Toby Kaufmann-Buhler expands his sound world

The former Madisonian brings his experiments with singing saw and video to Communication on October 26.

The former Madisonian brings his experiments with singing saw and video to Communication on October 26. (Image: video still from one of Kaufmann-Buhler’s recent performances.)

Artist Toby Kaufmann-Buhler‘s work in installations and digital video over the past 15 years found all sorts of ways to combine sound and image into pieces that challenge viewers’ conception of media itself. Much of this work developed between 2005 and 2014, when Kaufmann-Buhler lived in Madison. A 2013 installation at the Watrous Gallery, Unseasonal Events Change Hands, greeted viewers with 20-odd small projection screens suspended from the gallery ceiling, each screen showing disembodied hands performing some kind of abstract shadow-puppetry, while music from Madison-based composer and percussionist Nathaniel Bartlett played through a four-channel sound setup. A 2014 installation in the Little Monroe Gallery comprised strips of Super 8 film attached to a column of light. For the Madison Public Library’s 2012 Bookless event, Kaufmann-Buhler created a stop-motion video that showed books scooching about in the old Central Library building.

Over the past couple of years, Kaufmann-Buhler has spent a lot of time working with a more low-tech tool: the singing saw. His recent performances have combined the saw’s creaking, wobbling notes with multiple layers of sound processing and video feedback that uses a digital video camera, a monitor, and a series of transparent slides mounted in front of the camera lens. As he changes out slides and adjusts the focus on the camera, the visual feedback intensifies, creating a lo-fi and hypnotically scrambled effect. Kaufmann-Buhler will be showcasing this approach in a Friday, October 26 performance at Communication.


Since leaving Madison, Kaufmann-Buhler has worked a stint as a staff member in the dance department at Ohio State, and now resides in Lafayette, Indiana, where he’s been focusing more on performing his work in clubs and bars outside of the gallery circuit. His other recent work includes collaborating with electronic musician Benoit Pioulard on a music-plus-video piece called Age Of The Sign. Ahead of his return visit to Madison, Kaufmann-Buhler spoke with me about his changing relationship with sound and music.

Tone Madison: What got you interested in the singing saw?

Toby Kaufmann-Buhler: I never really had any interest in the saw itself until Jennifer, my wife, gave me a saw for my birthday, just over 10 years ago when we were in Madison. At the time I was working on a video where I incorporated it into the soundtrack, and it’s become more and more important over the years to the point where I use it in most everything I do, whether it’s soundtracks or sound work, or doing performance. The saw itself is so low-tech, but at the same time it really interests me to use it with software and to kind of wrap the software signal flow around the saw. It’s been a really interesting tool.

Tone Madison: It takes some finesse to actually coax notes out of it.

Toby Kaufmann-Buhler: Yeah. And even though when I was younger I trained as a percussionist, I have no pretensions to being a musician, and the way that I work with it, I’m more interested in the more expansive sound possibilities of it. A lot of what I do is based in improvisation, and I’m approaching it more as a kind of sound artifact than as a musical instrument.

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Tone Madison: And it looks like you’re combining it with video feedback in your performances now. Why did you develop that particular approach?

Toby Kaufmann-Buhler: After doing a couple residencies over the years—one back in 2008 at the Experimental Television Center, and another one last year at a place called Signal Culture—on that first residency, I brought the saw with me, and it was still really new to me at the time but I did a lot of work in that residency using the saw and kind of developing work and making new mixes of pieces out of that. The video feedback method I’m working with over the past several months is directly out of those experiences of working with analog video, working with analog signal flow in video and sound, and sound-to-video, so that the sound output goes into the video and has an effect on the video live. The live setup that I’ve been working with uses the video and the sound very intimately. There’s an intimate connection between the two.

Tone Madison: What can people expect from this particular performance in Madison? How does it connect to these other projects lately that put your work in more of a musical context?


Toby Kaufmann-Buhler: What can be expected is that I’m working with the live visual feedback and the saw, and I’ve kind of gravitated towards alternative spaces to perform, because I want a more open audience to what I’m doing. There’s a great dive bar [in Lafayette] called The Spot that a lot of bands tour through, and a lot of groups for some reason stop off here even when they won’t stop off anywhere else in Indiana, between Chicago and Columbus and Cleveland and other points in the Midwest. And it’s in part because they have a really wide-open booking policy, and it’s run by a guy who’s in the band Crazy Doberman. I got connected with somebody who was like “You should do a show here, because they will take anybody.” My first couple shows were there, and then I started doing stuff with other artists in Indianapolis, and then I’m going to do another show in Columbus, Ohio, next spring at a place called the Fuse Factory, and I’ve done a show there before. So I’m really interested in those spaces where they’re interested in more experimental video, sound, A/V people who want to come through and play. Communication looked like an interesting venue to do that.

Tone Madison: Was part of the impulse to play venues like that a way to get out of the gallery world and academic art world?

Toby Kaufmann-Buhler: In some ways, yeah. I’m not consciously doing that, but at the same time, it gives me another outlet where I’m not just sending my work out to these galleries and having it be shown in this remote place that I really have no connection to. There’s a distance there that I’ve experienced, where I don’t personally get a lot out of the experience. Even though I know my work is going out there, I’m distanced from it. Doing it this way, I can personally be involved and personally have an experience with the audience simultaneously, and that’s fulfilling.

