Pia van Gelder: Are ‘friends’ electric?

Ella Barclay

_DSA0454_1772pxPia van Gelder, AV Bells (2011), Hacked media-machines, found objects, electronics, cathode ray TVs, mercury, dimensions variable. Photo: Sarah Mosca

Pia van Gelder performs alongside a growing arsenal of mediated machines where her small, nuanced experiments can have loud and potentially dangerous outcomes. Three recent examples are Signeauxß (2010), where she strung the guts of four DVD players into a harp and, with white gloves, delicately messed with their A.V signals. When I asked her if the device, which is hooked up the mains and possibly illegal, has ever electrocuted her, she replied ‘there is electrocution and then just a little charge every now and then …’. Also, AV Bells (2011), which allowed visitors to mix audio and visual channels on three old monitors by switching assembled plastic and wooden bells from side to side, and, Synchesizer (2011), which involved van Gelder meddling with a modular synthesiser by installing both audio and video components then playing with this, at Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney, to create a series of audio and video sequences, which, while beautiful, prompted the director to question whether an epilepsy sign should be installed at the front of the gallery.

In her studio, over herbal tea and a delicious nut slice, van Gelder showed me her crackle box, which I’m guessing was a skinned and tweaked radio walkman. As she moved her fingers slowly over the circuitry, her body became the conductor of strange sounds and radio waves, she discussed the notion within circuit-bending culture as ‘laying hands’ drawing a correlation between this and ‘the laying of the hands’, a custom in many religions whereby a spiritual leader will move their hands over the head or body part of a constituent for the purposes of healing or embedding and extracting spirits.

Ella Barclay: In playing around with these objects until something unexpected happens, are you searching for a way of communicating with these machines that is transformative, even transcendental?

Pia van Gelder: Yes. It’s something unfathomable, incomprehensible and amazing. Beyond human explanation. Sublime. The techno-sublime!

But there’s this sort of weird family origin. My grandfather was a spiritual healer but he was trained originally as an electrical engineer and was interested in this idea of electricity as a healing force. Not through like full blown electrocution but small charges that could interrupt the electromagnetic field in your body.

_DSA0443_1880pxPia van Gelder, AV Bells (2011), Hacked media-machines, found objects, electronics, cathode ray TVs, mercury, dimensions variable. Photo: Sarah Mosca

EB: And were you ever able to have dialogue with him about this?

PVG: He’s dead now. He died when I was 12. But he’s written books. He used to just record himself talking, he was a bit of a crazy dude. And he’s made hundreds of tapes. This is his machine, which is essentially illegal to practise with, because it’s plugged into the mains. But it’s totally safe.

EB: What does it feel like?

PVG: It just feels like … I don’t know, like how much have you been exposed to electrocution?

EB: Only those funny games where someone hits a button and you and you get a zap.

PVG: Those ones where it’s like ‘ow!’?

EB: Yeah.

PVG: Ok, not like that. But have you ever touched something that’s a bit live?

EB: A leaky coffee machine at Hoyts Broadway.

PVG: And you’re like, ‘oooh, there’s a weird feeling from that.’ A bit buzzy or something. Like you’ve got pins and needles. And then there’s less and less and less, sometimes it’s hard to tell. Like sometimes I get it from that harp. And you can even get it from an audio signal, if you hold a live lead.

EB: Sometimes I lick live phone chords … I don’t really know why I do that.

PVG: Or batteries?

EB: Yes.

PVG: Ok, good. That’s good. That’s what I’m talking about. So it’s just really small and you can feel your circulation wriggle around in a different way. That’s what it feels like, with this machine, which also includes a wet glove. My grandfather never hid anything. He was clairvoyant. His family was from Holland and his parents moved to Indonesia, where he was born. They started a sugar plantation in Indonesia. They got really into Eastern philosophy. He and his sister were very much involved in The Theosophical Society, Madame Blavatsky and all that, and then they moved to Australia, the whole family.

EB: When was this?

PVG: It would have been in the 1930s. He got married to this English woman and they moved all around the world. He had six children and they were all born in different countries. So my dad’s English and his brother’s Canadian and his other brother is American. They just kept getting booted out of everywhere.

EB: Why?

PVG: For his electrical practice. So he ended up settling in Australia again when he was older.

EB: Do you feel that you communicate with your grandfather when you engage with your practice?

PVG: I guess I’m a bit sceptical. I was brought up as a Theosophist so I’m pretty accepting of people’s beliefs. I think people can have some amazing power in them, whether it’s spiritual or not. Maybe you can explain it with electricity, you know? But I don’t think I’m clairvoyant. No. I’ve been reading a lot of Jeffrey Sconce’s Haunted Media.

EB: There’s an interesting interview on Vimeo with Tony Oursler, who I think is taking Sconce as a launch-point, when he talks about how the time-space continuum collapsed at the birth of the telegraph in 1848. This was when we could communicate across distance and across time. His idea is that when you engage with an electronic medium, you are not communicating with that medium, rather you are communicating with the dead creators of that medium.

