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Future Watch: Birt Berglund

We first learnt about Birt Berglund through his work in the brilliant queer noise duo Seroconversion and worked with him before in that capacity. He is currently pursuing his MFA at Konstfack in Stockholm and recently took part in another curated exhibition of ours; this time around presenting his own artistic practice. “Where noise in the work of Seroconversion is concerned with sexuality, gender and queerness, my “solo” work is also concerned with noise but from a much broader perspective.”, he notes.

Birt Berglund. Photo: Corina Wahlin/C-print

C-P: Together with Johan Sundell you form the queer noise duo Seroconversion, in which constellation the notion of how queerness (in its capacity as ”unwanted” by certain societal standards) sounds sonically have been explored over time. Is it safe to assume that sound makes for a cornerstone throughout your individual practice at Konstfack too? B.B: Yes, I come from a background in music so sound has always been at the core of my practice. I would say that the main cornerstone is sound itself and how we perceive and understand it, be it a question of examining sound as a material and our relationship to it, or the exchange between music, concepts and visual aesthetics. I also have a special interest in concepts and theories concerning noise/silence/information. This gives me a way of looking (or maybe listening) at non-sound concepts through a lens (or filter) of sound. C-P: Let's stay with noise as an artistic matter for a bit. In the current landscape of contemporary art, what standing do you relate to noise? I can't myself think of too many artists who've prompted noise concepts forward towards audiences. I instantly think of Seroconversion. B.B: My background is mainly from the soundscape of music and not the landscape of contemporary art. Nevertheless, I would say it depends on what you define as noise and where you define the borders of contemporary art. Experimental music is generally not included within the field of contemporary art, which is a problem since most of the works that examine noise and sound as an artistic matter happen there. However, in recent years there have been growing scholarly discourses of noise theories (especially within sound studies), which I think steadily spills over to the field that is commonly called “contemporary art”.

Also, music at large has of course as well slowly and steadily been seeping into art for a long time now. But if talking about contemporary art; in my view there doesn’t seem to be that many artists working with noise as an expressed concept in their work. If including what is generally called experimental music and such, then it has been right there all the while since the time of Russolo.

Seroconversion, 'Homotopos II' from 'All Disco Dance Must End In Broken Bones', Wetterling Gallery 2019, Curated by C-print, Photo Jean-Baptiste Béranger

C-P: One of the projects you are currently working on at Konstfack is one that compellingly presents as a meditation on how sound can be conveyed and mediated without the presence of actual sound. The starting point is closed captions for hard of hearing persons, from TV and films. What brought your attention there? B.B: The starting point for the project was that I thought a lot about how sound might be portrayed or mediated through text. Questions arose of how to produce sound without sound itself and examine the boundaries of sound as a material. Later I got really fascinated by closed captioning in film and how they are used to describe sound that is “out of view”. I started collecting a lot of sound captions from different things I watched myself, and with that collection I’ve been aiming at producing a triptych of sorts. Right now I am finishing the first part; a film consisting of these closed captions presented in a random manner. During the work I became fascinated thinking about how the person choosing what sound to mediate through the closed captions have a sort of position of power in terms of what sounds are deemed important enough to be considered a part of the narrative of a film.

Most of the “sounds” I have collected make for quite a dramatic collection. The first three “sounds” are for example: [shrieks], [man screams in distance] and [electricity sparks]. The way the film medium got involved in this project really made it much more interesting for me and put forth more questions of not just sound as a material itself but in the end also about the use of sound to produce narratives, the gaze in film and about how sounds are filtered through narratives and so on. I still think about the work as sound art though, since its main objective is to produce sound (even if it only exists inside the viewer’s consciousness).

Birt Berglund, Sound but not a word, while work in progress, 2021, video stills

C-P: It certainly appears like a very multi-layered work which informs a lot of dimensions, of which one is the reality you describe with someone exercising presiding agency over the narratives and experiences of hard of hearing persons, and ultimately in that regard a question of power. Interesting as well is the notion of access to popular culture which this work relates to in contrast to past works you've done, seated in a more niche realm of queer theory and history. You mentioned triptych; what constitutes the remaining two parts?

B.B: Yes, I really enjoy how the work can speak from different layers depending on what you are looking for in it. The other parts have the same content as the film (the closed captions) but are presented in other ways. One will be presenting the captions as a written text, probably in some sort of publication, and one will present the captions spoken as an audio recording. So there is a sort of examination and play of how the sounds of the captions can be mediated. And with saying “triptych”, I should maybe refer to it as a “loose” kind of triptych. The works belong together but are at the same time just as functional on their own. Also, I realize I until now have actually forgotten to mention that the title of the work(s) will be Sound but not a word.

