Now Featuring John Davis and Collin McKelvey
John Davis and Collin McKelvey are artists and musicians whose creative output runs from sculptures to soundtracks. They’re each performers, but they’re also quiet observers, making work that teases details, epiphanies and what-if moments in everyday life. Their latest project is a book that’s coming soon from Little paper Planes, accompanied by exclusive prints that are out now.
MH: You both come from backgrounds that include making music and film/video. What led you to working on a book together, and what kind of book will it be?
CM: I had worked with Kelly Lynn Jones before on the “Sights & Sounds” project, which was the first publication in the LPP Exhibition Series. That was a group of artists that contributed imagery or text along with audio that was then made into a compilation. We had talked about doing something else in a similar vein but more focused.
JD: Collin invited me to collaborate on the book, explaining his interest in incorporating some kind of sound field recording element. We agreed to use sound sources directly from our workplace environment at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, then each taking the material back to our studios for processing. We then decided to utilize the 7″ record format as a good way to include music within a book, using our separate tracks one for each side.
Once that was established, we set out to create the pages for the book that were inspired by the sound collaboration. We decided again to use the museum where I documented with photography, and Collin used video to capture some of the museums ambient light.
Conceptually we framed the project around the museum’s workplace interior as an institutional environment marked with imprints of human activity. We felt as the museum neared its expansion and complete physical transformation, all traces of habitation and day-to-day occupation would be obliterated. As such, the project would aim to capture those traces through poetic response, highlighting fragments of the workspace, human labor and the passage of time.
CM: We wanted to create something that had a personal attachment to us but that could also function as a more universal statement. Everything in the book originates with the idea of this space that we both have spent years in. There are photographs of spaces and objects, the audio is all sourced form within the liminal spaces in the building and the video stills are from a video I made that references the many hues of light that I see in the building throughout the day and the changing seasons.
JD: In keeping with the formatting standards that Kelly suggested, we decided to go with a 10″x10″ perfect bound book that would have the 7″ record sewn in. The images are straight photographs that I took, while Collin processed stills from his video recordings for the corresponding pages.
MH: Can you each talk about your individual practices?
CM: My practice is primarily consumed by investigations into sound. I also work in video and sculptural elements. I am interested in how sound develops in physical spaces, so that leads to me making certain decisions when I am creating. I like to use multiple sound sources, so I will take field recordings and then process them with computer based synthesis and then process that via tape or my modular synthesizer.
My favorite thing is when I am able to create a performance in a specific space. It is important to me to be able to explore the acoustics of the space and let that shape my ideas. Recently I was invited by Chris Duncan to perform and interact with his sound sculpture at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery. The title of the exhibition was “Visible Horizons” and Chris had created a sculpture out of piano wire that was set at eye level in a corner of the gallery. It was titled “Offing,” which is the furthest visible point on the horizon. Taking those ideas and the space into mind, I was able to create an immersive performance. I made a two-channel video with computer based video synthesis that was influenced by the idea of a horizon. This was projected into the corner above the sculptural element. Since the horizon is a trick of the eye, and not tangible, I decided to interact with the sculpture by not physically touching it, instead I utilized low frequency sound waves sent through transducers to vibrate the walls the sculpture was attached to which created the sound.
Another avenue I utilize is through research. I like to read books about borderline science, alternative history, phenomena etc. I will research these ideas and explore them further in my sound practice. I have made work that is based on earth grid research, the unified filed theory, zero point energy systems and the “Philadelphia Experiment.” Exploring ideas from people like Wilhelm Reich, Nikola Tesla and Joseph P. Farrell have been interesting worm holes to explore and then try to translate to my own voice.
JD: Although I have a background in photography, I don’t use it much these days, so this project was a nice opportunity to utilize the camera. I am currently focused on moving images and sound, most recently expanding their relationships through collaboration and experimentation. My current performance work investigates various sound and image delivery systems, their material bi-products, and the range of sensory possibilities that exists between them. I work with Super 8 a lot, and lately have been incorporating video image synthesis into my live sets. Musically I work with analogue electronic circuits, guitar, and various recording/sampling techniques.
These digital photographs (featured on LPP) were taken while I was visiting as an artist in residence during the Fall of 2006, and while contributing to the Found Footage Workshop during the Fall of 2007 at the K:SAK Center for Contemporary art in Chisinau.
They were then included within the framework of a thing called Drifting Identity Station curated by Stefan Rusu. Here’s a link to the project: http://driftingidentitystation.com/ My contributions (which included a video): http://driftingidentitystation.com/drift/?page_id=18
MH: Using the formats and limits of media, especially in sound and moving image, seems to be a big part of the way you each work. How do you frame this approach? Does it feel like a formal response, or a way of finding your way into particular subject matter?
