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Light, Space, Rhythm – A conversation with Florence To

Florence To is a Rotterdam-based art director and installation artist working across multiple mediums. Producing generative visuals and animations for music and dance performances, developing immersive environments and projections, constructing more idiosyncratic media assemblages – while active in many arenas, she brings a consistent aesthetic and attention to detail to all her projects. Drawing on an appreciation of pattern and material forged in a stint in the fashion industry, she delineates spaces and sounds with light in personal projects and with myriad collaborators.

CAN first encountered To in Montréal in spring 2015, while she was participating in a residency at the Société des Arts Technologiques and working on a dome-based projection project. An email exchange ensued when she shared her documentation of that work in January, and that got the ball rolling on this extended conversation about her work, her ongoing interest in using light and sound to induce altered states, and the roots of her practice.

Your statement for QUINTESENCE says it “tells a story of how memory may be disorientated, distorted, dysfunctional yet acting as a linear process to individuation.” Please unpack how interest in memory drove the design of the piece a bit for our readers.

Memories are connected to our emotions such as our associations with colours, objects and also how we process thoughts connected to emotions. When using the term memory, we are interpreting the associations that derive from the way we process emotion. This process creates complicated rhythms in our brains and also the way we feel balance in our mind and bodies. We translated this concept into the performance regarding the rhythm of the visual content, some were generative to connect with the frequencies of the sound design and the animation content was designed to work with the architecture of the dome, using space as a format to heighten the senses. We paid a lot of attention to rhythm and the proportion of darkness that could recreate the same way we feel going through elaborate journeys and also how we can be released from those tensions within the dualities of darkness and light.

I worked on this concept with Brazilian composer Ricardo Donoso. I really like his approach to sound design and we had worked on some smaller collaborations based on similar ideas before developing QUINTESENCE.

QUINTESENCE was created for projection in Montréal’s SATOSPHERE (at the SAT), a 360-degree projection environment / photos: Sébastien Roy

QUINTESENCE was hatched over a one week within the Société des Arts Technologiques (aka the SAT) residency program, can you describe how your host supported the development of the project?

I approached Louis-Phillippe at the SAT the year before the residency took place as I was interested in the format of the dome. I was still looking for interesting spaces to develop visual performances since most of my work is based on how space can dictate a performance. LP and I had several conversations about the development of the project concept before we agreed on the residency. I had worked on creating the content a few months before the residency and the SAT team assisted with the tailoring of the content to the dome with options on how we could present it to work on their systems. Some of it wasn’t suitable for the dome such as the sequences with brighter gradients, the pixelation was too noticeable and when one side is brighter it reflects on the other side of the content because of the spherical dimensions of the dome. One of the main priorities was to be able to show the architectural use of the dome such as the feel of gravity in the visuals, and to be able to generate live content as well as pre-rendered animations. I think we could have done more with additional time to work with the dome but it has generated new ideas for potential future dome content.

That detail about brightness and the earlier comments about the proportions of the dome are fascinating. What are some of the other opportunities (or constraints) of projecting within a 360-degree architectural enclosure?

Colour can be a restriction – especially red, as it dominates the contrast ratio; if the colour is overpowering you need to think about how to balance the detail involved. The more depth involved in an architectural space the more likely the reflection goes on to the other surfaces. I used some wireframe content to balance the evolvement of the projections and the more detail can be seen, the more I can play with the interaction with the architectural surroundings.

One of the more interesting platforms to emerge last year was the 4DSOUND immersive performance environment. NOQTURNL, your collaboration with its creative director John Connell uses it to induce sleep and dream states in the audience over the course of its six hour performance. What prompted the desire to use sound, light, and space to activate altered states in your audience? Also, what steps did you take to research and refine the effectiveness of the experience on its audience?

“We were sleeping in the space at the beginning, waking up every few hours tweaking the light, moving the projectors, altering the sound, and half of the time we were probably half asleep.”

