Thursday, 9 March 2017

Experimental Knitter // Sam Meech

Sam Meech is completely disarming. I’m not sure what I expected as I made my way up to the Rogue Studios guided by the knitted signs. I’m not sure what questions to ask, or even where to start. I slightly worry that I’ll kick off with, so what is it you actually do? When speaking to friends of the planned interview I’ve invariably told them I’m off to meet an experimental knitter, they invariably ask what’s one of those, and I invariably shrug, grin and say I’ll find out. I’m also unsure how much there can be to this lark. I schedule forty-five minutes, and leave an hour-and-a-half later fired with enthusiasm and yet more curiosity.
Sam is not really an experimental knitter. Only in the narrowest of senses could Sam’s practice be described as experiments in knitting. Certainly much of Sam’s current work has involved experiments using elements of knitting, knitting machines and the peripherals that surround the art, or craft, of knitting. Sam is primarily a digital artist and working with digital media is the driving force of his work. He studied theatre at John Moores and has previously worked at the Royal Opera House as a video designer "on two new operas. Very different types. I got to whack a load of CCTV cameras on the set. I like the ethos, that it’s going to happen." First night deadlines are a fine way to focus energy. "The art work is different, it will emerge when it’s ready."

"I’m interested in how the design process and digital media overlap, in theatre, in music sequencing. For me, textiles, and knitting, have a lot of parallels with digital processes." I’m still not sure where this is going, but Sam points to the knitting machine next to him in the middle of the room. "The punchcard system is the forerunner to modern programming, knitting is a digital system. The stitches are pixels, you make the pattern, copy and repeat." The knitting machine works by taking a pattern from a roll of card which has the pattern punched into it in rows of holes as you’d make with any standard hole punch. You punch into the roll of card the pattern or image you want the machine to reproduce, feed it in, and the machine takes the pattern and follows it through with the wool. In the way it looks it does remind me of how early computers were programmed on the same principle.

"Although my background is the digital moving image, I can explore things I like with these tools. Knitting works, people are familiar with it, it’s engaging, even subversive. And finally, you might be able to wear it. Consequently, it takes up a lot of room." Sam has two knitting machines in his studio, which squat silently and slightly menacingly. Shelves, boxes and the usual detritus of the artists’ work surrounds us, although a closer look reveals that the cylindrical objects on the shelves aren’t pots of paint but cones of yarn. So the question is, what happens to all this material?

I was very interested in a spreadsheet that Sam produced to show the costs of production, which came about through his last experience of the art market. "It was
Kinetica, I was lucky to get a stall, through a strange sequence of events, and thinking ‘I don’t have anything to sell, or it wouldn’t be any good, actually the only thing is my labour.’ So I had this nice conceptual premise, the art will be my labour, you buy my labour at Arts Council rates. Many people engaged, thought it was a great concept, one said to me it was “the closest thing to art there”. But no one bought anything. It cost almost £600, materials, storage, accommodation. I lost a lot of money."

"When the Manchester Contemporary came round I couldn’t do that, so I copied the Unique Knitwear factory signs." Rogue Studios sits in a mill occupied by a host of knitwear companies, producing stylish garments to prestigious high street retailers such as Primark and BooHoo. One of the companies has their signs on boards, "Unique Knitwear; I thought there was something funny, something cute and ironic about it being ‘unique’, so I make, copied the sign, ‘Unique knitwear’, piled them in the corner in an unlimited edition, put the pattern online."

"The other thing I wanted to make clear; the cost of labour. That’s how a factory works. They work out the cost, materials and overheads, and labour. So I worked out my time, at a fair rate. Art markets hide that labour, and I don’t think that helps us as artists, we can be romantic or na├»ve about what it actually is, and undercut ourselves." Sam has a wry smile to himself as he continues, "I didn’t sell any then either. I proved a conceptual point to myself but I’d rather have more control over context."

Sam came across the idea of knitting and the knitting machines while filming a knitting group project in Moston where he set up the
Small Cinema at the remarkable Moston Miners Club. "For so many people, the machines remind them of their gran," Sam reveals, but he had a different object come to mind as he stands and takes on the rolls of card in hand. "Most machines are punchcards, though some are hackable, but," as he rolls out the card in front of me showing the sequence of outlines punched down the roll, "this is a film reel."

How the punchcard works in the knitting machine is by releasing needles to change colours, "so it’s a tactile process, not a digital one, except that it can be thought of as binary." Sam checks with me that I understand how binary works and I nod in the same was I did in maths class when I felt I understood but didn’t want any questions. The implications of this for Sam were far-reaching. For example, if you link the punchcard strip into a loop, "it’s a gif, a physical gif. So I’ve been working on ways to animate. My first interest is in the moving image, not storytelling. And I’m interested in the restrictions: there can be a bit of a tech arms race, and I know I’m not good enough to keep up with that even if I had the time and money. I like looking back. Lo-fi." There’s the use of the original fair-isle pattern that crops up in Sam’s work, from his time there, and then from living and working in Montreal he explored the lives of the people there, "I’d take things from their workplaces, make patterns out of them, gifs, small pixel art forms that were knitted."

