Skill, Kim Hiorthøy, 2013 graphite on paper, courtesy of Standard (Oslo), Oslo.
Kim Hiorthøy is an artist, graphic designer, cinematographer, and musician whose new album Dogs was released in September on the label Smalltown Supersound. In his music, Kim Hiorthøy mixes everything from folk, free-jazz, lo-fi electronics, and acid house to instrumental hip-hop and field recordings. Dogs is a beautiful, minimal departure and consists mostly of piano and ambient noise, with occasional interjections of electronic beats and synths.
Melanie Bonajo is an artist, performer and musician who, together with Joseph Marzolla, plays in ZaZaoZo, a space, folk, tribal pop music project. In 2013, the duo released their album Inua on Tsunami-Addiction, which was recorded during the winter, in an isolated Arctic village of East Greenland. Their music and performances are inspired by places unpierced by human thoughts, erosion of the ethno-spheres, absence of history, tri-genderism, suburban rituals, magic in the space age and unrevealed yet perceivable parallel universes, like the spirit of Inua.
The two spoke over Skype about Kim Hiorthøy’s new album, the creative process, and the Internet (of course).
Melanie Bonajo Hello, your album is so nice! I’ve been listening to it non-stop. It’s even better on headphones. You think it’s better on the headphones, too?
Kim Hiorthøy Thank you. That makes me happy to hear. I don’t know if it is better on headphones. There was a problem when they were going to make the vinyl, because there was some distortion on the piano. They said, “We cannot press this on vinyl.”
KH Yeah, I don’t hear it either, and then it made me kind of depressed because I thought I had made an album with a crap sound.
MB But it’s a sample, right?
KH No, it’s a modeled piano. It’s all made on the computer. It’s all fake.
MB It has such a nice sound, this piano. If you listen to it on the headphones you hear all these little details, sounds that you recorded live. The music sounds very Scandinavian to me.
KH Oh, wow. I thought Scandinavian art was supposed to be much more about the forest and darkness and Satan and these things. Nihilism.
MB Yes, introverted, indoor culture, sipping hot coffee while staring out of the window deep into Satan’s weeping heart in the forest and the trees. This music is very unintrusive. It goes with all kinds of situations. I know, because I tested it.
Photo of figures used in the design of Rune Grammofon box set Sailing to Byzantium, Kim Hiorthøy, 2013, courtesy of Kim Hiorthøy.
KH Oh, that’s good. Don’t you think it can become a little bit or sound a little bit self-indulgent? Or romantic in a cheesy way?
MB No. I do hear how you made though, maybe because I know you. It’s nerdy and precise, but playful like Lego, or building a maquette with melodies and beats.
KH Yeah, totally.
MB What was the process like?
KH Well, I have all these other tracks that didn’t end up on this album because the first idea was to make this more normal electronic record and then put some piano tunes in-between. But then I thought, Why not just make a record of only the piano tunes? I thought it would be much easier to finish, but then once you start—the hard thing is always to really finish the tracks because you listen to them again and again. For one track, if it’s three minutes or four minutes long, you have to listen to the whole three or four minutes, and every time see if the arrangement works. And that takes me a really long time. Then I start to change things. Do you have a studio?
MB Yes, but I don’t go there, because I like to work from home.
KH So how do you do that? How do you work from home?
MB If I make something that might make me lose my deposit, I go to the studio. Otherwise, I try just to be home. I work mostly on location or at home, but I like to work whenever I want to work and don’t commute, so there’s no difference between art, or work, or life, or relaxation, or fun, or play, or administration. If I’m in the studio, I’m just there to listen to loud music and make a huge mess. And you?
KH (laughter) Making things that will make you lose your deposit you try to do in the studio? That’s an interesting parameter. I used to like to work at home precisely because I could just get out of bed and start working, or work until I had to go to bed. Now I think I like to work in the studio more because it’s more concentrated, but I don’t know. I’m becoming less and less disciplined the older I get.
MB Oh, really? Is that true?
KH Yes, it’s true. And I think part of it is the Internet. When I was younger the Internet didn’t exist like this. You couldn’t watch movies on the Internet. I had a modem in my house and you had to use the modem to check the e-mail. It was impossible …
MB Yeah, you have to go, “Prrrrrrrrrrr!”
KH Yeah. And this idea that you can watch any movie or listen to any music at any moment—it’s incredibly distracting and very destructive for work.
MB I know, it seems the computer is an extension of my brain. It’s just helping to emphasize bad thoughts or interesting thoughts, like a loudspeaker. But mostly bad. Most of the time I wake up and my head is just a bad radio show all day. I see the computer and phone, and they’re just as much part of me as my arm or my ear. I just stopped questioning it as something outside of myself.
KH That’s impressive, that’s good.
MB That makes me a cyborg.
