See Me, Hear Me: A/V Circa 2008

Scott Arford at 7hz in San Francisco

A conversation with Trevor Hunter
April 19, 2008 – 2:15 p.m.

Videotaped by James Hutchinson
Transcribed by Trevor Hunter

A survey of the A/V scene wouldn’t be complete without an artist from the Bay Area, and there’s no better representative than Scott Arford. His haunting audiovisual work prominently features manipulations of static, both aural and visual, to create ghostly and often unsettling soundscapes. In addition to his music and film, Scott’s day job as an architect provides him with a unique perspective on sound and space, which he exploits in many of his own improvised and collaborative pieces. Like many A/V artists, he often finds homes uncommon to most musicians; this month a selection of his works will be presented at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

I sat down to speak with Scott at 7hz in San Francisco, a warehouse venue for noise and experimental music that he operated from 1995 until 2002. From televisions and weather equipment to the end of the project of Westernization, our conversation covered the usual bases, all of it united by Arford’s marvel at the experimental.

—TH

name
Scott Arford

Trevor Hunter: A term that you use a lot on your website is “new media art”. There’s sound art, and there’s multimedia. All these terms have slightly different connotations. How do you identify yourself and your work?

Scott Arford: You know, that’s a great question, and I wish I had a good answer for it. I try not to identify myself because I really don’t know what all those terms mean. Everyone has a little bit different interpretation of those.

TH: Do you think of yourself as a composer?

SA: Yes, and a performer. A composer, performer, and a filmmaker, and an architect, and a farmer.

TH: A common issue with this type of art is appropriation, and it’s something you venture into especially in your work with zombie films. Is this critical to the development of new media?

SA: I think it’s been essential for it. Especially when you start looking at the recent history of A/V and media. It’s something that has been unavoidable. So, yes. In my own work, I actually try not to use it. I think Still Life is probably a very different example of my work in that sense. It’s very rare that I actually appropriate other people’s work so directly.

TH: Well, even the radio static works are, in a way, appropriation.

SA: Absolutely, there’s no question. I mean, you’re dialing in a radio, and suddenly it’s really not your work anymore. Or it’s somehow sampling, I guess. But it’s sort of directly referential.

TH: What issues come into play with your work, especially legal issues?

SA: That’s something I actually try not to address in my work. I think it’s a very politicized issue, both the politics and economics of it. There are people out there who are much better at addressing those issues, like Negativland, for instance, or Craig Baldwin. These people have a much better understanding of fair use and the meanings and infrastructure behind that. So I actually try not to directly address that issue because I’m not as interested in that arena.

TH: You mentioned the politics of the content. Something that’s very interesting about A/V on the whole is that it seems very politicized compared to other new music. Is it because the visual element allows that?

SA: It’s very possible. Everyone who’s doing this kind of work pretty much grew up with a television in the room, and that has been the dominant form of moving-image media. Films, I guess, as well. Television, a seemingly sort of benign friend that has sat in your living room since you can remember, is really a very political tool. Or, it’s a very politicized object in a sense, so that anyone working in that media suddenly has to confront that issue of playback, and what’s being played on a television. So I think there’s something about the nature of the media that makes it politicized in a sense, just by the simple fact that it is playing on a television.

Then there’s the idea of broadcast media, and how broadcast media has become a set of tools that are not available to everyone. That sets up a sort of political structure: How do you have access to those tools? Who’s allowed access to those tools? I think underground filmmakers have been able now to use small cameras, very inexpensive equipment, to make that kind of imagery. But they’re still not given the means of distribution that most televised media has access to. I don’t know how that makes it political, but I think those are some of the factors surrounding the issue.

TH: You mentioned that everyone in this field has to confront this issue of playback. How do you confront it?

