Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure

Hey, wow, new video! This piece is a bit quirky and personal, so I should probably fill in a bit of context. But first, imagine that you are viewing this piece on a huge bank of 24 TV screens, the sole light source in a huge, black warehouse, which is how I would ideally like to present it. [Note that you can turn HD on/off in the video below; it will load faster with HD off, but if you’re up for it, turn HD on, click the icon to the right of the play bar to make it full screen, and turn scaling off.]

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

I find myself constantly refuting the notion that art made with computers is somehow cold, impersonal, rational, unfeeling, etc., etc. In general, I refute the idea of absolutes in art, that a work must be, for example, either rational or emotional. In my work, both elements are present, and this one swings perhaps farther than most to the emotional side.

All art (including digital art) has some kind of inspiration, and in this case I was inspired during my trip to St. Paul, MN, last winter by the intricate patterns formed by barren tree branches, and how those patterns would shift with just the slightest change in perspective or movement of the branches. I think the first time I consciously started paying attention to tree branch patterns, I was looking out the window of Famous Dave’s on 7th in St. Paul, where I was having lunch with my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my two little nieces. Later I noticed that the same kinds of patterns were occurring right outside my brother’s living room window. I spent a lot of time, last winter in St. Paul, sitting in the stuffed chair of my brother’s living room, working on my computer, opposite this window (to the point that the chair came to be referred to as “Uncle Ben’s office”), and as I gazed at the branches outside, I kind of started to identify a bit with this tangled mess of branches and what they might represent.

I was working on a couple of video projects during my two months in St. Paul, notably Shanghai Traces, and also collecting source material for my foolhardedly ambitious plan to produce backdrop videos for my live pop show. I really wanted to capture some of the unique topographical features of winter in St. Paul (i.e., snow), but I could never seem to find just the right combination of meteorological conditions and presence of mind to go out and actually tape them. So in the end I spent the last 10 minutes of my St. Paul visit standing in my brother’s snow-covered front lawn, videotaping those branches as the sun was setting, just before I hugged everyone goodbye and my brother drove me to the airport.

So my new video installation takes those ten minutes and makes them last forever. A lot of still art can be said to freeze a moment in time, but that’s not the same thing as prolonging a moment indefinitely. In a photograph, for example, whatever was happening at the moment when the photograph was taken is not happening anymore; it’s been stopped. But here, the moment is still happening, and it will never stop happening. It’s not the same thing as looping a video segment, either. In a loop, it would happen repeatedly, which is not the same thing as happening continuously. As in Shanghai Traces, I think this is a really good pairing of subject and medium.

How is this miraculous feat accomplished? By using the same techniques I’ve developed to make sound continue indefinitely in videogames over the past thirteen years or so: shuffling, staggering, offsetting, layering. These techniques are some of the most fundamental in my toolbox, but they’re endlessly applicable to a wide range of real-time organizational challenges. In this piece, each of the 24 screens is independently picking a section of the video to play for a certain amount of time, then picking a new section to play, and so on. The duration and position in the original video are not completely random, but constrained by previous behavior, so that the overall distribution of images across all 24 channels is constantly shifting. It’s very similar to the granular synthesis techniques I’ve used in my audio works, mixing together little chunks of a larger sound to kind of homogenize it into a steady texture (see the sustained textures in Radiospace for a good example).

As is quite obvious, the original video was shot without a tripod, which gives the piece a performative element (not that the world needs another flimsy performance video document). The unsteadiness in my hand as I’m holding the camera is the other subject of the piece, creating motion and the subtle changes of perspective that (in addition to passing breezes) animate the primary subject matter. It focuses attention back on the person holding the camera and the minor endurance test of holding the camera still for 10 minutes in below freezing weather. This idea of endurance echoes comments by Richard Karpen and Mike Min (that the drama of a performance arises from the struggle of a person pushing against his or her limitations). In other words, the motion of the camera in the video is a visualization of my own failure to hold it still, despite my best efforts, which you are free to view as a metaphor for the attempt to hold back time itself.

The end result displays all kinds of interesting formal and textural qualities, byproducts of the same behavior being multiplied across 24 screens. The original video was shot at dusk, so there’s a gradual transition from yellow to blue hues; as my piece runs, the various screens are constantly changing their position along the spectrum, forming new groups and contrasts. The motion of the different screens prompts a different organizational tendency, a kind of counterpoint, sometimes seeming to move together, at other times in contrary motion. When screens pop to a new image, a rhythmic texture emerges as well. The eye is drawn to the sudden popping of a screen to a new point in the source video, but because the new image shares the same perspective as the previous one, it can create a kind of paradox; you know something’s changed, but you’re not sure what. The eye and brain are constantly engaged (although on this small video rendering it may be hard to tell; again, think of a big bank of TV monitors), as the viewer is constantly challenged to re-evaluate what’s the same and what’s different as groups form and dissolve.

The audio for the piece is basically just the audio from each of the 24 individual screens mixed together. It happens to include the sounds of several different transportation mechanisms, which nicely underscores the idea of imminent departure. Occasionally you’ll notice the audio cutting out or in at the same time as one of the screens popping to a new image, reinforcing the structure of the piece. I wasn’t completely happy with the sound I captured on the camera’s little built in microphones, so I wanted to filter it a bit, and once I got into filtering, I really liked the mood I got by notching certain harmonic sets of frequencies. But I also really liked the neutrality of the unfiltered sound, and I couldn’t decide if this was too much meddling or not, so in the end I have it both ways, with the notch filters algorithmically fading in and out. The filters’ base frequency changes at longer intervals, which gives the piece a higher level structure and periodically refreshes the ears by establishing a new tonal center. For a public installation, I would revisit the filtering behavior; ideally, if I could present this piece in the big warehouse I’m dreaming of, I’d tune the piece to the room’s resonances.

