Time Machines, Space Engines: An Interview with Bill Brown and Sabine Gruffat

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Time Machine performance - Bill Brown and Sabine Gruffat

Time Machines - Bill Brown and Sabine Gruffat

Bill Brown likes to travel. But his favorite destinations lie along the back-roads and quiet corners of the American landscape: places over and under-looked, the hidden and the long forgotten. Sometimes he pays particular attention to landmarks deliberately kept out of sight: like North Dakota’s ominous ICBM missile silos (featured in the film “Buffalo Common”); or the treacherous US/Mexico borderlands (the focus of his recent “The Other Side”).  Wherever he finds himself, Bill has a way of looking and listening that allows space to gradually reveal the crucial fragments of it’s shuttered self. Through his carefully composed imagery and his emotionally vivid, storyteller’s voice, Bill Brown coaxes the buried memories and restless ghosts from under the wayward historical markers of West Virginia (“Mountain Sate”) or the near-cosmic, castaway road-stops of the Trans-Canada Highway (“Confederation Park”). In his films, hand-made zines (Dreamwhip #’s 1 – 14), a book (“Saugus to the Sea”), and recent live performances, the people and places he describes are never denied their fundamental mystery; instead Bill invites us to join him in a thoroughly absorbing conversation he is having with the people and places that he meets. It’s one of those conversations where it’s so easy to lose track of time.

By mixing local anecdote, memoir, documentary and daydream, Bill Brown doesn’t try to pin down any official story, instead he makes the history of a particular landscape come alive – returning it to its right place in the present-tense. As writer and critic Fred Camper has noted, “[Bill Brown’s] real subject is the limits of knowledge.” We can’t really expect to truly know all there is to know about a place and its people; after all, this is what makes going to strange places and meeting new people so exciting. And that’s why Bill Brown’s films never rely on what is simply visible: “images are insufficient: we need to know their history, their locations, their meaning.”

Recently, Bill Brown’s preferred method of travel has been on a bicycle, taking his work across the U.S. on a “Pedal-Powered Film Tour”, and through Belgium, France, Switzerland and Spain in “La Cyclo-Cinémathèque”, a collaboration with media artist Sabine Gruffat. Most importantly, using a bicycle has provided Bill and Sabine a ecologically-conscious and engaged “vehicle for urban reconnaissance.” The artists describe it as “an act of resistance to the little borders that lie between each one of us.” This way of being continually mobile, yet immediately responsive to an environment, has led Bill and Sabine to develop a remarkable series of projects, incorporating installation, live video/sound, and audience participation. Most notably, a work-in-progress called “The Bike Box,” provides visitors with a means to develop their own method of urban reconnaissance – a way of instigating knowledge and shared experience: a perpetual motion machine for retrieving lost time.

Bill Brown and Sabine Gruffat will be town in Seattle on Tuesday, August 18 (8pm) at the Northwest Film Forum to present some of the findings from their many voyages. A live performance, incorporating reading, real-time rendered audiovisuals, vinyl records and game controllers, “Time Machine” promises to be a multi-dimensional experience. Bill and Sabine took some time to answer a few questions. Please, join us in the conversation.

LS: Bill, you’re originally from Lubbock,Texas, but you’ve been traveling constantly across the country, concentrating on the deep-rootedness of other people’s “homes.” Has the act of traveling, of movement, become it’s own home for you? In a larger sense, do you think that the place we call “America” is always on the move – always sort of “not-at-home?”

BB: I like that idea, Luke. America as “not-at-home.” Rootlessness is probably hardwired into this place. I spent some time in Europe this summer, and when I got back to Texas, it really struck me how temporary all the towns look. Hastily built and provisional. Towns that were conceived as temporary stops on some endless, hopeless pursuit of happiness. It’s a theme that figures into a lot of my work: America as an idea that you follow rather than a place that you live. America is elusive, it’s a moving target, and I’m in hot pursuit. That’s what I tell myself, anyway, when I’m on another road trip.

Is traveling another kind of home? Sometimes it feels that way. And sometimes, it feels like the byproduct of an expanded notion of home; home as something spread out across continents and oceans. It takes a lot of moving around to live in a home as big as the world.

LS: Sabine, you’ve lived in a number of places across the globe, navigating between different cultures and languages. How has your experience as a traveler and an “expatriate” informed your themes and methods of making art?

SG: Growing up, I spent five formative years in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony and traveling there recently, I realized how different the place was under Chinese rule so I wasn’t returning to the same place. Nowadays, I am not sure what I would call home and that makes me both free and sad in a way. I feel somewhat of a foreigner in every situation and look at things from a distance to see how I fit into a particular community and its customs. At some level we are all tourists in this world, happy to get away but stressed out we might be getting lost or making fools of ourselves.

In my work, I consider how communication and technology affects the way we think and the choices we make. As new technologies appear and the old ones are phased out, it is important to consider what real changes are taking place. Working with all kinds of mechanical and digital machines allows me to decipher how each has a language of its own and its own particular customs.

