Vertex at Infinity - Mark Fell at South First Gallery Interviewed


Mark Fell’s installation “Vertex at Infinity” at South First Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is an exercise in precise, modulating design. It opened on April 12th and will close on May 18th, 2014. Complex variations of geometrical forms are the order of the day. The visual pieces are constituted by the juxtaposition of bright, rainbowed chromatic gradation and found images while the sound portion is a churning, randomly generated selection of Fell’s signature Sensate Focus ingredients: tastefully swelling synth pads, restrained, harmonically bubbling tones, a little bit of vocal sample, and a metallic, muted kick drum. Varying combinations of a small group of ingredients bump or edge into the viewer again and again and before they know it, a certain state of digital meditation hums in their midst. After 45 minutes their affective awareness slowly starts having edges, colors and lines a lot like the sound and image in the space.

In this interview with Mr. Fell, he spoke about a certain oppositionality in his work—in other words, how he’s doing something slightly “wrong.” There is particular slipperiness in the installation’s juxtaposition of smoothness and striation, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s terms. Just when a part looks streamlined and perfectly-rounded one notices an ever so slight mark of serration or displacement in its appearance or its conceptual workings. On the one hand it looks pretty but on the other it mocks regimes of prettiness.

Fell also described his interest in the codependent, profound relationship between physical states and mental states. This explains the installation’s “sound wall”, or as he somewhat bemusedly described it, the “cloud of sound.” It emanates through the gallery from two sets of two vertically aligned speakers set facing each other, creating a two-dimensional vertical plane. Walking through it is like walking by a miniature, experimental club on a sidewalk, the rhythmic lull of the synth pads lapping at you with a bell curve of intensity as you pass. It is not a coincidence that the geometrical, physical images take on an extra, hummingly florescent charge when perceived from within the wall of sound—he told that the former were designed after the latter, the saturation of the colors meant to match the saturation of the lush, slowly-crystallizing chords. Interestingly, those chords were designed with Errorsmith’s Razor workstation created for Reaktor. Each half of the audiovisual pair modifies and builds off the other, symbiotically forming a generative, mutating set of moods and sensations.

A last, exciting note before the interview: Fell and Terre Thaemlitz have just finished another collaboration, recorded in Tokyo, which Fell describes “a lot better than the last one.”


Alexander Iadarola: Can you tell about how this piece works?

Mark Fell: Alright so, basically, there are four iPod shuffles. Each one is connected to a different speaker, and each has got the same bank of sounds on it so its not a kind of distinction between each of the four. And there’s maybe like 15 long sound files that are maybe like four or five minutes long with contain keyboards. And then maybe like a lot more very short sound files that contain kick drum patterns. So like, actually, even though there’s more kick drum sound files, because they’re shorter, in terms of the overall random distribution you end up hearing keyboard sounds more. So that’s how it works. I kind of like it because it’s not got a computer hidden in a cupboard somewhere. You know its not some complex computational thing, it’s just four iPod shuffles.

A: What attracted you to the randomness of the concept?

M: Well, I guess, because all the keyboard sounds are playing the same chord, it meant that they could be in lots of different combinations and sound kind of alright. So, yeah, rather than try to structure something, I just thought let it do what it’s gonna do.

A: Maika [Pollack, who runs South First] was saying it was designed as a wall of sound?

M: I liked the idea that it was a plane of sound. Obviously it spreads out so it’s more like a cloud of sound. If you look at it physically, geometrically it suggests that you’re kind of walking through a sheet of sound. And I was trying to connection with the idea that the print was a two-dimensional flat plane as well.

A: When I was standing in the wall of sound—I could be imagining, but—and looking at the prints I felt like the colors were a lot more vivid. Something about the tones of the music and the rainbow gradient…

M: Yeah. The color-y shape is meant to be like a kind of visual representation of the keyboard sound. When I make a keyboard sound and its got this really nice dynamic spectral content, the kind of way I imagine it in my head is like a shape.

A: Are you synaesthetic?

M: It’s not like I see it, it’s not like I’m synaesthetic, I just imagine this kind of like colorful thing happening. I wish I was synaesthetic (laughs).

A: I am actually.

M: Really! Do you get any kind of effect when you hear this sound? (Refers to the installation.)

A: Yes, I do, it’s kind of blue, crystal-y and shard-y. It’s cool, it’s kind of like. You know that cover of that one Autechre record, with the grey cover and the yellow and the blue, the kind of crystal type thing?

M: The very early one? Was it “Bass Cadet”? I think that was some tile actually.

A: Are there any visual artists that are of particular influence to you?

M: Well, there are some, yeah. There’s this graphic designer called Karl Gersner. It’s like kind of really simple shapes. A lot of it is like circles that are then divided a bit “yin and yang” style, but a bit more complex. I guess I’m influenced by what you might call more “formalist” visual works. But for me it’s not just a formal exercise. Even if you’re just concentrating on just the aesthetics or the form, for me there’s always a more critical or other dynamic going on, do you know what I mean?

A: Yeah of course. It’s way too easy in Art History to be like “formalism is the hegemony”. You talked about the color waves, figures, the gradients as being somewhat representative of different synth sounds, but how do the more “found” images play in?

