Saturday, May 10, 2008

Interview with Rolf Hofecker, Chairman of the Association of Anonymous Recipients

Text by Johannes Ullmaier
Translation by Florian Grote

Why are we here in this interview? Are you a person of public interest?


Are you an expert with specialist knowledge?


So why do we have you in this interview?

Because there simply is no way around it. As Anonymous Recipients, we need the illusion that we do not push communication ourselves, we just don't deny it. If we adhered strictly to our position, we wouldn't even be allowed to speak in public.

What kind of position is that?

We are pure recipients, meaning that we absorb cultural artifacts without producing our own. That's why we tend to be invisible.

But wouldn't that make almost everybody a member of your organization? Everybody absorbs cultural artifacts all the time, and most people don't produce anything of cultural significance themselves.

Well, it depends on your definition of 'absorbing' or 'receiving'. Our idea of it may require more explanation, because on the one hand, it is very open, but then again, it can be very strict: We are open about the content and the mode of reception, but very strict in the requirement that the the absorbed artifact has to be perceived in its true concreteness and with a certain degree of attentiveness. This means that each perception inevitably has consequences for the development of subsequent acts of reception. To put it bluntly: We don't care if someone listents to 'Mary had a little lamb' or Brian Ferneyhough, if he or she implements a certain house sequence into her dancing in a special way, knows how to read the most difficult compositions by John Coltrane, or reflects on a line by Joni Mitchell. We don't care if that someone is objectively right or wrong, as far as that can be decided - all this is part of what we call 'reception'. What matters is that - beyond their individual meaning - all these acts trigger an evolutionary, hopefully positive process that advances the individual and, ultimately, the collective potential of reception. If we take this requirement seriously, a lot of what's normally referred to as 'reception' has to be discarded as what we call 'non-reception'.

And how would you define that term?

Non-reception is possible on many different levels. On the individual level, someone simply stops to develop their receptive skills further, no matter at which point that might be. Perhaps he continues to listen to music, but really does not absorb anything anymore. On the collective level, entire cultures can define themselves through non-reception.

Where do you see that happening?

Basically anywhere the precise implementation of the input is being disregarded as long as certain basic patterns and rules of the genre are being followed. For example, the 'not here to disturb' paradigm of Muzak or lounge music, the 'clap your hands on one and three' rule in German Schlager or the cultivation of the 'dignified weirdness' at Contemporary Electroacoustic Music festivals. In these contexts, the influence of the aesthetic artifacts on the social flows of energy is negligible. It does not result in any gain in experience, either, at least not in terms of cultural experience. That's why this is non-reception.

Do you want to compare German Schlager and Contemporary Electroacoustic Music?

Yes and no. Sure, some genres lend themselves to non-reception more than others. And Helmut Lachenmann definitely has fewer non-recipients than Phil Collins. However, the difference is not in the material alone. In principle, any cultural entity can be subjected to reception and non-reception, even though it may lend itself to one more than to the other.

But you just said that Muzak would not be subject to reception at all.

That was just one of many examples, and I was referring to the standard mode of reception in Muzak, not the genre or the material by itself. The latter can absolutely be subjected to reception, and it regularly is, especially during first encounters. After all, the evolution of someone's individual receptive skills can start and pass by everywhere, be it a folk music show or a smoky lounge. There is a lot of biographical contingency involved. In the end, even mainstream formats can be helpful in the development of a productive momentum for reception, as their closedness and self-containedness can give rise to a desire to open them up and break their chains. As a teenager, I was condemned to watch the German-language chart music show on television, and I imagined MC 5 as the next act on stage, or I hallucinated additional asynchonous rhythms and weird synthesizer sounds, just to survive. But that means I had already started to absorb the music - and that's why I had to get away from there. Others may have to get away from Mozart, I don't know. Again, it is not about a certain genre, but about the fact that, in concreto, it does matter what is offered for reception.

