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Plastik Fantastik

Interview with Sebastian Buczek

The interview took place in a café in the old town of Warzawa on Monday, 20 February 2012. Read the interview transcription below (slightly edited for your improved reading pleasure) or listen to the full unedited audio transcript by clicking here.

Sebastian Buczek is a Polish artist born in the mid-1970s and educated in Academy of Fine Arts and Polish National Film School. He is challenging all platforms and media: he is a painter, visual artist, bookmaker, microphotographer, film maker, performer and musican/constructor, creating bizarre instruments, focussing their attention on analog recording techniques. His self-made records — of such materials as, for example, glass, plexiglass or wood covered with wax or even chocolate — reveal their constructor’s joy of using the achievements of civilization in a most surprising and unusual way. As the material used is very basic, the output is stunningly raw. A galaxy of separate, elusive sounds opens up to the listeners, where the “real” music is lost and new music found. Sebastian never stops questioning “reality”, he avoids definitions. He is a man of few words. During performances he is accompanied by a mechanical dummy named Jan that sets the mechanical rhythm, and together they create an aura of an extraordinary, almost laboratory-like experiment.

[Sound check and testing the levels: Sebastian imitates the sound of owls. Ambient noises from the café]

[Ignaz Schick] So I’ll start with questions.

[Sebastian Buczek] Hmmm. Like yesterday, in the film we saw, questions and answers. [general laughter]

[IS] I remember I heard this record by you from Mik Music. It must have been early 2003 or 2004. I don’t remember from when this was.

[SB] 2000.

[IS] And in this period you were using the Gramophone, no? And beeswax.

[SB] Yes.

[IS] How did you come up with the idea?

[SB] I can’t remember exactly. But I remember that Wojtek was the assistant of my teacher and the exercise was “before and after”. Students would make pictures, for example, a sofa. Before, the sofa is quite ok and after, the sofa is little bit… somebody is sitting at this place [draws a sofa and a person in the air]. Very beautiful. I couldn’t have such a beautiful, simple idea. And I don’t remember why I was excited about music at that time.

[IS] So for the exercise you made the…

[SB] And I thought, why not for “before” I do “record” and for “after” I do “play.” And I said, ok, let’s try it. So before was before I did it, and after, I did it. [laughs]

[IS] Very nice. So this is how the idea came about? And then you found an old Gramophone and made beeswax plates?

[SB] I found some old book about acoustics, a Polish acoustic book. And it was saying about old manufacturing of vinyl records. And I did the same thing.

[IS] So, kind of reversing the process. Was it a Gramophone, where you had to wind it up with a Kurbel [crank]?

[SB] Mhm, because it was powerful enough to record. I didn’t have Technics or Vestax. [general laughter]

[IS] And after you recorded, you played back on the same Gramophone again?

[SB] Mhm.

[IS] The recording was made with the microphone [pointed directly into] the tube of the Gramophone?

[SB] There were a few experiments in this release. Some of them were pure acoustic recording. Like screaming directly into the tube of the Gramophone. You scream, and you put the needle on the blank, plexiglass for example, and it records. [screams quietly with a high voice]

[IS] And then other experiments…?

[SB] Another was with a cutter I invented.

[IS] The one you are still using, with the loudspeaker?

[SB] No, that one I think I left in your studio.

[IS] That one you were already using on the old recording? Yeah, it is still in my studio, the one with wood, loudspeaker [and a sharpened nail].

[SB] You have it?

[IS] Yeah, I [stored it after you left]. You made a Kurbel [crank] for the Vorschub [wind-up mechanism]. You remember, we blew the loudspeaker, in our session in my studio, you remember?

[SB] We blew it? Aaah, yes, ok.

[IS] We have to replace it when you come to Berlin the next time.

[SB] It was always happening. Now I made one with a computer loudspeaker with the original amplifier.

[IS] So it’s more stable? Maybe this happens because you use one small loudspeaker but then you use a strong hi-fi amp, sometimes too strong, maybe, when you make it too loud. But I remember, when we made the session in Berlin, it broke because of that [unexpected] feedback we created. You remember the needle going “kakakakakakak” and [it cut a strong zigzag groove into the aluminium].

[SB] Aaah, ok.

