March 18, 2010

Drift (a Field)

Last night, Drift (a Field) was premiered as part of the New Media Projects Showcase at Lawrence University. I’ve been posting regular status updates on this project on this blog, so I won’t recap the entire gestation process here, only offer some brief notes about the finished work.

Drift (a Field) uses the programming tool Max/MSP/Jitter to create and explore a matrix or field of video images which are grouped conceptually and compositionally. The Max patch wanders through this field and shows us—the audience—the view of its location in the matrix.

In contrast to the video, the audio is largely fixed, which forces the pseudo-spatial wanderings of the video patch to be folded into the temporal performative boundaries of the sound. As the performer, I can control when the video advances to new images (and can thus create synchronocities between the audio and video), but no control over what those images are. By imposing a fixed aural narrative to contrast the dynamic video, the indeterminate sequence of images can come to be viewed as a form in time itself.

When I first began to formulate ideas about Drift (a Field), I described it as a “meditation on snowblindness”. Though it has evolved and changed over the past 10 weeks of work, I feel that this description is still apt, given the imagery and sounds used in this piece, which reflect the transformative and blinding processes of decontextualization that can take place as technology filters and transmits sounds and images.

The title Drift (a Field) was inspired by the poetry and prose of Upper Michigan writer Ander Monson, whose works similarly deal with issues of space, place, technology, and—not surprisingly—snow.

images [top to bottom]:

3 video captures from Drift (a Field), fixed media sound with interactive video, 2010

Drift (a Field) performance, March 17, 2010. Esch-Hurvis Studio at the Warch Campus Center, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin. Photo: John Shimon and Julie Lindemann

March 8, 2010

James Danky/Underground Comix

Historian and archivist James Danky spoke last week at Lawrence University on the topic of his new book, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix. As others have written, Danky's talk was unfortunately lazy and badly presented. For someone with little or no familiarity (but a great deal of interest) in comix, his presentation was simultaneously over- and underwhelming. At times, I felt like he was addressing an audience who had already read his book and the genre, and at other times, I was embarrassed at the lack of research he had done in his attempts to legitimize the genre to a group of art students.

However, I was able to glean from his lecture a sense of the way in which independent printing presses would pop up to print these subversive publications, which were often censored or banned because of their lurid content. This made me think about the nature of print arts in general as a mass communication medium. Comix artists had a desire to print and distribute their works and conservative authorities were seriously troubled by their existence.

It's interesting to me how the very act of printing copies of an image lends it a certain power that can make it both a tool (for those who use it) and a threat (for those who oppose it). This past term, I've been taking an introductory printmaking course (with Ben Rinehart), which has caused me to think of printmaking in terms of media art. Many of the processes are surprisingly simple and involve the use of a few very basic chemical processes to make many, many copies of the same image, which can be viewed by many people. We have this strange, deep-rooted association with printed materials (most of us have learned from textbooks from an early age) and ascribe to them a certain power, even if we've just created them ourselves.

At the talk, one person asked if online comics are today's version of these early comix. It seems that there are definite parallels, especially as academia and mass media are shifting almost entirely to an online format. The ease and simplicity with which one can maintain a professional-looking website or blog and thus reach a wide audience is a parallel to the way commix artists used the mass print media formats of their day.

Image: Gilbert Shelton, Hallelujahgobble from Phineas Freek

February 28, 2010

Slime Mold/Hierarchies

As I understand it, slime mold consists of thousands of individual cell nuclei contained within a single membrane. The DNA information for these organisms is housed within this membrane (rather than the nuclear membrane, as is often the case with cells), so that all of the nuclei within the outer membrane share identical DNA. All of the nutrients and resources slime mold collects are carried throughout the entire membrane and the mold can "move" toward food (rotting organic matter) through the division of these internal nuclei. The nuclei that are closer to the nutrients split, creating more nuclei, while those farther from the nutrients die away, thus preserving nutrients for the entire mold. This extremely slow movement can be observed in time-lapse video:

What is most fascinating to me about slime mold is the way it accomplishes all of these tasks without the benefit of a central nervous system. Each of the cell nuclei are basically autonomous and are governed only by the collective goal of collecting food. This is a glaring contrast to the traditional hierarchy found in performing arts, where an artist/composer/genius gives her/his works to passive subservient performers, who subject an audience to the artist/composer/genius' wishes. By making the entire process oriented more towards goals that the performers, artist/composer, and audience all share, art can be more spontaneous and the experience can be shared collectively by everyone experiencing the work together. If the artist/composer's role were to provide the goal and the means to that goal, interesting, unexpected things could happen on the path.

These are some of the thoughts that have been on my mind when working with semi-improvised/semi-random audio and video with this current project. I'm sure that my understanding of slime mold is entirely incomplete and probably flat-out incorrect in many instances. But it's organic movement and ephemeral role in the food chain are really an inspiration for me and I hope that my work can capture some of the beauty of organisms like this.

N. Bourriaud - The Radicant Pt. 2 - Radicant Aesthetics

Mobilis in mobili.

- Captain Nemo, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Bourriaud's discussion of topology and journey-forms part 2 of The Radicant resonated with me and my current work with algorithmic narratives in video and music.

As Bourriaud describes it, static works of art fail to encompass the modern experience of taking in information, which, rather occurring in a straight line (in which the accumulation of information is an additive process), occurs as one traverses a vast web of interconnected concepts (a process of multiplication). This process is especially noticeable with the hyperlink, which allows a viewer to instantly move from one text to another.

