Carsten Nicolai (b.1965) is one of the most celebrated living visual and sound artists. Like Alvin Lucier and most experimental audiovisual artists, in exploring the physicality of sound and the challenges of human perception, his work is multifaceted and multidimensional, often solely audio-based, solely visual, or both. It’s a rare feat that the artist is equally celebrated across both the art world and electronic music scene; in one sphere, he has secured major gallery representation including that of blue-chip Pace Gallery; in the other, a substantial Spotify following. He often wears the hats of a scientist, physicist, and mathematician in his studied playfulness with mathematical patterns and sound and light frequencies.
Read on to learn more about Carsten Nicolai and discover some of his most popular works of sound art.
WHO IS CARSTEN NICOLAI?
Carsten Nicolai likely didn’t always imagine his career would progress in such a sonic direction. The artist and musician worked as a gardener in the 1980s and specialised in landscape design while in university in Dresden, Germany. His creative career very quickly began to take off after participating in the 10th edition of contemporary art exhibition Documenta in 1997.
Carsten isn’t his only name: he produces music (almost) exclusively under the pseudonym Alva Noto and is notable for his contributions to the glitch genre. In 1999, he merged his own label with that of the electronic Olaf Bender and Frank Bretschneider, creating the record label Raster-Noton, which was active until it was split into two imprints in 2017. Nicolai currently manages the newfound imprint NOTON. They also organised the annual music festival Electric Campfire in Rome up until 2017.
Performing as Alva Noto in Osaka, 2006. Credit: shiraga from Osaka, JAPAN, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A collaboration enthusiast, he regularly works with Ryoji Ikeda in their research project “cyclo.” exploring the visualisation of sound. He has also consistently collaborated with the acclaimed composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who he met while performing in Tokyo. Along with Sakamoto, he scored the music for Alejandro González Iñárritu's 2015 film The Revenant. The score was eventually nominated for Best Original Score at the 2016 Golden Globe Awards and Best Film Music at the BAFTAs.
Ryuichi Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai at a press conference. Credit: monophonic.grrrl, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The artist made headlines in 2014 when he lit up the Hong Kong skyline during the city’s edition of Art Basel with a light pattern pulsating in a synchronised frequency across the exterior of the 490-metre-high International Commerce Centre skyscraper in the West Kowloon neighbourhood.
His bestselling 2009 publication Grid Index (Gestalten) is a visual lexicon of patterns and grid systems, released with an accompanying CD that includes grids and patterns as vector graphic data files.
Carsten Nicolai is currently based in Germany between Berlin and his hometown of Chemnitz. Alongside his ongoing artistic practice, he is a professor of the Digital and Time-Based Media course at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts.
NOTABLE WORKS OF SOUND ART
∞ (a project for documenta x) (1997)
For the 10th edition of Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and in one of his very first works, Nicolai created seventy-two pieces of audio – each timed at forty-five seconds and referencing noises like that of the telephone, fax, Morse code – which were sporadically played via speakers in public spaces. For 100 days, speakers surprised passers-by at places including a department store, cafes, the Kassel Airport, and the Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe train station. In tandem with the project, Nicolai distributed an abstract logo around the city and installed a stage in a parking garage to function as a performance space.
In the reference book Moiré Index (Gestalten, 2010), Carsten Nicolai explores the “Moiré effect,” an interference pattern that is created with the overlapping of opaque lines like those in his large-scale glass sculpture moiré glas, as well as in other 2010 works that were on view at Pace Gallery including the installations moiré schatten and moiré tape, the series of moiré drawings, and the short film moiré film. “The moiré phenomenon stimulates essential questions about how human perception affects our understanding of the world.”
Commissioned by Art Basel Hong Kong in 2014, Carsten Nicolai’s α (alpha) pulse was projected across the exterior of the 490-metre-high International Commerce Centre in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District. Based on the principles of neural feedback on pulsating light sources, the work is “an experimental construction that looks at the effects of audiovisual stimulation on the human perception”. With the accompanying mobile app, viewers could tap into the audio.
An extension of the works univrs/uniscope version (2010) and unidisplay (2012), unicolor is one of Carsten Nicolai’s best-known works, first exhibited at Brewer Street Car Park in London in 2014. The work measures 25 metres long and is composed of twenty-four module projections—each presented in a sequential arrangement—that challenge the viewer’s perception of colour with wavelengths of colour, reflected into infinity with the use of mirrored walls. Each module is projected with a different sound frequency.
transmitter / receiver (2022)
The site-specific installation transmitter / receiver – the machine and the gardener is one of Carsten Nicolai’s most recent works, on view at Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany (included in our 30 Global Sound Art Exhibitions to See in 2022). The artist uses electromagnetic waves picked up by the antenna on the rooftop of Haus der Kunst in Munich to create a soundscape.
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Cover Credit: Dieter Wuschanski, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat