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Born in Munich and based in Berlin, Robert Henke has been at the cutting edge of electronic music, performance and installation art for two decades, bringing his works to Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, PS-1 New York, KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, and numerous festivals around the globe. Coming from an engineering background, Henke has developed a language that integrates his scientific knowledge with his fascination for the inner beauty that he sees in technology.

“I use technology in the same way a painter uses a brush“, declares. Rhythm, timbre and colour are the three main elements of his artistic formula, and together they construct the pattern that distinguishes Henke’s hi-tech minimalism. We asked him some questions about his background and creative process to get to know more about the ingenious German artist.
Robert, you come from the field of engineering. How did you decide to turn your scientific and technical knowledge into art and music?
I was always interested in art, and with my family background I thought sound engineering and computer science could be a good start. I never planned an artistic career, I just slowly achieved it. Being in Berlin at the beginning of the 1990s helped a lot because I was surrounded by people using their technical skills to create sounds, spaces, and audio-visual environments. 
When you start developing a new work, do you first think of it from a technical perspective and then from an artistic one, or vice versa? How does your creative process work?
There is no general rule. Sometimes I have an artistic idea and try to solve the technical problems that come up along the way; sometimes I want to explore a certain technique and discover interesting results. The challenge is to stop thinking about the underlying technology when trying to be creative. When I draw laser shapes or create sounds, I don’t care about the lines of code that make it possible and I do not want to be bothered with that layer. I just want to use the technology. It takes discipline to not constantly jump from being in artist mode to being in engineering mode.

 You have combined two fields that are apparently antithetical: on the one hand, mathematics with its rules, algorithms and strict principles, and on the other hand, art, which is seen as more instinctive and fancy. What elements of the two disciplines did you pick to create your own creative language?
Technology has so much inherent beauty and elegance, and there is a lot of artistic freedom involved in building machines. A good engineer is an artist too, and a successful scientist needs to have a lot of creative imagination. They have to find new ways to think about the world, test new and radical ideas. On the other side, a good piece of art follows some sort of inner logic. There is a big part of engineering and rule-based decisions in it. In my works I am looking for simplicity and elegance both in the code and in the result people can experience.
Installations, performances, music and even the creation of an electronic music software (the Ableton Live); how do you approach each one of these different disciplines? What do you want to express and communicate through each one of them?
I try to find beauty and something that is emotionally touching within a framework that is not per definition connected with such attributes, technology and computers. For me the process of creation always revolves around the same basic questions, and that is independent from the desired output. It is also a very innocent approach to technology. If I hear an interesting sound, if I experience a beautiful visual curve as the result of a mathematical function, I am happy. I use technology in the same way a painter uses a brush.
Your laser installations are the results of a complex mix of lights, cosmic sounds, algorithms and principles like spline interpolation, that let you control them live. Seems almost like your works are the results of a scientific research or experiment, but what are you researching exactly?
Nothing. I strongly oppose the usage of the word ‘research’ in my work. That term should be reserved for scientific achievements that convey an absolute truth, that can be verified in a formal process of pear review and can allow predicting future behaviour. None of that applies to what I do, and in times where evolution is seen as ‘one possible way of thinking’ next to ‘creationism’ and climate change might or might not be the result of human interaction I feel science cannot afford to be watered down any further by a misguided usage of their terminology. What I do as artist is not research, it is the application of it. I use machines that could only be built based on our understanding of quantum physics, but I can also eat an apple without being able to create one from a bunch of atoms.
However, just like every artist, I experiment, I try out things, and I gain knowledge by doing so. I also practise. My practise involves solving coding problems, I try to find more elegant or more powerful solutions for the technical aspects of my art because those improved solutions make it possible to further refine the result.

