9 - 26 February 2011
Jonathon Nokes + Byron Dean
Byron Dean and Jonathon Nokes are two emerging media artists developing an installation practice.TRANSFER, their first audiovisual installation, explores notions of obscured realities, format transfer, altered perceptions and aleatoric experience. They have set out to reconcile the analogue past with the digital present, utilising various modes of synthesis, field recording, appropriated media and multi channel sound and video diffusion. Placed within an immersive audiovisual environment, TRANSFER emphasises the relationships between different forms of media, chance experience and spatial awareness.
TRANSLATION, COMPRESSION, LIFE AND CHANCE: THE WORK OF BYRON DEAN AND JONATHON NOKES
Byron Dean and Jonathon Nokes take pre-existing audio and video material and strategically transfer it between media formats to change it.
They pass material from one digital format to another, and from one analogue format to another, but they are most interested in the divide between analogue and digital formats, where the level of abstraction changes. Analogue formats represent a sound or image by making patterns in some kind of material; digital formats use analogue patterning to represent a numerical system, and then use the numerical system to represent the sound or image in patterns of numbers. Digital representations are still material, but their connection to materiality – to things we can touch – is more distant.
What changes when aesthetic material is transferred between formats, whether analogue or digital? Almost everything or almost nothing, depending on how we look at it. To think about this, let’s consider two aspects of an audiovisual aesthetic object: the look and sound of it, and the material from which it is made. For an example, take the movie Jaws and consider what a DVD and a VHS copy would have in common and what would be different about them. We’d be in no danger of mistaking a skinny round DVD disc for a chunky rectangular VHS cassette, and the two formats go about the job of representing audiovisual material utterly differently. But watching the two movies on screen we’d have no trouble recognising them as versions of the same content, though with some noticeable differences in quality.
As for the differences: when we translate an audiovisual object between formats something in the look and sound of it changes, and something stays more or less the same.
When we’re interested in being entertained by Jaws we ignore the bit that changes in translation as much as we can and focus on the bit that stays the same. We pay attention to the shark, not quirks of format. This kind of ignoring is like how we ignore the dirt on a window when we’re interested in what’s on the other side, or how we listened to vinyl before CDs existed (and we suddenly got nostalgic for crackle), ignoring the surface noise so we could hear the song.
Another option is to focus instead on what changes in translation, and this is what interests Byron and Jonathon. Translation produces both perceptible changes and imperceptible changes. Perceptible changes are the differences we notice between translations. Record digital audio to tape, and you change the distribution of frequencies, introducing hiss. Upload a video to YouTube and the compression algorithm will look for rectangles where the colours are more-or-less the same and encode them as single-colour rectangles. Encode a CD to a low-bitrate mp3, and you can hear that the sound has been decomposed into sine tones of fluctuating volume, giving the encoded version a chirpy sound. In all these cases, the perceptible part of the aesthetic object changes, and in this respect Dean and Nokes treat the array of available media formats as just so many tools to buff, polish, blur or patinate. They are interested in the artefacts of translation, and in layering these artefacts by passing aesthetic material through many stages of translation.
Even if nothing perceptible changed in these translations – even if the translations were perfect – Byron and Jonathon would perform them anyway, because they’re fascinated with the imperceptible changes too. Different formats go about the job of representation differently, even when the material being represented hasn’t changed much.
But since translation is rarely perfect, there are usually artefacts. Still, many artefacts are imperceptible unless you know what you’re listening or looking for. So whenever an aesthetic object goes through a process of translation or compression, it creates two audiences: the audience who don’t notice the difference and the audience who do.
In the case of, say, a compressed AVI of Jaws, the audience who don’t notice compression artefacts get to pay attention to a story about a shark. The audience who do notice the difference – let’s call them connoisseurs – get grumpy, because they keep getting distracted by artefacts.
Connoisseurs get grumpy when they notice artefacts of translation because they get tricked into being Platonists, who think that things in the world are imperfect copies of perfect things somewhere else. Connoisseurs think there must be a perfect representation of the story somewhere, rather than the imperfect representation they’re being subjected to. The idea of it haunts them and they can’t relax.
(I made this mistake once when I downloaded an mp3 version of the MC5 album Back in the USA. It sounded thin. There was no bottom end! I thought it was because the mp3s were badly encoded. I downloaded another copy; it sounded the same. Finally I bought the CD. I listened to it and discovered there was no bottom end in the original. The perfect version I’d imagined didn’t exist.)
Byron and Jonathon’s method is translation, then. Their goal is seduction and disruption. Why?
Well, daily life can seem repetitive, numbingly so. For one reason or another we devote our energies to the same things day after day, and our days come to resemble one another. We find ourselves in cycles, sine waves of activity in different phase relationships with one another. We get hypnotised by repetitive cycles. We sleepwalk.
The seeming repetition in our lives is an abstraction, because the stuff of each day is made of random accidents: chance. To see one day as like another is to see what days have in common and to gloss over what distinguishes them. We treat our days as similar even though some of the stuff they’re made from is utterly different.
The artists want to make it harder for us to sleepwalk through our days. Their strategy is to set up repetitive cycles of sounds and images, degraded in the interests of beauty. They invite us to enter the rhythm of the cycles they establish, and then they use chance to disrupt them. There’s poetry in this because our days are made of chance. They’re using the very stuff that structures our days to disrupt the hypnotising effect of cycles.
- Michael Pulsford