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Systems of Noise and the Experiential Glitch Companion: An Interview with Jonas Bers

Jonas Bers at “Performing Systems,” 2015 Refest edition at CultureHub. (Photo courtesy of MovingPictures.Gallery)

By BENTON C BAINBRIDGE, Aug. 2016

Jonas Bers has brought his hypnotic audiovisual performances to diverse art spaces ranging from the collective Silent Barn to the institutional Lincoln Center; from Chashama Gala’s skyscraper pop-up in the former Condé Nast Times Square offices to Hudson, NY’s cavernous industrial venue, Basilica. I spoke with Jonas Bers about his transformation from a rule-breaking musician to real-time media artist who makes custom sound and image instruments from obsolete ‘90s tech. This interview was conducted in conjunction with Performing Systems: Jonas Bers, a solo A/V performance and digital media exhibition with MovingPictures.Gallery.

Benton C Bainbridge: How did you arrive at making realtime media and building your own custom systems for audiovisual performance?

Jonas Bers: It's been a long road. I started playing music when I was a really little kid. My parents forced me to play violin when I was 3 or 4. Suzuki method — super early...playing a Cracker Jack box with a ruler taped to it to learn rhythmic structure.

Even then I was exploiting idiosyncrasies in instruments, trying to use pieces of equipment in ways they aren’t intended for. I remember skronking on the violin, above the bridge...playing glissandos like police sirens. The teacher would get pissed and tell me to stop. I guess that drive was there even back then: "it's boring playing the notes on the page, I want to see what else this thing can do." Playing with the tuning pegs...she didn't find this amusing.

In the late 90s, I started DJing hip-hop and getting into production, using samplers and drum machines and all that stuff. That was a real outlet for using equipment wrong. Turntables have been folded into mainstream culture as musical instruments, but there was a time when they were just record players. Touching my dad’s turntable while it was playing was grounds for serious trouble. My interest in hip-hop production was the beginning of really breaking the rules with equipment. I was doing a lot of exploration, finding broken old gear and electronic toys from thrift stores or flea markets, sampling every dusty record I could get my hands on, playing them through guitar pedals, making strange little loops and snippets and dropping breaks over them. And DJing in that style: everything but the kitchen sink.

Homemade audio devices used in Filthy Filth throughout 2012,
including Andrew Morelli’s infamous “Dirty Ghetto Whore." (Photo courtesy of the artist)

I did that all throughout the 2000s, doing small self-releases with my weird beats, getting DJ gigs and hanging out with MCs...then, I got exposed to the experimental music scene after moving to New Paltz.

Filthy Filth was a weird anti-synth pop band I formed with Andrew Morelli (who went on to start Steady State Fate). That's where building gear came from, straight from Andrew. He showed up to band practice one day with a distortion pedal he’d made in a cigar box, with "Dirty Ghetto Whore" written on it in sharpie. That blew my mind: "woah, you can build your own equipment, insane!" I started spray painting all my equipment gold, doing things like putting input jacks on bullhorns and using them as guitar amps. I was getting handy with a soldering iron and starting to learn some basic electronic engineering — building my own stuff. We hollowed out a guitar and built a light-controlled synthesizer into it, adding an old arcade joystick on it that controlled the pitch — I would wear a head lamp around my waist and gyrate on it to make these terrible screeching sounds, it was ridiculous.

Inner workings of a light-controlled guitar/synthesizer used in Filthy Filth.
(Photo courtesy of the artist)

A neighbor had been playing super heavy drone music. We got together and started a drone duo called hARBOUR, which ended up relegated to all the weird spots that experimental and noise musicians play in: "I guess we can play in an art gallery because if we play in a bar everyone's going to throw beer bottles at us." hARBOUR now collaborates with Jack Walls. Jack was Robert Mapplethorpes’ partner up until the time of his death, and a brilliant artist and writer. He wrote an epic, surrealist prose piece that we perform live with him once or twice a year.

One fateful day I found a JVC color corrector at a flea market. The idea of Video Art had been rattling around in my head, and by that point I had some basic engineering knowledge under my belt and a pretty elaborate electronics studio. I started experimenting with all this stuff, interchanging audio and video, sending them where they shouldn't go, and beginning to modify video equipment.

I started to incorporate realtime video into hARBOUR performances, but we would only play like one show a month, and I was working every night and every weekend, like a man possessed, trying to build these new A/V systems; researching, learning more about electronics, building new devices. I started playing solo realtime media sets, then the next thing I knew I was playing solo sets almost every week. That brings us to where I am now.