Putting your claim that way doesn't sound very original - and it's not a reason for anonymity.

Alright, but then there is our second delineation: We separate ourselves from those who do exhibit receptive skills that fit our definition, but who nevertheless are not genuine recipients, because their intention is different, in that they want to review, analyze, communicate, sell, promote, or reproduce what they absorb. They want to get everything they invest in terms of attention, time, money, etc. back out of the system, preferrably with a high revenue. We are different: As external agents, we put energy into the cultural system without getting anything out of it other than aesthetic experience.

That sounds like a reformulation of Kant's 'pleasure without intent' into systems theory. Is what you are saying not the regular mode of autonomous perception of art?

Absolutely, but perception in this so-called regular mode rarely ever happens any more. That's why we started to go public in the first place. As Association of Anonymous Recipients, we have to deal with a dramatic decrease in membership numbers since the 1980s, so that many local chapters had to close down. Today, we are confronted with an almost unlimited number of non-recipients, who nevertheless spend pretty much all of their day consuming cultural or mass media artifacts. Then there is the much smaller group of system-internal producer-recipients, who are very much alike in their functioning, although their supply of investment capital and the revenues they get out of the system may differ drastically. We are doomed to fight a losing battle against those two blocks of people.

Maybe that is just an optical illusion? As you stated in the beginning, people like yourself are almost invisible unless you start to exploit your experiences. Perhaps a lot of people are simply a little more consistent in their anonymity?

Granted, the paradox doesn't go away by saying it out loud. To be honest, when it comes to leaving one's anonymity, I am a repeat offender. A couple of years ago, I initiated an art performance (see box) where we tried to make the invisible act of reception public - a very rewarding experience, but not true reception, rather exploitation.

Did you face opposition in your own organization?

I had hoped for it, as it would have made for a great starting point for a debate about the legitimacy of such a performance. I thought we would get a lot of purists fluffing up about this. The feedback we got was disillusioning, though, both within the Association and from possibly relevant externals - which is why I almost ceased to believe that they exist. They certainly were not among the participants, quite the contrary: It was really hard to communicate to them what this was about and to keep them awake. You know, 30 Consecutive Hours of Un-Utilized Reception of Other's Works, that simply doesn't happen in real life, in no form of art, so no one can even imagine something like that or face the real length of the performance without escaping into irony, drugs, or sleep.

Did you get through the entire piece without suffering?

For us in the Association, such durations of reception are nothing special, so I did not really have to adjust. I just listened to what Kagel, Riedl, Hamel, and all the others had done, enjoyed some of it, endured other parts. But despite all this, I think the increasing gap between non-recipients and producer-recipients cannot be denied anymore. Take for example the numbers of visitors attending concerts in the musical genres requiring real preparation, where you'd expect fewer non-recipients, and have a close look at the individuals themselves: I'll buy you a beer if you can show me five true recipients in one place, who are not interested in the return on their investment. I don't want to make things overly dramatic, even as Chairman of our Association I know that the world will go on without us. But I think it can be very helpful to formulate our position, even if it's just as a vacancy, as a hint towards a pressure to either stop receiving or start to produce something.

From your mouth, that sounds like a verdict.

Sure, as the public voice of the Anonymous Recipients I can't be happy about the developments. But I don't want to leave the impression that I am here to lay the blame on somebody. I feel sorry for people who stop receiving and leave this fascinating field of experience, sometimes even on their own free will. But verdicts don't get you anywhere. Especially if these individuals move on to become producer-recipients - it all depends on what they do and don't do to generate revenue. I don't feel anger or admiration or greed when I meet former fellow recipients after their transformation into producer-recipipients, it's more a certain melancholy or even compassion.


