Sound and Video Installation: Existence as a state of immanence. Part 2
Part two of Dr. Bruce Mowson's Exegesis.
Absorption, an installation at the RMIT School of Art Gallery, Melbourne, 2005, was an installation based around the audio/video work Zippered. In this work I considered ‘the instant’, sensation and becoming in the experience of immanence, and I extended my use of unpredictability, from the mechanical as in Pink Slides, to the digital. I also explored ways that embodiment can function in sound, vision and installation, and how particular historical contexts appear to link reduction in abstraction with purity and Modernism, and disclose different constructions of subjectivity. Whilst a number of minor works were included in the exhibition, I have focused the discussion upon the central work Zippered.
Zippered (2005), installation view, RMIT School of Art Gallery, Melbourne. Computer generated sound and video, Le Corbusier reproduction Chaise-lounge, headphones, video projector, foamcore and fishing line. Dimensions variable.
I named this work Zippered, in order to playfully reference American Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman’s color-field works of the late 1940s and 1950s. In this period, Newman’s concerns centered on large canvases divided into planes of color by a thin stripe, which he dubbed a ‘zip’. Newman was concerned with creating a sense of spatial immanence in the viewer (Bois 2004), and whilst this is important to my research, I wished to disarm the sobriety with which he pursued this enterprise, by interpreting “zip” in the sense of a zipper that conceals the privates on pants.7 It was for similar satirical purposes that I incorporated a reproduction Le Corbusier chaise-lounge into the work, and I will discuss this in detail.
The piece comprises a video projection onto a suspended screen, the chaise-lounge and a ‘binaural’ soundtrack of groans and satisfied intonations, which were heard on headphones. The video of the work is produced with the software Max/MSP/Jitter, and is the first instance of the machinic approach to audio/video that became central to my research. It also marks a beginning of a sustained engagement with color relations. Before discussing the work directly, however, I will discuss the work of German/American painter Josef Albers, whose practice and teachings were influential upon American Minimalism and Op Art, which have in turn influenced my approach to color in the context of art and philosophy.
Color and Albers
The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry for Color proposes that color brings out philosophical problems “that are intriguing and hard to resolve”, (Maund 2006, p.1) and discusses nine identifiable positions on the subject, amongst which are the “natural” view: that color is what it appears to be in everyday usage; the view that color is integral to substances; that color is entirely perceiver dependent; and that color is a socially and culturally constructed. What can be said about color in this context is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to state any position with absolute authority, and this includes speaking from scientific positions.
In the opening sentences of his text “Interaction of Color”, Josef Albers (1888-1976) proposes, “In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is – as it physically is.” (Albers 1963, p.1) This statement opens up a number of questions about reality: what is the reality of a color, and why can it not be seen; is the physical the real; if a color is almost never seen as it really is, under what circumstances is it really seen? These questions bring together art and philosophy with a triangular relationship between color, viewer and reality. Albers frames a response to this philosophical complexity, stating “this makes color the most relative medium in art”, thus positioning the viewer, color and reality by identifying the connector of the terms, relativity, rather than addressing the terms separately. This position gives Albers a site to work with the complexity of color, and I will contend that this is an immanent site, wherein the viewer, reality and colors come together to temporarily situate meaning.
Zippered (2005), video screen-capture. Computer generated video. Dimensions variable.
Albers proposes a method for working with color, and that is to place practice ahead of theory, with the aim of developing a feel for color interactions. Albers’ approach to education, both at the Bauhaus (1920-1933), Black Mountain College (1933-1949), and as is detailed in his text Interaction of Color (1967), is based around practical experimentation of color combinations, such as arranging sections of colored paper such that two sections of the same color appear to be different when placed against differing background colors. It might also be said that this educative, practical approach is at work in his art.
His longest and most significant project was the Homage to the Square, begun in 1949 and continued to his death in 1976, and in which he worked through over a thousand paintings of different color combinations, dedicated to the increased understanding of color through observing its behaviour in different combinations. The series featured four variants of the arrangement of three or four squares on a ground, is perhaps the most systematic survey of color combinations undertaken by an artist. And whilst there is a sense of formulaic objectivity in the rigidity of this process, it also reveals the impossibility of an objective and categorical defining of color. If one considers 1114 different colors specified in the Pantone™ formula guide that is used to match colors to printing ink formulae, the number of possible permutations of color combinations is beyond systematic realisation. His project, then, is epistemological, seeking to engage the audience with the processes by which we form knowledge. I contend that Albers’ seriality works with this aim, as the austerity of his composition has a nullifying affect which leads the viewer to question how color can be the source of affect in the work.
The immanence of Albers’ art, particularly his Homage series, can be seen in the formation of the work by experience of the work in a time and place, in the presence of the artwork, and this parallels his ideas of the hands-on imperative of art making. In this way, Albers displays an acute understanding of the immanence of aesthetic practice itself. His practice was concerned with questions of existence as well, and he says, “When you really understand that each color is changed by a changed environment, you eventually find that you have learned about life as well as color” (Borchardt-Hume 2006, p. 78). If there is a humanistic quality to Albers’ insistence on self-edification as evolution, it is perhaps somewhat eroded by his opposition to American Abstract-Expressionism’s insistence on the primacy of subjectivity. In his discussion of Albers’ art, Rolf Dieter-Herrmann notes that Albers felt the Expressionists were too confident about the self-certainty of their consciousness, and we must open ourselves to the phenomena around us. (Dieter-Herrmann 1974, p. 68)
Relativity, change and materiality
In the work Pink Balls (2004), I projected a circle of pink light on a wall in such a way that it pulsed and fluctuated within the field of vision, and experimented with the affectivity of gradual color changes, wherein which small shifts in color values produce unpredictable outcomes such as felt sensations and visual distortions. To achieve this, I focussed upon several characteristics of the way that video renders color. Firstly, it is a projection medium, meaning that color is temporarily applied to a surface by way of coloring light. Secondly, digital video is subject to digital controls, which are typically of a highly specific nature and able to be specifically programmed and automated, in real time and recording.8 Thirdly, the video image has a lively character, being composed from a signal that fluctuates via system noise and minute current variations. Fourthly, whilst relative-color phenomena such as that researched by Albers can be staged by placing two colors side by side in the static image, they can be staged using one changing color in a moving image: contrast can be achieved within a shape across time, as well as across space. In Zippered, I worked directly with relative colors, by splitting the screen into two panels, and thus was able to work with color combinations across time and space.
