HC Gilje

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Interview with HC Gilje

by Andreas Broeckmann


From the Shadowgrounds catalogue made during Gilje´s residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien.

Date: Thu, 21 June 2001 12:58:28 +0200

To: hc gilje hc @ nervousvision.com

From: Andreas Broeckmann abroeck @ transmediale.de

Subject: interview: Live-Sculpting - Image:Code:Sound:Performance

ab. hc, you are working with digital video images that are partly computer-generated, and partly taken with a camera and then reworked. You co-operate with people in music, in performance, and you also produce exhibition pieces. How would you describe the essence of what you do?

hc. Construction of reality, creating structures instead of finished work, opening up collaborative spaces, both in performance and installation work. My work is not about technology. Though it uses a lot of technology, it has often been described as emotional and sensitive, which I like. I collect images either from my own recordings or from other sources. In fact, I rarely produce anything completely computer-generated, but I rather sample visuals the way musicians sample sounds, and then rework the material for my own use. Through video I want to explore compressed vs. slow time, inertia vs. motion, rhythm through repetition (loops), past vs. present, all of which relate directly to my main themes of interest: relations between mental and physical reality, (re-)construction of reality, memory, dreams. I am interested in creating spaces and ambience rather than stories. My installations attempt to create a collaboration between the visitors and the ”system”, becoming, so to speak, mirrors of the visitors. The way in which the visitors relate to each other and to the space is a very important part of the work. Most of my live work is related to the project VideoNervous which I initiated in the spring of 1999 and which set out to explore video as a live medium in the context of recent technological developments and in collaboration with more established live media: music, dance and theatre. On the whole, it’s the live experience that matters most: if you weren’t there you missed it, and subsequent documentation is merely a substitute. I like the idea of the unstable media, meaning that a work only exists within a short time-space and among the people who are present. This gives it a sort of fragility. Also, considering that the average attention span is getting shorter, live art has a clear advantage over the gallery context. Here, the audience actually choose (and sometimes pay) to watch what you are making, so while you are performing you have their attention. This is a privileged situation!

ab. The use of video as a dynamic medium for live performances has been expanding only recently, although some pioneering artist performers, like Steina Vasulka or Michael Saup, have worked on opening up this conjunction for quite a while now. Can you explain a little how you have approached this in your work for VideoNervous ?

hc. To start with, I wanted to give the medium of video a spontaneity which is often lacking in a field heavily dependent on technology. It's a complex process from the initial idea to the final result because the material first has to be recorded, then edited/transformed. A live setting where the experience is created in facing the audience will furthermore depend on an immediate presence and on the communication between the players on stage. Until recently, these criteria could not be fulfilled using analog video technology, as the equipment was too expensive, technically insufficient and lacking flexibility. The digital revolution has now made video technology cheaper, better and, most importantly, it has given the user instant access to the video stream. Digital technology has thus made it possible to work in a totally different way both in production and during performance. Thanks to digital video technology, applications supporting MIDI control of video and new projector technology, video will become a powerful medium in the crossover field of performance/live art and visual expression.

Another important aspect of this type of work is video sampling. Sampling is a familiar tool in music where you choose a sound source, digitise, manipulate and use it in new contexts. The samples are like a new instrument that can be played by the performer. This has finally become a reality also for video thanks to the development of small and cheap cameras with good image quality, the possibility to transfer the video to a computer, faster machines and better compression codecs. Video loops were developed in the infancy of digital video when limitations in storage space and processing power permitted work with stamp-sized loops only. My first video loop fit onto a floppy disk but, ironically, because of fast developments in technology, I no longer have the equipment to play them back. The loop has since evolved into a new aesthetics: it worships motion, repetitions create rhythm.

The analog video tape has both a physical and a time-based limit; because it has a beginning and an end, it takes time to access a specific video clip on the tape. This physical restraint vanishes on a computer: Random Access Video means that it will take the same amount of time to find any video clip on a hard disk no matter where it is located. Any clip is thus instantly accessible and can be fetched with a keystroke or the click of a button. To make use of this immediacy an address system is needed: a way of establishing a relation between a keystroke and the video clip to be played. MIDI is an addressing protocol used in the music world for coordinating keyboards, samplers, computers and other instruments, which can also be applied to video when used with the appropriate software. In principle, a MIDI-based system for video connects each key on a MIDI keyboard to a video clip on the computer's hard disk. So when a key is pressed, the corresponding video clip is played instantly. There are many sources of MIDI input, a keyboard being the most common. VideoNervous also uses other types of MIDI controllers, like triggers and sensors. From being a mechanical tape-based playback system, video has evolved to become a reactive organic medium, an extension of the performer’s actions.