John I started collaborating after having several conversations on our mutual interest on using sound and light to access specific states of conscious awareness. We’d both been exploring projects related to consciousness and wanted to develop the ideas working with a fully spatial sound environment like 4DSOUND to create immersive, meditative experiences. When I met John he was teaching and practicing meditation, he has his own practice called Breathwork & Sound. Before he became creative director we were working with Paul Oomen, the creator of 4DSOUND to develop this concept with the sound system. We did our first residency in early 2014 to develop our learning on how to use the space and experiment with the capabilities of the system. In it we held a workshop inviting some people to participate with the first process of our performance which was to go through breathing exercises with meditation. John would also use some of his sound design during the meditation and eventually light would appear on the columns using mainly particles to react with the frequencies from the audio. This hadn’t yet become NOQTURNL, we were still figuring out how to effectively develop this type of performance. It was in our second residency later that year where NOQTURNL evolved. That year the sound system had to move location and there were some restrictions we had to consider. The owner of the building only allowed us to work during specific hours, I think it was between 9pm to 6am. We only had a week to work on the second iteration which wasn’t easy since it was inverting our normal sleeping hours. Working in that state of mind guided us into this different realm – we were sleeping in the space at the beginning, waking up every few hours tweaking the light, moving the projectors, altering the sound and half of the time we were probably half asleep. This is when the installation fell into place. All the ideas were developed due to our state of mind so it made sense that this would become an installation where the audience would also be invited to attend during similar hours. I remember the first day I arrived at the new space I had to sleep throughout the first session as I had hurt my back quite badly and I couldn’t move so I stayed on the floor of the system for the whole time until it was time to leave. Perhaps the way I felt with the space initiated some ideas and emotions towards my environment.

↑ Part slumber party, part installation NOQTURNL is an overnight performance of the 4DSOUND spatial sound system / photos: Georg Schroll.

In the beginning the research emerged from workshops we held with people, getting feedback on their thoughts on the effect of the performance since the audience are very much the focus of the project.

What exactly did these early workshops entail?

In the first workshop, John and I collaborated with Robert Liethoff from Berlin, who is a dramaturgist and also works with voice physiology and sound-oriented body work. He helped guide us in learning how the nature of the body listens to sound as an effective role of meditation. The 4DSOUND space is not the average place someone would go for meditation but the complexity of the system gives an advantage for the spatialised sound to have an impact. There were about ten people at the first workshop, John gave a breathing exercise to calm the mind and after about 15 minutes of this he would begin the sounds using localised (proximity, ‘inner’, discrete) and global (distant, ‘outer’, whole) perceptions of space to encourage states of deep meditation in the listener. Once the effect of the meditation took place, I triggered the light projections on to the columns of the system translating the frequency movements of the sounds in a wave like and particle texture. This technique was used as a way to transport the perception of the mind into a heightening of the senses. The first workshop was intended to see how triggering specific conscious states through sound and light could create an enhancement of creative association and visualisation. After this hour long workshop we asked for feedback from the participants, some who have attended meditation classes and some who haven’t. The overall reaction was mixed, many of the participants enjoyed strong visualisations, a sense of relaxation and emotional release, and some questioned whether if this was less effective than being in natural surroundings. It was a difficult argument, as advanced technologies are starting to replace more traditional techniques and also trying to create the same emotional impact and improvement in how we sense. The solution for us was to continue to experiment and develop these sessions to improve the experience as much as we could, so John and I quickly arranged a second residency at the system which turned into an overnight development with Paul Ooman at the studio in Amsterdam.

Part of the visual research was taken from Fovea, an installation I designed four years ago on dark adaptation researching the late biophysics professor Selig Hecht. I came across his research on tests on how the brain reacts to darkness and light involving humans and animals, which also encourages our senses to react for a certain amount of time. My intention wasn’t to hypnotise people, it was merely an interest in how this could keep the senses reacting for more than twenty minutes. I had done three performances of this installation in one day and the response from the audience created a dialogue about how to develop this idea through different concepts. I used these methods to develop the sleeping installation such as the amount of time exposed in darkness, how long we are exposed to light and the proportion of light used during the six hour performance.