For Zippered I continued the use of indeterminacy and randomization I had embarked upon in Pink Slides, applying it to the generation of colors. In video, the Red/Green/Blue (RGB) palette produces color, and I was able to send these values into constant change, causing unpredictable color combinations to emerge. The software I used (Max/MSP/Jitter) has a mathematics-friendly interface and control system, facilitating the easy generation of numeric values that can be randomly programmed to shift across any duration. Interestingly, I later discovered the work of French mathematician Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), whose pioneering research into chaos led him to conclude that a minimum of three variables could be used to create an unpredictable system (Theisen, 2003, p.302): video is, then, well suited to random control systems.
The produce of this system is affect, as the permutations of the two color planes create an array of optical effects, including illusions of recession and progression and occasionally, of unity, as the colors momentarily match. I think of this process as displacing the notion of the ‘being’ of an artwork, and instead advance the idea of a ‘becoming’. In Zippered the character of color interaction is transitory and random, and productive of a range of affects and effects. The mechanism does not allow for selection: specific color matches cannot be inspected in terms of property and cause. It could be speculated that in letting go of the desire for specific colors, and attachment to their properties, a pleasure is found in the automation of the process, wherein the constancy of change offers a sense of immanent becoming.
Minimalism and ambivalence
With this work I also explored an ambivalence that I perceive in minimalist art, which I understand as having the potential for sensuality, energy and freedom on one hand; and homogeneity, uniformity and repression on the other.9 In this case, I have created a work containing two planes of color that continually change, and I describe this as minimal. I have previously discussed my practice of minimal interference with the art materials with which I work, which I argue allows the sensuality of the materials to stand forth, rather than the imparting of myself onto the material. I have also mentioned that I am inspired by the external world, and that I find this approach opens up art to the affects I experience when observing diverse external environments.
Zippered (2005), video screen-capture. Computer generated video. Dimensions variable.
Corbusier and Purism
By referencing Le Corbusier and Barnett Newman in the work, I wished to explore the reductive strategies I use to achieve affect. Embodiment and sensation have been previously used in minimalist and modern art to pursue distinct objectives. Here I turn to a detailed reading of the French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965). If Albers was concerned with opening up the viewer to diverse experiences through the relativity of color, Le Corbusier was engaged with locating idea combinations. In his 1925 text L’Art Decoratif d’aujourd’hui10 Le Corbusier posed that “The machine is certainly a marvelous field for experiment in the physiology of the senses” (Rosenblatt 2001, p. 79). Arresting the viewer’s senses was a key objective of ‘Purism’, a movement Le Corbusier founded and continued with painter Amédée Ozenfant through the early to mid 1920s, and purist painting was designed to be received by the viewer in an embodied way (Naegele 1998, p.3). In L’Art Decoratif d’aujourd’hui, Corbusier also says “the lesson of the machine lies in the pure relationship of cause and effect. Purity, economy, the reach for wisdom, a new desire: an aesthetic of purity, of exactitude” (Rosenblatt 2001, p.79). Whilst the tone here is expansive and unsubstantiated, Le Corbusier’s interests are signaled in the conflation of the terms: mechanical process, purity and potential, outlining the constituents of his idealistic outlook. Le Corbusier experimented with mechanics and color in 1932 with his claviers de couleurs, a series of color collections referencing the systematic arrangement of keys on a musical instrument such as a piano (Schindler 2004, p.198), and which were realized as cardboard color comparison machines. Similarly, Le Corbusier designed the ‘Modulor’, a measuring scale designed around the male body, as a tool for designers to quickly derive architectural dimensions (Corbusier 1961).
What I find notable about Le Corbusier’s position in relation to Minimalism is the interest in specificity, if not perfection. He says of this with regard to his color keyboards: “once one has clearly named the color, one can speak of a certain red with the same exactness as one would of the A of a tuning-fork” (Schindler 2004, p.199). Simon Richards argues that “Le Corbusier was indebted to Enlightenment philosopher Blaise Pascal, who believed the individual should withdraw from society and meditate in solitude on the nature of God and self”, and that “Le Corbusier’s cities were designed accordingly, to separate people in cell-like apartments for the purpose of spiritual self-exploration” (Richards 2003). Indeed, Robert Hughes notes that the occupants of the Unité d’Habitation, Le Corbusier’s most thoroughly realized social architecture project, “crammed [their flats] with plastic chandeliers, imitation Louis XVI bergères, and Monoprix ormolu – just the furniture Corbusier struggled against all his life” (Hughes 1980, 1991, p.189). I would argue that it was Le Corbusier’s fixation with ideals that led to the failure of this piece of social architecture, as he expected humans to fit into the perfect form that he pursued. I see the non-specific relativity of Zippered as the opposite of the universalist thinking above, as it is not this or that color which is important, but the difference and juxtaposition of colors.