LS: Bill, you’ve been making films for many years, all the while continuing to publish a zine (“Dreamwhip”), and, in 2002, a novel (“Saugus to the Sea”). More than just being travelogues or memoirs, the writing that comes through your stories and films is finely crafted, poetic, and philosophical. Can you tell us a bit about the relationship between writing and image-making? Which comes first, the words or the images? Does the one inspire the other?

BB: I like the way words work, the precision and color of them. I love the photographic image, too, but maybe I don’t entirely trust it. That’s why I’m always captioning my images. Trying to rein them in, or hitch them to a set of themes or ideas. It’s an anti-cinematic impulse, I guess, though I like to think the words draw the images out rather than shut them in. I especially like the way words can re-frame the image in a million different ways without the need to photographically reframe anything. Words change our relationship to the image, they reposition us and redirect our gaze, which, if you ask me, makes for a richer experience of the image.

LS: Sabine, in describing your own work, you talk about working “poetically between the bounds of existing languages. ” As can be seen from the variety of techniques you use in your work – video, electronic music, realtime interactive programming, among others – you’re interested in the way these various technologies can be used in unexpected ways. Do you feel that technology can be like “poetry?”  Do you also feel that the “meaning” of you work is up for grabs – for the viewer/user to decide?

SG: I guess I take McLuhan’s “medium is the message” concept at face value, the same superficial way television hosts would misinterpret Nam Jun Paik and Charlotte Moorman’s work. I have always been process driven so i am interested in programming and hardware. To me, that is where the aesthetic qualities of a particular medium and the meaning of the work comes from. I also like playing with and designing interfaces because that is the point where a technology is translated to human proportions. You learn a lot about a culture by looking at its interfaces, the way its social systems interface with the global economy for example. Often, the interface has to make specific assumptions about its user, sometimes ruling out a whole class of people. If that is the case, then the meaning is not up for grabs but rather a strange mirror to the prevailing systems we live with.

LS: Bill and Sabine, you’ve both had distinguished careers working on your own. What led you to work collaboratively? And how have these recent collaborative projects informed your independent practices?

BB: Two summers ago, Sabine and I were lucky enough to travel across Belgium, Switzerland, and France by bicycle, touring with a program of films and videos we called “La Cyclo Cinématheque.” We discovered then that we shared an interest in DIY touring, as well as in the ways that place and history inform not only the production but also the presentation of our work. Standing up in front of audiences during Q&A, we also found ourselves getting restless. We wanted to explore the possibilities of live performance. We began discussing ways that we could integrate performance into our art practice.

SG: A good collaboration is one where each person learns from the other so there has to be mutual respect. It is a little risky but can also be a pretty rewarding process. Ultimately, we both like a challenge and while our methods are different, in the end our goals are pretty similar.

LS: Can you tell us a bit about “Time Machine?” How did the project originate? How will you guide us through the “fourth dimension?” And what are “interspatial monuments?”

SG: I find it very hard to describe what it is we are doing! I suppose I would describe Time Machine as oscillating somewhere between an electronic noise performance, a vj set and a slideshow. It is a live performance (meaning that it is generated live on stage) and as such it is subject to change every time we do it. The metaphor for the Time Machine operates on both a sensory and intellectual level as the performance travels through time into mediated landscapes operated by old and new time-based technologies.

Time travel is a wonderful paradigm for inspiring science fiction and other kinds of non-linear narratives. As hosts, we point out the important sites along the way. I don’t think we would know to stop and look if there wasn’t a marker or monument of some kind, so we made sure to include those too.

BB: As artists who use machines to make time-based work (video cameras, computers), I think we have mixed feelings about machines. You can give them inputs and directions, and control them. But machines can also go out of control. Computers crash. Cars crash. Machines are imperfect conveyances for people and their ideas. Like Sabine, I’m a sucker for the time machine in sci-fi movies. The mad scientist builds this machine that can carry him through time. But there’s always a short-circuit, and he just winds up getting lost in time, or stranded in time. The machine delivers him, but it also leads him astray.

LS: Lastly, I can’t help but be totally intrigued by a new project of yours, “The Bike Box.” How is that going? Where will it be found? And will there be more “bike boxes” across the country someday?

BB: The “Bike Box” idea comes from Sabine and my shared love of bikes, and our interest in locative media (the trendy term for combining geographical positioning technologies with art making). The idea is to equip bikes with GPS units that will allow bike riders to access an oral history database by cell phone. While a user rides around town, s/he can send and receive messages that are “attached” to specific geographical coordinates. These anecdotal and personal histories will be accessible to anyone riding a Bike Box bike, allowing them to take a spin through their town not only as a physical space but as a collection of memories and experiences. We recently received a Free103point9 AIRtime Fellowship to build a prototype of the bike. Fingers crossed, we’ll have something rolling in a few months.

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