Je suis le petit chevalier is the music project of French-born artist Felicia Atkinson. Her works drift between improvisation and modulated structures, and the concept of getting lost and finding your way back again play a large part in her aural concepts. Some months ago I was asked to organize a concert and exhibition for Felicia; this led to an interesting email conversation in which we got a bit closer to three very important things: music, art and life.
Electronic Beats: I was browsing through your website and got stuck at one particular image—I immediately had the word ‘psychogeograph’ in my mind. While listening to your latest release, the track ‘Following the Mississippi River‘ got me thinking about Guy Debord’s concepts. Your music is tagged with the word ‘maps’ on bandcamp… what role do these sort of concepts play in your work?
Felicia Atkinson: Concepts for me are more like a destination rather than a frame. If we think about Debord’s concept of ‘derive’, that is something that was always very crucial to me. I walk a lot, most of the time without knowing where I am going, but those long walks allow me to think, to be surprised, to feel lost, to meet strange and boring things. In my art and music it is the same: most of my tracks are long, repetitive, with accidents, as a road can be. I see improvisation as a free walk. You know how you move your feet, you know from where you go, and where you will return if you consider your path as a loop, but in the middle, the loop is blank and unknown.
The art installation you are talking about, ‘Little Fires’, was made in 2009 when I was in residency in a very nice sound art space called QO-2 in Brussels. I just arrived in the city, and they gave me this very nice studio for a month. I began to build a mental map to feel less lost i guess. I didn’t make any sound in the sound residency. Just abstract maps on the ground that were build exactly the same way as i build my music. As kind of abstract architectures. Like a kind of score that doesn’t give information or guidelines, but stand in the space as it is.
That triggers a lot of stuff in my head… but let’s just pick one direction for now. You wrote that the loop is blank and unknown in the middle; can you elaborate on that a bit more?
Well, what I meant by this is that when you do music or art, when it is improvisation especially, I think the question of ‘getting through’ the experience is flagrant. It is a kind of dialogue with the unknown, a passage. Most of the time you hang on to the patterns you know, so you don’t feel lost—like building a kind of method to measure space and time. To follow a trail. But then (especially the times when you play live) for me, there is always a moment of fear. Almost at the middle of the set. Something is terrifying. Where am I? What do I do? I don’t know anymore. Like the sensation of having walked too far in the forest. You need to stop, to think, observe and act at the same time to rebuild your orientation.
Maybe this is the very moment where I feel like experimenting with the unknown. Where I am frighten, lost, and found in the same time. And then, you find your way back, to close the loop, the path you have been taking. You’re back to reality, patterns, habits. It is not necessarily worse, I mean… most of the time, this is where the regular beat comes back, or the melody, or repeated shapes. Sometimes it’s where it’s the most beautiful. But of course, what interests me more is the moment before, the one where you were lost and where ‘it’ was about to break.
I did literature performances for a while, and the more I did them the less I was prepared. It ended in a night where I just had like two words on my sheet, and just now I realize that I was searching for exactly this kind of ‘high’ you describe. I also get this kick when doing interviews while being not prepared. Is all your music improvised?
My recorded music is composed with improvised pieces that I re-arrange. So it is not totally rough improvisation, there are layers. For example, ‘O-re-gon’ was recorded in Portland in one day: one track in the morning one track in the afternoon, nothing was added to it but a light mix. An Age of Wonder was recorded in 2 sessions: side A in Brussels, at home, and side B in Ohio, as a one track improv of 20 minutes.
You wrote you had this residency at the audio studio where you ended up not making any sounds, but instead made a map to hold on to, like in your music. How to you develop your sounds?
Well, I am always a bit suspect concerning proper ‘sound installation’ if the sounds, as John Cage said, are everywhere. I prefer to build threshold for them, or for the absence of them. These are the kind of thoughts that lead me to make silent installations in a sound art residency. For my last art show in Rennes, there was this wooden geodesic dome that was build where people could record themselves with a tape and an harmonium, or just stay silent, or read. What scares me about regular sound installations you can see in museums is that often you feel the omnipresence of recorded sound, and how it empowers the space and spectator. I feel it very violently. I prefer to give the possibility of sound, and the possibility that it will not come. When I draw, or make music, or sculpture, it all begins, I think, with the gesture, the hand—how you want to trace something somewhere. Then you add layers, you observe the echoes, the interaction between things, and you let it play. It’s almost like cooking.
Is that process similar to art for you? Do you cook a lot?
Yeah, I love cooking. I’m vegetarian now, and there are so many nice things to cook most of the time I don’t follow a recipe. I just improvise with what I have, what looks good at the farmer’s market. In Brussels vegetables are not very good and most people (not everybody though) eat very badly there, but I feel cooking is as important as music. It’s a wholesome life. What you eat influences what you play I guess….
You mentioned the omnipresence of sound, feeling it violently… do you also feel that in everyday life?
I was in Finland a few weeks ago (actually when we started this interview) and being in the middle of those northern woods, so up north, so quiet, was wonderful. I feel more and more the desire to escape the city for living. I was born in Paris and I love big cities and the possibilities they offer. But I also feel tired of them often. Right now I am in Kassel, in another art residency (Tokonoma) during the Documenta. I just saw the Pierre Huygue installation in the Karlruhe park, it’s amazing: all of of sudden you forget the actual geography of this beautiful park, and are in a strange landscape between ‘Lost’ and ‘Stalker’…it’s very powerful. Concrete piles, a skinny dog that looks like a cat with a pink leg, another smaller silent dog, some psyschotropic plants are growing wildly, a statue is eaten by bees. You don’t know if it’s heaven or hell—you feel a silent rule, but it is unspeakable.
Do you think there’s too much daily information, and we need small personal systems to filter? Which reminds me of the picture that started our conversation.
I don’t know… I think it’s different for every person. Today would have been John Cage’s 100. birthday and yesterday at the residency we listened to some excerpts from his lectures. I think he’s right most of the time—there is no difference between life and art, humans, nature, and the cosmos. We need to be conscious of that and teach ourselves everyday something new, and try as much as we can to be pure at heart.