Newman and the body
The other overt reference I have made in Zippered is to American painter Barnett Newman (1905-1970), and here I was thinking of the artist himself as much as his works, his attitudes about the specific interpretation and primacy of his works, and his falling out with one-time friend, painter Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967). The distinction between the two painters’ approaches speaks of different ontological positions, across the concept of being versus becoming. Y. A. Bois describes how Newman appeared to be obsessed with his status as the pre-eminent painter of a black canvas, Abraham (1949)(Bois 2005, pp.8-10), and fell out with Reinhardt over this, raising a law-suit against him, and pursuing the matter through published letters, even in the context of Reinhardt’s obituary (Bois 2005, p.27). Here we have an obsessive struggle around notions of primacy. In contrast, Robert Morris describes how Reinhardt was detached from notions of the original object, describing how in 1963 Reinhardt received a call from a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, informing him that one of his black canvases had been damaged by a cleaner, and asking him to come down and repair the work. Reinhardt replied to the curator that he would just “send down another one [of the canvases], because I’ve got one here that is more like the one there than the one there is.” Here we can see a notion of becoming in his practice, and this is also reflected in the title of the book in which the conversation is reported, Robert Morris’s Continuous Project, Altered Daily (1993, p. 265).
The other aspect of Newman’s practice that I wished to explore is his use of scale in relation to embodiment. James Meyer says that Newman wanted “the viewer to feel present”, and that he pursued this through scaling his works in relationship with the human body (Meyer 2004, p.1). Y.A. Bois affirms this saying of his black painting Abraham, that it “catches us in the process of perceiving, and of realizing that the yardstick of scale, by which we measure our own spatial relation to the objects we behold, is what gives us above all a sense of being here, not there” (Bois 2005, p.27).
In the installation of Zippered I suspended a screen above the audience, and in doing so, considered the scale of the image from the audience’s point of view. Through trial and error, I found a medium size screen facilitated the optical affects of the work perfectly well, and in this I was somewhat surprised, as I had expected that larger scales would have produced greater affect. I say somewhat surprised, because I had composed the work on a relatively small computer screen, where it functioned perfectly well. I found that the affects of this work were sensory, but not just optical, and engaged more than just my eyes, but other parts of my body with sensations of subtle motion and intensity. I partially attribute this to the affects of entrainment, whereby the body falls into time with a rhythm, and the pace of the work, which is very ‘medium’, in that it does not challenge my body’s ‘average’ speed based upon my pulse rate. In consideration of this I would tend to say that the work engaged the audience temporally more than spatially. I would also say, then, that this durational affect is the significant outcome of the work, in terms of exploring a state of immanence, as it links together sensations of duration with a sense of becoming. The screen, used in this way, has a disembodying sensation, engaging a small portion of the field of vision at the expense of the surrounds. We have, then, an example of different spatial and temporal immanences, derived through the different media.
In order to highlight the disembodying sensation of the image, and thus draw attention to it, I accompanied the video with a soundtrack of ‘ooo’s’ and ‘ahh’s’, performed by the artist (myself). These sounds are heard on headphones, and were recorded using a ‘binaural’ system in which microphones are worn on the ears, and which create recordings with an uncannily realistic reproduction of the recorded site when replayed on headphones, as if the listener themselves were actually hearing the sound ‘live’. I used this soundtrack to give the effect of an impassioned audience member, who is narrating the affect produced by the video, appearing to gasp at particular points in the stream of images. I intended to highlight by overstatement the work’s sensation. To this end, I used the headphones, which exaggerated the sense of sensual intimacy conveyed by the soundtrack, and the chaise, which engages with the body through reorientation and relaxation. In this way, sound is used to ground the subject, who is otherwise being led through the color-field video into a durational unity through their vision: in time, but out of space.
On Thursday 18th May 2006, I had a vision of a spiral. The spiral is huge and it spins around a central axis. Slowly, slowly it turns, dragging me deeper and deeper into its embrace. The vision was a brief, fragmentary imagining, and as I considered this image I remembered another spiral, seen in The Time Tunnel, a television series from the 1960s. The Time Tunnel itself had the appearance of an op-art installation, featuring a spinning spiral though which the time travellers walked to other times and places. In contrast to the television tunnel that inspired my mental image, my spiral led nowhere.
Barney (2006), video screen-capture. Computer generated video. Dimensions variable.
I have since reflected upon the work that I did construct, Barney, and reinterpreted it as a clock with multiple hands, marking the passing of time but not its accumulation. In this way the work continues the project of becoming described by Deleuze, of being in Aion’s moment, rather than Chronos’ past and future.
Whilst I had explored ongoing visual change or becoming via continually changing color relationships in Zippered, here I used a stable color palette based around the complementary colours orange and blue, but worked with the spatial motion of elements within the frame. Here I was interested in the phenomena of a sympathetic spatial embodiment, wherein the audience experiences a sense of rotation. In the piece, a horizon line is continually aligned and tilted, as the rows of dots rotate around an axle. I find that there is an affect of contrary motion, as the rotation is occurring across the three planes, in both clockwise and counter clockwise directions, and this motion tugs at my internal sense of direction, subtly pulling it in two directions at once.
For the audio composition of Barney, I wished to explore how sound might create the optical and physiological sensations that I had been able to achieve with the visual component of Zippered (Absorption, 2005). I describe these sensations as shifts of intensity, transitions into events and durations. To achieve this in audio, I embarked on a technically ambitious composition using techniques of minimal drone music within the non-linear processes of Max/MSP. The lineage of my approach, however, is broader than its direct references in minimalist drone music. Of this, Deleuze and Guattari propose that “certain modern musicians oppose the transcendent plane of organization” which has dominated Western Classical music, “to the immanent sound plane… which brings the imperceptible to perception, and carries only differential speeds and slownesses in a kind of molecular lapping” (Deleuze 2004, p.294). They go on to report that Pierre Boulez (1925-) says that the pursuit of the immanent plane is a “question of freeing time”, “a non-pulsed time for a floating music… in which forms are replaced by pure modifications of speed” (Deleuze 2004, p.294).