Projection is literally a big aspect of digital art, projection onto buildings, on to clouds in the work of 
Dave Lynch, who references Eadweard Muybridge. Creating images to project onto that scale using the knitting machines plays with size in creative and slightly subversive ways. Sam has already commented on the size relation between the large punched holes of the input to the smaller size of the stich stitch "where the physical output is smaller than the programme, which is weird." Now he takes down from a shelf behind me what is to all the world an excessively long but impractically thin scarf. The pattern is an image of a horse galloping, and at this point I’m having a bit of difficulty working out exactly what’s going on. Sam’s enthusiasm is infectious, his joy at the idea he’s presenting, as I puzzle out what I’m being shown. It’s Muybridge’s sequence of photographs for his Zoopraxiscope, which transforms the series of still images into a galloping horse, now turned into a scarf that imitates a film reel, with the images knitted via a roll of punched card, and which are then individually ironed "which kills your back" and photographed digitally before being compiled into a stop-motion film.

He shows me a stop-motion film
‘Ceci n’est pas un spectacle’ in reference to "the dude with the pipe" and the Quartier des Spectacles event in Montreal, "quotes and symbols, taken and smashing them together." It’s provoking in the way it juxtaposes the police and the anarchists, and clever, but mainly it’s fun. As with the way Sam plays with the Muybridge footage there’s a sense of mischief here. The use of high-end digital technology to exhibit the lo-fi knitting is quirky, and yet it makes me realise how much more accessible digital cameras are, compared to knitting machines, both in terms of availability and the skills required. With reference to the Montreal project and the images projected onto the buildings, Sam says "it’s going to make some great wallpaper, the things found and collected, but it’s just wallpaper." The scarf of Muybridge horses sits on a shelf, its purpose fulfilled once photographed. "Quite often the physical thing is a by-product of the thing I’m making." It’s a blurring of the traditional perceptions of art and craft. "To me it’s still a part of using craft. In this sense when I’m trying to make films the knitting machine is the projector, the punchcard is the film. The knitting that comes out is a document of that labour; it’s a receipt."

The binary potential of the knitting machine also revealed itself in another co-incidence that Sam was able to spot, that the punchcard arrangement of three groups of eight holes would also fit the 256 figure that is used to fix the Red/Green/Blue digital spectrum. "I knitted an RGB disco. I pointed a camera at the punchcard, trying to see which holes were punched, with some tracking software" This became the basis for a project at the Whitworth Art Gallery. "It might just be a happy co-incidence, but I wanted to use that. Then people aren’t knitting, they’re programming lights. Again it’s another digital parallel. You put it in front of people, they’ll find their own parallel that I won’t have thought of." Sam runs his hand across his hair and leans forward slightly. "At the moment, I want to go back to more digital work, but I love these projects where things come together."

His work is startling to tackle the more commercial potential of Sam’s ideas in a collaboration with a knitwear company in the mill. By the door there’s a big box of scarves that have been produced using a pattern of encoded binary quotations. "It’s just a pretty pattern, but you could decode it if you wanted to, and hopefully you wouldn’t find any spelling mistakes." Previous attempts to produce garments hardly created something marketable. His proposed Christmas jumpers, which I think are spectacular, take the idea of the bad jumper through the wringer. "I decided to work with the idea of appropriation, took bad photos of jumpers in M&S and Primark on an iPhone. By the time I’ve reduced it to three colours, and the scale." Sam hangs up the jumpers he produced and challenged me to see the festive patterns, one in which the figure of Santa is distorted like a Cubist portrait, the asymmetrical snowflakes only recognisable through a squint. "They’re unique. The jumper is made by taking big sheets of the material that’s cut, so each jumper looks different. You won’t see jumpers like this in the shops. Because they’re bad."

"It’s been good to work with the factory, they’ve been very patient with me, but I’ve liked working in a more direct way. It’s alright treating this as a work of art," as he hangs up his jumpers, "but what’s the economics, how does it feed back." This recurrent conceptual reflection in Sam’s work, viewing one thing through the prism of another, the tension between the commercial world and artistic ideas, craft and economic realities, has a new outlet in the knitted flames scattered around the floor. My visit to Rogue has come shortly after a fire that threatened the studios. While the circumstances behind the fire are still uncertain, there are certainly theories that combine recalcitrant tenants and redevelopment ambitions. "And the fact that it happened in a knitting factory. So I’ve been knitting flames and thought about projecting them round the building. It’s the presence of a fire, but they’re knitted so they’re cute, it plays with the threat. I’ve cut out flame shapes from boards connected to the development, because it’s a part of the story. And I’ve reverted to punchcards, using traditional fair-isle patterns, in stop-motion. I’m determined to get something to mark it."

