Published: March 16, 2014

recorder

 

On March 3, 2014 Renée Farrar interviewed intermedia artist, film maker, and writer Matt Soar, of Concordia University in Montreal. The interview explores Soar’s recent work, methodology, and residency at the Media Archaeology Lab here at the University of Colorado, Boulder. *

Renée: I’ve had the opportunity to view several of your short films on Vimeo and was incredibly impressed with your work. Can you describe your most recent project with film leaders?

Matt: My main interest and the reason I’m here now, finishing up this very short residency at the Media Archaeology Lab, the workshops that I’ve done, and the talk I gave at Counterpath, is intermediality – the edge spaces between, and around, established media. Raymond Williams identified these as residual and emergent media, and I’m especially interested in the relationship between those two.

I’m fascinated by the stuff in the lab and by the medium of film, especially film leaders. My project, called Lost Leaders, has been going for a couple of years, but it’s been on the back-burner for too long. I mean ‘lost’ in several senses. First, film leaders are generally lost to the viewing public, meaning you only ever see them if the projectionist messes up. Second, they’re lost because of the current process of what Dan Streible calls the “mass digitization” of films. Projection is becoming a digitized realm. The film arrives on a hard drive and you get a code to make the film run each time. It calls home and tells the studio who’s running what and when. So there’s inevitably digital metadata, but I like to think of leaders as analog metadata. Third, leaders] are lost in the sense that, in terms of archiving and restoration of films, I’ve been told that leaders are often discarded because they used to be made of less durable material. So they’ve often degenerated faster; they’ll get the ‘vinegar syndrome’ quicker, and get dumped. That’s a tragedy for me, in a sense. And, finally, I mean ‘lost’ in the sense that I’m lost – and that’s okay.

My creative process has changed a lot over the last few years, partly because of the residential 16mm filmmaking workshop that I did a couple of times called the Film Farm, which is run annually by a wonderful filmmaker called Phil Hoffman on his farm in rural Ontario. It’s really process-based, so it doesn’t matter all that much if the outcomes aren’t quite what you expected or wanted. I’ve very much embraced that as my own creative approach: to take risks, and to know that things might not work out. So I’m lost right now, because I’m just making stuff. I’m buying 35mm movie trailers off eBay, taking the first few feet and last few feet and throwing the middle bit away. I’ve layered the leader and shot it on a lightbox; put it under my colleague Tagny Duff’s inverted tissue culture microscope; I’ve even made stained glass. I’m also working with Jackie Gallant, an amazing sound artist, on these very short pieces shot with the microscope, kind of choreographed expeditions across the surface of film.

Leaders are what I would call a paratextual element of films – they’re not ‘the film’ itself. The analogy would be that the paratextual element of a book is its cover, the photo of the author, the promo materials, etc. They’re also incredibly attractive to me as someone who trained as a designer. They have so much amazing information in them. You start to look closely and some frames are just gorgeous. It is kind of an accidental language, a very rarified language. Lisa Gitelman talks about a medium being the technology and the protocols that go with it. This is a protocol around film technology – the film technology that we are losing as we move towards digitization – a private conversation between the labs, where films get processed, printed, and distributed, and projectionists, where the information is meant to be read by eye. It’s not really meant to be projected anyway; it goes by so fast when you try it. But it has a lot in it in terms of the stories it can tell about those protocols, which is part of what draws me to them.

Renée: Can you talk more specifically about how you do this physical process of composition and about the incorporation of music?

Matt: Yes, absolutely. When I’m doing those choreographed pieces – I say choreographed because I think there is some purpose to them. Somebody said the other night, when I did my talk at Counterpath, “When do you know you’re done?” I think it’s a gestural thing. It’s like a movement. I’m certainly not a dancer (actually I’m a very bad dancer). What I’m doing is moving the stuff under the lens and just trying to follow my instincts, as rough as they are, in terms of: okay, this is a moment, this makes sense as a movement, and now this feels like there is some closure. They end up being thirty seconds up to two minutes long. But, when I look at them, if there’s a tension there it’s often quite hard to find it because they feel actually very banal and random. But then I started working with Jackie. I would show her these videos and she would compose experimental sound to go with the film. The magical thing about it is, marrying up the sound to it gives them a sense of motivation that I had either not been aware of consciously or maybe just wasn’t there to begin with. So that’s been really exciting. They end up being these very short films that I’ve projected and that I’ve put online, but I’ve also pulled intoKorsakow and started making interactive ‘sketch’ films. They take me an hour to assemble, but it’s another way of working with the material and it’s another way of, playfully and in an open-ended way, communing with this residual medium.

