Clayton Aldridge [Interview]
Interview with Clayton Aldridge
Digital Resident, July 2018
"My work is an experiment in reflexive video making. Treating digital video as a medium similar to paint or clay; shaping and manipulation in conversation with the material. Media is a uniquely immersive medium, allowing me to construct my own realities. Similar to the way that science-fiction writers create alternate realities to comment on their own, my videos use figurative and abstract imagery to reflect on the conditions and environments we live in. Often slow and hypnotic, sometimes upbeat and humorous, the videos I create are windows looking into the world as I personally experience it."
- Clayton Aldridge
MHM: What is your process typically like?
CA: Currently, I have a fairly simple process. I prefer to start with only vague directions, and one or two simple rules to keep along the way. My favorite thing to do recently has been to start with a subject, read whatever I can find about that subject, pick out imagery and descriptive words from what I read, find video in my archive or online that depicts the words I’ve picked out, and collage them into something new. The result is a couple steps abstracted, but retains the ideas I started with. I never have any idea what the final product will look like when I start, or really until the very end when I am just polishing transitions and other bits. Sometimes, if I’m not following a particular subject, I will randomly select video from my archive of found and self-shot video and throw it into my editing software to see what happens when they are together.
MHM: Why have you chosen to be a new media artist rather than a painter or sculptor?
CA: Technology has always fascinated me. Wherever I was, I was always the “techy guy.” I place high value on computer literacy. When I decided to walk down the route of an artist, I was able to to transfer all those nerdy skills to my work. Media, technology, it’s just what I knew already. New Media gives me a very broad field to work in. The lack of definition is something I relish. To say you are working in “new media” is ambiguous, almost mysterious. Makes me feel like a technology-wizard. My interests and methods tend to be in constant flux, which makes sense given my personality… New Media gives me room to move and change.
MHM: What inspired your interest in modern technology as a subject? Do you have any personal narratives that inform your work?
CA: The devoted dive into modern technology as a subject, rather than just a medium, was inspired by the film Citizenfour by Laura Poitras. I saw this documentary well after the events involving Edward Snowden, which the film is about, took place. A surreal film to watch now, the documentary made me aware that new technologies of surveillance and policing began playing a pivotal role in our lives before we were even aware of their existence. I walked out of that film in shock, having not realized the scope and still persisting ramifications of what Snowden did. I had to know more.
MHM: The way you use space in your pieces causes the loss of a sense of time and location, a feeling of floating. What is the ideal physical presentation of your works?
CA: Presenting my works has been a puzzle since day one. Ideally, I would like to bring my work into special immersive installation experiences. Intimate, small, dark, and surrounding the viewer with visuals and sound.
MHM: Your videos are very painterly. The pure digital color forms in many of them read as abstract paintings. What about abstraction is conducive for expressing your themes, which are at times very direct and narrative?
CA: One thing I enjoy about making art in general is hearing the conversations it starts when other people bring their personal context to a piece. Abstraction makes room for these contexts to become part of the work. Even if my original concept was simple and direct, using an abstract form invites speculation on further meaning that I may have not ever thought of. I am not the objective authority on anything I make work on, and someone else might have a tasty nugget of knowledge that can inform me and my future work.
MHM: It is an odd feeling to know you are being watched, how are you personally affected by researching and meditating on the normalization of surveillance?
CA: Surveillance systems are designed to be easy to miss. Cameras and sensors are often hidden in tinted glass bubbles, or unlabeled boxes. It is usually impossible to know what a device is doing, or for who it is doing it, just by looking at it on the street. Forcing myself to actively seek out these devices has made me paranoid, in a way. Passively paranoid, for lack of a better term. I’m not freaked out by being watched, but I am constantly looking for cameras and am aware of surveillance trained on me even when I cannot see the devices. And that’s just in physical space! Online, everything we do is recorded to some degree. I have done a considerable amount of research into things that have likely pinged some CIA monitor programs. As much as I try to be an active, but indifferent, observer, I can’t help but think about what might happen as restrictions on what we’re allowed to see grow tighter. Thus far, my cultural background, where I live, and lack of foreign contacts has probably shielded me from further investigation. As mentioned before, I am only passively paranoid, for now.
MHM: Your “God’s Eye View” works are both disquieting and eerily comforting. What do you feel is your role as an artist in reformatting modes of surveillance?
