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The Computer Musician: Portrait of Jonathan Reus, Winner of a Teaching Award

2018-01-29 The American artist and scientist Jonathan Reus is working on linking mathematics and computer science with the humanities. At Leuphana, he helped to develop the curriculum for the Major Digital Media and received an award for his seminar proposal ‘Algorithmic Ontohacking: Computational Time, Movement and the Body’.

An obsolete computer’s operating windows flicker rhythmically on-screen to drumming, purring and vibrating sounds. Jonathan Reus stands at the bottom of the stage and creates electronic music with a computer, but in a way far different from the standard methods of digital music production. It’s nearly like he is playing the body of the computer like a traditional musical instrument. However, he does not pluck strings or press keys, but operates directely on the electronics. Born in America, he is a musician, performer and scientist. Reus’ musical roots are in American folk music. He plays banjo, harmonica and clarinet. 

Video: Obsolete Apple computer performance (3:56 Min.)

His current style is more technical. "Programming is an important skill for electronic musicians, or any digital artists, who recognize that specific softwares carry specific creative ideologies", explains Reus. This is the reason why he situates his art and research precisely at the crossroads of cultural and natural sciences. For his students, this means that they should not only be artistically oriented, but should also master the fundamentals of technology.

The ‘Algorithmic Onto-Hacking’ course will open up a new world in the coming summer semester. In the seminar, Reus collaborates with philosopher Yvonne Foerster and artist/researcher Jaime del Val to combine a critical analysis of software and algorithms with dance, interactive media and computer technology. The focus on algorithms is important to him because of the role they play in shaping and directing what is artistically possible. ‘Onto-Hacking’ is a term borrowed from collaborator Jaime del Val, which refers to questioning and subverting forms of being (from the Greek Ontos) that are created by software. This concept is the conceptual foundation for the course, for which he was awarded the Leuphana Teaching Prize. “We will begin by studying foundations in phenomenology and embodiment philosophy that will give us the conceptual tools to begin asking critical design questions. From there we will design and build computer interfaces with the students that will be worn on their bodies”, explains Reus. He's talking about putting theory into practice. The course will conclude with a workshop in collaboration with the Ontohacklab (part of the EU-funded 'Metabody Project') and presentations and performances of the students' work.

Reus came to Leuphana three years ago to help establish the major in ‘Digital Media’. In particular, he was responsible for developing the practice-led part of the programme. “Leuphana has a long tradition in new media. Together with Berlin and Weimar, it is one of the big three in Germany”, says Reus. He studied Computer Science and Fine Arts at The University of Florida in the United States. In 2008, a Fulbright Fellowship brought him to Europe. There, he developed computer instruments at the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM) in Amsterdam. “The Netherlands has a tradition of being very artistically progressive, especially in digital media”, Reus explains of his move to Europe. Today, he is living as a freelance artist in The Hague. He recently received a large talent development prize from the Dutch Creative Industries Fund, and beginning March this year he will be a research fellow at the ArtEZ academy of art in Arnhem. Reus' works have been shown at numerous international venues for music and new media art, such as transmediale (Berlin), Hangar (Barcelona), TodaysArt (The Hague), Spektrum (Berlin), De Brakke Grond (Amsterdam) and at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. He was also an artist in residence in Spain, Estonia and Portugal.

When Jonathan Reus talks about music, he doesn’t mean music in a traditional way. Compared to most musical practices, electronic musicians have an incredibly short tradition to rely on. That is why it is still extremely important to ask very basic questions: Which creative tools are needed? What could new instruments look like? Which sounds are possible? These are questions that were asked consistently during electronic music's genesis in the 20th century, but are easily forgotten today. For Reus, the potential of electronic music is still huge: “Fundamentally, it remains the case that computers can create music that people can't (or wouldn't)play. This is remarkable, but necessitates mindfulness”. His art often calls for a new perception. In his installation, 'The Intimate Earthquake Archive' , his audience wears a special vest equipped with a custom designed vibration system, creating the feeling of alienating earthquake vibrations over the body. “It's deep listening for the body”, Reus says. For him, the reception and composition of his art reaches beyond traditional listening. “Because the screen remains the primary interface for computing, many computer music programmes are very vision-oriented. They often function like movie editing software, which is a different way of experiencing time than if we were to prioritize the ears and the body” explains Jonathan Reus. Even if he makes instruments, he speaks more of conceptual design than construction. “My instruments have a certain semiotic quality to them, they aren't transparent interfaces, but carry some meaning. This is perhaps where my fine arts background comes in. I like to play with concepts”, he says.

His future musical project is one of them. In the coming year, he wants to begin working with folk musicians of different traditions who also build their own instruments. He is interested in the relationship of the musicians with their instruments. This question is also fundamentally connected to his research on digital media. 

Jonathan Reus, winner of a Teaching Award (0:51 Min.)

Marietta Hülsmann, University Marketing. News from the university surrounding the areas of research, teaching and study can be sent to