Interview: Mariska De Groot

Interview: Mariska De Groot

September 3rd 2016 sees the return of Fort Process: a one-day festival of exploratory sound and multi-disciplinary art, placing performances and installations within the eclectic acoustic spaces of Newhaven Fort in Sussex. This year’s lineup includes Carla Bozulich, Pierre Bastien, Limpe Fuchs, David Toop, Toshimaru Nakamura, Sarah Angliss and Laura Cannell – all of whom produce mesmeric work when planted within conventional concert spaces, let alone inside the tunnels and bunkers of a decommissioned military facility. 

One particularly exciting prospect is witnessing/hearing the work of Netherlands artist Mariska De Groot, who generates beautiful installations and instruments centred on the translation of light into sound: audible mechanisms pirouetting in the darkness, lights swaying through space and lapping against the surrounding surfaces. She’ll be presenting her work “Nibiru” at Fort Process. Below, we discuss her induction into optical sound, the relationship between her installations and the spaces they inhabit, and the process of creating “Nibiru”.

You’ll be at Fort Process later this year. Are you looking forward to it? What can you tell us about the work you’ll be presenting?

The program and location looks fantastic! I hope I can enjoy some of the other artist’s works during the one-day festival.

I’m presenting my most recent work Nibiru, a handmade pendulum drawing instrument with which I tend to track the shape of the lost planet Nibiru and trace its orbit. It comes with squeaking noises of the machine and sound signals in the big projection. It is a fully analogue and mechanical instrument. With every performance another beautiful, almost perfect Lissajous line drawing is engraved in a black chalked glass plate that, in a series, shows the morphing natures of Nibiru.

Nibiru is described as an “unstable human handmade apparatus”. Given that the work endeavours to track the trace and shape of the planet – a task which would primarily be associated with implements of absolute precision – what appeals to you about introducing humanity and instability into the process? 

The very first version, which I used in the first try-out, was predominantly made with materials I had at hand: the needle was a mini-jack plug, its holder a clothespin and I’d spend an hour with a lighter under the little glass plate to make it smoke black. I was working in a tiny basement then. When moving the pendulums and projecting the image of the drawing on the dusty wall, while a pendulum speaker was scanning the drawing with simple oscillator sounds, I totally got immersed in the feeling of being a nutty NASA professor secretly looking for cosmic signs.

The first attempts of inventions are often made out of household materials in the absence of better ones, creatively used in order to make ideas work out quickly. In this work I keep the instrument this way as much as possible as an ode to the inventors of the past. Also, the contrast of the rough human movements, the resistance of the machine and noise, registering such a perfect figure…I find that part of the magic in this piece.

Mariska De Groot

Is it a challenge to develop a work that feels unstable, yet remains sturdy enough to safely exhibit?

In the first place, Nibiru is an instrument that needs a human body to play. As with every [musical] instrument it has its fragile parts and you need to know how to handle it in order for you to play it. Since I made the instrument myself, I’ve learned about its materials and know best how to play and repair it.

This instrument was not intended as installation, but since its premier in March, the instrument has occasionally become a temporary installation in between performances, and would be exhibited together with the made and unmade drawings.

Newhaven Fort makes for a fascinating setting for artistic performance/exhibition. All of the spaces are unusual in terms of dimensions and material; I’ll be intrigued to see how this imprints upon the presentation of each work. Given how your projects make prominent use of the inherent qualities of the space – the natural light (or absence of), the location of the surrounding walls – how easy do you find adapting your work depending on the space in which you’re working? Is it necessary to retain a certain versatility in the structure of your work to accommodate the potential variances of the space?

Most of my works have a very open structure and are build out of modules. This makes it possible for me to morph and reshape the instruments so that they work with the space. The space becomes the housing of the machine.

Actually, Nibiru is not that morphable itself, but the work itself changes a lot in atmosphere depending on the room it is in. A very small dark space makes it almost like an overheated machine, a very intense experience. While in a big, white cube gallery the projection of Nibiru becomes really big, beautiful and immersive.

I understand that your work spawns from an interest in optical sound and its history. How did this interest first develop, and were there any particularly significant works/discoveries that led you to explore optical sound in your own practice?

I have a background in graphic design and making short animations for VJ work on which I never added sound. I was always intrigued by dusty machines and manual techniques. During a workshop with Bruce McLure, I made sound on film for the first time by painting and gluing forms on both the image and sound part. This was my first soundtrack ever!

Two years later, during my Ma ArtScience studies, I started my research on optical sound in order to obtain understanding of the phenomenon. I ran into a big history of optical sound and the research collection of Andrey Smirnov. I learned about the different inventors in the roaring ’20s, about the Rhythmicon by Theremin, the A.N.S. Synthesizer by Murzin, the Variophone by Sholpo in the Soviet Union. But also Oscar Fischinger, Rudolph Pfenninger and the Oramics of Daphne Oram.

What I found remarkable was that the place where the magic happened, where light and sound became them same, was always hidden in the machine. These instruments were made for sound and discarded the magic. So I decided to make an optical sound instrument wherein you experience optical sound as if you were in the middle of the machine.



What about your background in working with mechanical structures? How did that start out?

By the strong personal need to get to know how to make in order to create an experience.

How do each of your projects begin? Do you plot out the work in theory/concept before actually working with light and materials, or is hands-on experimentation part of the initial process?

All new projects are a reaction on the previous. Also it often starts with a certain fascination for a [technical] phenomenon. Projects can then start from practical or historical research.

The historical research gives a valid base to the project. The practical/technical research comes before hands-on experimentation, therefore it is only rarely that project start from fooling around in my studio not knowing what I’m doing.

Where do you physically develop your work? 

My current studio is in an old school building in a working class neighbourhood. I have a classroom and 10 more artists are working and organising small events there. It’s a cheap place but there’s no heating, so in the winter I’m wearing three pairs of trousers and five sweaters. I accept that for the luxury of a large space to myself, while others are around for a chat or a coffee. I love my big studio with tools and materials where I solely can create piece by piece, slowly unfolding an idea.

Other than Fort Process, what else is coming up for you in the future?

Who knows? But my plan is to mainly study and research for the coming year, as a start for the development of a series of new works.

Fort Process website –
Mariska De Groot’s “Nibiru” –
Mariska on iii –