HC Gilje

projects texts book archive blog


Conversations over time

by Anne Szefer Karlsen


This text was written for HC Gilje´s book Conversations with spaces, released on uten tittel.

Conventions tend to define the institutional spaces of art. These conventions are upheld by both artists and curators in the way gallery space is utilised and by critics in how such space is described and referred to. [1] Viewers also contribute in their individual ways of relating to the space. HC Gilje has made it one of his main projects to instigate temporary spatial alterations that challenge these conventions. He manipulates the people experiencing his work to move in unusual patterns by introducing randomness as a main strategy. By keeping a close dialogue with the spaces of art – be it the white cube or other temporary institutional structures – he maps the architecture with the help of light that bounces around, thereby revealing both the nature of the space and those who find themselves in it. When he moves outside the art institution, he is liberated from established conventions but continues to investigate temporality and location. These are interests that we share – he as an artist and I as a curator – and they have led us to collaborate on a number of occasions since 2008. [2]

The installation blink (2009–), first shown at Hordaland Art Centre in the autumn of 2009, is a key work in this regard. Using a single projector, Gilje composed a space in which visitors were invited to either sit down to view the work or to step into the light, which flooded into and defined substantial parts of the gallery space.

In order to experience the work, visitors had to traverse a light lock: an architectural construction that creates a labyrinthine entrance to a space without obstacles, such as doors or curtains, but that nonetheless prevents light from entering. Inside, one could make out a “rolling” sound that travelled around the room, but no speakers could be seen. The sound was repetitive, almost meditative, and it affected the body as much as it influenced the visual impression. One’s pulse slowed down and free association reigned. Gilje exploited thereby the contradiction between the scientific understanding of time, governed by clockwork, and a subjective and experiential understanding of time. Time as material, manifested in the duration of the work, gave access to an almost ineffable experience, consisting of feelings and sensations, grounded in an understanding of the quality – rather than the quantity – of time. [3]

The comprehensive visual play of light dominated one’s field of vision, and the work erased the contours of the space while simultaneously adapting it. For example, Gilje utilised the properties of the floor paint, which meant that it reflected light in such a powerful way that it seemed to bounce off the surface and onto the wall. This created the sensation of lying in a tent on a summer’s day where the shadows of the tent poles distort the colour of the canvas in the bright sunlight, or of standing in a stream where the current is so strong that the water rushing past your legs creates waves in its wake. This was the first time the work was shown publicly, but blink dominates the architecture in such a way that alternative structures and phenomena arise associatively every time it is recreated. Nevertheless, neither the light constructions in the space nor the associative images they provoke create a narrative; they are instead present without the artist resorting to linearity as a device. Anyone who steps into the work absorbs and senses the time captured in the space, but its passage is difficult to recount. The sequences that make up the work are repeated, but not necessarily in a set order. Instead, they are constantly being propelled into the space at uneven intervals, determined by software the artist has developed.

The arbitrariness incorporated into the duration of Gilje’s works is not apolitical, but rather it is in its arbitrariness that the political potency of the work is located. The algorithm has long been viewed as apolitical, but this view is being challenged by the knowledge that ideological choices determine the algorithms we create, and the political and social consequences they lead to. [4] Although blink is completely dependent on the space it is shown in, the space ceases to exist as an historical entity every time the work is recreated. It is not essential to know that the gallery space at Hordaland Art Centre has previously been a school for the poor, social housing or home to the city archives, nor that the building is in Bergen, on the coast or even in Europe. The physical space is treated as both transhistorical and transgeographical through the language of the algorithm, because it is in its withdrawal from the historical moment and geographical location that the work gains a “function”.

Presence is required in order to stage randomness. In 2009, Gilje was invited to use the gallery space at Hordaland Art Centre as a studio over the summer. blink was thus developed over a long time in the actual space it would be shown. Each situation to be examined and transformed has its own requirements, which are met by the artist with the requisite tools for the challenge. The development of specific tools in the form of software, electronic components and mechanical devices is an integral part of Gilje’s process of making new works and participating actively in the field of art. For example, the video projection program VPT swiftly gained an international group of users when it was launched and made available for free in 2007. In this way and others, Gilje also contributes his knowledge and experience to an expanded field of cultural production. [5]