I engaged with this musical project, of opposing the transcendent plane of organization, by using interlinked random processes to controlled modulators. A modulator imposes a measuring grid, the units of which can be modified in real time by altering the modulation. Modulators can be defined by simple mathematical units of addition and subtraction, or by more complex processes of multipliers and divisors, and I used a mix of these in assemblages of multiple modulations. This approach creates complex real-time output, and I employed this to control simple sine-wave oscillators. In particular, I used the phenomenon of ‘beating’, which is a modulation, and is heard as a wave-shaped rhythm, caused by the interplay of two frequencies of similar speed. I describe the rhythm as wave-shaped, as the sound modulates in regular fluctuations of amplitude, which are heard as smooth attacks and decays, in contrast to percussive rhythms based around sharp attacks. I utilized five banks of eight oscillators to produce beating effects in five clusters of varying rhythms based around five frequency centres.
In referring to frequency centres I am talking about something similar to the notes of the tempered scale around which the majority of Western Classical music, and from which much of Contemporary music, is derived. I again incorporated random selection techniques in determining the frequency centres of the clusters, and my intention was to emphasise the sonic dimension of the experience, and de-emphasise the perception of the sound in terms of musical structures. In working this way, I strove to create a type of ‘floating music’, which is well described above by Boulez. My reasons for working in this way, with sine wave oscillators, are to do with the creation of complexity and the immanent temporality of Aion I have previously discussed, and described through the philosophy of Deleuze.
Engulfed by a million atoms (2006), installation view, Turbine Rehearsal Room,
Brisbane Powerhouse. Computer generated sound and video, LCD monitor, bench and four channel audio system. Photo: Kristi Monfries.
In relation to my use of oscillators, I refer again to the issues that I have confronted as an electronic musician, and the choice between working with recordings of life or synthesis. As I have previously argued, I believe that ‘life’ (and here I mean the natural world, in a way that does not exclude the artificial as being of a separate order), offers a great deal of complexity of matter. Here I am thinking of the complexity of processes that exist in the bush land near my house, from the water systems and flora species, through layers of insect life, earth forms, atmospheric conditions; not to mention the diversity of people who walk its pathways, and the background sound fields of wind, water, insects, birds, traffic and people. I regard the process that I strive to bring together in my sound machines as aspiring to the complexity of this system. As an electronic musician, I am equipped to make ‘field’ recordings of this system, and to focus upon any of its components. The issue I confront in doing this, however, is that of signification, as such recordings introduce a range of signification which impact upon my strategy of abstraction and which is intended to test the locating of meaning in the moment of perception, rather than in the ensuing processes of interpretation and reflection.
Here I would like to clarify the issue of meaning with regard to my process and intentions, and in the context of Deleuze’s ‘plane of immanence’. By creating a hermetic cycle, in which the sound refers back to sound by virtue of not referring to anything else, I am not concerned with creating music about music, or sound about sound. I interpret the sound as not referring so much as manifesting: speeds, differences and intensities; and this is of the possibility of sound, the potential that sound is, prior to it being this or that sound. This potentiality, however, is not singular to sound, but is of the order of matter, and the speeds, differences and intensities which sound manifests are transformational processes of energy and matter in general. Deleuze has described this as a plane of composition, and I interpret this as a plane of potential, wherein matter exists in potential.
When I presented the work to the public in an installation, I used the name Engulfed by a million atoms, as a way of indicating something of my intentions about the work, in that the work offered a type of engagement, engulfment, and on a particular level, the atomic. The work was exhibited at the Brisbane Powerhouse, Queensland, from the 9 – 11th November 2006. As can be seen in the accompanying image, the video was seen on an LCD monitor hung within a deeply dark space. This dark was not empty, however, but was filled with sound emanating from four speakers placed near the room’s corners. I used this arrangement to present the sound in an embodying manner, surrounding the audience and touching them directly through air vibrations caused by the sound.
Comparing the two layers of media, then, we have sound: a physical engulfment which surrounds and touches our body, moving through states across time, and video, a transfixing image which absorbs our gaze, enticing the renunciation of the rest of the world into a limbo of durations without markers. Through this arrangement I have been able to more clearly see the way that each medium generates subjectivity, particularly in relation to time and space.
Engulfed by a million atoms (2006), installation view (with lights on), Turbine Rehearsal Room, Brisbane Powerhouse. Photo: Kristi Monfries.
In the presentation of this work, I have not tried to synchronise the sonic and visual, but have, rather, allowed them to be juxtaposed, and this has brought forth the different embodiments and subjectivities that I have described above. An outcome of this research, then, is to perceive a limitation of working with the screen, and this is also discussed in the work Pink Slides. Reflecting upon this outcome, from the point of view of conducting further research, I began to consider how the tension between embodiment and disembodiment, created by this specific form of audio/visuality, might be addressed. The strategy that presents itself is to negotiate the visual in an architectural, rather than imagistic, fashion – working architecturally with the surrounds rather than forming an image exclusive of them.
13 MELTING MOMENTS
Overview and Description
Melting Moments (2007), video screen-capture. Computer-generated video. Dimensions variable.
