Muxing it up
Robyn Fadden - July 07, 2010
Christopher McNamara is skilled in the art of simultaneous creation, if only because that seems to be his default process of creation. On his own, in concert with artist centers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, or i n collaboration with multi-media groups such as Nospectacle and Thinkbox, his installations, video work and music compositions are in constant relation, each feeding ideas to the other. Based in Windsor, Ontario, he also teaches in the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a program that blends a hefty courseload of theory, history and criticism with hands-on production practice. His work reflects this mix, conveying an intellectual concern for questioning the role of the moving image in our lives and a technical attention to experimenting with the tools of trade, whether in the framing of a shot or the mixing of beat.
nospectacle in Detroit
Perhaps more than any other medium, film draws our attention to the importance of what we don't see or hear, what is absent as much as what makes it into the frame. Especially now - when so many of us have played filmmaker, if only with a digital camera, we know that films are made up of millions of individual images, that the lens doesn't always let in enough light, that there's always something going on behind the camera's back – and that sound matters.
Without being overly self-conscious or neon-sign postmodern, Chris McNamara plays with these deceptively complex ideas. Through a creative process that simultaneously works with sound and image, he recognizes that we all live with these multiple realities.
A founding member of the Thinkbox collective/label and a veteran of the artist-run gallery scene along the Windsor-Detroit corridor, McNamara credits his collaborations with other artists and musicians as essential to the evolution of artistic practice. As a member of Thinkbox, a media collective focused on exploring technological works and the nature of multi-media creation, he's in constant contact with artists intent on pushing the limits of what sound and video can do as forms of expression.
"Technology is one of those things you can be buried alive in - I have a love-hate relationship with it. But I recognize that these tools are so prevalent that you're always able to cobble stuff together - there's some flexibility and accessiblitly to it," he says. "Technology is certainly changing the cultural landscape, but, to quote a certain filmmaker, when asked what kind of camera he used, he got mad and said 'Would you ask a novelist what kind of typewriter he used?' I think that's an important distinction: at the end of the day, it's what you can do with it. I try to approach technology pragmatically."
Though much of McNamara's work is made using computer software, his reappropriation of materials, such as old record players, spoken-word recordings, even disused cables, points to a DIY punk sensibility, though it might not show aesthetically – at least not at first glance. Because he works with different media forms simultaneously – the music and words are created at the same time as his filmmed images – much relies on convergence, juxtaposition and chance occurence.
"In contemporary music, I love the idea of harmonic dissonances," he says. "The tension between something harmonic and melodic and things that are completely abrasive to that. It's sometimes chance-based – what happens when i take these images and these words and this music and bring them all together."
More than simply bringing his different skill sets together on one project, McNamara creates by overlapping them: "I'm interested in finding a discipline where I don't think of them as separate practices – I'm going to score my music and my images and my words, composing them as simulataneously as I possibly can. It makes me very tripolar sometimes but it seems to work," he laughs.
McNamara scales down urban space in recent audio-video installations
McNamara's video work plays with conventions of voice-over narration, how musical score leads emotion and how it all overlaps with the chosen image to set a world in motion.
"I started out as a writer, that was a first love," he says (his education more than hints at that too: he has a B.A. in Communication Studies and English and an M.A. in English & Creative Writing from the University of Windsor). "When you're writing, you reconstruct a memory of a place and there's a certain exacting quality to the language... But then when you do a visual treatment of it, it's like, oh he was wearing a houndstooth coat, but we'll use this tweed one instead because we don't have the right one. Or you're designing a scene and you've lit it a certain way, but it's never going to fully align with your original writing."
In his recent video triology on cinematic language, the narration is much like colour-commentary, sometimes describing the scene accurately, and, more often, drifting into memory and philosophy. "I love the idea of the potential for redundancy, but it's never redundant," he says. "The worst kind of cinema is where someone is looking distraught and the script says 'Boy, am I distraught.'"
He thinks of these short films as experimental essays on cinema and the language of cinema, both in terms of the creative process of making a film and how we have integrated film into our everyday lives. “We have these overly optimistic views of what the moving image can do,” he says, “So I kind of talk about the inevitable hurdles or shortcomings of a medium that I certainly delight in making but isn't the monolithic power that some people might think it is.”
Our everyday lives don't usually have the keen focus that film does, nor do we jump from one moment to a temporally disconnected one, but, since most people alive today have grown up with film and television, such forms of storytelling have seeped into how we experience and later describe our own lives.
