19 Sep MSHR Art & Music Collective Interview: Pathways In & Up
What new elements or techniques are you exploring with Resonant Entity Modulator?
Birch Cooper: This show and the show we just finished in Switzerland are sister shows. We sometimes work in series, and this continues the new series.
Brenna Murphy: Our previous series revolved around an audio feedback system that can be manipulated by visitors who are invited to move the sensors around.
Cooper: Across a table – very interface oriented —
Murphy: And this new series takes that system of feedback but now we’re incorporating it into static arrays that aren’t moved but will be affected by the presence of the visitor. More of an unfolding cybernetic system. We think of it as a quantum computer.
Cooper: That’s the metaphor we’re using. What you observe changes by you observing. Everyone who visits the show is inherently plugged in to the cybernetic ecosystem. There’s a conceptual purity that I like. You don’t need any “directions” to experience the work.
What’s similar and what has changed since Switzerland?
Murphy: Well, we just finished a five-month residency at Eyebeam in New York and we developed both shows during that time. A lot of the elements are the same, but the spaces are different. When we arrive at the space, that’s when we decide how things will be arranged and how the lights interact with the sensors. It’s not pre-composed.
Cooper: And they’re not made quite in parallel. We’re building on what we learned. In Switzerland, it was horrifying for a few days because we were using a new system we had never used before. We had to learn what we were doing quickly before doing it in front of an audience.
What’s an example of the troubleshooting you encountered? I imagine there’s a beast to tame as you’re working with the feedback systems…
Cooper: In the Swiss show, we usually use two separate mixers for audio and light. In this case, we only had one mixer for both, so if you EQ the sound, you’re impacting the light too. It reveals how sensitive and organic and responsive it is. We spent so much time moving the sensors – like, one millimeter at a time.
Murphy: Our goal is to get it so that the lights are bright enough and the system is fluctuating, active and interesting. You have to play with positioning for a few days.
Cooper: We’ve never done this before but, because we couldn’t EQ without changing everything on the mixers, we EQ’d by covering the tweeters on the speakers to roll off the highs. That’s the first time we manipulated speakers in a physical way. And I kinda want to keep doing it!
Ceremonial Chamber and Solar Helix Installation & Performances (2014)
Brenna, the way you were just describing having to manipulate the system over time reminds me of the ways you have described your digital workflow in the past. At what point in both of your processes does work come out of the computer and enter the physical world?
Murphy: Yeah, all these sculptures we design together in a computer. One of us will be drawing a shape and then give it to the other person and they’ll flip it, add another thing and send it back.
Cooper: A lot of heavy feedback. They’re all totally digital. We also generate a lot of video using these shapes.
Murphy: At Eyebeam, we had two laser cutters that we could use directly. For the first time, we had total control over the digital fabrication process. That allowed us to go deeper in the digi-fab — see the limits and work with them.
Can you speak to Oregon Painting Society and how that is part of your personal history?
Murphy: Oregon Painting Society was our original art collective over four years. There were probably 8 or 10 people at the beginning. We all lived together and, “Hey, let’s be in a collective!” Those first two years, we were really finding our way.
Cooper: We all knew intuitively that we wanted to be in a collective. We were influenced by east coast collectives like Fort Thunder and how beautiful that collaborative effort was. We wanted to try it too. For me, what Oregon Painting Society represents is when the group dynamic becomes everything, individual ownership goes out the window.
Murphy: Time is the key. And trust. For the first two years, we didn’t have a shared vision. Everyone was kind of doing whatever and then suddenly it locked in for the next two years with a shared vision of this other world. We built that world for the next two years. Super magical.
Cooper: I ask myself the question, “What does it mean to organize with other humans?” With OPS, it required constant upkeep. We hung out with each other constantly.
Murphy: Every Tuesday night and Saturday. Those were the definite times. Tuesday nights were organizational business and Saturdays were free play. We worked all the time anyway, but that group effort instilled in us a work ethic.
Oregon Painting Society – Angelo’s Garden Part 2 – June 2011
Liquid Hand (2013)
There’s improvisation to your music — the feedback beast is going and you’re manipulating it — and I’m guessing there’s a sonic language you learn along with the instrument. What are those sonic details you find that you want to let ride when you arrive at them?