Yes, because I think: Here's another one in the daily grind of trying to get noticed. You know, you can pave the street with people who have produced five CDs and want you to listen to them. But you will have a really hard time finding somebody who knows one of those five releases without having produced seven CDs on their own, and also wanting you to listen to them. That is really rare. And we notice it when we get in touch with producers: They embrace us like back in the days fans embraced a superstar: 'Finally somebody wants to listen to my stuff!' But there is also a tendency to interpret our attention as a cynical prank or renounce it altogether: 'Hey, this guy actually wants to know the difference between these two songs - he's got to be crazy!' In terms of social contacts, the nice encounters outweigh the problematic cases, though. We really enjoy the exclusiveness of being welcome everywhere, because producers think we are harmless, as we don't compete for attention and therefore are irrelevant in their system, still being competent nevertheless - the interested ones without intent.

Isn't that simply the well-known position of the collector who brings in money and everybody is nice to him?

Indeed, there is a similarity. We do bring in money, as well, and the collector does absorb the music, at least in most cases. But there is a clear difference in the nature of the two approaches: The collector trades money for things, and in the end, he wants to own a whole class of them exclusively. We, on the other hand, trade attention for aesthetic experience, and we want as much of it as we can get. What the collector views as the essence of what he does is circumstantial to us, and vice versa. In a different society, we would not need money or ownership for our goals. In reality, however, we depend on these things, because they are the means by which we get access to the materializations of our experience potentials, whether they are concerts, scores, or recordings. At the same time, the collector needs to exhibit a minimum degree of receptive capabilities, otherwise he'd have to collect the entire universe.

Doesn't the internet level out this difference?

In which way?

Well, the more you can download for free, the earlier you get the possibility to absorb everything without having to worry about ownership - while building a collection becomes an atavism.

The latter is definitely true, yes. 'Come with me to my basement, and I'll show you my collection of prime numbers' - that's over. But when it comes to the freedom of downloading, I would be a bit more sceptical. What you are describing is more of an utopian vision than reality. After all, capitalism is diverting a lot of energy to steer things in the opposite direction, forcing as many cultural entities as possible to become products, including tonal sequences, pictures, genetic code, or whatever else you can imagine. These products, like noodles or gold, are supposed to be owned, which implies withholding them from others. Even if you don't look at the twists that go along with it, I have yet to find a way to transfer my receptive potential into the world of computers without losing it.

At least now you can find things in minutes that would have taken years of research before the computer became available.

That is true, and without the obstacles posed by commercialism, it could be even faster. However, first of all, the energy you have to spent to get to your potential of reception and the energy used for the reception itself do not simply add up - it's a complex interaction. As a result, savings in the former do not give you advantages in the latter. Secondly, it's not just about finding something to absorb, but about the act of reception itself. Even though the interaction with the computer may have opened up some great possibilities, I am still shocked by the bad quality of these acts, and most people seem to be willing to settle for it. Many of them don't even get to the act of listening, because they are busy downloading the latest update for their player application, keeping track of auctions on eBay, or feeling an abstract enjoyment about the fact that they have 10,000 tracks on their hard drive, of which they have managed to listen to seven. Maybe some of them do perceive what they have found, but just on the side, preferably in random mode and with an audio quality worse than the grammophone. Honestly, I feel these are all non-recipients. And I really have not heard of any intense experiences of reception from that scene, and haven't had any myself doing such things, for that matter.

Maybe that has to do with your age?

I did indeed grow up with computers, but not exclusively. And I do have to admit that my most important initiations happened elsewhere - that certainly has an effect on my expectations.

In your eyes, what would be ideal reception or the ideal situation for reception?
For me personally? Hm. It would be the most beatiful night of the year, at the most perfect location, and the most inspired band in the world has the largest possible PA system, playing the best, most true, most forward-thinking music during the most exceptional performance in front of the coolest audience imaginable, and people get it immediately and start to do what's necessary to save civilization. That kind of sums it up, and I don't mean that ironic at all. As the speaker of the Anonymous Recipients, I am well aware that, depending on the genre, there are very different, sometimes opposing modes of intensive reception: physical, emotional, semantic, analytical, functional, contemplative, detailed, brute, and so on, but whatever I imagine, I can't seem to find it in front of a computer screen.