KH Yeah, that’s true. I think my head is more like Finnish television theater. I try to incorporate the Internet as part of my body, but it doesn’t really work. It’s too foreign.
MB Get it back! Get a modem!
KH I should get a modem. That’s the trick.
MB I steal Internet from my neighbors and have a really bad connection. A bad Internet connection saves a lot of time. I haven’t seen a movie in months.
KH Yes, steal Internet from your neighbors. It’s better. More free time. That’s good, you’re lucky.
MB Make your life difficult.
KH Make your life better by making it more difficult.
MB In some areas.
KH Yes. The composition is important.
MB Get back on to your really old Mac. But I know what you mean, it’s also changed my process, the computer.
KH Yeah. The computer changes everything. It’s both good and bad at the same time. I really like the accessibility, and a lot of this record I made at home because it was so quick to just go on the computer and make music. But it’s the first record that I’ve made on the computer.
Still from Night Soil—Fake Paradise, Melanie Bonajo, 2014, color digital video, 36 minutes, courtesy of the artist.
MB But it’s not completely true because I heard samples, like people are talking.
That gives such an intimacy of realness to it, and I think that’s why I have this feeling of home. I think those samples really add that strong atmosphere to it, and that makes it less clean.
KH But it’s all constructed, I had to make the effort to make it feel less clean because of the way it was actually made. It’s this whole idea that the process you use will affect the outcome.
But you can also sort of force the process. I think I made it sound like it was made in a different way from how it was actually made. In art, there’s all this emphasis on letting the process be—you should show the process in the end result as a kind of honesty. But this, for me, was completely the opposite. I just used the computer to make it sound the way I wanted it to sound in my head. The tool is not visible in the result, if you know what I mean. It’s like making a 3D model on the computer of a wood sculpture made with an axe. There’s an element of theatre to it, or an element of construction, which I can sometimes get self-conscious about and feel that it’s fake in a sense.
MB I don’t hear that. I see it more as a landscape with different buildings and they’re all constructed differently but they kind of fit together in this unpredictable way. I feel really surprised how well it fits even though it sounds kind of arrhythmic. It doesn’t sound like it goes together, but it does. How you could get to that point really captures me. There’s a lot of magic in the box.
KH I wanted to ask you about recognizability in music, how we have a kind of collective memory of melodies, and that sometimes melodies feel familiar. If something is familiar to you, do you think it’s fair to say that there’s a kind of general familiarity, or do you think it’s just familiar to you? Where does that come from? I know where it comes from, maybe, but there’s a kind of feeling that there’s a common recognition of some melodies and some kinds of music, and that a lot of new music sort of taps into those generally recognized melodies. I wondered if you thought about that when you make music, or when you listen to music.
Record sleeve for Motorpsycho’s album Behind The Sun, Kim Hiorthøy, 2013, courtesy of Kim Hiorthøy.
MB I never think about it when I make music. I see that our music sounds like certain genres. Of course we use a generic song structure sometimes, and the Western scale only has seven notes. So it’s hard to avoid some kind of recognizability.
KH You also make pictures, or photographs, and in art there is also always this emphasis on originality. In music, that idea doesn’t really exist in the same way. A lot of people who make music want to sound like Willie Nelson, or Megadeth. Recognizability is an important part of music.
MB In art, of course, you have to have this awareness of historical references.
But I think the emphasis on academic art making is slowly fading, and I believe art making is not a linear process. It comes in mysterious ways. At first I felt suppressed and misplaced by methods and discourses in art, but it is the artist’s responsibility to free themselves from those boundaries, and to find and make peace with their own process.
I just finished my new movie called Night Soil—Fake Paradise. Making this movie really brought me back to a more intimate and internal process of art making, to accepting that this is my method and I know how it works, but that I can’t explain how it works. The new thing I say to people who want to participate in something I make is, The only thing you have to do is show up. That’s it. I’m not going to explain myself anymore in language, because then people start to form ideas in their head about what is going to happen. What is going to happen is never what’s going to happen. It has to break through from someplace under the surface, but it kind of has to break through by itself. It’s kind of like in music, in that you know where your finger’s going to slide on the piano. This next move, you’re going to make it, but you can’t say where it will be.
KH Maybe it’s not true, what I said before, and that there’s just as much reference in art as there is in music. There’s just a greater allowance, or seems to be a greater allowance, for music to be emotional and free of “statements” as opposed to the way that contemporary art operates. But maybe it’s an unfair comparison.
MB I think it’s true: cliché is really appreciated in music, especially in mainstream pop music, the more clichés you have, the more success you have. Look at Beyoncé, Gaga, or Katy Perry. They’re like a compilation of clichés. That’s really different from the art world.
