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Interview: Thom Kubli (Germany)

Thom Kubli, Record Attempt

Thom Kubli, Record Attempt, 2012

This past February, artist Thom Kubli staged his installation and performance piece, Record Attempt, at MARCO (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Vigo) as part of the exhibition Presencia active (curated by Sergio Edelsztein and Kathleen Forde) and his second attempt to set the world record for the longest guitar solo. Record Attempt provides a platform for individuals to attempt the world’s longest guitar solo through a set of regulations, a notary, as well as an amplifier, speakers, microphone, and a camera for streaming the performance.

Kubli set the record in 2008 at the Figge von Rosen Galerie in Cologne, Germany, with a performance that lasted for 6 hours and 18 seconds. The record is currently set at 15 hours, 15 minutes, and 15 seconds by Cristian Fernández Graña. Record Attempt will open again on October 5th, 2012 at LABoral, Spain.

This interview was conducted over dinner on a ship on the Hudson River in Troy, NY, at sunset.

Emily Berçir Zimmerman: When did you begin the project, and what formed the desire to create the record for the longest guitar solo?

Thom Kubli: The first performance was in 2008 in a gallery in Cologne. I think the intention was formed by two things. First, I did a guitar solo at a marriage party. I realized the impact it had, both for myself and for the audience, and the kind of energy that was transmitted. Most of the performances or pieces that I make that I consider to be good have a source in my biography where I invest some kind of passion. And playing guitar was something that I did very passionately for a long time.

EBZ: At the first showing at the gallery in Cologne did you break the record?

TK: There was no record at that point. I had the idea to create the record for the longest guitar solo then. The piece is complex in that it is about inclusion and exclusion – you can see that when you see the architecture of the installation at MARCO. It takes place in a small space where the audience is never included. And if you set a record it is also about inclusion and exclusion as something that is competitive. The idea of competition in music is a strange thing. To put the idea of competition in the context of music, I came up with this situation that somehow would raise the idea of pure competition, and to establish at what point competition is useless.

EBZ: I see, no longer useful to mark human achievement.

TK: Yes. The confession I wrote to go along with the installation goes into questions such as, “Why do you want to become famous?” or “Why would you expose your body to certain things for a game?”

Especially in popular culture, the idea of stardom has shifted tremendously. There is no recipe for how to achieve stardom anymore. But the piece also asked why people seek fame. That is the question that really tickles me – why would someone spend so much time, and compromise so much, for stardom.

EBZ: It is incredibly interesting to talk about this at this moment when the Olympics are going on. In prior ages there was a sense that famous individuals, incuding athletes, should embody the best of human morals.

TK: This is the old Greek philosophy of virtue. This comes back to the theme of a hero. Virtue is the thing that makes a link between being famous and having a public voice and acting morally. I think becoming a star has shifted significantly from that idea of virtue. Now, it means going through dirty business, where you go onto these television shows and get insulted and humiliated.

EZ: Yes, that is the trial by fire by which one becomes famous now.

TK: If someone tells you now, “I want to become famous” it leaves a strange taste in your mouth.

EZ: And there are very few high profile individuals who haven’t had their past dredged up and had their image sullied in the media, so that there is a sense that virtue doesn’t exist. Perhaps in the past there was a greater effort to keep secrets locked away, in order to preserve a public idea of virtue.

TK: Basically there is no moral construction at the moment. The moral construction of virtue cannot live as long as it is based on the economy. To quote Clinton, “It’s the economy stupid.” There is also the idea of the afterlife. What is fame supposed to mean for the afterlife? When you die is there some kind of energetic advantage if you have been famous?

EBZ: To be remembered…

TK: If you are an artist, of course you love what you do, and you need to do it for whatever reason. You can observe this when artists get older and they become obsessed with their archives. And most of the time they start dealing with archivists. I think that the reason why this happens is death. The whole culture is controlled by death, and the way you deal with death.

EBZ: And the media frenzy of fame is really about pushing back against death.

