Dirk van Weelden

Klik hier om deze tekst in het Nederlands te lezen

When and where did Kadoum emerge?

To understand and appreciate Kadoum, it is good to know the context from which it arose and the questions and mysteries it is based on. Kadoum was a performance and an installation that connected singers, electric motors, heart monitors, mobile phones and the internet. The idea arose in 1997, back when Google was just being set up, there was no video on the internet, and even MP3 had yet to be invented. The internet consisted of poor-quality images and text, accessible only through computers connected by a cable to a modem and fixed line network. Fewer than one in four people possessed a mobile phone.

Anybody who looked around and tried to grasp how quickly everything was changing could have been blown away by a frightening thought: if everything could be converted into digital data (images, sounds, texts, numbers) and everybody was connected by the internet, then access to the medium would mean that everybody was, in principle, available for one another, always and everywhere, no matter what the physical distance. What is ‘remote presence’ and how does that change the experience of physical presence?

Johan Wagenaar is a sculptor, someone who thinks through images and space, and Kadoum can best be understood as a spatial and sensory representation of that question. It is posed here, not on a website but in the physical world, where the work and the public come together. Moreover, it is a communal question, for Kadoum is the result of collaboration between the artist and a computer programmer, telephone engineers, an entrepreneur, a composer and various choirs.

What did Kadoum consist of?

Between 1998 and 2003, a choir made up of 4 sopranos, 4 altos, 4 tenors and 4 bas/baritones, took up positions on a scaffold structure of pipes and planks set up in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and in a number of cities in the United States. Each singer stood beside a bucket fastened to an elastic cable that was attached to the top of the scaffolding. Those sturdy buckets, which call to mind a construction site, contained water and a steel fin that could be set in motion by a powerful electric motor on the ground. Audibly, visibly and also palpably.

In Australia, sixteen volunteers went about their normal daily routine, working, snoozing, shopping, vacuuming, or sitting in the stand at a tennis game. During the project, one of the first devices to measure heart rate frequency was developed in collaborated with Nokia. The volunteers wore these monitors inside an elastic band wrapped around their chests so that their heart rate was converted into an electric signal.

That signal was transmitted wirelessly to their mobile phones. Finnish telecom company Nokia participated by providing customized software that was connected to the internet. A computer mounted on the scaffolding conveyed the heart rate signal of each Australian to the ‘personal’ bucket of a different singer.

The composer Daan Manneke, celebrated for his choral music, wrote a score inspired by eighth-century Gregorian chant in terms of harmony and melody, but the rhythm was set by the sixteen heartbeats transmitted live and directly from Australia. For both the singers and audience, those heartbeats were made palpable by the powerful swish that set the water in motion. The motors came from a factory that produced industrial robots, so they could be controlled digitally.

The music created a mood in which the audience members felt as if they were drifting away from the logical order of time that governed the clock and found themselves in a seemingly timeless ‘now’. A refuge in a bustling technical world. The singing suggested a centuries-old focus, and the concentration of the singers on the mysteriously vibrating buckets was linked to the speed of the light with which the signals arrived from far away. The heartbeat of a distant stranger made the water slosh around in the bucket, dictating the rhythmic pulse of the singing and living body standing two metres away from me. This was a powerful and impressive spectacle. But what exactly happened? What did it mean? What feelings and thoughts did this wonderful event evoke by way of a meditation on man and body and the presence of communication?

Kadoum was made possible thanks to the collaboration between Johan Wagenaar and Pierre Eichenberger, a gallerist from Cologne and a member of a family of Swiss industrialists with machine factories all over the world. The technology from the welding robots of Mavilor, the funding from Eichenberger’s Experinet, and the involvement of Nokia and MIT Harvard were vital in facilitating such a rapid, technically sophisticated and aesthetic experience from elements of a technology still at an early stage of development.

All of this made Kadoum a project that attracted attention from the world of sports, from medical science and from technology followers, but the imploring power of the singing also attracted a wider audience than that usually drawn to visual art. The future, age-old questions and sounds, the power of performance and image, the excitement of the new that was within easy reach — all of this came together here in a very plastic and physical manner, with the spatial configuration, the pulse of the music, water, bodies, voices.

Much of Kadoum is typical of Wagenaar’s work. It explores major human themes, but they are preferably rendered visible through sensory experiences, through images, colours, spaces, physical relationships; and with as little interference as possible from the world of language. But he does not want to set the work like a sacred object outside the world of people or alienate it from the conditions of its existence.

For him, the poetic power of art is not confined to repertoire, conventions or social context. Strictly speaking, the possibility of art as human capacity is everywhere, in every life and in every domain. It is therefore not unusual for an artist to team up with scientists, entrepreneurs, technicians and musicians, or with people from the social domain, thereby ensuring that art is seen and experienced outside art institutions.

Another aspect of Kadoum is a hallmark of Johan Wagenaar’s work: the combination of control and improvisation in its development. He views that process as an organically unfolding quest to find the right method to bring the work to fruition. Something that is of great value in itself. A complex cycle of making, reflection, knowledge and intuition. So there is lots of input and involvement from others, lots of chance and serendipity, but there is also the guidance of the visual and poetic director who ensures that moral clarity, ideological simplicity and technical and economic efficiency are kept at bay.

©Johan Wagenaar