Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The game is on...

Children's Games received a RACC project grant for 2011!

A few excerpts from the proposal:

The goal of Children’s Games is to produce a rich musical experience that is simultaneously dramatic and allegorical. After several years of collaborating with choreographers and dance companies, I am passionate about exploring a challenging, idiosyncratic and hybridized use of the theater to create a work somewhere between music concert, cinema and performance art. My primary impulse for this work is a deep concern for the ways in which corporate, big-budget fantasy images are increasingly colonizing and replacing undirected, self-motivated, small-scale play in both children and adults. Children’s Games will dramatize this struggle in an allegory of the movie-theater audience as willingly infantilized, hypnotized and receptive to dominant ideologies. Using cinematic images against themselves, I will deconstruct their effects, allowing viewers associative and imaginative freedom.

The piece will be comprised of four distinct layers: 1) a large HD video projection with stereo sound, 2) a ten-person mixed-voice choir, 3) several synchronized video monitors, and 4) a live electronic band. Each of these four zones will contain a series of "games" - scores or procedural devices that result in rhythmic and narrative behavior. Distributed throughout the performance space, individual games will overlap and interact. Organized by rhythm and intensity rather than narrative and character, Children´s Games will expand and contract, drifting from solo voice to full choir, from a single video to a dense interplay of cinema, sound effects and evocative electronic songs. Merging media and expanding the definition of music, this performance will celebrate the associative, fragmentary and irrational aspects of imaginative play.

Children´s Games will be an adventurous work filled with haunting images, vivid compositions and strange sounds. Drawing on research into film theory, cognitive science, the loss of play in children, catharsis and special effects, I will examine the power of narratives to shape our view of the world, and argue for the independence and freedom to play.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Perfectly Imperfect

After watching Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) for the third time, I have a few thoughts about why it remains so interesting... How is it that Argento never again matched the audio-visual shock of this film? While obviously sensationalist, stiffly acted and generally absurd, every scene in this movie displays an idiosyncratic approach to editing, sound and set design. Like many viewers, I am amazed by the film's confident, over-the-top beauty and grotesquery. Intensely artificial, Suspiria produces a Brechtian distance that I find thoroughly enjoyable. Cinematic effects are emphasized at the cost of coherence. While some of these eccentricities may be the result of low budgets or technical limitations, I find it more interesting to treat them as intentional - stylistically or conceptually purposeful.

Suspiria is sometimes attacked as being overly stylized, or stylized at the cost of content. However, it’s exactly this excess that I like - the way the film so obviously reveals itself as a machine for producing effects. The first thing we notice is the use of overly theatrical lighting - intense reds, blues and greens sculpt space and create chromatic drama. This is apparently a tradition among Italian giallo directors, as demonstrated in a much earlier film, Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964).

Argento amplifies the color to an even greater degree, emphasizing its garish and cartoon-like possibilities. We first encounter ballet student Suzy Banyon in the generic modernist space of an airport where the pools of primary color seem out of place. We immediately know that something is very wrong...

The same excess could be noted in the editing style of this first sequence. As Suzy leaves the airport, Argento abruptly cuts to a close-up of the automatic door’s pneumatics. The edit feels similar to the three-shot “salvo” in the “Dead Dan” sequence of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

While Hitchcock reserves this technique for the climactic moment of his film, in Suspiria it is unmotivated, and the significance is unclear. Suzy’s world is presented as one in which ordinary objects and encounters are overloaded with unexplained dread. The effect peels away from meaning and the edit becomes a stylistic device.

Sam Raimi plays a similar game with the viewer in Drag Me to Hell (2009), for example in a scene where a white handkerchief “attacks” the windshield of a car, animated by a sharp edit and a blast of "stinger" music.

By quickly deflating itself, the moment reveals how shock is unrelated to content and is instead simply a collection of techniques, designed to manipulate audience response. Raimi invites us to observe our own reactions and to laugh at the silliness of how easily we can be controlled. Argento, on the other hand, maintains a serious, even maudlin tone throughout. The same jump-cut technique is again used as Suzy rides in a taxi through the rainy night. Streams of blue water rush noisily into a sewer grate and we are left wondering – what is the significance of this shot? Should we pay special attention? Will the theme of water be developed later? Does the shot explain something about Suzy’s mental state? In the end, it seems only to emphasize a universal dread - a sense that the banal world has become filled with antagonistic ill-will.

Such antagonism is pervasive and can also be found in Suzy’s interactions with other characters. While she seems to be a sincere and well-meaning young woman, the residents of this unidentified German town are snide, ironic, rude, demanding and aggressive. Their attitude seems so entirely unprovoked that we have to wonder where it comes from. Are we witnessing the subjective view of a paranoid schizophrenic?

This transformation of the “normal” world reminds me of a description of physical exhaustion on Radiolab. As a long-distance biker pushes past his bodily limits, his mind revolts and hallucinations emerge, creating a final burst of desperate adrenaline. It also reminds me of the spooky forest sequence in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), in which the limbs of trees transform into monstrous claws, clutching at Snow White’s dress as she flees. This animation, a direct inspiration for Argento, itself
was based on classic horror films such as Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).

