David Kwan’s Emergence at Mission 17 (San Francisco)

In a dark room curtained off almost entirely from the world, the six video screens of the exhibit Emergence comprise two different “video + sound” installations by the artist David Kwan. It’s showing at Mission 17, a gallery in San Francisco, through November 24.

Five of those screens belong to Kwan’s “Terminus” (2007). Four small ones, each about the size of a personal DVD player, are suspended along one wall, showing different footage of the natural environment. The images are fixed-camera, horizon-view landscapes and coastal vantages. The fifth screen is an enormous, nearly floor-to-ceiling projection on an adjacent wall. This wall shows a rotating composite of the sequences on the small screens. The video (and, apparently, the audio) from those sequences overlap, fading in and out. Thus the distant mountains of one sequence emerge from a coastal sequence as if from behind a cloud bank. Rooting the ever-changing permutation of screen correlations is a soundtrack of field recordings: fog horns, water, wind, perhaps some distant birdsong. Without those sounds, the images might be mistaken for mistaken for stills — even for paintings. The changes on the main screen are slowly paced, so any given intersection can be, for a moment, considered as a single, static image.

This shot, from the exhibit’s promotion materials, displays four different combinations of the source material:

The sixth screen on display is “Solaris” (2006), another floor-to-ceiling projection with a sonic element. Three small wooden folding chairs face the screen from the opposite wall, and hung above each chair is a pair of headphones. This is a pretty elegant, and not uncommon, solution to staging multiple pieces of sound art in a single room: the sounds of “Terminus” fill the space, while the sounds of “Solaris” require one to don a headset.

The images and sound of Kwan’s “Solaris” provide a clear contrast to those of “Terminus.” “Solaris” feels more manufactured, more digital, less “natural.” The piece is a series of closely related shorts, each involving animated images of muted, golden lines contorting against a rich, brown backdrop. Here’s a still from the show’s promotional materials:

The sound is blissed-out ambient music, with occasionally gritty textures that suggest the effect of Max/MSP programming, or some other audio-manipulation tool. The piece’s documentation provides an explanation of how the audio and video relate, though it’s a little opaque:
Kwan uses terrestrial sound in the form of radio waves as the basis for generating patterns and then shaping the space in which they inhabit. Following the notion that sound waves propagated the earliest clustering of matter, he reveals a wealth of images from the electromagnetic signature of present-day sound phenomena.
The person I attend with asked me at one point, “Does yours have static, too — is that part of it?”

PS: The artist, David Kwan, wrote to me via email after having read this review, and helpfully provided additional information about what makes his “Solaris” tick:

I recorded very short loops of in-between station or near-station noise from shortwave radio, pitch-shifted or down-sampled them and applied a series of EQ (band-pass and notch). I then combined the looped audio with an LFO (for signal bias) into a video Time Base Corrector to create the striated patterns. Then I applied the electromagnetic current from the stereo playback of the radio waves to the yoke of the CRT inside a television set, which in turn deflected the electron beam inside the tube and shaped the raster image on the television screen. So, the pieces are essentially sound-to-video translations of the radio waves, static and all.
Related links: the artist's webpage, davidkwan.net, and additional information at the gallery website, mission17.org.

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