Renée: When you work on these compositions or other films you’ve worked on in the past, do you work with an audience in mind or is your work about the type of media that you’re working with? Are you working to show something in particular (you talked with me earlier about advertising and the influence of the ‘maker’ and his values on the product)? I’m wondering if you have any of those influences in mind or if your work is something you view as ‘purely creative’?

Matt: I think that’s a really great question and I think it gets to the core of the way my creative process has changed. As an advertising art director and a designer, I was encouraged to take a flight to fancy and to be off the wall and to surprise myself and to ‘think outside the box’ and, you know, all the other clichés that go with a commercialized sense of creativity. But it was also a very defined and delineated process: there’s always a deadline, there’s always a client, which is usually the account handler, there is an ultimate client who might buy the work, there’s a way in which the work comes back to you in which it’s been… (it’s such a cliché, but it happened again and again and again) they’d come back with a smile on their face and say that the client bought it, we’ve got a budget, let’s go ahead and produce it. And then always, as an afterthought as he left the room, “By the way, you have to take the dog out of it.” The dog was the idea. That was the thing in it that was the idea. So effectively, they did not understand what you were doing. They bowdlerized the idea, removed the idea, so now the content is concept-free. It was just heart-breaking, as business work and as a creative process. Somebody told me as I was leaving the business, “You’re too nice to be in advertising” and that spoke a lot about my sense of the creative process. That transformation I experienced being at the Film Farm, I’ve been much more drawn and absorbed into the idea of working with residual media and getting away from the digital dogma – the “digital sublime” as Vincent Mosco calls it. Working with my hands has been incredibly liberating. It’s kind of perverse really. I feel like I’m going against the crowd, although I’m also seeing it with some of my students, who are really starting to get interested in 8-tracks or wet lab photography. They’re starting to be interested in collecting vinyl records. I think it’s slowing down. But to get back to your question:

I think you have to have an audience in mind when you’re an advertising person or when you’re a design person. It’s that kind of cultural production where there is an expectation of a particular result on a particular day at a particular moment and it has to be credible, because your job depends on it. I think in a more artistic or experimental vein, which is where I find myself now and I’m much happier in, I think I have less of a sense of an audience and that’s liberating, too. I feel that if I’m doing the work right – and I think artists have known this for a long time, I’m catching up in a lot of ways – that if you are doing work that you think is meaningful, that you have a sense of faith that you’re good at what you’re doing, that it will find an audience. So, with the Korsakow film that I made Ceci N’est Pas Embres, which I was thrilled found an audience (you just told me you watched and enjoyed it, which I find fantastic and rewarding). It also got into a Montreal film festival in November, which was wonderful and a great audience showed up and I think many of them enjoyed it. Did I have any of those people in mind? Did I have you in mind when I made it? I don’t think so. So, that’s a significant change for me. Maybe it’s the change from a very grounded cultural production model to a more artistic model, where you’re trying to follow your sense about what might work on a small scale, not a grandiose scale. And that if it’s meaningful to you, if you’re doing it right, then you’re going to find an audience. And if it finds an audience that then identifies itself back to you, because it goes up to a screening or you meet somebody and they say “I’ve seen your work,” that’s fantastic. That’s really great. But I think I found that audience (I think maybe you responded to it because, partly because) I was making the work, because it felt like the right thing to make.

Renee: You talked about your film that was screened at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM). This must have been an incredible recognition for your work to be showcased in that way. I wonder what this means for you as an artist, for your work, and maybe even for Korsakow.