[IS] I still have that recording, I can it show to you. I think it was too much for the speaker. So this cutting machine you left in Berlin in my studio was already used for the original CD on Mik Music?

[SB] Mhm.

[IS] But in this period you were still using beeswax?

[SB] Beeswax and glass. And it was very breakable. Lot of plates “kch kch kch,” kill kill kill.

[IS] With the glass, is it really possible to engrave into the surface with the nail?

[SB] With wax.

[IS] Ahhhhhhh, ok, you put the wax on top, like a cover. So it’s a bit like the idea of the aluminium lacquers.

[SB] Aluminium is perfect, it is small, not heavy and does not break.

[IS] Ah ok, because I remember now that you explained it, in Stralsund you had two broken-in-half glass records. But then I didn’t understand how you could engrave it. So you make a layer of wax, wow, very nice.

[SB] And of shellac, for example, or lacquer. A lot of material.

[IS] So you also used shellac, and it works?

[SB] Yes, it has another sound. Different, more dry, “swwichhhhuuuuwswwicchuuuw” [hissing/whistling sound] while wax is more “shhhh” [darker, throaty sound].

[IS] Interesting, so [using a different] material really sounds different.

[SB] The Plastik Fantastik also has his own sound.

[IS] So every material has a different [and unique] sound.

[SB] Mhm, a different kind of “sh-v sh-v sh-v sh-v.”

[IS] So this could be interesting, to keep on researching the different materials and their sound. Because this struck me so much when I heard the recording the first time, all this universe of surface sound “chhwchwchwchwchw,” like an ocean. So after that period [of the release] you also started to do performances with this live recording idea. Do you remember when you did the first performance?

[SB] Inowłódz, a small town in the centre of Poland, close to Łowicz.

[IS] There was a small festival?

[SB] Mhm, 2001.

[IS] Maybe I saw photos of that, I think there is something on the internet. It was a Mik Musik event?

[SB] No, not only. It lasted two days, or even three days.

[IS] Then Wojtek liked the recital so much he said we have to release it? So you started to perform [more frequently].When did we meet in Stralsund? It was around 2005, I think. So then this was the first time you made a chocolate record?

[SB] Mhm.

[IS] You brought the [camping] fridge along, and then you made them in different sizes. But there was problem, was it a bit too warm in Stralsund at that time [Summer]? Or was it more the uneven surface? Because I remember it was difficult to record, no?

[SB] My fridge was not too strong [not cold enough]. It was hot, hot, hot weather. While driving with the car [from Poland], at some point it melted a bit.

[IS] How did you make them? You made a form and you [poured]?

[SB] Yes, yes, I think it could be something like oiled glass, and on it [you pour the melted] chocolate. Later [when it is] cold, you take it away and you have a blank.

[IS] Ahhhhhhh, ok, you put it on the glass, with the oil to separate! Oh, nice, yeah! You know, I have to show you this, I have to find this for you. I got a present when we did the turntable orchestra. There is a manufacturer [Lindt] who makes chocolate records which you can buy. With the Donauwalzer [Blue Danube Waltz] or something on it.

[SB] Wow!!

[IS] I have one at home, but I dropped it and it broke! So I cannot play it anymore.

[SB] Ah, so somebody did it [already]!

[IS] But not the way you did it, you know! Because for them it is more a promotional object, you know. It’s a commercial object, but you did it manually. They are not recording directly on it; they make kind of a pressing. I don’t know how they do it.

[SB] Maybe just like vinyls…

[IS] It’s a famous Austrian or German chocolate company. For them it is just a promotion article. I will find it and send it to you. I don’t know how to send it, or I will give it to you the next time you come to Berlin.

[SB] And then if we don’t have anything to eat we can eat it! [general laughter]

[IS] So you experimented with beeswax, you experimented with chocolate, with the glass and a layer of wax. Then you started with aluminium. With this, I was really fascinated, because it was very thin and you started to cut directly into the aluminium [without layers of other material]. The sound was quite good, no?

[SB] It is difficult to record, the Spitze [tip] is going to be broken quickly, also the motor needs to be strong. And it has its original sound as well, as with wax, shellac.

[IS] With more high frequencies? More sharp?

[SB] I can’t say what the difference is.

