The intimacy of strangers


I just finished my new film of microscope lichen landscapes, found on a rock in a fence at Trondenes in Harstad, Norway. The film was commissioned by The Arctic Moving Image & Film Festival with premiere october 13th, 2022.
The film was created using a custom made computer-controlled mechanical stage and a digital microscope. Almost 50000 microscope images were stacked and stitched together into miniature lichen landscapes, with a virtual camera flying over these landscapes.
For the soundtrack I used free-impro drumming (performed by Justin Bennett), inspired by the free-impro symbiosis of the lichen, that transforms into a sonic landscape of sci-fi space exploration and encounters with mysterious creatures.

My hope when making this film was to create a bit of awareness about what lichens are.
Apart from the extreme variations in appearance, textures and color, lichens have become the poster organisms for a new biology which challenges the idea of the individual and supplements the theory of evolution.
The title The intimacy of strangers is taken from a chapter about lichen in the excellent book on fungi by Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled life from 2020. It refers to the fact that lichen is not one organism, but a symbiosis of several organisms, and these organisms are not related at all, they are from different kingdoms. Mainly a fungi that partners up with a photosynthesising organism (either algae or bacteria). So instead of acquiring traits over long stretches of time through evolution (so called vertical gene transfer), the lichen combines traits from fungi and algae/bacteria through horisontal gene transfer: Once they have partnered up they have acquired these new traits, no need to wait millions of years.
This partnership also means it doesn´t make sense to talk about an individual, but rather an ecosystem of players with different roles.

Me and microscopes


Digital microscopes have been a part of my practice since 2007 when my live collaboration mikro with Justin Bennett was first performed at Paradiso in Amsterdam.
Like telescopes, microscopes extend our perceptive range, letting us see details of objects and organisms which because of scale remains hidden to us in everyday life. For me it is always a joy to explore the microscopic universes of textures, materiality and colors.

In 2016 I was commissioned to make a film for Vertical Cinema, a project initiated by Sonic Acts where cinemascope 35 mm film is shown in a vertical format. I decided to make a microscope film based on plastic wrappings from consumables.
I wanted to work with vertical motion for the vertical screen so I made a computer-controllable mechanical stage for the microscope to be able to create animation along one axis: For every image captured, the stage would move by a very small increment making it possible to then create an animation from the still images. This resulted in rift which premiered at the Sonic Acts festival in 2017, with soundtrack by Bennett.


While working on this project I imagined creating a mechanical stage that could move in both x (sideways),y (back and forwards) and z (up and down) directions, and also rotate around the axis of the microscope to be able to create curves that followed the terrain of the microscopic landscape.

In the late summer of 2020 I spent a lot of time alone working underground in a former water reservoir to make the two large scale installations Shadowgrounds for Factory Light Festival. One of my studio neighbours suggested that I should read Underland by Robert McFarlane. Which I did, or rather listened to while driving to or working in the water reservoir. One of the chapters in that book is about Merlin Sheldrake, which made me listen to his book as well about the mind-blowing world of the fungi.
I don´t quite remember how I in the same setting ended up listening to a book by Jon Larsen, of Hot Club de Norvège fame, about his obsessive search for micro meteorites. To document the micro meteorites that he eventually found many of, he collaborated with Jon Kihle who had a powerful microscope camera. This is when I first heard about the concept of focus stacking:
Microscopes have a very shallow depth of field, which means if looking at something which isn´t flat most of what you are looking at is out of focus. Focus stacking works around this by combining images taken with different focus distances, thus bringing out the three-dimensionality of whatever is under the microscope.

After having visited Harstad for location scouting this spring I decided that this was an opportunity to realise my next microscope project.
I had found the perfect location around Trondenes Kirke in Harstad, a beautiful area with a lot of history, both from the viking times and more recently the second world war (with Soviet labour camp and later a camp for the people of Northern Norway who were forced to leave their homes at the end of the war).
There are rock fences built around the church and the graveyard, covered with a carpet of lichen, the orange colours being the most noticeable. I thought it could be interesting to do a very site specific project, to just focus on life on this one rock in the fence (as a parallell to life on the bigger rock Earth).


