“Somebody said something very interesting. That if you listen to a Ryoji Ikeda CD, you feel minimalist but if you go to see his performance you really feel he is a maximalist, physically.”—Ryoji Ikeda in a 2006 interview with David Toop in The Wire
On the surface, it might appear that sound and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda only creates pieces for isolated academics hiding on the top floor of some New Music ivory tower in Switzerland, squirreling away on their next paper about the acoustic phenomenology of stereophonic subjectivity or whatever. Ikeda recently won the Prix Ars Electronica Collide competition at CERN (you know, the place where they discovered the Higgs boson), which granted him a two-year research residency at the nuclear laboratory. In 2008, he collaborated with Harvard number theorist Benedict Gross on V≠L, a series of multimedia installations investigating a mathematical concept of infinity known as the “axiom of constructability.” superposition, the audio-visual piece Ikeda presents at the Walker on Friday, October 24, and Saturday, October 25, gets its title from a principle of quantum theory.
A brief, superficial listen of any Ikeda album might lead you to the same conclusion. The ascetic tone of the sine wave is the bedrock of his sound. Melodies, rhythms, and discernible narratives are all largely absent. He seems to relish bizarre juxtapositions and tonal shifts.
Yet this portrait of Ryoji Ikeda as a totally cerebral artist can be alienating and inaccurate. Ikeda isn’t an academically trained musician or visual artist. He began his career DJing in clubs in Toyko in the early 1990s. This is perhaps where he first learned how to use music and visuals as forms of stimulation to provoke the body and create visceral spectacles. Ikeda’s ability to manipulate an audience’s physical response to his work is what makes him such a vital and accessible artist.
Shards of static tickle the insides of your ears. You can feel his impossibly heavy bass drones in the pit of your chest. Sine waves bouncing back and forth between the left and right channels increasingly disorient your sense of space. Ikeda reminds us of the very physical nature of sound. In an interview with MoMa’s Inside/Out blog, he refers to sound as “vibrations of air.” The rapidly shifting digital images that accompany these sounds also produce physical responses. Streams of data collide on-screen to create a sensory overload that can literally cause an epileptic seizure. Ikeda’s work often circumvents cognitive processing by going straight for our bodies, and you don’t need a PhD in theoretical mathematics to feel the effects.
superposition is Ikeda’s first piece featuring human performers since his days collaborating with the Japanese theater collective Dumb Type. For this performance, experimental musicians Stéphane Garin and Amélie Grould will act as “operator/conductor/observer/examiners,” according to his website. In the past, Ikeda has expressed distrust in his capabilities as an improviser and a desire for total artistic control. “When I create a piece, music, installation, or audio-visual concert, my vision is so clear I need control,” he told The Wire in 2006. It’s possible that, with the introduction of human agents, superposition will be even more in touch with the human body because it’s being created by sensitive performers in real time.
Walker audiences may already be familiar with the collaborative side of Ikeda. The Walker co-presented, with the Guthrie Lab, his work with Dumb Type in [OR] in 1999 and Memorandum in 2001—two early examples of the types of immersive spectacles Ikeda has become known for. Unlike anything that had been seen before in the Twin Cities, the assaultive quality of those performances astonished and thrilled audiences.
In recent years, Ikeda has created a number of massive public art pieces that have maintained the astounding nature of his performances with Dumb Type, while shying away from the shock tactics of those earlier works. His piece spectra, which sent immense beams of white light into the sky, toured multiple major cities in Europe. Every night this October, his audio-visual work test pattern has taken over the forty-seven digital screens in Times Square from 11:57 pm to midnight. Despite the theoretical background of these pieces, their visibility suggests a growing populist sentiment in Ikeda’s work.
Now, none of this is to say that there isn’t deep intellectual complexity embedded in all of what Ryoji Ikeda does. The power of his work is that it’s able to remove truly profound and moving mathematic concepts from the stasis and inaccessibility created by academic jargon. In superposition, Ikeda makes the data that swarms around us visible, audible, and sublime.
The Walker will present Ryoji Ikeda’s superposition Friday, October 24 and Saturday, October 25, 2014 in the McGuire Theater.