by HC Gilje
This text was written for my book with the same name, released on uten tittel in 2017.
For over a decade I have been working with a general idea arching over my various projects, called Conversations with Spaces, where I look at different ways of transforming spaces using light, projection, sound and motion: ephemeral media that create temporary transformations of physical spaces, which in turn influences how we experience these spaces. Questions of how we live our lives through our bodies, how we place ourselves in time, how we relate to others and our environment, and how technology is deeply entangled in the answers to these questions are an important context for the creation, and possibly appreciation and understanding, of my work.
We are grounded to the world through our bodies, which makes the body 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 is out there and the mental construction/model we project into the world. Similarly, action also involves comparing a model with the present state of the body, and thus the distinction between the perception and action begins to fade away. If our mind is embodied, then how we relate to a physical environment has emotional consequences. Moving in space and organising in space can be seen as a way of thinking, dreaming and remembering. I work with motion in various ways, either by introducing movement in a space through video, animated light or mechanical motion, or by placing or presenting the work in a context that invites the audience to move around and explore it from multiple perspectives: in the gallery room, walking in the forest or sitting on the train.
The physical structure of our bodies affects our perceptions, mental projections, knowledge and engagement with the world.
An octopus has twice as many neurons in its eight arms as in its brain, and its arms may have their own form of memory; a bird has wings, as well as vision more advanced than that of humans; cockroaches have such a fast response rate and speed that humans would appear to move in slow motion to them. How we as humans inhabit the world is deeply interconnected with walking upright on two feet and having two hands for making and handling tools. The philosopher Bernard Stiegler even suggests that it was tools/technology that invented the human being, not the other way around.
The world is already inside us: about half the cells in our body do not contain our own DNA. The air we breathe, the food we eat, including the chemicals, hormones, antibiotics and heavy metals that end up in the food chain, become part of us.
Our senses are at the same time a border and filter to the outside world. Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist, social scientist and cyberneticist, wrote that the information received via the senses is necessarily the receipt of news of difference, and all perception of difference is limited by threshold. Differences that are too slight or too slowly presented are not perceivable. If a light is on, there is no new information about its state until it is turned off. In actual fact, the light might be turning on and off so quickly that the visual apparatus is not able to perceive this oscillation, creating instead a continuity of constant light which is not there.
Technology affects perception in several ways – it extends our body in how we sense and react to the world. As Bateson put it: for a blind man and his stick, is the stick part of “me”? The microscope and telescope change the threshold and resolution of how we perceive space, while high-speed and time-lapse cameras do the same for our perception of time.
Memory is an essential part of perception, and through anticipation of the future it guides our actions. Memory is to a large degree externalised by technology into books, pictures, audio and video recordings, and so forth. The possibility to record and play back a video, sound or light sequence makes it possible to perceive the exact same temporal object many times. Even if the temporal object is the same, the perception of it will change based on the memory of previous perceptions. I use repetition and looping as a strategy for how people engage with my work, as a way for the audience to tune into a space and become part of the work.
The researcher and thinker Francisco Varela aimed to continue the work of phenomenologist philosophers like Merleau-Ponty and Husserl by combining cognitive science and human experience. In an interview in the Machine Times catalogue for the DEAF00 exhibition in 2000, Varela describes time as a dynamic process: now is a point in space that leaves a short trail which is the immediate past (retention), and like a ball moving down a slope, you can more or less get an idea of where it will continue (protention). At least you can until something unexpected happens, such as the ball hitting a stone and changing direction, at which time the now has to reinvent itself. Varela uses the example of walking down the street, when suddenly a car honks, and this pulls you out of your current state: the transparency of the situation is lost, and a new choice needs to be made.
The body is the measuring rod for how we experience time. We cannot observe time in itself, we can only observe events and compare them. Time is defined through regular, repeated motion, like the ticking of a clock, cycles of daylight, changing seasons. Any regular rhythm gives a sense of time passing, and thus light, motion and sound can influence our experience of time.
According to the philosopher Henri Bergson, it is not possible to measure time. There are just endless, different durations.
The duration of human life is delimited by birth and death. The body itself contains a multitude of durations: the beating of the heart, the rhythm of our breathing and the neural firings in the brain. When a human dies, it may take hours or a day before all the cells in the body die, as cells have very different lifespans. Red blood cells live about four months, skin cells two or three weeks, sperm cells only three days. It takes about ten years to replace all the cells in the bones, while for instance most of the cells in the eye and the brain have the same age as the body.
The duration of the human species is minuscule when compared to the duration of the universe. The astronomer Carl Sagan illustrated this by compressing the almost 14 billion years of history of the universe into one year. In this calendar the Big Bang happened on 1 January, our galaxy was formed early May and our solar system and the Earth around mid-September, the first signs of life appeared at the end of September – and the modern human arrived at 22:30 on New Year’s Eve. At the same time, the building blocks of our body are just recycled star dust, billions of years old.
The concept of duration applies to anything: the duration of a fruit fly, a tree, an 11th-century cathedral, rocks, mountains, plastic, ice, a relationship, your attention span, your smartphone, a pen. The market economy is based on planned obsolescence, with every product designed to have a limited duration. The conscious present also has a duration: the brain needs two-three seconds to construct the now.
