A few weeks ago we had the pleasure of getting to go to Splice Festival for the first time. Along with getting to participate in workshops and check out great live A/V performances, the inspiring artists talks were a big highlight of the trip. In particular we finally got to meet Lucy Benson and find out all about the creative process behind her amazing work during her presentation. Videos from each of the talks from Splice will be online at some point in the future, and we recommend checking them out, but in the meantime we've got an advanced interview with Lucy to share with you!
1. Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Lucy, I’m an audiovisual artist - not the best description but one I keep coming back to! - working predominately with expanded video, light and moving-image technologies for live performance, installation, scenography and film/video. I create a lot of commissioned AV work for art and music festivals, concert tours and exhibitions. I also direct and design video for theatre/stage, and design and develop custom projection and screen installations for large-scale events. I’m from Tasmania originally, but until recently had been living for many years in Berlin. Right now I’m in Glasgow and will be in the UK for a while.
2. At your Splice Festival talk you emphasized the importance of asking "how did you do that" instead of "what did you use to make that" because the process for making art rarely revolves around a single tool or process; as it can often be daunting to go from "this is the look I want" to "this is how to create the look I want", how do you go about finding the way to achieve your creative visions?
Yes, to detract from generally feeling awkward speaking about myself, I thought i’d try something a bit more practical and address the number one question I get asked.
And how I make things can vary wildly between projects because it really comes down to the concept itself - what the actual idea is, and also, why it exists, what’s the purpose? That might sound really obvious, but actually there’s endless worlds and technical pathways you can explore for any single idea, so it’s really a matter of spending time totally immersing myself in the concept; letting it obsess and flood my brain to push through the obvious into something more interesting and unique to me; filtered through my own experiences, emotions, technical and conceptual ideas.
In my own artwork I suppose I also have quite a process- and media-arts approach, where the tools and processes I use in production are, for me at least, usually a critical part of both the concept and end work. So I’m constantly looping back to the idea itself, finding new connections and further developing the concept - and my relationship to it - through the production process.
I never usually start out with a look I want to achieve or the thought ‘i want to do this visually’. If anything I tend to feel it more in my hands then see it first. It’s more of a texture, tone or pitch which is somewhere in-between tactile, visual, sound and language. I draw and write a lot, as ideas still flow best for me through a pen onto paper. I also find words and language a very instinctive way to feel out certain emotional tones and textures so there’s often specific written texts or narratives behind my work.
I read and research, but most of all I listen to music - either the music i’ll be working with, or I’ll seek out music that feels like it supports the tone and story of the concept, and listen to it on repeat while i’m working in the studio. It’s almost a meditative thing, using the repetitive processes in the studio along with the music to kind of feel out the idea and directions.
The concept usually determines an initial direction for technical exploration, but I’ve always got ideas for random experiments too, things i’ve wondered; ‘what would happen if..’ so I take these into the studio and see how it all feeds back on itself. I’m very conscious of how I use media and technology; the semantics attached to various digital and non-digital textures, and how this will reflect back on the concept. This extends to the performance style; what system i’ve built, how i’m interacting with my work and my tools. The constant question is will it support and develop the concept, shape it into something even more exciting? Or does it clash, is it causing conflict and ultimately weakening the idea, even if visually it looks amazing?
It sounds a bit dogmatic but i do think that with every decision you make, be it aesthetic, technical, dramatic, you’re either adding meaning to your idea or you’re taking it away. And even if your idea is just cool, dramatic visuals that set a certain tone, that’s still a particular spell that you’re casting over an audience that you can just as easily break again by not taking care with your decisions.. And people are sophisticated; they notice this stuff and their expectations are constantly adjusting to what you are doing. Even people that are not familiar with the kind of artwork or performance you do; their senses and emotions are just as attuned to the world as yours and they’ll quickly go from ‘there’s a story/meaning building here’ (no matter how abstract) to ‘this is just random cool stuff’, so i think its good to be aware of what it is you want to achieve.
3. Tell us about some of the pieces that you presented in your talk and the processes and techniques you combined to create the unique visual style.
For Splice I chose three live-AV projects that look differently aesthetically and have very different creative processes behind them, in support of different concepts.
First up was my AV concert with Kuedo, called Severant which is made mostly using analogue materials; original graphics printed onto film slides and layered to create moire patterns, lights, lenses, prisms, all animated by hand in front of the camera.
Then taken into After Effects and further developed, colorised and collaged across 2d and 3d space. The result is this really interesting and particular dissonant tone; something apparently hyper-digital but with a handmade warmth, between nostalgia and futurism, human and synthetic, thats directly picking up on Kuedos music.
I started working on this project while I was briefly working under the name MFO, which was an artist-duo with with my then collaborator Marcel Weber. Marcel contributed a bit to the very early pre-production of this as well as a couple of great sequences in the final show.
The second example is a more filmic work based on my own screenplay called Dream Cargoes which had a more traditional film process during production. I filmed everything in Iceland, with Marcel collaborating again, and then went through a heavy process back in the studio of designing the visual and VFX treatment to create a convincing ‘natural’ world for my story to take place in.
Then doing the compositing, VFX, and grading as well as editing and structuring the overall performance to the score. As well as directing the visual work, I created a sonic concept for the score that would support the narrative, and chose two musicians to create that; the amazing Roly Porter and Keith Fullerton-Whitman who both created such beautiful music for this.
And lastly a quick look at some recent ‘solo’ performances (not attached to any pre-existing commission or theme), where its more about expressing myself and my own practice, using a lot of custom-programmed visual tools, systems and environments that i can interact with in realtime. These performances really focus more on the recurring personal threads through all my work; sensory disruption, feedback systems, moire, experiences of nature and synthetic or false realities, identity and perception.
I chose these three projects, not only to illustrate the point that asking ‘what software do you use’ is not really the right question, but also because I wanted to show the breadth of artist processes, decision making and aesthetics that can make up an individual’s practice. I don’t think people - public, promoters, peers, agencies - understand what an exhaustive and intensive process it generally is, and how mostly, undervalued and underpaid it is. Everyone out there has different methods, but I haven’t met one person working full-time in this field that doesn't spill blood over every project and live and breathe what they do. I thought it might be nice to take the opportunity to represent that effort on behalf of both myself and others.
4. What new projects do you have in the works that you can tell us about?
Right now I’m excited to spend some time focussing on my own mixed-media studio artwork. I’ve had such a busy time working on commissions and its something i really enjoy and feel lucky to be able to do, but ultimately you’re creating work for other people or for specific purposes and you can get trapped in a cycle of being asked to do the same thing over and over. I’ve been keen to break out of that for my own development and interest for some time. I’m a restless person creatively and i’m always feeling like i haven’t quite kicked into full gear yet artistically, which frustrates me.
Having said that, there’s a really exciting audiovisual performance collaboration coming up with an Opera singer and several brilliant composers from the US. I haven’t had much opportunity to work with voice, so i’m really interested to see what we develop together. I’ll be designing/directing the whole staging for that as well as the visual performance, so that’ll be a great opportunity to really push myself and my ideas into new territory.
To contradict myself again, having not done any AV concerts for a while, i’ve found myself thinking how fun it would be to design a big fuck-off explosive concert tour. I’d love to apply some highly creative and conceptual work to a stadium sized performance.
And in exciting news, I just found out i was selected for a big public-art commission in Australia, so will be heading there to work on that next month. Part of that commission will be teaching a workshop in live media, focussing on VDMX, so I’ll make sure to send some photos of that!