Another prerequisite for making video interesting in a stage context is the technical progress in video projectors. The evolution from big, expensive and dim projectors to cheaper, handy and bright units allows them to work as a source of light, and thus as part of a light design and a scenography. Space can be created by projecting onto walls, floor, ceiling, and other surfaces and elements, including bodies.

VideoNervous is a system where the border between technology and the human performer fades out. The performer becomes a cyborg: the instrument is an extension of the human actions, while at the same time the human is the sensory apparatus of the instrument. My perception of the world makes me do certain actions through the technology, which in turn influences my perception of the environment. VideoNervous becomes like an extended central nervous system in which many of the processes parallel our daily processing of reality: sampling from reality, transforming the samples. The hard disk could then be seen as a memory bank, the video samples as pieces of a reality: memories, dreams and thoughts triggered by impressions from the outside world. Thus the brain and the perception apparatus become the arena for this project, working with concepts of subconsciousness, cyclical train of thoughts, information overload, flashbacks, extending and numbing the sensory system.

ab. Software has become a very important tool for artistic creation with digital images. In the video field, advances have recently been made in terms of the real-time manipulation of images and their adaptation to sound and other digitally based data flows. What are the software tools you use? Do you also write software yourself? What would you like to see as the next developments in artistic software?

hc. I have been working with digital video since I got my first Mac, making those short stamp-sized loops which I filmed off the screen with a professional Beta camera and sent to different short film festivals. I used the basic tools like Premiere, After Effects, Photoshop and, more recently, Final Cut for the video work, until I discovered that I could actually steer the playback of video in real time with external controllers. In 1995 I started working with Director and simple sensor-triggering. My first experiences in live contexts were with x<>pose, one of the first video-triggering programs: connecting a keyboard to my Mac through MIDI, I triggered different Quicktime loops. Then I was introduced to Imagine, created by Tom Demeyer at STEIM in Amsterdam, which was a much more powerful tool for manipulating and mixing images, and adding input from a live camera. Imagine was also designed for real-time purposes and control from MIDI input, but lacked the ability of scripting for making more interesting relations between input and output. So I started experimenting with Max on one computer controlling the behaviour of Imagine on another, which I used in the installation node. Max is a programming environment for building control structures usually based on the protocol MIDI. The fall of 1999 saw the start of something important for real-time visual work: the first version of the nato.0+55 video objects for Max was released by the controversial Netochka Nezvanova/antiorp. With its later releases, nato has become a series of very flexible objects for recording, playing, combining, creating and manipulating video in real time (and a continually growing library for working with internet/networks, 3D, text and sound). The learning curve is still pretty steep, as you have to learn Max and the nato protocol to obtain interesting results. The essence is the combination of visual material with a programming structure which becomes as important as the visual material itself. Max and nato make it possible for artists to design their own video programs without the knowledge of a programming language like C. At the same time, more and more artists are actually learning C to create their own objects for use with nato and Max.

As regards future developments, I am still looking for easier ways to work across different media – audio to video, video to audio – and a more flexible way of dealing with sensors and actuators as part of a total environment. We need new ways of interacting with the computers. Artists have an important role in experimenting with this. Part of the incentive for me to work with installations is to create new ways for man-machine interaction. I am also waiting for more efficient code for existing software. A lot of real-time video work is really slow. I have started working with small systems that communicate over local networks, so it would be very interesting to see good systems for collaborating with video over the Internet, since the current solutions are too slow. We will see what the new network collaboration software Keystroke, developed at De Waag in Amsterdam, has to offer when it will finally be released. In summary, I would like to see software that enables better network handling between machines and the physical world; a more sensitive computer.

ab. There are groups like The Hub and Sensorband who have made attempts at doing translocal performances using ISDN and Internet connections, but they often suffer from the time delay and limited bandwidth, even when using only sound or MIDI data. The same goes for the streaming media experiments of the Xchange network. Have you made experiences in the field of networked performances? And do you think that it will be a question of overcoming the technical limitations? Do you think that the conceptual ideas are in place for multi-user online performances using, for instance, nato?