TK: At the same time they go crazy to conserve everything before death happens. It raises a lot of questions. In a society where no one would die, you would not have to do that. There are two sides: on the one side there is society that creates archives to learn and to teach a culture; and then there is the other side of the individual who is putting out pieces, and this is the more mysterious side. For an artist, if you know you are going to die anyway and that you’ll be gone, who cares? Why do you want to spend your time making sure everything is preserved? Many artists who are politically aware and anti-capitalist end up feeding into the capitalist system through the archive. Otherwise they could be active while they are alive, and let their pieces disappear. My father was Calivinist, and Calivinism was the heart of capitalism because Calvinists say you have to make your fortune while you are on earth.

EBZ: I’m very curious about the installation. You talked about the exclusion of the audience. When I first read about the peephole I was wondering if it was a reference to Duchamp’s Etant Donné? And I am wondering if you can describe the spatial arrangement of the installation in more detail?

TK: Basically the space is a very minimal setup. It is a closed space, and it will be closed during the time of the record, while the record is going on. There will be the one who wants to break the record and there will be a notary in the space or someone who is a witness who is authorized by a notary. So there is the side that is doing the rock guitar playing and there is this very legal side which is very official and he is just there for the legal side of the whole thing. They are together in the same space and there is a theatrical aspect to the whole thing. Both are human beings that have to behave in a particular way, so it is interesting to see how a notary would behave while a rock guitar guy is playing a solo next to him. I like the idea that you have the presence of these two poles in one small space.

Also, these are things in a capsule so the audience doesn’t have access; access is always mediated. Let’s say you have a window, you can look inside but you don’t have the straight sound, there is a speaker system, but mostly it is transferred over the internet so you can watch it on your phone. Everything is somehow mediated. Even if you stand in front of the whole thing and see it happening, you never have access to it.

The basic setting for a musical performance is to have a stage and someone performing; there is direct sound and direct contact to the audience. This is not happening at all – it more like this kind of future generation that sits at home and play guitar, like the shredder guitar players, who set up a camera and you see them play and they completely are perfect in what they are doing. Because it is a performance in itself, it doesn’t need a stage. It has a stage but it is a mediated stage; it’s a movie stage really.

EBZ: Exactly.

TK: I’m talking a little bit on that – that I disconnect the audience from what is really going on. I make them nearly being able to touch it, but not really. There is always this little bit you really can’t reach. And you would hardly hear anything outside.

EBZ: I’m interested in this organization – World Records in Sounds and Music (WSM).

TK: Mainly this is based on the fact that I talked to Guinness World Records, and they have some kind of world record in just playing guitar but not playing a guitar solo. I argued that a guitar solo is from a very particular cultural background. There are a lot of things that seem to be very important concerning guitar solos and they have a particular focus on them, so there should be a world record. They answered that they are not going to create the category. It might also be that they did not like the project, but for some reason they did not want to open a category. The point is that Guinness measures world records, but there is no reason why they should be the only authority to measure something – there is no given reference as to why they do it – they just put out a book. So I made this organization, World Records in Sounds and Music. It’s the institution that I came up with to measure this.

EBZ: I see, that’s really interesting. Did you have to create a corporation in order to do so?

TK: No because there is no money involved. So I could just make it up – have a logo and put it on the web.

EBZ: I was interested in the phenomenon of trying to measure something – the key aspect of the guitar solo being its quantification in time.

TK: I realized that there are references that everyone accepts. Someone says this is world the record for blah blah blah – why are they authorized to put out a world record? In boxing there are a couple of different institutions and instances where you can be the world champion. I think there are at least four. I slowly understood that it’s very arbitrary. You can create your own institution to measure things. The question is – who is accepting that? Are you putting out books that everyone loves? Basically the acceptance of Guinness rests on putting out a fancy book. Because everyone loves this book, because there is great stuff in there, and you can give it as a present for Christmas or something. And they are very good at this.

EBZ: Because it has been around awhile too, the name is known and trusted.

TK: What is funny is that we put it up in Spain again. I did the second record in Spain that was seven hours. And the whole thing was open to the public because the installation was meant for that. In the museum, we said, “Okay anyone who wants to break the record can come break the record.” It was a public competition. And then we got a couple of Spanish guys and they showed up. I think I ended up with seven hours, and now its up to 15 hours. That is the world record.

EBZ: I had heard that you were going to make another attempt?

TK: Yeah but this will be really hard. I will do an attempt, this is the correct term for it. I don’t know if I am going to make it. I will try and see if I can overcome 15 hours.