CA: Oh boy, let me preach on this… Technology is turning us into something beyond human. Something with abilities that humans, in the past, thought only higher beings could possess. Miracle tech is shifting power balances all over the world. It allows for unprecedented methods of seeing. I was raised in a Christian church, being taught that only God can see everything all the time, and is always paying attention. Nothing slips by. Omniscience, as I later learned it was called. Well now I see systems and entities, ones very much of this earth, that are attempting to mimic this omniscience. These groups are rapidly achieving their goals with cameras, sensors, and computers that can see in ways not even their creators fully understand yet. The God’s Eye videos were an attempt to claim some of that power back; to challenge the idea that only certain groups can hold that power. I gathered all the footage for those videos at home on a normal personal computer running Windows. No particularly special software, just a web browser and a free screen recording program. Reformatting surveillance to me is a political act. If I can see what the authorities over me see, I can make my own informed decisions about what I believe will keep me safe and happy, and challenge decisions I feel are actually harmful. All that being said, I felt really creepy gathering that footage. As an artist it was fascinating that I could do it, but as a citizen in a country saturated with cameras, I didn’t like that I could do it so easily.
MHM: What was a pivotal discovery for you that changed the course of your work?
CA: A little over a year ago I discovered the famous psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. His work immediately enraptured me. Here was someone who took seriously subjects like mysticism, religion, psychology, hallucinations, the paranormal, and more. He studied many things that I had always been told were just ‘mumbo-jumbo,’ and did so in a calm and scientific manner. He’s a bit of a controversial figure in the psychological community, but his attitude of presenting his observations without hesitation, no matter how taboo, was inspiring. Following in that attitude cracked me open like an egg of creativity. Now that my work mainly focuses on the future and new technology, it is a bit strange to look back on someone so old (who was himself looking back at even more ancient ideas). However old Jung is, I continue to find parallels from his studies and experiences that connect directly to modern issues.
MHM: Many of your works, “Loops on Loops on Loops,” for example, are both sinister and beautiful. How do you find a balance between these two expressions?
CA: Everyone has some sinister thoughts sometimes. We get jealous, angry, frightened. Most of us are very good about filtering ourselves, and end up being agreeable people. But those sinister thoughts have to be there with the beautiful thoughts, jumbled together in the same brain. They are both just thoughts until they come out into the external world where they are judged and labeled. Loops is a good example of a time in my creative career when I tried to dig into my own psyche, and not filter what I found when I made art about it. There’s stuff I found that scared me. I’m not sure I ever thought of it as sinister, exactly. When I made that video, I had no real intentions for mood or expression. I guess it did come out with a nice balance of creepy and pretty.
MHM: Can you pinpoint some of the techniques you use to create works that are hypnotic? What does it take to shift the viewer’s perception of reality?
CA: Making moving images hypnotic is actually the easiest part of what I do. There is a pace to life. These days, that pace is pretty quick. Making a video even faster than life works well to hypnotize. Flashing images so fast that the brain has to focus in completely just to keep up almost immediately hypnotizes. Alternatively, slowing down from the pace of life works, as well. However, it requires asking more of the viewer. More time, more attention, more interest. If a viewer is willing to get into an experience, slow hypnosis is often more rewarding and less exhausting. Just break that normal pace of life. Also, repetition and immersive sound. Hypnosis, to me, is about giving the brain stimulus it can focus so wholly on that it forgets to be aware of itself.
MHM: What are some of your favorite words or quotes? What colors are you drawn to lately?
“Today, most important things want to remain invisible.” - Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen
“Technology has taken us by surprise, and the regions that it has opened up are glaringly empty.” - Siegfried Kracauer
Lately I’ve been drawn to turquoise-ish colors. Blue-green. Sea-green. Something like this: Hex code #36BDAD [pictured]. One of my managers went on this long rant about how green was the go-to color for portraying ‘techy’ stuff in the old days (see the Matrix movies), but now anything having to do with computers is more often a cool neon blue (try Googling “computers” or “cyber”). The sea-green represents transition between the two points.
MHM: Are there any techniques you want to learn? With unlimited resources, what would you make?
CA: There is still so much about video editing and special effects art that I do not know anything about. With each new piece, I try something new in the programs I use. In addition, I’m fascinated by installation techniques. The next step for me is bringing my digital video into physical space with projection and live video streams. I’ve thought a lot about what I could make with unlimited resources, and the answer changes almost daily. At this moment, I’ve been obsessing with an idea for a web-like installation of cameras, projectors, sensors, and algorithms. Networked together, and watching each other as much as they watch anyone in the space. The equipment would observe, process, display, and record viewers as they move through the space. Will so many artificial eyes and brains make people uncomfortable? Or are we used to being on camera now? Would this network have any emergent properties? I have no idea. Setting up automatic systems with simple rules, and letting them run wild, is all part of the fun!