Matt Wellins was one of the artists I interviewed for my feature on the resurgence of visuals in live music for the January issue of Dazed & Confused (see the full feature here). Based in Pittsburgh, Matt is also one of the custodians of UbuWeb’s electronic music resources (more on that below). I was struck by the sensitivity and eloquence with which he discussed his practice, especially his image of wishing to dismantle the “tyrannical supremacy that sight holds over our senses”, and with his kind permission publish the full interview below.
Could you tell me a bit about what you do and your background?
I work in a couple of different areas at the moment, but I’m most interested in work that is designed for a particular live situation, rather than relying on recordings and the internet to provide meaningful immersive experiences.
A large portion of my work involves designing and performing on homemade analog electronic musical instruments, primarily as an attempt to find aperiodic sounds and chaotic states that counteract traditional methods of synthesis.
I’ve also worked with computers – particularly Max/MSP and Jitter – to do generative work, creating thinking systems that produce video or sound.
The practice of arranging small objects in analog electronics and working in an object-based programming language has also developed into decidedly theatrical work, creating juxtapositions against and interactions with everyday objects.
My recent performance at VIA loosely fell into the “object-performance” category. I used a video camera, so the audience could see what was being done off-stage, but the imagery was all generated by household items such as shaving cream, talcum powder, dish soap, and tin foil.
What drew you to working with visuals and music?
Historically, the performance of music has always been theatrical and visual. It’s only since the advent of recording technology that people have had to confront an abstract, disembodied experience of sound.
I would venture to suggest that disembodied sound is the primary influence on the language of “visualized” music, responsible for everything from the complex geometries and colors of Oskar Fischinger and Harry Smith to iTunes algorithms based on the cold facts of amplitude and frequency.
I’m not necessarily interested in this relationship – where the image is the ultimate realization of a sound. I think that these elements can coexist in a live environment without necessarily exerting authority over each other. I’m more concerned with the tyrannical supremacy that sight holds over our senses and am interested in dismantling that process.
Also, the larger part of my background is as a musician and I am drawn to areas where that language can be applied in different contexts. Certain aspects of feedback, information systems, and “loaded” material are examples of possible cross-disciplinary interests.
How would you describe your visual style and practices?
I’m interested in decentralizing foci. I like a dense field of action with no clear hierarchy. I like things that act of their own accord. I like immersive experiences, but I also like economy – not just finding affordable and available materials, but expanding their possible applications.
Which music artists have you worked with and is it a collaborative process?
At VIA, I’ve worked with Oneida, Walls, and Raw Blow. Those were not directly collaborative, but I did listen carefully to their records and took them into consideration for the performances.
For these sets, I did collaborate with other visual artists. My good friend Sarah Halpern did a selection of double 16mm projections at the Oneida show, Thomas McConnell and Kenneth Painter assisted me during the Walls show.
Also, I’m really interested in your work with UbuWeb – I am especially excited about getting my teeth into Daphne Oram’s book. How did the archive come about and what are your future plans with it?
Very glad to hear that you’re enjoying it! The Oram book is a really excellent introduction to electronics, but also reveals a good bit of Oram’s personality and charm.
I saw Michael Johnsen perform with his homemade analog electronic instruments in 2005, at a point when I was very cynical and arrogant, and it had a major impact on undoing that kind of thought. It was one of the most purely visceral experiences I’d ever had. I felt my entire nervous system in overhaul, straining to follow the sounds. Shortly thereafter, I asked to learn about building analog electronic instruments.
Over the years, Michael has accumulated a lot of amazing materials from his private research. As a recent initiate, I was finding it hard to locate resources; many of important texts on analog electronics are both out-of-print and removed from library circulation, since they are considered obsolete. Even more to the point, a majority of the scholarship in electronic music has been highly based in aesthetics and history, rather than concerned with technical details. The Ubu project is an attempt to bring those things into a larger discourse.
As far as future plans are concerned, we’re aiming for a large addition – rather than short, periodic updates. Due to copyright issues, I’m hesitant to talk about the full extent of what we’re hoping to include in the immediate future. We do hope to further develop an international perspective to the work, rather than limiting it to English language documents. I think there is also an emphasis on primary research – locating work and ideas that otherwise evaded public consumption.
I can say that since the archives went live, we’ve been fortunate enough to come into contact with a number of scholars and enthusiasts with unique items in their collections. We are always looking for more submissions, though!