Thursday, November 08, 2007

A Conversation with Mark Fell

In the heyday of laptop, back in the late-90s, Sheffield duo snd - Mark Fell and Matt Steel - were getting lots of airplay at my house. I recently ran across Fell's other work through DC-Release, a recent collaboration with Ernest Edmonds. This AV performance work constructs a tight correspondence between minimal colour-field graphics and a palette of percussive synthetic sound. In this conversation Fell talks formalism, philosophy, religion, art school, interactivity and audiovisuals and namechecks Heidegger, Yasunao Tone and Aleister Crowley, among others. I'd like to thank him for being a candid and generous "subject" in this blog's first interview - hopefully the first of many.

MW: Your work is quite diverse - though you might be best known for your music as snd, you've also worked across interactive installation and audiovisual performance, and as a collaborator and curator. What are the common threads in your practice?

MF: The common threads... It’s difficult to answer as I am mainly aware of the inconsistencies. But that probably is what leads to the fundamental common thread which is the aesthetic focus. All my work is driven by that. It’s not an exploration of any issues or in any way conceptual. It’s a purely formal aesthetic exercise. That isn't to say that it exists in a vacuum and doesn't connect in lots of other kinds of ways with the rest of the world. But for me an aesthetic description is the probably the most meaningful. And actually it's a position that was quite difficult for me to adopt: in art school there was an overpowering emphasis on being somehow more socially engaged or critically connected. And it took me several years to realize how meaningless this was for me. This is something that spans my music, my audio visual work, my generative and interactive pieces and my curatorial practice.

Another thread is slightly harder to describe, and it’s related to the first. I have a kind of bipolar attitude towards how the audience respond to what I do. I'm far more comfortable with an audience reacting negatively to what I do, than reacting positively. Like if I’m DJing and people start to nod their heads or move about a bit, I really find it quite unpleasant. And with music making, there is a definite emphasis on trying to disappoint the audience. I remember once being interviewed on a radio station in Perth and the interviewer asked "what will people feel when they come to see your music?", and I answered "disappointed" (which the promoter, who was sat beside me was not too impressed with). But generally I’m after a complete lack of energy in both my performances or how the audience responds. A complete lack of anything you might want to get into.

In curatorial practice the stance results in some quite challenging shows, and ones that funders are often unhappy with. With my colleague Mat Steel, we are constantly under pressure to produce events that are more immediately enjoyable. But I find an alienating experience far more rewarding. There's a story I always tell people: when I was a child, maybe about 4 or 5, my mum took me to an art gallery in Sheffield. There was a show of paintings on there which were just pure colours that actually (looking back) were not even very nice colours. And I was completely drawn into it. It totally confused me. Although I don't deliberately aim to emulate that experience, I think it’s quite fundamental to how I get drawn into things.

This feeds fundamentally into my exploration of interactive art, both as a practicing artist and the critical research I conducted while working at the Creativity and Cognition studios in the UK. I think in lots of interactive art there is an emphasis on creating certain types of experience. A very good example is Bubbles by Woldgang Meunch. Here people instantly get what the work is about and can "play" with it quite quickly. The same is true of lots of other interactive works. People expect something fun, something playful. They see the point of these works as being able to fully understand the relationship between themselves and the work. Like trying to work out figurative details in an abstract expressionist painting... it’s pointless. I would never make a piece like that. My work aims for the complete absence of anything energetic or engaging. I find the whole idea of play or embodied understanding in the context of interactive art completely distasteful.

In the context of the work I do looking at sound and colour, both with Ernest Edmonds and my own solo work. The emphasis is on correlations that are purely aesthetic. There is no innate or mathematical relationship between sound and colour. Anything one does is purely invented. I like the idea that these works are presented as if there is some relationship, where in fact there is none or could be any.

MW: What is it about an alienating or confusing art experiences that you find rewarding? And is that response related to minimal or formalist aesthetics?

I don’t know. I think alienating and confusing are probably not the best ways to describe what I'm trying to describe. Most art is often like that anyway. But with the snd music it is like kind of blank, like someone stood with their back to you.... we are just preparing for a big tour, and as a focus for developing this we focus on leaving the audience feeling cold, not just a lack of interest in trying to engage anyone, but more like deliberately avoiding this... no dynamic changes in beats or nodding heads behind powerbooks, just large, awkward, immobile slabs of form. Imagine a Zen Buddhist with unresolved emotional issues. For me, thats how this particular "vibe" relates to minimal or formal aesthetics.

MW: For me this feeling seems linked to the formal, machine-like autonomy of the work's structure - the structure establishes itself and plays itself out without reference to the audience - in your analogy it has its back turned. It's not hostile or aggressive, it's just oblivious, pursuing its own logic.

Yeah, I like that.

MW: Your own work seems to have become more minimal recently, focusing on very basic audiovisual elements - which I will come back to. But other works seem more personal reflections on place - works like "Coming of Age in South Yorkshire", and your reconstruction of the Human League's album "Reproduction". Manifold, your installation with Joe Gilmore, also responds to place though in more abstract terms. Can you elaborate on this side of your work?

