Interview with HC Gilje
by Nicky Assmann
An edited version of the interview published in the Sonic Acts book Dark Universe in 2013.
Nicky Assmann A lot of your post-2005 installations use video projections. Why did you choose to work with this medium?
HC Gilje I think it is important to conceive of the projector as not merely an apparatus for showing images, but as an advanced light source. Using it with a computer you can combine an infinite variety of masks with millions of colours to give you a tool for painting with light. This was partly my motivation for creating VPT (VideoProjectionTool) back in 2007: to make the exploration of the video projector as a light painting tool easier.
NA In your latest works you focus on working with LEDs. What is so enticing or interesting about LEDs? And why not work with a light source like a Xenon or Halogen lamp?
HC My work with LEDs began with my interest in animating shadows, using many light sources positioned around an object or person. Standard light equipment is prohibitively expensive if you want to work with a lot of lamps, so I decided to make my own dimmer and lamps based on power-LEDs. The motivation was similar to developing VPT, to have a toolkit for experimenting with light and shadows. Now I mainly work with LED strips because they are easy to use and relatively cheap.
Coming from a light design background I often feel that LEDs are a compromise when it comes to colour and lenses in particular, but I would rather work with this affordable set-up than have to apply for large project grants to realize work.
The short answer to why I work with projections and LEDs as light sources is that they give me control over intensity, colour and focus, making it easy to work with the temporal and the spatial aspects of light. My primary interest is in creating movement in and through spaces and objects by controlling the light.
For me an important distinction when working with light is whether the focus is on the actual light source or on what happens when light intersects with physical structures. I’m fascinated by the dual relationship between light and matter: a shadow or reflection indicates something about the light and about the physical characteristics of a space or object. Light reveals our physical surroundings. At the same time physical structures modulate and mediate light – without them light would be invisible.
NA Looking at the LED screen performance Voice with Maja Ratkje, I wondered if resolution is an important factor?
HC In one way the Voice performance is the opposite of what I just described, because the audience looks at an arc of very bright LED grids. These are modules normally used for huge outdoor video walls; indoors they create a lot of light. I look at them as a dynamic light landscape, creating movement through the whole concert venue, not just on the screens. This makes a huge difference – using normal monitors would have a very different result. Projecting patterns onto an arc would also be a very different experience. The resolution of each LED module is very low, about 50x50 pixels per module. My performance software for Voice is based on this low resolution: I use a single noise generator with the same resolution as one module as the departure point of the performance.
NA How did your work evolve through time?
HC I’ve been working on four parallel trajectories since I left art school at the end of the 1990s: installation, live cinema, experimental one-channel video, and stage-design. Probably not the best career decision, and it’s incredible how little overlap there has been between the different fields. But I guess I’ve been moderately successful within these different disciplines. Right now installation is what I spend the most time on. I haven’t done any videos since 2005 but I’m sure that will change. Also I would love to get more time to work with sound.
The common denominator for all my work is the relation or tension between improvisation and structure.
Up to 2005 most of my work was camera based. I thought of the camera as an extension to my perception of the surroundings. Maybe improvisation is not the right word to use to describe filming with a camera, but my intention was to film whatever I found interesting without having a specific plan, and structure the material afterwards. I took my video camera everywhere, resulting in a quite large archive of DV tapes. For instance, for my hkmark1 (1998) video I spent five days in Hong Kong, first finding the camera I wanted to use and then walking around the rest of the time filming. I spent almost half a year editing the material until it found its form.
I also used live cameras extensively for my stage work with dancers, extending the movement of the dancers into the set design.
For my live cinema work I have created performance systems that are flexible but at the same time have clear limitations in terms of available choices, allowing me to use the systems as extensions of my responses to the music or video without thinking – just acting.
In more recent years I have turned my attention to improvising with projectors and light in relation to objects and spaces, so the structural elements are now primarily physical structures.
NA You’ve always worked with musicians, from your work as 242.pilots to your work Voice with Maja Ratkje, can you say something about how you work with sound? And also how you use sound in your installations?
