Soul Surfer is what happens when you take a grunge band playing untamed sets in dark European basements and hand the reins to New York video artist David Matorin: 70 minutes of mind-bending, heraldic paradise. The band is Tithonus, and its founding members are Jan Van Woensel, curator, writer, and editor of New York Magazine of Contemporary Art and Theory, and Ben Overlaet, a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the Free University of Brussels.
Soul Surfer (music video) is both video art and music video. It’s a dirty, feature-length oasis of golden bodies. It’s the ebb of moments flipping over, a person sinking into mountains of water and moving through into something else. The movie takes what is indelible, transient, and true, both from the sets Tithonus played throughout Europe and from the story of Bethany Hamilton, a teenage pro surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack, and expands these through sound and light into an experience that engulfs the brain. It’s an ecstatic, highly textured lament, both in sound and in imagery, and an experience in balancing the two that deserves the full seventy minutes.
Maria Anderson: How did you two decide to work together?
Jan Van Woensel: David and I have collaborated on numerous occasions before, especially in exhibitions I curated throughout the US. In January of 2011, the band I was in at that time, Tithonus, finished recording a 70-minute long composition of grungy riffs and noise-soundscapes. I thought it would be cool to ask David to make Tithonus's first music video, because I’m a big fan of his work.
David Matorin: When Jan asked if I wanted to make this feature length music video, my eye twitched a bit at the thought of tackling such a monster. But knowing Jan, I had to say yes. He has a clairvoyance for marrying sensibilities, so I knew it would work out. Collaboration is also a wonderful vehicle for getting out of comfort zones and into unexpected territory. The work really easily takes on a life of its own.
Anderson: How would you describe the video’s progression? What devices, emotions, or images move the music and the images from beginning to end, and how do these elements work together?
Van Woensel: Before David made Soul Surfer (music video), Tithonus performed its set live on stages throughout Europe. When I play for people, no concrete images come to mind because the music is so demanding and requires all my concentration. It may sound chaotic and improvised at times, but there's a very concrete structure in our set that we have rehearsed again and again. Now, when I listen to our studio recording of the set, I only see images of Bethany Hamilton, oceans, waves and palm trees.
Matorin: I think of the video as an epic journey. There’s a heroic protagonist who we’re always with, and we see her moving through these beautiful but potentially destructive spaces. Noisescapes and voltage music often conjure maritime images for me. Something about turbulence and flow. Also, mountains and sea, as subjects of the Romantic Sublime were on my mind at the time. That, and the movie, Endless Summer, which I love. I like how the surfers in that movie lead this nomadic existence, chasing waves around the world.
Anderson: Why did you choose Bethany Hamilton?
Matorin: The first time I saw an image of her was on a bus stop advertisement in New York. I remember stopping in my tracks. She was posed with her shark-bitten surfboard, gangly, teenage frame and big smile full of braces. It took me a while to decide if she was real or not. She's such an indelible image. She looks like something invented. Just as sculpture, she has this mix of horror and sublime that contains her whole narrative. And her narrative seems ready-made as well. The inspirational story of triumph over adversity. Bethany fits this mode we have of the unfortunate wounded whose courage reminds us to appreciate life. Her life is like a Lifetime movie. But at the same time, she's too big for that. Her image is never not shocking. It speaks to primal fear. The fear of being fucking eaten for fuck's sake. She exposes that real abject fear of body-as-material that goes beyond any narrative container. But still, what she does as an athlete, as an artist, is incredible. So, the narrative does hold, but slips in and out for me. I just find her endlessly fascinating and was happy to find a home for that fascination.â€¨â€¨The Tithonus connection comes from my reading of the music as being about aftermath and memory. Like Bethany's missing limb is a constant reminder of the irreversible. Of some, "if only..."in the past. It just seemed to fit right away. Her videos have a home movie quality to them, too. Like vacation pictures. There's definitely an element of fantasy suffused throughout Soul Surfer (music video). Sandy beaches always carry that for me. I wonder if there might be a climatic empathy between Jan's growing up in Belgium and mine in the Northeast US. Summer is always a temporary utopia that lives mostly in memory. For me, there's a mythic quality to endless-summer climates like California and Hawaii, where Bethany is a native species. She's a part of this fantastical westward paradise that exists in memory and projection. And there are times when she starts to stand in for the music's object of desire. Like we're hearing from the cameraman's perspective. He becomes a character in this winter-bound fantasy of the past.