Melting Moments is similar to Barney to the extent that it is a self-contained, self-generating audio/video software work for video projection and surround sound. In the video composition I extended the techniques of color interaction established for Zippered, but introduced greater complexity through the use of more colors and via the use of two projectors. I had previously explored the use of two screens in the development of Infracinema, and I had noted the way in which it splits the audiences attention. Here I was interested in how this splitting of attention could interact with the audience’s sense of spatial location, engagement and embodiment. The audio is also similar to Barney, based on synthesised tones, but incorporates different approaches to duration, influenced by the work of composer Eliane Radigue (1932-).
In Melting Moments I wished to expand the level of sensation and complexity of the patterns of change, I used three concentric shapes within each frame, resulting in six areas of color. In terms of color relationships, the work succeeds in producing a great range, and at an intuitive level, the relationships formed with three colors are highly satisfactory. I also found that using more than three simultaneous colors tended to create distraction, as my ability to track the relationship was overloaded: three is a very workable amount of colors with which to engage, and this fits with my objective of engaging the viewer in an immanent state of existence, rather than an alienating confusion.
Both compositions, the rectangle and the circle, presumably have many antecedents, and certainly many popular and well-documented ones in modern American painting. The rectangle is quite directly reminiscent of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series, and the circle is similar to some of his pupil Kenneth Noland’s paintings.11 I was concerned, however, to avoid the signification of a singular shape, wherein a circle, for instance, generates representative associations such as to the sun, eyes and stars. By bringing the circle into relation with the rectangle, the scope of such speculations is modulated, and whilst the audience will have presumably made their own associations, I connected this formation to a partnership between two people. This association is not problematic, as the complete rebuttal of association is not my objective: rather it is to expand the centrality of sensation and change in the work.
In my experience of the work, I preferred to look at the circular shape. I elected to retain the difference between the two shapes as a point of tension, and proceeded with this in the installation, wherein I was interested to see how the presence of two separate projections might interact with the tendency to focus on the narrowly defined space within the frame in video works. This strategy is a continuation of an audio/visual thematic across the research: whilst Infracinema offered a unitary audio/visual experience, Absorption posed a distracting soundtrack of moans and groans against the seductive color-field visuals. Whilst Barney appeared to offer a unitary experience, a deeper analysis revealed how the work differentiates the ways that sound and image can immerse the audience.
In the installation of Melting Moments, I sought to diffuse the spatiality of the screen, which I have found to centralise the audience’s attention, by splitting the visual field. I found that this strategy caused me to engage with the work differently, and I found myself viewing the work, in installation, from a very close range, so that the projection filled my field of vision and the other image was excluded. There was a degree of contingency in this method of installation, and I had placed the projections as I did to maximise the work’s visual sensations, which are interdependent with the image resolution and luminosity, rather than opting for the more architecturally harmonious, and visually seductive, approach of expanding the projections to entirely fill the walls.
Melting Moments (2007), installation view, Kurb Inc, Perth. Computer-generated audio and video installation using video projection and surround sound, theatre drapes and plinths.
I designed the audio for Melting Moments using similar software techniques to Barney, but strove to create greater diversity and complexity by constructing several software instruments that were programmed with different specifications. Overall, the audio composition explored a more event-oriented temporality, somewhat in the vein of Pink Slides, and derived from my engagement with the work of Eliane Radigue.
Radigue is known as a minimalist drone music composer who uses sustained synthesiser tones. Her music departs from the general nature of drone music in its embrace of variation, evidencing a structure resembling sentences and phrases, rather than the eternal singular letter, or word, enunciated in the work of La Monte Young and to some extent Tony Conrad, Phill Niblock and Alvin Lucier. While Radigue shares their interest in close, even heightened attention to ‘the sound of the sound’, it is her exploration of continuum and variation that are particularly relevant to this research, as it manifests a state of being in time.
In the liner notes for the CD publication of the Trilogy de la Mort, Radigue explains that in composing, she is developing with sound what she calls “sense”. She says that she works on the “inside” of the sound, and “pays a lot of attention to what the sound is actually telling me”, and doesn’t “compel a sound to go in the direction that would be the most suitable for me” (Prism-escape 2008). Working in these ways, Radigue works in the fashion that Deleuze commends, working toward Aion, the instant, away from Chronos, the past and present of identity and ego. She describes her process of creating and mixing sounds with the metaphor of weaving threads together, which gives an impression of almost “flawless continuity”. Her approach produces a sense of continuum, and continual change, as the sound subtly and gradually transforms: not a progression of stages, but an ongoing progression. Resultantly it is difficult to identify individual events, stages, places or syntax across the piece, and this manifests a sense of being in time, as the listener is encouraged to observe from inside of the piece.
In the audio of Melting Moments I strove to create a sound machine that would manifest this phenomenon, adapting the continuum creating techniques I had used in Barney with strategies for producing variation, specifically the use of three independently operating instruments. These instruments are better described as machines, and this shift of terminology confers the independence of their operation. Each of the machines was comprised of different amounts of oscillators, or voices, and was programmed with different processes. The programming utilises basic configurations of oscillators and modulators, and is quite simple in comparison to highly sophisticated generative music systems such as Iannis Xenakis’s GENDYN program,12 but this simplicity belies the complexity of the output.
Melting Moments is the work of this research program that most resembles the synaesthetic approach to sound and vision. At a technical level, there is no ‘hard’ connection between the audio and video, though the two media are programmed to change at similar paces. Synaesthetic approaches to audio/visual works such as those popular in the early years of this decade,13 tend to create a monolithic rhythm of sound and video pulsing together. This unity is inimical to the sense of complexity and diversity that I have identified as significant to the manifesting of immanence, which is characterised by chance and event rather than unitary structures. I would argue that a close reading of Melting Moments identifies and highlights the differences between audio and video. As is the case with Barney, the surround sound composition is designed for a spatial and temporal embodiment, whilst the video offers a temporal embodiment, but through its frame, restricts the scope of spatial embodiment to the relatively small panel of the projection.