In the first half of the 19th century, Hutton and Lyell uncovered deep time by studying the layers of the Earth’s crust, thus expanding the history of the world to millions rather than thousands of years. Cuvier proposed, contrary to the common belief at the time, that species actually can go extinct. Darwin showed through his theory of evolution that new species evolve from previous ones, and that humans and apes have common ancestors.
In the same period there was a dramatic shift in the relation between man and nature, and new technologies of transport and telecommunications completely transformed our relation to space and time, at the time described as the annihilation of space and time. In her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003), Rebecca Solnit writes about these great accelerations and about how nature itself had previously been the limit of speed through ocean and river currents, the wind and the muscle power of men and animals. Then, with the introduction of the first railroad, space shrank through the speed of its motion. Through the telegraph, the precursor to the telephone and the internet, news, words and data were dematerialised into electrical impulses and available almost instantaneously wherever the telegraph wires were strung. The photograph made it possible to capture time and retrieve it as a memory.
Humans were no longer contained within nature, and instead of adapting to nature, nature was adapted and transformed. Nature turned into resource through technology. Capitalism, stocks and corporations transformed the labour of workers and the materials of the world to abstract profit.
The transformation of the world through the great accelerations that started in the 1830s led to an increasing abstraction. Those carried along on technology’s currents were less connected to local places, to the earth itself, to the limitations of the body and biology, to the malleability of memory and imagination. They were moving into a world where places were being homogenized, where a network of machines and the corporations behind them were dispelling the independence of wilderness, of remoteness, of local culture, a world that was experienced more and more as information and images. It was as though they sacrificed the near to gain the far. (Solnit 2003, p. 22)
The railroad, the photograph, and the telegraph were technologies for being elsewhere in time and space, for pushing away the here and now.
Fast forward to today, and we are all networked in the “global village” described by Marshall McLuhan in the sixties: there is an instantaneous movement of information from somewhere to anywhere. People and goods are transported across the globe in increasing numbers. We are so connected that local events have instant global consequences, be it a new trend, a new product, a financial crisis, a computer virus or a pandemic for that matter. The culture of growth and acceleration has increased the unequal distribution of wealth and power, transnational corporations now have more influence than governments, and the environment has been turned into a stage for extinction, pollution and resource depletion, in addition to the climate change we are already in the middle of.
By combining large amounts of data with undisclosed algorithms that are able to learn over time, technology (through the big companies that control it) is increasingly influencing our decisions on what we read (or do not), what we buy and the people we meet, as well as making decisions for us, and most importantly decisions about us, all in a few milliseconds. There is a complete loss of transparency on how and why decisions are made in a world where technology increasingly operates independently of humans. More and more of our interaction with the physical world is being abstracted through screen interfaces. We are completely disconnected from the sources of the food we eat and the things we buy with a click of a button, and the people we communicate with are more often elsewhere than in the same room as us.
The cultural theorist Paul Virilio looks at the effects of speed in our society and describes a transformation from relative speed being defined by time and space to our contemporary society where time and space are defined by absolute speed. In previous times you could say that space is that which keeps everything from occupying the same place. That distance has now been erased, and machines are operating on a time scale much smaller than what humans can perceive, described as machine time or intensive time.
According to Virilio, the real time of tele-technologies (telecommunications and information technologies) is killing present time by isolating it from the here and now, replacing it with the elsewhere of telepresence that has nothing to do with our concrete presence in the world. If the virtual world becomes the presentation of reality, then the living present is becoming the tele-living present. Where am I if I am everywhere as a telepresence? If all is “tele”, where is here?
In his book The Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (2003), the literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht tries to find other ways to relate to the world in our information-based society, something that is more complex than only attributing meaning to the world. He develops the mutually exclusive pair meaning culture and presence culture. Meaning culture is associated with interpretation, looking at the world from the outside, production of knowledge, mind and the temporal dimension. Presence culture is associated with the body, being part of the world, revelation of knowledge and the spatial dimension. He claims that aesthetic experiences are moments of intensity – an intensification of the present. If aesthetic experience does not contain a message, what is the effect of getting lost in focused intensity? According to Gumbrecht, it helps us recuperate the spatial and bodily dimensions of our existence, or since it is only a brief moment, it prevents us from losing a feeling of the physical dimension of our lives, to catch a glimpse of “the things of the world”.
Instead of trying to make objects for understanding and interpretation, and to counteract the telepresence effect and disembodiment described by Virilio, I am interested in creating these moments of intensity.
The film rift, commissioned by Dark Ecology for the Vertical Cinema programme, is a 35mm CinemaScope film turned on its side to make a large vertical projection. rift is about petrochemicals, the completely different durations involved in the process from plankton to oil to plastic, the relation between depth and time through the layers of the Earth, the transformation and the forces involved in turning plants into crude oil, extracting the oil and making plastic which combined with ink (another petrochemical product) is turned into colourful packaging for consumables, and then thrown away, adding to the heap of plastic in the oceans and in the ground, with a much longer duration than the item it served as packaging for, the person who bought it or the company that made it.
