(INTERVIEW) Objects in Mirror: Tasman Richardson and Max Parnell in Conversation
In anticipation of their latest publication Objects in Mirror (Impulse [b], 2023) Tasman Richardson discusses video-visuality, the 'fruitful plasticity' of digital authenticity, and more, with Max Parnell.
MAX PARNELL: I’d like to start by asking what was the motivation to write this book? As someone who has worked mostly with video, how was it to work in this format?
TASMAN RICHARDSON: I often draft concepts both as written explanations to myself and as illustrated designs or floorplans. Over the years I’ve accumulated a lot of notes. Although these notes sometimes make their way into a catalog description they often go unread. I prefer to let my pieces speak for themselves as an experience that hopefully, gives them a reason to exist (or else I’d just exhibit the notes). After visiting one of my larger installations, “Kali Yuga”, the artist and publisher Eldon Garnet nudged me to write a book that was conceptual. He was very explicit in saying he didn’t want to make a catalog for me. No documentation of my work, but rather, an artwork as writing, something that stands alone rather than an archive or document of my previous media art. I didn’t have much confidence in my writing, at least not a longer piece. I’m more of a sprinter when it comes to words. Eldon also has an air of slight indifference that can feel like he’s joking even when he’s being totally sincere. I procrastinated for two years thinking he wasn’t serious and then I was laying on my carpet tripping a little to reset myself and I felt a wave of regret and panic, that I missed out, was missing out. I sort of snapped back to semi-sobriety and struggled with my phone, texted him asking if it was too late to send him something. He agreed after I reworded my proposed outline a few times, and then in three months of slightly manic rambling, I had a book. It felt a bit like editing my jawa collages. I worked faster by pulling from existing recordings (memories) and rearranging them for a desired effect. I had a kind of daydream of the scenes that I’d play and rewind before deciding where to drop them into the timeline. I also tend to write like I speak. Not as a style, but because I’m not a writer. Fortunately, people are pretty forgiving of that, and some people even like it.
MP: The language you use throughout the book has a distinctly visual poetic quality. I am thinking of lines such as ‘our minds feed on plastic fruit’, ‘video memories have feathered edges’ and that the act of cut and paste being akin to ‘a rosary of instants’. You also frequently finish a chapter with a short poetic cut, giving the book’s architecture a filmic quality. What role has language played in your work before / how has your work with video affected your approach to linguistic descriptions?
TR: In the book, I describe my early introduction to video. I think I watched video more than I listened to real people talking. So in many ways, video was my first language. I think this might account for the way I choose my words and articulate my thoughts. I can tell you there’s an immediate crowding of my vision as it recalls a video equivalent for every phrase I’ve used. Reading your question, my eyes pass over the text like the magnetic record head on a tape and I see “plastic fruit” as Picard reaching for an apple in a Star Trek episode, his nails growing days long in an instant. “Feathers edges” recalls a photoshop selection, dotted line blinking, then gaussian filter applied, and the soft cloud of colours mingling into muddy gray. I see fingers running along a comb pluck pluck pluck, counting beads or counting frames, micro editing all plays out in pictures when I read “a rosary of instants”. The short cuts, abrupt flourishes in the text are just a way of lingering between acts, like the cliff hanger pause before a commercial break. Honestly, it’s not a style or intended device, it’s the only way I know to say what I’m thinking. I’ve clearly spent more time with television (and video) than with books.
MP: You write about seeing a live concert on a screen as opposed to ‘irl’ in the theater, noting how the "massive screen of the movie house transmits the spectacle of the stage better than a computer screen. In some ways, it’s more dynamic than attending in person." I think the act of creating holograms of certain musicians who can then perform indefinitely to sold out arenas invites us to question how much we actually value seeing the ‘real’ performance, or whether this becomes a type nostalgic waning after a notion of authenticity that no longer feels relevant in the age of VR and the Metaverse?