I think the real inspiration came from the first time we presented NOQTURNL (at TodaysArt in The Hague) to a larger public audience. We had 50 people each day for the three sessions and each was very different. We developed a large library of sounds and visuals and we had a certain process we wanted to follow. During these sessions we realised that the energy of the audience had more control over us and we felt quite vulnerable in taking care of them. We really had to think about how to prepare the audience for the six hour session by welcoming them into the space, helping them to get settled and also how to finish the piece so they could have a pleasant awakening. If you think about meditation, it is very much about feeling at ease with yourself and accepting your natural state of being. We wanted to capture a similar nature so the audience could drift away into their altered state and be comfortable enough to dive into it. It became very organic, by the third night we felt more at ease with the audience and had quite a meditative experience ourselves over the sessions.

Etanan mic’d up and mobilized eight resonant aluminum pipes, three bar chimes from antique clocks, and a bronze metal sheet to activate the unique acoustics of Govanhill Baths, a century old public bathhouse in Glasgow.

Fovea is very much a visual experiment, but you brought in a fairly heavyweight sound designer for the project with Alex Smoke. That was not the first time you’ve worked with the producer, as you’ve teamed up to create live shows and installations. How has this ongoing collaboration informed your practice?

Alex and I ended up working together after we were introduced by a mutual friend – I wasn’t too familiar with his music at the time. When we first met, we mainly spoke about our interests and background so when I worked on Fovea with Alex we approached it quite openly which I think is important in a collaboration especially when it’s new. Alex also has a background in classical music so this made working together a lot easier, I worked with him as a composer not as an electronic artist. The sound design had to be quite specific due to the nature of the installation and it had to reflect on the space and visual element. I had written a sort of screen/sound play on how the composition should develop and changed accordingly to the role of the installation in terms of mood, textures, accents and rhythm, how creative Alex could translate this was up to him. It was a very quick turnover and after Fovea it made sense to work together again.

The recent piece Etanan which we worked on last year situated at an Edwardian Bathhouse is our second installation, this time designing an instrument to work with the acoustics of a space. This was a bit more challenging than Fovea as we were learning how to tune large metal pipes according to a microtonal scale. I tend to choose concepts according to the nature of the architectural space rather than one at random but I also like to challenge what I’m unfamiliar with. At the time, Alex and I had been researching the psychological aspects of sound using ancient methods. We were developing a larger scale project for a Cathedral almost two years before Etanan. It had to be postponed so Sonica commissioned this project, which became a very performance-based piece, with a much more physical quality. It’s difficult as you get older, as the more active you are with your practice the more you lose the intuitive craft with your work. Working on Etanan was about remembering those craft elements and using less digital systems in performance.

CO 10 (right) was created in 2006 and re-designed unwanted materials with a focus on sustainability. Presenting design as simple and purposeful by using reclaimed fabrics it featured subtle sculptured elements within the constraints of classic tailoring.

I had an “ah-ha!” moment when I saw you had worked in textiles in the past as your use of pattern made perfect sense. How did your four years of embroidery and pattern cutting projects with Alexander McQueen and Boudicca influence your practice and your aesthetic?

I’m quite meticulous with fine detail and I show this a lot with how I use my hands. I had a strong interest in architecture during my studies and I worked this into pattern cutting. My initial designs were quite sculptural then eventually I learned how to translate this into seams and folds with careful attention to placement on the body. My concepts were also taken from objects I would deconstruct, for example my first collection came from manipulated patterns from the inside parts of a 1920s vanity camera, this was when I really learned how to construct patterns as in this concept I transferred the patterns into a basic pattern for the human form. After I graduated I went to work for Boudicca as we worked in similar ways with pattern cutting. They taught me old techniques used in tailoring and interesting processes of constructing clothes. Boudicca was great but in some ways tough, I was in the beginnings of my 20s and had not yet learned about workplace ethics. Boudicca inspired and improved my techniques but it also altered my psychological way of being.

Working in fashion is a difficult environment especially if it’s working for someone else, the workers are not being paid very much for far too much work done on their part. This is fine if it’s the decision of the worker but when being treated like a slave it has an effect on you after a while. It takes a strong person and ego to continue in that industry, however I also realise that most people in fashion don’t realise they become that sort of person. When you live your life working everyday, forgetting to eat, speak and being trained to not sleep for the sake of getting a piece of clothing made, once you leave that zone you wonder why you never realised it was happening. When you begin to remember to have respect and dignity for yourself, going back is just a mental disorder waiting to happen. Of course with internships you want to learn and gain training but it’s also how that worker is valued in the workplace, it may not seem important at the time but we are all human with brains that could psychologically malfunction depending on the right trigger, it’s a crazy risk to take once you recover from that environment but on the other hand it also makes you stronger. There are alot of secrets that have to be kept in that industry as at the end of the day fashion is about vanity.

