We asked our friends the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul, visual commissioners of Daniel Wohl's HOLOGRAPHIC, to interview multimedia artist and project collaborator Daniel Schwarz about his process and work. Live performance to take place Thursday, Feb 11, 2016 at 7:30pm (Purchase Tickets) at Ordway Concert Hall, Saint Paul. A film by Lonely Leap documenting the project's development will also be screened at this year's MSP Film Festival.
Craig Laurence Rice (CR): How did you get started using motion picture as a medium of artistic expression?
Daniel Schwarz (DS): It was sort of a step-by-step process for me. Growing up in a small village in Germany, my understanding of art was mostly limited to painting and drawing from a pre-modern era. It wasn’t until I moved to Stuttgart to study computer science that I got exposed to movements and practices of the past century, and works to which I could relate more. After graduating from college I had the fantastic opportunity to join a yearlong artist residency at Fabrica, a think tank in Italy, that offers young artists and designers the opportunity to spend an in-depth time collaborating and working on projects based on their interests. It was there that I had my first chance to start working with film and motion graphics. The musician Amon Tobin put out an open call to make a music video for his new record at the time. I approached this in a very naïve way, having never filmed or edited before – I was lucky and my work got selected to be included on the official boxset. This really marked the beginning of my artistic exploration of creating software and moving imagery, and was followed by short films and the live performance, Imposition, with my friend and musician Davide Cairo (Edisonnoside).
CR: You do a lot of work in still imagery – how does your connection to still photography impact your motion video work? What are the main differences you find?
DS: Motion-based work came naturally because of my collaborations with musicians, and my desire to convey both audio and visual information through software and programming. When I was studying towards my MFA at UCLA, I was lucky to work with great artists and teachers, who helped me think through my own artistic practice in depth. Moving away from mostly formal works, I enjoyed thinking about the conceptual implications of the work and focused increasingly on social, as well as political issues. I began to concentrate on appropriating photographs of online services, and also explored the presentation of the works in immaterial applications such as smartphones, websites, or even across WiFi networks.
CR: One of the things you’ve talked about is that you prefer to explore the conceptual versus narrative approach in your work. Do you ever try to work in a traditional narrative form?
DS: I don’t think those are two opposing approaches. To answer the question, I guess it depends on how you define “narrative” in this context. Story-driven? A form of narration? How to guide the reception of a piece using narrative tools? It’s interesting to think about that, and I’m not even sure how I would define it in my own practice. My prior films and performances are very formal and abstract, exploring the synthesis between audio and the visual, staying more or less close to the traditional field of visual music.
My more recent works are focusing on particular issues of social and public life, which, for me, calls for a more indexical, and fact or evidence based approach. I guess I’m trying to navigate the spaces in between open-endedness and leaving room for different readings (as put forward by Hans Haacke, Hal Foster, etc) and its recent criticism through Suhail Malik and Tirdad Zolghadr.
Jesse Bishop (JB): Can you talk a bit about the importance of collaboration and participation in your works, specifically with your upcoming collaboration with Daniel Wohl?
DS: I’m really interested in working with Daniel because it allows me to return to a more collaborative working methodology. All of my early works were in collaboration with musicians, but during my time at UCLA I was mostly working on solo projects. Collaborating with someone whose expertise lies in a different field than your own can pull you out of your comfort zone and be a great learning opportunity. Daniel comes from an electro-acoustic musical background – his compositions are extremely evocative and vivid, stirring up a lot of images in the mind.
Our work process itself is very fluid: Daniel and I had countless conversations about how the imagery will interact with the music, and what sort of images and topics we want the final performance to address. We share images or visual references, texts, other ideas, both over the internet and in-person – it’s really a lot of back and forth to find the middle ground of where music and video overlap, and the process pushes both of us in new and exciting directions.
CR: Where do you get the visual inspirations for your pieces?
DS: Within this particular project it is often the larger topics that are being addressed in the song and how I feel they can be represented visually.
In some songs, however, it might be a rather technical approach based directly on the score and the language I program in.
