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The medium and his message (on Erkki Kurenniemi)

In July 2048, an enormous online multimedia exhibition will be launched. The show will recreate the entirety of the life of Finnish scientist-artist-composer Erkki Kurenniemi. This may sound wacky, but the strangeness does not end there.

The hand in this photo of Dimi-O belongs most probably to Hannu Viitasalo, who participated in designing the instrument. Nobody remembers who took this photo or where it was taken. The picture is from the Central Art Archives / Kurenniemi Archive.

BY Juha Torvinen

Sometimes the essential is described best in clichés: There is no one like Erkki Kurenniemi (aka Kurtsi, b. 1941). He is an undoubted living legend, an underground cult figure, and an idol for anyone who wants to think outside the box. The 2012 edition of
dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany, one of the most prominent exhibitions of contemporary art in the world, devoted an entire department to Kurenniemi’s artistic and scientific work. This alone says a lot.

But who is Kurenniemi anyway? He is a Finnish pioneer of electronic music, who started the electronic music
studio of the University of Helsinki in early 1960s. There he built digital instruments that were among the very first of their kind in the whole world. He is also an intermedial artist, who has composed electronic music and made experimental films and various multimedia art works. Additionally, he is a scientist, expert in robotics, a visionary, and a herald of a cybernetic future where humans and computers are no longer divided and our souls can live forever in electronic form.

Let’s muse a bit about some features of Kurenniemi’s eccentricity.

Body

Kurenniemi is attracted to the human body. He likes flesh and slime, and all forms of physical contact and corporeal secretions. His technological and artistic output includes films on sex (Sex Show 1 & 2, ca. 1969), instruments that turn visual body movements or one’s electroencephalogram into sound (DIMI-O, built in 1971, and DIMI-T, 1973), as well as ‘Sexophone’, an instrument for two or more performers, who can produce sounds by touching each other’s bare skin. As clothes effectively block electricity, the less one wears the more exciting the sounds produced by the ‘Sexophone’ (aka DIMI-S, 1972) become. The medium here is clearly
not only the message but also, literally, a massage, as Kurenniemi states in 1971, echoing the wordplay of philosopher Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980).

Talk about Kurenniemi often ignores his obsession with the body. That is no surprise, since his own thinking often negates the body altogether. Kurenniemi’s strong belief is that in the future human beings are no longer trapped by their dust. Our minds, consciousness and emotions will exist on a super-microchip even after our bodies have rotted away.

These utopian visions rely on a strict division between mind and body rather than on a philosophy (e.g. phenomenology or pragmatism) that emphasises the bodily roots of human consciousness. The big question remains: how exactly can a mind exist without a body (and: why isn’t a microchip a body too?). Like with every true visionary, there is an element of the mystic in Kurenniemi, presented in a scientific disguise.

Well, not always that scientific. In director Mika Taanila‘s documentary film Future Is Not What It Used to Be (2002), Kurenniemi says, with irony, that the immaterial souls of the future will probably spend their time watching porn. Even the utopian mind needs some body-nostalgia.

Immortality

Finalities trouble Kurenniemi. As our minds become independent of our dying bodies, so human beings become independent of Earth – colonies on the Moon and Mars are only a matter of time, the prophet believes, according to Taanila’s documentary. Cultural historian and media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo has pointed out that Kurenniemi’s own career also shirks final solutions: it is a collection of unfinished fragments rather than finished masterpieces. Others have completed most of his films, and his musical instruments are more embodiments of a technical idea than polished and practical tools for musical performance.

Losing the past also troubles him. Already the early instruments he built focused on (digital) memory (like in Dico, 1969 or in DIMI-A, 1970). For decades, Kurenniemi has obsessively documented his life as comprehensively as possible. Audio diaries, video diaries, hundreds of pictures taken every day from every possible situation, storing all the possible documents from receipts to train tickets to newspapers… He manically collects everything. The exhibition in 2048, mentioned in the lead of this article, is actually Kurenniemi’s own persistent fantasy for his 107th birthday. The exhibition would consist of the collected material of his life in digitised form. This would practically guarantee his rebirth on the web.

Music

After the mid-seventies Kurenniemi has worked, for example, as an industrial robot designer, scientific consultant and independent thinker. While he has surely been a master in all of these fields, his aura nevertheless rests strongly on his musical output of the 1960s and early 1970s.

It is once again the medium that is the message. Kurenniemi’s music is interesting, sure, but the instruments even more so. Their historical, technical and aesthetic significance is undeniable. They explored innovative interfaces based on movement, touch, sound or visual image. They applied digital memory in a novel way. They offered unforeseen possibilities for interactivity and multimediality. Today the instruments are stored mainly at the Musicology department of University of Helsinki and at Ralph Lundsten‘s Andromeda studio in Sweden.

It seems that in Kurenniemi’s case music acts, once again, in its age-old function: a symbol for the kind of thinking that aspires to reach realms beyond common knowledge. Are we still trapped in a belief in music’s mystical powers? Is it precisely the rootedness in music that makes even Kurenniemi’s wildest visions plausible?

Whatever the case, the medium remains the message. And Erkki Kurenniemi is absolutely a medium.

Juha Torvinen (PhD), former Editor-in-Chief of FMQ, is Adjunct Professor of musicology at the University of Turku.