Common Ground
Jerry Hunt and Paul Panhuysen in conversation

NOTE: the following article was written by René van Peer in 1993.

In June 1993 Jerry Hunt and Paul Panhuysen, sound artist and director of arts venue Het Apollohuis, prepared and built an installation in the entrance hall of a former dairy factory in 's-Hertogenbosch, Holland. Called De Melkfabriek, the building houses artists' studios and is used for presentations of art, mostly performances and installations. This collaboration project of Hunt and Panhuysen was the second in a series there, Electronic Wind, organized by Johan Lubbers and Anton Viergever. The artist Bert Vogels also took part in this presentation with a solo exhibition.

The name of the installation was Marten Toonder's Studio, after a Dutch author who illustrated his stories with cartoon strips. Best known of these is the series that has a bear and a cat as protagonists. The stories are moralistic fables, with animals representing human types and characteristics. Tapes with these texts, read in Dutch by Hunt and Panhuysen, provided one of the sound sources in this work.

The driving source consisted of four goats in a wooden pen. Microphones and piezo pickups led their sounds -- bleating, moving about and nibbling -- to a digital processor. The intensity of the sounds controlled the loudness of the processor's output. Movements registered by sensors attached to the stable made the device switch between 64 presets. The choice of any specific preset at a given time and whether and under what conditions the output would be audible, had been designed to work at random. Built in a former dairy factory this work was rugged and fickle to an extreme, filling the space with elusive echoes of the electronic age -- a surprising inversion of what life is felt to be in these times.

Most conspicuous, however, was the reading. Three different versions could be heard at the same time. One presented the recording straight, without any alteration, from speakers under the floor of the pen. Another went through the modifications of the processor, the voices moving between various stages within and beyond recognition. A third strand ran via galvanometers through steel wire to the strings of a double bass, resulting in an uncanny humming and buzzing.

Two works of Paul Panhuysen completed Marten Toonder's Studio. One was a string installation Panhuysen had performed on during the opening. Now, propellers in either string were set in motion by a battery of small ventilators operated by means of sensors. The other was a nice piece of sound art, called the Poltergeist. This is a device of hammers that knock on wood with a surprising lack of regular rhythm for an automaton. He can show it at any place where there's a door that both hides it from view and serves as a surface for knocking on -- which means virtually anywhere.

Even though the separate sounds were quite distinctive and unpredictable in their occurrence the coherence of the overall effect beautifully reflected the interrelationship basic to this installation.

What follows is a dialogue between Hunt and Panhuysen on the occasion of this, their first (and, regrettably, last) collaboration project.

Paul Panhuysen: I started out being careful not to bring in too much of my stuff. I wanted to leave room. Also I didn't anticipate on an idea that I had of what Jerry does. Like in other collaborations I find sounds that are not commonly used and I employ simple ways to make them more adventurous. Jerry uses electronic equipment to achieve that.

Jerry Hunt: I like Paul as a man and as an artist. It's the differences that fascinated me: I have never done things his way. It's a constraint to have something simple adaptable to a wide range of circumstances. I'm interested in sound colors and a wide range of input. I have a computer to handle that. But other elements that don't have much to do with sound are of equal importance. I thought that what you do is more along earlier lines. There is a scenario, a relation between events, a cabinetted theater. It's simpler than sound art or composition. But as a social environment it is made more complicated. It's a narrative excursion, in which you can walk around for about twenty minutes and take things out.

Panhuysen: But don't know what it is. When Jerry is at my place he is interested in Tom Poes and Ollie B. Bommel (the main characters of Toonder's stories). If people are inside, the title will make sense. I would never call a separate work of mine Marten Toonder's Studio. What is interesting, is that you always say that you're not a visual artist but a musician. Where either of us comes from -- that is different. I don't think it will be clear what is whose work in this installation.

Hunt: Maybe we should attach tags saying Paul's idea and Jerry's idea. Actually, Paul thought of the title and the goats. I was largely responsible for the program and the texts. During my first stay I encountered Bommel. Paul and I are like the bear and the cat. In his line of performance Paul in a sophisticated way exposes the limits of human knowledge, the notion of animal intelligence. he has an interest in the relationship between animals and humans. So, like two poles we brought in thoughts, ideas and feelings. To make them more elegant and clear we used animals as sound source, after discarding the electronic source. The best thing is to create a sound environment with holes -- literally and figuratively. Like in the Bible: along the main text you have correspondences.

It's something of a cultural enigma. He made me do something I didn't want: to read a text in Dutch. This has been a very personal collaboration, even though people don't know the personal and private details. The work does stand on its own, however. People may find it funny or stunning, they may be disturbed or bored perhaps; but it's not soft.