CR: How do you find yourself being inspired to create the visuals for HOLOGRAPHIC in particular? Is it the feeling the music evokes? Or something else?
DS: Before Daniel even shared samples of HOLOGRAPHIC with me, we discussed the ideas behind it and what we felt touches on it, e.g.: Cybernetics and the idea of bridging the gap between digital and analog; the contemporary fabric of our society; Deleuze’s concept of the “dividual” and its relevancy nowadays.
Moving from there, Daniel’s vivid and varied compositions are of course very inspirational material to work with. I am creating software that translates the music to the visual medium in a way that makes sense for the composition, and aligns with this overarching idea, both within each movement as well as for the overall performance.
CR: Who would you consider as influences on your work?
DS: In my audiovisual works, which aim to explore a close relationship between musical information and visual representation, my influences range from from the realm of early digital art, the pioneers of the 1960’s like Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnar and Frieder Nake, to contemporary influences from the audiovisual field including Alva Noto (and other Raster Noton artists), Ryoji Ikeda and Ryoichi Kurokawa, who all have a strong focus on the visual representation of sound.
Within my solo projects I feel very influenced by Harun Farocki and his incredible documentary work from the past four decades, Hans Haacke, Hito Steyerl, Trevor Paglen, Felix Gonzales-Torres, and so many other artists and writers. The exhibition “Take It Or Leave It” at the Hammer Museum in Spring 2014 was seminal for me.
CR: How do you bring political aspects into your visual work?
DS: This is often happening in very direct ways by appropriating content that deals with the issues at stake. For me, it’s very important to make sure that my work is both fact-based as well as clearly indexical. I am interested in exploring power structures, surveillance, the prison complex, gun laws, police brutality, militarization and border politics in a way that allows viewers to see relations in different ways or bring mundane aspects to the forefront of attention by scale, mass or proximity to oneself. I hope that in doing so the viewer still has room to draw her own conclusions.
JB: How will audiences experience the performance? How will your piece interact with Daniel Wohl’s music?
DS: Daniel will perform live with a string quartet and three percussion musicians in front of a large-scale projection. Through the musicians’ performance, my software will analyze the audio information in real-time and generate the visuals. Music and imagery will seamlessly merge into one tight entity, each iteration unique, and created live in front of the audience.
Technically, we are creating a meta-language combining musical and visual information, synchronizing our machines in the process.
Timing, pitch, volume and sound source will stand in close relationships to the graphics. For some of the movements, the imagery will be fully generated by the live musicians – the sound represented as a whole on screen. In other parts of the performance, specific instruments – a bell, a drum, a violin – may trigger a certain behavior. At other times the software will act autonomously, diverging from the score and building its own structure.
Susan Smoluchowski (SS): So in some cases you will isolate a particular sound and link it to specific motions or graphics on the screen, and in others it will be more organic?
DS: Exactly. Some of it will be very formal and abstract, representing the sound the instruments make. In other instances, the visuals will move further away from a direct representation into something more figurative and representative of the overall composition. Other times we will include pre-recorded footage, time- and site-specific content, and are also looking into using our own original material by using 3-D cameras – sort of bringing real elements into the composition and furthering the idea of merging of the digital and analog.
CR: You have collaborated with numerous musicians in the past – is there something unique about working with Daniel Wohl?
DS: Of course, this collaboration is a completely new experience. Having so many live musicians on stage – working with all string players and percussionists – adds a tremendous physicality to the live performance, and I can’t wait to work with everyone during our residency at MASS MoCA.
CR: What are your thoughts on the future of the digital art form?
DS: In regards to audio-visual performances, they are becoming more and more common and we can see an increasing number of rather traditional concert houses to open up their doors to collaborations between musicians and visual artists, who had before been playing at music or media art festivals. Refik Anadol’s work with Esa-pekka Salonen at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles is a great example of this.
SS: What’s your next project?
DS: Right now, I’m mostly focusing on the HOLOGRAPHIC performance with Daniel, but I just returned from an incredible research weekend to the US-Mexico border with fellow friends/artists/activists from UCLA, UCI and Tijuana. It is still an ongoing conversation and we are discussing what its potential output will be.