This might sound like a gloomy film, but it is also a film celebrating motion, energy and colour, accompanied by Justin Bennett’s groovy soundtrack. It is my homage to the New Zealand artist and motion enthusiast Len Lye. We will return to him later.
The transformation continues in the making of the film. A digital microscope zooms in on the textures of the various plastic packaging. Over 10,000 still images are captured to the computer, and then the images are organised and assembled using custom algorithms. The finished result is uploaded from my computer in Norway to a server farm at an unknown location, then downloaded to a computer in Austria where digital images are transferred to 35mm celluloid film (which is made from plastic). The film reel is shipped to the Netherlands, and finally the film is projected, with electric light projecting the patterns of the celluloid film onto the screen at 25 frames per second.
Sunlight captured by plants 180 million years ago ends up as the flickering light of the projector.
Technology is the active human interface with the material world. […]
Its technology is how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are (animal? human? water? wind? electricity? other?) what they build with and what they build, their medicine – and so on and on. […]
Anybody who ever lighted a fire without matches has probably gained some proper respect for “low” or “primitive” or “simple” technologies; anybody who ever lighted a fire with matches should have the wits to respect that notable hi-tech invention.
I don’t know how to build and power a refrigerator, or program a computer, but I don’t know how to make a fishhook or a pair of shoes, either. I could learn. We all can learn. That’s the neat thing about technologies. They’re what we can learn to do. (Ursula Le Guin, “A Rant about ‘Technology’”, http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Note-Technology.html)
Making, learning and sharing tools is an important part of my practice. Inspired by the DIY and Maker communities, I find it empowering to be able to make my own hardware and software, often by recombining bits and pieces of what other people have shared. I am not an expert at anything in particular, but the internet is a fantastic resource when it comes to gathering a lot of information and asking questions in specialised online communities to acquire the skills and physical parts needed for a particular project. The time and effort invested into this pays off in terms of being able to realise quite big projects at a low cost. Most importantly, it affects what I make and how I make it.
The Norwegian artist Kjell Bjørgeengen writes about the subjectification of the tool. For him it’s not enough to be the creator of content, you should either modify existing tools or create your own tools to make content. The subjectification of the tool opens up possibilities you couldn’t have thought of in advance, thus introducing an element of surprise or risk.
When I create an installation, I don’t begin with the aim of realising a clear, pre-existing 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 is a process of tuning to the space I am working in, and of tuning the installation to my frame of mind.
For this I develop tools and devices that become instruments, mediators, probes or interfaces that allow me to interact with or have a conversation with my surroundings.
In his influential essay “System Esthetics” in Artforum September 1968, Jack Burnham described a move from objects with fixed shapes and boundaries to thinking about systems which may be altered in space and time. The behaviour of the system is influenced both by external conditions and mechanisms of control. According to Burnham, there is a shift from end result to process, and the primary role of the artist is now as the maker of aesthetic decisions.
Thinking of art in terms of systems makes the structure as important as the content, and I try to create a framework for events to unfold within.
My work has always revolved around different forms of improvisation, when working with a camera, in live performance, when creating material for experimental videos and when working with spatial installations. The “now” described by Varela and Gumbrecht’s feeling of being lost in focused intensity are the prerequisites for improvisation, for being aware and alert in the present, for being right here, right now.
Up to 2005 most of my work was camera based. I thought of the camera as an extension of 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 (which became the raw material for my live improvisations). For instance, for my video h.k. mark 1 from 1998 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. This was the first of four videos I made focusing on moving through city landscapes, which ended up on the DVD Cityscapes.
I was very active in the vibrant live cinema scene that emerged in the early 2000s, mainly through the video improvisation trio 242.pilots but also through collaborations with great improvisers in the noise music scene like Jazzkammer, Maja Ratkje and Justin Bennett. The reason the live cinema scene appeared when it did was the introduction of digital video, cheaper and relatively powerful laptop computers and most importantly customisable software that made it possible to play back and transform video in real-time. (Building a community over the internet through email lists was also a novelty.)
A central idea was to build your own software instruments using more or less complex building blocks in different programming environments. An instrument implies creating a control structure that limits your options (a fixed number of keys, strings and frets, valves etc.) and getting to know your instrument well enough so you can use it intuitively when performing with it.
Utilizing their own custom software, 242.pilots expressively improvise rich,
layered video works in real-time (both as a trio, and as soloists).
The performance software created by Gilje, Lysakowski, and Ralske
allows video to be controlled on-the-fly in a fluid and expressive manner.
Improvising as a group, the three artists respond to and interact with
each other’s images in a subtle and intuitive way. Images are layered, contrasted, merged, and transformed.
The degree of interplay and unspoken communication between the artists is akin to the best free jazz ensembles.
The end product is a complex visual conversation: a quasi-narrative exploring
degrees of abstraction. Or: a mesmerizing, immersive journey through diverse landscapes.
Or: just raw retinal delight. (242.pilots, Live in Bruxelles (2002), DVD, liner notes)
I have never worked with any type of direct connection between sound and image in my live performances – it is my body that is the link between listening and responding. For the audience it is the same thing: they fill in the gaps and create connections.
