conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 27.03.2023
"YOUR VOICE IS YOUR IDENTITY"
The Beauty of Nature and An Archive of Voices
Herbert W. Franke first encountered Harry Yeff’s work in Linz in the summer of 2021. Both were part of the exhibition PROOF OF ART at the Francisco Carolinum in Linz, the first museum to tell the brief history of NFTs. Franke, who was also a caver and rock collector, became interested in Harry Yeff and Trung Bao's work, VOICE GEMS, and soon a collaboration emerged: Yeff asked about the potential of using Franke's voice in an audio-visual production, and Franke responded by sending one of his voice gems, which is a vocal work of art in itself.
EXPANDED.ART is pleased to present the 72-Hour Open NFT Edition VOICE GEMS ASTROPOETICON (DESTINATION IN UNCERTAINTY) in collaboration with art meets science – Foundation Herbert W. Franke and ELEMENTUM. ART on the occasion of Herbert W. Franke’s solo show CODED BEAUTY at EXPANDED.ART in Berlin. The art meets science – Foundation Herbert W. Franke will use their portion of the sales for a designated purpose: translating significant texts by Herbert W. Franke to English and making them publicly available.
Now you have to know something about Franke, the pioneer of early computer art, in order to understand his enthusiasm and this collaboration:
Franke's greatest scientific achievements are his cave-theoretical work, including the discovery of the age determination of stalagmites using the C14 method and, building on this, his research on geochronology, which he was able to carry out primarily with Mebus Geyh from the Lower Saxony Office for Soil Research. For this work, he made numerous expeditions, during which he lived with research teams for many days underground in order to be able to advance to previously unknown depths.
Franke began with his first cave inspections and photographic documentation: the problem with cave photography is how it illuminates the world in the dark. What started as a hobby quickly developed into professional maturity. Here, too, Franke distinguished himself through his wealth of ideas. He quickly developed into a cave photographer whose pictures were often published in consumer magazines as well as in photo trade journals, mostly with height reports by the author.
This is how Franke's career as a writer began, as did his artistic work deep underground in the caves of Europe. But his pictorial works also began to show a world in the light unknown there. However, images with light are not the only way for the physicist to see reality. As early as the 1950s, he was experimenting not only with light but also with X-rays, for example, in order to show objects that surround us every day "in a different light".
In conversation with Anika Meier, Susanne Päch, the wife of Herbert W. Franke, Harry Yeff, and Trung Bao talk about the collaboration that began in 2021. Päch, who today heads the art meets science – Foundation Herbert W. Franke and lived with the artist and scientist for 40 years, also tells more about Franke's fascination with stones and what this has to do with the beginning of his artistic career.
Anika Meier: Harry and Trung, your project, VOICE GEMS, is ambitious. You create a voice archive by collecting, as you state, “the most unique, remarkable and most vulnerable voices“. What do you hope to achieve with this project?
Trung Bao: We collect voices and generate unique digital representations as a method of celebration and preservation of voice. Our current collection of 120 works will continue to grow, with the aim of having 500 pieces generated by 2025. Each has its own purpose and story in the archive.
Harry Yeff: The project is growing steadily, and collaborating with Herbert W. Franke in 2021 has been a highlight so far. We only create gems from voices that have received some form of direct blessing to generate the work. We are creating gems that have the potential to hold a legacy, a voice-generated digital ceremony.
AM: Is the human voice for you the fingerprint that stays because it is unique and somehow preserves the character?
HY: Your voice is vast and withholds millions of years of evolution. Every conversation you have is one of the most complex acts in all of nature. The human voice is a miracle of engineering; just observe how fluently you control the 100 muscles it takes to speak. We are born to be masterful with our voices. It’s established that we should stretch our bodies, but do you stretch your voice? Do you explore the potential of your own voice? If not, why?
TB: Helping people see and now hold a voice takes voice from a smoke-like state into something tangible and beautiful. This leads to many opportunities for art and storytelling.
You are not just what you say. Your voice is your identity.
