Robin Fox is an Australian audio-visual artist – and a very impressive one at that. His laser works, which synchronise sound and visual electricity, have been performed in over 50 cities worldwide. From his work with Australia’s Chunky Move Dance Company, installations at MONA Hobart and the Gallery of Modern Art in Sydney, sound and light design for Lee Serle’s SYNC at the Lyon Opera Ballet, and creating installations with Atom TM at Sónar in Barcelona, Robin’s track record is one that does not cease to impress. Taking time out of his busy schedule touring his RGB show and Double Vision, he chats to us about synaesthesia, highlights from his career so far and the future of visual-auditory art.
For your work, in particular, what is the relationship between visual art and sound? Do think these disciplines borrow from one another?
When I work with sound and vision together it is predominantly in a situation or technological configuration that draws on a direct connection, at the level of signal pathway (voltage), between what is being heard and what is being seen. When I’m making these connections I’m not thinking about the relationship between ‘visual art’ as an ethos or a thing unto itself and I’m not thinking of ‘sound’ as an ethos or thing unto itself either. The connection between the two for me is about sense perception and, more particularly, in a simultaneous sense perception where the signal being heard is also the signal being seen. To me, it’s a simple manufactured synaesthesia. A neurological prompt or invitation if you like.
In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of sound in gallery spaces which is or has been the domain of the visual for a long time now.
Despite this being quite recent the two disciplines have intersected for a long time. The history of visual music goes back a long way and there are myriad examples of visual artists influenced by music (Kandinsky is an obvious and famous example) and many musicians inspired by the visual arts (Feldman’s Rothko Chapel an obvious example there). Despite this long history, however, there is still tension in the way each form is presented. My experience of trying to get sound works to sit well in gallery contexts has been mixed!
How do you think the combination enhances each individual art form? How do you maintain each art forms distinct qualities?
My audio visual works aren’t concerned at all with the distinct qualities of each form, at least not as a generating or guiding principle. I’m interested in how each aspect of the work manifests, which sounds make which images and vice versa. In creating an experience, I guess I’m also merging the two elements in the room and sculpting them in real time. The decisions I make are no doubt sub-consciously informed by how I feel in the moment about the success or failure (in my own subjective appraisal) of both the visible and audible qualities of what’s happening. So that answers part two of the question.
In terms of how I think the combination enhances each individual aspect? The answer is fundamental. To me, they are inseparable parts of the same temporal event. The sound on it’s own, stripped of the visual correlate, isn’t something that I would necessarily release as a sound only work and without the sound the lasers can look and feel empty and uninteresting. So the combination is key.
Do you think there is a greater emphasis put on multidisciplinary art today? What role do you think it plays in how people experience your work and other exhibitions?
I’m not sure about a greater emphasis practically. I guess it is quite popular within the funding structures to require a certain interdisciplinarity and encourage cross-pollination between forms. I assume the thinking behind that is to encourage some sort of emergence – hoping for a syllogistic situation where premise + premise = conclusion. Convergence of art forms Tracks back at least to the Gesamptkunstwerk notion that Wagner espoused in the 1840’s.
You’ve created work for, but not limited to, the City of Melbourne, Melbourne Music Week, Dark Fomo and Sónar, what are some of the most memorable events you’ve worked on?
Ha! Well, the older I get, the more of these I store away. I have quite a bit of nostalgia for things that happened a long time ago and also try each year to do something for which I am deeply unqualified. It’s often the latter ventures that end up being added to the memorable category.
Going back to the beginning the early European tours with Anthony Pateras and the gang from Synaesthesia Records were packed with memorable shows. We played everywhere from punk squats and record stores to a Princeton Uni frat house and larger concert hall type spaces. Another great memory, though not an event, would be the moment that I saw the relationship between sound and geometry that would define the next decade of my AV work. My first gallery show Volta at Roslyn Oxley 9 in Sydney. My first laser show at MONA FOMA in the dilapidated Princess Wharf 1. Playing my solo RGB laser show at the Barbican in London. In the dance world working on and touring Mortal Engine with Chunky Move, working with my partner Stephanie Lake on multiple shows, working with Lucy Guerin and Antony Hamilton. The recent collaboration with Atom TM Double Vision has been a big highlight of the last 12 months. We have played some big shows. I could go on and on…..the Giant Theremin….my exhibition of photographic works at CCP in 2010….working with the Bionic Ear Institute….Transducer live at the Music Bowl….etc etc
On the whole, I’ve had a blessed career packed with memorable events, projects and human beings.