BCB: What's your process to build the system you used in your realtime media performance with MovingPictures.Gallery?

JB: It's an editing process like any artist goes through in any kind of work. There are a million pieces that no one's seen because they've never left the studio. I'm always experimenting with a lot of different things. What I choose to make public is something reliable; something I can reproduce. I need to have some virtuosity with it, so I'm not just fumbling around and wasting the audience's time. I know the language of the machine and I'm going to share it.

BCB: You said “I know the language of the machine and I want to share it." How do you share the tools you make with your audience that may not have your technical background?

When I talk about the “language of the machine” I’m referring to the countless hours I’ve spent tinkering with the circuits and learning all the capabilities — intentional or not — that these devices have. The more time I spend with them, the more I’ve found that I can communicate through them. I should explain for people that aren't familiar with my work, what we’re mostly talking about here are minimal black and white shapes moving around a screen. Not generally what one would consider to be a very evocative medium. It’s exciting when communication happens through my systems. It says something about human interaction. I try to make my performances feel intuitive, beginning with very simple functions that become more and more complex, all the while telling a story. I’ve found that people with less of a technical background seem to “get it” more often than technically-minded people, who can sometimes get stuck on trying to understand the technology.

Installation to promote “6 Unusual A/V Sets” at Silent Barn in 2015.
(Photo courtesy of the artist)

BCB: What are you currently using to create audiovisual art?

JB: Always different things, but most recently, at the core of my system are a couple of heavily modified Panasonic MX50s, video mixers from the 90s. They were used for mixing videos and adding transition effects for a live broadcast or post-production. A person new to this technology could think of it like a realtime Power Point generator, to make all your transition FX from one thing to another thing. I play these like musical instruments, making minimal patterns, mostly in black and white, and extracting sound from the electrical impulses used to create the images. I'm able to automate all those procedures with modular synths I've mostly built from schematics for old synthesizers, like the Serge. A lot of DIY people build these old synths, it's a tried and true approach, but it's not often used to automate video mixers and especially not to sonify video signals.

"Lissajous Sequence" (detail). 2016. High-resolution limited-edition digital print. 24 x 18 inches. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Still image from Taenaris . 2015. 1:38 mins, b/w. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

In modern audiovisual performance something is usually secondary. The sound is secondary to something we see, or the sound triggers a visualizer as accompaniment. A video artist may make something elaborate and beautiful visually, but then might have a bland drone or field recordings seemingly just to have some sound in there. In my work, one isn't more than the other, sound and image are often the same electrical signal. We’re hearing the electricity that contains the video, and seeing the electricity that contains the sound. Equality.

Lately I’ve also been using vector monitors to draw realtime Lissajous figures in performance. I’ve mounted a camera to the screen of an old CRT display, and I can draw on them using my electronics systems. We hear the sounds of the electronics and see the relationships of the waves they produce on the screen. It’s a captivating effect. Hearing the lines. The old CRT monitors produce mysterious glowing lines. When they’re rescanned with a video camera they appear ghostly and film-like. Like a flickering electronic zoetrope.

BCB: There's an inter-relation between the sound and image, and both are integral to your work. You’re not making a soundtrack for a pre-rendered video nor making a music video to accompany an audio track.

JB: Everything is happening in real time. That’s one of the inspirations for making these systems, I need to be able to edit in real time. Magic happens in real time. When you can edit in realtime you begin to have an instrument, something you can play. Video editing software isn’t designed for improvisation. I need to be able to turn a knob and experience the result immediately, not after it renders for three hours. That's been a drive, being able to make a better interface for myself to play these video instruments.

Still image from the music video for "Beast from Beast" by Long Distance Poison. 2015. 10:58 mins, b/w. (Photo courtesy of the artist)   

BCB: How do you your performances respond to the venue, the audience, the moment?

JB: I try to stay in the moment and pay attention to what I’m feeling. I’ve been learning to slow down and act with more intention. Performances used to feel like a fist fight to me — chaotic and quick — over before I knew it. I’m not really comfortable being in front of an audience, so there’s always adrenaline involved in a performance, which can be a challenge. Like jumping off a cliff and trying to feel the sensation of falling. I’m hyper-aware of the audience, which may come from when I was a DJ, or maybe why I was drawn to that. Communicating outside of spoken language. I always have a structure in mind for a performance — a basic plot outline — but the space and the feeling of the room has an effect on how I tell a story.