I have always been interested in how things and organisms have completely different time cycles / durations, and seeing the lichen growing on the rocks on the fences around the church it made me think of everything that has passed by them during their existence (the oldest lichen that has been dated is 9000 years old and lives in Sweden). Although lichen and humans inhabit the same planet we live in parallell worlds with different time cycles.
Sometimes these worlds interact with each other: Lichen mine minerals from the rocks, thus releasing minerals trapped in the rocks to the greater eco system (that might end up in your body at some point). Lichens are often the first settlers on new territory: They make the first soil on new rock formations (islands, lava, mountains) which becomes a starting point for other life. Lichen notice the presence of the human world mainly through pollution which has caused several species to go extinct.

Many of my projects starts with first developing hardware and software that I then use to make a piece. This involves a lot of research and getting into things I know little about.
I often quote Ursula K Le Guin: “I don’t know how to build and power a refrigerator, or program a computer, but I don’t know how to make a fishhook or a pair of shoes, either. I could learn. We all can learn. That’s the neat thing about technologies. They’re what we can learn to do. ”


Making, learning and sharing tools is an important part of my practice, so the next section is an attempt at sharing some of the process (nerd alert) in making this film.
The challenge for the hardware side of this project was to be able to create a moving platform that was able to repeat the same motion over and over again with very small steps.
I am not so experienced with mechanical motion, so there was lot of trial and error before I was able to get the motion of the mechanical stage stable enough. I am lucky to have access to both the maker spaces bitraf and Fellesverkstedet in Oslo where I can make prototypes and finished work with laser cutters and cnc routers. In fact the mechanics and motion control of laser cutters and cnc machines are very similar to what my needs were for the microscope stage: Horizontal motion (x and y) and Vertical motion (to move the microscope closer or further away from the sample). On top of that I wanted to add mechanical rotation to this, thus having 4 axis of motion.


Luckily in the midst of my mechanical struggles I discovered the technique of stitching individual microscope images together to get a bigger mosaic image, something often used in medical and biological microscopy. This is to compensate for another inherent issue with microscope photography: The larger the magnification, the less you see of the sample (small field of view).
This changed my working process dramatically, as I instead of making individual paths for the mechanical stage to follow, I could do an automated grid scanning of a sample, and then make as many paths I would like in software later, making the whole process much more flexible.
So for each position in the grid there would be x number of images taken at different focus depths. As an example a grid of 5×5 would cover an area of about 8x8mm, and with maybe 50 images per tile this becomes 1250 images for one sample of lichen.


So how did this setup work?
The microscope camera is connected to a computer running a microscope imaging software (toupview in my case).
The mechanical stage consists of 3 motors being controlled via a standard arduino-based cnc 3 axis controller used in DIY 3D printers and CNC machines. The software to control this was Universal Gcode Sender, which basically sends information to the controller about the position for the XYZ axis among other things.
So for each XY position in a predefined grid (positions calculated in rhino/grasshopper but that´s another story) the Z axis will move closer or further away from the lichen sample to get different focus for the microscope. The actual low and high points is different for each sample so I do a manual check to get an idea of what works best for that particular lichen formation. For each Z position a trigger is sent from the controller via another microcontroller to trigger image capture on a computer. This is then repeated for every XY position in the grid setup.

After the individual images of each tile have been captured the process of stacking and stitching starts.
There are several options for focus stacking software. The two most popular ones are ZereneStacker and Heliconfocus.
For stitching there are some free alternatives like ImageJ/Fiji, with various plugins but I ended up using a commercial application, PTgui which is very intuitive to use and with great results.
After all the images have been stacked together, and when each tile has been stitched together with the other tiles I have a lichen landscape I can explore.
For this I create camera paths in free 3D software Blender from which I make animated sequences of the camera moving across the landscape. I started getting into Blender and camera paths when working with 3D scans in the performance Nye Krigere, and later in the series of point cloud works Vardø Kystopprøret, so I could use that experience to create camera (and light) paths to get interesting camera movements.

Finally for the soundtrack, I ended up using Reaper, which is a very reasonably priced DAW (digital audio workstation), and like Blender there is a big community of enthusiastic users sharing knowledge, making it easy to find what you look for.

