In the process of composing my book about the cultural history of synesthetic arts, and art which attempts to simultaneously activate two or more sensory 'modes,' I knew that some key players were going to be overlooked in the first draft. After reading through Earcatcher, a retrospective catalog of Berlin artist Timo Kahlen's works - which arrived in my inbox a little while ago and is a completely free for download from 'Staubrauschen'- I realize that he is one of them. Within this concept-rich catalog, Kahlen's works are described on multiple occasions as being "synesthetic," and although there can be no verification that Kahlen is a clinical synesthete (e.g. one who involuntarily experiences correspondences between distinct sensory modes), he is adept at presenting a more "cultural" type of synesthesia that comes from identifying and exhibiting the aesthetic fundamentals that different types of media have in common.
Achieving a fully unified sensory response is not as easy as it seems, even in an age as technologically accelerated as our own, and the works that attempt to do so are generally more successful as metaphors than as genuine catalyzers of the synesthetic experience. This holds true for some pieces of Kahlen's, such as the 2010 sculpture / photo series Datenaustausch ['data exchange'], consisting of audio input jacks and miniature loudspeakers "served" atop blue china dishes. Here we are essentially invited to think of sound as something more than the immaterial it is often thought as - in this piece it becomes not just material again, but a kind of "sustenance" (as a side note, the perception of sound as "edible," along with colors, is actually achieved in the shamanic rituals of cultures like the Huichol in Mexico.)
Kahlen's repertoire is one of the better indicators of where the true value of media art, over the past couple decades' worth of its development, lies: an excavation of informational extremes that seeks to remind us that digital / virtual life can only model so much of the world that we experience through our sensory channels. Kahlen is wise to realize that this understanding of full-spectrum perception must include something other than the visual data that constitutes so much of the computerized "infosphere", and indeed his catalog reveals a very concerted effort to overcome what has been called alternately "ocular-centrism" or "visuocentrism." This is not to say that he is incapable of making visually striking work - e.g. the sculpture used for the catalog's cover, or his strangely arboreal Vorläufer ['predecessors'] sculptures that are tactile, three-dimensional renderings of famous musical pieces' waveform readouts. Eye-popping visual novelty is decidedly not the primary focus of his work, though, or at least it is not the aspect of his work that creates the most lasting impression. Instead, Kahlen's most valuable skill, as exhibited time and again in this retrospective, is his ability to materialize the immaterial in ways that far exceed what is achieved with pieces like Datenaustausch: this is a mission that has animated artist-researchers at least since Paul Klee made "rendering visible" the goal of his abstract works, and which resurfaces here as Kahlen surveys the thresholds of perception and sensation.
Kahlen's brand of explorations and interrogations are becoming more of a necessity for a number of reasons; at least one of those reasons having to do with the more self-congratulatory and disingenuous sectors of the art world itself. The warmed-over Pop art proclivities inherent in the parade of "a 'selfie' a day" photographic projects, and in celebrity-inspired projects that come off as purely devotional works despite their tinges of "irony," become more hollow with each subsequent manifestation (and were never particularly substantial to begin with.) The ever-expanding world of interactive multimedia art, meanwhile, has not fully evolved from the state that Paul DeMarinis observed in the 1990s (when "every artist felt obliged to pay obeisance to it.") Against such a background, Kahlen's retrospective catalog points to an interesting paradox: his raw material of choice is "the ephemeral," e.g. "…wind and steam…light and shade…sound, noise and vibration," and yet these ephemeral elements have the power to be sculpted into works that have far more substantiality than the projects alluded to above. This is remarkable considering the fact that few of Kahlen's works feature verbal communication as a guidepost for audiences, and his most heavily exhibited works consistently rely on the withholding of information: mysterious swarming sounds coming from within paper bags, noises being triggered by actions unknown to the audience, and so on. While this may seem at first to be guided by a modus operandi completely different from Klee's "rendering visible," this information reduction is in fact consistent with that program, since these projects of Kahlen's make noticeable the working of certain compensatory mechanisms that activate whenever key information is withheld.
When these installations that behave in such a manner, it is tempting to call them something other than "art" - not because they are aesthetically unsatisfying, but because their thrust towards psycho-sensory research seems to demand some other categorical designation. Kahlen proposes one such alternative: Earcatcher makes regular reference to his media artworks as "traps." It's an intriguing choice of words, since Kahlen just as well could have called his works, say, seducers or attractors. He even warns us to "Be Careful!" at one point, and it's not immediately clear why this distinction between trap and attractor is made. I can only guess that it has something to do with the use of ertain common features - "interactivity," etc. - that animate both art intended as a reflective / introspective tool, and advertising that seeks instead to direct behavior. Yet "trap" is appropriate for the works that Kahlen describes as such: it is a term that does imply some kind of forcible restraint being applied to an unwitting victim, but more importantly it implies the creation of a situation in which the "entrapped" is forced to quickly devise a solution: to eliminate distractions and mental meanderings, and to bring the full resources of their mind to bear on the problem at hand. In at least one of these "traps", a curious 2005 object entitled Eins, Kahlen reveals what gives it its snaring power: the vibrating, ovoid, fur-covered object is specially crafted to maximize the installation visitors' sentimentality (particularly that attached to domesticated and docile animals), and thus to bypass all rational thought. With such thinking nullified, those who rush to adore and pet the lovable furball may not even notice that its purrs of approval are generated by mechanical means.
Eins also invites discussion about another salient quality of Kahlen's work, namely its skillful oscillation between stark consensus reality and the comically unreal. Out of this comes Kahlen's striking ability to inject a sense of humor into pieces that deal with un-humorous issues, in such a way that the seriousness of the issues in question is not diminished by the fact that his works - or the audience reactions derived from them - may induce chuckles and grins. His recurring deployment of dead bees, which become "re-aninmated" by "dancing" on top of the vibrating membranes of speaker cones as in the 2010 piece Tanz für Insekten, led to tragicomic situations like the one in which an unwitting museum clean-up crew vacuumed the bees off of the artworks that they were an integral part of.
The 2012 multi-media sculpture Home, meanwhile, consists of a birdhouse from whose portal the characteristically flickering blue light of a television set can be seen (this sight is accompanied by a distinct aural atmosphere comprised of "dark, distant thunder, electric sizzling sounds and an unidentifiable organic rustling noise.") The mental image that immediately comes to my mind - of overweight 'couch potato' sparrows listlessly watching the nightly news, oblivious to the world around them - is simultaneously funny for its initial absurdity, and yet leads to a whole of additional speculations: might nature be adapting to our own technologically-enforced rhythms? Do non-human forms of organic life have any interest in technology, and do they perceive it as something fundamentally different from their world in the same way that we often insist upon an unbridgeable nature-culture division? Or is a reciprocal exchange between the organic and the synthetic leading to - as Eins again hints at - a "new form of being, a new form of existence that is both distinct from and similar to nature?" If such a hybrid form does come into being, we might also wonder if it will look back fondly upon Kahlen's creative mutations as harbingers of its arrival.