Where do you find it?

Mostly during live performances. Perhaps that is a backlash against the medial devolution. After all, today a concert means traveling back in time to a natural state before zapping. The natural state of modern media reception is defined by the ability to leave it with a click of a button. The pressure induced on the present by the potential seems to have risen dramatically. You sit in a room with - virtually and literally - 10,000 CDs and are asked to concentrate on one of them. What can this one CD tell you, in terms of the situation of the media? It either tries to convince you: 'I am necessary, not an accident, the others aren't really there' - and by that unintentionally becoming a persiflage on the aesthetics of autonomy. Or, it can tell you with a yawn: 'I don't know, I am nothing special, and I sound that way, too' - essentially asking you to desert to non-reception. Live performances, on the other hand, seem to be immune to that, maybe because of their logistic implications...
Except for festivals, where bands play on ten stages at the same time. Or in a club, when you just started to get a feeling for the music, and then you get a text message telling you to that it's actually much better somewhere else...
Yes, shuttlebus nomads, seventeen clubs in one night, location zapping. If the bus doesn't happen to become the location, nothing happens at all on the level of reception.

Agreed. One thing is still not clear to me, though: Why did you get in touch with us in the first place? Which message do you want to convey?

If I was an alarmist, I would say: We, the Anonymous Recipients, want to make the general, culture-affine public aware of the fact that, compared to the output, almost no reception takes place at all today. This goes by completely unnoticed, so that the exception is viewed as a noteworthy specialty. For example, the author Claus Spahn wrote an article in 'Die Zeit' about his receptive experience of Stockhausen's 'Licht' cycle. That was a big thing, although disguised as a review, but the message was clear: Somebody actually absorbed something large here - wow! Instead, we should read an article every week: 'Last week, nobody listened to 'Licht' again - a scandal!' And this is absolutely not about Stockhausen, but about a general theme: The more a cultural artifact would be worth the reception, the lesser its chance of actually being absorbed by anybody. I have a CD in my hand right here: Benjamin Boretz, O N E. 8 Pianosolo Soundsessions, released on Open Space in 1991. I bet that no more than two people have listened to this in Europe during the last decade. The materialistic presence of this CD is a potemkin village. And in that, it's not a singular case, but the rule, applying to all advanced musical styles. I hear it from the dealers all the time: 'Oh, the new XY, yes, there could be someone in Paderborn who might want to have it. If not, well then too bad.'

Isn't that the way things have always been, at least to a certain degree?

Well, the degree is important.

But what do you want? A law with a minimum quota of reception for everything that was ever released?

Not at all. That's why I said that this diagnose is stuck in alarmism. I want to introduce it to a systematic context, though. After all, I am speaking into the system here. And my message is this: We will make no progress if we scandalize deficits that become apparent at every location within the system at just one specific location, and then scream: 'Composers! Give us something ingenious, and we will listen to you again!', or: 'People! Start listening again, and the producers will put more attention to quality!', or: 'This new medium is the source of all evil! If we manage to ignore it, the world will be a better place again!', and so on. We will only gain structural insight if we pay attention to the balances of energy levels, and we have to keep in mind that they have to remain positive for all participants if we want the system to survive.

Can you be a bit more concrete?

Let's start with us, the recipients. We need increasingly more energy to find new, interesting material to receive. Sure, there are platforms in the media reporting on certain segments, the smaller, the more devoted to the material, or so it seems. But you already need a lot of energy to find these platforms. And everything dissolves into commercial interests and public relations the closer you get to the mainstream. If you do follow a progressive interest for reception and necessarily have to have a broader scope, you are confronted with such masses of material that you only have the choice to give up or listen arbitrarily.

Is that true for all recipients? Maybe this problem only relates to people who have been in the music scene for too long, way too long, perhaps? People who don't get excited about anything anymore, so they start to complain?

