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


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.

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

Two new works

I have made two new works for my exhibition at IMAL, which is my first solo show in Belgium (29.04-22.05.2011).

As in my recent installations blink and split I am interested in relating directly to the architecture of the exhibition space. The main IMAL space is about 200m2 with a grid of 12 columns.  The circular discs are freestanding sound modules (five in total) placed on the floor. A slowly-paced sequence of projection and sound transforms the space into a contemplative environment.

The other installation explores through projection,light and reflection the inside,outside and perimeter of a circle mounted at a 90 degree angle to the floor. This is a first in a series of work creating dynamic volumes out of precisely cut flat shapes (in this case using a cnc mill).

For more images (also in print quality) from both installations take a look at my flickr set from the exhibition.

blink blink

My exhibition at HKS contained two new installations, both named blink. The first blink has already been mentioned.

In the cellar of the gallery I set up an artificial sundial, 24 leds placed in a circle, moving the shadows of the people standing within the circle.

I used the dimsun lighting system which I made this summer, based on power LEDs and arduino controlled LED drivers (TLC5940).

touch-punkt night in Budapest


Last week I was in Budapest for the first time, a fantastic city!

I was invited to take part of a Touch – Punkt event as part of the Temps d´Images festival. The Touch label came with Mike Harding and Jon Wozencroft which gave a short seminar, and with the artists BJNilsen(laptop)  and Hildur Ingveldardóttir Gudnadóttir (cello).

The concept of Punkt, which is a festival in Kristiansand run by Erik Honoré and Jan Bang is to sample a concert as it is being played, and using that sampled material as the basis of their own concert following straight after. They had invited Sidsel Endresen to join them on vocals, and Andras Halmos from Trafó had invited me to create the visual part of the concert.

I wanted to stick to the concept of using the first concert of BJNilsen and Gudnadóttir as the departure point for my video.


I created a very long image buffer, 12000×480 pixels. For recording, I could move sideways through the buffer and add images into the buffer, and eventually adding layers of overlapping images as the two concerts progressed. The image above is a small sample of what the buffer looked like at the end of the concert. For playback I had a very slow horisontal movement, so it would take several minutes to move through the buffer.

I wanted the recording head to move faster than the playback head so the images wouldn´t appear in a chronological order, and which also created some interesting layers of time.

Unfortunately I still don´t have any good images from the concert, the one at the top of the post is taken from my video camera with nightshot on, but you get an idea of the scale, it was a huge image behind the performers.

I was also supposed to do an hour presentation at Kitchen Budapest for maybe 10-15 people, but they convinced me to participate in a tech-pecha kucha event (so 20 slides, each showing for 20 seconds= 6min 40 sec) at the Merlin Theater with 300-400 people in the audience, so that was a strange but interesting experience. My impression was that people were sincerely interested in the content, my previous experiences with pecha kucha events has had a strong focus on entertaining, but superficial presentations.

By a weird coincidence one of the other presenters was Maté Gaspar from the theatre company Krétakör (website in hungarian) who I had been in touch with a year ago, so I got to visit their amazing workspace.

I also got a short tour of the Kitchen Budapest facilities, and finally met Adam Somlai-Fischer, who was supposed to be part of my seminar last fall.

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)

Backjumps – the Live Issue #3

Backjumps – the Live Issue #3 03, originally uploaded by hc gilje.

I was back in Berlin for a week in beginning of july, and got the chance to see the excellent exhibition BackJumps -the Live issue #3, which cover new and recent street art works in Germany and the rest of the world. It was partly a exhibition using the huge space at Kunstraum Bethanien, and partly documentation of work from urban spaces. I saw many interesting projects, but will mention two which relates directly to this project blog:
The first one is a animation shown on a monitor in a small room (see image). What´s interesting is that the animation was made on the walls in the same space and you see the trails of the animation on the walls. It is made by Bologna based Blu.
The other project was part of CubaBrasil, Los Berlin BeamBoys, which did huge video projections on buildings in Cuba, partly as a way of bypassing the censorship of certain political slogans and images.

Another useful link, reclaim your city .

I also picked up an interesting book at DAZ, Urban Pioneers: Temporary Use and Urban Development in Berlin. It just came out, but already some of the locations covered in the book have disappeared and been replaced by new buildings.

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)