BCB: What do you hope for an audience to get out of your performances?

JB: Damian and I had long conversations about our intentions for hARBOUR. We were playing durational drone music to try to hold space for people, and ourselves, to contemplate or meditate. I used to call it “sound healing for sarcastic atheists.” My solo performances are an extension of that. There are things I’m saying, and it’s exciting when they come across, but that’s not necessarily a goal. It’s more important for me just to hold the space.

BCB: Your practice originally comes out of a musical practice, but now you're working in the visual field. Where do you see yourself within this art form?

JB: I don't think of myself as "what am I"...it's more about "what am I interested in."

My mother, who is an art professor, took me to see Bill Viola at the Whitney as a kid, which blew my mind. I’d always been surrounded by art, but never imagined that I could be a visual artist until seeing that show. It was one of those, “I could do that” moments. I’ve been realizing that all throughout my life I’ve been looking at minimalist works and wanting them to move or make sounds. I wanted to see all the Sol LeWitt variations going by in a flipbook, or see a Stella droning and animating; zooming in and out. I can never see a Rothko painting as anything other than frequency bands now. They look like musical tones to me. My grandfather made all these geometric modernist plexiglass sculptures, and I wanted to see them in motion. Unfolding and transforming. My grandparents had great Bauhaus furniture and tile patterns all over their house, and I would just stare at these things and try to imagine them crackling and humming - animating with all the colors inverting. Although our work is very different, I feel a kinship to Norman McLaren who I’d guess shared some of these feelings — wanting to hear shapes in motion.

I’m less interested in music these days. I'm really angry at music actually. I'm finished with music. I used to live and breathe music, especially as a DJ. I really don't care any more. My instincts are leading me toward the audiovisual.

The experimental music scene I’ve been exposed to has embraced this. There was a long time when I was making weird stuff in the attic and feeling like a sociopath. Now, there are all these other weirdos I've joined forces with who have allowed me to thrive. So many things have been done before, and there's a community of people who want to see something different.

hARBOUR accompanies Jack Walls at Dixon Place for a 2013 performance of "The Ebony Prick of the White Rose’s Thorn."
From left to right: Jack Walls, Damian Patrick Cleary, Jonas Bers. (Photo by Anthony Tino)

BCB: For years, the art world was dismissive of art made by artists — there was a deliberate rejection of the artist's hand. Art became a reflection of, or upon, dominant socioeconomic forces and artworks became branded product — the ‘artist’ didn't even touch the tools of creation. I see an inversion happening — the music on the radio, you don't think about the musicianship behind the songs. Now, art audiences are interested in the artist's hand once again.

Working with the MX50, your control signals, it's like you've "enhanced" your hand with the voltage control signals. Or, you've bionically enhanced the mixer with circuitry to make patterns that weren't possible with the MX50 previously, to create repeating, metronomic, metric montage. How do you extend yourself as a performer through the tools? What’s your relationship with the signal?

JB: It's like I have 10 hands and I can move them all with precision.

I'm using elementary waveforms. It's an earmark of my work, simple waveforms like sine, saw, square, ramp, triangle. It's part of my minimalist approach. My systems can easily create very complex waveforms, but I keep coming back to the simple ones. A triangle wave rocking the mixer’s T-bar back and forth like a see-saw, a sine wave breathing, a square wave clicking a switch on, off, on, off…that's what appeals to me.

I was obsessed with juggling as a little kid and sometimes I see my performances like plate-spinning. There are always many simultaneous interlocking processes going on in the system. I start one thing, begin to build another thing, trigger a third thing, then go back and give the first thing a little nudge, making sure it’s still in time. People, especially conventional musicians, show a great deal of ignorance when they denigrate electronics with lines of thinking like “anyone can hit a button” etc. My recent work with audiovisual systems is far more complicated and requires more dexterity and focus than the conventional performance approaches I’ve used in the past, like strumming guitar chords for instance. At any given moment, there are hundreds of things that could go wrong, and the results would be obvious to anyone. I sometimes hear performers in the avant garde community taking pressure off themselves by thinking that because there’s not necessarily context for their work, the audience won’t notice mistakes, or “there’s no such thing as a mistake” or whatever. I don’t think that’s true at all. People know. A non-art audience knows. We all know. That kind of thinking disregards our innate connectedness. Filthy Filth was once literally, physically thrown out of a bar. We told ourselves that it was because the audience was too dumb to understand what we were doing, but really it was because we sucked. 

