Thursday 18 April 2019

Spectral: Between Light and Sound - Performance Art Review

What: Spectral: Between Light and Sound
When: 17 - 18 April 2019
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Salt created by Hanna Chetwin and composed by Rohan Drape
Opaquing created by Hanna Chetwin and composed by James Rushford
Solid (Loud) Matter created and performed by: Kusum Normoyle
Single Origin created by: Robin Fox
Single Origin
I suspect ever since physics determined that sound was actually vibrations in space people have been fascinated by its possibilities as a pseudo physical object in space as much as the aural reception in our brains which facilitate emotional and communicative relationships with the world around us. Similarly, upon the discovery that light has a shape, it's architectural applications have been avidly explored - thus the invention of film and, more recently, laser. At Arts House this week we find a haven from Comedy Festival mania with the 'Spectral' exhibition which includes a curated range of exhibitions and two nights of performance art exploring the potentials for stimulation of our two far senses - sight and hearing.

'Spectral' is only on for one more night (tonight) and the program is a little bit different with Jannah Quill's Sight taking place rather than the film works by Chetwin. Quill is working with solar panels as instruments so that should certainly be a unique experience which sadly, I can't speak to. As we all know though, everything can be a sound source so the question is 'what are you going to do with it?'

What I saw last night was the two pieces - Salt and Opaquing - by Chetwin. Chetwin is an experimental film maker and has been working with expanded 16mm film. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term expanded film, it basically means going beyond the projected surface and having the audience experience include information/effects in the room with them. Much like the film version of surround sound but much more layered, textural and interspatial.

In the case of Chetwin's work, the expanded film experience includes the 16mm projectors (multiple) in the middle of the space and a live orchestral banda in the space as well. 16mm projectors are extremely loud so the rhythm of their mechanical sounds also form part of the sound scape in the room. The projections on the screen are the light in the room as are the beams from the projector creating an effect not dissimilar to static lasers.

Chetwin uses filmed images and overlays them with photographed images of the filmed images creating artifacts and interactive converstation both within each film and also between the multiple projections (in Salt there are 2 projectors and in Opaquing there are 3). The compositions reflect this by being more textural than musical and the choice of percussion and violin amongst the ensemble mean the sounds can be as pleasant or dissonant as the artist requires within this conversation. The instruments are also reinforced and so they can be split and sent from many sources around the room.

Things which impressed me the most about Chetwin's work was the dance between the projectors and the colour grading. Not all projectors projected all the time so the blank spaces became as interested as the images which were there. Salt was coloured graded into sepias and greys whereas Opaquing was all about black and white and primary colours - a place of unreality perhaps.

The artifacts flickered across the screen in time with the click, click, click of the projectors so I found myself wondering what the composition was doing for the experience. For me that was never really resolved. The sound did not take me on any kind of significant journey and the footage was rather repetitive in tone so in the end I felt both events were too long. I personally found myself wondering what I was supposed to be feeling and my plus one commented he felt like he was watching a film in year 9 science class. Harsh but true.

After a short break we experienced Normoyle's Solid (Loud) Matter. Pro tip: Use the ear plugs handed out at the start of the evening - you will need them for both Normoyle's work and Fox's!

Normoyle works with distortion and feedback and literally filling the space with sound - very, very loud sound. The kind of sound which vibrates through your body in an intensely visceral way. Your hearing will be damaged if you don't use the ear plugs, but also, you won't truly experience the physical aspect of her creations without them. If you brain is cringing in pain from the assault on your ear drums it won't have time to process the feeling of you lungs and intestines moving in very strange ways. Don't worry though, the brown note effect is a myth so you won't have any unfortunate accidents. What you might end up with is a slightly queasy tummy. Again, not a big problem because Normoyle is smart enough to make her work short and sharp. It affects, it disturbs and then it is over.

The same cannot be said for Fox's Single Origin and my plus one had to leave towards the end because he was feeling quite nauseous. Fox is a laser artist and in particular shot to theatrical fame through his work with Chunky Move including the much celebrated Mortal Engine.

Single Origin is described as a concerto for a laser beam. Fox has taken his RGB Laser Show and distilled the colour dance down to a single beam allowing him to introduce white. The musical composition dips it's toe into the trance/dance without stepping all the way in. It might have gone a bit too far though because with all the haze and laser work I found it very odd that the audience were calmly sitting on the floor, almost not moving at all, transfixed by the laser beam much like vortex hypnotisms in 60's TV shows such as Get Smart and The Avengers. Meanwhile I could count on one hand the number of people who turned around to watch the actual patterns and designs being created on the opposite wall.

In Single Origin Fox is experimenting with creating synesthesia - where we see light as sound and hear sound as light. I don't know if that was achieved but I did come to understand more fully that the triggering of trance comes from a rhythmic overwhelming of the far senses, regardless.

In this case I think it was the laser. I have done my fair share of clubbing in my time but the sound was just way too loud. I saw people clutching at their ears to block the sound (I assume they were the ones who bravely thought they could handle it). The rest of us wore the ear plugs but then I find myself thinking what is the point of a composition you can't safely listen to.

Normoyle and Fox also had me wondering about the ethical aspects of their art. It is not an exaggeration to say Solid and Single Origin are very real assaults on our bodies and cannot be experienced without causing harm unless protective measures are taken. Yes, attendance is voluntary but I suspect like me, many people in the room did not really know what they were going to experience so then has consent really occurred? To say something is loud is not the same as saying something is so loud it will cause physical distress and damage. Something to think about perhaps...

Having said that, I am as fascinated by the physical and spatial possibilities of these two ephemeral phenomena - lighting and sound - and I certainly had some of my intellectual interest appeased. With the exception of Solid though, I felt all of the performances were too long and repetitive and ultimately unfulfilling.

2.5 Stars

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