Matt: It’s incredibly validating. First off, it’s important to know that they did not come and find me. I had to make the conscious step, as every artist or film-maker knows. You have to make a conscious step to put the work out there: try to get it screened, try to get it broadcast, try to get it circulated, and then hope that when people see it, they’ll respond positively to it. So, I did submit it and it was accepted and they also accepted Florian’s most recent film. Florian Thalhofer is the inventor of Korsakow and I work very closely with him on its development. We’ve worked together for about six years now. They showed both films together as part of the Docs 2.0 section. We had sixty people show up, the theater was pretty full which was great. It’s nominally interactive, it’s non-linear work, so it was great that there were two Korsakow films in the program. It’s great that they were running together. How do you show an interactive work to an audience? That’s a puzzle anyway. Florian showed his with light pens. He handed out laser pointers, and people chose the previews that they wanted to look at and the ones that got the most red spots were the ones that he clicked on, because he was the one that was at the podium. That has its downside, because there is always somebody in the audience who can’t stop pointing. And there’s always somebody who wants to point at you. So, we are thirty seconds into the film and somebody’s pointing at Florian and he says very politely “Could you please not point your pointer at me.” When I tried it a couple of years ago, doing the laser pointer thing, I had a headache all afternoon, because somebody had pointed it in my eyes. So, that’s not the way I would choose to go.

When I showed my film, I put the film on autoplay, which wasn’t great either, because the autoplay function really takes its time thinking about the next piece it’s going to play. I wasn’t at the podium. I was in the audience and it was excruciating because it seemed like it was taking a lifetime to choose the next SNU, the next piece to play, and I was dying. I kept thinking I should get up and go to the podium and start clicking through, but I told everybody it was going to autoplay. Anyway, the lights came on at the end and the people who were left said they’d liked it. What I will do next time is, and I should have known this, because in 2011 Monika Kin Gagnon and I put on a conference called Database/Narrative/Archive and we have a publication that came out of it, also called D|N|A, which is a bunch of interactive essays, not using Korsakow but a thing called Scalar. Anyway, we had a showcase evening with one of our keynotes. Katerina Cizek, who’s the filmmaker in residence at the National Film Board of Canada, is making amazing work, interactive web doc stuff. The work that she was showing that night had been built in Flash. The way she did it was each section had music composed for it, she took the music out for the evening. This is a work about living in high-rises across the world and she’d decided which ‘chapters’ she was going to show in advance. We had a live band, who had rehearsed with her and then semi-improvised music for each section. She stood at the podium and was in the driving seat, there with the mouse. She would mouse over things, but she knew what she was choosing next, in terms of a path through the material, and it worked brilliantly. It was such a moving evening. It was fantastic to have the live music, with her at the podium with this gorgeous film. The lesson was that the next time I show work in public, I will be the guide. I will lead people through it. I think it’s the best solution.

Renée: I think that’s incredibly interesting: the limitations of an interactive film.

Matt: It’s kind of the Achilles heel, if you think about it in terms of an audience that’s bigger than one person. It’s designed for an audience of one, which has all sorts of implications when you get to claims, some of them outlandish, that have been made about the nature of interactivity and the way that it’s supposed to empower the audience and decenter the author – who somehow relinquishes control! If you’re making an interactive work about highrises, it will always be an interactive work about highrises. The implication with some of the sillier claims is somehow that it’ll be a film about something else, because the author has relinquished control, which of course is not the case.

Renée: I would find this particularly so in Korsakow, since you can privilege particular images or video clips to play more frequently.

Matt: Absolutely. You’re still assembling a set of material with a particular point-of-view.

Renée: Can you talk a little more about Korsakow, its use in the classroom, and its influence on how you construct your own work?