Vision and hearing are often experienced as being linked together, referred to as cross-modal perception. Sound and vision mutually influence each other, and 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), the 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”.
I brought my experience from live performance and improvisation with cameras into my work with the Kreutzerkompani dance company, which I established with the choreographer EC Richardsen in 2000. Video started out as a live medium, and it took almost ten years after the first camera arrived until it was possible to record the signal. With digital video it became possible to use the live input from video cameras in the same type of software instruments used in live cinema performances described above.
When using live capture of the dancers’ movements as source material, the focus turns from the dancers and video as distinct elements to the idea of motion itself. The video abstracts the movements of the dancers, and then it is not so important which element has the focus at one point, as our main interest is motion in space.
Our first experiment with live video was synk, which premiered at the Ultima festival in Oslo, 2002, and was last performed in 2007. It involved one dancer, with Justin Bennett on sound and myself on video.
The idea of synk was that no pre-recorded video or audio would be used, and only material sampled during the performance was allowed.
We wanted to investigate live performance as raw material: to impose a structure on a live situation, to allow for unpredictable results within that frame structure. My setup allows me to sample the dancers’ movements and create loops which then recombine with what the dancer is doing on stage. I also use several delay buffers, feedback systems and long exposures, turning motion into ghostlike images. The interplay between my program, the variations of the dancer and what is picked up by the camera creates a unique performance every time, mainly influenced by the shape and look of the space we perform in, everything from white gallery spaces and small black box theatres to big stages.
While working with Kreutzerkompani, I moved from building general software instruments to performance systems that were specific to each performance, often focusing on improvising with the live cameras. This is an approach I have continued with in later work, where the software is specifically tied to a particular hardware setup.
Mikro is another collaboration with Justin Bennett, a series of improvised performances using the immediate surroundings as raw material. Bennett creates sound from manipulating found materials – metal, paper, plant material, stones and other objects – to reveal their textures and resonances.
I use a microscope to examine and capture the textures of the various materials found. The captured textures are added to a continuously changing video loop, as new images replace old ones. Organic, mineral, synthetic, processed, dead or living material come together in a flickering bonanza. The animation structure is automated and randomised, and with a click of a button a new image is captured. During the performance I only focus on the handling of the microscope and the selection of the materials.
In 2012 I started a new collaboration with Maja Ratkje using 18–24 quadratic, low-resolution LED screens placed in an arc behind Ratkje. These screens are modules usually put in a grid for large outdoor video screens; 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 big difference – using normal monitors would have a very different result. Projecting patterns onto an arc would also be a very different experience. The software I use for the performance is directly related to the resolution of the screens used. I use a video noise generator, which creates a grid of random pixels of white-grey-black, to generate the visual material (noise being the only source of new patterns/information, according to Bateson). I combine this with the unpredictability of video feedback. Using a limited set of controllers, just a small change from me can result in big and unexpected changes in the video output.
More recently I have started to work with various types of customised capture devices to initiate different conversations with my surroundings, such as a rotating scanner that creates a 3D point cloud representation of a space, cameras that register depth, cameras that only see infrared light, and cameras that move.
“Orbital” is based on an idea of exploring spaces and landscapes using a video camera that slowly rotates around its own axis, and captures the world that rotates around it. The camera is like a probe that can be brought along on expeditions in both friendly and unfriendly environments, and is partly inspired by the camera that Michael Snow had constructed for his film La Région centrale from 1971. Snow’s camera was so big it needed to be flown in with a helicopter to a remote mountain region in Canada, while my expedition camera fits in a small bag and can be used to explore both small and large environments.
“Orbital” is intended to be a series of projects departing from the camera’s capture of space using choreographed movements. The camera could be seen as an impersonal gaze in space with its slow, mechanical, and repetitive circular motions. At the same time, the resulting video recordings are not objective representations of space, but a suggestive, twisted dance of motion and odd perspectives.
Different lighting completely changes the way we perceive the world. Take for instance how a city changes over the course of a day with the changing daylight, either direct sunlight casting hard shadows or light diffused by clouds creating a softer light with hardly any shadows. As the natural light fades out, the artificial light takes over: light pouring out of windows in various gradations of white, yellow light from the street lights, the bright light from signs and advertisements, the headlights of the passing cars, and the regular rhythm of the red, yellow and green of the traffic lights.
I am still amazed when flying at night by how dramatically different the world appears, as a complete void of darkness with occasional islands of light, strands of light that might indicate the contour of a landscape, the white-red points of cars driving on unlit roads, individual lines of light turning into a complex web of light when approaching a city.
Different surfaces form, modulate, diffuse, reflect, refract and absorb the light in different ways. On a rainy night the streets are glowing, while a snowy landscape on a bright day can be blinding. The light is very different around bodies of water. A glass facade treats light very differently than a brick building, a curved landscape in the countryside modulates light differently than a rectangular building. The moon, reflecting/scattering light from the sun, has a surface as dark as coal, reflecting only an average of 12% of the light. Imagine how bright moonlight would have been if the surface were snowy white.