HC The key for me is improvisation. I’ve done a lot of live improvising, mainly with people from the noise scene, great people like Maja Ratkje, Jazzkammer and Justin Bennett, to mention a few. I like music when it becomes a physical experience, when it surrounds me and I get sucked into it, and then it’s just a matter of responding to it. I’ve never actually worked with any type of direct connection between sound and image – it’s my body that is the link between listening and responding.
The artists I just mentioned work with similar structures of layering, duration, repetition, and pulse that are key elements in my own work.
I think sound has a quality which visual media lack, and that is to create a presence, to ground your experience in the present. When I use sound in my installations it’s very minimal and not very loud. The best way to make sure people pay attention is to work with small changes and low volume. Usually I work with layers of loops of different lengths to create a continually changing texture. Instead of mixing the sounds beforehand I like to play each loop individually with simple transducers, so the sounds blend into the acoustic space of the installation.
NA Do you consider yourself an instrument/tool builder as well as an artist? What is the difference in how you use your instruments when composing for a performance or for an installation?
HC I am primarily an artist, but I consider instrument/tool building to be part of my practice. When I was heavily into the live cinema scene I spoke and wrote a lot about software as an instrument. Improvisation has been a mantra for me throughout my career. Improvise with a camera when recording at different locations (structure comes afterwards). Improvise with live cameras in dance performance or with recorded loops in a live cinema performance (the structure is in the performance patch). As I said, it’s always about the tension between improvisation and structure. For instance, my collaboration with Maja Ratkje is pure improvisation, we never rehearse, we don’t discuss the performance, we just do it. For this to work I need to have a very tight structure in my performance set-up, limiting my choices to a minimum.
The Norwegian artist Kjell Bjørgeengen has written about the subjectification of the tool. He writes that it’s not enough to be the creator of content, that you should either modify existing tools or create your own tools. The subjectification of the tool opens up possibilities you couldn’t have thought of in advance, thus introducing an element of surprise or risk.
Live performance is one thing, installation another. But I approach both with the same attitude: production of content through improvisation. The structure in my installations has changed though. For a long time I only made installations with some sort of structure that the computer navigated by making pseudo-random choices. It was essential then that the installation was real-time. I’m not so convinced about that anymore, partly because of Bjørgeengen’s influence. He makes a clear distinction between such real- time generative systems, and generating content using software algorithms in the studio – and that’s where the generative process stops. It’s the aesthetic choices that are essential, they decide what is actually included in the final installation. For the last five or six years my process has been similar, except that I move my studio to the location where the installation will be, generate material through improvising in the space, and then make choices about composition and structure.
NA Do you have your own theory about light and the use of colours?
HC I don’t really operate with a colour theory, except that I am primarily interested in what happens when the ephemeral medium of light meets a physical structure. I usually work with juxtaposing black and white (light/ dark), warm and cold colours, and create movements between these extremes. A physical structure acts as a colour mixer by reflecting, absorbing, and casting shadows. A shadow tells you something about the light source, the object casting the shadow, and the ground the shadows fall onto. A shadow that moves indicates a temporal change. Shadow implies darkness, and darkness is the companion of light. As Goethe said, colour appears in the dynamic interplay between light and darkness. In general I am interested in the doubling that occurs with shadows, the reflection and mirroring.
When I create an installation I don’t begin with the aim of realizing a clear pre-existent idea. The installation comes out of trial and error in the studio or exhibition space. I rely on my ability to respond to the situation, be it a live performance, an empty space, a piece of music, or an object. It might be a banal answer, but I ended up with red, blue and white in both 7 cirkler and revolver because it felt right. It’s a process of tuning to the space I’m working in, and of tuning the installation to my frame of mind.
NA Your blog on hcgilje.wordpress.com has the subtitle ‘conversation with spaces’. To me this suggests that there is a theory about space connected to your work, a theory that you discuss in your writings on the blog.
HC I wouldn’t call it a theory but more a methodology. It’s about ‘investigating the relation between time, space and motion by developing and implementing a set of audiovisual tools to transform, expand, amplify, connect, compose and capture spaces’, as I formulated it in my paper ‘Conversations with Spaces’ (2009).
So the term is a way of describing how I could engage with spaces using my set of tools, a way of improvising with spaces, or a description of the mutual relationship between the location and myself. I project light and sound into the space, the space ‘responds’ by modulating it according to it own physical qualities, which makes me respond, et cetera.