Anderson: The concept of appropriating and manipulating online content to craft a video is interesting. David, is that something you do often in your work, or is this a new thing for you?
Matorin: Yeah, it’s definitely something that has emerged uniquely from this process. Re-purposing material is something I do often. But the online component is significant to Soul Surfer (music video) in some surprising ways. Completely coincidentally, there was a Hollywood film about Bethany Hamilton also called Soul Surfer, which was released at the same time we were finishing our video. That one is a biopic aimed at a teenage audience, trial and triumph kind of thing. When we uploaded ours to Youtube, we noticed that it was sitting in the queue, completely undifferentiated from this movie's promotional materials. Which means that most of our clicks have been from people looking for something else entirely. Jan and I have talked about how when we were kids, this kind of music was very hard to find. It took a real commitment to seek it out, and that commitment marked you as part of that culture. A lot has been said recently about how culture has essentially changed since everything is accessible now. There's another side to that, which is that someone can be unwittingly exposed. The fact that a 16-year-old girl in Nebraska looking for a video from the soundtrack of this Hollywood movie is very likely to click on ours by mistake and have this strange, dark world seep in is very exciting and weirdly subversive. It puts the project into a whole different alignment of the popular/esoteric. There's something nicely reciprocal about it too. Most of the video I gathered from these same online spaces. I like the act of changing it and putting it back where I found it. It strikes me as a timely and generous mode of appropriation.
Anderson: The idea that new audiences can be inadvertently reached through youtube is really exciting. How do you see platforms like Youtube and Vimeo changing the way people access new music and video art? How do you think this will change in the next few years?
Matorin: I think there's a growing acknowledgment among artists putting work online that it's a specific context unto itself. The work that you put there can be the actual work, rather than a demonstration. The accidental audience is uniquely accessible online because everything is flattened out. Art, entertainment, commerce, it's all just data. There's always potential for a kind of Psychogeography online that Jan and I are exploiting. I like to think of the whole Web as a kind of city. There are different neighborhoods, different districts with prescribed purposes. But if you move from one neighborhood to the adjacent one, you often find yourself somewhere else entirely. But Soul Surfer (music video) is more about displacement. Like, if the Mudd Club opened up next to Saks 5th Avenue or Century 21, and swapped the addresses. The first place anyone saw the video was on Facebook. We posted eight sections over 8 weeks leading up to a show Jan curated. I think it was met with a mix of excitement and bewilderment. That displacement again: social media isn't supposed to be where you're asked to experience a 70-minute, high-definition video of droning noise and glacially-paced portraiture. Which of course, was the point of putting it there.
Anderson: How does the video play in physical form? The video screened last May at MontyABN Art Center in Antwerp, Belgium. Has it screened anywhere else?
Van Woensel: The video works best as a large projection on a wall in a darkened exhibition space, with the audio playing loud on noise and drone resistant speakers. Soul Surfer (music video) is not an easy work. It demands attention and care at the same time. I installed it in a group show in the gallery I curate and many of the other works in the exhibition sort of disappeared in the slow pace of video and the loud noise and grungy audio riffs. The other works were more intimate and easier to digest, so the balance between all works was very interesting. Soul Surfer (music video) will be screened in the Waterhouse Gallery in Tel Aviv, Israel some time next year. I'm thinking about doing an underground screening of it too. I think it just works really well in dark and cold basements of industrial warehouses near the city.
Anderson: What is Tithonus's relationship with the popular/esoteric? How have both of your usual audiences reacted to Soul Surfer?
Van Woensel: It's difficult to say since I left the band a while ago because I didn't like the direction it was going. I started my own project, Pilots & Waves, which could be regarded as a more pop-like band, but still has my personal twist of dissonant guitar noise and soundscapes, sometimes transgressive and sometimes more esoteric. For me, Tithonus peeked when a musician colleague, Ben Overlaet, and I played our 70 minute-long noise composition to audiences throughout Europe. Those were very intense shows. After each show, we always had one enthusiastic, new fan. We loved that. I received great reactions to Soul Surfer (music video) as well. Some people I didn't know before emailed me to congratulate David and me for having collaborated on something brave and unusual like Soul Surfer (music video). I already asked David to direct Pilots & Waves' first music video for our soon to be released song Secret Girl. I'm already looking forward to see what he'll do for it!
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