A conversation with Mariechen Danz & Gediminas Žygus

Last month, we released Clouded in Veins, a new album from acclaimed interdisciplinary artist Mariechen Danz. Co-written and produced by Gediminas Žygus, the LP infuses its spellbinding blend of experimental, electronic and pop music with the ethos of performance art, resulting in something that immediately stands out as one of the most adventurous releases we’ve ever worked on. Knowing that an album like this has a lot of layers to explore, we turned to its creators for guidance, asking both Mariechen and Gediminas to tell us about the record’s genesis and how the work fits into their larger practice. Vinyl will be out by October 8 – listen to the album and pre-order your copy here.

You both have a diverse body of work. For anyone who’s not familiar, how would you describe your creative practice outside of the Clouded in Veins project?

Gediminas Zygus: I have been working in music for 15 years. I’ve primarily worked in experimental music and at a certain point, I came to understand that I have a pretty unorthodox relation to music and it would be easier to try to position what I do in proximity to contemporary art spaces. So I have drifted between art and music in the form of solo and collaborative projects. Thematically, I have a wide field of interests that could be put under the umbrella of trying to understand the construction of the self in the post-anthropocene. I also have a film degree, and have recently started working in film, both as a composer and a filmmaker.

Mariechen Danz: Primarily I’ve been working and exhibiting in an art context. My work focuses on tracing histories of knowledge transfer and rooting these explorations in the human body and its functioning. Mainly there are drawings, sculptures or installations that, at certain stages, are activated by performances, usually in collaboration with other performers and musicians. The performances are always vocal based, and songs provide the structure.  

How did you two meet? What prompted you to work together on this project?

MD: I was looking for someone to help with the songs and to create soundscapes for a performance at Centre Pompidou in 2016, and our mutual friend Brandon Rosenbluth suggested Gediminas. Once I listened to their J.G. Biberkopf releases, I was inspired by the intense sonic environments and the way they de- and re-structured rhythm within these spaces. I imagined the potential of moving between the rawness of oral history and these shifting landscapes interrupted by beats or pop songs, and we kind of went from there.

Mariechen’s name is listed on the album, but Gediminas produced it. How collaborative is this record? What was the music-making workflow like? 

GZ: The process of collaboration varies from song to song. Some of the songs predate our collaboration and go back to the time when Mariechen was working with her previous band UNMAP. For those tracks, I have responded musically to what existed previously, and then we’ve both tried to take them somewhere else and make them part of the world of our performances. Then there are the new tracks that were made during our time working together, which were specifically made for the performances. These are a little bit more improvised and don’t have a more traditional singer-songwriter approach in terms of song composition. For most of the production of the album, which has been done over various periods during the last couple of years, we lived and worked together, so we would talk about some concepts and then go work on the music.

MD: Usually there would be an exhibition or an installation for which I was planning to develop a performance, so there were existing texts and concepts that I was already exploring further with each work. There is a lot of repetition in my practice anyway, and I like to see how things transform in response to delivery, environment, audience, etc. Gediminas was already coming to our collaboration with their own distinct language, vision and understanding of what their and my concerns were, so I think it was usually our aim to see how we could connect and carry the original concepts forward in a way that new aspects could unfold and intensify. We wanted to see where we could meet and where there was friction.

How did you connect with Modeselektor and wind up releasing this on Monkeytown? 

GZ: A person we trust started working with Monkeytown and told us that the label was looking to redefine itself a little. They heard our album and seemed to have loved it and eventually offered for us to work with them. I think it’s interesting and exciting, as Monkeytown and Modeselektor at various points in their existence had an impact on us, and it seems interesting to try to contribute something that they might have not necessarily worked with before. In my opinion, one of the developments of the past decade in music is that music has become a predominantly visual art form, or maybe it’s just that there are now generally fewer non-arbitrary distinctions between artistic forms.

Do you have any sort of connection with dance and club music?

GZ: Living in Berlin, particularly as an artist and musician, club culture is unavoidable and it’s almost impossible to not be influenced by it to some degree. I have lived in Berlin during a moment when the communities of music, art and fashion have been particularly connected, and that was formative to my further artistic development.

Vocals play a prominent role on the album, but how important are the lyrics? Are they rooted in any sort of storytelling (real or imagined), or are they meant to be something more fantastical?

MD: Lyrically, there have been three main approaches on the album: there are deconstructions, ideas of pre-articulation, paralanguage and sounding the body; there are scientific and theoretical texts that I write or reinterpret; and then there is the adoption of pop tropes, which utilize the inherent acceptance and familiarity of (usually) English-language pop song structures that have been positioned in the subjective (I love, you feel, etc.). Moving between the hierarchies in these different articulations is a type of storytelling, but it’s more rhizomatic, more of an unlearning and questioning than a linear narrative. 

