My trip to Mutek and Artengine residency in June, Part 2 – Ross Birdwise

Part 2: Artengine Residency, family and friends, Infinite Nothing at Bird Island, if then do live @ Club Saw…

My last post on this blog discussed my trip to Montreal to play the Mutek festival with my electronic music group if then do, with Ryan Stec (Artengine’s artistic director) doing visuals.  This trip to Mutek was part of a larger overall trip out east (I currently live and work in Vancouver), to visit friends and family, and which also turned into an Artengine residency and a few gigs.  This post concerns what happened after I played Mutek.  I will begin with the residency at Artengine.

At Artengine my main focus was on working on a more developed version of an earlier video art piece I did in 2008 called Stillness and Movement Studies (from here on called SAMS)SAMS was a kind of portrait piece concerned with the tensions and connections between stillness and movement, memory and present time, being and becoming, and photography and video.  SAMS attempted to make visible the Deleuzian/Bergsonian notion of Duration, and the notion of quantitative vs qualitative multiplicities.  This might sound more complex than it is.  What I was dealing with was visualizing a notion of time where time is considered an unbroken, and potentially ever-changing flow, rather than a series of fixed instants (much like the individual frames of a film).  My creative solution to the problem was layering video in such a way that my subject or model was literally layered into itself, so that several different temporal views of my subject were present at any point in viewing the video, thus, in a sense creating a perpetual, in-the-moment, and indivisible merging of footage that was simultaneously depicting the immediate past, present and future.  This video (made for a collaborative performance piece), shot and edited shortly after SAMS was completed, should give you a good idea of what I am talking about when I talk about merging the past, present and future into a single, temporally layered and unfolding moment, and looks very similar to SAMS:

Example of temporal layering

SAMS, in addition to video layering, also used a single, mobile light source during shooting.  I wanted a moving light source for several reasons:

I wanted to use mobile lighting to emphasize the difference between multiple moments or takes on the same subject in time.

I wanted to explore how lighting, camera angle, facial expression, and other variables condition one another (for example, a certain kind of light/camera/face relationship might make us see a certain facial expression or mood, and another relationship another facial expression or mood, even if one variable, such as the face, remained unchanged).

I wanted to not only have slowly changing facial expressions on my subject, but also imply changes in related ambient conditions, so that the work might imply that what we think we know of a subject might have as much to do with what they were doing as what was going on around them, including our mode of relating to that subject and other ‘environmental’ factors.

What I was ultimately driving at was the instability of of both representations of subjects and of actual subjects.  A kind non-essentialist approach to portraiture, representation, and identity.  Identity was conceived of as being less a stable entity and more of a process.

My Artengine residency was mostly concerned with shooting more portraits for a new video installation.  This work is far from done but doing the residency allowed me to get the source footage I need to do this next installation.  SAMS was shot in DV, my new series was shot in HDV, which I am hoping will create more nuanced and subtle lighting effects, among other things.  SAMS used a single light source and single kind of light (tungsten), whereas my new series uses multiple lighting sources and types of light (fluorescent, tungsten, various voltages, LED, etc.), which I am hoping to composite together as seamlessly as possible.  I also made more use of subtle motions of my subjects, using fans to softly blow my sitters hair and garments, and occasionally instructing my subjects to move very slowly.  For SAMS I told them to hold still as much as possible (full well knowing they could not remain completely still and incorporating these apparently involuntary movements into the pieces).  My new series might also explore some other video processing techniques, but I am not sure yet what they will be, but I have a feeling they will be inspired by my research into Object Oriented Philosophy and Speculative Realism, which both compliments and challenges my previous work and philosophical interests.  I often find philosophy gives me ideas for audio and video processing. It is still very embryonic at this point and I wish I could show you something.  I might post something in this blog in the future, to show my progress.  In some senses they are still traditional portraits for me.

One more thing that occurs to me about SAMS and the current piece I intend to complete is that they both act as a strange kind of journal or record for me of friends and family, as these are the people I have (at first) unintentionally used in my pieces.  These portraits in some ways abstract these people from their surroundings (they are shot against a black background, in some cases, especially in SAMS, you cannot see their clothing) but they also depict them in a variety of lighting conditions, with some variation of expression.

For me, I can project human attributes onto these catalytic moving images much like I can project human attributes onto an old photo album.  The ‘artiness’ of the images in some ways undercuts this, by calling into question what I think I know of my subjects (via processing and presentation), but on the other hand, it catalogs the effects of various lighting positions on my subjects, which for me can trigger memories of other times I saw my subjects under similar lighting conditions (or even simply recalls other subjective impressions I had of my sitters).