We are now recording a new album with ZaZaZoZo, my music project with Joseph Marzolla, in New York and it is influenced by city life. Automatically, it has a lot more pop culture references then our first album Inua, which we recorded over one winter with a hunter-gatherer tribe in Greenland. The Arctic landscape really influenced our music and made the process much more mystical, because we couldn’t rely on any musical references in this environment with which we felt totally unfamiliar.
KH Hold on, I have some food I’m boiling and I just have to check it.
KH What is your movie about?
MB It is an experimental documentary about a hallucinogenic plant brew from the Amazon called Ayahuasca, which has been used for thousands of years as a medicine. It recently has become very popular in our culture as a mental, spiritual, and physical medicine. People talk to a plant spirit that cures them and shares knowledge. Night Soil shows the disconnect that most people feel from their environment and from each other, and how they try to find they way back in to the natural system by talking to plants. I’m interested in these indigenous tribes that are kind on the verge of a cultural breakdown because they’re confronted with Western ethics and culture.
KH That’s how I feel: constantly on the verge of cultural breakdown because I’m confronted with Western culture.
MB That’s how most people in the West feel, because Western society is ill. It creates ill people, and why is that? This is what this movie talks about. Once you drink the ayahuasca medicine it is like being updated by a plant. You are rewired with your environment and with your ecological roots as a human. The influences of “alternate states of consciousness” on a society within a religious, political, and social context interest me. Hallucinogens have been around since the beginning of human culture. They have influenced the way society is formed, how we define our relationships to each other. They have had a long history as a medicine and as a stimulant for physical and mental healing. In most contemporary societies the use of hallucinogens is prohibited and the film talks about whether or not this makes sense. It also describes the differences between the bodiless spaces in which we reside and the ethics of those spaces: the differences between cyberspace and the spiritual space that the plant medicine proposes to us. The people interviewed are mainly women, because there seems to be a huge lack of the female voice in popular and scientific psychedelic studies.
Are you making another dance show now?
KH I’m making another dance show with my colleague Lisa Östberg, and that’s very fun. It’s called Black Warrior and it’s going to be done in a week. It’s kind of an instructional lecture about how to make a performance.
MB What kind of instruction do you give?
KH Because she has also written a lot for film and television, it’s related to classic structure of film dramaturgy, or instructional books about how to write film and television. Our dance work is more related to Monty Python than to conceptual dance, which is kind of the world that we work in. We go through the elements that we claim that a dance performance is made up of, which at this point is that you need props, then there is an idea, and then we go through how you can get an idea. Then there is “location,” and we go through various types of locations. Then there is “situation,” what a situation is and what makes up a situation.We have also have intermission, and the intermission is kind of a hypnotizing moment where you imagine what the intermission is like.
Then it goes into “subtext,” the idea of saying something else than what you mean. Actually, there’s a Wikipedia entry on “subtext,” and the example it gives is someone talking about the ocean when, in reality, that person only wants to have sex. Once you just say that sentence, then you can say almost anything about the ocean afterwards and everything becomes loaded. It also says this weird thing—that if subtext is done well, it’s almost as if there’s no subtext at all. That kind of makes sense, but it also doesn’t really. What does it even mean to do subtext so well that subtext disappears? What you’re saying in reality, then, really has no subtext; it’s completely flat.
But I like the idea that anything you say it means something else. That’s also related to this idea of Monty Python, this idea of misunderstanding sexual innuendo. Then the next part, after “Subtext,” … what happens after “Subtext”? I’ve forgotten. There’s a lot of singing and dancing.
MB “Methods” and “Strategies”?
KH Generally I’m just interested in strategies for work, which is a bit what our piece is about. But I’m also really interested in this in general. Do you use routines, or do you use a special set of rules, or do you have a method? Your art is kind of emotional as well.
MB The expression of it is sometimes emotional, but the ideas behind it are not. I just use emotion because emotion as a language is kind of suppressed within art and that interests me. Art is supposed to come from this third-person perspective for a third-person audience, and to me that idea always seemed false. But as for strategy, mine is what I was explaining earlier about just showing up.
KH Yeah, that’s a good strategy: just show up. Do you think it’s possible also to use this method of showing up when you work alone?
MB Yeah, I wasn’t using that for a long time, because I thought it was wrong. I’m just way more curious about the unknown now. I don’t want to know what I’m making. Let’s say I find this plastic bag on the street and it has this beautiful color, and I just want to glue it on somebody’s face. I just want to do it, and I have no idea why I’m doing it, and I don’t know why I love this plastic bag so much, and I don’t want to know. Somehow this plastic bag becomes something special to me and I love that.
KH You’re conditioned by modern society.
MB Afterwards, I can say something about ecological crisis—about recycling and all that, and post-apocalyptic suburban aesthetics or whatever—but if I think about all these things before I pick up the bag, then I’m already exhausted, so …
KH Yeah. The key to being alive is just show up.
MB Just be present. That’s a start.
Kim Hiorthøy’s Dogs is available now from Smalltown Supersound.