Following his previous venture in Moston, Sam has set up a
pop-up cinema in the exhibition space at Rogue, which he shows me on my way out…

… but that’s another story…

conversation with Sam Meech took place at Rogue Studios on Wednesday 22 February 2016 from 5.15pm //
@videosmithery  //

Sam was recommended by Clara Casian.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Thrilling Spirit // Adam Szabo

There’s a moment in the playing of the Biber when the texture is disrupted by a collective foot stamping. A frisson goes round the room as expectations are shifted. There’s just shy of one hundred people packed into the performance space at Islington Mill, encircling the musicians and the unworldly sight of the harpsichord amidst the exposed pipework and hanging cables. It’s not an audience you can pre-judge; many of them will be concert regulars at chamber gigs at the RNCM, others will have been to other nights in this space, perhaps some doom rock or improvised white noise experiment. I suspect very few of them will have heard Biber’s Battalia live before; it’s very rarely done, and recordings are few and far between. Everything about this experience feels new and fresh.

It’s possible we take for granted that within easy reach of anywhere in the north west there are at least eight large orchestral groups of international standard. Coming from Sydney, Australia, where there is just one symphony orchestra and one opera orchestra, Adam Szabo feels this strongly. It’s apparent that in our local area, as Adam tells me, "there’s an incredible density of that kind of cultural practice. For wherever reason there doesn't seem to be the same breadth of top-tier, live chamber music." Those reasons could be mixed: string quartets tend to gravitate to the bigger cities and no one can operate in a full-time string sextet, where there’s a small subset of what might be thought of as "great works" alongside a large group of amazing works that rarely get performed outside the festival circuit and the academic concert programmes.

Adam Szabo is the artistic director of the Manchester Collective, a chamber group that gathers up all these thoughts and issues and aims to tackle them by creating a well-considered and effectively prepared season of performances. "Our MD Rakhi Singh comes from a background in classical chamber music, first violin in the Barbirolli Quartet, and is used to preparing programmes with the artistic rigour that quartet are famous for. If Transfigured Night was programmed at an arts festival, for example, it might get one or maybe two rehearsals. We had a session in early January, followed up with sectional rehearsals and a full week of calls to put the project together."

There’s definitely something else going on, however. At Islington Mill, the interspersed Purcell and Cage is the sort of idea I can imagine William Glock doing in the 1960s, the use of lighting changes to chart the performance might not be revolutionary nowadays, but brought into this space and presented in this way it feels unrepeatable. At the interval we’re encouraged to move to a different place in the room for a different acoustical experience. Things like this shouldn’t feel radical but they are statements. They are statements of intent. They are ways of treating the audience experience as more various than the concert-goer is traditionally allowed. "It’s not so much the traditional arts cry of reaching new audiences. The aim of the programme is to wake people up to the possibilities of the art form, whether or not they’re a Halle veteran or a student of heavy metal. And we’ve had both of those in our audiences. It’s important that what we offer is different, moves them, that it changes the way people feel."

"The venue choices have to do with the character of Manchester, which is more alternative, which has an underground aesthetic. It’s not the same as the Bridgewater Hall; here you step into a space where you may not expect to hear classical music. It’s a different way of seeing, different ways of listening. Preconceptions are removed." While making that happen in the usual halls is going to be well-nigh impossible, "we can help make it easier. When people walk in to an old Victorian cotton mill, you’re already expecting something different. And Islington Mill has supported an outrageous number of independent artists, it feels like a good thing to do, and it grows Manchester’s indie cultural scene. And that's not to say that in the future we won’t play bigger venues, but for now a special part of the performance is the intimacy, the physical proximity to the audience."

"What we’re doing, sitting in the round, the audience is less than one metre away in every direction. It’s a really physical activity, you see that when you’re up close, flashes that happen between players, the smirk if something goes wrong, the feet shuffle when something goes especially well. It’s what makes live music. For us Islington Mill is the best of both worlds, we'd never had that opportunity anywhere else. It’s an incredibly potent physical set up, an optimal set up for us. For the audience, wherever they are in the room, they’re engaging with player’s faces."

