Kyle Evans is a new media artist and musician living and working out of Austin, Texas. When he isn’t teaching audio production and electronics at the Art Institute of Austin, his personal projects include de/Rastra, Cracked Ray Tube, and Limited Hangout.
Rebecca Marino: Although often integrating installation, de/Rastra is your primarily performance-based solo project wherein you play audio from an oscillographic synthesizer homemade out of a CRT monitor. How do you feel the human presence or performance aspect informs your technology heavy work here?
Kyle Evans: New media performance, or any performance incorporating technology, is so often disassociated from human presence. The ways in which we interface with technology (keyboard, mouse, touchscreen, etc.) are not designed to be performative, but rather efficient and ergonomic for labor and leisure. This creates a challenging conflict between artists working with technology in performance. The performance often becomes disembodied–reflecting the final output of a mystery performer behind a glowing MacBook. As someone who has sat behind the glowing MacBook time and time again, I understood how I wanted to attempt to disrupt that typical disembodiment of performance when I began creating de/Rastra. This required more than just complex interactivity between the performer and the instrument. It required the presence of physical exertion by the performer.
While complex performance interfaces do exist for electronic music and pro music recording (MIDI controllers with faders and knobs) all these controllers lack the fundamental element of physical exertion by the performer. They maintain a connection to the ergonomic and slick interfaced machines they were designed for. While practical, they don’t equip an artist with much performative capability. On the other hand, all traditional musical performances, from classical piano to Jimi Hendrix guitar solos, incorporate intense physical effort put forth by the performer, and this physicality translates to the viewer on a visceral level.
Being highly influenced by punk rock growing up, I wanted to inject the raw intensity and physicality of punk into a new media performance piece. My continued involvement in the Chicago Dirty New Media Art scene helped me to develop a conceptual platform for this energy. Dirty New Media Art encourages raw approaches, noise, glitch, and technological failure as opposed to new media’s usual clean-cut representation. Drawing from this, I began exploring hardware hacking, circuit bending, and repurposing outdated technology like CRT TVs.
While developing de/Rastra, which as you mentioned uses an outdated CRT (tube style) TV monitor as my main visualization output, I started exploring ways to incorporate physical energy into the performance. I realized that the CRT television as an object itself was the perfect solution. There are many unique material aspects to CRT monitors, one being how bulky and heavy they are. By wearing the TV strapped to my body like a guitar, I was able to solve both the problem of disembodiment and physical exertion. I can throw the TV around chaotically in space causing aggressive glitchy sounds and visuals, or move it more slowly and precisely to generate drones, rhythms, and harmonies. By the end of the performance I’m physically drained, which hopefully creates a connection between the audience and the performance.
RM: Can you tell me a little bit about your collaborative project with James Connolly, Cracked Ray Tube, and how it relates back to as well as differs from your solo project de/Rastra?
KE: James and I started Cracked Ray Tube while studying realtime video performance at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It manifested from our fascination in re-purposing old technology. James had been collecting and modifying old VGA computer monitors while I had been focusing on the television as a hackable medium. At the time, Chicago was overflowing with these old displays as people abandoned them for flat screens. We were finding them in thrift stores, alleyways, and dumpsters; the city supplied us with as many as we could ever need. We realized pretty quickly the capabilities within these old devices that modern display technology (projectors, flat screens, etc.) couldn’t replicate. Fuzzy transmission, rolling scan lines, and over driven video signals were all reasons people were abandoning this technology, but this was the type of materiality we wanted to exploit. The CRT creates a certain imagery that is reminiscent of a previous era while simultaneously creating something new and unexpected when hybridized with modern technology. Nostalgia comes into play here, but is then exceeded when the technology is pushed further than it was intended. Something unexpected is created from this nostalgic space that is reminiscent of an analog era.
Many of our earlier performances focused on harsh and aggressive noises–highly influenced by noise music and power electronics. We wanted to bring a certain level of organic chaos and unpredictability into our performances, which forced us to improvise when we would come across unexpected sounds or visuals in realtime. As our work has evolved, we continue to utilize randomness and unpredictability by incorporating unstable analog electronics. Our current performance consists of a hybridized system of relatively predictable computer controlled signals along with relatively unpredictable/unstable analog devices such as circuit bent video transmission and electromagnets to distort the onscreen imagery.
De/Rastra differs from Cracked Ray Tube sonically, visually, and most drastically in its physical performance. While the performance in de/Rastra is evenly shared between performer and technology, in Cracked Ray Tube, the CRT screens and the methods by which they’re modified act as the performative element. The complexity of sound and image is generated in collaboration, not only between James and myself, but also between ourselves as performers and the unpredictable idiosyncrasies of a complex system. De/Rastra is also structured by code, with allowed room for improvisation, while Cracked Ray Tube is improvisational by nature. Both exploit the aesthetic materiality and social concepts attached to CRT technology, but each engages with those concepts through different approaches.
RM: You’re utilizing and manipulating a lot of relatively obsolete processes and materials–CRT monitors certainly at the forefront. We’ve had a lot of great conversations in the past about Nam June Paik, his work and the issues of conservation that surround his work. Is that something you’re ever concerned with regarding your own work?
KE: Nam June Paik is massively influential to my work. Paik made clear the malleability of the television medium, beyond its use as a display device. He created oscillographic hacks (TV Crown, 1965), electromagnetic hacks (The Wobbulator) and various TV-based performances. There is a rich history of artists utilizing the television medium beyond its intended playback capabilities, but it wasn’t until recently that the CRT took on new meaning. Fluxists like Paik, took icons of social significance and exposed them in new light, giving critique to their status as influential objects. Paik’s use of TVs was directly connected to the fact that these devices, at the time, were considered the height of technology.