[IS] It’s just a unique sound. Then you built a big [cutting] table, the one I saw in the photo and which you will hopefully also bring to…

[SB] Plastik Fantastik.

[IS] Which is almost the size of this table, no?

[SB] Bigger!

[IS] [For the construction, you use] a windshield wiper motor from an old car.

[SB] German, I guess…

[IS] Hanomag? 1[1. Hannoversche Maschinenbau AG, a north German manufacturer of steam locomotives, tractors and heavy vehicles.]

[SB] No no, maybe Volkswagen.

[IS] Volkswagen? [both laughing] So you built it with the motor underneath, and you can have two or three speeds on the motor? Backwards maybe also?

[SB] Yes, if you play it in reverse!

[IS] So you can listen in reverse also, very nice! And then you built the tone arm yourself. And then the big cutting unit. And again, this system uses a loudspeaker.

[SB] Yes.

[IS] And now, what do you use for a Spitze, not a nail anymore, as I could see in the last version? Because on the old one you left at my studio, you used a normal nail glued to the membrane of the speaker. But now, I saw that your new Spitze is much more thin.

[SB] Yes, much better after years. Now I was rebuilding it with more accuracy, and more beautiful. Then I was so very quick: ah, do this, this, this. Very fast, fast.

[IS] It was very raw, but now it’s more…

[SB] And now [I think], why not do this the best I can?

[IS] The Spitze, what is it, is it a special material you use?

[SB] I think not, just like Stahl [steel].

[IS] Very hard steel? A nail?

[SB] I’m not even sure if it is very hard.

[IS] Ok, but more thin. Because the other one was really a nail I remember. It’s more sharp?

[SB] More sharp.

[IS] Have you created a situation where you can replace the Spitze?

[SB] Yes. This is very easy to replace. And sometimes, Ignaz you know, I was trying a lot, without success (this time). Because my Spitze was round, like, you know, stożek [cone], round, round, round, round, only circle. And after I was recording, I had many problems: the groove is not good enough to keep [the “needle”] in one groove. [It went] “chchchchch-ch-ch-ch.”

[IS] Ok, like skating, yeah.

[SB] Skating. And then I cut — not from behind, not symmetrically, but like this [draws a diagonal line with his hand in the air].

[IS] Ah, diagonal but not symmetric.

[SB] Yes, and it started to be ok a little bit, only a little bit.

[IS] Ah, interesting, so maybe because it is too symmetric it changes.

[SB] It changed something. It maybe let some wax go away this way; and if not, it was some pressure issue.

[IS] Have you looked at the groove with the microscope?

[SB] I did. But it is difficult to recognize without cutting everything, because it is a light problem. You can see [the surface of the disc with the naked eye] from above, but you don’t see it like [when it is] cut.

[IS] Ok, it is maybe because it is wax, for the material.

[SB] No, no. When you see it from above, you don’t see how it is.

[IS] Ah, because it is vertical.

[SB] You need to cut [through it].

[IS] Yeah, and then you see the [groove].

[SB] But I could see the Spitze with the microscope.

[IS] Tell me how you found PCL?

[SB] I also can’t remember why. But maybe I was looking for something, probably on the UK eBay or somewhere, and I found low thermoplastic which you can melt. Earlier, before I went to Brazil, I was trying to build a vinyl press plant. I bought a big press, and started to melt PVC, vinyl, pure vinyl… it was difficult to do it, and it burned into Säure.

[IS] Oh, it burned into acid! Oh, ha ha ha! [both coughing out loud] Because it is… I don’t know what the components are, but I can imagine, yeah.

[SB] It is very sensitive to overheating. And the machine was not really very good, I needed to replace some parts, and I couldn’t figure out what. Anyway, I didn’t resolve the electro-plating systems. [It requires] very expensive nickel, and is complicated. So I went to Brazil and abandoned this idea. But I still have this technology of plastic in mind.

[IS] But you have a pressing machine?

[SB] Yeah, very big, like four or five tables like this. [shows massive dimensions with his arms, ca. 4 x 4 m] A long press.

[IS] And you could put in these forms, but maybe…

[SB] 60 tons of power.

[IS] Oh my god, it’s electric?

[SB] Yes, and it would go “psssss-chhhhhh-kschhhhhhh, psssssss-tschhhhhhhhh.”

[IS] Where did you find this? Polish market?