Another level of contrast between sound and vision can be found in the approach to audio frequency and color. The sliding of one color to another in the work produces a random incidence of color combinations, as the viewer finds and perhaps prefers one color combination to another. The random change of one sonic frequency to another, however, is perhaps more challenging for the audience. Here the work contends with the Western tempered scale, which sets out the pattern of notes as is found in the piano keyboard, in that the ‘notes’ heard are randomly selected without regard to the tempered scale. The outcome here is that the musical language of Western harmony, formalized during the common practice period of classical music (1600-1900), is not present in the work. It is for this reason that the color material of the video may be more accessible than the audio, which speaks to the narrower audience of 20th Century Western Art music.
Melting Moments was installed at Kurb Gallery, Perth, from the 25-29th April 2007, as part of the Totally Huge New Music Festival. In addition to the approach to projection that I have previously described, I modified the acoustics of space by hanging theatre blacks over half the available wall space, and positioned the four speakers on plinths, in order to raise them up to near ear height. This in turn enabled the direct delivery of sound to the listeners’ ears. These strategies resulted in a very satisfactory delivery of surround sound.
Though I was able to explore the strategies of continuum and variation that I have identified as significant to my approach to manifesting immanence, I found that the installation of the work again brought forth tensions around the issues of embodiment and disembodiment that I have previously encountered and discussed. I would characterise this installation as posing a tension between the practicalities of the gallery and cinema.
Installation design for Melting Moments, (2007). Image: Bruce Mowson.
Considering the type of work that I have constructed, a cinematic format would seem offer the most efficient presentation of the work. As I have discussed, however, the aims of this research are to manifest a state of immanence, which is both temporal and spatial, and the disembodying sensation of ‘the screen’ erodes the sense of embodiment. However, embodiment is important to that immanence. It is for this reason that I have engaged with installation practices, which offer strategies for activating the audience’s experience of a particular space. The installation of this work, then, progressed but did not resolve these issues.
14 THE SWING
The Swing (2008), installation view. Structural timber, marine rigging and tackle; vintage fabric, plastic container and steel swivel. Dimensions variable. Gossard Project Space, RMIT Melbourne. Photo: James Geurts.
Contrary to its name, Swing is not a simple swing, but a balance based upon the double pendulum, and a machine for heightening physicality. The work is constructed from structural timbers, high strength marine rigging and fittings, a twenty-five-litre water container and vintage floral patterned fabric. With the exception of the fabric, the visual aesthetic of the work is minimal, emphasising the functionality of the piece, and idea that the power of the work is located away from the visual, in the kinaesthetic experiences it produces.
As I identified in the discussion of Pink Slides, the French polymath Henri Poincare theorised how the double pendulum, in contrast to the single pendulum’s mathematically predictable motion, creates a dual feedback system wherein the weight of each pendulum affects the other, which in turn affects itself. In this work, the counter weight causes the motion of the swinger to become less regular and predictable, as the seat moves through three dimension of motion: back and forth, side to side, and up and down. The unpredictable and multi-directional range of movement produces subtle yet powerful sensation in the swinger, and with one’s eyes closed, great motions are perceived, as if one were rushing up and down over an ocean swell, even though one is barely moving. In this way the work engages with questions of subjectivity through embodiment.
The work acts principally upon the human body’s vestibular system, which is located within the inner ear. Its key mechanism is the ‘labyrinth’ that includes three fluid-filled tubes that sense motion in the head across the three axes of movement. This mechanism is crucial for human body, facilitating stable vision by sending information to the neural structures that control our eyeballs, and bodily movement, by feeding information to the muscles that allow us to stand, walk and sit. Pia Ednie-Brown (2003) has pointed out that the simulation of movement is central to the visceral experience within cinema, as images are used simulate sensations of motion. In this way, the vestibular system can be linked to the ways that video can be used to create sensations of embodiment.
From this perspective I pose this work as a form of post-audio/visual installation, a work that is informed by those practices, but which has also reacted to them by casting-off certain limitations of them. Demasio, speaking of a subject’s sense of existence says:
To understand how the self is located in the body, we must overcome the limitation of our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, as it ignores kinaesthesia (the sense of movement derived from proprioception via the musculoskeletal system); it ignores the vestibular system and the sensing of the viscera and internal milieu (pain and temperature) (Demasio 2003, p.33).
This expanded conception of sense perception is relevant to the installation aspect of my research. Having arrived at an impasse between the disembodying propensities of the video frame against the importance of embodiment in manifesting existence as a state of immanence, I have forgone the use of electronic video and sound in this work. In doing so, however, I have sought to throw into relief the contrasting operations of sound and vision, by opening up different ways that the senses can locate the body in space and time. Thus Swing engages with the embodied dimension of existence to which the vestibular system, highlighting its presence as an instrument of sensation that is significant to the installation component of my sound and video practice.
The Swing (2008), installation view. Structural timber, marine rigging and tackle; vintage fabric, plastic container and steel swivel. Dimensions variable. Gossard Project Space, RMIT Melbourne. Photo: James Geurts.
I conceived this work intuitively and heuristically, though my thoughts were “seeded” by reading about Poincaré’s double pendulum (Theisen 2003). Swing is a machine, and it offers a literal approach to embodiment, immersion and interaction by placing the observer in the work. The interdependence of the observer with the counterweight offers a dual reading, by actually destabilising the observer’s geographic position, and restabilising it in dynamic and transitory process. I describe this as restabilising, because the observer retains agency and balance within the system, but within a different set of forces that highlight physical immediacy.
