Sitting in a café in Berlin's trendy Mitte district, veteran Canadian artist Michael Snow admits to being pretty excited.
"About this," he says, sparkling. "It's all about this."
"This?" I ask.
"Well, this and that," he allows. "But mainly this."
For those not familiar with Snowspeak or the artist's current interest in the notion of this (as well as that), the conversation might seem to be off to a dubious start. But Snow, almost despite himself, is very articulate when talking about his recent work -- explorations of language and the spaces between words -- as well as his long-standing interest in the relationship between image and sound, and between spectator and art.
In this case, Snow is excited about a mini-festival of his work which opened recently in various Berlin venues and will continue all summer. Included are exhibitions in three of Berlin's hottest galleries, two nights of his films at the renowned Kino Arsenal and a concert by Snow's band CCMC.
When asked how the concert went, Snow shrugs. "I think it went well. It's hard to know."
Founded in Toronto in 1974 as a musical collective for free improvisation, the band's current configuration is Snow (voice, noise, synthesizer), Paul Dutton (voice) and John Oswald (voice, alto sax).
"The music is supposed be like an open conversation between us all," says Oswald, describing the trio's recent performance, "but this time, just when Mike and I were reaching the end of our conversation, Paul began a monologue." Dutton's solo of sound poetry, which lasted several minutes after the others had left the stage, vexed some audience members.
Snow was not displeased -- "After almost 30 years of spontaneity, it's good that the unexpected still happens," he says with a twinkle.
The idea for the Snow fest in Berlin came from Ariane Beyn, a freelance curator and doctorate student of art history. Particularly interested in Snow's lesser known audio work, Beyn approached one of the cutting-edge galleries that has sprung up in the former East Berlin since the fall of the wall. When gallery owner Martin Klosterfelde agreed to host the audio exhibition, Beyn, together with the Canadian Embassy's cultural attaché for visual arts, Vanessa Ohlraun, began putting together a multiple-venue program to reflect the breadth of Snow's work.
That the sum of that Beyn's and Ohlraun's ages falls considerably short of Snow's 73 years reflects the kind of interest that exists for Snow in Berlin. The opening of the Hearing Aid exhibit at the Klosterfelde Gallery was well attended by Berlin's thirtysomething art set, donning the requisite oversized sunglasses despite a torrential downpour. They lined up to listen to a selection of Snow's sound pieces on headsets. One of these was Sinom (1989), a recording of 22 voices reciting the names of the first 34 mayors of Quebec City. What exactly the young Berlin crowd made of this was hard to tell. But the word "cool" echoed throughout the space.
"Ever since The Michael Snow Project that was held at the Power Plant and AGO [both in Toronto]in 1993, the interest in Snow has diminished," laments Snow's wife, Peggy Gale, also in Berlin for the openings. "It's a bit 'we've been there, done that' in Canada. But in Europe, the opposite seems to be happening."
On the way over to Germany, Snow and Gale stopped in Paris to meet with producer Anne-Marie Duguet, who, together with Gale, is working on a DVD Rom of Snow's entire work -- one of a series that includes Antonio Muntadas, Nam June Paik and Bill Viola. Snow also went to Revoir Editions, which will release a couple of his films as videos in October. (Snow calls the project "beautiful, but wrong. My films were made to be seen as films, not as videos, although I think the ones selected for this project will survive the transfer.") And finally, he paid a visit to the Centre Pompidou, which will present a retrospective of his films and an exhibition of his work, also in October.
On the way back from Germany, Snow will be dropping into Canada House in London for the opening of Video Fields,an installation commissioned by the Arts Council of England.
The man does not appear to be slowing down.
He recently took his 98-year-old mother, who lives on her own in Toronto, to the dentist. "You have to get used to the pace of old people," says Snow, his grey hair chronically mussed. "You have to be patient. I mean, it all takes so long."
Patience should be one of Snow's strong points -- it is certainly a quality he demands of his audiences. In his installation piece Waiting Room (2001), at the Berlin Kunst-Werke gallery, viewers enter a room full of chairs and take a numbered ticket. Numbers flash across an LED (pixel) screen while ambient noise being recorded outside the room is played back on speakers. When a viewer's number is shown on the screen, he or she is allowed to leave the room. The catch: each number is assigned a different duration, so some people wait two seconds and others 10 minutes. Many, as Snow freely admits, give up and leave.
"It's about expectations," Snow says. "Making film is about controlling durations. This piece flips that relationship around. Here the durations are applied to the spectator."
On a recent Sunday evening, the duration of 267 minutes (4.5 hours) was applied to viewers of Snow's film Rameau's Nephew by Diderot (thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974) at the Kino Arsenal.
"It had to be that long," says Wilma Schoen (Snow's anagram) today. "It's the best sound film ever made." The exhibition of Michael Snow's sound works continues at Berlin's Gallery Klosterfelde to Sept. 20.