I have no idea when I’ll actually have a chance to mount this as a public installation. Ideally, it should be displayed on a big bank of 24 TV screens mounted in an 8 x 3 array in a huge, dark, empty space. (If it strikes you that such a bank of TV’s would resemble the banks of monitors displaying airline departure times at an airport, you might be interested to know that in fact I did the first draft of this software while waiting overnight at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC, for my connecting flight to Nairobi last January 29, seated across from just such a bank of monitors.) I like the idea of encountering it first from a distance, the images gradually coming into focus as you approach, with the bank of screens generating the only light in a room so big and dark you can’t see the walls. There should be a bench in front of the screens, or pillows, so people can hang out for a while, or maybe some stuffed armchairs, like at my brother’s place!

This is kind of the worst possible combination for a digital installation: expensive, but subtle. Typically, if someone invests in a big, 24-screen video wall, I guess they want something big and flashy, not quiet and contemplative like this. But if anyone would like to be the first to present it, that honor is yours for the taking!

I’d like to dedicate this piece to the Minnesota Houges, with love and gratitude.

Diary of a Madman

Last weekend I attended Lu Xun 2008 鲁迅二零零八 at the new, still under construction home of DDM Warehouse. They have moved from Dong Da Ming Lu, now nestling in at that sculpture park complex on the west end of Huai Hai Lu, whatever it’s called. This traveling theatrical performance commemorates the 90 year anniversary of the publication of Lu Xun’s short story A Madman’s Diary 狂人日记, in which the narrator becomes convinced that he is surrounded by cannibals. The production was a joint venture between Shanghai’s Grass Stage Theater Group 草台班, led by Zhao Chuan 赵川, and companies from Hong Kong, Taipei, and Tokyo.

At first I was irritated at arriving about half an hour late, but as the performance continued, I started not to mind so much, as the piece was very loose and very long. For something that moved so slowly, I would have expected a higher degree of polish, perhaps nudging the action in the direction of ritual or choreography. In the absence of this, the piece would have benefited from greater density; nothing seemed to need to take as long as it did, and the transitions weren’t very tight. There were some recurring elements (laughter, a single character walking back and forth along one wall), and some fun ways of playing with the space (banging metal on concrete in the dark behind the audience, actors wandering about and speaking different languages), but the overall structure didn’t seem to hold these ideas together very successfully. The full dorsal male nudity and fire breathing felt completely gratuitous. But as I’m unfamiliar with the original Lu Xun work, it’s possible that some of the subtleties of the performance were lost on me.

I also caught Torturing Nurse’s gig the week prior, quite an usual set for them. At this, their 20th NOIShanghai concert, sound artist Yan Jun 颜峻 (who was down from Beijing to play with me and Bruce Gremo in a performance of Christian Marclay’s Screen Play, part of the Shanghai eArts Festival 2008 in Xujiahui Park) decided he was going to turn the tables by torturing Torturing Nurse (in his pajamas). Xu Cheng 徐程 was tied up in a bag with a microphone, Junky was tied to a table in a raincoat with a contact mic taped to his throat, and Jia Die 蛱蝶 was taped up to a microphone and chair. (And that’s all she was wearing; as an unintended encore, we got to hear her improvised offstage vocalizations as the tape was removed from her more sensitive regions.)

It was a fun set and a departure from their usual routine, but since Yan Jun led each member onstage to get gamely tied up in full view of the audience, any illusion that we were hearing the sounds of an actual struggle was punctured, robbing the piece of some potential punch, and the sound generated didn’t really live up to the spectacle’s promise.

Also on the bill were Justice Yeldham, the Australian whose instrument is a contact miced shard of glass, Japanese artist Noiseconcrete, and the live debut of Lao Yang 老羊, proprietor of Beijing’s venerable Sugar Jar shop, the best place in China to pick up underground or experimental music. Check out Gregory Perez’s pics (he’s also got some great ones from the Halloween show at Yu Yin Tang)!

After taking in these shows, I had a lengthy discussion with a friend about “experimental” art. I’m all for experimental art; in fact, I tend to think it’s the most interesting kind. But I always keep in mind something Richard Karpen said when I was studying with him, which is that you must consider the scope of the experiment you’re undertaking. Is it an experiment whose results might impact a broader section of the populace, or is it more of a junior high science experiment, which is done primarily for your own education and development? (He could be harsh.) Labeling a work “experimental” in no way absolves it of the need for logic and cohesion of some kind. Personally, I know I tend to sometimes be more lenient in evaluating experimental work, just because I’m happy to see this kind of inquiry going on, but ultimately experimental work requires the thoughtful criticism of artists and audiences to develop and grow, to help gauge the success of these experiments.

This leads to another issue. A lesson I learned from my pal Korby Sears back in Seattle, to which I return again and again, is the idea of sympathy; from an artist’s perspective, you’ve got to give people a reason to want to take the time to engage your artwork. Of course audiences should ideally be open-minded and receptive enough to meet you halfway, but you’ve also got to convince them it’s going to be worth their while and help them fill in the gaps to understand the context of your work. The people behind both of these performances, Junky of NOIShanghai and Zhao Chuan of Grass Stage, are doing exactly that, working to foster a scene in which new pieces and new ideas can be tried out, providing a regular forum in which people can experience new works, and that’s great to see. Putting these two ideas together, experimental exploration with sympathetic attention and criticism, would seem to be a template for a healthy scene.

BTW, Yan Jun and Torturting Nurse were just profiled in Time Magazine, along with Sulumi, B6 (whose new album comes out on the 15th, looking forward to it!), and Shenggy. Check it out!