I haven't done much collaboration. What pleases me is to see what the other artist does and then find out how I can enhance, support or color ideas that somebody else has already developed. As an accompanist I always wanted to anticipate. I want to make better what the other does: lead the soloist. That is a fascinating way to collaborate. People think of me as a strong personality, as someone who doesn't accommodate. That is not true. You just have to find a common language. I love Paul and Hélène dearly as people. They have the same foundation of ideas. I bring my skills and see how it develops.

Panhuysen: I have worked out my ideas differently, but the roots are the same.

Hunt: All of Paul's work is vaguely fascinating. It's not something I'd never want to do; but I could never bring in personal experiences. In a collaboration you'll do things you never would when working alone: it allows you to change how you work. The setup, the processors and how they work, have urban connotations. The use of tone, readings, codes and animals had not occurred to me. I think combining the codes and the goats was a good idea. We play with the sequence of the processors, with resonances. Connecting wires to the strings gives a complex global result. It doesn't change the overall sound, but it works in detail. With electronics the global effect would have been boring. It's not a continuous flow, there are teeth and holes inside the effects, sometimes it's softer. Of itself the devices are mathematically and physically precise, they do only one thing. What I do, is compensating the deficiencies.

Paul created the text. I wrote the notations alongside it, filled in holes, orchestrated a mechanism for interleaving. It works the same way in our personal relationship. This is not just another Dutch sound installation. There is too much of our personality and ideas in it.

Panhuysen: The text sounds good, but it was not composed in that way. There is order in reality.

Hunt: Virtual reality has recently started. The test of it is how well do they trick you into thinking that it's real. But there is no new space, no new reality. Time and space become malleable in art. Virtual reality slavishly copies time and space...

(Panhuysen: It should be called real virtuality.)

Hunt: ...Sometimes on the street you don't know where you are, what day and time it is.

Panhuysen: We had good reasons not to do it in a trivial way, we appreciate each other's work.

Hunt: I have done stuff by myself for so long. I used to do things in a group, but all went away. I have wanted to do things in collaboration -- it's stimulating, it's easier.

Panhuysen: Easier is better. That's from Bommel.

Hunt: Something came out that I didn't know. We have many shared cultural values. Through the agency of Paul we manipulated minor nuances in cultural feeling. Just take a pole and start probing and poking around. Paul takes a pole and pushes it on its place. He has a sensitivity for that. It's not an important American coming to show things to a Dutch audience. It's an East-West collaboration.

Panhuysen: I grew up in a group. I like to collaborate with others, with the disappointment and the satisfaction that it can bring. What Jerry said is quite correct. A collaboration can make you do work you wouldn't do alone. It is not about individual identity. Essential is that both can learn from it. You have to find out where the common keys are that you can pick up. I always have ideas coming up. In a collaboration that can be a real bombardment. Now I wanted to leave opportunities open. The goats had nothing to do with our collaboration as such, however. The second time we came here I thought that there should be goats here as the place is not perfectly clean. It just happened spontaneously.

Hunt: We thought you were joking.

Panhuysen: I like to react on what is around, make some kind of aleatoric order. It's not me, I don't want to be the creator. I find things and show what I see, have people listen to what I like to hear. I'd prefer not to go one step beyond that border. I like to intensify an experience, select things or keep things out -- bring in focus. What people see or hear is up to them. The human being itself is an endangered species. He is kept from thinking, from taking responsibility. That is when they are most dangerous, that's when we are in danger.

Hunt: In performances when presenting ready-mades maybe for enjoyment, both sound and visual - if not much in the work itself that is not the contribution of a relationship that is open and special as to their input. It's not just self-enhancement through displayed skill. You'll get excitement and attention. Part of me has a hard time dealing with people in public. There are two ways. You negotiate and integrate with people. I feel a personal relationship with the people and the work. This is a highly stylized and densely layered conversation through channels of intrigue on all levels: what happens next? You depend also on that relationship. Not all you have to do is to respond on audience. The performance is over when you're tired of responding. It has become very natural. Sometimes it's disappointing, sometimes satisfactory. People challenge me by curiosity, in that way it's self-enhancing for them. Like John Cage said about the New York Philharmonic after an experience with them playing his music: "Not everything I do leads people to enhance their nobility." Something destructive is permitted in aggrandizing. This means that I must stay in control. If I don't someone in the audience will subvert you. So you have to be very strong. You have to use a dense field of information, like mottos, that they cannot easily attack. When I end up being interpreted as a shaman, just as a side show, I am disappointed. Culture is based on localizable, quantifiable values. There are geniuses in this, who sometimes create interesting art out of a commodity. Not all that is popular is bad.

