ambient du passage

solo show, Goethe-Istutut Paris, 23.06.–18.07.2021

„Kalas Liebfried’s Ambient du Passage“ by Cédric Fauq

Genealogies are usually crafted in a mono-directional fashion. We tend to elaborate them with the idea that there is a source and a “consequence” of that source. What we learn with amps however, is that it is always a two-way street (a question of INPUT / OUTPUT). Kalas Liebfried’s latest exhibition Ambient du Passage at the 17 rue d’Iéna in Paris (Goethe-Institut) could as well be read as an exercise in amplifying genealogies (to a volume high enough it moves through the flesh rather than the brain), treating them not as mono but stereo. It starts with the following: 

Input #1: BAM of the mass iron production from the late 18th century. 

Input #2: KABOOM of the textile industry in the 19th century. 

This double long-lasting BANG, which still finds echoes today, is not only a material witness to what we now call the “industrial revolution”. The proliferation of iron and cotton – through textiles – shaped different bodies on many levels: first and foremost, that of the ones working in the cotton-fields and the factories, but also that of the ones wearing clothes, sleeping in bed sheets, or inhabiting and passing through spaces made out of iron-structures or adorned with curtains and carpets. A century after the first BOOMS, Erik Satie (1866 – 1925) and Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940) start conceive, respectively, the following projects:  

Output #1: Musique d’Ameublement or Furniture Music (1917 – 1923) 

Output #2: Das Passagen-Werk or The Arcade Project (1927 – 1940) 

The first one is triggered by Satie’s desire to both silence the outdoors while giving a background sound to the indoors (to conceal the silences of conversations), translating the ornaments and patterns found in textiles and iron-work into music (cf. titles such as “Tapisserie en Fer Forgé” or “Tenture de cabinet préfectoral”). A few years later, Walter Benjamin embarked on the project of writing on the architecture of the Parisian passages, which he considers the manifestation of the capitalist project (a manifestation enabled by the rise of iron and textile production). 

What Kalas Liebfried proposes with Ambient du Passage, whose title could be read as a conjunction of Satie and Benjamin’s projects, is to reassess the contemporaneity of the two proposals, as well as their intersections. It’s a genealogy in reverse, which operates through several shifts, to write a material and physical history of the genre now labelled as ambient music. 

Shift#1: A gate welcomes you into the exhibition space. Its clean black and shiny surface warns you: you’re entering another one. It is signalling the threshold between an outside and an inside. But the gate is hollow. It contains several shelves. These shelves hold three surveillance monitors which play different videos from the artists produced between 2015 and 2021, as well as an early edition of Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk and a broken cast of two holding hands, in plaster. 

Shift#2: The passage’s roof has fallen. The main component of the exhibition literally turns upside down the usual relationship that our bodies entertain with this architectural feature. As you find yourself above the roof, you get closer to it and realise that it contains more than just glass and cast iron. Transducers and strings applied to the inner side of the roof hint at a potential use of the sculpture as instrument. It also looks like a perfect refuge for a body, a tent if you like. 

Shift#3: Guitar amplifiers present themselves on metal plinths. The amps have been attached to kimonos and kimono belts (made out of cotton) by way of which the sculptures are wearable (they’re each devised for different body parts: the back, the chest and the leg). Yet another sculptural element that contains the potency to become both an instrument (or at least amplify one) and a shield. 

That the three main body of works of that first part of the exhibition always turn out to be more than what they appear in the first place conveys both a sense of incompletion while enabling for the imagination to do the work of “sounding” (even more so after seeing the two posters displayed in the exhibition space, which announce a set of performances to take place on July 2). If that first section of the exhibition is in a dormant mode, it is already woken up by the projections of our minds. 

In the underbelly of the 17 rue d’Iéna is the second section of Liebfried’s Ambient du Passage. This section contains a two-channel video work displaying the multiplied body of performer Nicolas Kötterl (already doubled through the two projections). As the video develops, the projections divide themselves so that the performer’s bodies turn into wallpapers of sorts. This process hints at the potentiality for the body to turn into environment, or merge with it. A journey Benjamin deemed possible through the use of narcotics (cf. On Hashish, 2006 – a gathering of texts Benjamin and some of his collaborators wrote between 1927 and 1934). 

Overlapping with the video is a series of sound pieces Liebfried composed together with Ralph Heidel. Using extremely stretched versions of the original Musique d’ameublement pieces as a base, the two musicians developed four tracks that enable historical leaps and correspondences between Satie and later developments of ambient music through the likes of John Cage, Brian Eno for instance, using instruments as varied as synthesizers, clarinets, saxophones, flutes and more contemporary industrial sounds such as that of a laser cutter and 3D printer. 

The intersection of the sound pieces and the video provoke a hypnotising feeling, close to an out-of-time experience, heightened by the spatial specificities of the basement. Satie spoke of his short and repetitive sound pieces in those terms: “Musique d’ameublement is fundamentally industrial”, stating that they were not meant to be listened to, since his project was more an interior design and architecture one than it was music. 

As such, Kalas Liebfried brings us to listen to what we are not meant to listen, look at what we are not meant to look at (the guts of a gate, a roof-top from above). This reconfiguration of our relationship with sound and architecture leads to dismantling and recomposing of the body, together with its environment. Ambient du Passage could as well be an exercise in rewiring our inputs and outputs in the neoliberal age. In that respect, Liebfried’s project leads us to both a dream-state and a process of awakening, two moments that inherently serve Benjamin’s dialectics. One of his many sentences echoes: „The first stimulae for awakening deepen sleep.“     

List of works

PASSAGE DACH, Kalas Liebfried, 2021
Steel, glass, pickups, mirror foil, strings, machine heads, transducers, effects units, amplifiers

AMP PACKS 1-3, Kalas Liebfried, 2021
Guitar amplifiers, karate kimonos, straps, steel bases, microphones, cables
Co-producer: Hannah Bitzer
3rd VS, 2021, Kalas Liebfried / Alexander Scharf, 2021
Diptyhon, print on paper, aluminium frame

Shelves, monitors, objects, headphones, wooden panelling, mirror foil
Video works: ‚the time: anti‘ (2015/2021), ‚Watchman:‘ (2018), ‚Movement study K‘ (2020),
„Iconic Air“ (2020)

Two-channel video projection, stereo sound
Direction and production: Kalas Liebfried
Choreography: Nicola Kötterl
camera: Mathias R. Zausinger
Soundtrack: Ralph Heidel / Kalas Liebfried, „Rework: Musique d’Ameublement“

Thanks to Nina Hansen, Bernhard Majer, Naiv Studios, Simon Sternal, Jakob Braito

Photography by Mathias R. Zausinger