Thursday, August 23, 2007

Peter Newman: Paperhouse

The second release on Demux is Peter Newman's Paperhouse DVD, a lush wall of fuzzy, grainy AV sensation. Like Wade Marynowsky, Newman's aesthetic could loosely be described as post-digital, overprocessed, inframedia, whatever; disintegrating media surfaces shifting between abstraction and figuration. But if Marynowsky's work has a hard, bitcrunched edge, Newman's seems to have been somehow worn smooth, or buried for years and then exhumed.

Like his compatriots Robin Fox and Andrew Gadow - and Marynowsky too - Newman works at a cross-modal alchemy, where sound and image suffuse into something approaching pure sensation. Newman comes right out with it and says "synaesthesia" on his (apparently dormant) blog. He also gives an impression of the context and formative elements here - and some stills, like the one below. But frankly none of it could prepare you for the beauty of this work. Back in the heyday of glitch I wrote about inframedia aesthetics in terms of materiality, a process rendering media technologies as embodied sensation. Newman's work seems to push materialisation as far as it can go, beyond the cool reflexivity of glitch and into sheer texture, tactile immersion and an overloaded, full-throated melancholy.

The opening track Fold - P.I.V 7 overlays what looks like distressed, burning and distintegrated film stock with a woven drone of phasing guitar overdrive, strings and piano. Between the flickering surfaces is some kind of plasma, a shifting, luminous fog that at one point coalesces into a vertical scar on the frame, like a spectral figure or a burnt-in afterimage. Finally the piece comes to rest in a hazy, burnished, slow motion loop that decomposes with almost imperceptible slowness (above); the guitars take over in a keening, reverb-soaked roar. The visual sources for the piece include time-lapse video of a painting developing (P.I.V = Painting Into Video) - a process that characterises Newman's organic interfolding of analog and digital media.

Sound and image move tangentially at times, aligned in monolithic slabs whose edges coincide - as in Fold; elsewhere, especially in the run-outs, Newman lets the sound hang over, as if to emphasise the independence of sound and image, the loss of a connection that only moments ago seemed all-consuming. Some tracks stitch that connection tighter still; in Rosebud (below) the flickering haze and the burnt-in scar return, but accelerated by a crackling soundtrack of granulated static and projector sprockets. Sound and image fuse in an incandescent, a ten-minute-long build, as if something is being very slowly destroyed, revealing its disintegrating inner layers.

One reviewer aptly compared Newman's work with Stan Brakhage's legendary abstract film; they share a sense of visceral texture, morphogenesis and disintegration. But as Newman pointed out to me, Brakhage's work is silent - visually self-sufficient. Interestingly Brakhage seems to have experienced something like image-to-sound synaesthesia; he heard "shifting chords of sound that corresponded in a meaningful interplay with what I was seeing"* while standing in a quiet Kansas cornfield, at midnight. So what Newman describes as his own "primary challenge" - fusing audio and vision - is in one sense realising Brakhage's inner synaesthesia.

This disc is a frankly staggering body of work. It's an extreme example of what might be called immaterial materialism; as a product, it rides the digital media infrastructure, the n copies economy, yet its aesthetic is profoundly embodied, processual and affective; its process lies in between, working both sides. Highly recommended.

* quoted in Kerry Brougher, "Visual-Music Culture," in Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music since 1900, 121-122.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Wade Marynowsky: Interpretive Dance

Wade Marynowsky's Interpretive Dance has just been released on the artist's Demux DVD label. I'm currently gathering material for a DVD compilation of Australian audiovisual work - more about that later - so Wade sent me this disc, along with another new release, Peter Newman's Paperhouse (review coming soon). Interpretive Dance documents Marynowsky's installation and performance work since 2004 - almost all live audiovisuals, made using Max/MSP and hybrid sound/image processing. Long story short, it's great - essential viewing for anyone connected with the Australian experimental/improv scene (you might be in it) or anyone sick of new media performance that takes itself too seriously.

On the cover of this disc is a familiar image: artist-at-laptop, gazing at the screen, immobile; behind, the "visuals" are projected large. The image instantly identifies a whole genre of AV where the body, conventionally at the core the performance, has been immobilised by the computer. The projected image, hovering over and behind the artist, forms an abstract, animated surrogate. Movement and gesture have been rationalised and externalised, the body's been reconstituted at PAL resolution. Taken with the disc's title, the cover image is a reflexive half-joke; because rather than replicate the new orthodoxy of man-machine AV, Marynowsky playfully shreds it. He puts the body - whatever that is - at the centre of post-laptop AV performance.