Cooper: When we first began improvising together, we tried to have a verbal language to talk about what we were doing. One of the things we talked about a lot is the idea of rooms we are going into. There are rooms that have certain characteristics. We got to do this performance for a new sound series at New York’s American Medium gallery. We were fortunate enough to perform with Aki Onda who I think has performed at TBA twice before? Anyway, it was great to perform with him. The Q&A afterward involved some leading questions where I think people were implying that his performance was happening in the sonic realm and ours was happening most in the visual realm. Getting back to the question — I think for us, although our work has a visual component, our work is more about a virtual realm. There are these invisible, virtual hyper-chambers that are there.
Murphy: On a more specific note: with this system, we’ve been playing with light/audio feedback, but it’s weird because our role is to shift and manipulate the system live. “Okay, this sound needs to change now, and this sound is good; I’m going to let it go for a while. I’ll move this over here.” When the light and the sound are really active, I like that the audience can see and enter into the system. When we get to that place, I try to ride out those intense moments so the audience can see what we’re doing.
You’re describing a wabi-sabi kind of approach to your performances. “This goes there. That’s just right if I rotate this here…” Can you guys think of other ways in your life, when you’re not working on the work, that you resonate with that process? Health habits, food… that sort of thing?
Cooper: Yes! Honestly, it’s aaaaaall I do!
Murphy: We joke about feeling like monks. We shape our whole day and lives around our work. So our meals, for instance, are the same thing every day. Quick to prepare. Healthy.
Cooper: Everything we do in our day is trying to hone our minds, to get ourselves prepared to do the art we do.
Murphy: And the whole point for this practice, for me anyway, is creating a method to train my mind to be more expansive and more balanced.
The monk metaphor makes me think about mythology and there seems to be a self-mythology that you’re creating here. Is that fair to say?
Cooper: I think the question of the shaman comes up a lot in the conversations we have. Our culture is lacking in shamans, but our culture does have artists and musicians, and that’s somewhat analogue. When we go to a rock show, that’s from a similar impulse…
Murphy: And where we’re at right now, it doesn’t make sense for us to join a preexisting community or culture that has a set of rules or traditions. That can’t happen for us, but we want that — everyone wants that — and with this project, we’re creating our own sacred spaces and traditions. Pathways in. And up.
Being based in Portland, who are some people that have been teachers for you?
Cooper: Going back to the earlier question, my greatest teachers have been people I’ve collaborated with. Members of Oregon Painting Society. Other bandmates. Michael Stirling is of course a great teacher and raga has influenced our work a lot.
Cooper: If you abstract the form of raga — how it begins with a tonal centering, an alap — and we use a conch shell to make this tonal centering. In raga, these vocal or instrumental melodies begin unfolding. In our music, we don’t use conventional tonal systems, but we do inherently have natural harmonic relationships as with raga.
Murphy: It’s a touchstone. A place to refer back. For me, working with Michael Stirling was the only time I’ve taken music lessons. That was expanding for me to have this formal entrance into focusing on sound. I was already very influenced by raga through Terry Riley and Pandit Pran Nath but actually learning the techniques taught me how to listen closely to sound.
Cooper: I also want to mention The Tenses (Rick and Jackie Stewart). We have an ongoing practice with them every Tuesday night. They’ve taught us so much in terms of improvised music and formal approaches.
Sacred Tuesdays strike again! So you’re post-tour –
Murphy: And pre-tour!
Exactly! How do you hope to evolve the work for the next round?
Cooper: Now that we’re post-tour, I’m looking forward to hitting the studio and mutating.
Murphy: Because when you’re constantly traveling and presenting, it’s hard to be innovative because you’re always in front of people.
Cooper: But the risks that you take when you are in front of people also can have the biggest payoff. That’s why it was so rewarding to take a leap with our last installation.
Murphy: Even the start of MSHR was invented while we were performing. It was totally improvised on our primitive setup.
Cooper: Our ethos is to start from the most radical point you can. The most “ground zero”, to quote Benjamin Boretz. Start from the place with the least amount of social constructs and you’re more likely to be innovative.
Murphy: Ever since that first MSHR show, it’s just been trying to make patterns out of noise.