My work is inspired by these dualities of light and matter, and I am primarily interested in the ephemeral quality of light interacting with physical structures, a relationship of transformation and modulation.
The video projector can be seen as an advanced light source, every pixel as a point of light.
Just by thinking of video projection as light detaches it from the usual format of projection onto a screen, and opens up to projecting on bodies, objects, surfaces, walls, floors, ceilings, buildings and temporary surfaces like snow or inflatables.
Around 2007 I started to develop software to make it easier to use a video projector as a real-time light painting tool, and eventually as a tool for improvisation with spaces. The aim was to combine the software-as-instrument approach from my earlier live improvisation projects with the precise control of every pixel of the video projector, allowing for the precise masking of the projection to fit objects and surfaces.
I called the software the Video Projection Tool (VPT) and released it as a free download. Despite its clunky interface and occasional bugs, it became a popular tool with a large international user base.
VPT defined the technical approach to my projection space installations and let me continue my improvisations in a different way. Instead of improvising with other people in the context of an audiovisual or dance performance, I started to think about ways to use improvisation as a way to relate to spaces and as an approach for creating installations.
Before a solo exhibition at HKS in Bergen in 2009, I was fortunate to be able to work in the exhibition space while the gallery was closed for the summer, giving me a unique opportunity to create something directly connected to that particular place and essentially turning the gallery into my temporary studio space. The resulting installation was blink, the first in a series of projection spaces.
After spending some time experimenting with projection on various constellation of objects, I decided to throw out everything and just work with the empty space and the projector, to see how what I projected into the space was transformed by the architectural and textural qualities of the space, and at the same time how that transformed the space itself. This would then effect how I perceived the space, which in turn affected what I would project, creating what I would call a conversation with that space, where mental and physical space are tuned to each other, and the projected light and the physical space merge.
What I project into the space are simple lines and fields of colour which on a computer screen look completely flat and uninteresting. Everything happens when the rays of light from the projector hit the surface of the gallery space through reflection, mirroring and distortion. This particular space had a beautiful old wooden floor painted with a very glossy light grey colour. The light from the projector that hits the floor is reflected as green tinted light on the walls and ceiling, and the shiny floor also functions as a mirror, extending the space down into the floor. Unlike my earlier video works where I worked with mixing multiple layers of video to create something new, the physical space itself acts as a video mixer.
I use sound in the projection spaces to reinforce the feeling of being physically present in the space. The sound consists of several individual audio players which each plays a single looped sound. Each audio player has a loop with a different duration, so even if the total soundscape is repetitive, there are always small variations. In a similar way to how I think of the room as a physical video mixer, the sounds from the different audio players are mixed and transformed by the acoustic qualities of the space itself. Instead of traditional speakers, I often use sound transducers, a type of speaker that is fastened directly onto a surface, making the whole surface into a speaker. Most of the time I hide these speakers in floors, walls or ceilings, emphasising the ambient qualities of the sound, to give the space a sonic texture.
The particular physical characteristics of a place heavily influences the final outcome, like the regularly spaced pillars at IMAL in Brussels, where the shadows cast by the pillars became the defining element for light space modulators, together with the circular discs on the floor which functioned both as projection surfaces and speakers.
The three interconnected spaces of Galleri 21 in Malmö resulted in snitt (lit. “cross-section”), where a straight white line moves slowly through the three rooms of the gallery space, cutting the space into different sections. The movement of the line, attacking the space from different angles, focuses the attention of the viewer on the physical qualities of the space. The physical properties of the gallery space (the walls, ceiling, floor, door openings, light fixtures etc.) modulate/break up the straight line into a continuously evolving pattern of line fragments, depending on the position of the viewer and the angle of the line in relation to the architecture.
For the theatre performance Fuglane at Trøndelag Teater, I was invited to do both set and video design. The whole stage was filled with a large curved structure, not unlike the curves of a large skateboard ramp, which in combination with video projections from above could be transformed into various landscapes.
Speiling is inspired directly by a series of abstract landscape paintings made by the Norwegian painter Gunnar Tollefsen. The paintings are relatively small, and I wanted to transform them from a landscape you look at to an environment you walk into.
The projection spaces could easily be seen as a continuation of expanded cinema, a term that was coined in the mid-sixties. It was used to describe a film, video, multi-media performance or immersive environment that pushes the boundaries of cinema and rejects the traditional one-way relationship between the audience and the screen. Expanded cinema merged projection and screen, and the frame time of cinema gave way to framed time, where space is conceptualised as a moment in time. Expanded cinema also attempts to merge mind and space: expand your mind in an expanded space.
All my installations are works to be experienced by the body, and questions of scale and multiple points of view become important. The installations are something you walk into, where you encounter a state rather than a narrative, detached from the passing of time outside.
We no longer look at objects, whether static or moving, but at movement as it passes through the object. (Lars Spuybroek, “Motor Geometry”, 1997)
The installation puls was commissioned for the Fantoft tunnel in Bergen, which is used by the Bergen Light Rail (Bybanen). I wanted to use the motion of the train car as a way of animating static waves in the tunnel. I mounted two long wave forms of light on the tunnel walls, one side blue-and-white, the other red-and-white, with a total length of about 400 m. At maximum speed the train uses 20 seconds to travel past the waves. The movement of the train animates the waves when seen from the windows of the train, and the wave is experienced very differently depending on where you sit in the train.