As an addition to the exhibition at Hordaland Art Centre in 2009, visitors were invited to a conversation in which Gilje presented his work. Here he discussed, among other things, the other artists’ practices he had looked at in the process of developing blink. In particular, he showed and discussed film works by experimental filmmaker and artist Len Lye (1901–1980). When Hordaland Art Centre celebrated its 35-year anniversary in 2011, Gilje’s interest in Lye’s work re-emerged, this time in an exhibition we curated together. The programming that year centred around the themes of nostalgia and hope as poetic conceptions employed in order to understand the present. Hordaland Art Centre, thereby, intentionally avoided the self-mythologising approach that tends to dominate jubilees. The programme, instead, focused on the notion of histories and future(s) as a framework for the present. My recollection of the presentation in October 2009 was one of the driving forces behind this exhibition project, as well as Gilje’s wish to present Lye’s work to a wider audience. [6]

Len Lye was among the earliest artists who scratched and painted directly onto celluloid film, so-called direct film. In this way, he could investigate the expressive force of the medium of film, which otherwise would not have been possible. Lye also worked with more spatial mediums, such as kinetic sculpture, [7] and often created several versions of the sculptures in different sizes, thus challenging the notion of originality. The links between HC Gilje and Len Lye’s practices are, nonetheless, most pronounced in that they both use movement as a raw material, draw on existing technology and are interested in the capacity of art to be adapted and recreated for different spaces.

Exhibitions are often static constructs and calculated presentations of artefacts, historical documents, works of art and so on. In the presentation of Lye’s films, the tools Gilje had developed in his own artistic practice were combined with Lye’s lifelong investigations into scale. The spatial formulation of the exhibition created a situation in which visitors had to move in relation to a number of screens in varying sizes in order to see the films on display. We took the average standing height of an adult as a point of departure, and ordered three customised screens: one at that height, one lower and one higher. The films were projected in a random order on each of the three tilted screens in the space. Only one of the screens was activated at any one time, and it was impossible to predict which screen would be next as one film finished and another was about to start. It was, nevertheless, possible to see all the films in three different formats if one dedicated enough time in the gallery. The amount of time visitors were encouraged to spend in the space was again made into a central element, and the presence of the body as a scaled point of reference was underlined.

My interest in Gilje’s artistic practice led to an invitation to create a new work for Lofoten International Art Festival, LIAF 2013. [8] For this project, entitled trace (2013–), Gilje also used time as a point of departure, represented as moving shadows; for even if temporality is an unpredictable material, it is undeniably tied to how the sun moves across the sky and to its impact on us. In a disused cod-liver oil distillery on the island of Svinøya, outside Svolvær, visitors once more had to traverse a light lock in order to access the work. With the help of such spatial strategies, as well as the surrounding art institutional apparatus, including the catalogue and education projects, this distinctive space became a temporary site for contemporary art. [9] By virtue of the fact that the biennial provided public access to an otherwise closed-off and private space, the cod-liver oil distillery was transformed into an institutional space – by the biennial in general and by Gilje’s work in particular. Before and, indeed, after LIAF 2013, the space was “only” a former cod-liver oil distillery. Even if biennials can potentially be situated in any location, there is a need for a support structure. Biennials are positional exhibitions that, unlike other institutional art spaces, demand that those who work with the exhibition and those who visit it take into account both the historical and geographic dimension of the site. It is in this sense that works become site-specific.

The duration of the work was tied to the duration of the exhibition. In that sense, trace had, paradoxically, a beginning and an end, but everything between those two points came about through a destabilising visual strategy consisting of rhythms, pulsations, vibrations and a soundscape that could not be controlled even by the artist. A grid pattern of LED lighting strips hung from the ceiling and appeared to sketch the contours of the room, but did not create a static drawing. Instead, several points of light wandered through the space and kept changing where the shadows fell, interrupted by short periods of total darkness. The visual point of departure for the work was the meteorite that hit the Russian Southern Urals on 15 February 2013. Since a meteorite travels much faster than the sun across the sky, a shadow play arose that threw moving shadows across the streets of Chelyabinsk. The event was recorded on video by eyewitnesses, who immediately posted their clips online. The videos show everyday events in a normal tempo where the movement of the shadows are reminiscent of time-lapse photography. This juxtaposition between the expected and the actual, experienced passage of time was recreated in trace as competing light sources. In the same way as with blink, this work also departed from a narrative conception of time. The progression of time in trace was equally difficult to recount, as it was impossible to determine when and where the wandering points of light started and criss-crossed. The texture of the space and the saturation of colours constantly changed, and the shadows gave the illusion of movement, despite everything in the room standing still. In this way, the work connected to the biennial format and this biennial’s overall theme reflected in the titular question “Just what is it that makes today so familiar, so uneasy?”. The years leading up to 2013 were characterised by a sense of crisis, perpetuated by the media. Investigating different approaches to “crises” provoked a discussion around whether these could lead to concrete changes in the human condition. The question was whether what we had been witnessing since 2008 was the beginning of an era of permanent crisis, a socio-economic no-man’s-land, a period that could not offer practical solutions to the ecological, economic and social problems that most people in the world continue to face in their daily lives.