TR: I’ve been thinking about this more lately. The lockdown during the pandemic forced me to perform remotely, from my living room. In one instance, I was compositing video and triggering clips with midi, doing everything I’d normally do in front of a live audience, but just sitting alone in the glow of two laptop screens. One screen was the work area, familiar. The other was a two way feed, a room of people at a venue, watching and listening together. I worried that the performance would be toothless, playback without presence. But when I finished and looked at the audience cam, there was so much enthusiasm and movement. The idea of the performer’s presence seems to be enough, so long as the audience isn’t isolated. I can give two examples of this in which I’ve been the audience on the other side of this same arrangement. In one case, I was at a concert venue filled with people. All of us anticipated a special MC to introduce the acts but were told they would only appear via video screen. It turned out to be Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, their huge face filling the room with personality. Everyone was thrilled, because each of us was reflecting and amplifying the body language of excitement.
Another time I was watching Aphex Twin livestreaming from a crowded rave. I was alone in my living room, but I tried to project the feed large on my wall and listen through my stereo and subwoofer. It was fun but the scale of the signal wasn’t enough to give me a sense of connection. There was no undulating sensation of emotional flocking, the herd gaining momentum, veering without leading, without following, just knowing. That crowd connection is an overlapping experience of being present and yet intangible, in thought. Feeling as a group but without having time to consider it with specifics. Because of the stark difference between being in a flock as opposed to being in isolation, I feel the notion of authenticity is more important than ever. Mostly where it pertains to being an audience. Though, I also think there’s this Silicon Valley idea that we’ll just live in virtual or augmented spaces and that somehow these spaces will be beautifully maintained and economically available to all. Does that sound like any kind of believable scenario to you? Can you imagine a world where we don’t bother to fix anything, paint or level or illuminate, because a handful of wealthy people can’t see how ugly it is from inside their headsets? How important will the notion of authenticity be then? Besides, humans are so hardwired to resist homogeneous conditions in the same way terrorism resists globalization, people when faced with virtually dominant experience, will likely fetishize analog realities and the limits of our biological, old fashioned, “wet-wear”. The return of Vinyl, Cassettes, VHS, celluloid film, have all demonstrated this.
MP: You write: “there’s a jarring shift in reality when an elderly celebrity is rolled into the spotlight. Our memories feed on plastic fruit. We’ve come to expect unnaturally familiar faces." I experienced this myself when seeing the cast of Twin Peaks 20 years after the second season – something that felt almost nauseating, as if their beings should exist indefinitely within the season's parameters of space and time. In relation to this, you write how video editing is a form of digital necromancy – a phrase that stuck with me. I work mostly with sound, and have often encountered ethical questions when sampling a voice of someone recently deceased, whereas sampling someone who died decades ago doesn't feel as loaded. Have you encountered similar emotional / ethical questions in your own editing practice?
TR: I’ve heard there’s a trend right now where photographers are tracking down old retired celebrities and then posting their perfectly natural grizzled appearances online. That seems pretty ghoulish to me. Though you could argue that anyone who makes a career from their face being repeatedly fed to the public might expect to be hounded when they try to wean us off. I’ve also read about laugh tracks being recordings of audiences in the early 50s. I think Chuck Palaniak suggested that many of the voices we hear repurposed for canned laughter are dead people. I mean, they’re dead by now, though that’s the magic of recordings, there is no now, only the suspended expression of “once”. I do feel it’s unethical to simulate the dead, resurrect a person’s image and voice, have it act in new scenes that the living host may never have agreed to. To some extent any manipulation of recordings that gives new context and meaning can be a degrading manipulation, contemporary necromancy. I remember working on a piece with many iterations of Joan of Arc. Her image has been recreated at least five times in cinema. I was scrubbing the clips in real-time to make them shuffle back and forth in time, forced breathing, eyes blinking, a sigh held and extended. I felt surprisingly guilty, and then very sad while looking closely at each actor’s face contorting with my mouse movements. I started imagining how each telling had a different youthful actor standing in for this eternal Joan. I imagined them wrinkled and folded, sitting at home watching the recordings, seeing these armored, vibrant, young legends. Unrecognizable now to anyone but themselves. Then I imagined them quietly rotting, faces sifted by maggots, slowly filtered and gently erased. Scrub Scrubbing with my mouse the whole time. I know most of these manipulations can be automated now or generated with AI assistance. The quality I enjoy in collage comes from the imperfect combinations and uniquely human decisions of what to pair and why. I don’t think collage has the same function or feeling if it’s not appropriated. Generating or synthesizing a likeness feels sanitary, hollow, whereas reshaping the original source is a bit tattered and hands on.
