My eyebrows always creep north (just a little) when I read something publicized as groundbreaking, or fresh, or “cutting edge.” It’s not that I disapprove of the desire to experiment and innovate; that’s a noble enough pursuit. Leaps into the unknown, flirtations with the hitherto unthinkable; these things reap new techniques, new forms, new processes and new modes of expression. And while it’s risky to think of art and music as some kind of linear progression of advances and refinements, it’s true enough that experimentation and revolution allows art-forms to adapt, to remain relevant, and to feel potent.
It’s just that too often, that thing billed as “cutting edge,” isn’t at all. It just wears the aesthetic of innovation, a shiny metallic bodysuit, a few bells and whistles. Products like iPhones and flavoured waters are chronic offenders, but you get it in the arts: music crowned as edgy because of some weird costumes and effects pedals. Art that’s daring and avant-garde ‘cause there’s some circuitry or bodily fluids involved.
None of this stuff is new, but it still shocks the squares, so we’ll conveniently call it radical.
Okay. But so what? Well, it begs the questions: what do we expect of our experimenters? What distinguishes true innovation from arts that simply appear peculiar or abstruse? And if we haven’t yet exhausted the possibilities of our established genres and traditions (let’s assume we haven’t, you know, can of worms) – what makes experimentalism meaningful, beyond simply doing something different or ‘new’?
On Saturday night I find myself on one of those little pivot-points of space and time. What to do? I should leave the house I suppose. But go where? Oh! “FRACTAL SHALE” is tonight. Shit, forgot to get a ticket. Maybe I can weasel my way in as a reviewer. Sweet, Kynan’s keen. Sun sets. Zoom into town. Scuttling past flickering buildings. Collect tickets and sink into a shadowy seat.
KYNAN TAN is steering a spaceship with two enormous screens at its fore. His control panel consists of at least two laptops and some blinking boards and devices. The room – PICA’s performance space – is dark and cosy, like a small cinema, and the huge screens dominate your vision even when they’re not illuminated. After a brief introduction from Tura head Tos Mahoney, Kynan glides into his audiovisual performance entitled multiplicity.
Luminous squiggles – like dancing lengths of glowing string – appear one by one on an implied grid across the two screens. They writhe and twist slowly, almost as if underwater, and as each appears it brings with it a new humming frequency. The sound waves undulate too, and suddenly you become fiercely aware of what you perpetually take for granted: the synchronicity of sight and sound. When we see something move, in life or in film, we conflate it with whatever sound coincides. Here, both image and audio are abstract – their connection is only assumed, not assured, and they needn’t produce or influence one another. Yet our brains make that leap of logic, and right now Kynan is exploiting and foregrounding our own mental process to remarkable effect. The squiggles warp and change colour and soon the black backdrop begins to wash out into a stark white. It ends the first of a series of audiovisual ‘vignettes,’ that are by turn dramatic, pensive, beautiful, intriguing and confronting.
Soon, tremendous bass blasts accompany flashes of bright white in a semi-regular cacophony that recalls nature’s own brutal spectacle: lightning, and simultaneous thunder. It’s loud and merciless, but it doesn’t feel obnoxious. By making these blasts visceral and almost terrifying, Kynan distills one of potentialities surrounding light and sound – the potential to trigger physical responses and induce intense emotions. I wonder whether it might damage my eyes or ears or brain, and suddenly I grin with delight. I’m experiencing art and music as not only exciting, but as dangerous, and that hardly ever happens. It’s like I’m hearing Hendrix for the first time or something.
More vignettes follow, variously exploring interactions between image and sound, motion and ideas. A mountainous terrain plays out both as film and as a floating, rotating topographical diagram, accompanied by deep and glacial tones. Particularly moving is an emerging smattering of lights that soon prove to represent cities on a world map, eventually joined together by countless spider-webs of light. Paired with a pattering and weaving digital soundscape, it eventually grows into a hulking monolith of light and we tip towards it like a slowly falling astronaut, beautifully articulating the immensity, density and fragility of modern human networks.
An interval now – and while Kynan’s performance was one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen for a long while, my senses certainly appreciate the respite. After the yin-yang injection of espresso and red wine, I return to the dark den of extreme power.
ROBIN FOX has been mentoring Kynan Tan through the JUMP program, guiding and expanding the young artist’s work in the field of computer-generated audiovisual art. In a charming pairing of prodigy and grand veteran, the two perform an extended work each this evening. Mr. Fox’s is entitled New Works for Synchronator, and, at least on paper, is simpler and more singular than Kynan’s work (no wonder I guess, given the title of the latter). Here, the majestically bearded Robin Fox traverses the colour and frequency spectrum, presenting the two as tightly bound together. The synchronator device effectively converts sound into image, by rendering audio input as video sync pulses and colour coding.
The correlation between sound and sight, then, is much more literal here than with Kynan’s piece; a technical, electronic conversion process as opposed to a human intuitive one. The results are fascinatingly varied: sometimes Fox’s synthesizer textures seem to poetically align with the coloured bars and washes appearing on screen; at other points, the synchronicity feels unnatural, uncanny and perhaps jarring. Each is compelling, and the dynamic between the two offers an ongoing point of interest. So too does the incredible dynamic of intensity, fluctuating endlessly between points of cacophony and reverie. It’s a pure exploration of light, synthetic sound, and ideas that approach melody and rhythm but remain cloaked in curious abstraction. We leave with wide eyes and buzzing brains.
Kynan Tan and Robin Fox have taken to the realm of audiovisual experimentalism with unique though clearly confluent approaches. Neither lean heavily on any one tradition; you can trace influences, but it would feel fickle. Both are lurching into territory which is unflustered by trends or conventions, instead seeking unfamiliar but bold ways to both express the ineffable and present primal forces (light, colour, lowness, highness, loudness) in all their glorious immediacy. In doing so, there was a sense that FRACTAL SHALE was truly exciting and innovative, all the more so for its modesty; neither artist is a self-proclaimed pioneer of anything. They take the road less travelled, not for its own sake, but because it is the path that allows them to articulate rich ideas and create moments of great power. This, perhaps, is the value of experimentation: the simple opening up of such avenues. You won’t find either of these guys trying to convince you how remarkable their work is. For me, they’ve done that already; Fractal Shale was a twinned performance I won’t forget for a long, long time.