For more than a decade Scott Arford has been one of the reference names for art and music in relation to the new media in the Bay Area of San Francisco, and was awarded a Honorable Mention for Digital Music in the Prix Ars Electronica 2005.
Scott Arford is an architect, he is a lecturer and he creates sound and video installations, exhibitions, live media sets, recordings in studios. A variety of media, experiences and outcomes related to a deep theoretical thought. And this is outlined through the works and projects he carries on with other artists, including for example Scott Jenerik, Kit Clayton, Francisco Lopez e John Duncan.
Since 1996 he has worked as a creator, a promoter and a cultural catalyst. In fact he founded 7hz a multifunctional space open to everyone and mainly to all artists in San Francisco. Arford’s activity is varied but coherent. A common point charecterizes his production, and that is the focus of a research based on the nature of space as a medium of ineraction between two forces, that is the fusion of light and the physical power of sound, to build a space of experience and human perceptions.
Scott Aford’s rules of audiovisual buildings are flexible and fluid, as well as sound and light have a fluid substance. Arford learned this attention to the space from architecture. But, thanks to the fusion between sound and image, he redraws the rules of the architectural space to zero, and goes beyond the surface, over and above the extreme limit of it.
Claudia D’Alonzo: We would like to start talking about your project 7hz. How was it born, how has it developed in the last years and what could be its future developments and its potentialities?
Scott Arford: 7hz is a warehouse space in San Francisco where artists and musicians live and work. It is also the space and name of the studio in which I have produced nearly all of my own work and is sometimes available for others to record in as well. For many years it was a performance space for noise and experimental music and an occasional cinema for experimental video. It has been the label for self released videos and c. It is the name of my website. 7hz has acted as a sort of a brand name or public face for numerous sound, video, production projects that I have been involved with, often in collaboration with others. So 7hz is/has been a lot of things but always focused on experimental media. Most importantly, since its inception 7hz has always been a statement about of the power of sound.
Claudia D’Alonzo: Can you talk about Still Life (almost), Another Day in Three Acts? and in particular, what is its relation with your previous video works? How did you choose to create a work namely connected to the idea of cinema as a mass audiovisual language?
Scott Arford: Still Life is a personal meditation on what I saw to be the world around me at the time of its making. It is about depression, fear, greed, lost love, war… the world coming to a stand still (a heavy mood for sure!). It borrows all of its imagery from a great zombie film – Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (english title). I am a big fan of zombie films, particularly the surreal, dreamy, beautiful ones. The ones where style, atmosphere, and imagery drive the story. This is pure cinema for me. So in that sense, the idea of pure imagery which moves toward abstraction, Still Life shares with a lot of my other, non-figural works. In terms of mood, speed, and atmosphere, it is not unlike 7 Illinois Street or the Airport videos. There is a somewhat sinister sense of dreadful emptiness that permeate all of these.
From a perspective of technique Still Life is related to a cable access television show that Michael Nine and I produced in 1998 called Fuck TV. Each episode had a topic which we would explore by gathering as much footage as possible, riots or executions for instance, resample it from various monitors and displays. This process would drastically change its look and meaning and we would re-edit it into something new. In both cases the soundtracks are original. As with most of my projects, the motivation comes from an overwhelming desire to do it. I don’t usually try to explain or rationalize it at the time.
Claudia D’Alonzo: Why did you choose to make the found footage of images from the TV screen? With this kind of “sampling” not only the original flim comes into the work but also its possible medium.
Scott Arford: Still Life is a kind of detoured zombie film. The connotation of Zombie was appropriate for the kind of ideas I was trying to express on a metaphoric level – the desperation and loss, etc. that I mentioned before. The Zombie is an unstoppable virus that spreads to everything it touches. It is a manifestation of the western idea of apocalypse and it infects/affects both the individual and the society.
Sampling is an important element in this story. The Zombie survives on replication and multiplication ad infinitum: it is a cancer. Like the cancer cell, the zombie is not an original, it is a reduced facsimile with a program to replicate. Sampling too can be seen as a kind of cancer, a process of zombification. There is one step removed of originality. And the sample spreads to mass culture, it becomes a meme and infects others. An example of this can be seen in the history of American prime-time animated TV shows from the Flintstones to Family Guy and beyond. Here, not only is the nuclear family theme consistently sampled, resampled and replayed, a great deal of the humor in these shows depends on sampling other TV shows and Pop Culture icons. This is true of countless TV shows and movies. In fact, to a viewer without pop culture literacy, these shows would hardly be funny and probably not make any sense! And now even the Zombie is eating itself. Current zombie films can now dispense entirely with the exposition and explanation of what a zombie is, how it came to be, how to kill it, etc. because the virus of “Zombie Film” is so widespread. We all know what has happened, the take-over by zombies is already a given condition! This is a descending spiral of stillness which occurs the expense of originality, and creativity, and enlightenment.
