Interview with Matthias Hurtl about Drowning in Aether

The Rotterdam-based sound artist Matthias Hurtl developed his new work 'Drowning in Æther' during a residency at V2_ and Museu Zer0 in Tavira (Portugal) in 2020. He showed this work as an installation as part of the exhibition Intimate Observations – On Conduction Earth Observations at Museu Zer0 in Tavira. Back in Rotterdam, Roc Montoriol accompanied him on a signal hunt, and asked him a few questions about his work and motivations.

Roc Montoriol: What did you show in the exhibition?

Matthias Hurtl: I presented an audio-visual installation showing an ‘exposé’ of my practice that I call signal hunting. I exhibited my ghost satellite box, a video projection documenting my practice, and three handmade antennas constructed from scrap materials that I found during my stay in Tavira. For the loudspeakers I utilized two satellite dishes as directional parabolic speakers to project the sound into the altar in the church where I was presenting my work. I created a ritualistic set-up around my ghost satellite box with artifacts and objects I found in Tavira, as well as photos I took during my satellite signal hunts, and some historic images of satellites. The video I showed at the exhibition is a documentation of my signal hunts. A collage of captured satellite signals, sound studies and videos I shot on the locations of my hunts. I used two cameras to film my process, a regular digital camera and a ‘ghost-hunting camera’. I juxtaposed the videos on top of each other, in an attempt to create abstract connections between the different layers in the electromagnetic spectrum: what is audible, what is not; what is visible and what is not.

What did you develop during the V2_ + MUSEU ZERO residency?

The question I was tackling was basically how can I transform the collected material of my practice-based research into an audio-visual installation? How to take some snippets out of this vast amount of material, and make it presentable to people, so they can discover the research on which it is based? I also wanted to transport this intimate feeling that I have when I go hunting for satellites.

You developed specific tools to capture satellite signals. What can we find in your personal signal-hunting toolkit?

My signal hunting toolkit consists of a Raspberry pi with a software defined radio and touch display to tune into the frequencies, a modular synth I assembled to sample, filter and process the captured satellite signals, and various directional as well as omnidirectional antennas. During the residency I developed another tool: the ghost satellite box. This box is inspired by a device used by the ghost hunting community, called spirit box or ghost box. Ghost hunters use it to investigate Electronic Voice Phenomena and communicate with spirits. It is basically a hacked FM/AM radio receiver that sweeps automatically back and forth through the radio spectrum. I programmed a Python script that utilizes this idea and controls my software defined radio to skip through the frequencies of ghost satellites.

Could you tell us a bit more about the signal-hunting process?

Signal hunting involves being outdoors and demands to tune into the circadian rhythms of the satellites. Their signals are often very weak. Interference from cell towers or other radio signals like WIFI networks can easily render the reception impossible. Therefore, I have to hunt at places that are outside of the city center and ideally remote from urban infrastructure. In Rotterdam, I mostly hunt at the Kralingse Plas, it's quite nice, there are not much city noises around. It's a wide-open space with no trees and if you walk around the lake you can point your antenna in all cardinal directions. Still, there is a lot of interference around, obviously: in the Netherlands it's hard to get a radio-silent spot. I often encounter passersby, surprised by my weird devices and the weird noises coming out of my speakers, they approach me and ask me what am I doing. I tell them about my practice and the history of the satellites that I am capturing . They often show real interest, and sometimes share their own experiences with radio signals.

Sonification of solar activity, secret satellites, lost cosmonauts… Outer space has been a central topic in your practice. How did this fascination start?

It's hard to say how it really started, but I was always fascinated by space. I remember back then when I was a kid, I used to follow the ISS missions on TV with my parents. I have always been curious about it. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine inherited a telescope from his grandfather, and we were just camping outside, looking for stars. At that time, I saw Jupiter and Saturn for the first time (although it was a really crappy telescope, we could see the rings). That made it all really tangible; it's really far away, but you are able to see it with your own eyes. That planted the thought in me that I could reach out for signals that I had thought were beyond amateur or artistic scope.

Does our understanding of satellites change through signal-hunting?

Presenting my research to an audience makes this whole realm more approachable for them. It becomes tangible. Some people in the audience in Tavira for example were astounded that so many old satellites are still out there, that you can still hear them if you know how to listen. That often directs people to think about space debris, how we have not only polluted and damaged our planet, but also the outer space around it. We just leave the old and the damaged satellites behind, pretending they are not there and we look for new, virgin spaces for innovation. We stop listening, but the traces we leave behind never stop talking back at us.

How much room to maneuver do you have in the compositional process? Do you welcome unexpected events?

Yes, I very much appreciate unexpected events. I don't use any extra sources like oscillators; I don't add anything else to what I record, I only work with signals I capture in the aether. Everything that originated there is welcomed: interferences, harmonics from other radio spectrums, resonances. The room to maneuver during the process depends on the setting or the outcome. If I do a live performance, certainly the room is quite limited, and I need to have an idea about what I want to do with the received signal. There are many unknowns, since I can’t predict what is going to happen and it's not even sure whether I’ll be able to capture a satellite successfully. So, I need to limit myself because otherwise I get overwhelmed by adjusting the antenna, manipulating the sound, looping and filtering it and so on. But if I work on a composition or on a study, I have a lot of time and I can really dig into the material and really dissect the signals. Then you can dive into it and find patterns which I couldn't find in a live setting.

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