The soundtrack by Goblin is another strong component of the film, and one much noticed by fans. There are a number of things that make the soundtrack unusual, beyond the groovy psychedelic music itself. First, we notice how prominent the music is, and how quickly it takes over. The soundtrack often subsumes the image and these sequences begin to feel like a music video. Apparently, the music was often played loudly on the set to put the actors in the appropriate mood (a technique David Lynch also employs). In the first sequence of the film, Argento cuts between tracking shots of Suzy in the airport, and shots from her perspective. With matched sound edits, the music is associated to Suzy’s point of view - but why? It continues through her rainy taxi journey, and returns again and again throughout the course of the movie. These manipulations of intensity are impressive and, like many of the other elements, incoherent. Where do these layers of creepy voices and demonic growls reside? They create an ambiguous space – more than soundtrack, but not quite diagetic. Overall, this excess has a tendency to flatten the film. Rather than building toward moments of violence, the entire atmosphere is suffused and equalized.

I’m also intrigued by the ambiguous role of the “band” Goblin. Too moody to really succeed outside the context of Argento’s films, and yet too forceful to operate as simply supportive emotional soundtracking, Goblin are stuck between the world of fiction and the real world.

There are other pleasurable discomforts in the sound design of Suspiria. Many of the sound effects are over-loud or over-close. The voice dubbing displays the infamous Italian tendency towards looseness, and many of the vocal affectations (accents, etc.) are ambiguous and exaggerated. The editing of dialogue reveals strange shifts in acoustics, moving inconsistently between various amounts and types of reverberation in a single scene. The acting itself feels both stilted and hyperbolic. I often have the impression that actors are reading their lines from scripts.

An additional distance is created in the lack of appropriateness in the script itself. Apparently, the lines were originally written for ten-year old actresses. When it was decided that the film was too violent for such young actresses, the script was not revised to reflect adult attitudes. Thus we have actresses who don't "fit" their lines, adult women who act like children, and a feeling that the dialogue splits away from the "reality" of a scene. This distance between the voices and their on-screen bodies again creates a beautiful artificiality.

Finally, one must comment on the outrageous geometry of the sets, with their art-nouveau curves and sinuous lines. In combination with the dramatic, richly-colored lighting, these over-embellished floral patterns and contrasting ornamentations produce a refracted, gothic, interior world. The consistency and zeal with which Argento decorates this film is excessive. Scopophilic pleasures are encouraged and in many ways become their own separate (even dominant) plotline. It’s worth noting that characters in Argento’s films are often killed by pieces of art. Is there a thesis here about the dangers of beauty?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reality / Parody

"It doesn't matter how real or true the facts are; the issue is how something that somebody says is transformed into something that will change the world. (...) That happens a lot in oral communication. I can say something - it doesn't matter if it's true or not - but your reaction and the emotion it generates within you are real. (...) The actual facts are not important but the consequences of what is said are real and tangible. I feel this way about the world in general. (...) Reality is not something that exists but something that we have constructed, and since we have made it, we can also remake it differently."
- Lucrecia Martel, in conversation with Haden Guest, Bomb Magazine, Winter 2009

"It is clear that the world is purely parodic, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form."
- George Bataille

Saturday, November 13, 2010


"Allegory resists fantasies of strictly teleological history in favor of fleeting instants where "meaning" is forged between past and present, in "the depths that separate visual being from meaning"."
- Adam Lowenstein, Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film, quote from Benjamin, The Origin of German Drama

I'm becoming more interested in allegory as a means of structuring narrative, and this has been leading me into new research. I like how, in allegory, everything can be something other than what it is, or what it seems. Horror films lend themselves to this kind of reading, as symbols, stand-ins, replacements for the "unrepresentable". I am choosing to create a (mis)understanding that all horror films are 'actually' about the act of watching movies. I want to to read horror films (specifically those films that involve children) as allegories of spectatorship. I like this exaggerated sense of metaphor, the intersection of repression and fear, the formative trauma of childhood, the imbalances of power. But also the sense of play, the knowledge that "it's only a movie".
If I have a tagline for Children's Games (the way movies do), it will be "Narrative is a game we play with our bodies."

I am stuck in between the idea of making cinema and the idea of making music about cinema. As my music becomes more like a soundtrack (arranged rhythmically), I want to make videos that are more like music (arranged as a soundtrack). In any case, the conceptualizations for these videos are becoming more elaborate, to the point where I'll probably have to ask for help from a professional. As I imagine them now, I will need a soundstage, actors, lights. For example, I would like to shoot all of the 'scenes' against a rear projection screen. This will allow me to have two layers of camera work, and a disassociation between setting and action. I recently watched the original Godzilla and loved the obviously fake (yet still spectacular) array of special fx, including rear projection. What if the rear projection includes its own close-ups, edits, pans, etc., and is brought into active conflict with the shots? I am interested in pushing the artificiality of the video to the point where it can be read as something other than narrative - music. I am in awe of the moments where actual narrative films do this - scenes from Guy Maddin (especially Arcangel) or Lucrecia Martel come to mind.