AM: You collect voices and at the same time create an artwork that expands the narration. Why a digitally generated gemstone? And how do you generate it? How do you choose the voices you would like to archive?
HY: VOICE GEMS is the seventh system in a ten-year journey of exploration of generative processes that visualize features of the human voice. Much of our work centers around the human voice, with the simple belief that all voices on Earth are precious and unique expressions of nature. The gemstone is to show that all voices are unique and have an often unseen remarkable value.
TB: Your voice is your identity—not just what you say, but how you sound. All gems are numbered and archived, opening a unique opportunity to collect and curate stunning examples of unique voices and unique voiced concepts, as well as vulnerable voices. Ranging from dying languages to our VOICE GEMS, created from the voices of critically endangered species.
AM: Herbert W. Franke and his wife, Susanne Päch, reached out to you in 2021 because Herbert was interested in an audio-visual collaboration with you, and soon the project began. What interested you as artists about the pioneer of early computer art, who is often called a universal genius?
Susanne Päch: Herbert saw the VOICE GEMS for the first time at the exhibition PROOF OF ART at the Francisco Carolinum in Linz 2021. We were keen on learning more about the subject. Herbert found this concept extremely interesting, so we contacted Harry by mail. I guess Harry knew Herbert’s work before.
AM: Why did you choose the book ASTROPOETICON for this collaboration?
SP: The ASTROPOETICON was the first choice because a recording was needed that was art itself.
Herbert worked on the ASTROPOETICON together with the artist Andreas Nottebohm. Andreas used a spray gun to create art. Herbert was fascinated by this method because it was a more technical approach than painting with a brush. Traditional artists hated this method in 1979. Later, Andreas was an artist in residence at NASA; he now lives in Hawaii.
Andreas wanted to publish a book with 16 artworks; he asked Herbert whether he could contribute a text. Andreas had no idea what to do or how to do it, so Herbert offered to write 16 poems. One poem for every abstract picture. Concrete Poems for Astropoeticon that give room for associations when reading them and looking at the artworks. This was the beginning of the poem's cycle, ASTROPOETICON.
In 2007, we recorded Herbert reading the poems for a performance. The idea was to present them with underlying sound under the star field in the planetarium at Archenhold-Sternwarte, Berlin. It was a public performance on the occasion of Herbert’s 80th birthday.
HY: I was more than intrigued when the curator, Jesse Damiani, mentioned that our work stood out to Herbert. Trung Bao and I were honored and humbled. I became aware of Herbert's work after I performed at Ars Electronica and attended a group discussion about experimental pioneers. The relentless exploration and reframing of mediums impressed me. Many artists settle in format, but to see such spanning and diverse experimentation made me feel like my ten years in voice and technology were only the beginning.
My first experiments in visualizing voice, a prelude to VOICE GEMS, were working extensively with cymatics. Using literal vibration to generate unique geometry from sand to create visual works I spent over 1000 hours testing different tones, different densities of sand, and surface areas. This mentality and process is what I think Herbert picked up when he saw the VOICE GEMS at PROOF OF ART.
AM: You have translated Herbert W. Franke’s voice into a visual form. Could you tell us about this process and idea?
TB: The VOICE GEMS project has some very strict rules. We only generate gems from voices that have themselves submitted archive audio or whose voice in the audio has a direct tie to the person who submitted it. So only a family member, associate, or friend can put forward a VOICE GEM to be generated.
HY: Trung Bao and I discussed the rules for some time. Without rules, digital projects have no form, in our opinion. We also only work with short clips. This forces the voice, or selector of the voice audio, to be precise with what exactly they wish to preserve.
Also, I believe longer than 90 seconds, and the piece becomes media and not an artwork. This process has a ritual-like nature, something we are very proud of. Limitation is what gives many things their purpose, in life and in art.
AM: Susanne, what fascinated Herbert and you about the idea of an archive of voices?
SP: Herbert and I reached out to Harry because we were fascinated by the visualization of spoken words in a crystal structure. It’s important to know that Herbert loved the beauty of nature and its structures. He was a collector of gems like crystals, stones, and stalagmites. So you can imagine that being able to see spoken words frozen in a gemstone was very intriguing for Herbert.
