'Mag Movie' plays in Semiconductor's SFIAF show.

Semiconductor's Binary Opposition

Sean Uyehara November 12, 2010

What do you call a duo that considers itself a trio? Or videomakers who call themselves sculptors? Semiconductor has been making video and installation work for over ten years. They consist of Joseph Gerhardt, Ruth Jarman and a computer. They create animations and present live music and visual shows. Everything they do is slightly inside out. The computer is more or less an antagonist in their midst. They haven’t quite broken up the band yet, because the computer, while it creates a lot of stress, provides some useful bits too. It doesn’t do interviews. I spoke with Joseph and Ruth, about their nasty third, and about some other things too in preparation for their retrospective program at the fifth San Francisco International Animation Festival.

SF360: What is your artistic background?

Ruth Jarman: We both studied at Brighton School of Art in the U.K. Joe studied sculpture. I studied critical fine art practice. And while we were there we were making very hands-on installations, kind of architectural-scale installations. We were doing things independently, although there were similarities in our practice, in that we were working with either the built environment around us, or responding to the physical landscape and the natural world in some way.

SF360: And you met there?

Jarman: Yeah we met there, but we didn’t start working together when we were at art school. Maybe we were kind of tinkering with some sound or something while we were there, but it wasn’t until we left that we started making what became our first film. We weren’t saying 'Hey we’re gonna make films together. This is gonna last forever!' (Laughs.)  It was quite an organic process.

Joseph Gerhardt: We were making music together. Semiconductor was our group name. Our mutual interests came back into the picture, and when we put our practices together with sound, films kind of happened just naturally. We didn’t realize we were making short films at the beginning. We just wanted to make music with images, still treating the images like music. Eventually we released our first DVD. It was like a piece of music or a CD but with images woven in. It may have been the first DVD of that sort. We don’t know of anyone who’s released one before us. It was 2001. Probably happened somewhere else in the world, but we attempted to release our films as connected tracks rather than as exclusive, isolated art works. At the time we were very interested in the way the computer had a sort of control over your artwork, and anything you did on the computer looked 'computer-y,' so we were trying to fight that, have our own control. It was trying to control us, so the group Semiconductor had the idea of a computer being the third element in our group, and that we were trying to fight it and it was fighting us.

SF360: Were you using generative processes?

Jarman: Well our very early works were a mixture of practices. We were working with small models and exploring the landscape and physical world. Or we made pieces that were very process-based pieces of work, because we had come to the computer with the first generation of current software, so as artists we were interested in what that was, as a material, saying, 'Well what is this stuff and what can we do with it?' So we were trying to interrogate the medium in a way and try to understand what it was. We would sometimes take a piece of data that could be represented as an image or sound. And that really intrigued us. There was one piece we made called Puffed Rice that was literally a translation of the sounds of puffed rice into image using pathways through the software that weren’t set up to be used that way. It wasn’t intuitive, but you could open up a piece of audio data in an image program. They were very laborious processes because there weren’t automated features in programs at that time, so we had to do everything by hand. This idea that the computer made your life easier wasn’t true when we were making that work. A lot of people think that if you work with digital technologies… they kind of have this passion with the history of film that is really hands on. What we found when we were working is that we were very hands on and interested in the material in a similar way.

Gerhardt: The first film we made was called Retropolis. We scanned in images of London and then collaged them, printed them out and cut them up and then made them into a new image outside the computer. We were making a kind of world outside of the computer that was semi-formed in the computer.

SF360: So it’s about using the computer in unintended ways, but also how computerization or digitalities shape the way we perceive the world?

Jarman: Yeah, definitely. I think at that time we didn’t quite understand that that’s what we were doing because we were still just being very experimental about our approach but then I guess as we made more and more works that became obvious, that we were using the quality that the computer gave whether it was the software putting its identity on there or whether it was using simple things like pixilation or something like that. We were enhancing techniques in order to identify uses or the experience or whatever it was that we were making, and emphasizing the technology’s presence being in-between.

SF360: And these experiments comprised the DVDs that you describe, that are formally like musical albums?

Gerhardt: We called them sound films, but I guess it’s what you call visual music.

Jarman: We were trained as fine artists and we knew about the art world but we were interested in wider audiences than that. Because we were working with this kind of medium, the computer, that was just being explored by many people. We were going out and trying to have dialogues with different audiences about what this means, what it could be and where it could go or where it existed. At that time our work wasn’t comfortably shown anywhere, certainly not in the U.K. We ended up going to [mainland] Europe to show our work because there were many more platforms available interested in the kind of work we were making and the questions we were asking. And, releasing DVDs was sort of part of that as well, kind of a more popular action.

SF360: And, now you are associated with science in really a strong way. A lot of people would probably know Semiconductor best that way. How did that occur and is that what you intended?