[SB] Yes, yes, yes. it is an old machine to make buttons or something like this, small plastic [objects].

[IS] Ahhhh ok, so it is not from a vinyl pressing plant, it’s just a pressing machine.

[SB] Uh-huh.

[IS] And you will modify it.

[SB] With a melting part…

[IS] Ok, [for] making the plastic warm, you can fill it with plastic and then [pour].

[SB] Mhm.

[IS] Ok, but maybe now with PCL…

[SB] With PCL, it would be very easy, I think.

[IS] But this is really [easy], I think you found the right material, now the only step is to find a unique idea in your way to make the mother.

[SB] The matrix. Yes, but maybe I will not find it.

[IS] Maybe you could make it with bronze, like in sculpture, you know, where they make Guss [cast], something like this. [both laughing] You will find a way, I am sure. You will experiment, you will have an idea.

[SB] But PCL is perfect!

[IS] Yes, totally, because it melts easy, and it is very easy to press.

[SB] And even without pressing, only cutting it gives a very nice sound character.

[IS] But now you have a pressing machine, maybe you can press other objects… [short pause]

[SB] Oh yes!! [both laughing] On the plastic market!

[IS] Yeah! I like this idea, when you cut into these unique white blanks of PCL. It is really beautiful, because every one is a unique object.

[SB] Maybe it would be better to sell it in the thousands. One thousand [copies]. [both laughing] Not unique but…

[IS] And everyday: cutting, cutting, cutting… When you mentioned that you bought a pressing machine, I didn’t understand. I thought it was an old vinyl pressing thing. So it is an industrial machine. You stored it in your atelier, close to the Ukrainian border?

[SB] I am not sure if I have a photo here I can show you. [takes out his camera] Or maybe not. [metal objects drop on the ground as he searches on his camera for photos] A screw. [something else drops] Another one… Ok, nothing important [referring to the photos]. [both laughing]

[IS] So this was a chance discovery, the PCL?

[SB] Uh-huh.

[IS] Then you immediately understood: “this is fantastic, maybe I can make blanks from this”?

[SB] Mhm.

[IS] I like the way how you manufacture them, really like a Pizzateig [pizza dough]: you make a ball and then you press them. Have you tried other materials besides aluminium, chocolate, glass, beeswax… it’s a lot already, actually.

[SB] Mhm.

[IS] Have you also tried other plastics?

[SB] Mhm, I tried for example to record on pocztówka dźwiękowa [pronounce something like: puchtufka dventkova].

[IS] Say this again…

[SB] Pocztówka dźwiękowa, this old Polish communist pirate music.

[IS] Ah, the ones you showed me.

[SB] Mhm. You can record on it, cut on it.

[IS] On the back side?

[SB] On the same side, because Vestax [turntables] read until the centre.

[IS] Ah, so you can record on the end. Ah, very nice! I actually have a huge collection of those. I once saw in Warsaw, there is a store that had a lot of them (I can’t remember where it is) and I bought a whole box [of 7-inch vinyls] — like half a meter of this stuff. Nobody wanted them and they [sold them at] a very cheap price and so I took the whole box. I love them. I have bootlegs of Slayer, bootlegs of the Beatles… Sometimes it [the cover art] looks like wallpaper, there is some kind of pattern. I love them, they are really great.

So in the old days you used the old Gramophone, right? Then you built your own?

[SB] When I exchanged the old Gramophone with Dagna, I gave her the old Gramophone and she gave me a magnetophone. Record cassette stuff. Marantz, good quality, very nice.

[IS] So the Gramophone is gone.

[SB] She said, “Ok, I’ll give you the Gramophone when you give me the Marantz.” [both laugh] And it stopped with this.

[IS] So you use a normal record player, now? Because I remember you had a record player in Stralsund, a very simple hi-fi. And then you got the Vestax because it has more power.

[SB] And a battery.

[IS] I remember you were very happy in my studio with a strong record player.

[SB] Because I was always buying the cheapest stuff, broken, for 50 Zloty [approx. $5].

[IS] Yeah but it doesn’t matter, you can make nice stuff with cheap things.