Matt: The first time I ever heard about Korsakow was when a colleague of mine called Marty Allor, who knew what I was trying to do in my intermedia classes, told me about it in 2005 or 2006. He said, Hey, there’s a free piece of software out there called Korsakow. Florian had made it available since 2000. It had got to version three, I think, and had been picked up by a media arts group called Mediamatic in Amsterdam, he was doing a lot of workshops there. The films he’d made up until that point were starting to get quite well known and, at that time, they were being distributed on DVD-ROMs. So, I saw it, I downloaded it, I started using it in my classes. One of the reasons was because I was really, really fed-up with Flash. My students are not specialists. They’re certainly not programmers. I don’t count myself as a programmer at all, though Lord knows I’ve tried in the past to become one. I was very frustrated because I found that (this was mid 2000s) my students wanted Flash. They didn’t know why they wanted Flash, but they wanted Flash. And teaching them Flash, two weeks in, they all hated it because they realized that to make anything of significance in Flash you needed to be able to program. You open up the program and there is this thing called ActionScript and if you don’t learn ActionScript you can’t make anything interesting. The other thing for me as a teacher is that it is far too easy to make awful looking work in Flash. So, the work that we were getting out was not good, either. And it’s also proprietary software and you output this thing called a ‘swiff’ that’s this hairball, where everything is in there and it’s not good at handling video and it’s not good at handling sound. It’s horrible really.

So, for a variety of reasons, I was looking around for other things and found Korsakow and was delighted to discover that not only was it free, but it did not require any coding at all. It has a graphical interface. The basic steps for putting a film together were accessible. We just had a workshop here this morning and, in an hour and a half, I think I got the basics across, which is testament to the quality of the software. So we started using it in the classroom and the next year I reached out to Florian and invited him to come. He came and led some workshops and gave a few lectures and talks. So my colleague Monika Kin Gagnon and I got together to write a grant to see if we could get some money to work on Korsakow with Florian, because the one thing that was fairly obvious at that time was that the way the application had been built had become a problem. Florian built it in MacroMedia Director, the films output to Shockwave, which was being replaced by the Flash plug-in in browsers, so it wasn’t working as well as it might.

So, we got the grant and Monika and I set about building up some sort of intellectual, critical context for the software. We worked with Florian and we completely rebuilt it from the ground-up as an open-source application in Java. So, it affected my teaching in the sense that suddenly I had a powerful application that makes potentially amazing films and doesn’t have a gargantuan learning curve to it, so that we could get on with making work. It was also an iterative process, an experimental process. You can use it very quickly to make a film in an hour, just to see whether the concept you have works. That’s because it’s been refined over the years. So now when I teach, usually the first thing we do is use the Vine app to make very short, square-shaped, 1 to 1 aspect videos, that are already compressed in the right codec and that are fun to do, because anyone who’s got an Android or an iPhone can shoot with it. And the Korsakow films made with Vines are often really, really fun.

Now with my own filmmaking, I made a fairly formal interactive narrative film, or what I called a database diary, which was thirty short films about creative process seen through the lens of being in this little village in France with my family. I’ve also used it to do this Fibonacci film, where I use a very formalist approach to look at where the Fibonacci Sequence occurs in nature. I also bent the rules a little bit and I also photographed curved objects like teapots and plates and things. I shot dozens of those, then built this film that assembles and reassembles the Fibonacci Sequence with 68 Vines. And then with Lost Leaders, I’ve also made some sketch films, which are very, very short, where I take these different moments, throw them together, and see what happens when it becomes an interactive work. Some of them have several different sources of sound, so as you mouse over or click on certain elements you’re ‘playing’ the film as if it were a musical instrument.

So, overall, I’m using Korsakow in several different registers and that’s something that’s very exciting about working with an emergent medium. We’ve also found that other people are using it in ways that are really fun that we couldn’t possibly have anticipated.

Renée: As far as your time here in the Media Archaeology Lab, can you explain any projects you have undertaken here?

