Trimpin is a sound artist, a sculptor, an engineer and inventor, a musician… All of these characterizations describe the work he creates, housed in museum and public collections around the globe. And yet none of them alone pin down Trimpin's enigmatic art.
The work of this German-born, Seattle-based artist is larger-than-life. In many cases, yes, very tall. One of his better-known works, If VI was IX, is a 50-foot tower of 700 guitars programmed to play on their own and tune themselves. Trimpin utilizes traditional instruments, such as guitars and pianos, in innovative ways, and non-traditional instruments, such as wooden clogs.
But his work is not just about clever combinations of sound. As Trimpin told me in a chat just prior to a lecture and performance last Thursday night presented by USC's Visions and Voices series, “it's about combining sound and space. It's using sound to move through space, and to make sound moving.”
What's fascinating about his work is his use of media and technology — inventing kinetic mechanisms, motion and light sensors to play his sculptures — within and despite progress. As our society becomes more and more one of mp3 players and podcasts, Trimpin's work explores our ongoing connection with sound its spatial environment.
In a series of PowerPoint slides presented by Trimpin at his lecture last week, the artist described the trajectory of his work from learning about radio, engineering and playing musical instruments at a young age through developing an allergy to metal that made him unable to play and venturing into an exploration of what it means to play an instrument.
The resulting exploration has seen Trimpin work as a set designer collaborating with Samuel Beckett and Rick Cluchey in Berlin, an application developer and a visual artist. “My work reflects on the philosophy of giving something a new life,” he says at one point, highlighting a sculpture of a deconstructed trumpet, no longer playable due to his allergy.
A recently developed app allows users (primarily Trimpin) to control his apparatuses remotely. Apple refused to place the app in its marketplace, citing that the app had “no functionality.” A battle ensued in which Trimpin's argument that an existing app on the market whose purpose was to produce fart sounds must surely have similarly “no functionality” merited a response from Apple to send in a video proving his app's functionality. Trimpin produced the footage for Apple, similar to the video here, and Apple ceded to make the app available.
Where once artists like John Cage and David Tudor were able to appropriate, deconstruct and construct anew the burgeoning technologies of computers and sound recording devices, these days Trimpin points out to me that “you can't take your ipod apart for the sake of experimentation. The technology is too complex and compact.” The result for contemporary musical experimentations? Going retro.
Trimpin's material use of technology looks to more analog models. As in the video mentioned above, Trimpin uses old computers not as a method of conveying a new sound, but as a blunt object, a tabula rasa on which the slamming action of one of Trimpin's kinetic inventions makes the sound. In last week's performance following his lecture, Trimpin employed a cello, a record player and a toy piano, among other things.
Dragging the bow across the cello's strings, Trimpin controlled the record player, fitted with a vinyl record announcing, “This course is about how to make music.” Dragging the bow sometimes fast, sometimes slow, the record played faster, slower, jumped back, forward and played in reverse. At a certain point the toy piano kicked in for a solo number.
Though the use of technology — inventing new apps or appropriating older models — is central to his practice, Trimpin has no iPhone. He tests his apps on an iPod, which contains no music. Trimpin has no cell phone, for that matter, and no website. “I don't want to be interrupted,” he says. Without a website, Trimpin admits, “I don't promote myself.” There's no central office for this successful artist, no team of producers working on the Trimpin brand, as is often the case with successful artists these days. It's just Trimpin.