SA: I guess I’ve confronted it in a few different ways. One particular project that tries to address the larger idea of reaching a wider audience, of how one exists in the world of broadcast media, [does so by exploring] ways of subversively inserting your work into the larger context. So, I have a project which says that all erroneous broadcasts, all sort of static or mistakes that come across broadcast media, are actually a form of a video I made called Total Static Takeover. And it sort of airs, on and off, inconsistently, whenever the right conditions are met. So, you know, I’ve been showing this video now since 2003, on televisions, VCRs, airplanes, and Jumbotrons worldwide since that date. Now, I quite doubt if anyone recognizes they’re seeing my video, but it is being shown, so keep an eye out for it.

TH: I want to talk about this prop that you brought, the radiosonde, which was your alternate moniker for a long time. Do you still use it?

SA: I sort of dropped the name. I didn’t have any clear sets of rules as to why I was using a moniker versus my own name, and I just decided to pick my name.

TH: What was the meaning behind it? What is this thing?

SA: A radiosonde is a device used for studying weather. You put it on a weather balloon, it floats into the atmosphere, and it’s actually interpreting atmospheric data–wind speed, temperature, barometric pressure–and radioing it down to ground stations, so that scientists can use the data gathered by these things. This thing floats in the atmosphere up to 28,000 feet, but at a certain point, these balloons will explode, and the radiosonde is actually equipped with a parachute and comes slowly floating back down to earth. It’s this big orange parachute, and it floats down with this object and lands in fields and so forth.

Well, when I was a kid, I was always fascinated with the sky and aerial phenomena and strange objects and ghosts and UFOs, anything that seemed somewhat technological and slightly mysterious. And I found about two or three of these out in our pastures. I grew up in western Kansas in the middle of nowhere, and when a bright orange object comes flying down through the sky, you actually see it, and you see it lying off in a pasture or in a field somewhere. So I actually found a few of these, and I kept the parachutes and made parachutes for my G.I. Joes and the sort of things that you could throw off the roof.

I picked the name because it was a somewhat strange object. Especially my early work, but even still I’m using sounds from radios sometimes. And so there was something interesting to me about this device, which is sort of broadcasting and gathering information and reinterpreting it. In a way this is what I felt like I was doing with this radiosonde project: taking random data in a sense, and reinterpreting it and making it more meaningful, and somehow making music out of noise and chaotic conditions. I thought there were a lot of metaphorical conditions to what a radiosonde is, and what I was trying to do. Somehow it just brought me back to the fascination of technology. That’s really why I chose the name.

TH: It’s interesting that you mention the metaphor there, because a lot of your work seems to use these sort of metaphors. Like the zombie films, for instance, which are a metaphor for the cannibalization and decay of society. Do these metaphors provide a meaning for the actual sounds and visuals being created?

SA: I’m not sure if it’s to create a meaning. I think in some ways it maybe just comes out of a natural way of working. Somehow it just seems the way I start doing things. You put a line on paper, and suddenly you’ve got a drawing. You don’t quite know how you got there, but it seemed like a natural thing to do. For me that metaphor almost comes out of re-examining the work and seeing what’s happened by what I try to keep as a very intuitive process. And I keep finding, over and over, that certain things do keep reoccurring.

TH: Once you have these metaphors, after you’ve worked on the project for a while, you then let the audience know what these metaphors are through program notes, titles, and the like. Is this just to let them in on how you’ve come to think of the work? Is it to give them a gateway into understanding it themselves?

SA: Most of my work is very abstract in nature. You know, we’re talking about static buzzing around, Still Life being much more narrative-based in a sense. But the truth is I actually like to tell stories, even if they’re really abstract stories that don’t really necessarily relate to characters in a place, but a progression of ideas or elements, or visual progressions, or some sort of semi-abstract meanings, or conveying of dread or fear maybe. For instance, the airport videos have this underlying unease about them, which is not quite describable. But somehow there’s this metaphorical idea as a way to tell stories in a sense.

TH: Doing this type of music is not how you support yourself financially. You do have a day job which is quite enviable to a lot of people in new music: you’re an architect. How have your two lines of work influenced each other?