In Still Life, it was important to sample not only the Zombie, but to sample it from a screen to implicate the medium – the TV – as the tool for spreading the virus. I wanted to bring forward the process of decay that zombification entails. When one becomes a Zombie, there is a rotting – of the flesh, of the potential for individual thought, and ultimately of civilization itself. In re-shooting the screen, the image/original becomes undead. We are witness to the struggle as the original film and the TV screen itself fight for dominance of the image. The phasing effect of the scan lines, zooming into the image, pixelation, and over-saturation of the color, all infect and deteriorate the image.
One last thing, regarding sampling. I would like to qualify some of these statements, because I don’t believe that sampling is inherently problematic, cancerous, or that it causes zombies to manifest. It is clear that sampling can produce incredible, original, and inspiring works. And, as you point out, i have used it often and perhaps not always so critically!
Marco Mancuso: Let’s talk about your activity as a musician; your last production Solid State Flesh / Solid State Sex, was created in collaboration with Francisco Lopez, and you also worked with Randy Yau e Michael Nine in the past. How much important was working with Francisco Lopez, who is namely against all visual representation of sound? And how did visual tension affect your music style? And more generally, what are your main influences in sound, in music and in visual arts?
Scott Arford: It was a great pleasure to work with Francisco Lopez. He is a friend and I have admired his music for a long time. I really appreciate his concept of absolute music because it focuses the listener on what is important about the music – what it sounds like. When I do studio work, this is also my goal. I think the Solid State collaboration, more than anything, is an intellectual collaboration. lt was created with the same ideas and the same goals – as something to be heard, a listening experience.
My main artistic influences have always been those artists and friends that I have been closest to. Particularly when I was starting out making noise and experimental music, the techniques, technologies, and process really trumped any sense of style and there were fewer precedents to follow. Which is not to say there weren’t plenty of them, but i wasn’t really that aware of the history of experimental music. So I would spend hours with friends playing around with old gear, trying new ways to make sound, going to flea markets, mixing tracks, and generally laughing about music. This was, and still is, a huge influence for me.
There are of course lots of other things which have inspired me: Fortean phenomena particularly UFO and ghost stories, the collages of Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters, books by Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem and William S. Burroughs, films of David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and John Carpenter. Some musical influences have been ELO, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds, David Bowie, Skinny Puppy, and the brilliant Anckarström recordings. A huge influence on my aesthetic sensibilities was the landscape of western Kansas where I grew up (which is not flat, but rather low frequency rolling hills with some minimal punctuation provided by occasional trees, buildings and sheltered under the canopy of the awesome and massive skies), the drone of driving a tractor for hours on end, the way of cats, and the smell of Lilac trees.
Marco Mancuso: As a musician and as a visual artist you are clearly influenced by your background. In some of your audiovisual works, such as 7 Illinois Street, industrial ports, landscapes, night industrial settings, or bird’s eye views, are used as direct visual staff. In other works such as Static Room you concentrate on the architecture of your visual settings to create a more immersive space, as it also happens in your Recombinant Media Lab or Bmw Pavillion experience. And at last in others, such as Untitled for television, your work reduces the audiovisual system to the most essential and rudimentary, with a reference to Bauhaus, to minimalist theories and to the idea-shape-colour study. You declare that “architecture provides an exact counterpoint to media art”; that’s why I would like to ask you what are the similarities and the main differences in the three works you named, or better which is the border between the two disciplines?
Scott Arford: At a very base level my approach to all creative endeavors is spatial in nature. It is an intuitive organizational process, that somehow comes naturally. In architecture this relationship is very direct. Ideally, Architecture it is about creating tangible, physical spaces. With Sound and Video, the realization of space is maybe more abstract, but the thought process is the same. I would argue that I am much more free to explore space in sound and video works than in Architecture. Architects are required to reconcile spatial concerns through a very difficult reality of building codes, budgets, utilities, functionality, ownership, and the entire institution of building and construction. The kinds of geometries that give form to buildings are more often legal, political, and financial in nature than they are spatial or creative.
