Uli Kuehn

Ulrich Kühn works as a sculptor, media artist, musician. He regularly holds lectures at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and is working at the border between music, media art, performance and experimental digital film production - specifically real-time visualization and interactivity with open source technologies. interviewed by Stefanie Wuschitz

What’s the best way to learn how to do electric circuits?

I think a project is the best way to learn electronics. A project where you have no clue how to use any of the tools. The exhibition starts next week, and you truly need a nice ambient light, so you will learn how to solder the LEDs.

How do you deal with bugs or errors? Do you determine your artistic output, or do you work until they are gone?

I think it‘s like the great painter, Bob Ross, told us, „There are no mistakes, only funny little incidents.“ When I do music, I really need the bugs, I need errors in the production line. I don‘t need a perfect sound, I need a certain sound with a certain character. The character can be badly recorded or with errors in the codecs - where you hear the wrong data – so you‘ve got some kind of glitch art. Glitch art is really important and it‘s only based on errors.

Do you do your artwork also in this studio here?

Yeah, definitely. For example, here is the hypercycle. It‘s built in here. And this is some neo-pixel controlled via Pure Data. Normally I‘ll do my artwork in the night. I need it calm and silent and not so bright.

Do you think that there’s difference in how you approach DIY-making and electronic art depending if you were raised as female or male?

I‘m sorry to say this, but I think there is a difference. I think we‘re all trying to be equal, to raise our kids equally. But it was okay for a boy to play computer and electronics, and it wouldn‘t be okay if they were a girl. I think it‘s also not only good that they were allowed to play computer all day, all night long. But it was less a problem than for girls. That was thirty years ago, in my childhood.

So if there would have been a girl, her mom would have come and said “Please help cooking”

Yeah, I think in my situation it was quite special. I have strange parents and we are three boys. So we especially got dolls, a dollhouse and a stroller. They tried to be not so male-dominated. I was raised on the countryside and art education there was totally separated into boys and girls. It was called ‚technical craftsmanship‘, but it was only visited by boys, and ‚textiles‘ was only visited by girls. I really believe it was still a macho thing, that boys could not crochet or use a sewing machine. I was 32 when I learned to use the sewing machine. Then I got really into the do-it-yourself stuff because I don‘t like to go shopping. My own pullovers and jeans, they were the real reason why I had to learn this.

I think it’s more difficult to do sewing than to do soldering, right?

Definitely. Because you have to know all this technical stuff. How it‘s working, how to use it. And it‘s a lot of empowerment to repair or make your own clothes.

What is the most common reason why people don’t finish their projects when you work with students?

I think the challenge is really to find a way to combine technology and art. If you just make another LED lamp, it‘s just another LED lamp. After you finish your LED lamp, you realize, „Okay, it‘s not really an art thing I just created.“ I think what we are doing in electronic workshops is so basic knowledge, it‘s like learning to talk. It‘s not like… Are we talking English or German? No, it‘s really like learning how to use our mouth, whatever comes out. I think, as you said, electronics are easier than sewing. That‘s just so true. You just have to learn a few tools. How to read a circuit. How to solder. And with the help of the internet, you are nearly finished, if you have the time and the will.

So, what would you like to work on next? What’s your next project?

I learn to control a small flying toy drone with Arduino. I found a way to control the drone via Arduino, via a violin or a cello. So, Pure Data interprets the pitch and the volume. I want to form an orchestra that‘s only playing music to let the drone fly. It generates another way of notation or musical needs, the composition starts and ends because of the helicopter and because of the struggling or the it‘s equilibration. It‘s a comment to Stockhausen, I really want to build music that needs a certain sound. You have got no way to choose, no random.

Do you think Maker Culture has taken a different development here in German-speaking countries compared to the US?

I only have a bit of an insight in the South American way of do-it-yourself, and it was quite similar to Austria in my experience. I still don‘t believe that the people in Europe or Austria do it because it‘s a nice hipster thing, and I still believe and hope that it‘s a way against total user-friendly capitalism. For me, it‘s a way to fight capitalism, to get out of the buying system, which is totally useless. A lot of people still do it because they are poor. It‘s really a way to feel powerful and if you have your skills you‘re never poor, in a way. In Chile people worked with totally the same tools, they also used Pure Data, we used the same circuits, it really seemed like a worldwide development, we were pulling on one string.

So, that culture that evolves around these maker communities, do you think that they are like countercultures to mainstream culture?

I hope it‘s counterculture. No, to be true. If you look at TV series like Big Bang Theory, I think the pop culture tries to get this nerdy image into a selling point. Everything has to be cool and nice and have a good beard. A big shift was when Elon Musk got the new boyfriend of Amber Heard and her last boyfriend was Johnny Depp. I think, this is a shift in society we should not forget.