Interview by Katya Yakubov
You may not see them at first, but artist Ben Skea implants digital ‘traces’ throughout his work, using video, computer animation, and printmaking to create a peculiar cross section of the photographed and the fabricated. With his filmTrace, Skea evokes a presence that is contained by nature but seen only with the focus of the digital eye.
Let’s start with your print work, because the imagery seems so consistent with your video work. Can you talk about your education in printmaking, and what you were exploring with this work?
I studied fine art printmaking at Glasgow School of Art, specifically lithography and etching. I was interested in video art, so after I graduated I did a post-graduate diploma at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, where I specialized in electronic imaging and video. But before I got there, most of the work I did when I was at art school was traditional etching and lithography, though I did do screen printing and photography then.
Around that time, I bought video equipment and started to just experiment myself. The basic themes running through my work at that time were nature in its constant state of flux and the inter-relatedness of all objects in nature. I made four short films that were part of my degree show and I was starting to work in a similar way as I work now, with the videos and print work reflecting back on each other.
Skea’s Fracture, a digital print, as part of the project Trace.
That’s interesting that you experimented in photography because some of the print work that you do, and the idea of the digital print itself, have in them this semblance of the photographic and the painterly, a sort of hybrid of the documented and the fabricated.
That’s something that has always interested me, combining painting and the photograph to reveal something new. I try to use photography, video and animation as just another artist’s tool. I don’t see them as separate things. My goal is to use them in a fluid way, rather than thinking about process too much. It’s taken me a long time to get to that stage. Trying to get away from the technicalities – that’s come with time. I’ve learned so many technical processes now that I don’t need to think so logically, “I need to do this, to achieve this.”
I think you can intuit that coexistence of mediums within your work. Addressing the fact that Trace involves a combination of separate prints, as well as the video itself, how do you work between the two? Did the prints influence the video or vice versa?
The way I work, I jump between the two. With this video piece, I had a written statement of intent when I started, simply because I had applied for funding to develop the work. So I had a formal basis to start from, which I don’t normally like to do. The intention was to document the aftermath of great change or unseen energy release. I was to recreate the perceived movement of past events using 3D computer forms ‘pinned’ back into the original video environment.
The funding was to go towards the development a six channel video installation only. Once I started production, I found that I was working in a very linear way and I felt constrained by the 3D animation, specifically because it was so time-consuming. I wasn’t working intuitively, but was following the rigid structure necessary for creating realistic 3D animation: starting with the 3D tracking of the filmed shots, then creating lots of computer generated 3D meshes with bones so I could move them inside the computer, then texturing these artificial forms and lighting them in a virtual space. But I found that the end result wasn’t working for me. In the original idea, I was going to build all the 3D structures with different scales and have them all moving seamlessly in the original filmed space. It was all about movement, really.
Still from Skea’s film Trace.
So at this point you were working exclusively with live-action footage of the environments, and 3D digital animation. There were no prints involved?
Yes – video, sound, and 3D imaging. I cut the video first in fixed one-minute segments. Then I built up the sound effects. It worked, but then when I incorporated in the 3D forms, all moving to the soundtrack, I didn’t like the visual result and felt that the artistic element was lost. This initial stage was really difficult. I spent a lot of time struggling to get it to work. So that was when I jumped into digital printmaking and into using 2D mark-making instead, just to pull myself out of this rut. When I was doing hand-drawn marks, drawing directly onto the screen, I realized that I wanted the forms to be static and abstracted, rather than moving and life-like. I let the static lines come forward. It was there, staring me in the face, but I had to go through this whole process to get to that stage. These things just needed to be pinned down as static forms!
I think it’s great that the final structures were rendered this way; they are quite subtle, and a first time viewer might not even realize that the ‘traces’ are artificial overlays onto the video image. I didn’t realize up until halfway that there was more going on than just images of strange spaces dressed in ‘strings’. I wanted to ask you about that idea of freezing movement and overlaying it onto live-action image, what this concept means and evokes in you.
The piece is a visualization of how I felt when I visited certain spaces that I’m used to seeing on a daily basis. I was trying to see them in a different way, almost with the notion of looking closely at something and seeing beyond the surface of what’s going on. I was also exploring the idea that memory is fragile and continually being updated every time we think about something. I think the frozen forms work because you see more of the perceived movement now that they are static. I can see all the revisions I have made in the line-work and it feels more personal now.
