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Connect Sessions — Connectivity at a Glance

Ian Williams, Ron Amstutz

The well-worn anecdote that much of cultural history is built on the myth of the Great Artist has a punchline that’s also a poorly kept secret: it’s actually the collaborative process that lies at the heart of most creative human endeavors. And yet, early into the 21st century, society still has no better understanding of how most artistic partnerships work. Yes, we can recognize and reward the successful ones, but, outside of some biographical facts, we’re no better off in figuring out how the collaborators got to where they did.

The biographical facts behind the Connect Sessions powered by Microsoft video project that’s united musician Ian Williams and conceptual photographer Ron Amstutz are relatively simple. Amstutz was headlong into a second round of work that intertwined a series of staged images with his take on structural film, and having previously used ambient live sound, felt he needed a proper soundtrack. Enter Williams, who after a two-decade career of being in experimental rock bands (Don Caballero, Storm & Stress, and now, Battles) was opening himself to new ways of working. A mutual friend’s introduction opened the gate, and the pair decided to step through. The process of their collaboration was the primary subject of the conversations the artists had with SPIN.

In as direct a way as possible, tell me how this project started for you. 

AMSTUTZ: In late 2008, around the time the world was falling apart, I started coming back to the studio, sitting here everyday, trying to think through stuff. And because it was late fall, I would watch the light as it passed through my studio. That daily event can be pretty amazing. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s pretty cool. I had these amazing old casement windows that are all broken up. They’re so dirty and messed up, the light and the colors they cast are all different. So I decided to build a set right next to my windows and, for a day, film the light as it passed through my studio. Then I took like 80 photos of the light from nine camera angles, edited those down to a few frames, and that itself animated the movement of the day. At that point, I decided that I wanted to paint it, to sort of deaden this really ephemeral thing, and once I started painting the different reflections of light, I recognized that there should be some action in it. I had just come off of making this other piece with my body in the background, so I started to make a sort of movement. That was the genesis of this project. 

One picture led to the next picture, and before I knew it I was, in a way, choreographing a dance. If you’re interested in body art, you understand that it is a manipulation of your body as a sort of sculpture. So now I’m working really hard to make these forms in front of the camera, and the forms go from segment to segment, which generates its own movement. All the while, I’m painting these different bits of light as the background. So that was kind of the original idea. But I couldn’t only do it once. I thought, “We’ll do one with color and make it similar to what the light looks like, and then one with black, which is the absence of color.” That meant that I would go back, repaint the whole set and then redo all of those positions as precisely as possible, many weeks or months later. So I had to figure out what I had done to my body.  It became this performance thing. All the while, I was painting a costume, mapping my body as I went. I transferred painted colors from my set to my costume. And that built up its own form of time: this costume, which started off black or white ended up with all these lines on it at the end.

WILLIAMS: I like disorienting myself in each situation, having to re-find myself. For some reason, that feels more honest to me. Then, I don’t get trapped in my own personal clichés as much, because I’m always slightly disoriented. That’s why I often like to find myself writing for other people. So for Ron’s video piece in this collaboration, a friend introduced us. Ron said, “Hey, I really want you to work on music for this video. Let me show it to you.” And it was like — whoah, okay, this is intense. But it’s also interesting. I like it.

Who was it that introduced you?

AMSTUTZ: We met through Paul Brainard, an artist who lives and works in the city. I did know that my piece had to have a musical component, but I think I was also in complete denial. When you have strengths and weaknesses, sometimes you don’t want to deal with your weaknesses, right? So, with sound, I thought I’m not going to worry about it right now. I’ll figure it out. So really I was lost about sound. Yet because I do this other work — helping artists document their work, or, in some instances help them make pieces — I recognized that I needed someone else to come in and help me do it. So that’s when I started talking to other artists about it. And Paul was like, “Oh, you should meet Ian.” I was already editing [my video], but it hadn’t quite formed. There was still an opportunity for somebody to come in and be a part of this.

Did you know what kind of sound was going to be needed? Or were you looking for somebody who you can aesthetically trust? 

AMSTUTZ: I think the more you sit with something, the more you have opinions about what it’s going to be like. I got to a more final part of all these edits, so I became more opinionated. But certainly, Ian came to it with ideas about what the sound should be.  And I wanted to work with someone who is more like an artist, someone who genuinely just wants to make something interesting. That’s how it started with Ian; he was left to figure out the sound as he could.

WILLIAMS: So backing up, between 2000 and 2004, I supported myself as a video editor. In a very backwards way, I am very familiar with building and constructing structures of video and film to the logic of music. I think music is a slightly more subliminal form — like, when you see things, that really dictates what’s going on for a viewer. And because music is actually a layer below consciously, I think it is more powerful for organizing time and everything.  So the best way for me to cut video is to have a tune. You lay it down and then you cut the video to the major musical events. The logic of the music cues the visual. But Ron is a maniac. He’s already spent like a year doing the subtle timing of these cuts in his video, and he did it to silence.  The ebbs and flows of his video are already dictated by his own rhythm. It’s not typical. There’s not a steady tempo that you can look to and go, “OK, all those cuts, are at 120 beats per minute, so I’ll just slip something at 120 underneath.” I am composing to his edit. In a way the madness of that is something that I’m trying to embrace — but as like a creative spur.

AMSTUTZ: A lot has happened in my head recently about the potential for the sound, things I hadn’t been able to previously identify. I think we’re at this congealing moment where he’s making stuff, [and] it’s starting to fit into something significant. [When Ian came to my studio] he brought his microphone. I wasn’t really aware he was going to do this. He started manipulating simple objects in the studio and recording them, because he developed this algorithm that can generate a score from the sounds. And suddenly something in my head just clicked. That’s perfect.  Because it all comes back to doing a performance to make sound, which is then used to score another performance in front of the camera, and then uses a computer to interpret between the two. Which I think is just such a beautiful, amazingly-now idea.  So I’m completely onboard with pursing that as a concept.

WILLIAMS: There are patches and things that will read video — video DJs sometimes use this stuff.  You feed it pre-made visuals and then it generates music, or the other way around. So I’m trying to work out how the cuts in Ron’s work trigger mini-notes, and then how the mini-notes are going to different musical devices, to translate the logic of Ron’s beats and his timing into music. Or into something recognizable and steady. It’s weird. I’m trying to sample sounds in this place — closing doors, stuff like that — and then I’m just going to plug those sounds into the sampler.  The sounds are physical things in Ron’s space, which is the place where he made the madness of that video.  It’s an interesting thing.