Our lives are increasingly dominated by climate change, while the sixth mass extinction is already in full swing. The project “SELTSAMEN” invites us to take a different perspective, because one question arises more and more urgently: How can we humans abolish ourselves as the center of the world to finally take responsibility for our fellow creatures? Thea Soti came up with the original idea for the project “SELTSAMEN”. At the invitation of ORF musikprotokoll im steirischer herbst and ORF Ö1 Kunstradio, she collaborated with Verena Dürr and Christine Schörkhuber as part of a SHAPE+ Artist Residency.
Susanna Niedermayr: You’ve known each other for several years and worked together again and again, how did that come about?
Verena Dürr: We got to know each other through the Klangmanifest, the festival that Christine founded together with Ulla Rauter. I was invited to create a contribution at the intersection of music and poetry. That was also the beginning of my solo project “venerasinn”.
Christine Schörkhuber: Verena also curated experimental literary forms for sound manifestos.
SN: What connects you artistically?
CS: I find many of the themes that concern me reflected in Verena’s stories in literary form. Even though we use different forms of artistic expression and media, we draw on a common pool of knowledge and experience. A common narrative that underlies our individual work.
VD: When I started experimenting with electronic music and lyrics, Christine’s project “Canned Fit” was an important impulse for me in which direction it should go. I’m a big fan of their meticulously crafted DIY instruments and their noise compositions mixed with melodic singer-songwriting. I’m sure I’ve learned a lot from that. For a while, we also performed together with our solos. It was only with Christine that I really grew into the context of experimental music and learned a lot from her technical know-how.
SN: Verena, you originally studied media art, how did you get into writing?
VD: The course was designed in such a way that you could deal with different forms of artistic expression – performance, text, and music were always closest to me. I founded a class band with some fellow students and from then on, among other projects, I always had different bands with artist friends. In terms of style, all these projects were cross-genre experiments – pop, punk, rap, ballads, noise, and electronic elements – but always with the claim to break with expectations. Currently, I am part of the literary punk band “Smashed to Pieces”.
I’ve always written lyrics for all the bands and that’s how I came to lyrics through the lyrics. Sound, rhythm, intention, and emphasis are also important elements in literature. I understand words, sentences, and meanings as sound and meaning material that is available to me for composition, so for me, the process of writing is similar to that of creating music. In the meantime, I would rather describe myself as a writer. But that can change again. The demand to break with expectations, also of myself, has certainly shaped me.
SN: Christine, you are also extremely versatile, making sound installations, music, performances, reports, and videos, building new types of instruments, and also working as an activist and cultural worker, for example as co-founder and co-curator of the previously mentioned festival Klangmanifeste. In a portrait interview for the Ö1 series Zeit-Ton last year, you told me that when you were asked which medium you would work with, you spontaneously answered: With electricity!
CS: And in retrospect, I realized that this was true. Whatever I do, it has something to do with electricity. The current thus represents a physical ordering principle that I simply like to explore. Electricity also plays an important role in structuring social systems as they are interconnected.
SN: And that’s how you finally created the sound installation “SELTSAMEN”. What you both like to do is to use the radio as an artistic medium. What is the most exciting thing about working with radio for you?
CS: Well, what I really like about radio is the factor of listening in an environment that is stimulus reduced. After all, the attention is totally focused on hearing. And radio can be a lot of different things at the same time. It can tell you fictional stories, but also bring facts into the house. It’s a very multi-layered medium and there are a lot of different people working together here. There are stories, interviews, music, – it’s just a beautiful collage. So, I’m a big Ö1 fan anyway, to say it at this point. And the fact that the radio would still work even if you turned off the internet is something I still find fascinating.
VD: Yes, I’m also an excessive Ö1 listener. For a while there was also the great “Ö1 Hautnah – Poetry Competition”, which I was once able to win with poetry and music – that was an important recognition at the beginning of my artistic career and motivated me very much to continue working in this direction. I have an old kitchen radio and every time I turn it on, I must adjust the frequency again briefly on the knob. I also think it’s a nice idea that when the digital world gives up the ghost, I can still fish radio art out of the air with my antenna, so to speak.
SN: When we invited Thea Soti to this SHAPE+ Artist Residency, she told us that she would like to explore how narratives shape our idea of nature. We found that very exciting! Was that an idea that you were able to pick up on right away?