Tone Madison: So when you first got serious about making art, were you already trying to work with all these different elements of sound, video, and installation art? How did that approach evolve for you?

Toby Kaufmann-Buhler: I was really interested from really early on, when I was in undergrad in Florida, in the relationship of sound and image. I started off with photography and started putting sound with photographs and getting some interesting relationships, but I quickly moved to video and it was a natural transition. It was right when digital was starting to take over video, so it was very young as a medium for artists who don’t have any resources. It was becoming very affordable to use. Doing soundtracks myself and doing video imagery and putting those together really became, very early on, an important thing for me. Then I went to grad school in England, and I got exposed to some interesting artists there and some processes that led me to start working with film where I was there and start looking at video imagery as this frame-by-frame phenomenon. I sort of started backwards—I started working with digital video way before I ever was interested in analog. I did a very, very early video piece that was an analog piece that very much had to do with that physical relationship to the video, but I moved away from that as digital became more important and the editing of it became something that was really interesting to me as a way of working with imagery.

Tone Madison: You recently collaborated with musician Thomas Meluch, aka Benoit Pioulard, on a video and music project called Age Of The Sign. I know you and I have both been big fans of his for a while, and I was wondering how that collaboration came together. Also, I think he’s a photographer on the side, so I was wondering what kind of conversations the two of you had about how you wanted the sounds and visuals to come together.

Toby Kaufmann-Buhler: I was a fan of his long before I first met him, and I really deeply got into his music—both his songwriting and his instrumental music—so I kind of had this idea that I’d love to work with him if there was ever an opportunity. I first met him at a Stars Of The Lid show in Chicago. It was their 20th anniversary weekend full of shows, and Tom randomly sat down right next to me at that show. I struck up a conversation with him and he was very friendly, very approachable, and was interested in chatting. After that, the second time I met him was at a house show he did in Youngstown, Ohio. And then I saw him at another show in Chicago that he was playing with Loscil, and at that point I got up the nerve to ask him if he wanted to collaborate on some work.

And it turned out that at the Ohio show, he told me that he had actually an experience of Lafayette, because his grandmother and part of his family lives here. He used to live in Michigan and he would come down during summers to spend time here with cousins and stuff, so he had this memory of the area. So that put an idea in my head for a possible piece about this place and his experience of this place. He had some very strong sense memories of Lafayette, just childhood visual and even olfactory memories of the place. When I talked to him about possibly doing the piece he was definitely open to it.

After living here [in Lafayette] for a while, I started getting these ideas about imagery. We have this great big tree in our backyard—this huge sycamore, one of the biggest in the neighborhood—and I had shot some video of this tree in the wintertime, and then I went to the Signal Culture residency and I did a whole series of processes on that video, which became the basis for that piece visually. And then I had this idea to shoot Super 8 film around town of various things, and that became the other basis of it too. When I’m living in a new place, I like to make work that’s about my experience of the place, about what it is to get to know the place. Tom and I started talking about what he might do and it became this instrumental drone piece that he made that, for me, [the music and imagery] work fantastically together.

Tone Madison: You said earlier that you don’t think of yourself as a musician, but would you eventually like to do some sound work where your piece of it is incorporated more into an actual piece of music somehow?

Toby Kaufmann-Buhler: I have definitely done a number of different collaborations where I just do the visual, and I really enjoy doing that and working with other people’s sound and music. I’d love to collaborate with [Tom] again. We don’t have any plans to do anything in the future, but that certainly would be really interesting if it happened again. I should say too that for this piece, Age Of The Sign, I planned for it to be an installation piece, and he designed it so that it’s a four-channel piece, or two stereo tracks that play simultaneously. The web version is the normal stereo version, but the installation would be this more immersive piece where I would have projections set up and actually visually would have film hanging that the video would project through. I would love to contribute sound to other musicians, other sound artists. That’s actually something I have not had the chance to do, but if I could work up to that, I would love it. I’ve collaborated a lot with Nathaniel Bartlett, who you may know in Madison. That’s been really fruitful. There’s a drone/ambient guitarist who’s really great named Wayne Robert Thomas, who is based near Indianapolis. I’ve gotten to know him the past year or so and I did a music video for him.

Tone Madison: What’s next for you?

Toby Kaufmann-Buhler: My big thing right now is that I’m working on a solo gallery exhibition for next spring in Indianapolis. I got a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to do a show there, and it’s kind of based on some family history. I have this project that I call Self-Surveillance that has been important for me for a number of years now and I do a lot of work under the umbrella of that project. This will be the first big show that I do with this work. The background of it involves family history, so I’m looking at various members of my family who are kind of spread out between Europe and the U.S. For this project specifically, I’m looking at Richard Gatling, who was the inventor of the Gatling gun, who was living in Indianapolis with his family in the 1860s and 1870s. He designed and invented the Gatling gun right around the beginning of the Civil War. He’s buried with his family in a cemetery in Indianapolis. I’m really interested in the gun itself to some extent, but his life around it and his life in Indianapolis and a confluence of different things that have to do with that. I found this great gallery in Indianapolis called Listen Hear that’s actually a sound-art gallery. They have a low-power radio station there that broadcasts just in the city, and so I’m right now planning for part of [the art project] to be on the radio, and for there to be this video feedback setup in the gallery, and various other elements with the material.

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