Now abandoned, the CRT takes on a different meaning than in Paik’s time. It now acts as a representation of our rapid consumption/disposal of technology, whose qualities and artifacts exist as a memory. Older technology is often unexpectedly malleable, while newer digital technology is only as capable as the manufacturer has defined. As an artist engaging with the materiality of CRT technology, it feels imperative to exploit these concepts; otherwise the work only exists as nostalgic.
Conservation becomes complex in this dynamic. It’s important to maintain the functionality of Paik’s work beyond documentation, but this is inherently challenging since his work often utilizes such an ephemeral medium. Televisions weren’t created to last forever, and maintaining them is nearly impossible after the electrical components that they use are no longer manufactured. But all new media art falls victim to a potentially ephemeral existence; whether it be outdated technology, as in the case of Paik’s televisions, or digital works created with now outdated software standards that can no longer be properly displayed. Conservation becomes one more parameter in a list of challenges that new media artists face, which includes distribution, documentation, and how to define monetary value to a digitally replicable work.
RM: Your latest project is another collaboration with animator Lucas Dimick. Can you tell me a little bit about Limited Hangout and how that relationship developed?
KE: Limited Hangout is a very new and exciting trajectory for me. Luc and I both went to SAIC for grad school at different times, but we ended up teaching at the same college. Though he studied in the Film, Video, New Media and Animation Department and I studied in the Sound Department, we had a large crossover in both our influences and ideas.
Luc initiated the idea of a collaboration in which we incorporate his narrative animation approach with my performative practice. The result is a type of performative cinema that integrates our individual influences with our shared backgrounds from Chicago. Since this was such a new concept for both of us, we spent a long time discussing our methods for accomplishing this, both conceptually and technically. We decided on live activated animated sequences that Luc could control and narrate in realtime, while I would score and perform the sonic aspects. We divide our performances into multiple pieces, each based on a story. The stories range widely in subject matter, from modern militarization to planned obsolescence, and are projected through Luc’s unique animation styles. We also incorporate our Dirty New Media backgrounds into the pieces by utilizing noise and glitch both visually and sonically.
RM: How does it feel to incorporate narrative into your abstract work?
KE: At first, it was terrifying to incorporate narrative. I had found a very comfortable position in my practice focusing on abstraction. I had never explored narrative sequences, figurative imagery, or even language/text in my work. Eventually I found working with narrative to be incredibly refreshing. Inside of narrative your work has a different flexibility. Using language, character actions, and story arc to project your concepts presents both new opportunities and unique challenges. Narrative structure is open to accepting more concentrated language and allows you to focus on subject matter that abstraction can’t always accomplish.
RM: How do you feel your work fits into the general landscape and trajectory of new media artwork?
KE: My work curates well within both new media art and musical perspectives. I definitely consider myself a musician in addition to new media artist, but the two positions are rarely independent from one another. I regularly incorporate sound and composition into my installation work in addition to my performances, even playing with electronic music tropes like sound synthesis and rhythmic patterns.
My practice within new media art tends to dither between modern and historical approaches. I engage with the criticality of modern digital technology, but I also have a fascination with historical new media art practices. I have an affinity for technology from a historical perspective and how it has shaped our current social spectrum. In this sense, my work partially fits inside Media Archeology, a study that investigates technology from an archeological perspective in order to understand its trajectory and influence in modern times. My work breaks from an archeological position through my hybridization of advanced digital technology (code, micro controllers, etc.) and the use of antiquated media technology. I find so much purpose within our technological waste when reinvigorated through modern technology. New and unexpected things are created when this unintended technological hybrids exists. This is something James Connolly and myself have discussed and written about extensively, most recently in our article “Cracking Ray Tubes” in Leonardo Music Journal.
I believe this perspective brings to light social implications of technological progression by analyzing how the closed and “black boxed” nature of current digital devices differs from the relatively open structure of older analog devices. The slick interfaces and user-friendly operating systems put in place by manufacturers of modern digital devices impose a latent creative control. This is in opposition to the relatively open structure of older analog technologies that allow for fluid controls of not only the media’s output, but the manipulation of the materiality intrinsic to the technology. My hope is to create work that critically engages with modern digital media while openly analyzing the history of new media technology and how its existence has shaped our modern perspectives of creative practice.
RM: Can I get a Cracked Ray Tube reading list?
Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method by Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka
Investigating concepts of planned obsolescence and black boxing while taking hardware hacking and circuit bending as a creative counterpoint.
The Glitch Moment(um) by Rosa Menkman
A comprehensive critical engagement with glitch and failure as an artistic practice.
Distribution Religion by Phil Morton and Dan Sandin
A huge influence for both James and myself. This document describes the necessary steps in accurately duplicating the Sandin Image Processor, a video synthesizer. It is not necessarily the technical data that is of importance here, but the open distribution of this knowledge and Phil Morton’s writing on concepts of the COPY-IT-RIGHT philosophy.
Apple Computers [Video] by Nick Briz
Not a book, but still very important documentation of planned obsolescence practices, creative control and how artists respond to them. Additionally shows some great examples of Dirty New Media work and its underlying philosophy.
Be sure to catch Kyle in his various projects soon. Limited Hangout will be performing at the Blanton Museum of Art for Beat the Rush on April 21, 2016 and Cracked Ray Tube will be at The Museum of Human Achievement June 3, 2016 for Strange Electronics. Cracked Ray Tube will also be performing the opening weekend of Currents New Media Festival, June 10-11, 2016.