Monday, November 1, 2010

What's been happening?

It's been almost four months since my last post (how did that happen?) so I thought I would spend some time describing what I've been doing.

Work on Children’s Games is moving slowly, mostly on hold in anticipation of - fingers crossed – funding, but thinking about the piece has continued. Recently, research has included Nietzsche on the Dionysian and studies of feral children... I am now convinced that the work will need to go in two directions, perhaps simultaneously. First, I'm imagining a series of installation “clusters”, using video projection, television monitors and speakers. This mode can allow a non-linear, looping sensibility, with random intersections between elements. It has the advantage of being transportable and of having the possibility to exist within the gallery realm. These clusters would be a way of testing material, following tangents or developing ideas that may eventually find their way into the second stage - that of the performance. I'm now realizing that the project will require much more elaborate video shoots that I previously planned. I have a dozen scenes sketched out or scripted, and I’m now starting to think about strategies for gathering material, technical and creative resources. I am most excited about working with rear projection screens and actors.

Secondly, I’ve been making music for a new band, a project that involves Taryn Tomasello and Gabi Villasenor on vocals. Formed over the summer as Crippled Athlete, we've played one show as a noise duo, and another show as a trio, with all new material that I might describe (tentatively) as "psychedelic noise dubstep". This music has furthered a fascination with vocal sounds and percussive textures that I began in Flock & Tumble and continued on Knives. It's been fun and a bit strange to work in a format that resembles the structure of a traditional band, something I haven't done since Alial Straa in the mid-90s. The music I've been making is quite a bit more condensed and forceful than past work, with electronic and acoustic drums, distorted layers, and other effects. I hope that the band will eventually exist in the "real world" as well as participating in Children’s Games. Here's a rough mix of a new track that will eventually include vocals.

breeze by Seth Nehil

I’ve also been continuing work on the cut paper pieces (see above), and working towards proper documentation of my last three years of visual work. I was recently nominated for the PortlandNW Contemporary Arts Awards (along with about 300 others), which has provided the needed pressure to rebuild my website, a long overdue task. On the new site, I'll represent my drawings in a more vigorous way, and elaborate on how my sound work has shifted toward performance in the last four years. Look for that soon!

Speaking of online activity, I've been writing for Intransitive magazine. Several interviews are underway, including conversations with Oregon Painting Society, Sean Griffin, and Micah Silver, among others. These articles will appear over the next few months.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Irrational Degradation

My increasing attraction to gothic, hyperbolic and parodic rhetoric has me reading an excellent biography of George Bataille by Stuart Kendall. I've read the pornographic novels Story of the Eye and Blue of Noon, but Bataille's theoretical works have remained somewhat impenetrable. This brief summary of his ideas has me underlining every other sentence. I'm drawn to these elaborate, knotted and knotty words: lacerations, corrosive, monstrous, sacrificial...
Some juicy tidbits:
"It is clear that the world is purely parodic, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form." "A derivative work merely copies a respected original; a parody degrades that original with mocking mimicry, assaults its absent and abandoned authority. Parody is the literary equivalent of transgression, upholding as it undermines." "Materialism is above all the obstinate negation of all idealism, which amounts to saying, finally, of the basis of all philosophy." "Base matter 'refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these [ideal human] aspirations'." "'I submit myself entirely to what must be called matter, since that exists outside of myself and the idea.' Base materialism is a corrosive sense of matter, one in which form ruins."
I've always been interested in extremes, seeking out those areas that push against, struggle with, reject, distort and interrogate the status quo - perhaps as a balance or foil to my lack of actual activity in such areas, my generally placid exterior. (Though I'm increasingly worried that bitterness and aggression leak through my social anxiety...) At any rate, it remains a theoretical interest in extremities, except perhaps in art practice.
Using extremes in work is a difficult proposal, however. How does a piece simultaneously invite and assault? The accusation of difficult work is that it excludes and is exclusive. Two impulses battle within my desire - that of appealing among a wider audience, which rubs against my own tastes in repetition, intensity, ugliness and confusion. Hopefully this friction can be productive. It creates a quivery feeling in my gut, a feeling of pushing against invisible (and therefore all the more resistant) walls. The difficulty of adapting the preverbal (or even precognitive) impulses into a clear, strong voice. A cloud that rests just beyond the reach of fingertips.
My favorite work remains uncompromising, theatrical, obsessive, elliptical... and obscure. Robert Ashley, Jerry Hunt, Costin Miereanu, Catherine Sullivan. I've been thinking more and more how my favorite artistic experience is one of unresolved confusion. A kind of sustained, elevated inability to make sense of things, suspended within formal precision and aesthetic integrity. The longer a work can resist my mind's struggle to find or impose coherence, the more I'm interested in returning, thinking and exploring.
Plunging into the dark shit which animates and balances the dynamic of existence.

