Interview Sophie Clements
Interview Sophie Clements for Plazaplusfestival 2010
Sophie Clements is a visual artist working specifically in relation to sound and music. Graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2005, her work takes the form of film/sound artworks, installations, live performance and collaborative work with musicians, all unified by her approach to the ‘visualisation’ of sound (or vice versa), and the expression of the two languages of sound and visual as a singular voice. Sophie won the prestigious Jerwood prize with Evensong, and performed with Scanner, J.Peter Schwalm and Brian Eno. [www.sophieclements.com]
How did you get involved in making video art? What is your background?
I first started making video works when I was studying my BA in Graphic Design in London. Making work that was time-based (and so incorporating sound) was a logical step for me to be able to connect the three disciplines that I was involved in – Music, Science and Art. Before Graphic Design, I had studied Biochemistry, and at the same time was playing a lot of live music (as a percussionist) as well as starting to become really inspired by the work of experimental musicians and sonic artists who were taking an almost scientific approach in the exploration of their medium. I had previously felt a pressure to choose one of these three paths, and I found that by making video work that had an emphasis on sound, and that had a semi-scientific logic or methodology, I was able to satisfy these interests and use the fact that I had backgrounds in different disciplines as a positive rather than a distraction.
what ideas or desires drive you in making work?
I don’t have one general direction or ‘theme’ in making work, but it is all linked by my interest in the relationship between sound and image. I am interested in the translation between the senses – in the expression of one medium in the language of another. This can be physical form into sound, or sound into image, or any combination. I’m interested in solving problems I set for myself – how to make something happen, how to figure out techniques. The deconstruction and reassembling of time and material – the use of video as a form of sculpture has become a major driving force in my work – thinking about video not just as a linear sequence but as a way to view an object in a different time frame.
Your work is mostly based on analog and hand-made technology, How does this influence your work and its aesthetics? Why do you prefer working like this, instead of using digital manipulation / effects?
Doing things by hand or ‘taking the long way round’, has always been a major part of my work – this is because I am interested in the process of making work just as much as the final piece. In a lot of my pieces I have used painstaking techniques that create by hand what I expect could be done quite easily using digital manipulation or effects – This is because I am interested in the inaccuracies or unexpected results – the mistakes or ‘happy accidents’ that occur due to human error, environmental factors or other unpredictable variables that come into play with my way of working. Take ‘Evensong’ for example; you could work backwards and recreate the lights in post production – but if they had been made digitally from the beginning, they would never have been the same – it’s the inaccuracies and qualities I didn’t plan or couldn’t have imagined that are most interesting to me and give them a life of their own. Most importantly though, Evensong, like a lot of my other pieces, is not just about the end product – it is about my process of problem solving, constructing and planning, the process of filming, and the physicality of the work. It is important that the work is made ‘for real’ – that I have got my hands dirty with it – that it has been, at some stage a tangible object, because this is central to the idea. For me my work is inseparable from the time I spent making it, so ‘Evensong’ is long nights moving a little light around under the stars in spectacular landscapes, and the ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ video I did for Jamie Woon is long cold days taking Jamie on a journey round England filming the same thing over and over (instead of just using a blue screen). These may be personal experiences that only I know, but I feel that it’s in these processes that the artwork actually exists.
In Evensong -but also in other works-, there’s a fascination for ‘otherworldly’ dimensions and alternative realities. Can you tell us more about this?
I’m interested in the idea of alternative realities in so much that Evensong and the related experiments I am working on at the moment are concerned with the notion of physical reality in relation to time and memory, the way we perceive physical matter, and the ambiguities that are thrown up in theoretical physics in relation to this. I guess this is not so much an investigation into alternative realities or otherworldly dimensions, but rather a fascination with the question of what is real, and how the idea of creating something that at the same time exists and doesn’t exist, relates to the ideas presented to us in quantum physics. These ideas are what most interested me back when I was studying Biochemistry and I have continued to find what little understanding I have of them fascinating. Although I’m not trying to make any direct associations with scientific theory in this work, my interest in the ideas does underlie some of the thinking behind it. It’s the elusive nature of matter – the incorporation of chance in the seemingly objective ‘deterministic’ world – the idea that when we really try to look deeply at our physical world we are faced with impossible truths regarding the behaviour of the basic constituents of matter – that the very act of observing matter changes its state (showing that subject and object are inseparable), that I find relates to the light objects I am making. Not so much alternative realities but alternative ways of understanding reality… What we see in these light objects is an altered memory of an event that happened – a movement in time seen in its entirety. So the objects did exist in their environment for a particular moment in time, but it took the action of the camera looking in order to see them in our time frame. I guess it is the mixing up or deconstruction of material, time and the ‘real’ that is suggestive of ‘otherworldly’ dimensions, and although not really scientific, I like the idea that the lights could be understood to be just as real as the landscape they exist in, as it all boils down to a question of perception anyway.