Is that why you decided to shoot in the countryside location at Rothiemurchus Estate, Cairngorms, and the City Centre in Glasgow, places that are familiar to you?
Yeah, I had these places that I had seen quite recently, and it sparked my interest in them. I also filmed locations that I used to visit when I was growing up. For example, with the telephone box, it’s just a derelict structure, standing there in the East End of Glasgow. It had a purpose before, but now is just an empty space and everyone sort of passes it by without noticing it. But if you look closely, it still has a function, just in a different way. The distillery, which is just straight out my window, I see it all the time, but at night it’s completely different. I’ve seen and heard a city fox in there; it’s an industrial space but it has life running through it. So all these ideas were floating about – seeing functional things anew, seeing life coexisting in contrasting environments, things which are hidden – I was trying to put them all together in a visual way, creating a sense of an experience. That’s what I’m interested in, sound and video images working together trying to create a mood.
Still from Skea’s film Trace.
The other thing that spoke to me was that, aside from your post-production overlays of these structures, the actual filmed environments seem to reflect back the same shapes – these organic, twisting lines that appear as static computer animations. From the twisting of the trees, to the scribbles of the graffiti on the phone booth, they all seemed to mirror the same ‘traces’ you were creating digitally.
Yes. I like the idea of connecting things, finding links between them. I use these drawn lines all the time to create forms and structures so when I’m shooting and editing, I’m always thinking about what could be added or manipulated once I start working on the computer. A lot of the forms in Trace were present in the original footage. The mechanical workings placed inside the close-up shot of the empty public telephone is good example of this. I directly lifted parts of the shot, changed the scale, combined them with hand drawn lines and pinned them back in. The drawn lines suggest both the sound connections the telephone once provided and also the webs and other organic matter that occupy the space now.
Originally, because I was thinking of having the piece as an installation, where the six separate screens were all facing each other, even the structure of the installation would reflect back or at least speak to the structures in the environment. With the way the six separate screens were installed, I was visualizing a hexagonal structure. But I abandoned this simply due to the cost of time-syncing the video and sound so that the different soundtracks from each screen fit together without competing with each other. In the end, I thought it flowed quite well as one piece and had a sense of a journey, even though it didn’t have a narrative, or human forms.
Still from Skea’s film Trace.
Absolutely, and there’s definitely a sense of something building; just the fact that you choose to shoot it handheld, there’s a feeling of a presence in that you’re interacting, or something is interacting with seemingly inanimate objects, with the environment itself, like an organic, but non-conscious matter. There’s a feeling of a presence.
That’s another reason why they are mostly all static forms, because there’s already so much movement within the shot with the handheld camera as well as the twisting structures, without any additional animation. With the original idea of 3D structures moving and repeating, there was just too much going on. Initially, every single shot had something like that in it. Something I’ve always struggled with is taking a step back and simplifying things.
Actually, I think the hardest part for me had to do with my receiving an art grant for this project. In a way, I had already verbalized and intellectualized an idea, it was all written down and agreed that I was to use 3D structures that moved, but for me it became this rigid template that I had to follow. Once I received the funding, I had to meet deadlines and not radically change the artwork.
Was this template very different from the final project?
Not that different. I started this project after several years of working in a commercial environment where the brief, budget, and deadline take precedence over any free thinking. And with hindsight, I think my way of thinking had been affected by this. It just took me a bit of time to understand that even when you receive funding for an artwork, you can still experiment within the ‘confines’ of the statement.
And when you started to work in 2D to get out of the rut of working with 3D digital imaging, was this the part of the work that you included as the Trace prints?
The prints were created at the same time but are not direct grabs from the video. I had taken a lot of photos at the same time as filming, so I worked with them. I always intended to do print work at the same time, but didn’t realize how important it would be in defining the finished film. I split my time and went back and forth with the prints. It’s like using the video as a piece of paper. So if I had started in a different way, I probably wouldn’t have had that whole difficult journey.
Skea’s Drums, a digital print, as part of the project Trace.
But it’s great, because you started with video, and then went to the prints, and the prints are their own set of work, almost like you had to illustrate it abstractly before you could figure it out in a physical space. Ideally, how would you like the work displayed? Would you consider an installation with the prints as part of the presentation?
