Irish-born, Porto-based artist Olan Monk recently released his ‘INIS’ EP on CA.N.V.A.S. and according to a press release the record “morphs meditational instrumentals into a digital wasteland inhabited by detached haunting voices”.
CA.N.V.A.S. is a label and event series who fellow Galway artist LUGH also shared work through. His project ‘Hélico‘ came out on yesterday’s summer solstice. The Berlin-based artist “makes use of digitally disembodied vocal sounds and textures as a compositional tool for creating new environments”.
Below is a transcript of a conversation they had about their writing and creating process, plus the inner-workings of CA.N.V.A.S..
Olan: What do you think connects any of the artists involved [In C.A.N.V.A.S.]?
Lugh: I don’t know. It’s too complicated to say that. Mostly we have strong friendships, but a lot of those have developed because we are interested in each other’s work and doing things together. People have gotten involved along the way but it’s always people who we have befriended and also have an interest in their work. It’s not one or the other.
O: I used to think about this idea of intentionally starting something, as separate from things happening organically. C.A.N.V.A.S. started with this intention, and then grew organically. It’s this weird blend of proximity and distance. In that we all lived together, and then as we dispersed, an attempt to hold on to a sense of that proximity despite distance. That doesn’t really relate to music. Or even a clear ethos. I think that things group in different ways on the internet.
L: What about your perspective on the chronology? You had this intention to start something? Intentions either succeed or fail. But as you said, things grew organically. What was intentional and what happened organically?
O: It’s this mixture of intention and persistence. The realisation might not have been clear. It’s like anything – you need to give it time for it to become something. For me the timeframe is really clear : We ran events in 2014, we had some associated events in 2015 (collaborating with Ashley Paul’s Wagtail, etc), I went to New York and met James K, who has done a few shows with us. In 2016, we held some events in London (Café Oto, Bussey Building, etc) and then we moved to the Coroner’s Court. I was running everything for a while, in terms of the performance series. And working in collaboration with the 33-33 crew in London.
L: The Coroner’s Court. Can you say something about that space?
O: You were out of town, and I was living in an abandoned Coroner’s Court in South London, recording an album and running C.A.N.V.A.S. shows there. That’s when the attitude to running things lost it’s naivety a bit. I realised we could ask people we respected or admired to come and play, and they might. It went beyond just our friends playing sets of music they wouldn’t release. We ran a show in the Court called Ritual in May 2017 with Ashley Paul, Flora Yin Wong, Michael Speers, Xao and us – this was the last event we ran in London.
L: Last summer was the next shift.
O: Exactly. But into what? I see C.A.N.V.A.S. as an attempt at collectivising self-publishing and self-distribution. Do you think index and archive are relevant terms to talk about the label?
L: The question is, ‘What do we do?’. There’s this shift to the next stage, from just running events to releasing music. When you’re running events, you get people’s attention in a very impermanent way. When you run an event, the context only lasts for a limited time, which makes it hard for things to grow. Until now, that’s how we’ve got people to come together, and it has developed in that we’re asking the same people to play in different countries. But I think the next stage involves collectively creating a body of work, that belongs to the whole project. So that when people want to know what C.A.N.V.A.S. is about, they can find this material online, and not just find out that we did an event in their city a few months ago.
O: Is the internet another ‘place’ for us?
L: The internet has enabled us to keep each other interested in each other’s work from a distance. It’s a platform for creating a body of work, which has been made by all of us from different geographic locations. The fact that we work in different places doesn’t’ matter. We’re creating a bookshop for C.A.N.V.A.S.. That bookshop doesn’t get renewed every month, we’re just adding different things in.
O: Something I hadn’t previously considered but that makes complete sense to me now, is that what you describe about running events is the nature of performance. It’s transient, ephemeral, it doesn’t sustain. Unless it’s documented, in which case it’s arguably no longer performance. I am a performer. That’s probably why my principal interest and involvement has been in running events in the past. Now that you are more involved again, I think that’s why the shift has gone on to the label, in some ways. You are a composer and a producer, you are an artist who makes fixed work. So do I, but I see it as an extension of my performance practice. Performance is less important to you. It has a place in your practice, but it’s not your pre-eminent outlet. Your involvement in running a label makes a lot more sense.
