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
Advertisement

REFRAMING REALITY: Glimpses into the Lowave video archive

On November 20th an exhibition opens at Museet for Samtidskunst in Roskilde, Denmark, showing works from the french DVD label Lowave´s archive.

I released my Cityscapes on their label in 2005, which will be part of the exhibition.

From the Museum´s website:

“This exhibition gathers for the first time in Denmark a number of videos from the Lowave’s growing archive and provides an insight into the vibrant world of contemporary artistic creations. From the groundbreaking RESISTANCE (S)-anthologies, which put into perspective thematic video art from the Middle East and North Africa to the urban landscapes where man almost dissolves like in HC Gilje’s CITYSCAPES or videos in the CITY2CITY collection, the exhibition highlights unknown affinities and underlying trends in the way video artists from around the world are still experimenting with the medium.”

The exhibition runs until 27.02.2011.

However, since I currently have a solo exhibition at Galleri 21 (more about that later when I am finished with the documentation. If you are really impatient, you can see a slideshow from one of the installations) in Malmö which runs until December 5th, this is a perfect opportunity to catch both exhibitions, as they are only a short trainride from each other.

Mark and Silke at Lowave have provided many opportunities for screenings of my work at various festivals and venues, for instance at Cinemateque Française and Centre Pompidou in Paris. Currently one of my videos is part of Verticapolis, La Festival Image de Ville in Aix-en-Provence:

“CITY2CITY – VERTICAL EXPERIENCES presents 8 international artists all working on urban subjects and in particular the verticality of architecture in our global cities. These films offer a new way of appreciating the urban aesthetics as they are perceived by today’s cutting edge video artists and experimental filmmakers. Featuring: HC Gilje, Augustin Gimel, Nicolas Provost, Nose Chan, Kentaro Taki, Toby Cornish, Kotaro Tanaka, Franck Dudouet & Aldolph Kaplan.”

in the dutch mountains

hc shrinked, originally uploaded by hc gilje.

Last week I did a short dutch “tour”, seeing some interesting performances and exhibitions.
I am only going into detail on one of them, but would like to briefly mention the others.

I had the opportunity to see work from two of the artists speaking at my seminar this fall, Kirsten Dehlholm from Hotel Proforma and Lawrence Malstaf.

Hotel Proforma was showing their now classic Orfeo opera, at Zaantheater. The performance combines the choreographed singers from the Latvian radio choir with a very effective set-design. The set-design seems to be quite inspired by Svoboda, with a endless staircase inside a large frame being lit in many different ways to create a quite dynamic image.

More images from Orfeo

Lawrence Malstaf was given the ART & TECHNOLOGY AWARD 2008 Witteveen + Bo at the Lebuinuskeerk in Deventer where he presented two works, shrink and The Long Now.

More images from Shrink and The Long Now

I was invited to see a tryout of “Licht is de Machine”, a music theater performance by Veenfabriek. My interest in it was mainly Joost Rekvelds kinetic light installation which disappointingly was only in the last 10 minutes of a 2 hour performance. The performance was in a huge hangar outside Leiden, and also here the stage was using a frame.

more images from Licht is de Machine

I saw two good exhibitions in Amsterdam, “Speaking out Loud” at the Netherland Media Art Institute and a spooky exhibition about voodoo in Haiti at the Tropenmuseum.

more voodoo images

Finally, I went to see the dutch group Hotel Modern in Köln, but you can read more about that in a separate post.

mikro performance

mikro performance, originally uploaded by hc gilje.

Mikro is a series of improvised performances using the immediate surroundings as raw material: A microscope captures everyday objects and surfaces like wallpaper, coins, clothing, furniture, newspapers and transforms it into an explosive universe of textures. Contact microphones and electromagnetic sniffers pick up unhearable sounds to create the live soundtrack.
Mikro is a collaboration between HC Gilje (video) and Justin Bennett (sound).
Performances so far:
Paradiso (Amsterdam), IMAL (Brussels), TAG (den Haag), DNK (Amsterdam), Bergen Kunsthall Landmark (Bergen), Laznia (Gdansk)

the matrix for the rest of us (well, almost)

Google Earth has implemented a new technology called street view, developed by Immersive Media

This could roughly be seen as a mix of very advanced quicktime VR and a film effect from The Matrix movies. Interesting to me as another example of the interrelation between space,time and motion.