Monday, May 24, 2010


New full-length CD out now from Sonoris. With a beautiful 3-panel sleeve featuring the photography of Harrison Higgs. From the press release:
Furl is the sequel to Seth Nehil’s critically acclaimed 2009 release Flock & Tumble, also on Sonoris. Continuing his exploration of physically charged, acousmatic sound, these compositions whip, crash, swoop, glide and burble. Clusters of bell-like tones pierce hazy, corroded atmospheres. Animalistic yelps, distant pings, percussive bursts and glassy swells all merge in this unique sound-world. These five pieces are both rigorously-assembled and gracefully sparse. Furl will be a welcome addition to the expanding catalogue in Nehil’s futuristic organic paradox.

Write to me directly at s_nehil(at)yahoo(dot)com to order.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I started mapping the network of associations around Children's Games, which is still growing.
This research feels like a process of expansion and contraction - edges become blurred, interests become dispersed, everything connects, and then boundaries are drawn, pieces are defined, and specific connections become more important than others. I would say that any of the actual work exists on (or draws energy from) the paths between these nodes. It's becoming clear that "Narrative as control" is the pervasive concept - the atmosphere within which the entirety exists. I ask questions to create a friction and produce a spark. Clearly, since Aristotle and Plato were also debating the role of catharsis, an answer is not likely forthcoming!
Most recently, I have identified the rhetorical device of the chiasmus as an important structural concern, one which could rest at a deep substratum. The chiasmus highlights a mutually embedded, paradoxical relationship between terms. And what a beautiful word!
Suggestions for further nodes of research are appreciated...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why children? Why now?

Blue Book Tile by Gabriel Liston

I've been circling around the motif of the child. I've been thinking about how the world of children could be seen as separate and parallel to the adult world. I find it both difficult and intriguing to try and experience or remember the child's state of mind. I've been trying to place myself in some of those memories - the way everything seemed within the impressionability of a lack of experience.
Where these states of adulthood and childhood push against each other, there exists an interesting narrative space. The "Child" is a concept - an invention of adults. The subtitle of a book I haven't read (yet) suggests there is an "impossibility of children's fiction". That is, the dynamic is always unbalanced because children can't write books to define their own experience (though there are likely some interesting examples of collaboration). There is always a power dynamic, and children are subjected to (and desire) the narratives told to them by adults. These narratives seduce, they organize the world, give it coherence. They also simplify, limit and distort. One of the things that's interesting and vulnerable about being a child is not knowing where the possible ends and the impossible begins. I remember the delicious feeling of believing (or allowing belief) in what is known to be a story - that strong desire for there to really be a world inside the wardrobe.
I've also been thinking about the way the space of childhood is increasingly colonized by adults who arrange and plan children's time. This is also a loss of wild spaces of the mind. There exists a widespread discussion about the loss of play in children (just google it). It's becoming apparent that unstructured time is being replaced by the "playdate" and other highly structured activities such as video games. Various entities want control over the bodies and minds of children - schools, parents, and not least the force of capitalism, which searches for any opportunity to transform experience into consumption. Unmeasured and "wild" experience is domesticated by brand bonding as early as diapers and chew toys.

Wherever I explore, many others have been before, and a network of thought seems to recognize connections everywhere.
One connection: I rented The Black Stallion the other day (because of the Alan Splet credit) and was pleasantly surprised. The film echos some of these themes of wildness and domestication. It seems to belong to another time, before product tie-ins and movies as a "franchise" (though I guess there was a sequel). It's quite a beautiful movie, filled with close-ups, textures and fragments, as the young boy Alec enters a dream-world through the portal/nightmare of a ship crash and island stranding. The narrative plays out in a child-logic way, fulfilling a fantasy of becoming-animal which seems to operate along mythic structures. It takes impossible leaps, from ship to desert island to small-town America, from the rustic stable to the energy of the racetrack.
The horse and the boy are analogues for each other throughout the film. On the ship, something in Alec recognizes and identifies with the horse - restrained by ropes and forced into a cell. On the island, both become wild. Alec cuts the ropes which have entangled the Stallion, setting it free. He eats seaweed, sleeps in a cave and roams the island almost naked. Eventually, the boy and horse bond - by taming the horse and wilding the boy.
Back in civilization, it's a difficult transition. Alec falls asleep in the back yard, as if the bed is no longer familiar. Following the runaway horse, he wanders through night time streets and curls up in an alley. He finds "The Black" through a kind of divining intuition, and an oblique riddle delivered by a "wise old black man" (the mystical Other). He finds the stable, which is guarded by an angry owner/ogre who, when confronted, turns into a kindly old man. Opening a hidden door, he discovers a dusty room of racing trophies and old photographs, a place of tradition and learning. Alec's obsession with the horse feels like a wish for control, a desire to replace the dead father, and now he's found a paternal place. Continuing the process of merging, both horse and boy are trained and domesticated into a horse/boy machine. "Don't take the wild out of that horse," the old black man warns ominously, and some disaster seems imminent. Will there be terrible consequences from this diminishment and control, restraining and directing the primal force of the Stallion? The Black fights and is injured, but they win the race and the movie ends happily (and suddenly) in a haze of wish fulfillment.