The stars of the film
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stereolux

For my performance and installation at Stereolux in Nantes I answered a few questions about my work from Laurent Diouf, chief editor of MCD. The short version will be at stereolux website, but here is the long version:

01_ First, a few sentences about Radiant… about the meaning of this installation… and also about the use of laser and phosphorescent paint…

My work with Radiant started out with some thoughts on extinction, growth and decay, the fascination with how plants create food from light and the material qualities of laser and the phosphorescent pigment. Laser light is more intense than sunlight, and phosporecent pigment are actual natural minerals that are able to capture light and slowly release it as a green glow (In the times of Galileo they were called solar sponges).
Radiant is also much about time and speed: The intense quick drawings of the laser point versus the slowly fading out when the light is released. The interesting things happen in the layering of these drawings, where you can see traces of multiple pasts mixed with fresh drawings: different time scales (or Bergson´s duration) coexist on the surface of the screen.
For the audience I think it works also in a different sense when thinking about scale. It contains both a macro and a micro scale: You could be staring into the universe or be looking at a cell or subatomic processes.

02_ Your works / installations are “conversations with spaces” (with light, projection, sound and motion)… is it the same way for/with Radiant ?

Normally my process is to start with the space where I will make a work, spend time exploring it, using improvisation as a method: I bring my set of tools and start experimenting my way towards a path that creates an interesting amplification or transformation of the space.
With Radiant it is a bit different since I started it out as making a big flat quadratic light painting (the one at Stereolux will be 3.6×3.6m), and not particularly thinking about the space it would be presented in.
However the installation is transformed by the spaces it is presented in, and it also has the power to transform and intensify the spaces it is presented in. It is a quite different setting from a rough concrete environment at Kraftwerk during Berlin Atonal to a circular floor projection with a custom made arced wall in at Kunsthall Grenland in Norway.
Also the light of the white laser beam is quite intense so the resulting shadows in the space is quite similar to my other light installations.

03_ Following the opening of the exhibition, you’ll do a performance. What about this live a/v ? Will you use some elements from the installation in/for your set ?

Radiant started out as an installation, and I always thought of it as a loop piece because of the constant layering of time creating new images, where the installation becomes a place or a state you walk into. As a live performance time is not circular, it has a direction so this changes quite a lot the experience of the piece I think. Also a live set is more of a communal experience while the installation is maybe better experienced alone or with a few people.
The raw material of the installation and the live set is more or less the same, it is the structuring that is the main difference.
Also, the live set introduced the soundtrack, which is created in real time using the amplified mechanical sounds produced by the laser mirrors. The sound from the laser is amplified and played through the speakers, but also recorded and reappearing as new sound layers (similar to the visual material) during the performance.
My exhibition at Stereolux will actually be the first time I will try use this sound setup for the installation as well.
04_ Generally speaking, how do you manage your live’ set ? What do you want to show, to give to the audience through a live A/V. ? Is it also a “space for co-working” with other artists ?

I guess I partly answered that in the previous question, but for me this performance is about creating a focused intensified experience for the audience, in contrast to the installation which is more of a meditative piece.
Almost all of my other live A/V performances are quite different from this one, as they are real time free improvisations with musicians or other visual artists, where the process unfolding through the collaboration is the interesting part.
So Radiant Live is a very controlled piece in that sense, with a quite fixed structure but with room for variations.
05_ If you have some others projects…

I recently created a site specific light installation for four interconnected rooms in a gallery space. The piece was called Red White Black and consisted of two rails of LED strip that followed the contours of the rooms and doorways. One pulse of white light moved in one direction, one pulse of red light moved in the other. Super simple in one way, but it created a very dynamic space of opening and closing, revealing and hiding, a space that expands, collapses, twists and turns in the light from the red and the white pulse of light that chases along the walls, corners and door openings of the space. Probably one of my favourite pieces 🙂

A very different work but which has been my most shown work the last years is Barents (mare incognitum). It is a single channel video installation of the Barents Sea slowly turning around. It was filmed at the border of Norway and Russia with my custom built camera pointing towards the North Pole. It is one of many works that came out of my involvement with the Dark Ecology project; a series of journeys and projects initiated by Sonic Acts and Hilde Mehti in the Norwegian-Russian border area.
Another work that came out the Dark Ecology project was my film rift, combining
my love for the experimental film maker Len Lye and an interest in the deep time of plastic. It was part of the Vertical Cinema program: experimental 35 mm cinemascope films in the vertical format.

