City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.


(Continued from World Design Congress 2009: Day three. Written at the time, last October.)

As noted, I’ve followed Carsten Nicolai’s work for years, so it was a pleasure to see — and hear — him in the flesh. Nicolai, aka Alva Noto, is one of the stalwarts of the avant-garde electronica/noise/sound scene, but also works as a visual artist, as we’ll see.

For some time before the scheduled start, there are clearly set up issues with Herr Nicolai’s equipment. There is lots of quiet, concentrated discussion around the projector and sound set up. The projector resolution doesn't seem sharp at all, and worried-looking young organisers are all talking into headsets, making agitated waves up to the AV booth at the back of the auditorium. Throughout, Nicolai is calm and considered but insistent. With little else to look at, I note that he’s an elegant dresser – loose, dark wool flared trousers, grey top, deep burgundy scarf, impeccable white Adidas.


Finally, everything is good enough. The projector still isn’t as sharp as it needs to be, but Nicolai starts with a short video … It’s a crisp glitch piece, with patterns of dots on screen. Then the fizz and static and rumble of a distant roar, until visual and aural static takes over. It’s the kind of start I’d expected, and a good one.

Nicolai starts talking over the static.  He says he made this work as an observation of information, questioning how we deal with information, “atomising images” into moiré patterns.


(At some point he notes that his formal education was as a gardener, and then studied landscape design in Dresden. This is a crucial, I think.)

He says he can essentially divide his work into two categories, very simply: in the first, the space is dark, part of the experience hidden; in the second, the space is white, exposed, accessible.

He says he takes a "wistful approach to technology", exploring it as geometric object as much as anything else. Nicolai describes how he was "interested in the time when being an artist was close to conducting scientific research."

One of his works involves "sensing the magnetic field of human body, the low frequency triggered by human body or hand or movement … In this, the object started interacting with audience (generating) a low inaudible sound, around 22hz."

This is about "feeling low frequency in architectural structure." He says he's "interested in what sound exactly is".

He then shows an installation based around glass tubes, with sound sealed inside. He describes this as " a thinking experiment" to explore how you could – if you could – seal sound. "Sound only exists because of time and space – you need both aspects", he says. "These objects are trying to steal the aspect of time of sound." “This”, he says, “is why I'm so interested in sound as a sculptural element, causing more questions than answers …”

He describes another work, with two televisions facing the wall. You can’t see the imagery, but you can see the light. The imagery is nothing but a distortion or translation of the audio, collapsing into static. (It’s worth noting at this point that, for all their concentration on radio waves, Nicolai’s works are beautifully resolved, physically; these are absolutely pristine installations.)


Another work: a readymade based on a cloud chamber. It visualises rays from outer space; on a 50x50cm grid, rays hit the surface and emit small clouds. Nicolai says that this chamber is one of few objects that can perfectly represent randomness. He says that although his work has a strong logic to it – he’s interested in mathematics and regular structures – this piece allows random processes to happen; it allows accident and chance into it.


Nicolai moves through a presentation of more work: a 30 cm thick crystal whose atomic structure is a perfect 3D grid; geometrical objects created by sound. These are particularly interesting – the physical geometrical object is augmented by an invisible geometrical object described by sound. He says it’s “a kind of second geometrical object, produced out of sound”. Small black dots on the exterior of this object are speakers, focusing sound across the shape. Sound effectively travels from speaker to speaker, and so describes a shape.

He says he’s “not composing in a classical sense, but looking for principles, for mathematical (or general) principles”. Another work – a cube comprised of a series of perfectly clear stacked smaller cubes – is “a demonstration of the only way to arrange 21 different size squares to make a square (from Russian mathemetician). 


Gridindex Nicolai then talks about his “small book” 'Grid Index'. He says he’s constantly archiving or collecting grids, but that this book isn’t an archive but “a systematic of grids”, of symmetries and tiling. (You can watch Nicolai talking about the book in this documentary at Gestalten, which also shows some of his work. He has a new book out, incidentally, called Moiré Index.)

It’s "a working book" for him – each of grids isn't 'work' but archive – he can look in book and take a grid and work with it. The grids are all produced via formulae and algoritums  - “you can’t use traditional graphic design programs”.


Moving back to audio-visual work, Nicolai then describes a beautiful piece, translating sound into visuals and vice versa. He says it’s “maybe one of most simple ideas you can have, (working with) what surrounds you – a television and CD player.” I lost track of exactly how this is working, but essentially, it relies on ‘errors’; of the TV interpreting jittering glitchy sound as sharp strips of colour. It’s quite lovely. 

Of a related work, Nicolai says the sound is “very high frequency, almost inaudible, and the TV thinks it's a proper signal (creating) this perfect fade from grey to white to black …” He calls these pieces “statics”.

Another piece based on using speakers to produce low frequency sounds, below human hearing. This is about interference, as he then shows a series of photographs of milk exposed to this frequency range (at 10hz, like a bass frequency). The ripples in the milk move from chaos into organised pattern. At 50hz, it finds a pattern, and then  it drops out at certain points as the frequency is too complex.



Finally, a work called ‘Syn Chron’, commissioned by National Gallery in Berlin and shown internationally (it was Yamaguchi Centre for Arts and Media  (, which is perhaps the summation of the preceding work as well as the conclusion of the talk. It combine the three elements that Nicolai’s been exploring – architecture, light and sound – and is the result of collaborations with engineers, architects and several specialist companies.



He says it’s an “architectural system, but also speaker system and visualising system”. It’s a large geometric shelter that you can walk inside, composed of panels. Prototype white laser beams project onto the inside and outside. The panels are a form of membrane punctuated with more black dots (speakers), converting the surface into a speaker, emitting sounds across the interior. The floor is a speaker for low frequencies.


Again, there is this strategy of using the internal soundscape to overlay another architecture – points and planes scored out by the sound – onto the physical structure.

It is, as he wryly points out, “about weekend house size." "You could live there”, he says, though as the above video indicates, it wouldn’t be for everyone. 

It’s a fabulous thing though, clearly. As are most of the works presented here, each of them carefully explained by Nicolai as a discrete installation or experiment working across various forms. Gesamtkunstwerk. Yet each forms part of a series of connected explorations of a philosophy, or consistent world-view. Weltanschauung.

Carsten Nicolai
Grid Index, by Carsten Nicolai [Amazon]
Photos from Carsten Nicolai talk [Flickr]


2 responses to “World Design Congress 2009, Beijing: Carsten Nicolai / Alva Noto”

  1. lauren Avatar

    great post dan – thanks.
    i’m also a massive fan of his work and have been following it as much as i can over the years. last week i was super-lucky and got to see him perform as anbb with blixa bargeld – a whole other element to his systemic practice – combining [apparent] chaos and improv of bargeld’s voice-work to create these amazing immersive pieces.


  2. Colin Avatar

    Many thanks for this report. Much as I enjoy Nicolai’s solo projects, my favourite work seems to be the collaborations, specifically the two full lengths, EP and live DVD with Ryuichi Sakamoto and ANBB with Bargeld mentioned by the previous commenter. I was fortunate to see his concert with Sakamoto at the Barbican a few years back and still savour the memory of the architectural impact of the beautifully amplified sound.
    Despite my preference for his collaborations, it would be great to see a mixed media documentary release of Nicolai’s gallery work on Raster Noton along the lines of Mika Vainio’s Time Examined (due to be featured on Hard Format in the not too distant future).


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