Filthy Filth paraphernalia. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

hARBOUR reluctantly performed in a bar at one point and a typical bar crowd started doing interpretive dance and buying us drinks. Both were very unconventional performances, but average Joes knew that one was good and one was not. Guess I got a little off-track. What’s my relationship with the signal? It’s complicated.

BCB: Can you describe your approach to abstraction — how do you know a composition is working?

JB: That’s what I was just talking about. We know. We can feel it. Humans are hunter/gatherers; we’re wired for appraisal. “Is this berry good to eat, or is it poisonous?” We know it when we see it. Ellington said “If it sounds good, it is good.” I agree with that. There’s a reason not anyone can make a Pollock — there’s something appealing and difficult to articulate going on there. One of my guiding principles is knowing that if I’m really feeling something, other people will respond to it too, which is why earlier I said “we” can feel it, instead of “I” can feel it. Artists especially pretend that we have a unique perspective, but we’re all just humans living on the same Earth, with roughly the same sensory apparatus, tuned to roughly the same frequencies. This is one of the (many) reasons I despise academic art. Having a background in social work has given me a lot of empathy but also a very acute bullshit-meter. If you need to explain why something is good, it isn’t.

2012 A/V performance at the now defunct Fitness Center for Arts and Tactics, one of many artist-run galleries extinguished by Brooklyn gentrification. (Photo by Naomi Lore)

BCB: Do you feel that there is an emotional quality to your work?

JB: That wasn’t my intent going in. At the beginning I was just following the machines. Unearthing the animations I wanted to experience. As my technique has improved, my voice naturally started to come through them, and I’m an emotional person. There are times when I think of a performance as a release of all the pain that I hold for people. I have a dual life — spending my weekdays counseling young people and families living in unimaginable circumstances. There are things that I’d like to talk about, but can’t out of respect for the trust I’ve been given in those relationships. We think that we’re desensitized to violence and horror, but we aren’t, and unfortunately I’m constantly reminded of that. I could definitely tell you some things about the ways young people are being treated that would be deeply upsetting and infuriating — startling. So, some of those feelings and stories come out in performance sometimes, abstracted. What that experience feels like for me, and how I try to reconcile those feelings. There have been times when those thoughts are fresh and then I arrive at some extravagant Manhattan venue and listen to people complaining about first-world problems while I’m setting up. I realize that our human struggles are all relative, and we each have an equally important human experience. Anyway, it’s sometimes satisfying to wash those those privileged voices away with a nice loud PA system. You can’t stand a particular brand of quinoa, but I earlier today I talked to a kid who is probably going to bed without dinner right now. Sad but true.

BCB: I see you rigorously exploring the formal qualities of the systems you set up and these fundamental wave forms. It makes it easier for people who haven't touched this old school equipment nor used a soldering iron...I see people responding to your work whatever their familiarity with the tools you're putting to use.

JB: I don't want to obscure the process. I try to make my performances intuitive, usually starting with very simple shapes and showing how they become more and more complicated, evolving through time, so the audience knows where things came from. I'm not trying to assault people with a bunch of patterns, with no context for how they’re made or what they mean.  I'm taking people through capabilities of the machines, demonstrating what they can do, and then assembling some more complex things, so it feels like we're doing this together. The images and shapes take on meaning this way too. It’s natural for us to anthropomorphize things — even something like a dot — if we see them go through a process.

Bers’s custom A/V setup for “Performing Systems: Jonas Bers” at MovingPictures.Gallery. (Photo courtesy of MovingPictures.Gallery)

BCB: Is this the reason you bring out so much gear, when it could stay in your studio along with all the other pieces you haven't made public?You're not an analog purist — you occasionally use computers to make realtime work. Still, you usually perform with a car full of equipment. Why do you put so much into, and use so much equipment, at such great effort?

JB: Realtime audiovisual software is great for certain things, but the tactile control is really lacking, and the software can’t keep up with the control frequencies I like to use. One of the nice things about analog is that when you push analog equipment past its limits, the results are usually pleasant. When I push computers past their limits the computer will look for other work (laughs). It will give up. I'm using all this stuff in ways it doesn't want to be used and the computer isn’t into that. I was just making a simple feedback loop with some software this morning and it caused a brutal crash.

Computers are also too slick for my taste. Sometimes they'll be part of my process, the computer will be in there somewhere, but just performing a single task. I recently took the video output from my crazy analog system and sent it into a computer to wrap it around a sphere, then the bright parts of the sphere were displaced via a digital process that was being manipulated with the analog signal. It was like sculpting with a video signal. There are things that analog can't do, but the computer can't match the life that analog equipment has.