PVG: I feel a little bit like that sometimes. And then there is, of course, Derrida, who just thinks everything’s a ghost. Like, you pick up the telephone and talk to someone on the telephone and that’s their ghost coming through. That’s what Nick Keys and I have been talking about a lot. How machines are like psychic mediums.

EB: … through which we can channel the dead? Or, people just who are not here? That’s actually not so crazy sounding.

PVG: It’s not crazy. It’s totally true. I don’t care what anyone thinks. It’s true.

EB: You have previously spoken about wanting to open up devices, such as a panel on the arm of a robot, and expose the mechanics of how things work. I was reminded of the old analogy offered by Walter Benjamin about the surgeon and the magician: The magician conceals his methods and works from a distance, thus creating a sense of awe and magic, the surgeon reveals his methods and works up close, which depletes the sense of awe and magic.

PVG: Yes! And Benjamin also thinks that there is no aura in art from the age of mechanical reproduction. I would wager to say that he is dead wrong on that one! I believe all machines have auras! My machines make auras! Big audio visual auras.

This is what I would argue in regards to Benjamin’s magician surgeon thing in relation to my practice … I am in no ways a surgeon. I know nothing about machine medicine. I am a witch doctor, if anything, I’m trying to mix a little of both.

EB: I think he’s alluding to how, as soon as any of us learn how something works––how to bake a soufflé, how to edit a movie, write an essay, build an engine – the magic ‘how the fuck did that just happen?’ vibe leaves. I think it takes a person with true poetic sensibilities to see beyond these processes and find something unique and/or divine.

PVG: Definitely … he is right on that one. And I try to skirt that balance of ignorance and safety to continue that magical relationship all the time.

EB: Have you created art that’s been interactive or is it more performance scenarios?

PVG: It’s always performative. Sometimes through me, sometimes through others, always interacting with machines.

EB: Why performance?

PVG: Performing is what a machine has always done, even when it’s still bound by it’s engineered outcomes, we have always measured machines by their ‘performance’ capabilities.

EB: So in your performances you create an equal plane?

PVG: I hope to. Sometimes I don’t succeed. Sometimes I create opportunities for the machine to take total control (which I actually enjoy more) and other times I just can’t get it out of them.

pia_for_press copy_1880pxPia Van Gelder Signeauxß (2010), hacked media-machines, found objects, electronics

EB: So, in revealing how they work and offering a process of collaboration, you’re bringing about a kind of ‘look, Ma, no hands’ magical space for them to perform?

PVG: Um … well, sort of. Most of these beings are confined to the parameters of their engineering. This is a sort of enslavement. When I open them up I am exposing them to the world and saying, ‘look machine—it’s the world!!!! Do whatever.’ And they are like, ‘WOOOOOAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!’

EB: So, they’re alive?


EB: Do they have feelings?


EB: So, machines are alive and you’re communicating with them, but how do you feel about the fact that you are the only kinetic element in the performance. You say you want to open up a space for your machines to ‘drive’ the performance, so to speak, but you are the only agent doing anything. It’s not like Jean Tinguely’s self-destructing sculptures where the artist just walks away. I’m just trying to think about actual autonomy, machine autonomy, in your work.

PVG: I always imagine myself as being the person who sets up the opportunity for the machine to be listened to. I think they’re the doers and I’m the facilitator. But if this facilitating is the only thing that the audience notices, they are responding through a preconceived hierarchy. The performances are never meant to be solos because I am trying to reveal a collaboration between machines and me.

EB: But say, with this crackle box, for example, if you didn’t do anything, nothing would happen.

PVG: Yes, so, in this instance, I’m the medium. That’s a very personal feeling, and when you exhibit to an audience, it isn’t necessarily clear.

If I’m not doing anything, things are definitely happening inside the machine and in the atmosphere, but we just can’t hear them. When I interact with it, I act as a conduit.

EB: Just looking at the thick book you have under your computer, is it better as a book or as a laptop stand?

PVG: Definitely as a laptop stand.

EB: Ha ha, I though you were going to say ‘definitely as a book, I love that book.’

PVG: I hate that book. The Art of Electronics by Horowitz and Hill, go to hell, Hill and Horowitz, you’re horrible, and hellish.

EB: Um, why?

PVG: Have you ever looked at it? Oh my god it’s so full on. This is the first book that electronic engineering students have to learn from. Because I enrolled in electronic engineering when I finished my Bachelor of Fine Arts I bought this book in the summer preceding the degree. It’s a lot of maths and physics.

EB: So you basically just learnt how things work, and how not to kill yourself.

PVG: Yes, like Ohm’s Law, current equals voltage over resistance. In the end I didn’t do it (complete the B.Sc Electrical Engineering). I wanted to do it to make better art. And also maybe I couldn’t go because I was scared of finding the truth.

EB: The truth? Like, if you work out how everything works, then it’s over?

PVG: Yes, then it’s not magical anymore.


The cinematic installations of Ella Barclay (B.1981, Bendigo) engage with the transfixing, impulsive and intuitive behaviours brought about by new technologies. She served as a...


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