Gerhardt: Not really. Some of our early works, like Linear, look at string theory or the idea that matter is made up of vibrating energy. We associated that with sound and the way waveforms move through everything all the time. We were always interested in that. But, I think the first piece of work where we worked directly with science came out of a residency we did on the Scottish border. We made a piece of work called All the Time in the World. We could see the way the landscape had been formed through time through seismic processes and weathering processes and we wanted to reveal that in real time. So we contacted the British Geological Survey and they gave us some seismic data and we used that to reanimate the landscapes, photographs that we were taking. So in a way we were playing with the idea of a photograph of a landscape being documentation of the illusion of time standing still. We would reanimate these still moments with sound and with something--you can’t actually hear the seismic data but we would convert it into audio--and then we would convert the data into images so that you would see them both. So the sound and image were from the same source and they were forming the landscape in front of your eyes.

Jarman: Yeah, so I guess in all of our works we’ve dabbled with scientific techniques and processes. We’ve turned to them because we’re often looking for things that we don’t experience every day in the physical world around us, and in this instance that led us to look for seismic data, But, we are often looking for different technologies that allow you to comprehend things on different scales--different techniques and processes… But we really got immersed when we went to the Space Sciences Lab in Berkeley. Suddenly we were in this obvious science environment, and we didn’t quite understand what we were doing there initially or why we were there, and that became clear as the work came out. We had an interest in the techniques and processes that were there, but there’s very much a kind of sci-art world that existed already that we didn’t really identify with so much. I mean we’re always on the periphery of all these things I think. (Laughs.)  But yeah so that was I guess the point when we were clearly, directly engaging with science. Immersing ourselves in those environments is so essential to our work now. It’s not only inspiration but we often end up working directly with the material they’re using or the scientists that are there.

SF360: Because of your association with science now, there’s a tension in your work between objective truth and subjective reality. For instance, in All the Time in the World you choose certain layers in the image to animate and sort of associate those parts with data it seems. There is underlying objective data that’s driving the process but how that’s applied and translated is based on aesthetics. How important is it to you to have a fidelity to the data?

Gerhardt: We try to create a physical response to subject matter, be it some kind of way of seeing the world around us … it could be the surface of the sun or it could be atomic nano-scale structures of our world and our universe. We want to engage people with a physical response to that. There are many ways of connecting, and one of those ways is to get close to the actual matter itself. Scientific data, in a way, is as close to the actual real thing as you can get. We want people to have an emotional/physical. So it’s not a simple matter of showing the data. We need to engage people in a way where sound becomes very useful and the sound creates a sense of emotional response and also it creates a sense of narrative but also strays more towards fiction. You’re adding baggage to the data, but that baggage is actually what makes people react to it.

Jarman: Yes, there is a sense of playfulness that we bring to it. And, we still see what we do as being very much sculptural, in the traditional sense. But, we’re working with materials you don’t see directly or experience directly, so that’s how we feel we’re working.

SF360: One thing I think that your work points out is a waning importance of the difference between fiction and nonfiction, that these subjective approaches to reality are just as valid and important, even as authoritative. But you also work with generative processes, so there’s this idea in your work that you’re letting something grow within specific, data-driven parameters. Do any of those ideas pertain to what you’re doing?

Jarman: We haven’t thought about the reality or fictional side of our work so much. It hasn’t been something we’ve questioned in our work because we’re not setting out to try and trick people into thinking that what they’re seeing is real. That’s never been our intention. It was only when that started occurring on quite a large scale with Magnetic Movie that we started to say, 'Oh, people think that’s real,' that that became a whole other side to our work that we hadn’t experienced ourselves.

Gerhardt: Also we aren’t qualified to comment on it, but maybe even scientists aren’t qualified to define it. So there’s no illusion in our work that we’re qualified.

SF360: Well you’re running up against the myth of science a little bit, right? I mean, when you enter the scientific realm people immediately think there is an articulation of truth.

Jarman: Especially when we put it in the context of somewhere like The Exploratorium. That’s when those questions become quite interesting, when our work is shown in a science museum or something like it. When Magnetic Movie appeared online people argued whether what they were looking at was real or not. They said, 'This should have a warning at the beginning saying it’s art not science.' And, when we showed it to some of the scientists at the lab they said, 'Yes, it’s almost right….' But I guess we’d rather not define those things. It’s part of the experience in a way. We’re quite happy for it to have a life where … somebody else put it on YouTube, and it had this whole kind of mythmaking built up around it, and we quite happily observed that and let it go off into its own world.

SF360: Now, you just came back from a residency in the Galapagos, which is another kind of science-based/research-based residency. What was that like and are you going to continue seeking out these types of residencies?

Gerhardt: It’s quite important for us to experience something for our work to be about the experience of something. In a way, we’ve become travel artists in the way a writer becomes a travel writer. We’re not just taking a series of photographs; we’re actually inventing stories but through what we see. It’s not a narrative-based story. It’s kind of a visual experience story. And it’s very important for us to find new experiences to share. And the Galapagos has an interesting story because of the way it’s formed and placed. That was a really great opportunityy--to go to another world, really. It’s like going back in time before humans, and we’re going to be doing our next residency at the Smithsonian in August, and then go back to our newest project Worlds in the Making.