MALE BONDAGE, Fylkingen, Stockholm. Photo: Nicklas Dennermalm

C-P: While your background with Seroconversion and projects like Male Bondage are very much seated in a queer realm, your solo work appears to depart away from a more direct queer connection. To what extent will there be an overlap?

B.B: It all comes back to my interest in noise as both material and concept. Where noise in the work of Seroconversion is concerned with sexuality, gender and queerness, my “solo” work is also concerned with noise but from a much broader perspective. This perspective is to understand noise as a concept that is much more complex than just being “unwanted” or “the Other”. That is: trying to understand noise as it is, not as something you compare to what is thought of as meaningful or informative. Noise can work as a sort of lens, tool or concept that we can use to try and understand things beyond the discourse of the binary and oppositions that our perception of the world is caught up within.

One big part of my own work is therefore trying to understand the limits and concepts of how we understand things and how they are mediated to us. The starting point can be thought of as the same as before but then moving in on subjects more expansively. So even as some of my work might seem to be about concepts of sound it is still often grounded in some sort of epistemology and/or metaphysics of noise.

'Tinplate, a boy', performance with Seroconversion in Dortmund, 2019. Photo: Marie Gavois

C-P: You're also currently exploring parascientific ideas and peripheral geological theories as I remember, no?

B.B: I am researching for a project that explores different “Hollow Earth-theories”. Such ideas suggest that our planet is hollow and contains a world in itself that holds other beings and creatures and so on. It’s a recurrent theme in early science fiction stories, for example Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne or At The Earth’s Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs. But this theme can also be found in conspiracy theories (both old and modern) and early scientific research. Edward Halley, the scientist who calculated the trajectory for the comet that bears his name, proposed in 1692 the idea that the Earth was hollow and had different rotating layers inside of it. This was brought forth as a way of trying to describe why the Earth’s magnetic field was slowly moving according to measurements.

I am in a research phase with all this, and I am not entirely sure yet what will become of it. But I have to do something with it since it fascinates me in so many ways. It has a “fantastique” kind of feel to it, but also something existential – wanting the Earth (literally) to contain something more than just “us”. And of course we can also see some sort of connection to the Flat Earth conspiracy theories that have grown recently. Moreover, I also have some ideas at sketch-level of a project working with descriptions of how birds sound and some smaller projects that concern the voice and the scream.

C-P: Birds, that's an interesting back-to-basics entry into sound and music. Why birds?

B.B: I don’t really have a special interest in birds, but I think bird song is interesting as a very commonly used signifier of nature. It is really part of a sort of collective understanding of how nature in a general sense is “supposed” to sound. One of the easiest ways to signify nature with sound is playing a recording of birds singing. I am also fascinated how there have been many attempts at trying to describe bird sounds, such as through bird encyclopedias. Since I also have an interest in language, information and sound, the bird sounds and our ways of trying to describe them in words are very interesting to me. When thinking more about different aspects of bird song there are of course also other references that you can stress – for example Swedish Public Radio (SR) with their feature Pausfågel or Öyvind Fahlströms radio piece Fåglar i Sverige.

In Birt Berglund's studio. Photo: Birt Berglund

C-P: You will be exhibiting in our exhibition Future Watch at Kulturhuset. What can be said about it and what else lies ahead in 2021?

B.B: Yes, I’m participating in the exhibition with Sound but not a word. I’m really looking forward to it! Especially trying out how to present the work in some sort of gallery space, alongside other works by other artists. Aside from that, I am also finishing up a book project that we in Seroconversion are doing together with another artist duo, Nils Agdler and Timo Menke. It’s a sort of very expansive artist book with texts from different contributors that relate to the themes of an exhibition we did together at Galleri 54 in late 2018. Seroconversion will hopefully also be able to premiere a new performance in 2021, but I guess we’ll see what happens in light of the pandemic and all! And I will continue also working with the ongoing queer sound archive Arkivet för Rosa Brus and the cassette label Kronofonika. And last, but not least, I will try to work a lot in my studio at Konstfack and do research and finish up smaller projects.

Ashik Zaman

This feature was originally produced for C-print's The Future Watch Issue in print, a close collaboration with the BA3 Class in Graphic Design and Illustration at Konstfack, and released (May 2021) and sold at Index Foundation in Stockholm (our main distributor). Birt Berglund has since participated in C-print's curated exhibition FUTURE WATCH - 10 konstnärer i tiden at Kulturhuset Stadsteatern (Galleri 3), April 16 - August 8.


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