Pop Ark Interview



Between 10 and 19 March, the Kunstenfestivaldesarts held a discussion with Noah Fischer via e-mail. The following text is an excerpt from that e-mail exchange. Both Rhetoric Machine and Pop Art are discussed in it.

In the first few days the e-mails centred on the types of rhetoric Fischer used and arranged in Rhetoric Machine and Pop Ark. The following excerpt opens with Noah’s reflections on the question as to whether there can be talk of rhetoric in art, and if that is the case, what type of rhetoric. The next question touches on the issue as to in how far the manner in which one talks about freedom, for instance, can in itself be free. Fischer then goes further into the meaning of electricity in his work, before finally reflecting on the performative character of the machines he builds.

On Mar 15 2008, at 07:41, Noah Fischer wrote :

Dear Lars,

Yes, freedom is a good theme and I hope that the Ark will take us there, although I can’t promise a smooth ride….

I agree with you on the freedom paradox in political rhetoric. Of course, here in the US freedom is our favorite word and it has been totally twisted around. In the research for Rhetoric Machine I listened to many, many presidential speeches and found a hard-wired pattern where a picture is painted of a road to freedom and to the utopian destiny of Americans (and people in general). Unfortunately, that road always had an obstacle on it – someone standing in the way of freedom. One last war and everyone will finally be free…

I know working with this content sounds hard and heavy. It’s not in the same spirit as the live chats or interviews in Little Red for example which as you say point a way toward a new use language-maybe a new rhetoric- that is not as weighed down by political history-that feels fresh. But given what it has felt like to see our government and legacy of the United States and global situation in general implode in the last 8 years – a truly strange nightmare-like experience – a dark tunnel actually – I felt that this work needed to be done. Sometimes you just have to head right into the shit. That’s why I love reading Kafka – some sort of hall of mirror mausoleum for human stupidity. These things have to be built and that is Rhetoric Machine. But then again Rhetoric Machine was in the end a (troubled) love story and I think if you can see that you really get the piece.

Pop Ark is not really in the same direction. There is a strong link between the two with mass culture and persuasive language but as I said in a previous email, after Rhetoric Machine I wanted to get away from a pure critique of “the man” or the big institutional symbols. Al Gore as you say is another well practiced head mover, but he works kind of like a foil in this piece against a new freer feeling, rambling, mimicking, media savvy yet highly personal rhetoric. I was inspired by kids who grew up with the internet as a fact of life and on their video blogs where they get to speak, edit, add sound, and network with their viewers, seem to have found a freedom (that word again) in the eye of the storm of commercial, superficial media.

One thing about my background is that I grew up in California on a Buddhist monastery. It was modeled on a traditional Japanese one, and very beautiful and peaceful near the Pacific Ocean. People were meditating and healing themselves, very nice people but there was one problem maybe. Anything outside of the monastery was referred to as “the real world.”

So at the bottom of my practice is dealing with the shit of this real world – actually as a celebration/duty of living in it. When I say “dealing” I mean making art about it: remixing a very visible electricity which is the basic but invisible thing in society with elements of painting (signifiers of art) sound, narrative structures, etc. to craft an experience that is completely of the reality (shit) world but reorganizes it into art somehow. It is very hard work, which means I have to be in my studio a lot – not hitch hiking on a Western highway – but I find a simple joy in things and time and in the state of the world as it is – in doing this, and I can share it.

Rhetoric Machine was really that – a Rhetoric Machine and you could say that this machine was showing something it was kind of like a multi media essay. WithPop Ark, I cannot say what I am showing pointing out – it’s more simple than that – it’s a big vessel, an Ark. The exciting thing about the Ark is that it’s on a voyage.


On Sat, Mar 15, 2008 at 7:59 PM, Lars Kwakkenbos wrote:

Hi Noah,

Thanks a lot for your answer.

Can you tell me more about that electricity you’re talking about, and link it to the way you use it in your work, if possible? You talk about invisible electricity in society, while your work seems to be characterised by a same sort of basic thing called electricity, that might link everything together. How does this work inRhetoric Machine, and how does it work in Pop Ark? How does electricity help to reorganize reality (by making art with it)?


On Mon, Mar 17 2008, at 07:23 Noah Fischer wrote

Hi Lars,

Here are some thoughts on electricity in my work.

