After two years spent at the Faculty of Theology of Geneva, Romain Kronenberg studies musical theory, Jazz and electro-acoustic composition at the Conservatoire Supérieur de musique de Genève. Between 2001 and 2005 at IRCAM where he works as a composer and sound designer, he collaborates with visual artists such as Ugo Rondinone, Pierre Huyghe, Melik Ohanian and Thierry Kuntzel who open him to video art.
In the past few years, and at least since 2012, date of his residency at the Villa Kujoyama in Japan, Romain Kronenberg has focused in his installations and films on the narrative and aesthetic potential of desert lands. Looking at the desert also gives him access to contradictory states. According to the artist, there is the possibility of a complete renewal, but also a very real danger, where imminent death is always possible. You can be dazzled, and you can be lost, and reduced to solitude. Understanding the desert is something fathomless. One of his latest films, Rien que le terre, et de plus en plus sèche, made in 2016, follows this thread which brings two young man together at the edge of the desert, waiting for a third who has gone off to do a reconnaissance. The radio messages which link them and expand space become scrambled and finally vanish altogether, breaking all connection. Romain Kronenberg plays on contrasts, the reactions of the young men reduced to their static state, with no longer any possibility of negotiating the desert, either mentally or physically. Here he constructs an open air in camera scene where, imperceptibly, night and day occupy the same space. And in So long after Sunset and so far from Dawn, the past of ruins and the future of new and imposing building complexes do not share the same territory.
Rien que de la terre, et de plus en plus sèche, 2016, 18 mn
Two men are settled in an inhospitable land waiting for a scout to come back. He has gone in search of a new land where life would again be possible. The two teams keep in contact thanks to radio transmitters. The scout regularly gives news, telling his journey and the infinite desert that more and more surrounds him. All day long, the two men stayed behind are waiting for the scout to give news. Unfortunately, the quality of the signal in the radio transmitter is getting bad. Interferences appear until the voice completely disappears. The two men have lost contact with the scout and now face their own responsibility. Divergences appear. RK
So long after Sunset and so far from dawn, 2014-15, 7 mn
Oscillating between the birth and decline of light, night plunges the ruins of Ani (ancient Armenian capital) and some under construction buildings of Mardin (at the Syrian border) into the blueish glows of their own destinies, between past and future, in a uncertain present. Subtitles accompany the film where a dialog builds up between titans and gods, two mythological opposite entities symbolising mechanical and organic, order and desire, and reveal their tragic irreconciability. RK
Mo Gourmelon: Your biography mentions that you trained at the Conservatoire Supérieur de Musique in Geneva. A “classic” career awaited you in a school of fine arts. But you took another track. You nevertheless attended the IRCAM, where you met artists with whom you plunged into designing acoustic worlds. For you, sound came before imagery. Then you decided to make your own images which you accompanied with compositions. Is this an accurate thumbnail sketch of your career?
Romain Kronenberg: I actually think that my career consists in a series of movements showing a strong desire to explore. The different disciplines that form the creative arena thus become so many territories to conquer. From music I shifted to the moving image, photography, and volume, and now words.
MG: I’m struck by the persistence of one particular word in our discussions: “work”. Do you think it’s inherent to your musical training, and what do you mean by it? This criterion seems decisive in your appreciation and appraisal of an artwork.
RK: Let’s say that like anyone musically trained (a training that’s as technical as it is artistic), I learned the importance of labour. Working the way others labour, over the long term, and with stubbornness. A perseverance brought on by the stages leading to the work (writing, preparation, production, post-production, composition), as much as the territories I rub shoulders with. But if work is necessary for creation, I want it to be done away with, and for everything in my works to appear like something obvious, and natural.
MG: In the film Rien que de la terre, et de plus en plus sèche, 2016, two men on the edge of the desert are in touch with a scout, by radio. How did you devise that acoustic exchange, which governs the whole scene and points to the gradual removal of the scout until a complete loss of contact? The static nature of some contrasts with the other’s loss of position…
RK: I suppose that exchange can be thought of in different ways: literally, of course, because the film is a narrative: men basing their hopes on the momentum of other men, who disappear one by one; so they have to face up to their individual responsibility, their own judgment, and stop relying on the other. Allegorically, too, because, essentially, between those who stay and those who leave, there is perhaps just a single man caught in his paradoxes, between sloth and energy, an actual subject but dealt with elsewhere, and in another time, or else nowhere, and outside of time. Lastly, the narrative ends with the awareness, in the two characters left behind, that it’s necessary to believe, even if believing is futile. Reconciled irreconcilability within a paradox. The assertion of this paradox.
