March brought Austin That Look Upon Your Face, the first installation in Antumbrae Intermedia Events’ SynesthESpace project, a series of four audiovisual installations curated by Tara Bhattacharya Reed.
A collaboration between artists Alex Keller and Sean O’Neill, That Look Upon Your Face brought First Street Studio to life with manipulated projections, programmed loops, and live electronics. The audience settled into the translucent inflatable cushions scattered around the studio, which was circumscribed by a series of speakers, each playing an individual arrangement of sounds: synthetic clicks like drops of water on corrugated steel, blips, hums, buzzing. At the back of the room, O’Neill worked with an assortment of instruments, including a Bradley Telecom synth, a piece of equipment originally designed to test phone lines, which produced a series of test tones. Beside him, Keller slipped his hands into a pair of fingerless bike gloves with guitar pickups attached to the palms and improvised with what he told me was the fifth iteration of his handmade instrument: two car fans with magnets attached, their spin rate controlled by a series of quick on-off signals, which Keller played by moving his hands over, through, and around their magnetic field. Hidden in near-darkness, O’Neill and Keller’s bodies became almost incidental, all hands—something like a futuristic magic show, half installation, half performance.
Though the audience members tended to remain in their cushions—rather than wandering through the “potential spaces” created by the unique soundscape in each speaker’s vicinity—they weren’t passive. Hushed conversation, laughter, and even the cushions themselves (when passed in front of the projector, they cast organic, ethereal circles over the digital glitch aesthetic, creating one of the most beautiful images of the night) added to the performance. Each sound felt both improvised and carefully selected, autonomous and intentional; even if left to run on its own for days, the installation’s sounds would never repeat, always overlapping in a different combination.
The following is an interview with the event’s curator Reed.
Annelyse Gelman: Can you give me a general timeline of your work organizing shows and installations?
Tara Bhattacharya Reed: I started Antumbrae Intermedia Events + Installations in the spring of 2014. My concept for Antumbrae was twofold: firstly, to curate live experimental music and multimedia projects; secondly, to run an audiovisual installation series.
Prior to moving to Austin, I had been curating electronic and experimental music pretty much non-stop since I was 19 years old, both in London and New York City. When I lived in NYC I worked in three sound galleries: Diapason, The Dreamhouse, and Engine 27. All three places had a great impact on how I understood sound and multimedia.
From 2014 to 2017, I curated approximately 20 projects. I’ve co-curated most of my projects with local organizations in the art, film, and music communities in Austin, such as Dimension Gallery, Austin Museum of Digital Art, Church of The Friendly Ghost, Elevator Bath, End of An Ear, Experimental Response Cinema, fields, Co-Lab Projects, and UT’s art and art history department. My projects have taken place in a variety of different spaces, with artists locally and internationally recognized and at many different stages of their careers.
My focus this year is to curate four audiovisual installation projects under the title SynesthESpace with local Austin artists. I want artists to create an immersive environment with images or interactive objects and sound.
AG: What’s coming up next in the SynesthESpace series?
TBR: The next one is April 27, featuring Lauren Gurgiolo, Wendy Mitchell, and Lindsay Greene. The name of their project is The Silent City: A Sound & Light Bath. They encourage participants to interact with hand-wired musical consoles and alter the immersive environment they create (which features hand-cast illuminated resin lights).
On June 29 new media performance duo Limited Hangout (artists Kyle Evans and Lucas Dimick) will debut a new piece, and then the final installation is on September 28 by electronic musician Katrina Fairlee. All of the artists have to introduce their work and activate the environment with performance elements throughout the evening.
AG: Is anyone else involved with Antumbrae? What are your Antumbrae plans for the future? I heard you’re thinking of starting a sound gallery.
TBR: Antumbrae is my own organization. It’s not a business or a nonprofit yet. I hope one day it will become a nonprofit. The only time I work with a team for Antumbrae is on the day of the event. My husband Rick Reed helps me a great deal with live events. I couldn’t do any of the live events without him.
Initially, I wanted to start a sound gallery. I wanted to have a permanent space where I could have one installation a month plus have live electronic music and multimedia events on a regular basis in the evenings. However, as you know, rents are very high in Austin, so I simply cannot afford it. Many galleries in Austin are losing their leases or are on the verge of losing their leases, so it’s a problem for the community as a whole.
AG: Do you have a favorite Antumbrae project?
TBR: I don’t have a favorite project; the artists that I have worked with have put 100% effort into their presentations and have enjoyed positive reactions from Austin audiences. However, the biggest and most ambitious project was bringing veteran avant garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs to Austin.
I curated a four-part project with him, including performances, screenings, and lectures. He has this amazing projector called the Nervous Magic Lantern, which was constructed from scratch a day before his scheduled event; there must’ve been at least a thousand bits he and his wife, Flo, had to assemble together. It seemed like an absolute miracle when they got the lantern to work the day of!
Essentially, the Nervous Magic Lantern project is an expanded cinema event, so I invited his daughter’s band, musician Steve Parker, and my husband Rick Reed to score soundtracks as Ken worked with the projector live. Rick has been making soundtracks for Ken for a number of years and has a great creative rapport with Ken.
