INTERVIEW: Erik Bünger

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In the third man, Erik Bünger—a Swedish-born, Berlin-based multimedia artist—uses the format of the lecture to explore the nature of sound, memory and so-called “ear-worms.” Prior to his performance at Vancouver’s VOICE OVER mind Festival, I had the chance to ask Bünger some questions about the project. These are his responses.

Could you explain the general perimeters of the third man to me?

The work starts off from an experience I had as a child. When I was quite small, my father used to play this melody from The Third Man. Usually, he would tell me about the movie first and he would show me this image from the movie printed on the cover of the score. An image of the shadow of man. And he would tell me about this in a way that made me really fascinated. I think I didn’t understand the plot very well back then. But it was mysterious to me. Very threatening.

This melody has been appearing from time to time in my head, during my whole life. And it always had this kind of [pausing] threatening quality to it. As if someone is watching me from behind. And I was interested in this idea; why this feeling became so strong. And especially in the fact that the music in itself—the Third Man melody—is so innocent, somehow. It could actually be attached to anything. It could’ve been a commercial for chewing gum. But now it ends up being connected to this very sinister character.

The Third Man melody is only the melody that I take off from. To be able to anchor the whole idea in a subjective story that everyone can understand.

You will be presenting your lecture as part of the VOICE OVER mind Festival. What role does the human voice in particular play in this project?

This is the second piece in a trilogy of works that I’ve been working on for the last seven years. I finished the trilogy a year ago. In all these pieces, it’s the human voice that I’m focusing on. In the first work, I’m focusing on recording technology. In the second work—the third man—I focus on singing. And in the third work, it’s the speaking voice that I explore.

The way I see it is that music is the very first technology in the history of humanity, and it enters the body through the human voice. Before words and weapons, there is a way to seduce and move bodies in a certain way, and that is through music. This is of course only speculation, but I think it’s very plausible.

But it’s also the first technology that each individual encounters in life, with the mother singing to the fetus. It’s the very first time that you’re able to influence the fetus. It’s a way to start conditioning the fetus. So it’s both the first technology that we encounter in history and also in each individual life.

In the festival, you’ll be performing alongside musicians and singers. Do you think that the third man could help audience members better understand the other performances?

What I realized with this particular piece is that it tends to frame other works. Especially if it is presented in a festival where many of the other artists are musicians. It will somehow make the audience shift their perspective a little bit. It provides a way of looking upon music that is not so common. People have said that I provide a viewpoint that is strange but also really familiar, in the sense that it can actually feel intuitive in its strangeness.

I think that has to do with simply that there is some kind of truth to it. We all have this experience of songs getting stuck in our heads. For some people, it can be a very superficial experience. But for other people, it can be quite haunting. And then there’s the idea that music is actually a kind of hypnosis [pausing] or virus.

Music has such a strong influence on most people. It is more influential, I think, than any other art form, because almost everyone listens to music. It’s seems to be something that we feel like we need. People would be able to live without a lot of other art forms, I think. But it would be difficult to say, “I’m never going to listen to music again.” That would be a very big step to take.

But at the same time, music is very rarely discussed for what it is. I mean, it might be discussed in a very superficial way. When I studied composition at the musical academy, all we would study would be chord progressions, how to create rhythms and so on. But very seldom would we actually discuss the fact that music is so extremely influential in our lives, and the social and political aspects of that.

What first attracted you to the format of the multimedia lecture?

I was doing a lot of lectures in art academies and prep schools, and I realized after a while that this medium really suites me. And I thought, “Why don’t I just do a work just like that?” And I realized that as a lecturer, you get a certain kind of authority. And since I was already working on this idea of the voice, I was interested in this authority and its connection with the human voice.

The voice of the lecturer aquires a certain type of authority. I mean, the audience starts trusting the lecturer. Even if my work is presented in an art context, where things aren’t necessarily expected to be true or scientifically valid, people will still listen to me as if I were a scientific researcher presenting evidence. And this creates a very interesting effect, because you can be very speculative. But at the same time, I do believe that speculation can be very true, even if it’s not true in a scientific sense. I think there’s another truth you can reach through art that you can’t really access via science. And if you have this position already where people trust you, then you can play with that.

Is there a certain satirical dimension to the project? At one part, for instance, you embark on this really deep analysis of a Kylie Mignogue song, and this might strike some people as rather funny…

I think that some truths can be very funny. I wouldn’t call the third man satirical. Even if it might seem very far-fetched sometimes, I still think there is a truth to it. Outrageous but true just the same. I also like the situation where you’re alternating between metaphor and fact. You move between these two. The way I talk about this song could be like a metaphor for something else. It’s not really clear if it’s a metaphor or not.

But that goes for a lot of scientific projects as well. Like Richard Dawkins talking about selfish genes. This kind of talk, to me, feels like metaphors. But that’s why it’s interesting. If you were to take it at face value, it wouldn’t be very interesting. Some kind of super truth appears when something oscillates between metaphor and fact. And sometimes these super truths are also super funny.

That’s why a comedian like Louis CK is sometimes really funny, because he’s saying something really true. That it’s funny doesn’t take away the truth in it. The truth of it is precisely what makes it funny in the first place. But here in Europe where I live, it’s a problem to get that across in a lot of places, because people don’t seem able to do both things at the same time. Be serious and funny simultaneously. I think it’s a natural thing that things are funny.

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