In the work evensong there’s a strong relation between technology and nature. It visualizes something that is only becoming visible by capturing and adding layers of time. You’ve created customised rigs to capture light and create motion. Can you explain more about your approach in making everything from scratch?
I didn’t have a budget to make Evensong, and it didn’t even occur to me not to do this all by hand from scratch. I actually didn’t expect that it would end up such a finished piece – at the time of starting I was exploring a technique that I had figured out that would allow me to create these light objects without using slow shutter speed (because slow shutter speed filming gives no control over the motion of the light – there’s no fluidity in the movement). I was open to the piece becoming either something finished or more of an experiment, but either way I was keen that it was to be about these constructed objects or light sculptures, and not so much associated with ‘light writing’. So the rest was basically problem solving; design and build cheap lightweight portable rigs that would allow the precise movement of a light in geometric shapes out on location, that could be fitted around objects like trees, and that could be used on my own with no power. So the rigs were extremely lo-fi – wooden frames and a bicycle wheel attached to a chair, with no mechanisms or anything complicated, just me moving the light by hand using the rigs as a guide. We (me and John Fitton who helped with the rig building) were making adjustments to the rigs and how they worked in the landscape throughout the filming process, and this was a big part of the fun – being open to changes and constantly solving problems of how to make things work.
“the piece is somehow a melancholy celebration of dusk and stillness – an essence of something else – the ‘planned’ unforeseen, seeping out of the systematic process of filming. These objects are at once sound and light, real and unreal, kinetic and frozen, and the beauty that comes with them lies on the edge between these opposites.” You describe the momentum of the beauty of evensong as an almost ambiguous entity. Is this ‘dichotomy’ an essential part in your work?
Yes, absolutely – it’s the moment where the work takes on a life of its own, where it becomes something that I didn’t plan, that something special happens. This is often in the ambiguity between real and unreal, when it is not immediately obvious how the work is made – when things have been done by hand or have taken a long time to make. I think we have a tendency to want to know how something is done or to understand it, and although I am not into gimmicks or doing clever things for the sake of it, I think there is something kind of irresistible about not quite being able to understand what you are seeing. There is always a reason for doing things by hand and encouraging chance – because it sets the material free, you get beautiful effects like fluctuations in light or odd discrepancies that are beyond oneself, and it is in these moments that the objects become their own. For me creating objects or work that describes a certain dichotomy (ie. real and unreal, sound and light), has, on a very simple level, a seductive or irresistible quality that is important to me – that you want to reach out and touch it, you want to understand it but can’t quite, like a sound you want to hold in your hand, or a sound you want to consume or be consumed by.
In your work there’s a strong connection between the visual and music/sound. How do you connect both elements in your work? Do you find one’s more important then the other?
I work with sound in a variety of ways, sometimes making it myself, and often in collaboration. The way it is connected with the image varies depending on the project, but what I am always aiming for is a state where the sound and visual become one – that they can’t be separated – so they become two characteristics of one object. In my own work I have often tended to begin with a sonic idea that would then develop into a video (ie. Colour=Sound or Bicycle Samba) – in this case the sound and image would develop together. With Evensong, the visual element came first, but the sounds that the lights would eventually have were always prominent in my mind, and informed many of the visual decisions during filming and especially during editing. When it comes to ‘visualising’ sound, I tend to listen over and over to the sound or music, so that I can get a feel for the shape of it – the dynamics – what I want to express and what I want to leave ‘silent’ (visually). I find working this way really interesting because there is no formula – to visualise everything often kills the power of the sound, so it’s about leaving space and working with the subtleties of both sound and image. In a sense I see it like focus-pulling – shifting the viewer’s attention to certain moments or movements within the music, but without expressing it all. One of the things I find powerful about sound is that it leaves space for the imagination – for personal experience. Sound and visual are so different in the way they affect us – sound is such a powerful medium, it can evoke feelings or reactions in a way that I don’t believe that the visual can. But I can’t say that one is more important – I am interested in putting the two together rather than one being subservient to the other.
Experimentation is an important aspect in your working process, yet you also seem to have a fixed idea of the output as well. How do you find a balance between the unexpected and creating something within a fixed-idea?
I have always been interested in the idea of control vs. lack of control. I have used systems a lot in my work, as a way to relinquish a certain amount of creative control – setting up a set of rules and then watching the results unfold. Of course I have some idea of what the output will be but I am always excited most by the results I can’t predict. This applies to a conceptual approach (like ‘Colour=Sound’ – setting the mathematical rules for the creation of sound using colour), but recently it applies mostly to the way I use and plan technical systems. I’m interested in the space between perfectionism and failure, in setting up technical systems that I follow as precisely as possible, but that will inherently fail in some way, creating imperfections that I then use in the work. I find that working with video there is so much planning and technical work, that sometimes you lose the spontaneity that perhaps a painter may have. By encouraging chance I feel I am able to get a sense of this. At the beginning of a new project it often feels like jumping off a diving board – I just have to get on with it – trust my gut instincts, be open to changes, and hope it will turn out ok.