It was an ethereal experience. I had seen him do the Nervous Magic Lantern project in NYC, four or five times. I was so proud to see it happen in Austin.
AG: What excites you about experimental music and sound art? How did you become interested in it in the first place?
TBR: I have been interested in experimental music and sound art (even before the term came into fashion) for more than two decades now. In my early teens I loved jazz and improv on the one hand but also loved dance and ambient music. Dance culture was quite prevalent where I grew up. I came into electronic music through dance and early underground industrial music. I’ve always listened to underground music. I’m an avid listener, and I was quite lucky to grow up in London and go out and hear so much great stuff. Then I moved to New York, and there was ten times as much great music.
I think experimental music and sound art excite me because we are in a time where so much new technology is available to us, and people are really experimenting in creative ways with digital media, but a lot of people are also using older forms of technology and working with analogue. I think it’s important for people to be creating with all kinds of technology, new and old; we can learn so much from using both. Studying and preserving the older language of technology can further help us to create new technology in the future. I personally love analogue technology because it’s so intuitive.
AG: How does your own work as an artist and performer tie into your work as a curator?
TBR: I keep my identity as an artist and performer separate from my identity as a curator. My hope is that my curatorial projects contribute to the artistic discourse in Austin in a meaningful way. I am interested in contributing to the discussion of sound and multimedia and how they can affect us physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I am also interested in the effects that sound, art, and media have on the subconscious.
AG: Can you say more about your motivation and hopes for the SynesthESpace series?
TBR: I was completely taken aback when I first experienced La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dreamhouse installation back in the early 2000s. It was an impenetrable physical and mental experience. I want all of the artists in the SynesthESpace series to create an immersive environment where you get lost in yourself and your surroundings and temporarily exist in a space that is away from everyday reality. I have high hopes for it, and I wanted to present an installation series that has a significant effect on people, or makes them think and feel differently for a while.
I really want people to spend time with the environment and take in the whole experience. I find that everything in our culture is so rapid and that our attention spans have become so short. I really want people to come to at least one space where they can feel free to slow down, observe and absorb what’s in front of them, and communicate to other people in the space about what they are experiencing. I just want people to enjoy feeling stimulated by the environment. Each installation has a very unique set of concepts behind it, and I’m excited by the variety of ideas the artists are presenting to me. They must be experienced physically in person.
AG: How did you settle on the dance studio as a venue?
TBR: My projects have taken place in a variety of different spaces. However, a dance studio possesses a certain kind of energy: It’s a place where men and women of skill and talent concentrate on their craft; it is a serious space, not a distracting social space like a bar or a club. I also like that you can take your shoes off and walk barefoot or lie down on the dance floor. It also has high ceilings, which is great for acoustics, and one wall lined with mirror. When visuals are projected on the back or sides of the space, they reflect in the mirror and the space expands in a really magical way. It is the ideal spot for SynesthESpace.
AG: Any thoughts about how the show with Sean and Alex went? What was most interesting to you about that night?
TBR: I’m a big fan of Sean and Alex’s work. Their work is pretty uncompromising and has an almost provocative effect on the audience. The sound is very physical, and Sean’s lights and visuals are lucid and create an otherworldly element to their work as a whole. Very few people do light and sound work together in Austin, so what they are doing is unusual.
They brought in a bunch of inflatables for audience members to sit and lie upon. I thought that was brilliant. They also set up speakers all across the different areas of the space: high up, above the mirrors and the utility closet, and down on the floor where people were sitting or lying down. There was no escaping the environment. The audience was engulfed in the sound waves and hypnotic stroboscopic imagery. Toward the end the sounds got lighter and more dispersed in the room, and people were pretty much zonked out on the inflatables. I really loved the final hour of that piece, just seeing people relax and watch their bodies become one with the physical space.
AG: What’s the dream project you’d like to do in Austin, if there were no logistical/financial barriers? Any projects you’ve been dreaming of doing or artists you’ve been dreaming of working with?
TBR: Ideally I would love to have a permanent space where I could have a rotation of installations throughout the year and have performances in the evenings. Antumbrae will focus more on women and electronic music and multimedia next year. Women are having a real moment in the media, and I think it’s quite empowering. We’ve got a long way to go to receive the same recognition as our male counterparts, but there are so many exciting women in STEM right now, and I would like to explore introducing more women to Antumbrae’s programming.
The other area I would like to explore is incorporating virtual reality into my projects. I love the sensation of the virtual space. Right now I’m working at SXSW’s virtual cinema event. The possibilities are endless with VR.
The next installment of SynesthESpace will be held April 27 with Lauren Gurgiolo, Wendy Mitchell, and Lindsay Greene, followed by June 29 with Kyle Evans and Lucas Dimick and September 28 with Katrina Fairlee, always at First Street Studio.
Annelyse Gelman’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Indiana Review, The Awl, Verse Daily, the PEN Poetry Series, and elsewhere, and she is the author of the poetry collection Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone (2014).