hc. I am participating in some of the collaborative projects initiated by Motherboard that have tried to incorporate networks in the performances and installations, either locally or over the Internet. The performances included use of CUSeeMe, IVisit, IRC, Realaudio/Realvideo, with guests contributing text, images and sound. For instance, a guitarist would play from San Francisco, while a singer performed in Cairo and somebody was dancing in front of a webcam in Toronto, still others contributing text from elsewhere. We did an installation last fall with works from five artists linked locally, which also included Internet remote control of a light tower. The colour mix in the light tower could be geared by changing the colour on a website. In January 2000 at Bergen senter for Elektronisk Kunst (BEK) in Bergen, Norway, Motherboard arranged a two week worklab/performance, HotWiredLiveArt, with artists from different backgrounds and various countries, together with two of the developers of Keystroke. As the organizer of the next edition of HWLA, Canadian artist Michelle Terran points out, live, networked collaborative art emphasizes an ongoing process and de-emphasizes the final product. In August this year, HWLA2 will be held in Banff, Canada, where we will be focusing on physical interfaces and telekinematics, using Max and Keystroke mainly. In the summer of 2000, HotWiredPartyActionPlan took place in two sites, Momentum in Moss, Norway, and Interaccess in Toronto, Canada, each involving a local public and hosting several events. The network between the two spaces involved mostly webcams and Keystroke, but we found it very hard to get a true collaboration going. It is difficult to find a focus if something is happening simultaneously in a physical space and in a remote space, as they compete for attention. From the experience of these projects, I have come to think that the network works best in one central place with guests contributing material. The goal for me would be to create a single space consisting of elements from several sources.

As concerns nato, I believe it offers a range of possibilities for networked collaborations, but when it comes to streaming video between machines, it is really slow, partly because of the size of video and limited bandwidth. I have been more interested in sending commands through networks to control the performance on remote machines, mainly in installation work, to distribute the computational power. In my current installation I will have one ”brain“ computer gathering sensor input and doing some ”thinking” which will then send commands to the media players for video and sound, thus enabling a communication between the two video projections, the sound and the surroundings.

I think the problem with network collaborations is that, while the process of actually doing something with somebody who is somewhere else is very interesting, the artistic result is often less. For the performers it is an exciting situation, but the spectators hardly ever sense the presence of ”the other”, which is why they only get something out of the actual visual/audio output. I took part in some Keystroke sessions and also watched quite a few. Sometimes you obtain some really nice results when there are two people networked. Adding more people usually just messes things up, and the performers become frustrated. When there are no rules, meaning some sort of loose structure on a jam session, the performance is likely to be of little interest. Network collaborations are a performers’ medium, and as long as the audience is not directly involved in the interaction it is hard to distinguish between network, random and pre-programmed behaviour in the resulting work. I guess this is mainly a conceptual problem, namely to either include the audience in the network or to find ways to visualize this interaction for the audience. In any case, the experience of being part of these small exclusive performance networks shouldn't be underestimated as a performance only for the performers involved.

ab. hc, you are a Norwegian artist who has spent the past year in Berlin and who cooperates in different international contexts, as well as in the translocal sphere of the Internet. You are thinking about staying in Berlin while you are still intensely working on some projects in Norway. How would you describe the geography of your work? Does it matter at all where you are physically based? And do you feel that there is an influence of locality in your work, even though it is so much part of a cosmopolitan media art scene?

hc. I believe that the people I meet are more important than the places where I happen to be. Some people I meet physically, some through the Internet. The important thing is to have an interesting artistic, technical and social context for my work, which is one of the reasons for moving out of Norway. Of course, my work is influenced by travelling a lot: last year, I spent three months in Helsinki on a residency, one month in Bergen working on a project, and the rest of the year I was never more than two weeks in the same place. I do get many impulses from my surroundings, but they are seldom directly related to art: I am very much into urban structures as they are human-made landscapes which, in the end, participate in forming our way of perceiving and constructing reality. So I get a lot of inspiration from a city like Berlin because it is constantly trying to reconstruct itself (and somehow failing). Still, I don't think that there is a direct influence of locality in what I do, even though a sensitivity to the surroundings is a crucial aspect of my overall project NervousVision.

A lot of my work is directly related to a physical space and other people (as when I am working with my dance company, KreutzerKompani, or with a theatre group) who are located somewhere else than myself. There is a time lag in how my projects relate to where I am. Most of my current projects were initiated a year ago when I was still based in Norway and didn't know that I was going to Berlin. But lately, after some time in Berlin, projects have started to appear here as well. For example, I will do a performance at Kaffee Burger in June, an installation at Podewil in July and the exhibition at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in August. And currently my mind is in Japan...

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by HC Gilje