Another connection: I just bought two of Gabriel Liston's Blue Book Tiles. I've been admiring them for years, and was spurred by the show at NAAU that just ended. The paintings: two children burying another child in a pile of leaves, and a girl with a dead mouse on a shovel. His images feel like uncolonized child space, moments from future memory, embedded with the feeling of deep impressionability. (And they're appropriately Bruegel-esque for my tastes.)
As I'm thinking about this loss of undefined space, I've also wondered about the loss of boredom. As the market colonizes experience with endlessly absorbing brand-associated narratives and takes over liminal spaces such as vacant lots, children lose the opportunity for boredom, danger and unsurveilled play. In Gabriel's paintings, events happen with a lack of adult supervision - children in the process of figuring it out for themselves, getting hurt, inventing things. The other day, I mentioned my ideas about the need for more spaces of boredom in class, and a student led me to this appropriate quote (which he found by randomly opening a notebook):

“Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.” - Walter Benjamin

Oh, right. That's why we need boredom.

Friday, April 30, 2010


Sreshta Premnath is one of the smartest people I know. His magazine Shifter is smart too. And not just because he asked me to contribute to the latest issue on the subject of Pluripotential. You can download a complete pdf of the issue here. Sreshta requested scores, instructions and similar materials, and I took the opportunity to notate some of my ideas for Children's Games (After Bruegel), as a set of procedures for realizing independent sections.
I don't usually score pieces before engaging an experiential process. In the past, I relied primarily on recorded structures, oral transmission, rehearsal, a few sketches. I tend to distrust my imagination to accurately render the results of complex interactions. Creating these as scores which, to some degree, accept the results of their imperative, has been part of a larger shift or experiment in my process. In the few months since writing these, my ideas have continued to drift and I've added several more sections, modified others.
I see each of these sections as independent, recombinant, interlocking, possibly overlapping. They could be shown separately or together, in various combinations, and as exhibition, installation, or performance. Which has led to something of a crisis in terms of defining what it is... I could even imagine some of them existing only as proposals.
I'm interested in each of these sections as a node or point along a route of investigation, as evidence of intellectual or conceptual drift. It feels good to follow the tangents of research, but at some point unity will become an issue (or not?). It feels good to indulge in conceptual speculation, but at some point I will need to encounter the translation to participation and actuality. It's going to stay undefined for a while.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Swamp

(spoiler alert - this entry reveals important plot details.)
I've been watching horror films lately, but it's often difficult to explain what I see in them. I tend to look 'through' the films, viewing them with a lens that filters specific information. The "wrong" elements are usually the most interesting - poor dubbing, flat acting, disassociative editing, incomprehensible plots.
Thanks to a well-timed suggestion, I've been been immersed in the brilliant, unique world of Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel. All three of her films are amazing, but I've been particularly inspired by her first feature film, La Cienaga (The Swamp). I see this film as a potent meditation on the relationships between horror cinema, "real life" and representation. It takes all of the best things about horror films and accomplishes them without the fantastic, supernatural, or bizarre. It's the normalcy of La Cienaga that makes it terrifying. Here we have the internalized horror of daily life, the small perversions, widespread violence and embroidered visions that make up an ordinary texture.
The result is a parody (in the best possible sense) of horror’s focus on effects. We see this beautifully in the first scene, the first shot of shaking hands pouring blood red wine, the melting font of the opening titles, the too-loud sounds of clinking, the fragmented shots of aged bodies and the disturbing screech of disintegrating chairs dragged across poolside concrete by drunken "zombies". Sounds and gestures that would usually derive from moody superimposition are here the result of ordinary occurrence (while still understood to be stylized and "constructed"). ‘Pit’ music is absent throughout the film, while the plausible sounds of thunder, gunfire and dogs are musicalized, repetitive and ominous. This sequence builds to a minor bloody anticlimax which, in the style of Bresson, is heard, not seen, and accompanied by the film’s one and only example of nondiagetic sound – a piercing graceful ring that follows the sound of shattering glass.

As with all of Martel’s movies, La Cienaga drops us into a teeming, complicated set of relationships, without explanation. The adults are ineffectual and scatterbrained while the teenagers are hyper-sexualized and feral. A sense of torpor and horizontality dominates -sticky summer air, fetid pools, afternoon naps. A group of boys prowl the mountains with guns. We experience this world as a slight disorientation through voyeuristic subjectivity. We are always left to wonder if we impose our own perversities onto the relationships. Edits are placed to ambiguate events, leading us to suspect or misinterpret. Every time we become certain, something intervenes to destabilize.