MP: You speak extensively about consciousness as a cut up collected from what we behold, specifically about how video and images colonize our minds so that our "memory palaces are overrun by squatters living and dead". There has been much research on the ways in which our incessant proclivity to photograph everything does in fact have detrimental effects on memory, often rewriting it in the same way that remembering does, as you speak about in this work. I’d like to ask a more personal question in relation to this and ask how you feel your own memory – as someone whose work incorporates extensive video cut ups – has been affected by this?
TR: There are side effects. I’m not the only one that can attest to this. Nearly everyone that has practiced the particular kind of rapid dogmatic video edit I pioneered, the “jawa” method, has described the same kind of altered sense of sight and attention focus. At first I noticed I was able to spot or sense when a single frame was out of place in a rhythmic edit. I don’t know if the human eye can actually see such fine detail but there’s an unmistakable feeling of being sharpened to notice these things after editing for a long time. Many people I know have mentioned this sense, the ability to spot a single frame out of place at 1/30 of a second. Aside from the sharpening there’s also an anxious restlessness. I found myself alternating between two exaggerated moods. On one hand, I’d feel greedy for sensation and spectacle, unable to hold focus on one subject without rapidly jumping to the next, chasing stimulation. On the other hand, long moments of stillness and total absorption into singular, mundane observations. Studying the woodgrain of a chair leg or losing track of time staring at the eggshell texture on a patch of drywall. Aside from these two mood phases, I’ve had an increased self-awareness with regards to my memory. I’m more skeptical of my recollections. I enjoy remembering but I don’t believe it to be factual any more. I don’t trust the details, though I still accept the general story to be reliable. I think if you need to remember something with accuracy it’s best to write it and draw it immediately after the event. I don’t like to photograph anything that’s emotionally valuable to me. Partly because I don’t want my mind’s memory to be supplanted by the camera lens. Partly because it’s upsetting, if you have reminders of things that are lost, packing them up out of sight can be difficult. I think my preference for reality, the fidelity of existing, of sensing and recalling with my body is far more enjoyable because I’ve spent so much time manipulating recordings. I can’t help but look at recordings with suspicion.
MP: One idea that stuck with me in the book was that of the unlimited access we have to visual content of any nature. You mention how our sight has been extended through certain technologies such as x-rays and MIR scanners, noting how we can see anything at any hour of the day, "a phone full of skulls, should we wish to…" Recently I’ve been using Telegram to follow different citizen journalist accounts, partly as a way to access on-the-ground (and consequently unfiltered) information from different conflict zones, notably from Ukraine. In the same way that Google Earth in your pocket expands our vision to almost any street on the planet, Telegram to some extent allows us to bypass all media and visually situate ourselves in extreme zones, offering the type of visual content that couldn’t be (or at least isn't) broadcast in any other media format. I find this act brings us both closer to reality, in that we see floods of (mostly quite horrific) images which are completely unfiltered, but at the same time the fact that such images are contained neatly within a channel on an app – one that I can also use to speak with my partner, hear about illegal parties or order hashish – somewhat reduces it to just another phenomenon I can choose to flick through while waiting for the metro. How do you feel this visual extension of space affects us cognitively?