The Reproduction project... In terms of sound I think it’s as formal as anything else I’ve done. There is perhaps one track where the listener could here some reference to the source. The project was like a re-organisation and atomisation of what the Human League had done. All the musical changes were at a micro level. The lyrics on the sleeve had been sorted into alphabetical order. The images of reproduction on the cover were of plant cells dividing rather than babies (as on the original). So it was very much like some kind of organisation according to different rules or processes.

Coming of Age in South Yorkshire was a shot of sunset and sunrise over Sheffield from the same camera angle. And these were projected together at opposite ends of the gallery. So essentially it’s a movement of blue light from one side to purple light on the other.

So both of the above were quite formal exercises. But obviously there is some personal relationship to the city and the sound. I grew up in Sheffield and spend most of my teenage years listening to electronic music. Sheffield then was very different. Lots of derelict factories and empty spaces. No cafe bars and everyone (it seemed) was into electronic music. The city was a big adventure, so it’s also quite sentimental too I think. But I think this is probably more evident in Coming of Age in South Yorkshire.

Both pieces refer also to anthropology and musicology. Like "Secular Musics of the Dogon Tribe" or whatever.... I used to love those old anthropological recordings that always seemed to crop up in charity shops. And Coming of Age in South Yorkshire refers to the book Coming Of Age In Samoa. But what’s important here is the emphasis on some kind of "scientific" process of understanding of something alien.

The Manifold piece... We went to do a site visit and found this amazing old railway arch. Inside it was just complete dust and things laying around. In the centre was a large concrete slab. It occurred to us to leave the space untouched and just to project onto the slab. It looked amazing. It’s good to transform spaces just with the use of light and sound. Especially pure colour and tone. The work has two sites: site a uses image analysis of patterns in a car park and this connects to behaviours in the visual and sonic output. Although it’s related to place, the finer point is about the relationship between systems. One - a car park, the other - some flocking algorithm. It was about the transference of data and the use of this for purely aesthetic reasons. I guess in many ways the piece looked great but failed in terms of foregrounding things like the beauty of traffic movement in a car park. But I like the idea of overlaying of systems.

The common theme between Manifold, Reproduction and Coming of Age is one of the relationship between divergent systems and processes rather than a relationship to any given location. Again like the relationship between sound and image, purely arbitrary, fictitious and aesthetic.

MW: In your recent audiovisual works - such as 64 Pixels and 240 Sine Waves (below) - you set up these arbitrary relationships between sound and light, linking synth parameters to the color and brightness of an array of LED lights. How do you choose these mappings between sound and light, and what role does sensation - or even pleasure - play? What has drawn you to these tightly constructed relationships?

In Manifold with Joe Gilmore we developed a system whereby over the duration of the work every parameter from the environment was mapped every parameter of the output. So over a month it cycled through every possible combination of mappings, using these simple systems to weave quite a complex structural object.

But the recent works I’ve been doing - with pure synthesis and colour in the form of light - link the two in the closest possible way, but in a way that is completely arbitrary. There is no mapping. It’s just like putting two objects next to each other - say a football and a block of cheddar cheese, then a tennis ball and some ricotta, just collections of two classes of object. When we talk about correspondences in sound and image, its just the same as correspondences between spherical objects used in sporting activities and slightly decayed dairy products. The relationship is absolutely tight, but doesn't follow any mathematical or natural law. Given that this relationship is an aesthetic one, sensation and pleasure are considerations.

MW: The long durations, simple elements, multiple speakers, and matter-of-fact titles of these works, all remind me of American minimalism - La Monte Young and Phill Niblock for example. Is there a connection there?

I don't know their works very well. I’ve met Niblock a couple of times. I think he has some works on Touch in the UK who publish my work. I know one or two pieces. In fact, one piece by Niblock that I have never heard has influenced me. He took a group of flute players (flutists?) and played sine waves to each one over headphones and got them to tune to this. I never heard this work but when I heard about it somewhere I thought it was a great idea. I should check out La Monte Young. I often work with Yasunao Tone who is a Fluxus sound artist, but very different in terms of sound. His work and approach have influenced (and confused) me massively.

Within the genre to which my work is aligned there’s lots of tonal music. And actually I always hated this as to me it always alluded to some kind of Western New Age version of music for meditation. I remember in interviews at the time criticizing music like this for its pseudo "zen-like vibe". Someone like Yasunao for example, whose music is complex and chaotic shards of digital synthesis, is a far more interesting sonification of Eastern religious thought.

As a teenager, as I was getting into synthesis I also read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the ideas about vibration interested me. These recent works draw upon this. Not by trying to emulate gong-like harmonics or whatever, but with pure digital tones, each tone having a different speaker. Each speaker produces one tone, and these are distributed around the space.

This approach is very different to multi speaker works in say electro-acoustic music where sounds are moved around. In my works sounds are utterly static - one sound from one speaker. This creates an unusual and complex synthetic sound field that changes as the listener moves around the space.