How do you feel about the increased use of digital tools by artists? Is technology overrated?
I feel strongly that technology should follow the idea and not the other way round. It would be naïve of me to say outright that technology is overrated, but I think we have to be careful with how we use technology, – to use it because it is right for the work, not for the sake of it. Whether something is analogue or digital, what is important is the response we can create in the audience – if we can really make them feel something. I find that technology or complicated digital work can often create a barrier between the art object and the audience (even though it is often designed to do the opposite!) – that the feeling we get from a piece can stop at an appreciation of how clever or how ‘cool’ a piece is, and for me this isn’t doing justice to the potential of digital work. If you think about the way we experience music, we are free to make our own associations, have our own experiences, and so it can be incredibly stirring: Sometimes I feel that digital/technology-based work can tell us too much, that there’s no space left for suggestion, for us to have our own experience. There is also the danger when making work where there is more emphasis on technology than idea, that the work will become dated quickly.
Of course there is a lot of amazing work being done with technology – I don’t make work by hand because I am anti technology, but I do feel that however a piece is made or performed is it the idea that should make us feel something, that the work should transcend the tools by which it was made.
How do you use collaborative aspects in your work?
Collaboration is an essential part of my practice. Most of my collaborations are with musicians, although I have worked with other visual artists, and recently with a choreographer. Each collaborative process is different, depending on the project – my work with musicians varies from collaborating on a conceptual level, to working in a live, improvised context (with many other ways in between!). The first thing I do in a collaboration is try to identify the way we’ll work together. I think the most important thing in collaboration is trust – we have to trust eachother’s conceptual and aesthetic judgement – and I have been very lucky to have worked with such great people. Understanding the working processes and languages of different artforms is essential to working collaboratively, and I’ve learnt a huge amount from it. Something I miss in working on my own is the sense of feeling part of a team – my collaborative work gives me this, the shared experience (the excitement and the worry!) of creating a work together.
You also make abstract geometrical forms and shapes to express musical rhythms and tones. How do you connect this idea in relation to Oscar Fishinger, a pioneer in moving image and sound?
I know Fischinger’s work, but probably not as well as I should do, and I can’t say that he is a conscious influence – the reason for that is probably because although I’m a visual artist, it has often been the work of sound artists and experimental composers that inspired me and informed my work, more than experimental film makers or visual artists. He was certainly a pioneer, I expect that his work or the work he influenced in many filmmakers subconsciously affected my work, especially as I come from more of a design background than fine art or narrative film. I have always been interested in artists who cross between or combine the mediums of sound and image, and certainly in experimental film I have always gravitated towards non-narrative work, and people exploring the mediums of film and sound in a materialist or structural way. I guess the piece I made for Nancarrow’s ‘Study No. 7’ (made in collaboration with Tal Rosner) would be the most direct reference to his type of work, as we purposely referenced the style of graphics and experimental film around at the time of the music’s composition. However, I the reason I like to use geometric shapes with music is that they allow me to work with the subtleties of light and texture in a purer form. Geometric shapes are at once loaded with meaning and open enough to suggest nothing – so they can be pure form. Often when I work with music I try not to push too much content onto the audience, so as not to dictate their whole experience – I like to leave the space that the music deserves, to see how sound can be expressed by the simplest of form.
which projects are you working on now?
I have just been doing been away doing research and development with a dance company, for a show next year. That was a really interesting experience, as working with another visual artform like dance poses a whole set of questions that working with music doesn’t, like how the two visual forms can work together and not distract from one another (I hope I can find those answers!). I am also working on a set of experiments of my own work, as well as a new show with J.Peter Schwalm that we have got coming up in Hamburg next February.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I wish I knew! I’m often inspired by other artforms, like sound or sculpture, or dance – or the ideas and writing about them. It’s important for me to keep experimenting and making little tests, as it is usually in making that I come across new ways of working or ideas that I want to explore. I also find that having people to talk to about work is really important for inspiration – whether they’re in the same discipline or not, often someone can say something that just sparks a train of thought. That’s one of the main reasons I share a studio with 7 other people – to try to recreate that feeling of cross-pollination you get at college.
What [besides evensong] can we expect to see from you at Plazaplusfestival?
I’ll be showing a series of small experiments that are a continuation of my work with light objects, and performing a live show with J.Peter Schwalm. I’ll also be screening some of my past film works.
An interview by Olga Mink, 2009 [videology.nu]