While vampires and demons are absent, there are other destructive myths playing through these character’s lives. Namely, a pervasive racial prejudice the upper-middle class family expresses against the racially “inferior” Indians with whom they are intertwined. This is a strange power game - dependent and dismissive, attracted and accusatory, arbitrarily lazy and blaming, or cruelly suspicious and inflammatory. The daughter is obsessed with the maid, alternating between sexual prayer and recrimination. Playing against this distrust is a continuously televised sighting of the Virgin Mary by a poor family on the outskirts. The dialectic reminds me of Michael Taussig’s thesis in Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, which shows the potent mixture of fear, oppression and mystical power that accompanies a mythology of the “other”. The casual racism of La Cienaga is truly horrifying.

This is a very difficult film to reduce - each interaction feels both deeply symbolic and totally mundane. Everything is important, but a simple listing of moments in sequence would communicate nothing. The pacing maintains an ongoing and dispersed state of dread. At several points, amidst the half-sleep and lethargy, we are led to expect something terrible – something that never quite happens. Finally, in the movie’s last moments, it crystallizes. We know the innocent young boy is going to explore his fear of “African Rats”, climb a ladder and fall to his death. We know it, and still it happens. The anticlimax of this event is strangely horrible and again, heard rather than seen. Instead of “showing all” and focusing on the sensationalism of gore, we encounter accidents as inevitabilities - average misunderstandings, common deformations and standard neglect. This is the opposite of a horror movie, and/or the most interesting horror films I’ve yet seen.

Lucrecia Martel discusses her appreciation of Horror cinema here. "LM: I always work with some elements of horror. I love the dissolution of reality in horror films. The lack of certainty, and the lack of security. What are you seeing? What are you hearing?"

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sound Aspects of Material Elements

John Grzinich's 57 minute video, Sound Aspects of Material Elements will be premiering at the Calgary International Film Festival next week. I had a chance to preview the film on DVD, and to play it for two of my classes recently, with John visiting. Given our history of collaboration and my ongoing studies of sound and moving image, I thought it would be interesting to narrate my impressions of this work.

Sound Aspects is a unique film, driven by sound, an elegant collection of acoustic location explorations over a three-year period. Static shots record open landscapes, blowing grass and drifting clouds, slight manipulations of abandoned and natural objects, solo engagements with architectural structures, duos and occasionally larger groups of participants “playing” simple found materials, with an emphasis on the resonant properties of tubes, wires, wind and water. In each case, all sounds are sourced within the location, augmented and activated through simple acoustic techniques – dependent on portable equipment which can mix or amplify. Each “situation” becomes an instrument, each “place” is approached as a rich source of sonic matter.

The film is interesting in its formal severity, a repeating structure. A black screen is bathed in continuous sound, and a sudden flash reveals the source of what we hear. This shot is held, or a series of related shots provide dramatic views and close-ups of contiguous space. Gently, the image fades to black, and within or around these black zones, a period of sonic overlap connects two regions. We listen in darkness until another image flashes on the screen, revealing a new source. Very slight variations in overlap and pacing heighten attention to sonic bridging (the anticipation of events through sound) as well as timbral relationships between sound-worlds. The film unfolds slowly, with each beautifully framed, unhurried static shot allowing movement to pass through. The images are crisply filmed in rich grays and blacks, which tend to equalize diverse landscapes and seasons.

Sometimes the source of the sound is evident, occasionally it is tangential or implied. Like many of John’s studio compositions, the sound is multi-layered, complex and continuous. It makes use of a kind of restlessness inherent in natural forces – the movement of water or wind, swaying branches, crackling snow. There is not, however, an overemphasis on “nature” as an idealized or separate realm. The fringes of rural Estonia provide many intermediate spaces – a territory that is utilized and activated in this project.

Sound Aspects is also interesting for its particular engagement with image-sound relationships. As an object of ‘sound art’, it negates or sidesteps a widespread fascination with acousmatic sounds (those heard without seeing a source). Here, nothing is hidden – there is a one-to-one relationship between sound and image. This showing or explication of the recording situation immediately diminishes an obvious sense of mystery (one which accompanies many field-recording based compositions) and replaces it with something much less obvious. At the same time, the technology works to reveal the unheard, to listen into materials, and to allow us what John calls a "nonhuman perspective". This is a refreshing mode, and it reminds one of the feeling of discovery. Sound Aspects demonstrates its own making, and yet is more than simply a demonstration.

I remember a conversation John and I had many years ago, when we imagined a composition in which each sound source would be documented, along with its subsequent manipulations, combinations or edits. We wanted to reveal the work behind the sounds, both as a way of observing for our own learning, and as a way of demystifying the sound production. Sound Aspects has found a way of accomplishing this idea through a dramatic simplification and limitation of the process. This simplicity is deceptive, for any number of reasons.

Field recording based composition often exists in a relationship to contextual information (or its lack). Lacking information, we listen closely for materializing sound indices to give us knowledge about the type of objects, their weight and density, or the acoustics of a space, and so on. If we are given information (recording notes, photographs, etc.), the recordings operate as a kind of signifier - a stand-in for an unknown location. We are put into the situation of imagining distant (often exotic) places and the traversal of space by absent bodies.