So as an artist, I can work more freely with space. In 7 Illinois Street, the architectural/spatial thought begins with content of the work (buildings and industrial landscapes), the spatialization of the sound, and the creation of new fictional spaces from real ones. In Static Room there is also the creation of new, albeit more abstract, visual spaces. One of the representative images of Static Room is of a tape glitch which really looks like it could be a building, an electro-castle. So as visual compositions, there is the use of space in the the mode of classical visual design and film theory. Images, abstractions, objects all exist within the frame, they overlap or occlude each other. Weather real or imagined, concrete or abstract, spaces are created by the formal interactions of these patterns of flickering light. This is the space within the screen.
Perhaps more interesting is the space the screen can create outside of itself. 7 Illinois Street was originally designed as a 10 channel surround installation. So the space enclosed by the screens suddenly becomes a tranquil field surrounded by these surreal landscapes. The soundtrack furthers the illusion that there are no walls, only the industrial landscapes. Now we are talking about creating space!
Static room and Untitled for Televisions take this idea further. In part because the images are not representational and in part because of their intense visual vibrations. These strobing and flickering patterns completely change (charge!) the room and turn the idea of watching an encapsulated screen image inside out. Viewing becomes experiencing, the image is no longer the introspective inwardly sucking pull of a represented space displayed on a 2-dimensional flat screen. Image becomes mirror and reflects back on the viewer and the physical experience. The video-generated audio signal pulses with the viewers retina which expands and contracts to the strobing visuals. The room itself changes shape as shadows shift and move about. The screen becomes a spotlight, searching, reaching out from its flat world to touch and caress the new dimensions around it. This is the architecture of sound and light!
Marco Mancuso: The relationship between sound, sight and space is something physical, permanent, or it regards space itself in all your audiovisual work. Espacially when you work with sound this becomes a physical signal such as it happens in Infrasound o Tv-Iv, and it turns into a video signal as in last century’s Vasulka experiences. This sound generates a psycho-physical connection with the audience, it moves through a tridimensional space, and it creates sound architectures and landscapes. In this concept as well there is a strong connection with an important architectural topic: so how do you work with sound, with its spatialisation, its physical nature, and what are the main differences with your works on sound used in your albums, in your studios, as a pure musician?
Scott Arford: Sound is a physical force, images too can be physical. But in order to establish that relationship for a viewer, and play with and manipulate it as an artist, certain technical and physical requirements must be met. What I mean is that a PA system must be powerful and correctly placed in a space, images must be bright, and well located, etc. Every nightclub, squat, gallery, warehouse, etc has a different PA, materiality, size, etc. – every space is different and performing is always a site specific act. As a live performer, you have much greater control over these factors. You have no control, however, over how an individual is going to listen or view a CD or DVD. So works created for this should be different. Low frequency effects, and other site-specific considerations do not make sense. Composition, attentiveness, direction, stereo effect and sound quality, timing, pacing, etc. These elements (which are often forgiven in a live setting) become much more critical to the success of a work! I personally enjoy studio mixing and creating dense and intense stereo spaces and I hope this focus is apparent in my recorded works.
Claudia D’Alonzo: A great part of your research concentrates on the ways people can experience their body when stimulated by the sound-image and the space of a work. How did this research develop over the years, and above all in relation to the technological devices you used in different works?
Scott Arford: I once received a fortune cookie which changed my life. I like to come back to it when begin to over fetishize new gear. It happened at a time when I was just starting to make music, in fact I was dying to make, art, music, something! I had no money and almost no equipment – only an old radio, 4-track recorder, and a cheap reverb. This fortune read “Use whatever technology is available to you”. I went home, plugged the radio into the reverb into the 4-track, and started recording! And it was amazing, the overdriven reverb modulated the radio reception in the most incredible way and the two devices created new sounds together. The first cassette Interference : Pattern came from that.
I have since expanded my my studio, but the idea remains. I love to use primitive means to achieve direct results – raw signals, control tracks, data, etc. I believe it is essential to try things without a preconceived idea of what it should look or sound like. Anything can be beautiful if you pay attention to it and coax out its essential nature. I like to do things “wrong” and see what happens. A lot projects have started with this – plug the video into the audio or plug the audio into the video. This simple swap has led toward numerous projects and has allowed me to merge sound and video into some very intense experiential sound/video works.
Of course computers and other technologies have given a new level of control over these processes. I really embrace both old and new. Sometimes technologies don’t gain artistic value until they have become nearly obsolete. There will continue to be great potential and inspiration to be found in combining new and old to make something entirely different.