[SB] But I was always very stressed with buying things, only looking to buy the cheapest. Like this jacket, I was going to pay one, two, three Zloty, and didn’t look at [ones that cost] 20…

[IS] Second-hand stuff. So, now that you have built this table, it is not exactly 33 or 45, but there is a very strong motor in this one; you can cut really well, no?

[SB] Not very well, I’m afraid. Because it is so huge, it needs so much more power to cut outside.

[IS] But you could start cutting a bit more inside.

[SB] Closer to the inside, the [use of] power is better.

[IS] I also have this problem with the Revox motor, that the slower I spin it, the less power it has; the faster I spin it, the more power it has. So if I spin it slow, sometimes it stops, because I have pressure on my objects. If I spin it very fast, it has more energy and I can play using more power with my hand, it can be stronger. It would probably be the same problem with your big table, if you want to record at a very slow speed, you have less power, but if you record at a faster speed you have more power but then you have less [recording] time.

[SB] Oooooh, these plates have so much time! [both laugh]

[IS] Because it’s so big, right! How much is it, like a meter?

[SB] 76 centimetres [diameter].

[IS] Close to a meter, wow! You have to bring it to Cologne. 2[2. Sebastian was booked to perform during the Elektronicski Klang- und Filmexperimente festival in Cologne, 3, 4 and 5 May 2012.]

[SB] It has five legs.

[IS] I like it’s external tone arm, that is very nice. You know, those old record players in the radio studios, they were sometimes only just the machine and the tone arm was also separate. I don’t know if it is a Technics, but there is this old record player, I saw it at Yann [Leguay]’s place: it is the machine and an extra tone arm

[SB] Separate not vibrating with the motor?

[IS] So basically it is mainly a very strong motor. But I think a windshield wiper motor is strong, no? I think these motors — I don’t have them anymore from my crazy exploding machine — were Hanomag motors, from windshield wipers, very old, very strong.

At the moment you are more interested in plastic, I guess. I would still be curious at some point to compare the same audio material recorded on different blank materials, to really see what the difference is between wax, PCL. […]

For me, I always had a dream to be able to record my own sounds on vinyl, but I never managed to go so far as to build my own machine. And the other machine [that Yann uses] for me is amazing but it is too high-tech, too complicated for me. I don’t understand such complex machines.

[SB] Stereo cutter?

[IS] Yeah. Ah, this is a good question, yours is stereo, or mono?

[SB] Mono. There is only one loudspeaker, and a small one. But it is not really mono, it goes like this [makes a sideways oscillating motion with his finger]. But [when cutting] plastic or wax, it doesn’t make an exact groove, left and right. It occasionally builds a deep, 3D, stereo pattern. 3[3. Cutting wax using a mono source produces a lot of noise. The noise, however, is stereo, despite the single channel (mono) input. Due to the unpredictable and uncontrollable movement of the cutter while cutting wax, the shape of the groove can vary dramatically, thereby producing in effect a stereo recording.] Sometimes, with different frequencies, it goes more like this [makes a more diverse oscillating movement], it depends on how it cuts. And [when cutting], who knows how it will go?

[IS] So it can morph all the time between mono and stereo moments, depending on the frequency.

[SB] Even if you have a mono source, it is a stereo output.

[IS] Because the needle is going in two directions, no?

[SB] For example, if you have [a stronger signal], it will go more stereo; some frequencies can be more mono.

[IS] Is it the bass which is more mono, maybe?

[SB] Maybe. But you perceive it like a 3D sound. For sure scratches, because it can sometimes be only on the left or the right, separated [makes more distinct left or right movements], everything is moving chaotically. And inside this [movement], you have the sound. Mostly in the centre, but sometimes you can have it [elsewhere].

[IS] Ok, I was always wondering, because in a way it is in between, because the speaker membrane receives the stereo signal also, but then you transfer it in a direct…

[SB] No, it only receives one channel, it is only one loudspeaker. Where the stereo is created is on the Spitze [tip] and the surface.

[IS] So you would need two speakers in parallel to make stereo [output]. And then put the needle in between, maybe…

[SB] No, only one, connected by height. 4[4. One loudspeaker would create up and down grooves readable on a turntable by both left and right channels (i.e. stereo).]

[IS] […] I am really looking forward to the project we will do in May with this process of live recording, Plastik Fantastik, with different machines, and this idea that we play with the sound and all these objects.

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