collage, we might overlap.
For me it begins with a project called "Art Barns", organized by Littoral to develop a collaboration between artists and sheep farmers on the hills of Lancashire England. The project was inspired by the figure of Kurt Schwitters, who lived the last several years of his life in the Lake District, just a few miles from Grasmere, fabled home of Wordsworth. Not far from here, he made his last large work, the MerzBarn, which was left unfinished by his death. One of the goals of the Art Barns project was to build support for the crea-tion of a Kurt Schwitters museum and study centre in Cumbria.
Thinking about Schwitters and thinking about museums, thinking about the enormous range of his work, how it bursts out of the frame at every turn, climbing the walls and breaking into sound, appearing as text (his published works fill several large volumes), performance, architecture, installations, experiments with new technologies and (most radical of all) traditional easel painting; no normal museum can properly contain this range of imagination. In any case, the works he left behind are only traces. The only museum that can do justice to Schwitters is one that unlocks and releases the energy of his imagination, one in which the audience plays a leading role in the re/production of the work. The only museum capable of enabling this kind of experience a combination of visuality, sound, performance, text and simultaneous collaboration is the Internet. Hence the idea for the MERZmuseum, a net-worked interactive virtual museum.
With the involvement of Kunstradio and an international network of contributing artists, the project became known as SCHWITTRADIO. A central website offered listeners a timetable and links to the streams. Some contributors used each others sound to create duets and remixes. In addition, all feeds were collected in Vienna and mixed again by a random computer program.* Even the title of the work changed, depending on the local context.
Hence there is uncertainty over naming, as well as over the authorship of the work and the problem of its framing. The distinction between author and audience is also blurred. The work is amorphous, not an object but a context, an atmosphere, without clearly defined edges.
A recording exists of Schwitters reading the Ursonate, apparently made in the 1940s, but its authenticity is contested. Is it really his voice? Perhaps it is the voice of his son. When was it made? If it is indeed a fake, what about the other, earlier recordings of Schwitters known exist in Germany but yet to see the light, in spite of an exhaustive cataloging and celebration of the minutiae of his oeuvre? SCHWITTRADIO takes place against this backdrop of uncertainty, a failure of authenticity which also raises questions about the relationship of the audience to the work. You hear a different mix at each node of the network, as streams arrive at different times and mix in unpredictable ways. You send your stream without any guarantee as to how it will be used. You maintain copyright, but only on a part of the work, or, in another way, as part of a collective authorship over a zone of creativity. And what about the rights of listeners? Kurt Schwitters discarded the traditional vocabulary of European picture making perspective, chiaroscuro, drawing. He replaced it with a new vocabulary, under the sign of MERZ. He borrowed images and objects from the world, split them, doubled them, repeated them and combined them to create unprecedented poetic forms. This technical revolution set the stage for much of art that emerged from the ashes of World War II and prefigured with brilliant clarity the absurd juxtapositions of todays cut-up, mediated world. The vernacular of the DJ sampling, looping, mixing comes directly from Schwitters. The words "cut" and "paste" appear on the screen.
Please feel free to continue this work. Perhaps we will overlap.
*) This was actually not the case with this project, but had happened just previously, e.g. at the Linz node of "Sound Drifting" (also 1999, s. http://kunstradio.at/SD/). We de-cided to leave Hank Bull’s text uncorrected as it is very typical for networked projects that legends evolve about what has happened at other nodes.
MERZmuseum / Schwittradio / Schwittcd