I’d love to show the video in a gallery space alongside the prints. I’m looking into creating light boxes and printing onto acetate for the prints, and displaying them in a darkened room with the film projected as a continuous single channel loop, rather than splitting it up into a six screen installation.
Yet the film works incredibly well on its own as a single channel. Although there is no narrative, like you said, there is still a buildup that creates an emotional arc.
Yeah. I was so close to the piece, I was glad when it was finished, and didn’t look at it for some time. But when I watched the video again, I was surprised, and viewed it in a completely different way. I had forgotten the difficult process and I felt like I was experiencing it for the first time. I could see the fragile balance, the mysterious, unknown forces I was trying to capture. When the technical side of it is so complicated, it can take over, so you need to find a balance between the technical process and also being able to intuit the way to work, to still be able to think in an artistic way.
Still from Skea’s film Trace.
The ‘Necropolis’ segment is the only part of the film that includes non-static digital elements. What was the reason for this choice, and why thereafter does the music cut out?
The Necropolis section is the ‘contentment’ trace and came immediately before the last section in the film, the ‘death’ trace. I filmed shots of the statues and looked inside the tombs. I wanted all the shots to last the same length and I wanted there to be no additional sound effects. I was trying to create a rhythmic, hypnotic, chant-like effect. I think the 3D elements remained in this section because their movement isn’t far removed from reality. Apart from the obvious change in scale, these droplets drift and change form in a subtle way and don’t dominate the screen. As the film progresses, I stripped back the sound to just a low frequency drone, so towards the end there is little to hear apart from the distant sound of some new life.
In the other project you did, Matter, you focus on plants specifically, this idea that is very much felt in Trace, that plants have an intelligence. Because there is this ‘presence’ of consciousness, even though the subject is inanimate material, would you say that Trace is related to Matter?
Matter is a project that is still ongoing. Most of the print work has been done, and I’ve just started on the video loops, but I’m also working on something else now. I sort of jump to all these different things, and I think that’s why there are overlapping ideas, especially with the notion that plants have a ‘stress avoidance’ response or some sort of reaction that may equate to animal or human ‘pain’. Yes, I can see similarities in the two projects now.
Skea’s Xylem, a digital print as part of the project Matter.
But for Matter, I had taken a lot of photographs of plants from the Pharmaceutical Garden (The Chelsea Physics Garden, London). There was a lot of research that I did, trying to get funding to do it, (laughs), and couldn’t get any, so I abandoned it, but it’s still there. I was quite excited about the idea of creating an installation using florescent light and wire. The moving images were to be cross-sections, flattened out anthropomorphic representations of plant forms. It was to hint at recent discoveries that levels of ethylene, a chemical released by plants during flooding, chilling, wounding, etc, can be measured by listening to plants using a CO2 laser. I liked the idea of working closely with a researcher. But I discussed it with a lot of people, they thought it was ridiculous – plants, pain, you know – so I began to think it was ridiculous too. But I think I will finish it, in some form. I’ll just have to scale it down.
But that’s what’s great about working as a multi-media artist; you have an idea for a project, but as to how it’s going to appear in the physical world, things have to be reworked countless times. It ends up being something so totally different.
Yeah, I like to see things unfold, work that is open to fate and accident. With the digital mark-making I do, it’s quite quick, I do a lot of layering, peeling back, and within the computer nothing is permanent, I can revise an image indefinitely.
The idea of sketching quickly, in 2D, and then taking those ideas and themes, and bringing them into video, do you see yourself continuing to work in this back and forth way?
Yes, I like this way of working. I’ve started another film that I hope will trigger some parallel print work too. In this film, I’m attempting to construct a narrative using old footage that I shot 12 years ago, footage of friends and family, tapes that I’ve had lying around, taking parts of that and creating a completely different narrative with that footage. I’m playing with the idea of friendship and how fleeting it is, how it can be so intense, and then for whatever reason you just stop being friends. I’m trying to tie that in with new technology, as eventually this will be an online artwork, broken up parts of one video scattered all over the internet with different ‘tags’ that allow it to be found in a nonlinear order. I’m quite excited about developing the work this year.
Still from Skea’s film Trace.