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. Len Lye, the maker of experimental film and kinetic sculptures, stated that his raw material was not film or sculpture but motion itself. He composed figures of motion which were sometimes realised through scratching and painting on celluloid film, other times as large-scale metallic sculptures vibrant with motion.
Form is frozen. In my series of Projected Light Objects, projection and object merge. A frame is projected onto a frame, a circle is projected onto a circle, and thus changes in the projection appear to be changes to the object itself. In frame there is a slow, almost imperceptible movement changing the relation between the frame itself and the base upon which it is placed. In circle there is a switching between rapid movement and stillness, expanding the single circle into multiple projected circles with a spatial repetition through reflection and mirroring.
Parallel to working with projection spaces, I have animated objects and spaces with light and shadow using individual points of light. A moving shadow indicates a passage of time, so being able to control the speed of the shadow gives me to a certain extent the possibility of compressing and expanding the perception of time.
I first started working with circular motion. The circle is something you can gather around from all sides, or you can be inside it, and I am interested in circular motion as the perfect loop with no beginning or end. Circular motion is also something used in rituals to evoke a different state of mind, both through physical ecstasy or through meditation. We are spinning around the Earth’s axis at breathtaking speed at the same time as we are orbiting around the sun, so we are basically in constant circular motion.
Spin consists of a circle suspended from the ceiling with 24 lamps placed evenly around the circle. The light is focused on the floor underneath the circle. A single light travels around the circle, and the velocity accelerates, decelerates and changes direction. Standing underneath the circle, your shadow spins around you on the floor. The motion of the light is accompanied by a clicking sound, emphasising the changing velocity. Sound, light and shadow merge into an intensified motion.
I continued the work with circular motion in flip flop, an installation created for the Norwegian Sculpture Biennial in Oslo in 2015. The basic component of the installation is an electromechanical device called a flip dot, a disc which can be physically flipped around by an electric pulse, and when the dot flips it makes a sound (a bit like a big insect flapping its wings). One side is black, the other side is mirror coated. I placed about 40 of the flip dots on a circle suspended from the ceiling, with a simple motion of one dot being flipped at a time through the circle. The movement repeatedly passes through the circle as a mechanical movement of the individual flip dot and the sound it makes, but also as shadows on the floor and as light reflections from the mirrors on the surrounding walls.
Revolver is a structure of light animations using three circles of LED lights. Combined together this produces complex patterns of light and shadow on the walls in the exhibition space. The light in each circle has a certain width, speed and colour (red, white and blue), and each circle has a different diameter. Each circle just repeats the same circular movement over and over again. Since each loop has a different length, variations of the three combined loops appear as bright coloured bands that continually dissolve and reappear on the walls, creating a circular motion through the space.
Similarly, the sound consists of two loops of different lengths being played back on two different transducers in the ceiling: One high and one low pitched sound with varying intensity combine through the acoustics of the space into an ambient texture of sound.
For me, revolver is less an object in itself and more an instrument that interacts with different types of spaces: in different white cube spaces, in a space with half-transparent walls creating an inside and outside space, or in the special case of Solund church, with the circles hanging vertically and filling the volume of the church with rotating bands of colour.
I use the light pulse as a tool to animate, activate and transform spaces and objects. The light pulse is a point of light that moves along a line, a simple light animation on a LED strip that is controlled by a microcontroller. I can control the speed, direction and width of the light pulse as well as how often it appears. Sometimes several lines of light are connected in a network and controlled together, as in trace. Other times the light pulses move independently of each other, either at regular intervals and constant speed like in in transit X, or at random intervals and with varying speed as in The Crossing.
The light pulse works can roughly be divided into two types: dynamic sculptures and site- specific works.
In transit consists of a series of equal-sized white frames organised at regular intervals along a straight line and suspended above the floor. A light pulse moves over the frames at constant speed, repeating the same motion over and over, lighting up the frames as it passes over, almost as if the frames are turned on and off. At the same time a slow-moving shadow of the frames moves across the floor. The installation can be viewed from all sides. You can walk into it, and your experience of it will vary accordingly. I introduce movement into a space, partly inspired by an image evoked by Husserl: the world passing by a walking person, rather than a walking person moving through space.
In transit X is a variation of the original in transit where one or two extra line of frames cross the main line at a perpendicular angle, the main line always with light moving in one direction, the perpendicular lines with the light always moving back and forth.
flimmer is a volume of black strips (8 x 4 x 3 m) suspended from the ceiling, with two zigzag lines of light pulsing above them and fans from the sides causing the strips to sway back and forth, like trees moving in the wind. The combination of the volume of plastic strips in motion and the light pulses moving over them fills the whole exhibition space with fluctuating lines of shadow.
Unlike the dynamic light sculptures, most of the light pulse works are deeply tied to the site where they are presented at, so the process of finding the location is an integral part of making the work. The work exists in the meeting between the ephemeral light pulses and the physical characteristics of the site.