At times I find the lighting can also make my subjects look like what I remember them looking like when they were younger, but the light sometimes allows me to imagine them looking much older too.  So for me, these portraits at once betray and promote the truth of the representations that they are of my subjects.  At other times the lighting and expressions can take on angry, haunting, sad or eerie quality too, sometimes I remember arguments or unresolved disputes or things I might have done which hurt these people or where they might have hurt me.  At times I feel like certain portraits are reproaching me for these things I have done or which passed between us.

My portraits also have a nostalgic aspect, at times tinged with melancholy. I see my subjects shifting, fading into otherness through time, I see my subjects as they once were, and possibly as how they are going to be, I see my subjects as fleeting impressions, representations and irreversible temporal processes.  But its not always a melancholy gaze, at times these pieces become meditative and soothing, given the slow, calm passage of light and time, and the occasionally calm and peaceful expressions of my subjects as they look back at me.


My Artengine residency also explored the realm of sound art and music.  A highlight was Infinite Nothing at Bird Island, which I believe was organized by Michael Caffrey and VJ Daisy.  I used the Artengine lab to experiment with improvising with a no-input mixer, joined by friend a fellow if then do member Simon Guibord.  Here is the description of the event, quoted from Facebook:

“Please join us for our first renegade sound system show of the season. An evening of no input sound performances, outdoors, across from the island of birds I’m sure we have all heard riding the bike paths either side of the river.
The location is along the Voyageurs Bike Path in Hull, just past the railroad bridge.
If you bring a bike, please park it off the pathway, and watch for cyclists .
We will have a series of no input based performances to accompany the sunset return of the birds to the island by (very possibly, not exclusive to):
Michael Caffrey, Kerry Campbell, Ross Birdwise, Simon Guibord, Adam Saikaley, Blake Hargreaves, F.z.”

Here is a video of our performance, via VJ Daisy:

Ross and Simon : Infinite Nothing at Bird Island

One other activity I got up to during my residency was singing and researching singing. I was looking at basic and extended singing techniques and doing some practicing.  The Artengine lab lends itself well to this.  Its reasonably quiet, the room acoustics are reasonably dampened, and it is reasonably private, in case you you are are self-conscious and worried about irritating other people (like I sometimes am).

My singing practice is something I more or less started in 2006 when I first moved to Vancouver.  At first, my primary interest was in using effects (via my laptop) and contact mics to process/capture my vocal sound.  As I got more into it, I still used a lot of effects and experimented with different kinds of microphones, but I eventually realized that increasing my effected singing capabilities was going to sound better to me effected if they sounded better to me unaffected as well.  In the past year or so I have a more concerted and more consistent effort to practice singing more often, with and without effects, and to pursue workshops and lessons when cheap and available.  I have not been focused on one particular style of singing per se, but I have been interested in the vocal fry register, overtone singing, vibrato, falsetto, and using an inhaling vocal technique, and generally controlling, honing and exploring my voice in ways that interest me.

My interest in the voice actually goes back to when I was a teenager, back when I was into metal.  The first style of singing I ever tried was death metal, from low, guttural growls, to teeth-gnashing, phleghm-filled snarling.  I think the group Carcass, with their mix of high a low voices, was a big influence.  Later on, I got into more industrial and goth tinged groups such as Coil, Skinny Puppy, Current 93, SPK, Throbbing Gristle and Diamanda Galas, although at this point in time I was more interested in working with pedals and feedback than I was in exploring my voice.  Some of these groups, in addition to exploring some traditional and extended vocal techniques (much of it self taught I believe) also used a fair amount of electronic processing at times, to further enhance or extend their voices.  I think that all this exposure to these artists at a young age more or less normalized all of the approaches I use, practice, and explore today, although I have broader musical tastes now and I am not seeking to produce death metal, goth or industrial music anymore, although I do session vocals for the group Funerary Call and sometimes think about playing in some kind of rock or punk band.

While at Artengine I was doing a lot of research into vocal technique online, and practicing and improvising in the M70 lab.  Sometimes I would practice with processing.  The technique I practiced the most at Artengine was a guttural form of throat singing.  Here is an unprocessed sample of me doing it.  I still feel I have a long way to go, especially after listening to some recordings of Tuvan throat singers, and I find the technique hurts me at times, although less and less as I practice it and learn to relax my vocal chords more…

One of the last things I did while staying in Ottawa was perform at Club SAW, with if then do, Ryan Stec on visuals and new collaborator Chris Payne, also on visuals.  For this set, Ryan and Christopher had put together some equipment to create a system of analog and digital processing, where they could reprocess one another in realtime, in response to the audio, and in some cases also using an audio feed from my computer to modulate the visuals.  The show was well attended and also featured American Dollar and Adam Saikaley.  You can find pictures of the show here, taken by Ming Wu…

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