TR: It’s amazing how quickly we can normalize almost any situation. I remember being at the science centre as a kid, holding two metal pipes, in my left a cold water pipe, in my right a hot water pipe. After a very short time, both hands felt warm, an average of the two temperatures. You walk into a room that has just been mopped. The floor cleanser is overpowering but if you stay, and breathe normally the smell slowly fades. Another person enters and for them it’s still overpowering. This internal thermostat, seeking equilibrium, I assume is also involved in our exposure to footage, sounds, news, conflict, etc. Our extended awareness of what’s occurring in the world is like an emerging hive mind. The sensation of looking at our screen to see an image taken by a camera is totally familiar, whether the camera is attached to our phone or to a phone thousands of miles away. The distance shrinks in our mental map with repeated use. It’s like going to a new job. That first time you navigate your way there, it’s a little confusing, it seems to take longer. On the way back home, everything is familiar and the distance seems so much shorter. The more the journey is repeated, the shorter it seems. The same is felt when moving to a bigger city. It only seems bigger until we familiarize ourselves to the point of packaging it in our mind. I’m curious to see how we, as a species, adopt even greater connectivity and extended awareness with improvements to wearable, constant augmented reality and intelligent adaptable knowledge management systems. Up until now we’ve worked with information but the majority of comprehension has been our responsibility. As that work is entrusted to AI, comprehension and context will be provided to us. We may come to rely on this, forgetting our own ability to solve problems with critical thinking and concentration. Maybe the results will be superior enough to merit us letting go. Does anyone use an abacus anymore? My penmanship is abysmal but who cares, I’m typing this to you on my laptop right now.
MP: You write: "recordings of recordings degrade, less so with digital but the term "generation loss" used to refer to a duplicate that was a lower quality copy". This idea of audio-visual degradation seems to be almost fetishised today – there is now even a guitar pedal with this name, along with endless plug-ins for audio production designed to recreate the sounds of faded video and tape degradation. This audio approach seems to really have expanded out from a niche production effect used by obscure electronic musicians into pop music and now to some extent feels like a genre in itself. You mentioned the awful feeling at seeing the spirit of Po-Po popularized via Fight Club and with your own video style being co-opted by movie trailers. Now working in the digital age, does this phenomenon of potential aesthetic co-opting still affect your current approach to video editing?
TR: For better or worse, co-opting aesthetics is a necessary part of creative evolution. There’s a lot of effort put into simulating aesthetic qualities which I feel is less interesting than scavenging from the actual discarded technology. But it’s more convenient to use samples of an 808 rather than tracking down an antique drum machine. I try to play with devices in a naive way. This leads to interesting results because of misuse. I don’t let the designed intent of the manufacturer dictate the machine’s function. I’m currently expanding my sampling selection to include signal glitches which have both images and sounds. It’s taking me into a more abstract expressionist direction while still allowing me to maintain my strict jawa edit method of making the musical composition entirely from editing the source video clips. It’s not the same as juxtaposing found footage but it feels more crafted because I’m coaxing expressions out of the machines, then sculpting and reshaping them before trying to arrange them into phrases. To get back to your question, all these expressions I collect are sourced from discarded technologies, cathode ray televisions, Atari 2600s, my first Sony video sketch pads, etc. I suppose you could try to simulate the aesthetic of what I’ve collected but I think it would be very difficult since not only do I use old tech, but I misuse old tech. The aesthetic simulations are imitations of the expected, whereas my samples are actual collaborations with the unexpected. I think I heard a story once, about an impressionist painter that was asked what they would take as a gift from another artist and they replied, a well used paint brush. The idea being that the damage, the wear over time, was unique to the hand of the artist and the gestures they made. The damage in the tool becomes essential to the expression it yields. If I simulate the aesthetic of a paint brush I’ll miss this fingerprint of time, this signature of the artist’s collaboration with the tool.
MP: New Beaumann writes that "time functions similar to video, in that a Planck time unit, the smallest possible increment of time, is how long it takes a beam of light to cross a Planck length, meaning reality has a frame rate. Like a film, it does not proceed continuously, but in a series of jerks and ratchets". You touch on the distinction between early American and European television design, how the former preferenced time over space and vice versa. I feel this also speaks to your ideas in the chapter 'Degrees of Magnification', where you write that you "can barely recall a time when understanding wasn't influenced by seeing, and seeing wasn't influenced by video". My question is how extensive video editing, in which divisions of perception and time scale down to the minutest of fractions, has affected both your perception of time outside of filmmaking?