Panhuysen: In many performances where people were entertained, the problem is of the artist exacting this, not what will happen next time. I don't like to have the chance to research the sound of an installation and a room before a concert. Often I have performances with hardly any sound. I can't do more than what I have in my hands. According to Oscar Wilde the audience is a violin on which the artist is playing. I'm always in contact. Like with children, even when there's a tense relationship you can only hold their attention for ten minutes, not more. You have to say it in that time. I don't agree with the popular feeling that music should equal virtuosity; I think it should express feelings.

Hunt: John Cage was a social philosopher, and he used music for that. That would be interesting for me. There was a time when I was more interested in being a composer, in having people play. It hasn't worked out that well. My music is not about rehearsing. Normally musicians anticipate appreciation for a highly developed skill on a highly developed device. There is a relation between power and reward. But if virtuosity doesn't work for you, it doesn't create status. I had horrifying experiences, that were worse the more professional an ensemble was. I find I'm better off with a lesser performer having better brains than with a very skilled performer who wants fulfillment in the experience. I don't want them to rehearse licks, but ways to respond, to feel and to act. I had assumed they could play well, that they would take that to their instruments and behave musically for twenty minutes in an exciting way. It is the joy of social interaction, of which music is highly stylized form. Instead I set up a situation of extreme tension and frustration. The first thrust (which was one curiosity) got us through one performance. It doesn't challenge in such a way that afterwards I could get this reward I expected. Maybe that's why so many electronics installations are done by people themselves.

Panhuysen: You're better off with the canaries than with the Brabants Orchestra.

Hunt: A cricket will always be the best cricket he can be.

Panhuysen: People get the worst because they always try to be the best they can be. These goats don't show off even though they are show-goats. Canaries always want to be the best.

Hunt: That sounds like you have given up all hope.

Panhuysen: I have dark feelings. We are on our way to destroy even our own species. Neither you nor I can stop them. The only hope is that after the disaster there may be some left to begin again.

Hunt: For me it's impossible to ignore it.

Panhuysen: You have to be aware. You shouldn't see it as better than it is. But I refuse to help that disaster taking place, even if it would mean making life more difficult for myself. It's exactly the same problem that I had with tempered tuning as a child: absolute hearing is imperfect hearing.

Hunt: If there wouldn't be an easier way. I was deeply disturbed by South American literature. For me the worst I can get is that I don't get that much money or attention I think is my due. But there people have suffered incredibly just because they tried to be human. A person can be put away for 27 years. I wonder what would I do if the stakes were that high?

Panhuysen: I always did the things I liked to do. There are big lies in society. I don't like to believe them, or have them pervert my personality. I don't have any program for others, I only present things as they are -- not the lies. To be a successful artist in 1993 means you have to accept that you're a liar.

Hunt: In some strange way society has come to accommodate these freelance artisans.

Panhuysen: I could have been a lawyer. Whenever I had problems in my career, with Het Apollohuis or as an artist, it was always because I didn't want to compromise, didn't want to lie. Holland has realized egalitarian rights, a true social democracy. Now we have the problem how to deal with individual talents, how can we make them profitable for society. We end up with mediocrity: people like grassland -- none is higher or better than the other.

Hunt: What frightens me more in this art that you're talking about is that a mediocre world is using sophisticated resources to bear on productions of mediocre content. Movies in the USA use $25 million in technical skills and talents. There is an extraordinary banality in this unprecedented sophistication. So much energy is wasted on such meaningless and trivial lumber. Afterwards you're nothing worse or better. It's been not too hot, cold, or dry, or greasy. It just went down easy. Easy in, easy out. The reward of all this warm cuddly hi-tech stuff is the feeling that you have consumed. Highly skilled people are employed to find out how to make it digestible. That is the highest aesthetic. And then they get paid an enormous lot of money. A lot of people are very satisfied by being a part of this community. This is a horrifying political movement, and they are the storm troopers.

Panhuysen: You don't feel this digestible thing go in or out. What is essential is that it doesn't raise any thought in your head. I can watch TV, and afterwards there's no point in asking me what I saw. Maybe there were three irregularities. If that is what people are for, to digest what others are feeding them...

Hunt: That's cynical.

Panhuysen: I'm not cynical. I just think differently. I'm different, others are indifferent. That is what our culture is about: indifference. And about difference: I don't like to have the experience that what I'm doing is wrong.

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Original Material Copyright © 1993 by René van Peer, Paul Panhuysen and Jerry Hunt. HTML Coding Copyright © 2001 by Michael Schell. All Rights Reserved.