M: Well I thought that originally when I was doing it, the arm is like a human element so it corresponds to the voice [in the evolving 4-iPod track]and the metal structure more corresponds to the rhythmic structure. In the sound piece the voice and the rhythm ended up being less prominent. It was kind of like, what would be the visual counterpart of that but not in a really basic graphic… You know like for example you could draw the wave shape of a kick, or you could look at the frequency plot of the voice, but I was thinking like what’s the correspondence on a kind of more- when I say “higher” level I don’t mean that in a value judgment kind of way but more in a kind of conceptual level. But also that’s my friend’s arm. When she was doing the gardening she got all cut up from doing some bushes, kind of looks like self-harm. And I kind of like the visual look of... I’m not into, self-harm’s not a good thing, but you know, I’m kind of quite interested in the whole dynamic of how and why people self-harm. My friend’s a psychotherapist who works with people like that, and often when you change your body state your mental state changes as well. For example, if you’re feeling extremely depressed, one thing that people can do is put ice down their back so it totally changes your physiology and flips you out the depression sort of. So I’m kind of just interested in that border between physical and mental and that it isn’t this completely separate thing that we often believe it to be.

A: Yes, totally. Is there a better illustration of that then house music? Maika was saying that you’re referencing a specific set of years in house music history with this piece?

M: My interest in house music is really 1992, 1993 New York house. When I discovered that as a British guy in the north of England it was like “wow, this is amazing!” So really most of what I do is kind of, even if it might not sound like that, it’s always in response to that, I guess. I was just really into that format of deep mellow chords, voice, and you know, nice percussion. That became the template for a lot of what I did, even the SND stuff—when we started we thought we were making music like that (laughs) but we just did a really bad job of it.

A: What were some records you loved from that period?

M: There’s a whole bunch, but one in particular is one called “No More Mind Games” by Classic Man, on Nervous, that was a really good one. There were producers outside of New York making that sound, so even outside of New York, I’d define it as that sound. There was this one group called Chewables from Miami. They were on this label called EFA or something, like a yellow label with really big initials. But mainly it was coming out of North America. There was no one in England capable of making that sound. British productions of the time just didn’t have- there was something about the production technique where no one seemed to get it at all, ever (laughs).

Conversation transcribed below continued via email:

A: At one point you said that you felt the more formal content of art could have a philosophical dimension that is more than just aesthetic pleasure. How do you conceive of that more philosophical dimension in your work? Is the music you make conceptually premeditated in great detail before creation or does your production of it flow more freely?

M: So basically I think there is no such thing as "pure formalism" or no such thing as an aesthetic judgement that is free from its cultural, historical, social, technical (etc) contexts. Like for me the main thing is that "it looks or sounds good", but what constitutes good is a complex matter for me. Like a particularly incongruous pattern or form might appeal to some and alienate others. So in that sense for me its oppositional. But I never start out with a philosophical position that I want to express or explore. For me I just focus on the materials, the processes, the technologies, and let everything else take care of itself - i.e. the beauty or the meaning. Does that explain my position?

I guess to put it another way, although I’m totally obsessed with philosophy or theory etc, the way I make work is that first and foremost you should not have to know a theory of the work in order to enjoy it. At one level its not about anything. But then at another its always dealing with the traditions to which it belongs and the traditions that are in opposition to it. Like the aesthetic context itself is the bit where the opposition takes place.

A: What do you mean by “oppositional”?

It’s like Kraftwerk as being oppositional to Velvet Underground. Or Soft Cell as oppositional to Sex Pistols. Like Marc Almond promoting an aesthetic that clear punk rockers would not get. I remember being at a Soft Cell show in the early 80s and someone spitting and Almond said something like - its not 1979 anymore or words to that effect.

So like in the show for example the shapes and colours are definitely not kind of "modern art" looking. Like in a way quite crude and mocking minimalist formalism. But also very formal, if you get my point. And the sound itself is not this kind of haunting tonal blur - its very clear, harmonic and clearly referring to keyboards in house musics. And the layout of the speakers is not a horizontal quad arrangement - like in most electro acoustic music, but vertical.

A: What philosophy, theory, or thinkers in general are you influenced by?

M: I was really influenced by later Wittgenstein in my late teens. then rorty. And then Heidegger. Lately I’m enjoying Bruno Latour.

A: I also wanted to follow up on your interest in the relationship between bodily and mental states. Can you say more about that?

M: I think I said that because of a conversation i was having with my friend who is a psychotherapist. And she was looking at dialectical behavioural therapy designed by a woman who had borderline personality disorder. So its used now to treat people with BPD. I guess that’s also why people self harm - a kind of physical action to change one’s emotional state. And I’m quite into how and why people self harm. To change a strong emotional state can’t be done logically or with reason (quoting my friend right now), it needs a strong physical force - change in temperature, a cut, a punch etc. I think on a more philosophical note that the border between mental and physical is kind of unworkable (like body - soul distinction).

A: Why “Vertex at Infinity”?

M: Ok, so it means like two lines that come together at a point infinitely far away,. i.e. they never converge. So I like the idea of things not coming together, not meeting. Like on the first print there is a black dot and a white dot. Like a totally separated out yin and yang thing.

More about Mark Fell: Website - Discogs

About Author

Alexander Iadarola is a journalist at Secret Thirteen. He lives and works in Queens, NY.