Finally I would like to mention speiling, which is the latest in a long series of projection spaces: solid coloured organic forms projected onto a highly reflective floor, creating a dynamic light space.

Right now I am working on two quite different projects: an installation for a stalactite cave in an old fortress to be presented in August, and a series of installations for next year where I give myself the challenge to work with light, sound and motion but in a normally lit space.

06_ Feel free to add or highlight anything you might think relevant.
This is my first solo show in France, although I showed my installation in transit X in Marseille as part of Chroniques Festival in 2017. I have also had a few screenings in various locations in France, including Cinemateque Francaise and Centre Pompidou, due to my involvement with the video art publisher lowave, which released my DVD Cityscapes back in 2005.

I made a book in 2017 documenting many of the Conversations with Spaces projects.
It is available through motto distribution.

junction: light motion installation under King William Bridge for the Adelaide Festival of the Arts

junction

photos by Paul Armour. For larger versions (and a few more images) go to the junction album on flickr.

I was commissioned to make a new installation as part of the blinc program for the Adelaide Festival of the Arts which took place end of february / beginning of march 2015. Blinc, curated by Craig Morrison and Joel Cockrill, was a series of outdoor projection and light-based art works, including works by Squidsoup and Bordos Artworks among others.

I chose my location based on some images Joel sent me, and I immediately got drawn to the beautiful arches of the pedestrian walkway / bike path underneath the King William Bridge, situated in Elders Park in the center of Adelaide.

elderpark-adelaide

The underpass is about 40 m (130 ft) long and 9 m (30 ft) wide with 9 arches. I wanted to work with the space in a similar way to what I did with trace at LIAF and Todays Art, constructing a grid of LED lines that animates and activates the structures of the space, in this case mainly the arches.

The unusual thing about this project for me was that it was a site-specific project where I didn´t have the possibillity to go there myself. I selected the location based on photos and created the setup based on drawings and an idea of how I wanted it to look. I prepared a detailed manual for the construction of the installation and the festival crew did a good job with the remote install.

This was obviously not an ideal situation, as for this type of work I am really interested in a more direct dialogue with the space, leaving room for improvisation and adjustements, and I quite enjoy the manual labour involved in building up installations. Also, not having been there myself makes the project less real somehow, especially since I like to emphasize the physical experience of my installations. That being said I was extremely lucky to get in touch with Paul Armour based in Adelaide who did a great job documenting the installation under difficult conditions. It gave me a chance to experience my own work the way most people do, through images and video published online.

One thing I discovered watching the video documentation was the fantastic soundtrack created by the cars passing over the bridge which I think worked really well with the motion of the light pulses.

revolver

Revolver is a new work by HC Gilje, commissioned by Sonic Acts and developed for The Dark Universe exhibition at NASA, Amsterdam. It evolved from Gilje’s earlier light installation 7 Cirkler (ZKM, 2012).
It is a structure of light animations using three circles of LED-lights. Combined together this produces complex patterns of light and shadow on the walls in the exhibition space.


Revolver and 7 cirkler have several things in common: light animations moving on the inside of circles suspended from the ceiling, casting shadows of the circles onto the surrounding walls. They both use white, red and blue, and they both exploit the effect of complementary colours that appear in the shadows.
They are put together quite differently though. 7 cirkler is a composition clearly connected to the music of Else Marie Pade: The light moves upwards in the circles with alternating white and blue circles and descend with alternating white and red circles.
Revolver consists of three circles which are spaced as tightly together as possible to achieve a very narrow band of colors on the walls. They are hung at eye-height with the idea that people will first discover what is going on on the walls rather than look at the lights. The walls are a much more integrated part of the work in revolver, as the shape is designed to work with the projections from the circles.

The biggest difference is the structure and relation of light and sound. 7 cirkler was a composed piece. I think of revolver more as a audiovisual-spatial drone, an endless loopmachine: It is basically the layering of simple loops resulting in a more complex structure.
Loops of lights and sound are brought into the exhibition space, where they are tuned and mixed in the physical space. So it is the interference of sound and light waves, together with the physical construction of the circles and surrounding walls that creates the mix. This means I have a vague idea of what might happen when I start setting up the installation, but it´s really working in the space (experimenting with speed, width and color of light) that determines how the installation turns out.