Matt: It’s been a very short residency, we’ve been joking that it has been more of an artist drive-by. I’ve really only been in the lab for a few hours in total. Not being a programmer, I’ve been a little bit intimidated by trying to start machines up and to hack with them. I think that someone who’s more skilled, more adept at that could have a wild time. My first impressions about the lab were the extraordinary range of computers – the history of the PC. We are sitting in this room here, and there is an Altair that you and I have both been drawn to, which doesn’t even have a monitor with it. You flip switches, the binary switches for on and off, and the output is a bunch of red flashing lights. It’s a gorgeous looking machine. There are the early Apples, there are early IBMs, we see an Osborne I, the early Compaqs, and a couple of Silicon Graphics servers in the corner from TheThing.net, which was one of the first bulletin board systems. There is some amazing stuff around and what is most remarkable about it is that you don’t have to put gloves on to use it. Lori’s ethos with this stuff is that we should all be using it. So, I’ve turned some things on and have been able to (very gently) have a look around the back, and flip over the keyboards, and have a look underneath them. I’m not a programmer or a hacker, but I’m here to make work, which was a bit intimidating. I came with a bag of tricks, 99 percent of which I haven’t used.

There are two projects I’ve been working on – the seeds of ideas. Again, back to The Film Farm, very playful, very open-ended, superficial, maybe pointless – I don’ t know. So at first when I walked in the door, I was struck by this line of Apple computers. There were all these beige boxes, but there was an incredible variety of shades of beige – I call it “50 Shades of Beige.” And yet there are also these moments of extraordinary bright color. So, on the Altair, it’s beige but then it has this sky blue trim to it and when you fire it up, which we’re allowed to do, all these amazing bright red lights go on. If you look around at some of the other stuff that’s around in the lab, sure the overwhelming color is this sort of dun blue or beige color, but there are these little moments, whether it’s one of the iBooks, or the Silicon Graphics box which is gunmetal blue, but has this vivid orange badge on it. The keyboard of the Minitel, the Minitel logo is printed on the keyboard, is this very rich purple and deep orange and one of the keys has a bright green surround on it. I donated an OLPC and there was already another one here that was in a different color combo.

I guess what I’m really looking at is the early days of product design for PCs, which you can look at in any number of ways: the operation of the screen, where you put the on/off switch, the way that the keyboard is the lid for some of them (that it collapses onto the front of the computer so that it becomes this sort of carrying case, a portable, luggable thing), whether it’s a clamshell. All the thought that’s gone into, and sometimes very poor design like the mouse that Apple confessed was the worst they’d ever designed, the round puck. I’m thinking about product design and I’m thinking about color palettes. What I did was, very simply, I went and captured the main color palette from a sampling of a dozen of the machines in the rooms here. Then I collected them together, digitized them, and I sent them out on Twitter. I’ve been using Adobe’s Kuler App (which isn’t very good at all) to create them on my phone.

So now I’m working up some more substantial documentation, which will be a mapping of the colors, not in terms of proportion of how much color is in each of these things, but just a sense of the palettes. But it’s also an indication of a problem in terms of what I’m doing. How does the color change over time? There is an Apple Lisa next door that is not beige, it’s yellow. I mean it’s really yellow – it’s jaundiced, it looks very unwell. What color was it when it started out? I don’t know. I’ve got a sense that it’s the only jaundiced computer in the room, so perhaps it wasn’t that color when it started out. So, what I’m capturing is not an objective analysis of the color palettes used for the product design of the casings, I mean I haven’t even looked at the screen colors when you start the things up, but it’s just a provocation. It’s just getting into some of those issues. So, that’s the seed of something.

Then the other thing really comes from the Lost Leaders stuff. I did this presentation at Counterpath in Denver on Saturday night. Lori came along and we had this conversation about marginalia. This is one of the terms I’ve been thinking about, or through, like paratext and liminality. Marginalia is another way to think of what you find on film leaders, because if marginalia is the writing in the margins of a book (at least initially) or even of manuscripts, you could also think of it as the hand-writing on film leaders. What you often find is that some of the stuff on film leaders is hand-written: somebody in the lab  had to mark it up with the serial number of the print, the name of the film. Sometimes it’s quite gorgeous, when you look at this stuff close-up. It’s kind of like a signature. So I then thought, I’m going to take the idea of marginalia and bring it into the lab here and ask “What is the marginalia here?” I started looking around and there’s an Apple II that has an old sticker on it. It’s the ‘Keep on Trucking’ thing with Robert Crumb cartoon characters on it. Then I started looking through some of the manuals and, lo and behold, like for the Altair, there is some scribbling in the margins. Somebody bought this thing for this massive amount of money at the time, for what we can see now is a relatively primitive PC, but took an inordinate amount of time to go through the manual and check things off and write notes to themselves in the margins, which I think are part of that discourse and which are very meaningful in terms of helping us understand the histories of these things. The informal metadata about these artifacts.

