Thursday, October 9, 2008
I often think about a statement made by R. Murray Schafer in his 1977 book “The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World”. He encouraged awareness of the fact that all visual projections of sound are arbitrary and fictitious. This fact is even truer today, as transcoding from audio to video and vice versa is accomplished quite easily with programs such as Max/MSP/Jitter. Extrapolating from a conversation strictly about data-conversion, I believe this element of the arbitrary is echoed in our own perceptual faculties. Though our visual and aural faculties process sensory input in very different ways, they both lead to a heavily filtered image or sound in consciousness that may have very little in common with the external terrain. Because that external terrain is neither visual nor aural, our consciousness of it as such is a fiction.
Specifically concerning the relationship between sound and image in my work, I draw an analogy of two opposing riverbanks, existing independently but in parallel. These parallel trajectories connect at intervals via some kind of bridge. In general the sound and image have rhythms and flows of their own, which relate to the other in a way not unlike classical counterpoint.
2. Performances of electronic media techniques is prevalent in your work. How does working with digital technologies inform the performative aspect of your work? Is the performance composed prior, or do you let it develop in the moment?
I generally work within a pre-composed structure that allows for some amount of improvisation. Working with electronic technologies and performance one must consider two issues. The first concerns the performer’s interface with the instrument. The second concerns the performer’s interface with the audience. These points are only problematic in that they require a different approach and reception than one used by acoustic performers and audiences. In the first case, where a cellist has a sensual connection with the sounds emanating from the cello, a laptop musician is sensually detached from the synthesis of sound. In the second case, where a guitarist can energize a stadium with extravagant windmills and banging-of-the-head, a laptop musician may appear to be checking his email.
As a remedy for this lack of an intuitive interface between instrument, performer and audience some artists have focused on creating systems with custom hardware and software Taeji Sawai’s spotlight interface and Jean Michel Jarre’s “Laser Harp” are two examples that come to mind. These tools allow a greater amount of improvisation, and give the audience a more visceral connection between the performer’s body and the sound generated. I experimented with this approach with “ATS01: Wisp”, where I used light sensor input from a desk lamp to control a projected visual synthesis, while placing myself in front and center of the audience. However, with “You Would Do As Well Never Moving From Here” I felt the amount of information being transmitted by audio and video would already be reaching the audience’s bandwidth capacity. To also draw attention to my body would cause an overload of information. In general I try to find an optimum balance of information density between sound, image and body.
3. You have a very developed aesthetics in your work that causes the viewer to question perceptibility; this is especially prevalent in your piece ATS01:WISP. How has your aesthetic practice developed?
Ideas relating to cultural and physical geography, human and digital perceptual systems, and noise and signal combine to form the basis of my aesthetic and conceptual decisions. As I mentioned above, this questioning of perception can be correlated to a questioning of the geographic spaces we inhabit. Along this line, one can draw an analogy between the information processing that takes place in perceptual and geographic systems. A human being takes in sensory data from the environment, the ultimate HD system. From the start this data is filtered by our sensory faculties. We can see only a narrow band of electromagnetic radiation, and we can only hear frequencies in the range of 20Hz to 20kHz. Our brain then processes this manifold of sensory data, and filters it down to an even smaller trickle that it deems important to present to our consciousness. Comparing this journey to that of creating a topographic map, one sees similarities. Again we start with the environment, the ultimate HD system. From the outset certain factors are selected to be included in the map. Is this map meant to convey physical, social, economic or political information? Let’s say it is meant to be a road map. Therefore, the cartographer may discard any data relating to the people living in the area. Furthermore, a map may not represent perfectly all elements within a given area. Even if one were to make a map on a 1:1 scale, as Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges have written about, one is still discarding information by converting a three-dimensional terrain to a two-dimensional representation. At any given scale the cartographer must decide what elements will be represented and what elements will be condemned to empty white space. In both human perception and in the construction of topographic maps, the fundamental process at play is the discarding of information.
Noise and signal are present at all stages of this analogy. The noise of the external environment is systematically filtered down to a signal of consciousness, or a signal of meaning. These processes inform my aesthetic practice, and provide a wealth of potential to draw metaphors from one field to the other.
