@ ESC im Labor
Kenyah elder, Sarawak

Reflections from an installation at ESC im Labor, Graz, Austria

CPU, 4 – 25 October 2008

This is a kind of post-mortem of a response to the CPU program I was invited to participate in during which time the installation NOTHINGKNOWN was created.

I have always been impressed and inspired by the work of the people at ESC im Labor and We have been close allies ever since we first met in 1999. We are cut from very similar cloth and have woven similar initiatives in entirely different parts of the world. We come together not only as colleagues, but as friends… and as the years go by, we become more and more like family.

It is in this spirit of nurturing that I have the following reflections to share.

Getting there

It was mid-April 2008 when Reni first raised the possibility of a project with ESC im Labor and in partnership with the annual festival, Steirischer Herbst. Reni emailed a preliminary brief:

Email from: Reni Hofmueller, 18 Apr 2008

CPU is intended to be a temporary working frame for some people from diverse artistic and technology fields, developing a new piece together, physically coming together in graz during the festival in october and finish the project here in an exhibition / workshop / show / performance / lecture… whatever the fitting format might be.

in this preparational phase the first step is to contact people we find interesting, and who might be interested in joining in.

all in all we are thinking of about 15 people and create 3 teams out of this pool, who then start working together.

Sounded to good to be true! A project with ESC im Labor and, a collaboration with artists I’d not met before, perhaps a mix of performance, exhibition and lectures. I knew it would be a tight budget, but this was the least of my concerns. I wanted to be there and so I shared my enthusiasm for the project… over the coming months I would find myself in Cape Town, Istanbul, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sarawak, Osaka and Tokyo… through all these spaces I kept focus on the possibilities at ESC, wondering what it was we would do together and what my contribution would be.

Eager to get to Graz, I planned to spend the entire three months of my visa there and to make the most out of the opportunities CPU proposed, but I was still uncertain just what I would do and how I would work within the proposed collaborations. It was not until I was on the flight over that the visual concept for NOTHINGKNOWN came to me. Their faces… their faces of despair, anxiety, depression… their faces communicate far more richly and far deeper than anything I could attempt to illustrate through my more traditional forms of image and sound making.

I arrived Thursday, 2 October, landing first in Vienna. 2 Oct 2008

Arrived in Vienna this morning stiff and achy. There’s far too little leg room in Austria Airlines flights. I’d promised myself I’d not fly with them any more, but hard to tell who’s flying who with all the carrier deals going. I thought I’d be on Thai Air, but they took me from Melbourne to Bangkok only.

I’ll be based in Graz for at least a couple of months with plans for a white Christmas, the first ever, with family here. It’s been a long while since I’ve worked on a gallery piece. The ESC Gallery is giving me that opportunity with my new installation, Nothing Known. When I think about it, I’ve had more invitations like this from Austria than any other country and certainly far more than at home.

I want to put the faces of indigenous Sarawak on large screens, the larger the better. At very slow frame rates one will see the faces shown in detail, in close up with the camera tracking over contours of skin, facial outlines, eyes…

I’d learnt in Sarawak that archiving cultural knowledge, indigenous cultural knowledge does little to protect it. It becomes remembered in research, coffee table chatter, gossip… the deepest transmission occurs through presence… physical, immediate presence. The songs, the dances, hunting, farming, the stuff of life, accumulated generational knowledge, wisdom… from what I’d seen, from the interviews we had with the eldest people in one of the Bidayuh Kampongs, one generation is all it takes to lose their story-tellers and musicians.

The story was the same in South Africa. Meeting the anthropologist Barbara Tyrrell (on her 94th birthday!) it was clear her attempt to record traditional and ceremonial garments from many African tribes was but a drop in the proverbial ocean. She’d told me that there were few people in the various Diaspora on the continent that could remember what their own people had worn let alone danced in at least one to two generations past.

More when I’m less tired and a charged laptop…

The project

CPU offered me the opportunity to develop a single work, on-site, with what ever resources could be made available. Directly drawing from recent material I had produced in Sarawak, I went to work on NOTHINGKNOWN. The topic and material was distinctively “fresh”, current and I was still very much fired up by it.

A final draft of a project description was completed and published to my wiki.

The ill-fated Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno, stated that “nothing can ever be known”. Despite all we have at our disposal, regardless of millennia of thought, reflection and wisdom… in spite of the knowledge, expertise and technologies we have at our disposal, we continue to consume, inundate and pollute the finite resources supporting life on Earth.

NOTHINGKNOWN is a quasi anthropological study of loss of culture, tradition and native title within indigenous Diaspora, in particular the Bidayuh and Kenyah of Sarawak, Malaysia. Through networks, documentation, observation and contemplation Garton considers Bruno’s assertion in what may well be the last decade of decadence.

The work is a result of several field trips to Sarawak made by the artist. Garton has worked in the region since 1992 when he assisted in the establishment of pre-internet computer networks for human rights workers and native title activists.

The soundtrack is based on a generative composition created for Tat Fat Size Temple, a Sound Drifting project for KunstRadio, Ars Electronica, September 1999. It is comprised of field recordings made at the Gawai Dayak, Rumah Sauh and Rumah Jeli Iban longhouses, Sarawak.