Through poetic voice-over, the final installment in the trilogy, The Use of Movement (2009), almost immediately draws attention to the presence of the video camera in the room, yet the cinematic drama doesn't halt. At one point the voiceover states, “Film is primarily a visceral medium, the frame edges delineating the presences and absences.” The shot itself is a kind of behind-the-scenes reality: a man on the tailgate a truck stamped with the words “It's Fun Fair Time” - the fair itself, in a grey seaside town, goes on somewhere beyond our view.
Many of the images in these films seem to be locations searched out from memory, but the narration doesn't always jive with what we see. We're inclined to wonder what images are capable of and what they're not. Simply because film has to capture images in a real, constantly changing world, it can't always do what writing can – even on a completely fabricated set, the costumes are only approximations, the colour of the walls one shade off. But film can still capture a mood and evoke a response to a universal emotion.
In Establishing Shots (2006), which premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the voice-over narration and the images on screen depict a scene, but quickly they deviate from each other, with jump-shots not only in the images but in poetic juxtaposition of spoken words as well. Sometimes the narration even criticizes its own presence: in one shot, of a swing, the words “to explain this would be to undo it” - the image is enough. Well, almost enough: before cutting to black, music fades in and we're moving along again.
While he did dabble in playing punk rock, McNamara started making electronic music in earnest in the mid-90s with Dermot Wilson (whom he later collaborated with on video and sound work as Machyderm), DJing with second-hand spoken-word records and video projections of B movies. "I was intetested in DJ culture as a conceptual thing," he admits."But then I started really loving the music and the opportunity to shape the experience with the music. I was also aware of the overlap between electronic music and the art world, and wanted to explore that overlap and find the territory that worked for me."
Yet spoken-word hasn't left his work. He talks about the first time he heard The Orb's Little Fluffy Clouds and Eno and Bryne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, how the overlapping of voice with music was a huge early influence and remains so today.
"As in the foreign language use in the videos, the language stays abstract and becomes part of the musical coda," he explains. "I didn't want people to be drawn into the visceral aspects of language - if it's your dominant, mother tongue all the way through, it's going to be this driving thing, whereas if it's foreign language, it has this level of abstraction, so it becomes part of the musical coding."
Narration in foreign languages also adds an exotic and even disruptive element to familiar domestic scenes, such as driving past a street after street of North American strip malls. We're made more aware of how with no distinct landmarks to use for navigation, we're not necessarily at home in our everyday travels – an uncanny sense of place that is no place and might be every place.
Part of the inspiration for his recent video work comes from the films of Hong Kong-based filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, says McNamara: "There's a certain kind of implied exoticization of language. He talks about this diaspora in his work, where you're in Hong Kong and people lapse into English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, it's all in there. I love this idea of a zone wherein there's no official speak, where the official language is totally in flux, and also the whole idea of internationalism, which is laden with all these different problems, including a collapse of individual identity."
Recorded and in live performance, McNamara and his collaborators take us on a journey across borders and boundaries as ethereal as sound and image and as literal as the U.S.-Canada border. The artist's concerns for identity, flux and adapation continue here too.
"When I play with Walter (Wasacz) and Jennifer (Paull), as nospectacle, we don't know exactly what the atmosphere is going to be when we start out, but we begin with something like a keynote and either go in a different direction or build on it," says McNamara. For nospectacle's show at MUTEK 2010, the sequence of McNamara's musical tracks as well as certain images was predetermined, but the mixing of it all was improvised. "All of the tracks are modular, so even though it's software-based, the track never comes out the same way twice," he says. "Just by the way an envelop is set or whether I decide to play certain loops or emphasize others, it changes the performance each time."
The landscape of Detroit and Windsor, from street level and from the sky, rolls out behind the artists, and we travel along with wherever they're taking us. As in McNamara's video work, the music rises and falls, ebbs and flows, taking us on a ride where beginnings and endings don't matter - this is life, not so neatly contained; within it are stories that bleed into the next, one never cut off from another. Watching this constant motion, it doesn't necessarily matter where it's going to or coming from, we're reminded that nothing ever really stops, but the pace, the rhythm and the reason always changes.
Photos and videos used by permission of the artist.
Robyn Fadden is into the wholly physical experience of sound, but also just simply listens to music sometimes, or dances to it. It's a good thing she lives in Montréal then, where she also writes (and maybe thinks too much) about art, culture, music, science and the intersections between them all.