Adam has a considered attitude to his responses, a coherent line of thought that carries him through. When I start by saying I’d like the interview to be led by what he wants to explore, he tells me it would be helpful to have a provocation, as if otherwise he's worried that he won’t be able to get going or might end up on some random digression. When he finishes his response to the initial question he reflects "that was a very long answer to a very simple question." His thoughts fall very naturally into fully formed paragraphs and he has a habit of summing up the point he's made in an additional sentence or two. These feel like the issues that have been thought through deeply for some time, and spoken through with others. There is also a careful focus in the way Adam speaks. We’re a bit jammed in to the corner of The Art of Tea and so there isn’t a lot of scope for wild gesticulation or bold body language, but it doesn’t feel like Adam is one for the grand physical gesture. Instead his passion comes out through intense flashes, usually towards the end of a phrase that reveals something behind the story of how the Manchester Collective came about, and the type of work they do; that exposes a little of why Adam is driven to do this.

We talk a bit about the approach to playing Purcell in a twenty-first century way, after a century of re-discovery, the authentic music movement and the era of experimentation. Adam is clear that the Manchester Collective performance was informed by all of that but wasn’t enslaved to it; they couldn’t be. They play on steel strings, as one example. More than that, though, they are forced into a position by the music itself. As you scrape through layers of editorialising and tradition, you discover that "inherent in that repertoire is the spirit of improvisation and spontaneity that’s not really thought about in many contemporary performances." In their performance of the Purcell, Adam reveals to me that there were two passages of complete improvisation. "It’s true to the spirit of those composers."

At Islington Mill the Purcell wasn’t played alongside John Cage, as I think I expected, but interspersed movements of the Cage paired with a piece of the Purcell Fairy Queen incidental music. "There’s a lot of similarities, with aspects of the Cage that resonate with the Purcell." Adam offers me the extended metaphor of a visitor to a new city who just sees a host of huge buildings until a guide can point out specific details or stories behind certain buildings. And this isn’t always a one-way historical process, as Adam reflects with pleasure on the metal fan who heard reflections of his music in the Biber. "We don’t think our audience should always expect music to be pretty. We want people to have a good time, but that’s not the whole point, we want them to hear our music and have a reaction. The music can change something in you."

Adam’s work beyond the Manchester Collective finds him working with a wide range of other organisations; "I’ve worked a lot with Welsh National Opera. There’s a dramatic element to music performance." This feeds back to the way the Manchester Collective works, and especially how it programmes, with a conscious collaborative element. The next concert is with actor Mitch Riley, who Adam describes as an incredibly powerful, vibrant presence. He hasn’t been brought in simply to perform the new commission, but as a Lecoq trained performer he brings a strong sense of physical theatre to the group. "He casts a long shadow." The new commission has been written specifically for Mitch Riley by Huw Belling on a text from Anthony Burgess’ Inside Mr Enderby, worked out by Pierce Wilcox. And this isn’t simply a collaboration by association. "We worked very closely with the estate and foundation and stayed true to the spirit of the original novel. So we have a series of character studies of Mr Enderby; poet, tragic and desperate figure." Adam fishes around for a similar reference; "It’s Alan Partridge, pompous, ultimately deluded, but comic." This is paired with Janacek’s second quartet "which is also a literary work. Janacek starts from a place of introspection, so there’s a rhetorical epistolary aspect from letters between Janacek and his muse. And this relationship basically drove Janacek mad. In concert, Mitch performs selections from the original letters. In Sheffield, we’re doing something a bit different; a question and answer session with the artists. We’ve capped the tickets at thirty, for a two-way discussion, and the people there are then involved in creating the experience."

Another thing Adam is clearly very proud of in his understated way is the live stream of the Islington Mill gig (which can be found on the Facebook page), which was caught by over sixteen thousand views to some extent. There were some minor technical issues and they are still to get to grips with the metrics and feedback, but it was obviously a hugely important part of the project, and in time those recordings will be matched up to the HD audio and made available. It’s a piece with their approach to accessibility which also finds them working in schools. "We’re taught how to listen, how to see, when we’re young. It’s formative for people. So in our first year we wanted to do some grassroots educational work. This year we will be conducting some composition work in junior schools with Sam Glazer and then building that work into broader performances at the schools. It's not about creating more musicians, it's about appreciation; in twenty years they’ll be the audience. It’s something I’m very proud of; we’re a small organisation, we have to be careful with our budget, but we’ve made it a part of our practice from day dot."

There are exciting plans for the years ahead for Adam and the Manchester Collective. The idea of a major new commission each year is one thing, but some of the plans yet to be announced will have a real buzz about them, I suspect. "There’s this sacred fourth wall that we’d like to remove." It's not iconoclastic, but more about finding a more direct line from the music to the listener and enabling them to hear it anew, which comes through the spirit of the craft. Adam compares the orchestral players experience to that of the chamber player as being like the novel to the sonnet. In the orchestra "you’re part of a huge machine" which the chamber player by contrast is like "a part in a mechanical watch. Terrifying and thrilling, each note is meaningful."
The second Manchester Collective programme tours 23-26 March.

conversation with Adam Szabo took place at The Art of Tea, Didsbury on Sunday 19 February 2017 from 3:00pm //
@Mr_Szabo  //