As is often stated, all recordings are the result of a complex chain of technical factors and material decisions – the type of microphone, its proximity to any sources of sound, the acoustics of the space, movement of the source and/or mic, etc. (Not to mention technological factors on the reproductive end…) And, of course, recordings are often mixed or manipulated in extremely complex ways which obscure sources entirely. The common argument in favor of the acousmatic is a focus on “sound itself”, but each composition finds itself enmeshed within complicated negotiations with the absent. This can be both a pleasure and a distraction. Sound Aspects, besides showing the play of materials, also "plays" this border between the known and the unknown.

Because of this, the film finds itself somewhere between ‘sound art’ and cinema. Unlike most of cinema, only real-time sound capture is used. On the other hand, we feel a strongly and persistently disjunctive relationship between what is seen and heard, because of the unusual miking techniques. While the shots are wide to medium-length, placing the figures or objects into a setting, we hear something interior. We listen into spaces and materials through contact mics or small mics inside containers, tubes and vessels. These decisions amplify, magnify and distort the sonic landscape. It feels like existing at two scales at once, like looking at an x-ray of a place. Desolate Estonian fields, ramshackle barns, windswept telephone wires, nighttime fires, abandoned and corroded metal tanks or girders, rustling grass and plants, invisible stroking of wind, restless ripples of water.

Sound Aspects of Material Elements doesn’t illustrate, interpret or elaborate upon sound with images, it just shows - demonstrating the elements at play in a particular situation. The links between sound and image are more than just causal. They are the result of careful exploration, fine-tuned framing, and a delicate balance of the haphazard with the instigated. My favorite moment in the film is when a contact microphone, adapted with many fine metal filaments, is placed on an ant mound and played by hundreds of tiny ants that scurry around, carrying pine needles to and fro. The crackly sounds of their feet on the metal disc, the soft plinking of the metal rods, and the distant, complex rustle of the entire mound create an elaborate, satisfying moment. These small creatures are activating the environment, and this in turn feels similar to other sections - a group of people pressing tuning forks onto a metal surface, raindrops falling onto concrete, or branches randomly striking a wire fence. Each situation is both activated and intrinsically active. Ultimately, the film is about looking and listening closely, exploring the potential within environments and finding pleasure in play.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Children's Games (After Bruegel)

I'm interested in Pieter Bruegel's Children's Games of 1560 for several reasons. First of all, I love Flemish painting of this period and Bruegel made some of my all-time most favorite images. I like the way this painting balances the minor dramas of many small groups interacting within the architectural or map-like surface of the entire canvas. Each cluster is arranged within a network that both separates and connects. This painting supports extended viewing and can unfold like a narrative as the eye moves from one game to the next, but without any set order. Again, the idea of a network describes this structure, the evenly distributed clumps receding into perspectival distance.
A sense of detail and humor dominates, but with a strangely ominous undertone. The theme of children as adults/adults as children and that of game as life/life as game produce a distinctly resigned attitude toward the follies of existence. A poem of the time states: "Play, even if it appears without sense/contains a whole world therein;/the world and its complete structure/is nothing but a children's game." (Jacob Cats, 1622). This could be the epigraph for my new performance/sound/video piece as it develops.
Occasional bursts of violence punctuate the activities. It reminds me how, in my own childhood, games were closer to torture than pleasure. I was hyper-aware of the way that, just under the surface of "good clean fun", there broiled the dynamics of competition, challenge and disappointment.
Additionally, I'm attracted to the idea of treating art-making or art activity as a game. The research, the building of the piece, the sets of rules or limitations, the interactions with others to produce the work, could all be seen as an elaborate game (one that is ultimately very serious and totally absurd). Thinking of the work as a game attunes it with the experimental - there is no one expected outcome, many possible outcomes.
In a strange loop, I remembered reading about Inuit vocal games, just as I was finishing the score for the first vocal research session and searched through my archives. Listening to these lovely short, hocketing vocal interactions between women is a good reminder of how great work can be impermanent, primarily social, and basically "not art". The recordings I have (Ocora label) mostly end with laughter. A reminder of how art activity should perhaps be called "play" rather than "work". I love this video:

The very first attempt to use ipods as a scoring device resulted in something quite interesting, though raw. I know there's a kernel of something I like here, but I don't know yet how to refine. Is it better to have more different loops or less? More voices or fewer?
More silence? More "singerly" voices or more "ordinary" voices? The next step will be to record individual voices and to work with those recordings, both as scores and as their own result.
vocal research 3/10 (take4) by Seth Nehil

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Performance Aggression

L - R: Emma Lipp, Elie Charpentier, Robert Burns, Theo Holdt, Sara Mapelli, Kelly Rauer.
Ideas have been slowly gathering since November for a new performance/video/sound work. A session last week allowed me to try out some ideas for using recorded prompts as a score, with vocal performers listening and responding to prepared parts. Research will continue on how best to utilize this tool, which I think must recognize its mechanical, isolating aspects.
My inspirations for this piece have circled around the connections between children's stories and horror cinema, and ideas about violent imagery. Some of these concerns were starting to emerge in Bandage A Knife - certainly the relationship between cinema and performance, issues of cinematic violence and the division of style and content. Linda's playful sensibilities tempered my darkness in a way that was right for that project. Now, working on my own, I find myself increasingly drawn to the gothic... I'm wanting to make a piece which is overtly, even relentlessly dark. Much of this feeling is based on a forgetting of various "pop culture" sources - remembering things only as I want to see them, diverting things, or actively perverting them. And, like Catherine Sullivan, curious about the symptoms these artifacts reveal (and those revealed in my own process). At this point, I'm following many tangents which lead to various avenues of research: Suspiria to Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the Brothers Grimm to Grimm's law of linguistic drift, etc. But not the actuality of any of these single things. Each of them could easily be a dead end, one fully explored by other artists and other works. It's something else...