4. Within your piece Progress Filter Decay, there is a tension between chance operations and a constructed environment, which also reflects back to the performative in your work. How important is the tension between chance and the constructed? What does that tension enable with your process?
In Progress Filter Decay that tension acts as a stand-in for ideas about order/entropy and progress/no-progress. The six audio tracks feature more or less intelligent human beings speaking about different kinds of progress, while an organism that hasn’t evolved significantly in 400 million years, the hissing cockroach, controls volume levels with seemingly arbitrary movement. The work was an experiment for me in setting up a system independent of myself and letting it run.
5. In You Would Do, the viewer is confronted with performance of four men, singing in barbershop style, and then with a video and audio performative piece that creates an intriguing dichotomy. This dichotomy seems very important to the conceptual base of your work. Where is this piece and its presentation situated conceptually? How has your work evolved conceptually? Is the conceptual in your influenced by the media in which it is created?
A phrase from Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities” provided the foundation for this work. In the novel, Marco Polo speaks with the aging Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, describing each of the cities of the Khan’s kingdom. Kublai, vexed by Marco’s fantastic descriptions of impossible spaces, responds, “My gaze is that of a man meditating, lost in thought --- I admit it. But yours? You cross archipelagos, tundras, mountain ranges. You would do as well never moving from here.”
I am intrigued by Calvino’s treatment of these impossible spaces, and with this work I attempted to create a synthetic topology of my own, using sound as a raw material. The raw material is localized in the first 20 seconds, as the vocal quartet sings the line. The rest of the performance then is a stretching out of this single phrase. With the extreme amount of stretching I performed on the recording, small pauses seem like wide valleys, and intricate harmonics shift gradually. Over the course of 20 minutes, a listener may oscillate back and forth between recognition of the source recording and immersion in the soundscape.
Regarding the influence that media have on my conceptual decisions, I feel that there is a constantly cycling feedback loop between the two. I work with audiovisual signals because that medium naturally suits my aesthetic and conceptual worldview, yet that worldview is shaped in large part by my interactions with technology.
Working with Christopher Gianunzio and Colin Todd as Avalanche Collective has forced me to think more socially about all of these issues। Where my own work exists in a realm of perception, our collaborative work exists in the cultural landscape. Our best ideas tend to come out of play, which is quite refreshing.
Top Ten List of Influences
In no particular order…
1. Italo Calvino, esp. “Invisible Cities”
2. Jorge Luis Borges, esp. “Library of Babel” and “On Exactitude in Science”
3. Tor Norretranders, “The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size”
4. Francis Alÿs
5. Carsten Nicolai a.k.a. Alva Noto
6. Curatorial work of Nato Thompson
7. Steve Reich
8. LaMonte Young
9. Topographic maps
10. Cultural geographers: Denis Cosgrove, Don Mitchell, James Duncan, Nancy Fraser
What are your current projects?
I’m currently working on a few things…a permanent outdoor sound installation for The Redhouse Art Center in Syracuse titled “Topoextension”, an audiovisual performance deriving sound from the architectural plans of medieval cathedrals titled “Cathedral Scan”, and a descendent of “ATS01: Wisp” that will produce real-time synthetic topologies derived from a feedback between sound and image.
For higher quality videos and more information on Blake visit his website.
List of Works
1. Still of performance You Would Do
2. Sky and Wires (At Home and Homeless), Video. 9m31s
3. Still from Sky and Wires (At Home and Homeless), Video. 9m31s
3. Still from AST01Wisp
4. AST01Wisp, Video documentation of performance, 6m08s
5. Video Documentation from Installation, Progress Filter Decay 2m39s
6. Still documentation from Installation, Progress Filter Decay
7. Still documentation from Installation, Progress Filter Decay
8. Video documentation from Performance, You Would Do, 3m33s
9. Still documentation from Performance, You Would Do
10.Still documentation from Performance, You Would Do
11. Video documentation, Avalanche Collective. Broad St. Gallery, University of Georgia, 1m59s
12. Still documentation, Avalanche Collective. Broad St. Gallery, University of Georgia
13. Still documentation from Performance, You Would
14. Still from performance AST01Wisp