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Less Techno, More Technique:
A Conversation with Gerwald Rockenschaub

In retrospect, says the Berlin-based Austrian artist Gerwald Rockenschaub today, the beginning was naive and the connection between art and music pure coincidence. Throughout the eighties, Rockenschaub worked both as a deejay and a conceptual artist, and he continues to spend entire nights sampling his own tracks. But the Austrian artist doesn’t consider himself a “grandsigneur of the crossover scene,” as an art magazine has called him – not by any means. Each area’s autonomy is too important to him. Harald Fricke spoke to Gerwald Rockenschaub about the various intersections arising between art and music in the club culture of the nineties.

Gerwald Rockenschaub, Photo: (c) Martin Vukovitz

The artist Gerwald Rockenschaub, born in Linz in 1952, would never deny his love of music. When he had his first German retrospective in 1999 at the Hamburg Kunstverein, the title was Funky Minimal, a perfect fit for the Plexiglas objects and the frequently monochrome panels Rockenschaub had been working on for several years. Yet “Funky Minimal” is just as applicable to the artist’s environments most recently shown in the MUMOK in Vienna; made of transparent PVC, the material comes across as a second skin, a space within a space.

Rockenschaub’s career extends back to the mid-eighties, when he became one of the main representatives of Neo-Geo painting with his small-scale canvases. Later, he continued to reduce the forms and colors even further, and recently he has begun working with standardized industrial paints and thin overlays that he puts together on the computer to create his paintings. Yet, as one of the first artists to work with art’s contextualization in the early nineties, Rockenschaub has also always been concerned with addressing the technical conditions of the artistic process itself. Thus, his project for the Austrian Pavilion in Venice in 1993 consisted of a scaffolding running through an entire room, from which the visitor could gaze into the empty pavilion.

At the same time, Rockenschaub was also working as a deejay: sometimes he played after openings, but most importantly he belonged to the permanent crew of Vienna’s Audioroom. Because his work seemed to combine art and music so well, the magazine art soon called him the “grandseigneur of the cross-over scene.” Yet the strict conceptualist would vigorously resist this classification. For him, the separation of the two areas is more important than ever today. In keeping with this, his recently released CD “Private Pleasures” is not part of an art project, but entirely geared towards the electronic music market. Conversely, the exhibition at the MUMOK – titled 4296 m3 – dispensed with sound entirely: even the aggressive videos, pulsating with abstract geometric forms, remained without sound, allowing the viewer to concentrate fully on the visual presentation.

Harald Fricke: Mr. Rockenschaub, you’re a representative of the so-called club art that became highly popular in the late nineties. Have art and music drawn closer together in this cross-over?

Gerwald Rockenschaub: That’s hard to say. In my experience, there were always areas that overlapped – think of the era of punk or the combination of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. You can find other connections in The Who and the Rolling Stones, where some of the musicians came from the art academies. In my case it was similar, I was making music with the band Molto Brutto during my time at the art academy in Vienna – and also earning money for the first time.

6 Animationen, 2001-2004, exhibition view at MuMoK, Vienna 2004
Courtesy Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin

What interested you about the combination between music and art?

I was fascinated by both. Especially in the early eighties, when we were playing New Wave with the band. But in order to achieve an international breakthrough, we would have needed a different location for our career – Pop just doesn’t come out of the Austrian backwater. In that respect, we began in a naive way, without trying to connect music and art. It was a chance thing, nothing more. On the other hand, art was where my real ambitions were, that was where I had my first gallery contacts early on – in any case, for me personally, art was the area with more future.Did this relationship change in the time of techno?

Yeah, sure. That was the late eighties, when I got to know House Music at exhibitions in New York. It was interesting to me that you could make music using electronic media, and the samplers and computers you needed to do that were in an affordable price range. In terms of my activities as a deejay, I had been involved with Hip Hop for some time, and so playing records seemed like an adequate medium. It was fun, that’s all, but I didn’t seek to combine this interest with my artistic agenda – everything had a momentum of its own, and I was part of the first clubs in Vienna from early on. There were offers, I performed here and there, but it remained limited to a certain degree.

Color foil on Alucore, aluminium frame, 2001
Courtesy Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin

You didn’t want to become a professional deejay?

No, because then I would have had to decide against art. It got to the point where I couldn’t make art all day and music all night. In the extreme case, it would have had me working 24 hours a day, and that’s not physically possible. Despite that, I’m not about to give up my interest in electronic music, and that’s where the CDs come in. I just didn’t want to perform as a deejay anymore, which also had something to do with age. But if you’ve been involved with dance music for years, then you also have certain ideas you want to realize.

But your last CD Private Pleasures isn’t really dance music.

Exactly: it uses dance music as a reference, but it takes off in the direction of an experiment with the possibilities of electronic music.

You also notice that with the samples, when you quote Kraftwerk or a swing orchestra.

That’s not swing, that’s Sun Ra, who I revere. For me, he fits in very well with my idea of techno, even when he’s playing jazz. There’s a certain rhythm laid down in the sample, out of which I made my own track. Part of what I had in mind from the very beginning, of course, was what I wanted to quote or possibly deconstruct. But most of the samples are dissected into such short units of time that you can no longer recognize the original. It’s a matter of moods, minimal splices. When you hear a few shreds of vocals in some pieces, then it’s mostly the Pet Shop Boys, although you can’t make out a sentence or even a word of their texts. I use everything as material.

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