JD: Most people doing creative work stretch the limits of a given media eventually. For me my main interest is to pursue those limits as departure points for my creative process. Receiving formal training in photography sort of screwed things up for me, as I always felt like there was something at stake artistically. Conversely with music and moving images I have no formal training, and therefore feel comfortable continuing to experiment with them freely. I am most interested in staying curious while working intuitively, remaining outside the confines of any constructed notion of how to use a given media, or frame a given subject.
CM: I feel like there are very few limits when it comes to the capabilities of my chosen mediums. The modular synthesizer is designed to be extremely flexible, hence the name. The thing I really like about synthesis, and modular in particular, is that you have to build it up from nothing. It is a generative process, at least for me it is. I know what each of the components do on their own, but the magic comes with how they interact in a limited system. The ability to combine things and patch them up in almost any way imaginable can lead to some really surprising conclusions. The capacity for feedback and cross modulation in a modular system means that you can setup something that is always moving, creating sounds on its own where a small gesture can create unexpected results. You can create this self generating system and you could walk away from it for hours or days and come back to something that is still going, then you can gently nudge it along, or shape it in a different direction. You can’t do this in most media. The idea is similar with the way I like to work with video. I have been using a generative video synthesis program that I can sort of start it on its way and then observe and adjust things. A lot of my time is spending listening, watching and then editing.
MH: How does location influence the way you work? John, your work has a really heightened sense of place and observation, especially your photos; while Collin, one of the things I like a lot about the way you work is the way you sometimes seem like you’re visiting from outer space, digesting images and sounds in a strange, slow cycle that’s really unexpected.
JD: Thanks! I’ll take that as a compliment. I guess it’s like that feeling you get when traveling through a foreign place for the first time, when you actively seek every nuanced visual detail within your surroundings. One of things I try to do with lens-based work is examine things through those eyes – try and transcend that veneer of familiarity or complacency I sometimes get. I can easily overlook things right in front of me, so I guess trying to see a place with that same sense of wonder. This is probably a good everyday practice!
CM: Location is a huge influence on my practice. I like to make my work, especially performances and installations, very site specific when I have the opportunity. It is also important to me that when I perform or just play a show somewhere, that I present something new and specific to that time and place. This mainly applies to my sound work. I also have sound installations and video pieces that can be “housed” in a multitude of spaces, but they are created from the beginning to be that way.
I am happy that you get that feeling form my work. I am very sensitive to my surroundings. I like the observe spaces and let them shape things for me. I like to listen and watch; I like to be quiet, especially in a new space. My whole life I have been this way. I enjoy being alone and silent.
As far as sound is concerned, I am not tied to any formal training in western musical forms and I have no allegiance to any scaling system. I am much more interested in frequency in hertz and resonant harmonics than in a note based system. Frequency and resonance has a physical presence and can have severe affect on an individual, good or bad. That is what interests me. The fact that certain frequencies have the ability to be healing while others can literally destroy tangible objects. I have read about research into freezing water with the right resonant frequency or the possibility of repairing DNA with sound. Who cares if something is tuned to “C?”
MH: Do you envision working on further projects together? And what do you have coming up individually?
JD: I hope so!
CM: I find that John and I have a similar work flow and an ease of collaboration. I am usually not interested collaborating in with other people and have found less than a handful that I can do it with. But we share a lot of common interests and concerns and seem to have complementary approaches.
JD: I have a full length LP due out on the Students Of Decay label sometime early next year, as well as a track for a compilation on Under The Spire Recordings. I also just finished another soundtrack for filmmaker Lawrence Jordan for his upcoming film entitled Solar Sight III, and I’ll be showing films alongside Josh Churchill’s music as part of the ongoing Shapeshifters live film and sound series at Café Arbor in Oakland this January.
CM: In the near future, Land and Sea is publishing a 7” vinyl project of mine. I was invited to perform at the Berkeley Art Museum back in April. I created a new composition for the unique space that is that museum that was a response to the Paul Kos installation “The Sound of Ice Melting” (1970) which was on display as part of the really great exhibition “State of Mind: California Art Circa 1970”. The composition was created to be performed in a 4.1 surround sound setup to best utilize the acoustics of the cavernous gallery space at the Berkeley Art Museum. Since it is made of concrete, it is a huge reverberant space. Having intimate knowledge of that space from having worked there for several years, I was able to shape the space through my speaker arrangement and frequency choices. The record is ephemera of the performance. One side of the record is a version I made from the studio recording and the B-side is a mix that I made from the live recording. There will also be a limited artists edition that will have record sleeve that has a third iteration of the piece lathe cut into it.