I’m doing a new piece for DVD in this colour and sound series. It started out after I read some book by Aleister Crowley (also as a teenager) where he suggests exercises for focusing your conciousness, such as imagining a blue oval. So the DVD is like this; very simple forms using colour and sound that remain totally immobile.

The working title for this is "Jihad" which people are warning me about using. But what appeals to me about this isn’t that I’m being ironic or political. In essence Jihad is about personal growth, social responsibility, etc etc. And as it is defined in the Koran it’s actually a very well thought out model of how positive change is carried out, and it encompasses several levels of activity – it’s a formal system of change. It annoys me that in the West we are happy to take ideas from Buddhism and turn them into ways of selling aromatherapy candles, yet the notion of Jihad, which is equivalent in its intention, is framed as something evil.

But, to bring this conversation back round to where it started. My dislike of tonal musics from the genre I’m working in, and its pseudo-spiritual connection, is something I'm quite critical of. Here I want to present something that is like a harder version of this. Some very pure vibrating forms. Without the aromatherapy candles.

MW: On that thread, I've been reading some theory lately that proposes the idea of presence - in an experiential, materialist, just-being-there kind of way - as central to aesthetic experience. These ideas seem to fit with a lot of the (minimal, abstract, formal) media art that interests me - including yours. Would you agree?

This is really interesting. I arrived at a massive interest in Heidegger only recently - perhaps five or six years ago. And although it took some time to get to grips with his thought, there was an instant attraction for me. Mainly because his approach to being seemed like the best way to sum up what’s wrong with lots of assumptions and attitudes I had encountered during my education... assumptions and attitudes that I believe find their ultimate expression in Western myths about art and technology. So I relate very quickly to the description of presence and meaning.

Along with meaning we encounter notions of skill, interpretation, intention, control, the idea, the purpose; a set of interlocking concepts are derived from and that promote a particular (metaphysical) relationship between ourselves and our environment.

As a student studying video I was keen to make more abstract non-narrative pieces. This was difficult at the college in my local town. So in my spare time I made pieces using various kinds of chroma keying, colour over lay systems and video feedback. All realised on analogue technology. When my tutor saw these he warned me that it was important I should start with an "idea" because otherwise my work would simply be "driven by the technology". (As a structuralist might suggest that the system of language drives its uses... My view shortly after was more Wittgenstein-like - that the uses of language extend the system.)

I instantly reacted against this position - perhaps for the first time - I had never encountered it as a problem before it had been posed as such. Indeed in my everyday life I often saw people making things up as they went along. The best example is my father who, when making a conservatory at our home started with the first brick and made it up as he went along (resulting is some quite challenging architecture…).

At the same time at college under the same tutor I was doing communications studies. A particular diagram by Shannon and Weaver had technology labeled as a "noise source". Although at the time I was unable to fully explain my objection to this, it is now obvious that this view of technology is similar to a Cartesian account of the body. A somehow imperfect or flawed container of an otherwise pure soul, or meaning. And this connects to beliefs about the inadequacy of language or technology. Opposite to that Richard Rorty suggests: the human self is created by the use of a vocabulary rather than being adequately or inadequately expressed in a vocabulary. And this is my view of technology and its function in art. It’s not about the encoding or transmission of a previously "disembodied" meaning. Although for me technology in action is a kind of thinking or understanding which makes some kind of meaning. Like a Wittgensteinian view of language, I don't think it has an inherent meaning of its own. This is how I think about the notions of technology and absence of intended meaning in my practice.

MW: Finally, what are your thoughts on the wider scene that surrounds your work? You do a lot of curatorial work with festivals, which seem to be flourishing, especially in the UK. What's going on in the electronic music / new media art worlds that interests or irritates you?

The whole laptop thing is over. Back in 96-7 it was interesting to see the likes of Farmers Manual stooping over their Powerbooks nodding with the beat. But now it’s common place - even the fattest and baldest academics are at it. The genre is not an oppositional one any more. Its main protagonists no longer define themselves in opposition to more traditional electro-acoustic practices. Hecker and Haswell for example exploring multi-speaker systems with a release on Warner Classics, Autechre also inviting Bernard Parmegiani to play at the ATP festival they curated. That’s a point of interest - a new relationship between two practices.

Irritations... in festivals it’s the presentation of works that still feature people stooped over laptops nodding in time to a beat. I guess I find it annoying too when curators just want to give quick and easy experiences to the audience. Like before, works that explore "play" etc., the whole "play" vibe was interesting 10 years ago. Now it’s just boring I think.


Kaz Maslanka said...

"In the context of the work I do looking at sound and colour, both with Ernest Edmonds and my own solo work. The emphasis is on correlations that are purely aesthetic. There is no innate or mathematical relationship between sound and colour. Anything one does is purely invented. I like the idea that these works are presented as if there is some relationship, where in fact there is none or could be any."

"Aesthetics" is such a loaded word and I cannot be sure of what he means however, I do like his realization that there is no mathematical connection to sound and light although so many people think there is.
Thanks for your post!

Anonymous said...

Hey, I was just wondering what SND was up to. I listened to Stdio last week. I heard those cats open for Autechre at the Untilted tour.. they were really solid.

Great work Mitchell. :)