How does creating work for an international festival such as Sónar differ to work for your own exhibitions?
Well, the work that Atom TM and I presented at Sónar wasn’t actually made for Sónar. It was co-commissioned by Unsound Krakow and the Adelaide Festival. It certainly was an interesting work to make as Atom and I live in ‘difficult’ places internationally speaking. I’m in Melbourne and he’s in Santiago. So it was a long distance relationship. The main difference between that work and making my own stuff is the collaborative aspect. Working with Atom was one of the ‘out of my depth or field of experience’ moments for me in 2014. We come from white different worlds musically and historically, but I think we managed to create something that represents us both as artists.
Finally, on that point, there is no hard and fast rule for how I approach any given project. Part of the dynamism of maintaining a high level of activity as a freelance artist, particularly working in so many different areas, is the challenge of the new from work to work and from collaboration to collaboration. While I often find myself in responsive situations (working to a choreographers brief for example) I also like to find time for pure and undirected experiment in the studio. These MO’s feed each other.
Synaesthesia is one the theories that you say inform your work; how does this theory and other artists in history influence you?
This is a huge question. Firstly, for the record, the whole event at Mona was called Synaesthesia. My installation was simply called RGB Colour Organ. You could read the article that I wrote for that program on some background on how the idea has influenced me. Also, I recently wrote up a playlist for Cyclic Defrost which covers quite a few influences.
What sort of impression do you want to leave viewers with after experiencing your events?
How people react to your work is such an infinitely variegated meta tapestry of subjective associations that I gave up worrying about it too much some time ago. It seems that by putting things in public you invite a certain number of people to love it, a certain number to actively despise it and quite a large number to shrug and be indifferent to it. Basically, what I would like (but never expect) is that people walk away from my shows with a sense that more is possible than when they went into it. I’m not talking about ‘expanding minds’ in some phallocentric – didactic – brow beating way. More in a psychedelic or lysergic way. I’d love an audience to feel like they’ve learnt something but have no idea what that thing is exactly.
Your ‘RGB Colour Organ’ work at Sugar Mountain allowed punters to be involved in the creation of the visuals and sound through controllers and an organ, have you done anything like this before?
Well it was a variation on the installation of the same name at Mona’s synaesthesia event, so I had done it once before. The work is basically a set-up that allows people to perform aspects of my solo RGB set. There is an amazing sense of mastery of sound and light when you make a small gesture and the room explodes with noise and colour. I often get a quite megalomaniacal buzz when I’m performing that live and I wanted people to experience that for themselves.
How do you see the genre of visual-auditory art developing in ten years time?
I’m watching a few trends. I got heavily interested in directional audio a couple of years ago and hope to come back to it when the time and project suits that research. I think there is a lot of potential to transform the way we experience and understand sound through that counterintuitive propagation technique. That coupled with some pretty wild stuff happening with ultra violet laser light essentially heterodyning to produce light that sits in the air, seemingly statically, in 3D space promises to produce some interesting sensory results. Essentially in a few years we will be approaching really effective 3D holography. In the interim we will see a lot of work for heads up display platforms. To my mind these are a stepping stone.
Can you tell me about what you are working on at the moment?
Right now I’m touring my solo RGB show and Double Vision. That side of things has been taking up a lot of time. I have a new sound release A Small Prometheus coming out 30th October on Editions Mego which is exciting. I’m working with Stephanie Lake on a new work Double Blind which will hit stages at Sydney Festival in January and will have it’s Melbourne debut in February 2016 and I’ve been busily establishing a new organisation M.E.S.S. with Byron Scullin which will be a public access antique electronic music studio and workspace due to open in April 2016…..so it’s all systems go.
To discover more about Robin Fox go to robinfox.com.au