singuhr, hoergalerie – Labyrinthine Sound Art in Berlin
I wanted to interview the curator of a sound art gallery in Berlin located in two abandoned water reservoirs burrowed out of hills, because sound art – a genre that combines visual and aural expression at a specific place – is a fascinating form, and because a venue for said exhibits in a disused, dank puzzle of tunnels is nothing if not intriguing.
Enlarge image Carsten Seiffarth (© Roman März) His name is Carsten Seiffarth, and he's been hosting and arranging sound art in Berlin since 1996. Talking to him is tantamount to reading from an encyclopedia about sound art. Except it's more interesting, of course, punctuated by a he-he-he sort of laugh that's not at all mocking, an eyebrow that occasionally hikes up when he listens intently and the deep, steady voice of someone sure of what he's doing.
After we'd been talking over Skype for about 45 minutes, an epic thunderstorm parked itself over Washington, DC. As he was describing what it's like to be in a subterranean, 9,000-square-meter lair, a clap worthy of Zeus thundered over me and over Skype, briefly tying Washington to Berlin with a grandiose, echoing crack. “Ahhh!” someone screamed in another room.
“Beautiful,” said Carsten Seiffarth, with an appreciation for the rumbling sound that was evident in his pronunciation of the word: the first syllable, excitedly stressed, came off quickly before the remaining two languidly poured off his tongue. He then poked fun at the frightened screamer. “It's only a little bit of stormy weather.”
Boom! Another mighty thunderclap.
“He he he,” he giggled. “It's funny, it's like a performance.”
Sound art at church
Before Carsten Seiffarth started curating sound art, he had to learn what it was. He comes from the former East Germany, in the Pankow part of Berlin, and studied orchestral music in Weimar. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Germany reunited in 1990, the city, especially in the East, was teeming with the enthusiasm of a stunted imagination.
In this unsettled Wild West of creativity, Seiffarth studied musicology and sociology, and was introduced for the first time to sound art.
Later, in 1996, a church found itself with a 750-meter spot and “no idea” what to do with it, Carsten explained. It did, however, have a “special history because it's a special church.” The so-called parochial church is the oldest Reformed (Calvinist) church in Berlin. Frederick I gave the church a glockenspiel in 1713, and the carillon, which would ring on the hour, eventually brought the church fame. Berliners called the glockenspiel the “singing watch,” or, in German, “Singuhr.”
The “Singuhr” was firebombed in World War II, along with much of the roof. Although the latter would be rebuilt in the 1950s, the former would never play its hourly melodies again, even if it did lend its name to a sound art spot for 11 years.
While in the parochial church, singuhr put on 58 solo exhibitions in 11 years, beginning on May 31, 1996 with an exhibition by the East German sound artist Erwin Stache and ending with a project by the pioneering American sound artist Maryanne Amcher in September 2006.
A sculpture and a cistern
Enlarge image The large water reservoir (© Roman März) The two water reservoirs which currently house singuhr were both in use until around 1910, providing citizens of Berlin's Prenzlauerberg/Pankow district with water. Although they would appear to be underground, they are actually just under soil, jutted into two manufactured hills. Humans were barred entry until 1989, and after 1991 and the reunification, Carsten informed me that both reservoirs were used for strange parties, exhibitions and concerts. Carsten and his singuhr cohorts won a contest in 2006 for the best idea of what to do with the spot, and singuhr moved from the church to the reservoirs.
The little one, at approximately 6,000 cubic meters, Carsten described as resembling a cistern. He said the 9,000-cubic-meter larger one was more akin to a sculpture. Both are humid, usually between 70 and 80 percent so, and sound reverberates in the more prodigious of the two for an incredible 18 seconds. And while you hear a tone levitate in place for 18 seconds “you find, all the time, a piece of time to be completely alone in 9,000 cubic meters,” Carsten said … “in the underground.”
Enlarge image In the larger reservoir, artist Robert Henke's "Ewige Dunkelheit" ("Everlasting Darkness") at singuhr (© Heinrich Hermes) One of the current sound artists displaying at singuhr is Robert Henke, who is showing an exhibit bathed in opaque, red light. After constructing 13 different organ tones on a synthesizer, Henke then set an algorithm to randomly pick from the 13, creating a spontaneous organ blend, in red.
From there, or actually with any exhibition at singuhr, it rests with the viewer. It may be a particularly cool day when you decide to come. Or it could be warm. It could also be crowded or still, odorless or pungent, melodious or shrill. The artist invites, he or she does not demand.
Singuhr has hosted over 80 displays of “art that rejects one-dimensional classifications and reflects the individual artistic positions between the poles of music, visual arts and medial arts.” And none of them demanded a thing. Stay briefly, stick around all day. You decide.
Singuhr is currently showing two exhibits, Robert Henke's "Ewige Dunkelheit" and Gordon Monahan's "Resonant Platinum Records." Check the website for times.
(© Gordon Monahan)