One of the privileges of making art I think is to highlight ordinary things. This happens without doing anything – when we bring them into an art context, which can be a place of heightened sensory/ intellectual/historical awareness and debate. But I prefer to take a more active stance.

I would very much like to highlight electricity. It’s light, warmth, power, and politics in a pure form. It’s the energy that we live off. Yet for generations people have been taught to be scared of it, leave it to specialists, or just find it boring even though it’s consumed at increasing levels. Like a traffic signal, or the glowing screen of the computer that you have to sit in front of all day, electricity exerts a certain amount of control over our lives but we can no longer really see it.

I make work about power so I use power. Really, I have no choice. Even if I were painting with oil on canvas, or making ephemeral sand sculptures, a power grid looms somewhere in the background. That’s Western society. I choose to use this power in my work actively and, as we were saying before, to develop my thinking inside of this electrical work toward creating new forms. What about these forms? Well, electricity has rules that determine them. You touch certain wires and you will get shocked – a powerful sensation that I have experienced many times. Electricity tends to be either totally on or totally off – it’s not wishy-washy. It’s reality! Then when I started to work more with lights and motors, I found a freedom in it – avoiding being a “good electrician” and taming this force into a grid, but instead keeping alive an aspect of the raw power that initially fascinated me.

My work is lo-tech but more and more it’s addressing the computer. The computer is either an electric brain or mirror.  Laptops (which are featured in Pop Ark) and ipods and iphones and the like are getting smaller and smaller and we are encouraged to think less and less about electric power and more about experience, networks, emotions, connectivity, options. But don’t be fooled – there is always something raw and dangerous and beautiful in electricity that maybe mirrors the same in the human mind. Behind the laptop there is a primitive thing and I would like to reveal this in my art.

In Pop Ark I have built switch boxes that look like laptops where all the power for the installation is routed. There will be a tall power pole with power lines up in the space. Controlling the installation – as with Rhetoric Machine – is a large motorized timing drum covered with electrical wires called the “Gore-Bot” which works like a music box. I could use a small computer chip to do the exact same thing, but I want to bring the electricity out of the closet. This machine may seem antiquated, but in New York there is a metal box on every traffic light that is basically the same thing.


On Mon, Mar 17 2008 at 6:31 PM, Lars Kwakkenbos wrote:

Hi Noah,

What fascinates me in your answer is firstly: your awareness of the physical presence of electricity – it can be warm and it provides power, but it can also be harmful – and therefore its relation to our senses and our human body. Can you further explain that?

Second thing that fascinates me: the rawness, danger and beauty that is to be found in electricity might mirror rawness, danger and beauty in the human mind. Do you turn your machines into metaphors for ways of thinking or feeling?


On  Mar 18 2008 at 08:54 Noah Fischer wrote :

Dear Lars,

Electricity is a physical experience and like I said, it becomes clear when you get a strong shock. I don’t see them as bad things – it’s a very foreign but interesting moment to interact with pure energy. In New York we have Times Square, which is as you know an area of highly concentrated electric lights and communications. When I get near it I have a strong reaction to the electric fields I usually start humming pop songs to myself – silence isn’t possible there or maybe I have to start humming to reach silence – the mind making up for a negative charge.

To your second question – I was making the link between the brain and the computer and showing that there was actually a rawness to both although they seem like well organized working systems. It’s a question of seeing the forest for the trees I guess. The way that we use electricity in human social life from big coal or water or nuclear generators through transformers and stepped down to street voltages, to the 110 or 220 in our apartments, finally into our laptops in low voltages where information floats around – is very much like a human anatomical system: the nervous system or blood circulation. We seem to have created a massive hungry electric monster but mostly we just see the small side – the screensaver or something. I like to focus on the big picture, which is dangerous (not ipod-like). Also, this is what the Global Warming conversation is about or should be about – learning to step back. But it’s not just an intellectual exercise it has to be hands on, so I advocate taking apart electric appliances to see how they work. You might even get shocked.

Perceiving the rawness, danger, and beauty in humans works roughly the same way. You can read the newspaper talk in depth with smart friends, drink tea and eat a nice meal and think everything’s alright and civilization is ultimately winning out. But the answer is not really so clear. There is ongoing violence and injustice in the world that just defies logic. We’re lucky not to be a part of it for the time being. So you have to step back on that too – there is more work to be done with understanding the human experience on this level.


Electricity seems to be closely linked to humankind because we have learned to harness it. And human civilization just exploded after that.