From the Google Earth Blog:
“One of the many secrets behind their technology is a patented 11 lens camera system that simultaneously takes photos in 11 directions based on a dodecahedron geometry. They can capture 30 frames a second of high resolution photography. That’s right – we’re talking high resolution video in digital 360. You can stop, start, back up, single-frame, etc”

Synk at Dansstationen in Malmö

Synk, originally uploaded by hc gilje.

On Friday May 4th, I perform the piece Synk with Kreutzerkompani and Justin Bennett on sound. Synk was originally made in 2002 for the Ultima festival, but has been played quite a few times the last five years.

The idea of Synk was that no prerecorded video or audio would be used, only material sampled during the performance was allowed, to investigate live as raw material : to impose a structure on a live situation to allow for unpredictable results within that frame structure.

It creates a dialogue between the physical space on stage and the mediated space from the screen and speakers, and the relation between the memory and the present of a space.

More info on Kreutzerkompani and Justin Bennett

More images from Synk (click on the small images)

 

Michael Snow: La Région Centrale

Michael Snow La Region Centrale

Image taken from the Medienkunstnetz site, which has extensive information about the project and also a short videodocumentation.

Snow constructed a device for creating a quite complex camera movement, and placed it in a remote area in the mountains in Canada. The result was a 3 hour film of the camera scanning this landscape.

Another quite good article from Medienkunstnetz relating cinematography to the landscape.

The Vasulkas

Vasulka at zkm, originally uploaded by hc gilje.

The Vasulkas have inspired me in their approach to working with technology in a playful manner, very much in a lab situation as I am trying to do, exploring the medium. Particularly Steina Vasulka´s Machine Vision series and Woody Vasulka´s Brotherhood series are interesting in relation to my current work.

The Vasulkas website has tons of information on their own work, other video artists the last 30 years and also covers the busy period at The Kitchen in New York, run by the Vasulkas 1971-73.

I just saw the Mindframes exhibition at ZKM, with work from the Vasulkas, Gerald O´Grady, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, James Blue, Tony Conrad and Peter Weibel, all involved with the media study department at Buffalo, New York in the seventies.

I have had the opportunity to meet Steina several times through work with 242.pilots, and we were also in the same exhibition Get Real in 2005 which also ended up as a book and dvd (with contributions from Lev Manovitch, Steven Dixon, Mogens Jacobsen, HC Gilje, Morten Søndergaard, Steina Vasulka, Pink Twins, Arijana Kajfes, Björn Norberg, Elin Wikström, Jacob Kirkegaard, Thor Magnusson, Michael Scherdin, Jack Burnham, Charlie Gere, Perrtu Rastas and Andreas Brøgger).

You can read my essay from the book here (pdf).


David Rokeby: Machine for taking time

Another project I wish I had done:

A colour surveillance camera has been mounted outside the gallery on a computer controlled pan/tilt mechanism, allowing it to see most of the surrounding gardens. Every day since March 28, 2001, the system has been taking still images from 1079 pre-determined positions along a sweeping path around the garden.

[..] the computer software travels through this accumulating archive of images, wandering through time, but progressing very slowly and smoothly through the successive positions in the original path.

The software does four kinds of wandering. It sometimes moves along the path using images from a single day. Or it might disolve sequentially from day to day as it progresses along the path. Alternatively it might dissolve from date to date randomly. Occasionally it will stop its movement along the path and show all the images taken from that position in rapid succession. The shifting of modes and the choices of dates is a function of a somewhat random process, and so the piece never repeats itself.”

from David Rokeby´s website

Rokeby has a lot of video documentation available through youtube.

Michael Naimark: Displacements

michael naimark displacments

this image found in the archives of the eyeteeth blog

This is one of the projects I wish I had done, uniting the capturing of a space and the projection back into the same space using motion (camera+projector rotating at same speed).

The camera is mounted in the middle of the room on a turntable, recording the space and the actions in it (top image). Then the whole space is spraypainted white (middle image). Finally the recorded film/video is projected back into the space, projector mounted on the same turntable as the camera was (bottom image).

The first version was done with film in 1980-84, then made for digital video in 2005.

Naimark has written two very interesting papers relating to this work, and you can also find two videoclips from the installation, one from the film version and one from the digital video version, on his website.