For five months, Kunsthaus Langenthal in Switzerland is being transformed into a H.o.Me. – Home for obsolete media. The musician, artist, engineer and “bricoleur universel” Flo Kaufmann not only shows his large collection of old devices, he highlights their artistic potential. Last week to visit the exhibition.
He pretty certainly wouldn’t want to hear it, but Flo Kaufmann is something of a living legend. Ask anybody active in the vinyl record production business worldwide and you’d get the same answer: If there’s something weird, And it don’t look good – Who you gonna call? Flo Kaufmann! Over the years, Kaufmann has become not only the one person in the world who knows best about the inner workings of vinyl pressing and cutting, he has also collected a big corpus of spare parts. An accumulation of immaterial as well as material knowledge, in Solothurn, a perfectly insconspicious small town between Bern and Basel.
Yes, vinyl cutting and all the machinery that goes with it has – not so long ago – been considered very obsolete, but as Raffael Dörig, Director of Kunsthaus Langenthal and the curator of the show, stresses, “obsolescence is often seen as a succession of technologies, when it’s actually a story of superpositions. Old technologies don’t just disappear, they live on.” For this first solo show of Kaufmann’s work, Dörig takes an unusual curatorial approach: H.o.me is just as much an art exhibition as it is a deep dive into media history. The different rooms of the Kunsthaus are dedicated to a specific medium – audiotapes, cathode television sets, radio, analogue records, and more. Kaufmann threw in an incredible variety of objects from his vast collection, which already makes for a beautiful jumble to explore. On top of that, he invited a range of artist friends in. His collection is not a well conserved archive, it is a “Gebrauchssammlung”, to use a beautiful German term not easily translated into English – a collection to be reused. It has grown, over the years, thanks to obsolescence. “It is a mix of rescue and discovery” Kaufmann says, most of the objects were literally lying on the street, just waiting for someone to pick them up. “I just can’t go past a waste container without having a look inside.” Switzerland is far from the perfect place for this opportunistic collecting practice, too tidy, too well organised. He remembers his half year residency at Cité des Arts in Paris as a much more fruitful foraging experience. As his work and his collection got better known, he started to get phone calls when private collections are liquidated. He often comes last after big institutions – and he is often amazed about what is left behind, because it didn’t fit into the conceptual framework of the official collections. He’ll not complain, and takes the gems home. The result is stacked up in his home and storage spaces – and it is brought to use again, whenever possible.
And thus grows a big technological subjunctive, a could be for new projects, for hacks and artworks. Some of his own objects turn old electrical household devices into dadaist (but totally playable) instruments. But Kaufmann also has become a kind of turntable for a loose network of artists working with these old – and unwanted – devices. From this perspective, obsolescence is not a perverse market scheme to speed up sales, but a liberating and democratizing force. When things become obsolete, they become accessible, especially for artists who typically do not have the budget for high quality gear. A beautiful example is Anyma’s Synkie, on display in Langenthal. Made out of formerly prohibitively expensive video equipment, it now is a laboratory for modular analogue image manipulation. It reminds Raffael Dörig of the old Sony slogan: “Be creative? Well, that’s a pretty limited idea of creativity, framed by the industry: only within the conditions we have defined. Follow the instruction manual, go with the standard aesthetics, always buy the newest equipment. And please, no copyright breach.” Kaufmann says, it actually took him a while to realize that working with technology beyond these limitations is not just creative “bricolage”, but actually a genuine artistic practice. In the end, it all boils down to the hacking culture – “and indeed I see this as a classical task for artists.” Using things in unforeseen ways, rearranging parts, combining and bypassing circuits. He loves to see the idea thrive on in digital media, for him the “open source mentality” epitomizes this take on technology. The end of the analogue did not mean a dead end for the bricoleurs, on the contrary.
When asked if he ever feels like it could be a sacrilege to dismantle and reuse precious records of the technological past, he just shrugs – most of the stuff he finds “has been lying around in the rain for several days anyway.” Again: seeing the inherent brokenness and disutility of technology not as limitation, but as liberation. Or as Kaufmann puts it: “Abuse is actually a beautiful term.” But there’s still moments when the ghosts in the machine come to life, particularly as he is not only collecting devices but also recorded material of all sorts. Kaufmann describes it as a mix of respect and curiosity, as of course, he sometimes gets to see and hear very personal memories. But because of his collecting practice he usually does not know anything about the former owners, so he looks at the material in a detached manner. He’s often left not with a feeling of spookiness, but of tragedy. “Sometimes, when a private collection is handed over to me, I carry home a whole life of memories.” From the first loveletter to old family snapshots to the x-ray of a deadly tumor. Obsolete media are of a big intimacy, they are and have always been more than just technical remnants. And they will live on, if we don’t just throw them away, mindlessly. So be kind, rewind.
3 March – 25 July 2021: H.o.Me. – Home for obsolete media
With Flo Kaufmann and guests: Anyma, Pietro Beatrice, Ted Davis, Quentin Destieu & Sylvain Huguet (Dardex), Asi Föcker, Jonathan Frigeri, Manuela Imperatori, Martina Lussi, Christian Marclay, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, mobileskino, Mariane Moula, Alexandra Navratil, Andrea Saggiomo, Sarina Scheidegger & Rodrigo Toro Madrid, Strotter Inst., Fornax Void and others.
Publication “H.o.Me. – Home for obsolete media” published by Christoph Merian Verlag.