SA: Well, I certainly learn a lot about acoustics, and about how sounds and environments can interact. I’m very aware of the acoustics of spaces and how that can impact social behaviors, or maybe not impact social behaviors so much but indicate things to people. How does the sound of a space change your behavior in a space? That’s something that I’ve certainly become aware of, and that’s really a product of working with music and sound, and that’s led me to new architectural understandings.

I think it also works the other way. A lot of what I’m doing visually and sonically is really also about space, and how space is layered. When you’re creating a sound piece, again this is maybe a metaphor, but I really can’t escape thinking about space and how you layer up different sounds to create new spaces. Or, visually, what is the kind of space you’re representing? So, if I’m working on some sort of video, there’s a space that’s developed within a screen of objects–the foreground, background, so forth. There’s another layer of space, which is how a TV sitting in a room blasts out static and sound. How does that actually affect the space outside of it? So, space is something that I guess really plays an important role in everything that I’m doing artistically as well as architecturally.

TH: So this begs the question then, how do you find appropriate venues for your projects?

SA: Um… lucky invitations?

TH: You had your own venue, 7hz, for a long time.

SA: I do think every space has potentials for certain interpretations or certain uses. I think a lot of times it’s not about finding just the right space, but finding how to interact with a certain space. So, for instance, with this project Intrasound that I do with Randy Yau, every space we perform in is different. We never perform in the same space twice, and the performance really becomes an interaction with that space. So it’s a collaboration, in a sense. What we’re doing has a certain similarity from performance to performance, but how that set of parameters–the set of simple sounds that we use, sine-tones–interacts in a space is completely different in each context. So it becomes an interaction and a collaboration with the space itself.

TH: How much of a challenge is it for the A/V artist to find the appropriate venue then? Even if you are able to interact with the spaces in all sorts of different ways, you need to find a space that will at least let you.

SA: I suppose that depends on how aggressive you are as an artist seeking certain kinds of spaces. Maybe it’s an issue that I’ve never really confronted directly, because, as I said earlier, I actually accept invitations to perform, but it’s not something that I particularly seek out. So for me, in a sense, it’s maybe not a challenge at all, because I’ve never really attempted it. But if you’re talking on a different scale of how are there venues for this kind of work, and what are they, and how appropriate are they, that’s a really good question.

TH: Because it’s this between-two-worlds thing. It’s not really designed for the concert hall or the club, and it doesn’t really quite fit into the gallery exhibition.

SA: Yeah, it’s in a strange world of its own. Maybe that’s one of the things I like about it, because it means that it’s not institutionalized. Certainly media art is institutionalized to a certain extent, but I like the idea that there is always a struggle to find the right space, and that’s where I think the space then does become a kind of collaborator. It’s hard to show work in galleries and museums. The ultimate space, I suppose, for a museum, is that it’s kind of a blank box, and that you can put anything in it. But that means everything that goes in is really your responsibility. The space isn’t going to give anything back to you. I like the idea that the space gives something back to the artist, that it provides a context and a way to work.

TH: You’ve now been involved in this scene for how many years?

SA: Well, since the early ’90s.

TH: How has it changed in that time, especially in regards to available technology, and also just in regards to the general community?

SA: Well, my first videos were made on a VCR done with pause editing. So that’s really changed. Certainly there are new groups of people doing things, so that’s always evolving and changing. The technology and the kind of tools that you have to do things with are changing. Although I don’t know how much that changes the work, because in the end the work is really about ideas, and hopefully the technology is something that will help people get there. I don’t know, styles come and go, and trends come and go, and noise is big, and then it’s not so big, static is cool, now narrative is cool. I mean, there are always shifting ideas, and it is constantly evolving. But on the other hand, I don’t know that it’s changed since the 1900s.