NA: Can you elaborate on the role of perception in your work?
HC ‘Conversations with spaces’ is a way to describe this. The basic premise of my work is the concept of the embodied mind. We live our lives through our bodies, so our body grounds us in this world; the body is the link between the mind and the physical world. Perception can be seen as an active negotiation between what our senses tell us about what’s out there and what we project into the world. There is therefore little difference between perception and action. Basically our body is the measuring rod and filter for all our experiences as well as the actuator, and I use that as a departure point for my work.
The literary theorist Hans Ullrich Gumbrecht writes about the tension between what he sometimes calls ‘meaning culture’ (which is about interpreting and constructing the world from the outside) and ‘presence culture’ (which takes the body as being part of the world). He claims that aesthetic experiences are moments of intensity – an intensification of the present. So instead of trying to make objects for understanding and interpretation, I am interested in creating these moments of intensity that I believe can act as some sort of connection between our inner mental space and outer physical environment. In an earlier text, ‘Within the space of an instant’ (2005), I discussed a similar idea that I called the ‘extended now’, referring to the presence of your body in the present, which again is probably related to Francisco Varela’s description of the now as a pocket of space inside time.
I think all my installations are investigations into the somewhat blurry relations between the perception of time, space and motion (or speed). If there is no indication of time passing (which is through change or movement), how can we experience it? I think Henri Bergson’s concept of duration is very interesting, the idea that everything has its own duration, be it a living organism or dead matter. We experience time at different resolutions, so, for instance, something that appears static to us, just seems static because we can only experience it in the time resolution of our own senses (if we don’t use technology to aid us).
Motion is a specific sensation, not a series of sequenced static sensations. Time cannot be experienced without movement, so introducing movement into a space affects our experience of time. Repetitious movements, creating a pulse, a rhythm, a beat, is something the body responds to.
Technology affects perception in several ways – it extends our body in how we sense and react to the world. The microscope and telescope have done that for space, and high-speed and time-lapse cameras do it for the resolution of time. Memory is an essential part of perception too, and memory is to a large degree externalised by technology into books, sound and video recordings, pictures, and so forth. So a frequently asked question is: where is the border of our perceptual apparatus? As Gregory Bateson put it: for a blind man and his stick, is the stick part of "me"?
Vision and hearing are often experienced as being linked together. This is sometimes called cross-modal perception. It turns out, according to research in neurobiology and psychology, that the process of binding sound and visual sensations is a stimulating experience in itself. It is another example of active perception.
In his book Audio-Vision (1994), film- sound theorist Michel Chion coined the term ‘synchresis’ – a combination of synchronism and synthesis – to describe ‘(t)he spontaneous and irresistible weld produced between a particular auditory phenomenon and visual phenomenon when they occur at the same time’. Sound and vision mutually influence each other, so their interplay is an important element in the creation of my work.
NA Your installations have a certain slowness. Your use of sound and composition is also quite minimal and sometimes even absent. Can you elaborate on why you choose to approach the works and composition in this manner?
HC Sometimes I shift between very rapid changes and very slow movements; sometimes between static scenes; or between very slowly changing scenes (like the blink projection spaces); and sometimes I use extremely slow changes, as in Projected Light Object: Frame Series. Lately I’ve been more interested in vertical compositions than in composing sequences in time.
By vertical composition I mean working with layering simple loops (video, light movement, sound) of different durations to create more complex structures. I am interested in what happens if something is repeated over and over again, where time almost loses its importance. I would like to believe that the audience walks into these pockets trapped in time, and enters an extended now. Repetition turns into texture. What happens to our perception of sound, light, and movement when something is repeated?
It is a very different experience to hear something the first time than to hear it over and over again. Memory of a perception influences our experience, at some point we insert ourselves into the flow, pulse or beat. To have a body is to have a presence, and memory makes the body something other than instantaneous and gives it a duration in time. An individual duration amongst other durations that beat in other rhythms.
By the way, to make something go slow in the digital realm is one of the hardest things to do, and it’s something I struggle with each time I make a work. It’s always difficult to make a line move slowly enough, a light dim slowly enough, to make a transition that is almost invisible.
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