John Duncan
Interview by email with Massimo Ricci
January 2005


Photograph by Giuliana Stefani


After more than 35 years of various kinds of artistic research, do you still feel the same urge to discover something more or less "shocking" or do you tend to be more analytical towards of your work?

I never have been interested in "shocking" myself or anyone else, really. The idea has always been to somehow find a way to tap into my inner self, and hopefully to encourage others through my work to do this. This desire, this fundamental urge hasn’t changed, in fact it’s stronger than ever. When I started making art I felt it was necessary to create confrontations, especially with myself and social conventions I’d always taken for granted, in order to learn from the conflicts and grow as a human being. At this point I can say that I’ve added "seduction" as well. When audiences stiffen their resolve expecting to be shocked or outraged, seduction can be even more powerfully disorienting and equally effective to direct attention inward again – which in my case is the reason behind making the art in the first place.

We all know that Viennese Actionism has played a fundamental role in your work. Do you still feel the link with that movement strongly?

No. I’m grateful to all of the artists involved for so fearlessly focusing on responding to the psychic and social issues they felt so stifled by, which encouraged the generation of artists that followed them to use art as a tool to wake up. For me personally, those issues have become a lot less important now.

How would you define the transition from the harsher sound of many of your past releases to the current, more static, sonics characterizing your recent work with voice/shortwaves?

I suppose you could (jokingly or not) call it "development"… These changes have simply evolved, not really anything I’ve deliberately chosen to do. Again, the intention of all my work including music is to use it as a tool to realize something within oneself, and I think the recent music I’ve made tends to do that more effectively. Some say they think it’s still harsh…

Have you kept in touch with some of your past collaborators on record, such as Andrew McKenzie, Christoph Heemann, Bernhard Günter? And, in general, how important is the exchange of opinions and experiences with other artists of areas near to your work?

Exchanges of experiences with others are essential to me, regardless of whether or not the partners consider themselves as "artists" or whether or not we work together in a deliberately creative way. The person I find most rewarding to work with now is Giuliana Stefani: difficult as it sometimes is for each of us, our relationship steadily continues to deepen. The people you mention have all gone in separate directions, from each other’s as well as from mine. It’s inevitable that we’ve all developed differently from who we were as people at the time we worked together. I still pay attention to their work and celebrate their successes; it’s just become unnecessary to be in regular contact.

Should we trace a line linking your performance/installation work with your music, or do you think some people be better off enjoying them separately, because one aspect could detract from the other?

I think that’s something for others to decide. For me these distinctions blur into each other.

You have worked all over the world and I’d be interested to know the reaction to your work varies depending on where you are. What kind of feedback do you receive?

It’s always different. When it’s genuine, response passes beyond any local cultural filters and comes from somewhere universally human.

Looking back, is there any one of your records that you have a predilection for? And which one would you recommend to someone new to your – by now – “acousmatic” vision?

Frankly, the next one. To both questions. Because the research will be new for me as well. And hopefully someday someone will come along who can offer a convincing explanation of what "acousmatic" actually means…

Have the anguish, the sorrow and the rage you often expressed in past “actions” or “events” somehow reached the exit door? Do you feel you've finally gathered some answers to those questions needed to underline certain human mechanisms?

Thankfully, yes. The horror and nihilism that observations and experiences have shown me are inherent in our existence fail utterly to explain a vast range of other essential aspects, ones that are much more profound and go a great deal further to reaching an inner understanding of ourselves as a whole, so to say. My efforts so far have just barely scratched the surface of this research. What I can say is that the developments in my work over the years tend to reflect this deepening view.

Could you describe your current studio set-up, especially for on records like Tongue or The Keening Towers. How does it all start and how does the groundwork develop?

Both Tongue and The Keening Towers started with voice, playing with it and seeing where it could be taken as ‘pure sound’. The same is true of the audio installation Conservatory (San Sebastian) with Paolo Parisi: turning whispered insults into sound that affects the listener in ways ranging from soothing to vaguely threatening, with all clear references to recognizable language destroyed. The Hissing takes this even further: the entire piece is based on the sound made by blowing hard through the teeth. Until last year I’d put the source recordings onto a hard disk and generate all the distortions using a Mac G3 Powerbook; now I’m doing this with a Mac G4. Mixes are done on the computer.

Giuliana Stefani’s photography is a fundamental visual aspect of your releases. How do you choose the subject of a cover and how does she work on that – listening to the music, or independently from the sonic result?

We choose images based on connections we feel they have to the music. It’s essential to us that there’s a clear connection between the two.

What do you think is the worst prejudice today in the so-called avant-garde area?

Fear of knowing oneself that tries to pass itself off as sophistication. The fear that fully expressing yourself is psychically, socially or economically dangerous. That if you’re making art and want to eat, compromise is inevitable. It’s not. I still find it especially saddening when artists compromise themselves and their work to avoid threatening their economic support, or the possibility of ever receiving any. That very limited way of thinking has an adverse affect on all of us.

What are you listening to and reading at the moment?

Listening… The things that I’m often inspired by right now come from tinnitus, pitches produced by the inner ear. That and the acoustic effects of burglar alarms. A great book I just finished is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, about people from the Hmong hill tribes of Laos living in the United States, which starts by describing their head-on collision with the American medical profession, veering off into detailing various ways they adapt and continue their daily customs and rituals despite living in an entirely alien society.

What has the future got in store in terms of new releases and forthcoming projects?

Today, 20 January 2005, was the closing day for the audio installation Conservatory (San Sebastian) with Paolo Parisi at Quarter in Firenze; the organizers are planning to produce a catalogue of that show that would include an audio CD. Right now I’m editing a 20-minute DVD video of Leif Elggren’s text “The North Is Protected” with a soundtrack that Jean-Louis Huhta and I recorded together. Leif and I are planning the limited edition printing of a book version of The Error, leather-bound with hand-printed pages. In April I’ll join Leif, Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Graham Lewis to perform our variations of the KREV anthem at Le Lieu Unique in Nantes. In March, Hausswolff and I will release a CD on 23Five in San Francisco. I’m talking with the Swiss label Sound Mirror about producing a CD of The Hissing, recorded in October 2004 at l’Arsenic in Lausanne. In November I’ll set up an installation at Experimental Intermedia in Ghent, and an acoustic labyrinth of photo-sensor triggered burglar alarms at Gallery Ninapì in Ravenna.

Interview 2005 by Massimo Ricci. Thanks to John Duncan and Giuliana Stefani. See other interviews of related interest with Bernhard Günter and go to , and for further information on John Duncan and his work