Possible, but the subjective complaining has objective reasons. When your toothpaste remains empty, even after pressing harder and harder...

... you get a new one.

Exactly, and in our case, that means a new initiation as a fan, a big bang of emergence, affecting a sufficient number of people so that they start to invest energy into a new cosm to exploit its expansive potential, driving a thousand kilometers to get to a concert, paying a hundred Euros for a recording, and so on. But where does that happen today?

There are always people discovering something, no matter if it's new or old.

But it does matter if it's new or old, because the objective state of the material does have an effect: If you are discovering FRANZ FERDINAND today, what you get is a cheap imitation of something that was new 25 years ago. Sure you can discover their originals from today's point of view, like the first two GANG-OF-FOUR LPs, but it won't be contemporary for you. Seeing it that way, the acclaimed postmodern universal access to all cultural spheres suddenly appears very limited. The objective relation between original and citation can not be reversed, no matter in which sequence you discover them. Therefore, I think that neither contemporary non-originals nor historic originals will be able to evoke sufficient numbers of sustainable initiations to create new, viable subsystems with genuine fans.

True, there are quite a few cultural segments without fans. Is that a contradiction?

Not necessarily, because a system can survive for quite a while even without new internal initiations. But its overall energy level enters a downward spiral, resulting either in its breakup or in its survival as a mere label, without producing specific material. It exists in the heteronomy of another system's context, having the choice between a fictional culture of subsidization or the non-reception of the cultural industry. My point is that such a tendency cannot be reversed through alarmism, but only through a common effort among recipients and producers.

I don't see such a clear difference. After all, producers are recipients as well, at least temporarily.

True, but most of them don't see themselves in that way. Quite to the contrary: In my experience, many view the switch from recipient to producer as a relief: 'Finally, I don't have keep track of everything, now people have to follow my work! Therefore, I declare this and that, according to my own judgement, as my starting point. And everything I pass by along the way will at most be an influence in my original work. Maybe not even that, but that's left for others to find out, reception-centered, generalistic parasites!' The tragedy with this point of view is that, the more an artist counts on it, the smaller are the chances of it happening. For that which we may call the world's brain right now, these individual aspects are only taken into account for their contribution to the current state of the development - everythig else are graduation concerts, played for one's own parents, teachers, and friends.
But don't you ask something from the producers which you just deemed impossible even for genuine recipients? How is that possible?

Exactly, and that could be the bad news: The rule is that it will not work. We're stuck reinventing imperfect wheels, filling up the few remaining channels for reception. Subjectively with the best of intentions, but with fatal results.

So what do you suggest? A ten-year ban on new releases? An anti-redundancy committee, censoring everything they judge as superflous or regressive to protect the recipients?
Right now, we have an inverse censorship, and neither producers nor recipients, but the distribution channels and the powers they represent are to blame for it. Nevertheless, there is a passive responsibility as well, and we could indeed say that every production or reception that does not intend to go beyond the prevalent situation is cultural spam. And the golden rule for producers should be: Do not produce anything you wouldn't want to receive from someone else.

But, again, how do you want to implement something like that? Without realization, it's just unrealistic talking.

Well, we as Anonymous Recipients have no means other than our consumer behavior, and I will grant you that I wouldn't want to see the aporias that would emerge if we had other means at our disposal. For what it's worth, it remains unrealistic talking - not more unreal than anything else that's being said in the nominal cultural scene. And don't forget: It has been said now, which does make a difference, be it a marginal one. Proclaiming things may not be our strongest side, I'll give you that.

Then what is?

Our real function as Anonymous Recipients is much more humble. I often compare us to the monasteries during medieval times, preserving the ancient knowledge. In a similar way, but without the filters of Christianity, we maneuver the tradition of autonomous musical reception through the neo-feudal interregnum of a globalized world - until the earth is round again.

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