The combined movement of light and sound creates a space that revolves around you. In much of my work I seek through repetitive slow movements to create something that resonates with the body, establishing a correspondence between mind and the physical space through the body.

Voice 2012

Seven years after our previous collaboration, Maja Ratkje and I got together for a performance in Johanneskirken in Bergen for Festspillene i Bergen this May. I created a setup using LED modules normally used in outdoor video walls which I placed in an arc behind Maja. The arc functioned both as a canvas for low resolution patterns but also a powerful light source affecting the whole church giving me an opportunity to modify the whole space by improvising with these screens.

We have been invited to perform at the Bozar Electronic Arts Festival on september 22nd  (Bozar, Brussels) and later at the Kontraste Festival in Krems in october.

Johanneskirken has probably never looked cooler from the outside:

a very short glimpse of what you might experience:

The full-length performance at the Kontraste Festival in October 2012:

7 cirkler

Last year I was asked by curator Morten Søndergaard if I wanted to contribute to  “Unheard Avangarde” which was to be a section in the big sound art exhibition at ZKM (which opened end of March 2012). The idea was to combine contemporary artists with works by pioneer composers of electronic music in Scandinavia. I was initially reluctant, but after hearing the music I was sold. I was asked to work with the composition 7 cirkler by the Danish composer Else Marie Pade, which she made in 1959. She was inspired from visiting the planetarium at the Brussels World Expo in 1958, and using tone generators and tape she created a system of building up layers (circles) of sound and then reversing the process and end up with just one circle again. Here is a diagram showing how she constructed the composition:

I was interested in making a similar structure with circles of light animations combining into more complex light-shadow patterns.

The installation is on display until January 2013 at ZKM

in transit

My new light installation created for the 3rd floor of Woodstreet Galleries. It´s a 15m (50 ft) animated light installation running through the whole space.

portrait by Joey Kennedy. Copyright All rights reserved by joeykennedyphotography

blink @ woodstreet (Projected Light Space)

Woodstreet Galleries solo exhibition

I am showing 4 works over two floors at my first US solo exhibition at Woodstreet Galleries, which runs until April 8th.

On one floor I am showing three projection works: frame #2, circle #4 and blink@woodstreet. On another floor I am showing a new light installation, in transit (top picture) which is a 15 m animated light installation. To see more documentation (photo+video) follow the link to the different works.

The exhibition was supported by Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Fond for lyd og bilde, Bergen Kommune and Kontainerkorporation.

multimorf 3: a composition for trombone and waterfall

I just finished a new collaboration with composer Knut Vaage, Multimorf 3, a composition for waterfall and trombone.

The image above is a snapshot from each of the nine sections of the piece.

The trombone plays together with recordings of waterfall and layered trombone overtones (also combined with live processing of the trombone).
The composition has an open form:
Vaage has together with sound designer Thorolf Thuestad created nine morphed backgrounds of waterfall recordings and trombone overtones. The trombone player, John Arild Suther, chooses how long each morph section should be played and in which order they should be played, as well as which sections of the composed score he wants to play within each section. This opens for very different performances based on the same material.

The video is conceived in a similar way to the morph backgrounds. The material is based on waterfall recordings and generated material, and each of the nine sections can be viewed as individial motion paintings. My intention was not to create something that followed the music directly, but to create a visual component that responded to the energy contained in a waterfall and to reflect the individual qualities of the nine sections. Since the length and order of each section can vary for each performance, I wanted each section to focus on layers instead of creating linear trajectories: If you see thirty seconds or four minutes of a section you will get more or less the same visual content, it is the combination and length of the different sections that create the linear dynamic of the piece.

The trombone player controls both the playback of video and sound backgrounds, using midi foot pedals, making it relatively easy to tour with the piece without involving too many people.

Multimorf 3 premiered on August 12th at Baroniet in Rosendal (probably one of the most beautiful places in Norway). We played outside in the courtyard of the Manor from 1665 to an enthusiastic audience.

It will also be performed at Bergen Architechture School on September 1st (together with multimorf 2), and at Integra in Copenhagen October 1st.