San Francisco: Watch That Scene

Roddy Schrock
Roddy Schrock
Photo by Hideki Kubota

Ducking out of the deep, deep ghetto of West Oakland into LoBot Gallery, I was immediately hit by what at first sounded like the most genius remix of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” I’d ever heard. (A dear friend of mine takes the controversial stand that all of Western Musical History has been clearly distilled in the pop music of Abba.) Speaking to Jon Leidecker (a.k.a. Wobbly) afterwards, I realized it wasn’t a remix at all—it was simply the original running at exactly 60 percent the speed of the original. It was made using a nifty granular time-shifting technique which allows you to slow sound down without the usual ’80s-style cliché pitch shifting. It was this aesthetic of technical-wizardry-cum-source-material-silliness that was to frame the local debut screening of Slomo Video, a nearly two-hour ride running in, you guessed it, slow motion.

Slomo Video is the brainchild of Ryan Junell, a prolific video artist who has worked with some of the Bay Area’s most well-known electronic artists and has been at the forefront of the area’s video art scene for quite a few years now. In 2004 he went political, making a surround-sound, four-screen immersive video installation of the Republican National Convention called See The Elephant. (A fresh and interesting idea, but isn’t there something a bit masochistic about immersing oneself in that particular environment?)

Slomo Video is made up of 100 one-minute videos, all very slow, created by a total of 85 artists from all over the country, including myself. One of the standouts of the evening was the work of Scott Arford. Arford’s work creates a sense of not just slow motion, but actually frozen time. For example, in his piece Little Station, his clever usage of a severe form of time-lapse imaging and manipulated field-recorded noise creates a world in which you sense the passage of time, but there is little on screen to indicate how much has passed, how much change has occurred. The intensely restrained imagery is placed in counterpoint to processed noise and rhythmic clicks—it, too, disorienting one’s sense of time. Did we witness a day in the life of this small metal building, or was it a second, an hour, or a decade?

All of the videos in Slomo, working on such a small timescale, rely heavily on sound to make their impact. I’ve never seen a video screening with such a large representation of sound artists. This is one of Junell’s talents: he convinces those working in sound that their audio inquiries are equally applicable in the realm of video art and vice versa. This approach ekes out videos from the likes of people such as Keith Fullerton Whitman and Tigerbeat6 recording artists.

The large-scale form of Slomo has a very musical pacing. The whole evening came across as a non-stop piece made up of one-minute etudes, all weaved together with recurring and expanded themes throughout.

A large percentage of the videos had an element of humor, a kind of absurd slapstick particular to the Bay Area with roots running back to the Beats, formed from the detritus of San Francisco’s past lives as home to gay disco, hothouse of technological innovation, flagship of American sexual liberation, and organizational center to ’50s and ’60s counterculture. Junell’s video Partytime Sleepover is a perfect example of this. It’s made from an old TV commercial featuring Mary-Kate and Ashley advertising their new dolls. In Junell’s version, the Olsen twins are speaking in strange, slowed down and reversed sound with monstrously huge smiles, this image repeated ad infinitum, frightening with its juxtaposition of childish innocence and monstrous, unintelligible high voice. The resultant image has been unnaturally forced, by video technology, to loop over and over, like a disco beat, lacking narrative trajectory. Mary-Kate and Ashley have had a kind of violence forced upon them but without resultant bodily harm—the mainstay of slapstick humor. And, like its predecessors, Junell’s video is amazingly funny. Yes, slightly disturbing, but funny.

It seems that there is a marked tongue-in-cheek quality to so much music and art that is produced in this area. Whether it be the techno-concrete of Matmos, who produced two videos that were included in Slomo Video, or the Residents, whose real identities behind their giant masks are shrouded in a fog of conjecture in local mythology. The lightness of spirit of San Francisco and its environs could be limiting for those who are doing something a bit more centered and earnest. The difficulty of the Bay Area to take itself seriously may sometimes be its Achilles Heel, but it surely is also its saving grace.

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Roddy Schrock is a sound artist who digitally mines everyday sound for the profound and canvasses the glitzy, rough edges of pop for its articulate immediacy. He has lived and worked in Tokyo, The Hague, New York, and San Francisco, with performances in the Czech Republic, Holland, Japan, and North America. He is also an educator, teaching summer workshops on SuperCollider software at STEIM (Netherlands).