In lightspan forest flares the light moves across a wintery forest at night. The light opens and closes spaces at different depths in the forest, and the shadows of the tree trunks are flung out across the snowy landscape.
In off-the-grid the light moves over lowered light fixtures in the exhibition space of a metro station, weaving shadow grid patterns on the floor.
In trace the light pulse crashes into a wall and comes out of another one, with shadows racing across the floor, and lights intersecting with other lights as they scan and slice up the space of an old cod-liver oil distillery.
In The Crossing there is a constant interplay between the growing and receding shadows of the concrete slabs and the temporary corridors of light, creating a dynamic maze of darkness and light.
While some of the light pulse works are made to be only shown at night and others indoors, I have also made several works which are on 24 hours a day in outdoor environments, where I have very little control over the external light conditions, and this becomes an integrated part of the work. The border between artwork and environment is porous, and there is a constant dialogue between the work and its surroundings.
RAKE consists of two parts, one inside the gallery space, where the outer walls are made from old window frames so a lot of daylight comes into the room. I place a thin wooden beam in the middle of the space going from floor to ceiling, with LED strips mounted on two sides of the beam. A light pulse comes up from the floor on one side and disappears up into the ceiling, and comes down from the ceiling and down into the floor on the opposite side, creating a reversal of the space as the light changes side. This vertical movement is combined with a horizontal light pulse moving back and forth, so the light and shadows in the room are in constant flux. On a sunny day the effect of these lights is barely visible, as you only see the light point itself move, but as the daylight fades the light and shadows become stronger and stronger, and the whole space resonates with the visual pulse of the horizontal and vertical movement.
The surrounding area of the gallery is framed by hollow wooden barriers with horizontal slits. I put lines of light inside the barriers, using the slits as a way to slice the light into stripes as the light moves slowly around the barrier. The gallery is situated in a busy harbour area of Trondheim, and at night the area is full of light from the pier, neighbour office buildings, street lights, bike lights and the head and tail lights from cars. This light “bleeds” through the barrier structure and blends together with my light, so the resulting work is a conversation between the “ready-made” light of the environment and the structured light motions. An interesting side-effect of this is that as the audience looks for my work, they are made aware of the changing, intricate patterns of light created from the already existing lights of the site.
I made the installation glimt for one of the three large fish rack structures placed on the beautiful sand beach of Sandhornøy, as part of the SALT project. The basic wooden structure consists of a series of 10 m tall triangles connected together. During the day, the points of light direct your gaze to discover the shape of the structure and to follow the horizontal lines of the beach and the ocean on one side and the vertical lines of the steep mountain on the other. At dusk, the light points start to relate to the fixed points of the stars appearing in the sky. Eventually it gets so dark that only the moving points of light illuminate the large fish rack structure, transforming it into an elastic volume, stretching and compressing, surrounded by darkness.
For two different editions of Solund Light Art Festival I have made installations relating to the tiny harbour of Hardbakke. Sveip is installed under the wooden pier, with the moving light broken up by the slits between the boards of wood and reflected and further distorted by the waves on the water. Kile is a very bright column of static light placed on a small island in the harbour, relating to the rhythm of the day and night. It is like a sun that never sets, and just stays right above the horizon, its rippled reflection stretching across the harbour.
Wind-up birds is a quite different type of work that also exists in the relation between the artwork, its environment and those who encounter it. Wind-up birds is a flock of mechanical woodpeckers that have been installed in various forests and parks. Each bird consists of a microcontroller that controls a push-magnet that taps on hand-made wooden slit drums. The object does not look like a bird at all, but the acoustic sound made is similar to that of a woodpecker. The wind-up birds are connected in a wireless network. When one bird calls by pecking, the others respond. This initially started out as an idea of moving sound through a space and drawing lines between points of sound. It became something else in the final versions installed in the forest. The idea was for people to discover it without knowing it was an art project. It became a new species that coexisted with the other species that encountered it: other woodpeckers and birds, squirrels, ants, beetles, spiders and humans. It also became a device for the audience to become very attentive about what they saw and heard.
In the words of Michael Whitelaw:
[T]he Birds move outwards, creating points of intensity in the wild, and evoking a spatial alertness – a way of being in and listening to the world – that extends beyond the well-marked edges of an artwork. The Birds are more like an experimental intervention, a digital-material overlay in a complex field of the living and non-living. (Mitchell Whitelaw, “Right Here, Right Now: HC Gilje’s Networks of Specificity”, HKS 2009 )
My works add a temporary layer of light or sound to an existing site, but also a new layer of space to the place in a different sense. De Certeau makes the distinction between place and space. Space is practised place: streets geometrically defined by urban planners are transformed into space by walkers. Places are continuously overwritten with new spaces, and multiple and conflicting spaces can relate to the same place. A specific event can charge a site so that the memory of the event becomes part of the site.