To return this work to the context of the research questions of this project, I refer to the definition of immanence described in the introduction: Immanence, coming from the Latin immanare, means “to remain with-in”. Whilst I have tended to discuss immanence in relation to examples and works as placing the audience ‘in’ time or space, I see the swing as accenting the ‘with’, for whilst in the swing, their being in a specific place is disputed, as their body moves unpredictably within the space. This emphasises the observer being with space, going along with matter in time.
The Swing and Existence.
In his text Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life Deleuze describes pure immanence as a life, saying “A life is everywhere, in all the moments that a living subject goes through” (Deleuze 2001, p. 29), suggesting that pure immanence is a sort of ground of life. In his conspicuous use of “a” rather than “the”, he avoids delineating this or that life, highlighting the superfluousness of identity to immanence. In his review of this essay Richard Swabota notes that the problem of Deleuze’s defining of immanence via anti-individualism is its “residual aestheticism”, or sense of self-denial and withdrawal, which “Deleuze himself was at pains to avoid” (Swabota 2002, p.104). Deleuze, however, comes at anti-individualism from another angle, saying that children “resemble one another and hardly have any individuality, but they have singularities; a smile, a gesture, a funny face – not subjective qualities”, and that “Small children… are infused with an immanent life that is pure power and even bliss”. This suggests another way to consider immanence, which can also be related to aesthetics.
The notion of living in the moment, of working one’s self away from ego and identity, is difficult if not impossible for a sane adult, who must live within their self and in the world. This is not so problematic for children, however, whose existence tends toward immediacy.14 Linking sensory immediacy and creativity, American psychoanalyst Richard Winnicott describes how “creativity is inherent in playing”, and that “a child’s play may be to move the head slightly so that in the interplay of the curtain against a line of the wall outside, a line is now one and now two” (Winnicott 1986, p.64). In the work Swing, something of childhood is brought to the foreground, and in relation to Deleuze’s immanence, it calls to both life and death. I am thinking here of the playground swing where the free play of sensation is lively and playful. It is also a site of danger however, for children test themselves against the swing, seeing how high they can go. So the swing offers both the potential of both danger and delight, in an experience that brings forth the immanence of existence. It was in response to the liveliness of the work that I used the decorative, floral material for the seat cover. This action, made quite intuitively, was highly satisfying after the rigid monochromaticism of the proceeding series of works.
From a Poststructural perspective, Deleuze’s ascribing of a life as immanence is highly de-structured: it posits a process of all constructions and formations of a life on the plane of existence, with the empirical proposition of existing in time as the sole anchor. This metaphor of an anchor is pertinent to the work, Swing, wherein the water filled counter-weight acts similarly to a drift anchor that ocean going vessels use to brake themselves in heavy seas, by slowing the boat in space and time. Whilst seated in the work, the body is palpably expanded via its mechanical connection with the counterweight, and is placed in a new and different relationship with gravity. It is the interaction of gravity with the subject and counterweight that forms the sensations of the work, and which slows and intensifies the subject’s embodied existence in space and time. This interrelation also gives rise to a poststructural play on the trope of decentring the Cartesian subject (Bishop, 2005) by literally displacing the centre of balance from within the subject’s body to a mobile locus outside it. In Swing, the existing subject is always in relative motion to an other that is neither simply inside nor outside the body, but with which it is in immanence.
Throughout this project, I have been engaging with the research questions, the first of which is: “In what ways can immersive sound and video installation practices manifest existence as a state of immanence?” Throughout, I have investigated this question through the related terms of sensation, indeterminacy, complexity, pace and duration, embodiment and disembodiment, variation and continuity, the machine as art and the artist as mechanic. The second research question asks: “In what ways can poststructuralist theory situate this subjective state?” My response to this question has been found through a reading of Deleuze’s philosophy of immanence that includes his radical empiricism, philosophy of becoming and temporality. I have used these concepts and methodologies to voice and extend notions from and through my practices, and I have used other aspects of poststructuralist thought to discuss and contextualise the works.
From the beginning of the research, in the work Pink Slides, I engaged with becoming as a material reality by working as an assembler of machines that produced sensation, which in turn offer the potential of immersion. Throughout the project I have extended the functionality of the machine in my practice, by interrogating its capacity to produce sensation in different circumstance and configurations. I have applied the machine to the manifestation of immanence, using differing imagery and sounds at different sites, and produced a range of outcomes, from the absorbing of the beholder into a durational continuum through hypnotic visual imagery, to grounding the subject by bodily sonic utterances.
Some of the outcomes that I have reached, as part of the project of manifesting immanence (and thinking through of what immanence is) have been the recognition of the limitations of the frame in video as a mechanism that affects the spatial embodiment of the audience. Conversely, I have a greater recognition of video’s capacity to engage the audience, through indeterminacy and complexity in an open ended durational embodiment and becoming.
One of the concerns that I have faced in the project is the formalist reading of my works, in which the forms I have used are read as objectives or ends in themselves. Through a selective reading of poststructuralism, I have been able to distinguish between my open-ended approach that acknowledges the ongoing unfolding of potential and becoming, and approaches that pursue transcendent ideals in specific forms. As part of this, I have focussed upon the affect of sensation, and through experimenting and reflecting upon minimalist strategies in twentieth century art, I have worked through differing visual and sonic composition techniques, and have expanded my capacity to create complexity using variation and juxtaposition. I have also reflected upon approaches to sound/image relationships, and here I have located specific affects of sound and video in installation scenarios, and reflected upon options for combining them.