This is part of what I've been trying to capture with my current video project, where a computer program is presented with a finite set of video clips and strings them together in time through their spatial orientation on a conceptual matrix. The musical performers and the audience must then be mobile enough to react to the way in which these images and concepts are presented. Just as in Charlemagne Palestine's Island Song [above], the form of the work is the experiential journey.

For the remainder of this entry, I will only post things pertaining to Man or Astro-Man?

February 21, 2010

Art, Nature, and Conservationism

A world
parallel to our own through overlapping.
We call it "Nature"; only reluctantly
admitting ourselves to be "Nature" too.
Lawrence University professor Jodi Sedlock's career took many turns before she became the bat-researching biologist she is today. She began as a visual artist who, while studying in Chicago, began to make scientific sketches at the Field Museum. This led to internships and more chances to study biology and her eventual research of Philippine bats.

Hearing her story made me think about some artists who use nature, science, and conservationism explicitly in their own art. One of the most remarkable pieces I've seen/heard lately is by British artist Katie Paterson, whose art deals largely with environmental issues. For her piece Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, Solheimajökull, Paterson froze the runoff water from melting glaciers into records that could be played on a phonograph until they inevitably melted. You can listen to the beautifully ephemeral result here.

(I also just discovered that Paterson's piece All the Dead Stars was featured in the Tate Triennial Altermodern exhibit curated by Nicolas Bourriaud. What a small, globalized world we live in.)

Phonograph technology is also used in Alunda Kyrkokör's terrafon, an enormous gramophone that can be pulled through dirt to play the surface of the earth like an LP.

Harvest by Alunda Kyrkokör (2009) from Olle Corneer on Vimeo.

Musician Jacques Dudon created "photosonic" instruments that turn light energy into sound and "aquaphones" that use the sonic properties of water. To play his photosonic instruments, he projects light and manipulates it using rotating colored plastic discs and lenses to synthesize sounds in just intonation, a tuning system that is built upon the naturally-occurring overtones of sound and (by extension) light. The result is pretty psychedelic.

Progress Report - Week #6

The video portion of the project is basically complete, though I'm sure I'll continue to make adjustments as I go on. Unfortunately, I'm not really able to capture footage and post it here because the computer gets way too laggy when it has to play, process, and capture videos at the same time. I'll try to figure out a way to remedy this, but for now, I'll just keep you waiting for the March 17th performance.

Since I began working on this project, I've been trying to decide how this piece is going to be "performed" and this dilemma is coming to the forefront as I grapple with the aural portion of the piece. The video could, theoretically, go on forever--there are 210 possible combinations of videos that could be projected simultaneously (thank you, and because the videos are all different, irregular lengths, it's very unlikely that the exact same image would ever appear on screen at the same time.

That said, there is a fairly small amount of imagery and thematic material in the video component of the project. This was intentional, because I wanted the video to be cohesive enough to be used in a finite-length performance. I'm worried that it would make for a pretty boring installation because there is such little variety. Because of my background is in writing and performing music, I still have a little trouble coming to terms with things that aren't temporally bound. I still think of experiencing things with a beginning, middle, and an end and I have some desire to somehow control how things unfold in time.

I feel like I need to make a hard-and-fast decision about this, because I don't see there being much of a gray area between a finite-length performance and an ongoing "installation". Even if I were to make it an installation and also present smaller excerpts of the video/audio as a more traditional performance, it would be so experientially different, it could hardly be considered the same piece.

This past summer, I saw/heard an incredible installation by Stephanie Loveless at the Bard College MFA Thesis Exhibition. She put little speakers into dozens of glass jars and quietly played music she had recorded through these jar speakers, which were scattered all around an entirely bare room. When you walked into the room, all you could hear was a gentle, white-noise-like wash of sound, but you could pick up one or two jars, hold them to your ears, and hear your own private mix of sound. Looking at her website, it looks like she used similar techinques with her piece Non (rien et rien).

Loveless still maintained quite a bit of control over the way the sounds in this piece (I forgot the title) unfolded in time, while still making the actual experience largely up to the listener. She controlled the form of the sounds played through the jar speakers, but let the overarching macro-form be dependent on which jars the listeners picked up. Something like this might be the answer for my piece, as well.

Anyway, I think that I need to set up a makeshift installation for myself and see how I like it and also experiment with fixed-length performances. I'm sure I'll know what to do once I see it, but I'd love to hear others' opinions about this issue, too.

February 14, 2010

Project Report - Week #5

Not a whole lot to report this week. I spent the week cutting up video clips and arranging them in a conceptual matrix that I can use for improvisation. I'm trying to make things as hands-off as possible but without making things predictable.

I've begun working on the audio for the project. My initial idea was to record a large number of sound samples and have them operate in a similar way as the video (i.e. quasi-random algorithmic movement across a conceptual matrix).

Now, though, after watching the results of the video patch, I want to try to work with a very small amount of source material and rely upon alteration of that material to add complexity to the piece. Since the video has such minimal imagery, I feel that a large amount of sonic material would be overwhelming.

I thought about space a great deal in filming the video clips. Often times, by using mirrors and TV screens, the camera itself can be seen onscreen and much of the imagery is focused on antennae and other transmission devices. The act of putting these devices (which generally project sound and video) inside the video sets up complex spatial relationships that I would like to explore in the audio.

Earlier this year, I wrote an analysis of Alvin Lucier's piece I Am Sitting In A Room. I find myself returning to many of these ideas I explored in that paper with this current project.

Alvin Lucier - I Am Sitting In A Room