The title of Carsten Höller's current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery feels fitting for Frequency Response. Decision invites you to experience a series of "experimental environments," asking for reflection on the process of decision making. You enter by feeling your way along a pitch-black metal tunnel, and the questions begin soon after. Should I take an unidentified pill that was dispensed from the ceiling? How will I react to having my vision inverted by Höller's Upside-Down Goggles? What has that snake eaten? As with most of Höller's work over the past 20 years, Decision aims to mess with your physical and psychological state.
Last month, we invited Daniel Avery, Felicita and Forest Swords to visit Decision. They moved among the art tourists and families on summer holiday, deciding on both their feeling towards the exhibition and the piece of music they would eventually write in response to it.
I've always been interested in ideas of escapism and how humans seek it throughout their lives. Walking around Höller's Decision, I knew pretty quickly what I wanted to focus on. The exhibition space (as intended) is constantly filled with the sound of shouting, as kids zigzag through the rooms, dragging their parents to the next interactive piece. But there's one hall that feels different to everything else. In it, a row of volunteers don virtual reality headsets and sit in silence as they are transported to a dark, snowy forest. They slowly begin to walk forwards in first-person, the muffled sound of the elements immersing them fully into another world. It's a quiet yet unsettling experience.
Your "vision" begins to blur and re-align, only adding to the disconcerting fact that nothing really happens to you; you're simply alone in a cold place. And then it finishes. You take your headset off and you're once again overwhelmed by the intensity of the surroundings. The experience is entirely unknown and clearly short-lived to those waiting their turn, yet the size of the queue never decreases one jot throughout the day. Everyone is waiting for his or her chance to be taken somewhere else, even with no idea where that may be.
I knew the track I made had to represent that dreamlike feeling given by Höller's piece. That idea of being in an unreal and unknown place, yet the overall experience of escaping ultimately bringing a sense of stillness. I recorded layers of ambient noise whilst walking around the exhibition and used that as my starting point. I've spent a lot of time horizontal with this style of music in the studio recently so, once I discovered the right path, it happened quickly.
On the way back from the exhibition I was thinking a lot about Isomeric Slides and Upside-Down Goggles and how my legs almost buckled when I tried to walk to the edge of the roof to see if the Coca-Cola logo on the London Eye had been turned the right way around. I also thought about "body hacking" and the possibility of an art form that is completely invisible, built and communicated and experienced entirely within the mind. I then briefly tried to equate musical experiences with Carsten Höller experiences by claiming that both are "invisible" (as opposed to the experience of a painting), or at least that visually perceiving the object is not the primary experience—you don't stare at the slides or goggles the same way you don't stare at your phone or speakers when they play music.
I also thought about the mp3 and the art gallery as vessels of information and wondered what the musical dynamic equivalent to a Carsten Höller show might be—the mp3 is fluid and free and can travel, and the Hayward Gallery is solid and stationary and mostly not free. I then started looking at folders on my MacBook wondering if anything I'd been making related to the kinds of ideas I was thinking about. I opened a folder labelled "fake serialism" and looked at some of the piano pieces inside. I remade my favourite one in synthesis and took out a lot of the original notes, and added new parts, such as tempo changes and a group of kids counting down from eight then shouting, "Thank you! Goodbye!" (there were lots of kids at the exhibition).
The 12 logarithmic metronomic tempos used in "thanks / bye," covering a tempo "octave" (doubling in speed) from 60 to 120 are:
60 / 63.5 / 67 / 71 / 75.5 / 80 / 85 / 90 / 101 / 107 / 113.5 / 120
The experience of fractional metronomic tempos such as 63.5 and 75.5 are equal to the effect of taking 10mg of cetirizine hydrochloride (a conventional hay fever allergen) before entering Isomeric Slides feet-first.
I was aware of Höller's previous work so I was more interested in how people were actually reacting and experiencing the pieces as opposed to the physical art itself. I was hoping that would guide the response in some way rather than my own direct experiences in the exhibition. It turns out, once I was there, I actually shifted it back onto myself and the way I experienced it, rather than being concerned about anyone else. The responses that people had to things were so disparate that it would've been difficult for me to really take anything from their reactions. The actual entry into the space was via a twisting, barely-lit metal pathway that actually had numerous routes through it, though you'd never know while you're making your way around—I only realised afterwards when we were discussing it.
Although I did enjoy much of the exhibition, I really responded to that metal corridor. It felt like a powerful, though slightly disconcerting, way to palate cleanse—it got me thinking about ways to incorporate that into gigs or clubs. It drills home the fact that you're moving from one world into another, and I've been thinking about the ways you could play with that. I took audio from that area and transposed rhythms and samples of footsteps and metal "clangs" I'd pulled out of the audio. It was bounced back and forth into instrumentation, and I built the piece around that. The tunnel was a bit of an eye-opener to me as it made me ask myself a lot of questions about my confidence, my sensory perception, my trust. I found the whole thing surprisingly unsettling, particularly compared to the other pieces. It made me self-analyse in a different way to a lot of the other artworks in the exhibition, and it's the one thing that stuck with me for days afterwards.
In terms of actually creating the audio, it felt a lot more relaxed and spontaneous than I'd normally work on album material. The fact that Höller forces you to engage with things in more of a free and light-hearted way definitely shifted my usual working methods and the way I weaved everything together. It felt a lot looser and less meticulous than I'd usually work, and that's certainly down to the gallery experience he presents.