TR: Earlier you asked about side effects from editing. I feel this is related but more to do with sensory awareness in the ordinary day to day. Editing tiny fractions of time reinforces my interpretation of life’s illusion of continuity. I think the reality is that the timeline of our existence is complete and unaltered but we perceive it as a sequence of slices, constantly becoming. I believe the only reason we feel this way is because we’re not equipped to fathom the magnitude of the entirety of our existence all at once. All the details of cause and effect, all that cumulative data is complete, a single summation that we can’t hold in our mind. Whenever I struggle to visualize something, it tends to escape my ability to contemplate, maybe because my other means of considering it are underdeveloped or just a bad fit for the task. Working with tools and systems seems to lead to adoption of those tools as the metaphors for our unimaginable complexity. Like I mention in the book, the fidelity of our imaginations is limited by the robustness of our screen content. People use to compare the brain to a machine, then it evolved to software and operating systems. Eventually we’ll adopt a new model that’s more complex and yet totally inadequate to fully describe the nature of being and the quality of awareness of awareness. But because editing has been my primary tool, it’s the model for how I consider my experience of time.
MP: Hito Steyrl notes that “one used to think that one could take images of something but now the relationship is rather reversed and images take whatever they want from you. For a long time images started basically scanning your lives for all sorts of clues and data about you – we are now more or less embedded into images ourselves and have to deal with it…" You also touch on this when you write that ‘when we post images of ourselves, they travel, duplicate and transform with autonomy while we sit still’. I'm reminded of Farocki's idea that we are governed by images and the only way to counter this is by becoming agents able to question these images. What would such a questioning constitute in 2023 when every facet of modern existence is governed by images?
TR: Have you ever seen Alphaville? When confronting a totalitarian computer that governs people’s minds, a detective asks uniquely human questions. These riddles for machines that contain human absurdity eventually cause the computer to self-destruct. There’s a romantic idea that a sanctuary exists within the chaos of disorder where humans can cope and even thrive but where automated systems fail. I don’t know the right way to question and I don't know with certainty the right questions. I can say the spirit of what I’m trying to articulate is captured in a quote from Alphaville: When the computer says “I shall calculate so that failure is impossible”, the human replies: “I shall fight so that failure is possible.”.
MP: One of the sections I found most fascinating was the account of your time in Akihabara and the arcades in which each floor increases in sexual extremity, culminating on the final floor not with a much anticipated epitome of explicit content, but rather magazines containing high-quality photoshoots of glossy vintage appliances. As you note, sexual and explicit are varied and subjective terms. In the same chapter you talk about how you created your own abstract porn film – your description of it seems to capture this idea of it being sexual without being explicit. Did this experience in Akihabara shape this video or subsequent videos you worked on?
TR: To my own surprise, my experience in Akihabara did not shape my videos or installations. Thinking about it now, I wish I had made something like the experience I had. The abstract porn I made came out of a need to examine a very intimate and volatile relationship. I wanted to take time apart, and observe us in a way that wouldn’t make me feel self-conscious. I did this by filming us having sex many times, each time though, the footage became the only source of lighting in the room, always projected life size directly behind us, which kept us in sharp silhouette. With multiple recordings, the projection became a picture in picture, lengthening into a deep tunnel. Because I wanted the finished result to look like a stage set, with stillness in the foreground edges and activity in the background center, I deliberately reversed the ritual of sex. We started at our fullest, most physical, and with each recording, we worked towards gentle kisses, laying close and still, until ending with kneeling, facing one another across the distance of a mattress. I think I must have layered the video the way the building in Akihabara was layered, from subtle to explicit, but I didn’t do it consciously. I was relying on the low resolution of VHS to soften and distort the images of our bodies. Because the most explicit recordings were the furthest away both in time and in video space, they were the most softened. Like memories, they were impressions of an act without reliable details.
You can buy Objects in Mirror from Impulse [b] here.