When people ask me how to get started in glitch video art, I like to tell them to chew on the wires. Some of the really complicated patterns that I do can be done just by grabbing a cable and tugging on it and pulling and bending it. You can't do that with a computer in the same way.

Still image from the music video for "Beast from Beast" by Long Distance Poison. 2015. 10:58 mins, b/w. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

BCB: Just make sure the cable you're chewing on is not the one plugged into the wall.

JB: I got a shock earlier, I got an electric shock from my drum machine. That was one of my early device modifications. I need take a look at what's going on in there.

BCB: Do you have a favorite venue / gallery, or what was your favorite show?

JB: I’ve stumbled into some crazy opportunities over the past few years — Lincoln Center, the Chashama Gala in Times Square, playing in a huge underground mine, international screenings, it’s all been very exciting, but Silent Barn is by far my favorite place to be. It’s the place where I found my voice. I only perform there a few times a year, but it’s been a vital and nurturing place for me. Gotta thank Nathan Cearley, one of the many “chefs” (Silent Barn is collectively directed) who gave me a chance at an important time in my development, kept inviting me back, helped me put together my own shows, and gave me some confidence in myself and my work. The community, atmosphere, and respect I’ve experienced there is the standard that I compare all other venues to. It’s weird to even call it a venue. It’s definitely more than that.

“Performing Systems: Jonas Bers” realtime media performance at MovingPictures.Gallery Photo courtesy of MovingPictures.Gallery

BCB: Does a live environment vs. museum/gallery exhibition & playback yield/require different work?

JB: My medium is live performance. Anything else is “work” and puts me in a different mindset. I came to realtime performance to escape from how mind-numbing the studio can be. I’ve done installations, recordings, prints, sculptures — all sorts of stuff — and I have ideas for a lot more, but I don’t consider any of that to be my practice, just ideas I can’t get out of my head until I see them realized. Like if I was a poet and you asked me to submit a cupcake as an example of my work — then I’m thinking, “ok, how can I fill this cupcake with my poetry?” Maybe it will taste weird, or maybe it’ll be the best cupcake you ever had, but either way, one cupcake doesn’t make me a baker.

BCB: Now that music isn't moving and motivating you, where do you find your inspiration?

JB: Obsolete technology! An early project of mine was called “Future Cities of the Past.” It’s funny and revealing to see where people thought progress was headed and were completely wrong. I feel like an archaeologist sometimes with this stuff. I also like to imagine that I’m living in an alternative timeline in which these machines are relevant, like I’m engaged in some sort of important technological process with my high-tech control panel. Trying to retrieve Selenium for my photocell banks on the planet Mercury.

I’m thinking about big questions too. Meaning of life questions. When my thoughts drift there’s a good chance I’m trying to imagine what is beyond infinite space or something like that. We spend much of our lives concerned with inconsequential minutia that dominate our media, so why not a circle? A circle is universal. A circle is sublime. A circle is a crucial and visceral piece of human existence that is imbued with meaning and power. Let’s pause to consider a circle, together. It’s something pure that we can all relate to. We all like circles. Some of us prefer squares. My work incorporates both, so...

Sensory perception and hypnosis are things I get excited about as well. For the brief time that higher education held my attention, I was studying music and psychology. I’m starting to think more about things like afterimage and pseudo-hallucination. Strange sensory phenomena. Op-artish in some ways I guess, but I’m thinking about these things from a phenomenological perspective. Investigating the illusions we believe in, thinking that we have any understanding of the universe with our crude sensory apparatus. It’s hilarious. I’m considering the parallels in EMDR (audiovisual stimulation used in trauma treatment) and audiovisual sensory integration too. Powerful forces. WM

Benton C Bainbridge

BENTON C BAINBRIDGE is a media artist based in the Bronx. Working with custom systems of his own design, Bainbridge creates immersive environments, interactive installations and time-based artworks. Recent showings include Bandung International Digital Art Festival 2016 (Indonesia) and solo exhibition Priority Mixing at NACC in Bangkok, Thailand. Currently, Benton C Bainbridge’s work is included in the exhibition Signal to Code, exploring 50 years of electronic and digital artwork and ephemera held in the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art at Cornell University. Bainbridge teaches “New Forms in Media” at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Computer Arts Department. Benton C Bainbridge is a Founder of artist-run #mediaart framework MovingPictures.Gallery.

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