The film will become a kind of absolute record of a piece of wilderness. Eventually the effect of the mechanised movement will be what I imagine the first rigorous filming of the moon surface. But this will feel like a record of the last wilderness on earth, a film to be taken into outer space as a souvenir of what nature once was. I want to convey a feeling of absolute aloneness, a kind of Goodbye to Earth which I believe we are living through. (Michael Snow, “La Région centrale” (1969), The Collected Writings of Michael Snow (Waterloo, Ontario: The Michael Snow Project, 1994), p. 56)
A view of the Barents Sea slowly rotating: up becomes down, east becomes west. The only thing you see is the dark ocean with its waves and the grey sky with its clouds, and the sharp dividing line of the horizon. No sign of land, no boats, no oil rigs, no planes, no seagulls, just the ocean and sky.
Barents (mare incognitum) was filmed close to the border between Norway and Russia, with the camera pointing towards the North Pole. The camera used is my custom-built orbital camera.
The work is presented as a continuous loop of the rotating ocean, projected on a large screen. It was first presented outdoors in Nikel, Russia, as part of the second Dark Ecology journey.
The video was filmed a few months after the Norwegian government had decided to move the official border of the Arctic ice edge further north because of the melting ice caused by climate change, thus potentially opening up for future petroleum activity in this fragile area. It was at the same time as there was a sudden wave of refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere trying to cross the border from Russia into Norway, just in the area where we were working. At the same time, thousands of refugees were dying as they attempted to cross another sea, the Mediterranean. It was also just before the Paris climate meetings where talks of thresholds, trigger points and rising sea levels were central. The work is also about the ocean surface as a border to a vast world mostly hidden from us, occupying more than two-thirds of our planet. It is about the beauty and power of the ocean, in everything that is still unexplored underneath its surface, but also about the potential for disaster with rising sea levels, acidification, rising temperatures, plastic pollution, risky petroleum activity and an extreme decline in marine biodiversity.
Finally, it is about the ocean as something that was there long before humans and which will be there long after we are gone.
At my solo exhibition at Kristiansand Kunsthall in 2016 I exhibited Barents next to a new light installation, Beacon. The title refers to the light signals that guide ships at sea. In the installation, three light projectors are suspended from the ceiling, slowly scanning the space in semicircular movements. Each light projector consists of a light that orbits around a container of glass filled with water. The water and glass function as a lens, focusing the light into a strip of light, like an inverted lighthouse. The work exists in the relation between the individual light sources and their relation to the space and its occupants being exposed to the moving beams of light.
I want to finish by looking at how different types of contexts influence the presentation and experience of my work.
First, there is the time aspect: a performance or screening with a clear beginning and end; installations presented as events lasting only a day or two; regular exhibition periods of a few weeks to a couple of months; semi-permanent installations like my installation for Bergen Light Rail, which at the same time only exists in short bursts of twenty seconds as the train rushes through the tunnel.
Then there is how you enter the space: coming to a church where all the windows are covered with black foil, with the darkened space to be filled by the light of bright screens; walking through a labyrinth type of construction to come into a projection space or light pulse space; taking the metro train from a grey and rainy Oslo up to the snowy forest about 400 m above the city centre, walking into the woods encountering the light pulses of lightspan forest flares.
How you relate to the space through standing, sitting on chairs, sitting uncomfortably on the floor, walking around, being inside or outside.
How you encounter the work: sitting on a train or walking out of the metro station on your way home from work, skiing in the forest at night or taking a walk in the forest in the daytime, going to a festival or exhibition opening, traveling to a biennale in an exotic location, experiencing the work alone or with many other people.
How your state of mind and body influences how you experience a work. For instance, if you are cold, wet, tired or have spent a weekend at a festival consuming art, performances and alcohol, you might not be inclined to enjoy yet another improvised flicker performance.
Being on a journey with a group of people to the border area between Norway and Russia where the locals and travellers encounter the same art works but maybe have quite different experiences (based, for instance, on prior experiences at the same location).
Coming to the small community of Solund, located as far west as you can travel in Norway, where they organise a light art festival where the artists are almost the only visitors from outside, and where everybody, including the welders at the local shipyard, the mayor, the oil rig workers and the priest of the local church (where revolver was used at a funeral) are involved and feel a sense of ownership to the works being made and presented at the festival.
Let us not forget the large group of people who tele-experience my site-specific works through video documentation streaming from a server farm located in a nondescript building in the middle of nowhere, or maybe you are one of the people discovering my work by flipping through the pages of this book.
by Hanan Benammar
Pings: Matter, Environment and Technology in the work of HC Gilje
by Mitchell Whitelaw
Conversations over time
by Anne Szefer Karlsen
Siding with the light
by Joost Rekveld
Conversations with Spaces
by HC Gilje
TIME, SPACE, CHANGE, SPEED, MOTION - Interview with HC Gilje
by Nicky Assmann
Right Here, Right now - HC Gilje´s Networks of Specificity
by Mitchell Whitelaw
Within the space of an instant
by HC Gilje
HC Gilje – Cityscapes and the
by Per Kvist
preface to Shadowgrounds catalog
by Jeremy Welsh
interview with HC Gilje
by Andreas Broeckmann
Work on the Myth
by Gerrit Gohlke
by HC Gilje