I'm interested in writing and posting more about this work in progress. I want to explore and reveal the conceptual substructure of this work as it develops. At the same time, I want to be careful about allowing ideas their unexpressed ambiguity. In the past, I've been fairly private about sources and materials, thinking that they would distract from the work itself. Now I'm realizing that even "stupid" details might help to invite people into the work. On the one hand, I'm thinking of, for example, the "post-breakup solitary Wisconsin winter cabin" narrative that is constantly told around Bon Iver's album. It's a story that is united with the materials, mood and character of the resulting music, but it's a sentimental story - an overlay. I'm interested in a narrative which might itself be generative material, a narrative that is definitely unsentimental.
An area I need to research more is the question of "distancing". One of things that fascinates me about some horror films is where they remain undeveloped and flat. They are not interested in the depth of inner space, but rather the use of sensations, and a material manipulation to create effects. The wonderful Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel mentions her appreciation of this aspect of horror films and, like her, I'm interested in work which allows the experiencer to sometimes think "I am watching this." To simultaneously observe the operation of affects, and to feel effects. I'm not sure where this might overlap with Brecht's ideas.
I want to strip the surface of the work, minimize the materials, concentrate the use of insistence and repetition, extend the span of attention, focus on physical rather than pathetic effects. I'm interested in making work that might be angry, even forcefully so, but somehow without alienating or insulting the audience. The aggression of horror films is often on the surface - I want to drive it inward, create an implosion.
I've been thinking about an aggression which is not (or not only) one of content but of form. For example, a piece like Morton Feldman's "For Stephan Wolpe" which is absolutely beautiful as a surface - soft and open, composed of delicate textures - but on a formal level is so aggressively open, unresolved and unsentimental. It rejects many of the assumptions about musical form, but does so with elegant materials. This paradox and the music's utter sincerity are (among other things) what makes the piece great.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Performance Videos

So, as work begins on my new project, Children's Games (After Bruegel), I've finally started creating and uploading video excerpts from Bandage A Knife (2009) and Flock & Tumble (2008). Video can never quite capture the excitement and physicality of live performance, but at least this gives some sense of the goings-on. Many more coming soon!

Bandage A Knife excerpt two from Seth Nehil on Vimeo.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Knives LP out now!

Senufo Editions One. Clear vinyl, letterpress insert and cover art on chipboard sleeve, handstamped, numbered edition of 180.
Contact me for pre-ordering.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


First Thursday, March 4th, In House Gallery and Project Space

"Nehil earns a “B-” for hanging what might be the first cohesive show at Everett Station in four years. That, and he also has pretty good style." - Tanner Dobson

Friday, February 12, 2010

Grassland Alphabet

March 4 - 28, 2010

Opening Reception:
First Thursday, March 4th, 6-10 pm
Gallery Hours: Sundays 12 - 5 pm
Closing Reception:
Sunday, March 28, 6-8 pm

At the In House Gallery and Project Space
625 NE Everett St. #106 Portland, OR

These graphite drawings on paper from 2008 are calligraphic exercises - letter-forms constructed from waves and clusters of marks. I imagined a field of wheat attempting to form itself into words, a mute landscape swelling in the wind, blades of grass arranging and aligning themselves. The drawings were a pleasurable labor of repetition, feeling the softness and hardness of individual lines, layered in rhythm, feeling impressions on a surface while leaving residue, the forms bending under the pencil. Quiet drawings, these are landscapes gathered into bundles.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

New Experiments

...with cut paper and ink.
It's good to be back in the studio, just playing without results in mind. I'm increasingly (or continuously) interested in making work that feels fragile, temporary and simple. This has been a theme in my visual work for the last few years - wanting to get away from elaborate infrastructures of display - producing something that feels more humble (yet elegant). This is a quality I've always admired in Richard Tuttle's work - an approach that in his work is so extreme, it transforms into boldness. I like that transition.
I've also been interested in making objects that exist somewhere between drawing and sculpture. These paper-cuts are essentially two-dimensional, but they float and cast shadows in nice ways - they have a potential for dimensionality. They will likely each be hung with a single pin (as in this picture). I want to make others in which the ink warps the paper and gives it more shape. I've been inspired by Micronesian stick charts, something I first noticed in the Met.

These charts map ocean currents between the Marshall Islands for navigational purposes.