How does the fine art and exhibition world compare to the music world?

GZ: More and more, I think that both visual artists and musicians are creating rather similar experiences, but they exist in different social hierarchies. In the music world, the sound artist is usually the focus, while in fine art, it’s the visual artist. I think that the fine art world is a bit more top-down in terms of funding structures and with art buyers defining the ecosystem, while the music world is usually a bit more of a bottom-up structure where listeners define the outcomes. There are also certain class differences in terms of who consumes the work, as most art audiences tend to be (upper-)middle and upper class, while the music world tends to be less exclusionary. 

Gediminas Žygus: Pic by Visvaldas Morkevičius

The album is conceptually rooted in Clouded in Veins: a subjective geography, an exhibition performance you first presented at the Venice Biennale in 2017. What were the key ideas and themes in that show work, and have they carried over to the album?

MD: Clouded in Veins encompasses multiple works and media at this point, all circling the limits of human understanding. Clouded in Veins: a subjective geography was a performance made in response to Alicja Kwades’ outdoor stone globe installation Pars Pro Toto, which looked like a scattering of planets. I collaborated with Saleh Yazdani, who did slow-motion, absurd acrobatics on these giant globes. Kerstin Brätsch’s experimental marblings, which I made into a many-layered costume, acted as the script, so I was “reading” the abstract shapes and interpreting them as biological, geological or meteorological processes, basically conflating the language and visuals of these different areas—sandstone, kidney stone, gallstone…

This idea of moving back and forth between micro and macro carried over to the album and some of the segments are directly linked to that performance. Gediminas had created this sonic atmosphere of swirling wind and rolling rocks, and we were right beside the water, under a huge thundering sky, so the whole situation evoked a sense of tension and teetering that we mirrored in the performances.

Did any particular musical influences help to shape the album?

GZ: Both of us bring our own rather unique histories to the project, so it’s hard to pinpoint anything exactly. There are so many influences, ranging from contemporary pop performers to experimental music practitioners, along with some non-musical phenomena.

Tell us about the concept behind the album artwork. Mariechen, as someone who’s also a visual artist, was it challenging to adapt your practice to this particular (and somewhat limiting) format?

MD: Condensing some of our concepts into a singular image—especially one that will most likely only be experienced as the size of a stamp on people’s screens—didn’t come easy, but we took some existing artworks—organ imprints—and positioned them like islands in a sea or sky of hurricanes. Nora Cristea of Preggnant Agency worked on all the typography and artwork with me, and found a way to bring clarity and energy to it. Again, it’s this conflation of micro and macro, evoking shifting timelines, landscapes and states within the body.

Many of these songs were performed (in some version) at previous shows and exhibitions, but now that the album is coming out, is there a desire to take them to more music-specific spaces (e.g. clubs, concert halls, festivals, etc.)?

GZ: I want to get a chance to develop new work, as performances are always the best spaces for experimenting. As much as I would love for them to come back, I am not yet sure how music-specific spaces will cope with the upcoming challenges of the pandemic, so I am not even trying to imagine that happening in the near future. Music-specific spaces maybe could learn a little bit from the art world about how sound experiences don’t necessarily need to be a thousand maskless drunk people, crammed into 100 square meters and screaming at each other. As much fun as that can be, that formalistic conservatism is exactly the sort of thing that will end up doing irreparable, long-term damage to those communities.

MD: In my experience, art institutions often don’t have the physical or technical set-up for the kind of detail that some of these electronic songs require. Lots can get lost, making it a challenge to create immersive sonic environments, but there are always so many factors that play a role in performance. With my previous project UNMAP, we performed concerts and many of the songs were originally born out of performances too, but they involved a more traditional pop song/band format. I am interested in exploring how sounds or content can be accessed differently depending on the context and presentation format.  

You both work on a lot of different projects. Is there anything else people should be looking out for in the months ahead?

GZ: I have recently scored Metahaven’s new film Chaos Theory, which premiered this summer. It will be made available to stream and I imagine it will be screened at some of Metahaven’s future exhibitions as well. I also have another album with Holly Childs called Gnarled Roots coming out in September. 

MD: Apart from the album release, there is the Clouded in Veins catalogue. Putting it together was a challenging new experience, and it’s all connected to the exhibition of the same name, which was part of the Ruhrfestspiele. The show just ended recently, but we will do an album and catalogue launch in Berlin, probably in the beginning of October once the vinyl is out, so I’m looking forward to the whole project being complete.


Mariechen Danz: Pic by Ayamy Awahzuhara