TH: Something that struck me about your work is the importance of volume. I can put on one of your CDs and listen at a low volume and experience a ghostliness to the music. But as you increase the decibel level, it becomes this very visceral and immediate experience. When you do it live, what’s the preference?

SA: Ideally, as loud as I would like to make it in the moment. Or as quiet. Again, there are always contextual issues–what kind of PA, how big is the space–so there’s certainly some variation. And I actually try to make the performance appropriate to the kind of situation you have to deal with, in terms of PA size and audience and so forth. Having a good PA that’s super powerful is not necessarily about making it loud, but about having good, clear, clean sound. If you have that, you actually don’t have to play as loud, because you’re not going to hurt people’s ears with a good system.

I guess the reason to play loud is to make it visceral, to make it a body experience, and to make something that is much less intellectual and much more physical. I think sound and media art is a really experiential medium. It has to be something that can really engage all of your senses as much as possible. And loud sound is definitely something that is a physical force as much as a sort of aural force. And a visual stimulus as well; if you have a strobe, it’s a very intense visual thing. You know there are things going on that are effecting your eyes, and having your iris dilate very quickly can actually cause a very strong physical reaction as well. So there is this kind of desire to make it much less of an intellectual art and an intellectual pursuit and much more of a physical one.

TH: A lot of dissemination of your work occurs through CDs or other recordings. To what extent does it concern you, if at all, that listeners can control the dynamic level, and thus, in a way, the meaning?

SA: I think more importantly there is a big distinction between what a live performance and what a CD is. For that reason, and to a certain extent maybe I regret it, but I have documented very few of my live performances, because they are very much in the moment. And so things that you will do live, a kind of improvisation, are so contextual that they will never live beyond that moment, even in a recording. I think there’s a really strong difference between the two. So, if I’m making a DVD or a CD the differences may be subtle, but they’re actually very important. And how you manipulate a sound live is going to be very different than what you would put in a sort of medium that gives listeners a choice. I actually like the fact that people can adjust the volume and change it. I think I like live because you have a sense of control over the presentation of it. But when you release a CD to the world it takes on its own life, and that’s a good thing.

TH: Of all the people we’re interviewing for this feature, you are the only one who is based on the West Coast. How is the West Coast different for new media arts? How is it different for presentation, audience reception, or is there a difference?

SA: Well, having not spent much time on the East Coast, I’m not quite sure what the differences are, although it seems as though it’s a different country. I can really only speak on my behalf. There’s certainly some connection between the East and West Coast, but it’s actually in a way a big void. And I don’t mean the Midwest, because I think there must be tons of stuff going on there that we’ll never know about as well. But there’s kind of a lack of communication in a sense, and it’s because of distance. I would say that the West Coast, and San Francisco particularly, has been an amazing place for experimental media and new media, for people doing things completely outside of any institutionalized system. All over Oakland, the East Bay, everywhere, there are shows in warehouses like this one. It is, in a sense, very underground, but it’s also very active. There are a lot of new ideas constantly coming spontaneously out of these places. So for me, that’s a very defining thing for the West Coast. On the East Coast, I just don’t really know what’s going on there, so it’s a little hard to comment on the differences.

TH: It’s been my experience that the East Coast is the same way, people just don’t know what’s going on on the West Coast.

SA: You know, I don’t think it’s a pride thing or a competition thing. It could be, but I don’t really think it is. I think it is a proximity thing because a lot of this work, at least the part I’m interested in, is very much about the live performance, the experience that you can’t really reproduce. Proximity is a necessary factor. You have to be there to experience it. You can trade CDs and DVDs, and I think a lot of that does occur, but that’s not enough to really bridge the gap.

There is a sense, too, that the West Coast is the end of the project of Westernization. You hit the Pacific, and there it sits. I think California artists have always prided themselves on this kind of feeling that they’re sitting at the end of the Western experiment. I do think there is a sense of pride about being experimental that I’ve certainly felt here and been inspired by.

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