In the Autonomous Mutations installation he focuses on the performing bodies of the Australian experimental improv scene. The video, shot in studio conditions, extracts the performers from their native cultural environment - the utopian/bohemian niche of artist-run-space, cheap beer, all your friends in one room. Instead they have been archived, framed, some - the laptoppers and twiddlers - look vulnerable; some (like Marynowsky) use dress-up-box burlesque as a form of counterattack. Out of context, the body is forced to bear more of the weight of conviction. What do you think you're doing, at that laptop? What is that noise you're making? The performances hold their own, even as Marynowsky subjects them to an algorithmic cutup process, folding them into an automated improv-of-improvs apparently controlled by a runaway pianola. Embodied performance is guaranteed by our expectation of an audiovisual link; hearing and seeing, both at once, is fundamental. Here Marynowsky breaks that link, staggering sound and image edits to continually construct, recombine and deconstruct the performing body, and in the process casually generate moments of intense audiovisual counterpoint and (in)coherence.

The_Geek_from_Swampy_Creek further embodies Marynowsky's laptop pisstake. Sporting goggle glasses, nerd tie and megacephalic exo-brain, the Geek sways calmly at his Powerbook, generating an audiovisual meditation on the Creek from whence he came. Again Marynowsky puts his own body on the line with a persona that uses parody as a kind of side-door through which landscape, identity and narrative quietly enter. Like all the best parodies it works because it's true: the Geek is our embodied guarantee, he really is weaving organic image/sound textures together, on the fly. The shattered, glitchy processes feed the parody and the narrative, as the Geek's manipulations seem to take him ever further from home, abstracting his swamp into a haze of pixels.

Uranium Country and Apocalypse Later also deal with lost and abstracted landscapes, overprocessing image and sound into dense, evocative textures. In the audio track of Uranium Country cicadas and birdsong merge imperceptibly with the buzz-saw hum of digital timestretching. Apocalypse Later closes the disc in devastating style, drawing on images of Tasmania's Styx Valley, Kakadu, Old Sydney Town and Australia's Wonderland to develop a nightmare collage of trash culture, disintegrating landscapes and implied violence. Just when the abstract textures begin to lull you into a comfortable stupor, the body returns: a lash across the back, a flash of light and a wet snap; it's the crystalline moment of the disc, a visceral sync point that's also a parodic nucleus of history and fake history, national kitsch and real violence. It also jumps the representational gap that the whole disc explores - between the live, performing body and its image. Using processes that operate across audio and video, Marnowsky occasionally extracts abstract audiovisual gestures - gut blows or head-jarring abrasions - that pull your own body into the circuit, too.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Self-Made Tapestry - Philip Ball

I'm currently in Melbourne, working with the CEMA group at Monash Uni. Among other things, we've been talking about artificial ecosystems, growth, morphogenesis and self-organisation - and I've been working on a generative art piece that has had me casting around for models and mechanisms. Jon McCormack passed me Philip Ball's 2001 book, The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature.

The book looks at morphogenesis - the self-creation of form - in physical and biological systems, and computational models. It updates the work of D'Arcy Thompson, whose 1917 book On Growth and Form showed that natural forms could often be explained as products of dynamic physical interactions as much as adaptation or evolution; for example, a seashell spiral emerges as a result of the growth rate of the organism living inside it. Ball takes a similar approach to morphogenesis, in that he treats physical systems and living systems as fundamentally interlinked, often examining the material mechanisms in biological form. Unlike Thompson though, he has a modern reservoir of complex-systems science, biology and physics to draw on. In a great piece of pop-science writing, Ball knits together a wide range of work under a useful set of headings, and the text is full of enticing illustrations. The image below is by Eshel Ben-Jacob, whose bacterial growth work is featured extensively in the book.

It's a treasure trove for the generative artist/designer; flick through until you find an illustration that catches your eye - maybe a bacterial growth form, a reaction-diffusion system, or fracture patterns - and then read up on the morphogenetic models involved. Generative clip art? Not quite; Ball's text explains the principles and processes clearly, but links them organically to each other through systemic properties: symmetry breaking, bifurcation, fractal dimension and so on. While there are verbal descriptions of plenty of generative algorithms, understanding them really requires coming to grips with the underlying models and their shared characteristics.

Ball also talks explicitly about the use of computational models, which play an important role in the book. This is especially important for anyone using the models as (generative) ends in themselves, rather than empirical devices. Ball clarifies the scientific sense of "model" as something selective and partial, rather than representational or exhaustive: there are plenty of things that such models omit, either because it's too hard to include them, or they don't seem to influence the outcome. Along the same lines, some (maybe all) phenomena can be modelled effectively in several different ways, using different assumptions and techniques. Conversely, the interrelations between morphogenetic systems often come down to shared models, cases where pattern formation in different domains (say, fracture patterns and plant growth) can be modelled using similar, often very simple, techniques.

I've been critical in the past of the simplistic models used by generative artists - but also argued that generative art's ability to play with models (creatively and intelligently) is what makes it interesting. So my recommendation here is half creative and half critical; in other words it's got eye-candy (bacterial eye candy even) as well as substantial model-y goodness.