L: I hadn’t thought about this either. But we have two different ways of doing our work and actually those involve how we’re involved in C.A.N.V.A.S.. Your involvement has been more performance based, and now that I’m more involved again, we’re making records.
Along the way of doing C.A.N.V.A.S. – I left London for Switzerland. Recently you moved to Porto. I think those moments have an impact on what we do as a group – when someone key to the group moves elsewhere. When I left first, I didn’t think I would still have involvement, because we didn’t have any experience of doing things together as a dispersed group. I realised that I still wanted to work with this group of people, even though I was in new places, and that made me progressively more involved again. How does moving change your view of the whole project?
O: I think ideas of place and non-place are related to what we do. I think dispersal is a key way of describing what we do, as it implies spreading out from a core. It relates to eternal Irish ideas such as exile and emigration. We’re living in an era defined by the movement of people. Dealing with a concept such as dispersal in an artistic practice feels in some ways relevant or urgent. I had always associated the idea of community with place, until it was pointed out to me (by Dr. Paul Stapleton) that there is also obviously the opportunity for a community of practice. In some ways this is accelerated through the internet, people sharing a community around their work without actually knowing each other. For us, it’s different because we already know each other.
L: Ok so maybe we should talk about some of our own material. So far we have one release, your EP, ‘INIS’, the second in a two part release: ‘INIS/ANAM’ released on digital and tape. Maybe give us some words on that.
O: Yeah, it came out of disconnected studio sessions while moving between different places different places in in the past year. The two 20-minute EPs are called ‘ANAM’ and ‘INIS’. Two Irish words meaning Soul and Island.
L: You called the first one a meditation tape.
O: Yeah the first was made as a meditation tape. I made it so that I could listen to it walking around London at night.
L: You mentioned that ‘INIS’ comes from a fragment of different studio sessions in different places. I suppose that influenced the people who featured on them? I suppose you were linking up with people in these different places?
O: Yes – that was quite freeing. I think I had been through the experience of a very isolating studio practice. ‘INIS’ was a response to that – by trying to find some unity amongst the fragments and to have a practice that could exist without happening in one geographic place. It’s a similar idea to the label in a way, it’s almost a microcosm of the concept in that it allowed me the opportunity to do something with people despite the lack of having one single place to do it in.
L: You mentioned that you were making music in isolation. Maybe I can mention that you have an unreleased album, actually recorded before ‘INIS’. It was recorded in the Coroner’s Court, which you mentioned earlier.
O: I spent a year recording an album in the Coroner’s Court, where we were hosting performances. I haven’t released it yet. I kind of like that it’s buried in the dirt, on a hard drive somewhere. It will come out as an archive in itself of the time during which I made it. It definitely speaks of that specific time and that isolated creative process.
The EPs – ‘ANAM’ and ‘INIS’ – were kind of a way out of that. It made more sense to self-release these first. I felt too psychologically involved in the album to go through the motions of releasing it by myself. The tapes have allowed me to come back out of my shell in a way, to being a musician.
It also felt like a healthy way to launch the label. I think we both talked about both putting out releases through C.A.N.V.A.S. as a sort of statement of intent. This way we can show ourselves and each-other that we intend to do this properly before asking other artists to submit material and to put trust in us releasing their work.
So you’re about to release the EP ‘Hélico’. Maybe this will be released by the time this interview comes out. What’s on it? When did you make it? Why have you been so secretive? People have wanted to hear your new material for quite a while.
L: I made most of this while living in different places. Bern in Switzerland, near Venice in Italy, a bit in London. The way I make music is quite different to yours. Where I am, who I am with, which tools I have, influences my process less than it does for you. I ended up finding that the best places for me to make music was on trains. Especially empty quiet ones at night. I ended up having to move around a lot, and these spaces gave me a neutral space where I can zone out. Usually working with recordings, reworking things, digitally. It’s the opposite of your time in in the Court, where you channelled the dark energies of that death house.