EBZ: Describe the competition in Spain a little bit more.

TK: You have the basic situation as I described it and there is a little door and once you enter you are there. That’s it. You could find out from the website that you can break the world record in a public competition, and go into the museum and say I want to break the record. And then they would give you a schedule of when you can do that. They have to plan it a little bit because if you want to break the record that will take like seven hours from the start, the museum would have to stay open, stuff like that.

EBZ: And the notary has to be there too?

TK: Yes the notary too. For the 15 hour attempt the museum had to stay open until 1 am. I love this very much. Just for the sake of keeping the record going the museum had to stay open late.

EBZ: It’s like the interface of two economic systems.

TK: Absolutely. We had a lot of press there, which was nice because they got quite some fuss. We had it in the Spanish version of the Rolling Stone Magazine. So it created some fuss, and there were a lot of people doing the record and it was very exciting there with the notary, and then after a couple of hours it gets a little quieter outside and you get left alone with the guy next to you, who is the notary. You are not supposed to talk, there is just a little bit of communication that you are supposed to have at the beginning and the end. It’s a very concentrated situation.

EBZ: Very serious.

TK: Very serious.

EBZ: In terms of format, did you have any interest in durational performance?

TK: I am just trying to rewind. In the beginning, it wasn’t decided to do something very long, but I think the idea was trying to figure out how far you can go, what your body could do, how far you can take it, and what your mind can do. After that, I think I got into thinking about large forms.

Also there are two ways you can think about this, one way is an economical way, so how you pass this time, and the other is a musical way. During the first attempt I did, I figured out a line I would like to follow and a couple of things that I would like to go through like phrases or ideas I had. And I thought, “Okay, I’m going to do this and that.” I prepared a structure I thought would come up at a certain point and I did that. For the second attempt I did nothing, because I wanted to rely on the fact that everything I came up with or tried to invent to make it a structure might be more interesting created in the moment.

EBZ: To improvise…

TK: Full improvisation, even to figure out the whole structure. Not to come up with something like, “Okay I’m going to go through ten hours so I have these lines, like phase one, phase two, and so on.” And then you start playing but you also start thinking.

EBZ: So you are simultaneously following two different tracks.

TK: And you see what you are doing and how this works out or not. And then you start planning: do I come back to that or no, and how does it feel? How does it feel like energy-wise? This is a very important thing.

EBZ: Because you are also feeding back into your own energy.

TK: Yeah, absolutely.

EBZ: Can you eat during the 15 hours?

TK: You could but basically you stand, you have to rock out. You can eat like a banana or something – there is nothing saying that you shouldn’t eat. But what it says is that you should perform it like you would perform a rock guitar solo.

EBZ: So, maybe, if it is part of the rock performance.

TK: I shouldn’t forget to say that there are regulations – five points of what you can do and what you can’t do – the rules of the game. It is very much precisely said you have to pick a tone every ten seconds. If you fall out of that you are history.

EBZ: So you can’t hold one note forever.

TK: For instance, you could just take your guitar, put it in front of the amp, create a feedback and walk away. That’s not going to work. It says which techniques can be used, which sounds can be used, how much time can pass by before you play another string, the tuning you have to use, all that. So there are very precise regulations, that the notary has to stick to also.

EBZ: Because there is no competition without rules.

TK: No. If you want to play the game you need the rules. If you want to break the rules you need the rules.

EBZ: Exactly.


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Emily Zimmerman is a curator and writer based in Seattle, WA. Her research interests bring together embodied learning, media theory, and existential philosophy. Emily is the Associate Curator of Programs at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington. Previously she was the Associate Curator at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) where she commissioned new work from artists such as Melvin Moti, Gordon Hall, Marie Sester and curated the exhibitions Uncertain Spectator (2010) and Slow Wave: Seeing Sleep (2009). She received the 2011-2012 Loris Ledis Curatorial Fellowship at BRIC Contemporary Art, served as a 2013 curator-in-residence at Residency Unlimited, and was awarded funding by the New Foundation Seattle in 2016. Her writings have appeared in BOMB, Big, Red & Shiny and Contemporary Performance. She has served on a number of review panels including the New York State Council on the Arts and the Herb Alpert Awards. She is a board member for the Wave Farm. Emily received her MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and her BA from New York University.

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