MG: The two films were shot at Mardin. What led you to that place with the desire to film once again, as if there was a completeness and now the wish to associate them for a screening?
RK: Firstly, chance took me to Mardin. And then I grasped chance. To start with because I liked it—I liked that town and that region; then out of conviction—I think it’s vital to explore territories the better to understand them. I can say that, from film to film, I achieved great freedom of movement, and potential. Maybe our programming shows as much. But there’s also a risk of working for too long in a territory: that custom/habit replace the initial challenge: conquest. People get to know you, and you get to know people. Everything becomes very simple. Today I’m thinking about other territories where I can carry on my work.
MG: In So long after Sunset and so far from Dawn, 2014-15, subtitles translate the Kurdish voice-over, which has a special, sensual resonance, and which, by way of a mythological tale, makes the link between past and future. How did you deal with the concordance between voice and images?
RK: First of all a few words about the script, which I wrote at a moment when I was especially interested in Ernst Junger, who did a lot of thinking about titans and gods, usually by contrasting them. I was impressed by the characterization of the two figures by the author, but I swiftly drew away from the need to oppose them. On the contrary, even. I wanted to reconcile them, and superimpose them. That’s what governed the writing. So the poem preceded the images. I set up the images without the script, and composed the music without the images; I laid the subtitles over the images, then the music, I adjusted the time of the images and sounds so that they would meet, then I recorded Mehmet Korkut’s voice, in his own time-frame, which I then synchronized with the film. Each element making the film was dealt with independently, but everything was brought together in the most musical way I could.
MG: How do you compose your music?
RK: A tough question. As a rule, I think I work on a series of harmonies, and layers, which will colour and alter the perception of the images. I choose a pitch for the layers, either with electric guitar, or with a synthesizer, or both. This sequence of harmonies is usually tonal. A bit too much so. Then I invite other instruments to disturb this harmonic base. The intensity of the disturbance depends on the project, and it ranges from the most delicate to the most magmatic. Last of all, I sometimes take melodic elements which will round off the music. In So long after Sunset and so far from Dawn, the melodic elements are predominant, played on electric guitar; they introduce an oriental accent into the music. The disturbances are quite subtle. In Rien que de la terre, et de plus en plus sèche, the melody is not very present, the layers are predominant, mixing synthesizer and guitar. As the narrative moves forward, the disturbing elements come in; they gradually impose themselves on the layers, plunging the film into something vague. At the same time, the tonality of all the music slides downwards, and at the end of the film by a fifth (or more? I’ve never worked it out), accentuating a little more strangeness. For me, the music of this film brings a complementary voice to the narrative.
MG: The second film Rien que de la terre, et de plus en plus sèche, 2016, is less easy to geolocate, focused as it is on two young men waiting, and on an idea of the desert. The views of the site are less pronounced. What was it that dictated that the film be shot there? How did you direct the characters in that elsewhere suggested exclusively by vocal exchanges?
RK: There’s a lot to say about that. Firstly, I think that the origin of my images is usually quite hard to define. So I would rather say that with Rien que de la terre, et de plus en plus sèche, the landscape is less a central character, as was the case with So long after Sunset and so far from Dawn, than a context. However, the film had to be shot there because that’s where it came from—or rather from there mixed with my concerns. In fact, it was the many days I spent at Mardin that brought out some of the film’s themes. As much as the two actors whom I spent a lot of time with, and who already appear in Heliopolis (2015), which Rien que de la terre, et de plus en plus sèche is, incidentally, a development of, because my films vibrate, when they are not in the continuation of each other. What’s more, I’m getting ready to film La forme de son corps avec l’excès de sable, which will happen on a freighter, the other side of the mirror, a desert of sea, an actor: the scout, the third character, but physically absent from Rien que de la terre, et de plus en plus sèche.
MG: What new territories are you looking at?
RK: Very different ones. First and foremost, my privacy. Not that the projects I’ve produced up to now are not private and intimate—quite the opposite I think, but from one project to the next I dig deeper and deeper, and the subject that imposes itself on me today is disconnected from a precise territory. But I’m thinking in a fragmentary way—ideas that are first scattered which I then connect together, in a rather empirical way. Otherwise, I’m thinking about the Black Sea, where I’ve never set foot, and which I don’t know at all (any more than I knew Turkey when I decided to go and work there).