AM: Did he search for minerals and stones himself?
SP: Mainly, he looked for them himself. We often travelled around the world. Herbert was mainly interested in the ground. He always looked for stones, minerals, and crystals to take home after the trip. Usually our bags were much heavier returning from a holiday. Often, we had many kilograms of excess weight. Usually, we put a folded sailor’s bag in our suitcase. At the end of the trip, it was filled with stones, minerals, and dirty laundry. Worst cases were our trip to Bolivia and our trip to Black Hills in Dakota.
Usually we drove a rented car through the countryside of different regions of the world. Herbert collected stones and minerals, piling them into our car till the end of the trip—from South America to Africa, from Asia to Hawaii, from China to Uzbekistan. The trunk got fuller and fuller during the trips. One day before flying back, we needed two hours to decide which stones, crystals, and minerals we would take home. Usually he had a little hammer and cracker to be able to divide stones when it was necessary to diminish the number, but Herbert could not decide which to leave back. Travelling back was always extremely exhausting for us. I remember a lot of trips where we ran through big airports with heavy baggage.
AM: Throughout his lifetime, Herbert experimented with new technologies as an artist but was also aware of the risks for society. What were his thoughts about artificial intelligence?
SP: Herbert was always sure that artificial intelligence would happen one day. In the long term, he was convinced that this synthetic intelligence will be able to produce creativity like an artist. It is not to eliminate the human factor, but to see it creating next to a human being. This idea was not frightening for him, but beautiful. As long as machines produce art, they do something good for society.
Herbert’s artistic career began as a theoretical physicist. This sounds strange but is correct. He realized that images from science show structures that can be beautiful. And also, nature has its own beauty. When he entered caves after World War II, it was for entertainment first but quickly turned into serious studies.
AM: Taking photographs in caves led him very quickly to generative photography.
SP: He saw these beautiful structures there in this world of darkness inside the earth: stalagmites and stalagtites. And he asked himself, "How do they grow?” This question stood at the beginning of his theory about measuring the growth of stalagmites, which he published for the first time in 1951. The method of dating stalagmites via C14 was experimentally fixed in the 1960s and is the conventional method to date stalagmites nowadays. This was the scientific side. But Herbert looked at the world from two sides, also from the side of beauty. For this reason, he began to try to photograph these beauties in the darkness of the caves. He invented special methods to be able to illuminate big cave rooms in the 1950s. His cave photography marks the beginning of generative photography for him, where he tried to simulate the mathematical beauty of nature in light in the photo studio.
AM: Back in the days it was not common to work with technology. But he was always able to find a solution or access through a contact.
SP: Machines used for art were his subject. In 1954, a friend from his home town of Vienna, also a physicist, built him an analog computer. He used it to generate oscillograms. But he also used other machines like microscopes or x-ray machines. He was always looking for the border between art and science and the mathematics behind it. In the 1960s, the digital computer got his main working tool—even more than a tool: a partner that had special skills. The structure (we would call it "the code" today) was mathematically defined by a human, but the variations were put into the algorithm of a program.
AM: Mathematics were his starting point. Why was that?
SP: From there, it was not a long way to another question: He began to ask why this was so. This led him to experiment with generative photography and to use an analog computer for artistic creations. It also led him to the concept of art that was based on human perception (or on both sides: the artist and the spectator). Herbert was convinced that any kind of art is based on perception and mathematics. Mathematics is the structure of the universe, so it underlies not only physics or chemistry but also biologyure of the universe, so it underlies not only physics or chemistry but also biology. These are two sides of our world that show structures in a mathematically defined way.
I talked a lot about his theoretical approach to visual art. But his thoughts and ideas were not limited to visual art but were open to music, literature, and theatre as well. As a well-known science fiction author, he always said that seeing the mathematics behind human sentences and their meaning is the most complex and most difficult thing to translate into code, a code that could produce artistic work on its own.
AM: That’s why Herbert W. Franke is called a universal genius.