“Technology has so much inherent beauty and elegance, and there is a lot of artistic freedom involved in building machines. A good engineer is an artist too.”
Both music and performance art are disciplines that require a direct involvement of the audience, and also for this reason you develop your own tools – like Monodeck II or self-written softwares – that allow you to have an interaction with the public while playing your music live. How do you engage with the audience and what kind of interactions and reactions do you want to arouse?
In my concerts there is always an element of improvisation, and thus room for interaction with the audience, the room, my own momentary state of mind. I believe this radiates, even whilst most of the people cannot really see what I am doing, they only notice the results.
You started your music and artistic career in the mid ’90s, during Berlin’s post-wall era, where you are still based. Your long-term musical project Monolake, which started back in 1995, became quite iconic in the new electronic scene that was emerging at the time. However, since those days, the relationship between humans and technology has considerably changed. What has this dramatic change, even improvement, meant for you? 
Globalisation turned all upside down. Regional scenes became less important, permanent international exchange and also competition became more dominant. Berlin was an island in the early 1990s, a laboratory for freaks. It is not nearly like this anymore. Marshall McLuhan’s global village is reality. Whilst being able to communicate with likeminded people all over the world is a great opportunity and makes it possible to gain knowledge much faster, at the same time, it became a necessary skill to decouple yourself from the world in order to find your own inner voice. I am afraid that, for instance, the ‘normalisation’ of current electronic dance music is a direct result of globalisation. And if art has to adhere to global rules and standards in order to be a commercial success, it is time to move on and find something that is radically different. If I am in a foreign country in a complete different culture, the last thing I am interested in is listening to Berlin minimal techno.
Actually, your installations now are very high-tech. For example, let’s talk about your most recent one, Spline. It consists of a 120-meters fabric suspended from a ceiling that forms a curved structure onto which lasers project beam light, and it also involves sound and fog. Could you tell us more about it?
Spline is an interesting case of an evolution driven by necessity. In 2015 I created a work consisting of one hundred and sixty pieces of fabric mounted as a broken, fractured 3D cube from the ceiling of a huge room. This was my installation Fall. I was asked to present the installation again for a festival in Switzerland, but the room was not high enough. I needed to develop something new, and decided to keep the idea of a central object made of transparent thin fabric suspended from the ceiling, but instead of squares, I explored a different shape, a very organic, flower-like curved one. The title, Spline, is a reference to the interpolation technique used to create the shape. ‘Interpolation technique’ might sound fancy if you are not involved with computer science or visual or sound synthesis, but it is as basic as ‘C major’ for anyone with a bit of musical education. The high-tech part is in the details. Clever solutions for problems that make sure things look and sound as good as possible. That’s where the craftsmanship comes into play. If you do things long enough, you know how to make them right, just like playing the piano.

There’s another very interesting project that you’ve been working on for years, entitled Lumière. As far as I’m concerned, it started in 2013 but you’re still exhibiting and performing new variations. Could you tell us how did it start and how has it evolved to the point it is now?
Lumière is a performance work. I started it after my initial success with my first laser installation, called Fragile Territories. I did believe I could do a different type of laser and sound combination in a concert than what most people would associate the medium with. I wanted to be more abstract, radical and less cheesy. It worked in parts, but turned out to be a bigger challenge than I initially anticipated. That’s why I am still working on it. I am not done with the topic. The first version was very rough and based on improvisation. The second and third versions are much more refined, but now I’m fighting to get a bit of the roughness back. It is always an oscillation between perfection and intuitive interaction.

Besides your artistic production, you also write essays, teach, and give lectures in many different universities. What messages do you want to spread through these activities? Is there any main lesson you would like all your listeners and readers to learn?
I like sharing my thoughts. Teaching is not a one-way street, it is a dialogue and I get as much back as I invest. I trade knowledge and experience against enthusiasm and ideas undisturbed by a constant evaluation of costs and practicality. Even when writing a text for my webpage, I am part of a large ecosystem of artistic and technological exchange, because I also read what others wrote before about similar topics. I am not on a religious mission, I do not want to tell people what to think or do, or even what to take out of my work. I want to put it on a stage, make it possible for people to discover it. But the rest is out of my hands, and that’s exactly right this way. If there is something I’d like to convey, it is the notion of personal freedom and agency. If I can be a role model in this regard, I would not be too unhappy about it.
Let’s imagine a world where technology doesn’t longer exist, like a post-apocalyptic scenario, which is probably your worst nightmare! What would you do to keep creating your projects? Would you try to be at the forefront of a technological renaissance?
With all the knowledge of what could be done, building up something new out of nothing should not be such a big deal. As long as there is enough to eat and drink, and a few good friends, that could be quite some fun. Forget about electricity and focus on what can be done with wood, water, the sun and whatever is left over from before the big fuck-up!

Ilaria Lorio Albarin
Michael Beyer
Andreas Gockel, Anna Katharina Scheidegger and Robert Henke

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