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, MathIsFun.com) 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

February 7, 2010

Andy Warhol/John McKinnon—going full circle

"I am a deeply superficial person."
- Andy Warhol
John McKinnon, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Milwaukee Art Museum, spoke last Thursday at Lawrence University about the recent MAM exhibit "Andy Warhol: The Last Decade," which featured works made by Warhol between 1977 and his death in 1987.

Unfortunately, I did not see the exhibit while it was showing at MAM so I am reticent to offer too much commentary on the work, but others have said that McKinnon's slideshow followed the works in the exhibit almost verbatim. McKinnnon's dry, unengaging lecture did little to convey the importance of this show, the first American museum exhibit to examine this era of Warhol's oeuvre as a whole. Many 0f the points made were pretty basic romantic clichés about artists' twilight years (e.g. "He became fascinated with his own mortality," "He turned back towards his Catholic faith for inspiration," etc.), that I felt warranted a deeper exploration than McKinnon offered.

What interested me the most about the works in the presentation were the growing importance of materials in some of these final Warhol works. McKinnon discussed the infamous "urine paintings", which explored the ways in which human urine affected copper paint and created unpredictable, organic patterns on their canvases. Warhol also created a series of Rorschach test-style inkblot paintings, some on enormous canvasses, in which the final result of the creative process was largely unpredictable.

This artistic approach stands in glaring contrast to the mass-producible silk-screening processes used in Warhol's Factory to create the Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroes that made him famous in the 1960's. Each of the works is completely unique and nonrepresentational, depicting nothing other than the processes used to create them.

What does it mean when an artist who embraced hyper-representationism as an aesthetic turns to aleatoric process-driven abstraction late in life? I see this as Warhol's way of going full-circle. If things get representational enough, they become abstract, and if things get abstract enough, they start to represent themselves more purely than works tainted with any hint of representation. As a proto-media artist, Warhol embraced the superficiality of a culture obsessed with images of its celebrities or heads of state from the other side of the world and made these ultimately empty images the central subjects of his work. Substituting inkblots or urine for these images isn't really such a fundamental change. What I take most from Warhol's work—especially after considering these late abstract works—is that the Marilyns aren't really Marilyns and the Soup Cans weren't really soup cans. The Marilyns are silkscreen ink on canvas and the piss on a canvas is piss on a canvas.

Deeply superficial, huh? Whoa.

Warhol, Self-Portrait (Strangulation), 1978. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, ten parts, 16 x 13 in.

Warhol, Oxidation Painting, 1978. Copper metallic pigment and urine on canvas.

February 5, 2010

Klaus Nomi/John Gates—Ongoing Dialogues

John T. Gates, Visiting Assistant Professor of Voice at Lawrence University, said recently that European opera productions are superior to American ones because their state-funded arts subsidization allows for radical experimentation and recontextualization of canonical operas, whereas in the U.S. we treat these works like untouchable sacred relics, and thus opt for marketable, traditional productions which stifle any possibility of an ongoing cultural dialogue about these operas.

It is interesting to consider Klaus Nomi (born Klaus Sperber) as a radicant artist and in terms of this notion of an ongoing cultural dialogue surrounding opera. As a child, before leaving his hometown of Essen, Germany, Sperber grew up listening to recordings of the American soprano Maria Callas and other opera divas from the golden age of recording. He learned to sing by modeling his own voice after theirs', developing a remarkable, though otherworldly falsetto. After a brief stint as an usher in a Berlin opera house, the starry-eyed Sperber moved to New York City, seeking a fertile cultural mecca in which to plant his roots, but instead found the artistic soil rocky and hard and had to take jobs as a baker to make ends meet when he was unable to find singing work. Shortly thereafter, Sperber (with the help of prominent New Wave artists) reinvented himself as Klaus Nomi, and performed with distinctive stage makeup and extraterrestrial costuming.

I see the Nomi persona as an acknowledgement of the detatchment felt by many (especially in this country) when confronted with "high art" (Gates' term, not mine) that feels alien and irrelevant. It is as if Nomi is saying, "If European opera embodies univeral truth and beauty, then a Martian should have the chance to sing it as well as Maria Callas." Klaus Nomi's deadpan, alien stage demeanor (which contrasts Callas' perfectly calculated emotional manipulation), as seen in his 1978 "New Wave Vaudeville" debut below, probably reflects more accurately the sentiments of American audiences who listen to Saint-Saëns than most Met or Lyric productions ever could.

In terms of Bourriaud's ideas of the radicant and altermodernity, Nomi's life seriously calls into question the ability of one to reroot in other cultures and demonstrates the failures of certain modernist universal ideals. In reaction to these failures, Nomi rooted himself (at least superficially) on a fictional plane of existence and produced some remarkable art in the space between the cracks of two different cultures. However, as documented in Andrew Horn's 2004 film The Nomi Song, the detachment this lifestyle took an personal enormous toll on Klaus, who died of AIDS in 1983.

Other Links:
Susan Sontag - Notes on "Camp"
More aliens singing opera