After Boudicca, I was in quite a dark place, I left in quite bad terms and I was just starting to realise what I put myself through. I went to do a Masters in Textiles for a year at The Glasgow School of Art where I specialised in tailoring and embroidery but there was more focus on the textile side this time. I became more interested in ethical design as I was more drawn to keeping certain values in production and for the buyers. When I say ethical, I also main sustainable design, using reclaimed fabrics and creating classic garments that could exceed the life line in regular clothing. Every designer is different but the majority who are creating sustainable design still struggle due to what can be created by having the restriction of only using reclaimed materials. Encouraging ethical wearing is to also show sophistication in the materials used but on a personal level I also felt there had to be more of a substantial reason to continue working in that field.

“I had a bulky Dell laptop from 2003, no software apart from VLC player, I used a battery powered camera to film parts of old silent films, then I linked up a grid of colourful acetate about four by three metres and projected the film I had cut up on the grid – this was the first visual piece I worked on.”

I’m surprised I managed to finish art school, as I already knew that I didn’t see the point to my studies but I didn’t want to give up so easily so I went to work at McQueen in menswear, working on show pieces and assisting with the pattern cutting. It’s natural thinking that if you study a certain subject, that you’ll end up doing a related job. I enjoy the craftsmanship of the fashion industry but the work ethic will always leave me unsatisfied, so making the decision to switch fields was quite natural. Perhaps I gained a lot of control of what I wanted in my practice but I had to find another medium to use in the right environment for myself. In another attempt to not completely give up, I continued to freelance part time for three years working on ethical design in functional clothing, I had a plan to develop this further but I ended up having too much fun with visual design and installation. When I moved back to Glasgow in 2008 some friends and I started a music night at the CCA once a month. I had a bulky Dell laptop from 2003, no software apart from VLC player, I used a battery powered camera to film parts of old silent films, then I linked up a grid of colourful acetate about 4 by 3 metres and projected the film I had cut up on the grid. This was the first visual piece I worked on, the grid then translated into using layers of transparent materials I had left over from my fashion days and soon after I became interested in software. I spent a few months in college learning how to code, which was a long process. As I spent most of my life working with various art mediums, it was like both sides of my brain attacking each other. I feel with installation I can still work with architecture and use texture as a detail. Instead of using design with focus on the body, I’m using design with focus on space keeping the process of form and function in my aesthetic.

Dudendance 1 Florence To editMinotaur is a collaboration between To, Rupert Thomson and Dudendance Theatre that uses light as set design, live object and with a dance performance.

What is the remainder of 2016 looking like for you? What are you currently working on?

I have a few audiovisual collaborations this year, one again with Alex for his music as Alex Smoke presented as L.O.W, where I’ve designed quite a few new animations rather than the generative pieces that I usually work live. I’ve used this opportunity to make myself extremely uncomfortable as I have less control of the animations for live shows. It has been a longer process than usual and Alex is also doing a much more experimental live set, quite different compared to his past work.

In the last three years I’ve been working with Jochem Paap (Speedy J) developing the visual elements for his events. He has currently opened up a new building called De Baan in Rotterdam, which is a creative hub for producers and artists, and recently he has been holding residencies inviting musicians to join him in his studio. We have some new ideas to work through so I’m currently based in Rotterdam to work more closely with Jochem and develop new installations and visual work for his label Electric Deluxe.

I am also working with a dance group called Dudendance Theatre with Rupert Thomson who is the lead programmer for performance at the Southbank Centre in London. We will be doing a residency in Wrocław in August to develop and perform the piece. The project is still in it’s early experimentation but quite different to the other projects I’ve worked on so I’m quite excited to start developing it.

After the summer John and I will be doing the next session of NOQTURNL at the 4DSOUND space in Budapest and in September Ricardo and I will be releasing the Quintesence project as an EP on the label Denovali.

Florence To

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