Project launched

After two days of round-the-clock editing, compositing and rendering, the first version of NOTHINGKNOWN had been completed. We managed to project the largest image we could muster within ESC. When the work was first fired up, I was rather emotional at first as the material appeared just as I had imagined.

Pre-launch preperations
Pre-launch preperations 4 Oct 2008

The NOTHINGKNOWN prototype was launched as part of the CPU series at ESC, Graz, on Saturday, 4 October. The opening was part of an organised day trip of various galleries coinciding with the start of the city wide festival, Steirischer Herbst.

The soundscape was generatively created from a piece that ran for 9 days. It consists of field recordings made from Iban longhouse communities in 1999.

For more information, exhibition details and acknowledgements:

Note: this piece is frequently updated as changes are made in response to feedback and discussion with other participating artists and visitors to the gallery.

The ESC tech support person, Peter, helped to ensure my pieces were complete in the hour before people arrived by sharing the rendering and compressing load… we also managed to get a Toy Satellite showreel completed for another space at ESC. It become a popular spot for visitors to the gallery who found the soundscapes comforting, as someone described…

The NOTHINGKNOWN prototype turned out just as I had intended… I was moved by how it well it was received and that people have taken an interest in the Sarawak land rights issues the piece is largely drawn from.

I chose to stay for the duration of CPU thinking it would be an active conduit, a dynamic daily process of interaction and development with other artists on joint collaborative works. I had the intention to participate in the full program and had made arrangements back home to ensure I was entirely free of other commitments during this time.


Bidayuh winab
Bidayuh woman

The CPU concept grew from, and grows still in spaces that could not have been foretold at the time. The collaboration with Frank and the likelihood of one with Eran for example. The founding of another of my Terminal Quartets and the ongoing work I am doing with KunstRadio, The MAK, Institute for Electronic Music and Acoustics and the course I am likely to undertake at the Graz University for Music and the Performing Arts [which I didn’t do because my proposal wasn’t accepted and I returned to Australia sooner than I’d though].

None of this, nor any of the work I have produced since would have been possible had it not been for ESC im Labor, CPU and their collaborations with the various institutions of Graz.

I do not think my work suffered from the interaction I had hoped for. In fact, I was afforded the even rarer opportunity to consult my own personal muses over my entire body of work, to participate in my own ongoing reassessment of my art at ESC, in Graz, in the company of friends and colleagues and through the short, but intense meetings with other CPU artists as they came and went – an exciting ebb and flow of ideas, theories and processes with integrity at their core, humanity at their heart and passion for life in their bellies.

These kinds of interactions ought not be discounted in the entire process of art making. They are the intangible aspects one cannot not mould into funding applications, nor are we able to explain the poetics of such work and the interactions that occur there to the agencies we often rely on to support our projects. We do this ourselves and the spaces for these things to occur are rare indeed.

This is perhaps the single most important outcome… that despite would could have happened and what may not have taken place, ESC im Labor and stretched themselves once again to bring together, in one place, over a three week period, an exceptional tribe of artists… for what occurred within CPU perhaps mattered less than the associations, lessons learnt, shared experiences and friendships that grew there…

The scouts

Reni and Jogi have been described to me as “scouts”. They seek out those of us who challenge the expectations of the status qua, who defy mediocrity and the demands of market driven cultural practices, who tackle homogenisation head on and do so at a time when so many have buried their heads and filled their mouths with sand.

Reni Hofmueller
Reni Hofmueller

Jogi Hofmueller
Jogi Hofmueller

We are growing in numbers… we seek each other out, through the scouts such as ESC and…

We are not afraid for our voice(s) to be heard. We are a people who build and re-build a culture of the commons, who concern ourselves with the ever diminishing spaces we once knew as public, who rekindle and/or nourish the humanity in us all.

Closing remarks

In closing, I will leave you with these few words from Sykes Rose, my composition tutor, whom I reconnected with in recent weeks… I spent around 3 – 4 years on and off from around 1980 studying piano, composition and the culture of confidence with this astounding artist. When we last spoke, I was in East Timor, a day away from the millennium new year, about to drive into the hills to play for the resistance army who had yet to celebrate what was then a significant victory for a small nation who’s children were taught to sing the freedom songs of their militia in both Portuguese and Tetum from the earliest of years.

Email from: Sykes Rose, 20 Nov 2008

“We artists have to accept that the work we do affects the psyche of the universal mind, not just the corporeally stupid, which tends to solve problems with blood and hatred. Blood, sweat and tears do not just belong to the soldier at arms. We all must adopt a united stand, whether we be in Austria or Australia. The battle is no less ferocious or demanding, even if it should or could be compared; perhaps much more voraciously heart breaking. We must gain our joy from the work itself, and, when done, move on without expectations of vainglorious applause or pecuniary rewards.”

Reni, Jogi and everyone at ESC im Labor and, thank you… may you stay strong, courageous and continue to bring those like us together again.


This work would not have been feasible nor possible with out the support of:

  • ESC Gallery
  • Centre for Animation and Interactive Media, Department of Creative Media, RMIT
  • Rengah Sarawak
  • The people and Kampongs of Bandun and Bengoh region
  • Doris Carstensen (University of Music and Dramatic Arts Graz)
  • Elisabeth Zimmerman (KunstRadio).
  • Crumpler
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