Remembering Erkki Kurenniemi

Juha Huuskonen pays tribute to his friend Erkki Kurenniemi – inventor, utopist, artist, engineer, film maker, composer, instrument builder and polymath.

Juha Huuskonen pays tribute to his friend Erkki Kurenniemi – inventor, utopist, artist, engineer, film maker, composer, instrument builder and polymath.

Erkki Kurenniemi

Erkki Kurenniemi’s archive at Finnish National Gallery

I still remember the day when I first met Erkki Kurenniemi (1941-2017); it was at a University of Art and Design Media Lab event in 1997. I don’t remember what the event was about, but I remember being astonished by this ‘old guy’ who was completely up to date with what was going on with software, the internet, artificial intelligence and so forth. Kurenniemi wasn’t  just up to date about what was going on there and then, but what might be coming up next.

Back then I was an enthusiastic software designer looking for new challenges and I kept meeting up with Erkki on a regular basis. At the time Erkki was working as an exhibition designer at Heureka Science Centre. I would meet him at his office when he was preparing an exhibition and we would have a session that lasted for some hours – going through the current exhibition theme that he was working on. He would always have a big pile of photocopies from many various sources, mostly old and forgotten science books as well as plenty of his own notes. What I really learned is that one can dive really deep into what ever topic, and what I found is that there is a whole universe of alternative approaches to explore.

A couple of years after our first meeting I spent some time exploring how human movement can be translated into (electronic) sound and visuals, in the form of various artworks and performances. I thought this was something new and exciting but then discovered that Erkki had done the exactly same thing in the early 1970s, before I was born. This is very typical for Erkki – to be some decades ahead of everyone else.

I always thought of Erkki as the Finnish equivalent of Buckminster Fuller. In addition to both being futurist visionaries and innovators, they were both obsessive, meticulous archivists of their own daily lives (both making recordings every 15 minutes or so). They both treated themselves as a kind of guinea pig for their future visions, and archiving was a way to engage with and follow the progress of these visions. Kurenniemi wrote notes but also used the latest tools that were available for documentation – first analog audio recorders, then later on digital audio and video equipment. Exploring the Kurenniemi archive that is housed in the Finnish National Gallery is a daunting task for anyone – but the archive has  been a rich resource for many exhibitions over some decades (including a major show in Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and at dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel).

Despite their similarities, Fuller and Kurenniemi (or Buckie and Kurtsi, as they were often called) had divergent, or even opposite agendas. While Buckie saw carefully designed systems and technologies to be the salvation of humankind, Kurtsi thought that a too strong reliance on technological solutions would be a mistake. In his words: “Technology won’t take control as long as man can misuse it”.

One example of Kurenniemi’s attitude was Master Chaynjis, a swearing robot which he built for an exhibition at Kunsthalle Helsinki in 1982. In hindsight this arrogant robot can be seen as a precursor to  what new technologies offer us today: spambots, social media flame wars, noise and chaos instead of smooth, trouble-free experiences. Proof of Master Chaynjis’ expressive power is that the robot was destroyed by a religious fanatic who found the robot offensive.

During the 1960s and 70s Kurenniemi was a prolific composer and instrument builder. In this work he was looking both to the past and decades into the future. He worked on his own musical theory which was inspired by the work of Leonhard Euler (1707–1783). Regarding the future of music, Kurtsi commented in 1967: “Future computer-music composers are like industrial designers or trendsetters.”

Many of Kurenniemi’s instruments have been gathered in the Electronic Music Studio of Helsinki University – which is essentially the same institution where he built some of his first instruments. In the studio, Jari Suominen, together with other musicians and engineers have worked meticulously to understand and restore these instruments. Kurenniemi invented many solutions for electronic music composition, years ahead of certain instruments becoming available commercially. His holistic vision of the blurry connection between humans, technology and the surrounding environment can be seen in the interfaces he designed for the Dimi-instruments. The Dimi-S (aka Sexophone) works on a concept  based on skin contact between four performers – the more skin contact and the more moisture, the more sound will come out of the system. Dimi-O (the optical Dimi) used human movement as the input and the Dimi-T (aka Electroencephalophone) generated a sound signal based on the electrical activity of the brain.

Erkki Kurenniemi

Dimi-A, the first instrument in the Dimi series (1970)


Erkki Kurenniemi

The console for Dimi-6000 (1973-1974)


Erkki Kurenniemi

Jari Suominen with Kurenniemi’s integrated synthesizer (1964-)

Alongside Kurenniemi’s artistic and experimental work, he held serious positions as an engineer specialised in industrial automation (at Rosenlew in the seventies and in Nokia’s cable division in the early eighties). One particularly impressive feat is that Kurenniemi designed the very first Finnish micro-computer which became commercially available in 1973. This was a couple of years before the appearance of the Altair 8800, which sparked the start of Microsoft and is seen as the beginning of the personal computer revolution. Had Kurtsi’s computer become a major success, both the world we live in and the future that we can imagine might look a bit different today.

* The quotes in the text are from Mika Taanila’s film about Kurenniemi: The Future Is Not What It Used To Be.

Juha Huuskonen is an artist / curator / organiser / software designer base in Helsinki, Finland. He currently works as the Director of HIAP – Helsinki International Artist Programme

More on Erkki Kurenniemi:

* Writing and Unwriting (Media) Art History. Erkki Kurenniemi in 2048 (MIT Press).

* Mika Taanila’s film about Kurenniemi: The Future Is Not What It Used To Be

* Erkki Kurenniemi – a Man from the Future (article series in English)

* Sound on Sound: Pioneer of Digital Synthesis

* Erkki Kurenniemi archives online (in Finnish)

* Several videos featuring Kurenniemi from YLE archives


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