trace was tied to a specific place (Lofoten in general and LIAF 2013 in particular) and to a specific time (the duration of the biennial). The former cod-liver oil distillery is located by the water’s edge, and in the darkened space – through thin, blacked-out windows and papered-over cracks in doors – one could hear seagulls screeching, boats passing and the sea splashing against the foundation walls of the building. Gilje utilised the soundscape as his own, but this was not only an aesthetic strategy. The arbitrary elements that the soundscape introduced gave room to an historical and political narrative, as this was what created the immediate connection between the site, the historical context and the exhibition. The sounds functioned as a reminder that the sea is fundamental to Lofoten’s existence and that fishing has played a crucial role in the history of the seafaring nation of Norway. The everyday sounds of the outside stood in acute contrast to the rhetorical battles over economics and ecology that played out in mainstream media and politics and in Lofoten’s local business sector. LIAF 2013 took place at a time when the oil price was still at a record high, and there was therefore a real, immediate danger that politicians would decide to reemploy the coastline of Northern Norway for the oil – rather than the fishing – industry. Many strong voices battle to be heard in this ongoing debate over the role of the northern part of the North Sea. In trace, this cacophony of voices was visualised in the form of the competing shadows that took on the architecture.

Gilje has repeatedly accentuated a place by using sound, as in trace, where the environmental sounds integrated the work with its surroundings, or in Wind-up birds

(2007–), where the sounds from the work itself facilitated this integration with its surrounding landscape. The latter is another work that can be relocated and that – depending on where it is recreated – accentuates or breaks with the auditory expectations of the place.

Unlike blink and trace, Wind-up birds is its own architecture and can be installed far away from the architectural structure of the art institution. The sound sculptures, reminiscent of nesting boxes, have been devised to occupy a more or less cultivated natural landscape where they emit woodpecker-like sounds. The works can be described as a “flock” of sculptures installed outdoors, in which each part is dependent on the other since they are connected by a network of small radio transmitters in such a way that they relay sound in a random order. Electrical components activate a “hammer” that bangs on a custom-made SteamWood block, reminiscent, in their form and sound, of the pedagogical wooden instruments used in musical education, and the “Schulwerk” method associated with composer Carl Orff and music pedagogue Gunild Keetman. [10] In other words, Gilje’s works do not only exist or gain their function in spaces where the conventions of the white cube dominate. In fact, he does not privilege one kind of space over another.

In 2008, Wind-up birds was installed in the Nouzhat Ibn Sina Park in Rabat, Morocco, which is populated by pine and eucalyptus trees as well as picnicking families and people exercising. [11] The installation was, however, not an innocent experiment. Without any official permission and risking the durability of the sculptures, a small network of mechanical woodpeckers was mounted on the trunks of a cluster of eucalyptus trees in the middle of the park. This was done in order to investigate the potential of a public space in a context in which self-regulation in the face of authoritarian control is commonplace. There was, in other words, no guarantee that they would survive in their new environment. Due to the nature of the experiment, it was necessary to make the sculptures as invisible as possible while simultaneously allowing them to function as the sound piece they were originally conceived as. Each component was therefore connected to a light sensor, so that they were only active, like biological birds, during daylight hours.