O: Yeah, I understand, and that’s actually what our music sounds like comparatively.
L: I have a more digital practice, and a lot of the sounds I used in this EP were digitally altered, and sometimes digitally generative vocal sounds…
O: You talk about the digital use of the voice. The voice as a human sound source, and digital manipulation of it. And you often mention the uncanny, in relation to your work. To me that’s what that exemplifies. Can you explain what this means in your practice?
L: I suppose when it comes to technological tools that we use for creating, they’re often made for the purpose of creating something in the image of something very human.
Our starting point is human bodily expression and these technical tools for artistic creation are made to embellish or add to that. And as they are developed more and more in a way so as to simulate or reproduce human expression, it creates this uncanny sensation. It’s like when you have a doll a lot like a human – but not quite – and your physical and emotional response to its presence is a bit blurred and unclear. I’m trying to use this sensation in music with these digitally altered vocal sounds. Trying to create material using the traditional codes of music making, using voice and harmony in ways that typically trigger an emotional reaction. To go deeper into this meeting point where we think we are responding to a human creating and a human voice in a human way, while also realising we can’t attribute the sounds we’re hearing to a human bodily expression.
O: That makes sense to me.
So most of your EP was made while getting trains through blissful central European pastoral lands? Then why is ‘Teeth In My Hands’ so heavy? Is it because you went back to clubs in Berlin?
L: No… The place has no importance. It’s usually more about current mood or whatever.
O: So ‘Million Dollar Cowboy’… It’s really beautiful, and has been around for some time. It’s dream inspired, right? What’s the track or title about?
L: Yeah the starting point was a dream, in a way. It sort of developed… Without wanting to get too complicated… The ‘Million Dollar Cowboy’ is sort of a basic symbol or an image of a blind and destructive Western ideal of progress. Most of all about how it eradicated complexity in order to a level ground to create space on which to build.
The Cowboy went west and destroyed along the way in order to build farmland, in the image of his ideal of progress. This reminds me of what I feel is happening to contemporary life as a result of the digital tools and digital infrastructures which we are using. The platforms which we use are flattening the landscape, reducing detail and complexity. A basic example is Uber rounding up all of the different taxi companies and putting them out of business to centralise all of that activity on one homogenous platform. It creates a level ground from which this western complexity can thrive.
O: We’re living in the ‘terror of the same’, as Byung Chul Han puts it.
And what are the tassels? It used to be called ‘Million Dollar Cowboy Without Tassels’.
L: Yeah – it used to be. Now ‘Million Dollar Cowboy’ is one track, and ‘Without Tassels’ is another. I imagined the tassels as being the frills on the cowboy’s boots and jacket. We’re running out of time.
O: One more. What are you reading? Whats your pre-eminent lens for your work? What influences how you see these things or make music? Give us an insight.
L: I’ve been reading ‘Herodotus’. It’s constantly on-the-go. It’s a big book, of a diversity of stories. Real myths and real stories from his time, in Greece. What he’s writing in a way is a history. Maybe the first history. The stories are very archetypal so they can easily be associated to parallel events today. For example the ‘Million Dollar Cowboy’ is a sort of an archetype. ‘Labraid Lorc’, the last track is named after another archetype. It’s this Irish Myth. A king who lived on an island in Leinster. He had donkey’s ears, which were hidden by his hair. Every person who cut his hair had to be executed. One person’s mother pleaded, and he was spared. The burden of the secret was too heavy, so he told a tree. And someone carved a harp from the tree, but all that the harp could sing was, ‘Labraid Lorc has donkey’s ears’. And the interesting thing is that very similar stories can be found in Greece, with King Midas, and also in Korea. Which is weird.
O: Carl Jung would say that they all stem from the same point of our collective unconscious. Out of time.