Have you thought of yourself as part of an experimental, avant-garde film tradition, or do you feel more of a print artist who utilizes video to communicate certain ideas? Because I think your work fits quite nicely in both worlds.
I think of myself as a visual artist who primarily works digitally. Although, I don’t restrict myself to working with just one medium. I’ve been quite conscious of not wanting to be part of any one thing. I like the idea of dipping in and out of different things. In my career, it’s been the same. The way I think, the things I do, using film and music, I dip into a bit of everything, as a lot of people do now because of the internet. The internet has changed the way an artist can view and access information. There’s so many ways to find all these different ideas and learn. So I jump around, researching things.
The audio design in Trace, if you wanted to say a few words about that?
That was the part I enjoyed the most. I’m constantly collecting sound effects and listening. So I have almost a sort of sketchbook of sounds, recording them with the camera or manipulating free sounds created and posted online by others. I use this collection and layer sounds.
But you’re collecting sounds with the idea in mind as to how you will use them?
Yeah. When I shot the film, and had the specific trace themes in mind. I knew what sound effects I would use for all these different parts, I just had to find them. I knew I wanted to use sound effects to amplify emotions. I deliberately mixed up the sounds so that organic sound went into city scenes and the industrial sound into the rural scenes.
I think if you ever went back and reworked Trace to live as an installation with several screens, that would be lovely. There are a few artists screening at our festival that work in this way, having an installation of the thing that they shot, and the thing that they shot also is a piece on its own, and there’s a back-and-forth going on. I think because your film is so much about an environmental presence, the presence of the objects that live in this environment or the movement of things that have passed through, I think it would be great as an installation, completely its own thing. A lot of the main concepts would still come through.
Yeah that’s why I was kind of surprised when it worked as a single-channel piece. But I know that it’s got six distinct parts that can easily be separated. Each of the six section were edited to loop and I’ve worked out a configuration for the installation, so if I ever get the chance to show it in a gallery setting, it’s easily achieved. I like HD video to be shown correctly, sharp and crisp, and that’s one thing I think is difficult about multi-channel video installation – you’ve got to have funding to actually display it the exact way that you envisage it. Otherwise you end up compromising and just projecting it against a wall or putting it on a TV screen. Sometimes your idea is so different from that, you’d rather not show it in a gallery space at all if it’s not going to be shown properly. The presentation has to be right.
That’s definitely something that’s working against the medium, the way that the presentation of video art and video installation is an afterthought. So many times an artist gets stuck being shown on a small TV screen, as a loop, and you just don’t engage with the work as an audience, just because of its size.
Yes, that annoys me when I go to a gallery and see that. But I realize how costly it is to put on a large scale multi-channel video installation so maybe that’s why at the end of the day artists are just getting a projector and projecting against a wall, because they do just want to get their work shown.
Still from Skea’s film Trace.
Right. Maybe the film festival is a more affordable alternative, because you have your work exported as a single-channel piece, and maybe it’s not the ideal presentation for it, but it’s large, it’s crisp, it’s engaging, and it still displays the ideas and themes you’re working with. The festival circuit might just be the best option for video-artist who don’t have access to huge funds.
Definitely. In the end, I prefer Trace as a single channel film so it’s ideal that I can show it at an experimental film festival that has access to the best screens and venue. I’m really excited that my work is showing alongside other video artists and experimental filmmakers, and it would be great to see it projected so large, as I’m so used to seeing everything on the computer monitor. My original intention was to have it projected on a big screen, so it’s ideal. I always have the option to rework it and show it in another form later.
And I think that’s an important note for artists working in video and film, that so often you have to shape your project; make a shorter cut for a festival with a time limit, or work with the space and resources you have. So often we see that video works live in different spaces, different formats, different durations, that the work becomes multi-faceted.
And obviously now you have more freedom to do that because a lot of artists have access to editing software, and they can do that themselves. Before they had to plan out things. Already I’m looking back at my films and thinking, oh I wish I had done this, but I could always go back to them. It’s a fluid thing.
Ben Skea’s works, with their overlapping ideas and mediums, have been screened and exhibited in festivals and installations world-wide. He lives and works in Glasgow, Scotland, continuing to explore ideas of spatiality, movement and unknown nature through digital printmaking, video and experimental animation.