16 SHIFTS OF POSITION
This period of research has had a transformative affect upon my practice in regard to how I define and situate meaning in my artworks. Through the research, I have explored conceptions of the structure of perception. Through my reading and interpretation of Giles Deleuze’s radical empiricism, I have researched a conception of how meaning can be displaced from an idealistic, metaphysical position in favour of a contingent and temporal process of becoming. In light of this thinking, I have conceptually resituated the materialism of my art practice as a methodology for manifesting an immanent subjectivity. In this subjectivity, the abstract discloses the energies in which life is constituted, indexing the plane of composition upon which the potential becomes the actual.
The project works have revealed intertwined potentials of machine and material, and this has been accompanied by a shift of thinking about the role of the artist from a maker of works, to a creator of processes. I see the advantage of this thinking as opening up the way for my re-conception of myself as an artist who remains open to potential and within a process, and this can be distinguished from my prior position that was marked by tensions of intention, in which I tended to work toward a notional objective. The issue of this prior position is that notional objectives tended not to equate with the actual outcomes, and this disjunction has been a source of confusion and distraction. By thinking in terms of mechanics, ideas can be thought of as processes and forces to be set into motion, and in this there is a subtle distinction from the idea of art as a form that needs be constructed and the artist as a type of translator. In my new thinking, art is a verb, rather than a noun.
A key aspect of the research has been the consideration of sound/image relationships, and here, too, there has been a shift of position. My previous understanding of this relationship has been centred on film practice, and the theories of added-value conceived by Michel Chion, which tend to focus upon issues of narrative. In creating and reflecting upon the project works, and exploring the conditions of the medium outside narrative functionality, I have come to a different understanding of how juxtaposition of media can open up a complexity. Here the affects produced by sound and image form a composite textuality, which in turn requires a different mode of reading. In the case of my works, the reading has focussed upon the terms of immanence and the key concerns of spatio-temporal embodiment, and this has lead to clearer conceptions about how sound, video and installation techniques can manifest subjectivities. I think that the best example of this is in The Swing, where through the redefining of my thoughts about physiology, I have re-considered how sound and image perception are embodied in different ways, by the whole body, rather than just acting on the ears and eyes.
Over the course of the research I have also shifted my approach to style, and ways of encouraging engagement and embodiment in the audience. My prior strategies drew upon minimalist techniques of extended exposure to reduced materialities, and in some cases this approach risked alienating audiences in the attempt to focus their attention over extended duration. I feel that the project works record a move toward increased accessibility for the audience, in approaches such as the use of the colors to produce seductive affects, an increased diversity of composition based upon reconsidering the relationship between continuum and variation, and strategies for the creation of complexity. These strategies are used in the final work, The Swing, which achieves a strong combination of encouraging the audience’s engagement, with an immersive immanence derived from considerations of materials, embodiment, the instant, indeterminacy and energy.
17 IMPLICATIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
Through conducting this research two areas of further exploration have come forth. The first concerns the construction of audio/visual works that more closely engage with architecture. As I have discussed in the individual project works, the framing mechanism of video delimits the spatial engagement of the audience by focussing attention on a small portion of space at the expense of the surrounds. The implication of this is that the spatially embodying phenomenon that I identified as significant to a state of immanence is frustrated. It is for this reason that I recommend pursuing an architectural approach, which engages with the whole space. Within the scope of my practice, however, a useful option is at hand, and this is the use of lighting rather than, or in addition to, video. Recent advances in lighting technology have seen the emergence of LED lights, and these are highly suitable to my practice due to being controllable via computer using Max/MSP software, and having flexible and workable physical characteristics of small size and cool operating temperature are suitable to my studio practice. The other aspect of architectural practice with which I can engage is building, and it is my intention that further projects will benefit from the technical skills I used to create The Swing, as well as my extended intervention and invention with physical space through spatial and material construction.
The second area for which my research has implications is that of interactivity, following from The Swing. It is a work which can be conceptualised as an interface, and while its affectivity lies in the direct stimulation of the senses, it could be integrated into an interface design that collects and processes spatio-temporal data. The significance of The Swing as an interface lies in the ways that its fluid mechanics interact with the body. This range of motion may be harnessed or useful within the contemporary technological context, in which machines such as the Nintendo Wii (2006) are offering accessible wireless positional tracking and control mechanisms.
The work of this research has revealed to me what immanence might mean in the context of sound and video installation practice. As I have worked through material practices, in response to the research terrains, each work has illuminated some things that in turn give rise to further speculations. My outcomes have not been what I expected, and at the end of the process I find myself with new beginnings to pursue. This process resonates with Deleuze’s concept of pure becoming: “it pertains to the essence of becoming to move and to pull in both directions at once” (1990, p. 1). Ramey interprets this idea saying “in becoming, the idea of a thing is not given in advance of an event which transforms that idea in a differentiating repetition” (2006, p 4). Thus knowledge is always in motion, being transformed in the present and transforming the present. The project works have sought to manifest the continuing motion of immanence specifically, and explored how it can be significant to aesthetics.
The encounter of the subject and the world is one of complexity: existence is formed in the unpredictable processes of the world, and it is in this becoming that we can talk of a state of immanence as a stance within those processes. In this setting, art is a contribution to the world, formed by the hands of the artist, and in this research, I have worked through with the complexities and ambiguities of sound and video as materials, and identified ways that they can contribute to the subject’s sense of embodiment: that which places them in the world. In relation to this I have noted that sound’s three-dimensional character offers a level of physical traction in time and space that is eroded in video’s two-dimensional flatness. This engagement with space and time has the potential to open the subject up to the complexity of the world and in this lays diversity: by calling the subject to being ‘here’ in time and space. This diversity is significant to the poststructural project of weaning away from conceptions of the singular enlightened human astride the highest peak, toward the specificity of the many humans in many loci across the planet.
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