When I look back at Wind-up birds, compared with, for example, blink and trace, the limited time the work existed articulated a clear position vis-à-vis the white cube and its conventions. Expectations regarding availability were challenged through the fact that the work’s duration was neither defined nor known beforehand. However, Wind-up birds did share some features with the other works discussed here. For example, the sounds travelling from one sculpture to another evoked the transposition of Len Lye’s films from one screen to another at Hordaland Art Centre a couple of years later. Not only was the spatial strategy in Wind-up birds repeated in the Len Lye exhibition, the soundtrack of the films came from an invisible source, which was similar to blink. Moreover, it was impossible to tell which screen would be activated next, in the same way that it was impossible in trace to determine where in the space the LED lights would suddenly start flying around the room. In this way, HC Gilje’s works take on active lives beyond themselves, and his practice may just as well be located in the spaces that emerge “in-between” iterations of different works. HC Gilje is an artist who manages to create works that are both thought-provoking and experientially rich, even as they generously share his discoveries and the joys of experimentation underway.

Translated by Natalie Hope O’Donnell

[1] This point was made by Brian O’Doherty as early as 1976 in three ground-breaking articles in Artforum, which were later published in the book Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1986).

[2] I have collaborated with HC Gilje in a number of different contexts, including at Hordaland Art Centre, where I was director from 2008 to 2014, and as curator for Lofoten International Art Festival, LIAF 2013. This text concentrates on those collaborations.

[3] Adrian Heathfield, “Durational Aesthetics”, in Timing: On the Temporal Dimension of Exhibition, Beatrice von Bismarck, Rike Frank, Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer, Jörn Schafaff and Thomas Weski (eds.), 2014, p. 140.

[4] A crime prevention software that reinforces existing stereotypes has been developed and is used by police in the United States and other countries. In a civilian setting, the search engine Google has also been accused of reinforcing discrimination through its algorithms. See, for example, Ben Guarino’s article “Google faulted for racial bias in image search results for black teenagers” in The Washington Post, 10 June 2016, available online.

[5] HC Gilje has collaborated with musicians, dancers and theatre companies for a long time, contributing live elements and video works. In the beginning of the 2000s, for example, he collaborated with the noise band Jazzkammer (John Hegre and Lasse Marhuag) and Kreutzerkompani. Since the mid-2000s, he has frequently worked with musician Maja Ratkje on her live performances.

[6] Hordaland Art Centre is Norway’s oldest artist-run art centre, established in 1976. Inviting an artist to continue their in-depth investigations into another artist’s practice was therefore an important contribution to the jubilee programme, and in accordance with the foundation and mandate of the Art Centre. Art historian Eva Rem Hansen played an important role in formulating the public presentation of this exhibition through the press release, which I base parts of this description on.

[7] Kinetic sculpture uses movement as its main component.

[8] Lofoten International Art Festival, LIAF 2013 was curated by Anne Szefer Karlsen, Bassam El Baroni and Eva Gónzalez-Sancho.

[9] Elena Filipovic, “The Global White Cube”, in The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe, Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic (eds.), 2005, pp. 63–84.

[10] “Orff-Schulwerk” is a method devised for musical learning, for which a number of compositions for percussion instruments were co-composed by Carl Orff and Gunhild Keetman.

[11] The project was produced within the framework of Le Monde Autours de Vous, a contribution to the first Brussels Biennial (19 October 2008–4 January 2009). Hordaland Art Centre was invited as a collaborating partner with L’appartement 22 in Rabat, Morocco. The contribution consisted of a temporary transportation of the institution’s programme to Rabat and Fez in Morocco, where Wind-up birds by HC Gilje was installed in the Nouzhat Ibn Sina Park in Rabat, while Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s performances for camera, Birds Anywhere and Anytime Now, were carried out in L’appartement 22’s two spaces in Fez and Rabat in October 2008. The works were subsequently shown in Brussels as videos.

lysfanger nr.1
by Hanan Benammar

Pings: Matter, Environment and Technology in the work of HC Gilje
by Mitchell Whitelaw

Conversations over time
by Anne Szefer Karlsen

Siding with the light
by Joost Rekveld

Conversations with Spaces
by HC Gilje

TIME, SPACE, CHANGE, SPEED, MOTION - Interview with HC Gilje
by Nicky Assmann

Right Here, Right now - HC Gilje´s Networks of Specificity
by Mitchell Whitelaw

Within the space of an instant
by HC Gilje

HC Gilje – Cityscapes and the 
cinematic avantgarde
by Per Kvist

preface to Shadowgrounds catalog
by Jeremy Welsh

interview with HC Gilje
by Andreas Broeckmann

Work on the Myth
by Gerrit Gohlke

by HC Gilje