What else did I find? There’s a Compaq, a portable, luggable Portable Plus from 1983 that has a set of handwritten stickers on the top of it, which were reminders to the owner like ‘Don’t forget to specify diskdrive A or you’ll lose C’; and, ‘here’s how to reboot’, etc. There’s also the markings on the sides of the computers. There’s a Mac Classic in the other room, which has “Den Pub Sch” written down the side of it in black marker. It’s really thoughtless in a way, but it speaks volumes about where that computer was and what it might have been used for and by whom. It seems a travesty now, looking back, but perhaps hints at the degree to which these things were used, rough-housed, manipulated.

Anyway, this was my ‘way in’ to think about these machines. I got my macro lens out and took a few photographs of the Altair very, very close up. When you go really up close to the little red lights, you can see that it’s a chip board front that’s been cut out quite roughly and then the lights have been poked through it. So, in some ways it’s strangely primitive as a machine, but in some ways it’s also very, very human. The slicker that this stuff gets, the more we kind of lose the sense of that human touch. But then, there are a couple Apple iBooks over there, a turquoise one and an orange one, and they are quite gross if you go up really close. There are eyelashes and all kinds of gunk underneath the keyboards. Some of the keys have either broken or worn down because they’ve been used so much. You pick it up and look at the underside of it and it’s got scratches, scored to hell because it’s been dragged across so many different surfaces. The Osborne over there looks like it’s been in a battlefield. It’s really beaten up, seen some serious action, which I think is fascinating.

Renée: This just about leads us to the end of the interview. Is there anything you are working towards or you’re thinking about? Any new projects or do you have any parting remarks that you’d like to have included?

Matt: First off, I really appreciate that you’re interested in my work. It’s been great to have an opportunity to try to explain what it is I’ve been doing. It’s been great being in the lab. I don’t know if I’m the best fit for the lab, in terms of the types of things I’ve been doing here. I’m sure there are some much better informed, much more skilled, much more technically-minded people, who could do amazing work in here. The fact that the machines are available to use, it’s a hands-on petting zoo approach to media archaeology, which I think is fantastic. It’s opened up some ideas for me about color, I’ll be thinking about color and technology in new kinds of ways. It’s enriched my idea about what might qualify as marginalia and I’ll take that back into my Lost Leaders work.

I’m what the Canadians call a researcher-creator. I do scholarship and I write, I do what we might think of as conventional research, but I also am a maker. The conversation about what the Brits call ‘practice-based research’ is rapidly expanding. There are a lot of unanswered questions about it. There are several basic ways to go about it, as my colleagues Owen Chapman and Kim Sawchuk have pointed out. There’s research for creation: scholarly investigations, background research, and then you make stuff. There’s creation as research, which is making as a way of doing research. I’ve done the creation bit so far – that’s it. I think I usually do research for creation, but in this instance, I’m really stumbling around. I’m lost, too. And I think that’s a really good place to be for me right now.

So I’m doing the creative stuff, the creation, and ultimately I think it’s going to lead to some more research. I want to go to some film archives and start, in a formal and organized way, looking at film archives. There’s really not much scholarship on leaders out there, but I’ll keep looking for it. I’ll continue to work on the development of Korsakow and to make it do things that we had not imagined it doing and to keep teaching workshops on it. I think the lack of fixity is part of the excitement of it. But to just keep making work, because it feels like it’s the right thing to do. And then resisting the felt necessity, which I feel like I’m shaking off, to justify what I’m doing in the moment. I think it’s really good that we allow ourselves to just play and explore without having to produce to a deadline. I say that and that’s, of course, an incredible luxury. Most people don’t have that luxury. Those of us that have that luxury of doing that also have an implicit burden to make the most of it.

Renée: Matt, that was wonderful. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about your work.