VD: Definitely! For me, art is always also mediation work. I think it’s important to place my artistic work in socio-political and environmental contexts. The fact that climate change often feels intangible and vague, even if we are already directly confronted with the effects – this is my artistic mission to find ways of translation. To contribute to a collective narrative that can make the incomprehensible tangible. The fact that we, as members, especially of the Western world, will always be part of the problem cannot be completely prevented due to the system, but we can decide to become part of the solution as well. The “SELTSAMEN” project was a wonderful opportunity to think and work in this direction.
CS: Yes, for me the concept was also a great fit because I actually wanted to deal with a similar installation in a different context. But this project would have been much more fact-based and what I found extremely exciting was this level of fiction that Thea brought in as a new component. Well, I would have just made an installation that refers to scientific facts in the broadest sense, and I just found it very interesting to approach the whole thing from the fictional side and to develop narratives about nature and plants. From a – Verena always calls it so beautiful – perspective of similarity, where hybrid forms between humans and plants arise, so to speak, which are only possible in fiction, but with which a deeper understanding can be generated. There are so many hero stories and there are so many stories of failing people. But there are very few stories that describe a general symbiotic cosmos. And I found it very, very exciting to create.
SN: How did you come up with the concept of the perspective of similarity?
VD: Donna Haraway coined the term “kinship”, which describes a practice of getting acquainted with all things. It was exciting to go in search of German translations. The “similarity” was a word that we found to carry out such a change of perspective in a German-language narrative. A way to define oneself not by differences but by similarities with the other.
CS: Not only did Verena use Verena’s beautiful word „Verähnlichens“ (“resemble”), but at some point we also invented “Phytomorphisieren” (“phytomorphizing”), as opposed to anthropomorphizing, where plants are ascribed human characteristics in order to understand them and be able to classify them better. “Phytomorphization” is the process only from the opposite perspective in order to be able to ascribe plant properties to oneself.
VD: To give you an example: during our research phase, the news appeared in several media that plants “scream” when they get into drought stress, or a branch is cut off. With the help of measuring devices, an air sound, a kind of “thumping”, was recorded. The fact that this has been called “screaming” is an anthropomorphization to make a plant sensation tangible for us. We have also tried the other way around in “SELTSAMEN”: for example, we have reproduced the “thumping” as an expression of a plant sensation with our sonic means. Of course, you fail to think your way into a plant, but you can learn a lot just by trying. What happens when I distance myself from the “human ego” and imagine myself as a “plant ego”? And if we “think further”, we are basically a temporary collaboration of cells with and without a nucleus. At this level, we are quite similar to everything and everyone else in the world.
SN: What did your collaboration look like?
CS: Well, we had a signal group where we bombarded each other with information more or less every hour. Of course, these inputs were then spun further. And then came an answer. And so, we dug through many different levels of the topic. And when Thea finally arrived – we only got to know each other a week before the presentation of the project – we had such a bundle of material that had to be evaluated somehow.
VD: Yes, our chat group was our hub during the research phase. First, we shared information, and then, as it gradually seeped into us, more and more dream stories and poetic associative tendrils were added. For me, the artistic work also consisted of an opening to a botanical perspective – for me, this confrontation also had a performative character – that of “resembling”.
SN: You were also inspired by the literary movement of the New Weird…
VD: The project name “SELTSAMEN” is also a proposal to translate the term “Weirden” into German. Weird Literature, one representative of which is Edgar Ellen Poe, for example, deals with the uncanny and the incomprehensible. The New Weird genre is newer and refers to environmental issues and globalization. Or it expresses the ambivalent feeling that, on the one hand, we go about our everyday lives as individuals, while at the same time being aware that our existence somehow contributes to the melting of the polar ice caps or the overpopulation of blue-green algae in the Baltic Sea.
CS: There are a lot of sub-genres in the New Weird, like “Solar Punk” for example. I didn’t know that before, that there are so many literary, fictional currents that deal with this climate change, with ecology, with non-human beings. Much also comes from the current of New Materialism. Donna Haraway is, of course, a key figure here who has formulated many thoughts. I think this reflects the spirit of the times. A fantasy reading that incorporates forms of existence beyond the human.