Dan Tombs is a video artist from Norwich, England. With an art school background encompassing a fine art degree, Dan’s video explorations have led him to become an integral component in experiencing the music of Luke Abbott, Jon Hopkins, Walls and Factory Floor.
We met up with Dan Tombs at the Norwich Playhouse to find out more about his early explorations in video art, his fascination in 8bit aesthetics, circuit bending and most importantly what he has planned for his show with Luke Abbott.
Dan Tombs will perform visuals throughout the night for Inverted Audio + Electronic Explorations present NOTOWN Records with Luke Abbott & Dam Mantle on Saturday 6th April 2013 at Elektrowerkz in London.
What have you been up to in the past few months?
The video came about as I made the visuals in the original Two Different Ways Video and I have recently made a video for the Perc track A New Brutality so it sort of made sense to remix Two Different Ways video in the same way that I approached the Perc video.
Is that the 8-Bit Arcade aesthetic?
Yeah sort of, that was the aesthetic of the original and I remixed it using video feedback, which is wiring the mixer back in itself to create a wild image.
So you’re grabbing the audio and that goes into the video?
No I don’t grab so much of the audio it’s generally just manipulating the video signal and me manually eyeballing it and syncing it up. It’s a kind of hybrid analogue digital process, using analogue hardware and then the computer to tidy it up.
Well we can discuss more about this later – You studied art at Norwich, after you graduated did you decide that you wanted to produce music videos?
No, I actually have a degree in painting. I used to make large abstract paintings, and was concerned with capturing light and movement, painting quickly seemed an unnecessary process. It made much more sense to work directly with optics and film. I was very wary of video and digital technology and forced myself to use 8mm cine film till I felt I understood moving image and its abilities. I also explored lens less and generative process to see what was possible.
Which artists were you studying and taking reference from?
People like Len Lye (1901-1980) and Stan Brakhage (1933-2003), people who were doing hand painted film and structuralist film makers who revealed the process of film making in their films were the key people who inspired me.
Whilst you were studying surely you read a lot of philosophy centered on art, taste and essentially the critique of judgment.
I actually encountered only a small amount of philosophy, theory was there but not preached to us. A thorough understanding of context and theory is obviously essential, nothing exists in isolation and you’d be a fool to think otherwise. I remember being exposed to the ideas of auto-destructivism and this directly informed my interest in circuit bending. I am quite highly opinionated about aesthetics and design, it sometimes stops me buying things like records just because I don’t like the sleeve.
Have you taken any of these theories and instilled them into your current projects?
You can’t help it, you always pick up influences and ideas. There are always things at the back of my mind that are not necessarily conscious or coherent thoughts at the time in making stuff, but manifest themselves as the the work takes shape.
What about Jean Baudrillard’s theories on simulacra and simulation?
That’s not something I know an awful lot about, so I won’t pretend to comment about it.
The last time I saw you perform was in London at Alpha-ville festival 2011, alongside Pantha Du Prince and Jon Hopkins. How have you developed your visuals since that show?
It’s not so much that the work I do is a continuum, it’s something that I match to the artists I am working with. I talk to them individually about the ideas and concepts in their music so I can explore ideas that are visually harmonious. With Jon Hopkins’ stuff I explored quite a lot of organic textures. As he uses a lot of sounds that seem to come from acoustic instruments, this is blended and contrasted with digital content and it gives me a wide dynamic range to play with.
The stuff I do with Luke Abbott for example is always a bit freer probably because I have known him for a long time, and that breeds a confidence and experimental atmosphere.
I’m always developing new techniques and finding practical ways to perform, ideally I’d bring a whole load of hardware and mess around with it, to create wild imagery but it’s not practical when you have to transport it and set it up on stage. The Computer becomes an integral performance tool, holding libraries of pre-recorded loops but also being able to process things in real time that allow me to have reactive patches and dynamic content.
I always try to tailor a set to a particular venue as well, but that’s obviously not always possible in the logistical and time constraints
What has been the most demanding show you’ve done, the one you’ve had to put the most amount of creative effort into?
The equipment brought in for the show was incredible, one of the largest wrap around projection screens I’ve seen. Really felt the pressure as the primary content was being generated in real time by a tiny video synth that is only the size of a cigarette packet, and is just an exposed circuit board that I hold in my hand and manipulate live. People would have really noticed if anything had gone seriously wrong.
I also did some interesting things with Jon Hopkins over in Portugal last November at the Semibreve Festival. It was in a big concert hall venue, a very baroque and traditional theater. Thinking about how I could make the content work for quite a formal seated audience was demanding.
Jon Hopkins played some pieces that were unaccompanied piano, which contrasted really well with his electronic pieces. I ended up leaving lots of space and black segments in order not to crowd the music. I always try to think about negative space when performing, its not something that I see many people doing and something that I have to remind myself to do as well.
Was it natural for you to start working on visuals for music or did you want to get involved with actually making and directing films?
I’ve never been interested in making narrative cinema, I’ve always been interested in abstract film making. I don’t feel musically competent enough to create audio on my own, and made by in large silent video works. Silent video is awkward because what I was creating had rhythm to it and it always felt that the audio component was missing. So collaborating with musicians on music videos and live performances seemed an elegant way to proceed. Ideally it’s a scenario where you are working in tandem with a musician, to form something cohesive.
Was it a natural progression to work in music?
Yeah it was a slow progression of working with some friends, at local club nights and I used to do ridiculous projections with Super 8 projectors where I’d make loops of 8mm film and have four or five projectors running at the same time.
I’d cover the lenses with my hands leaning over them and cut between different projectors to the beat and wrestle the film around. It would always break, burn out and get stuck to me, but it was worth the effort and something I hope to revisit one day.
I progressed from doing just the local nights to starting to do some early shows with Luke abroad. One of the key early things I did early on was make the video with Luke for his first record that was released on Output Recordings. Looking back that’s kind of where my relationship with music really took hold.
What interests you in this 8bit aesthetic you explore in your videos?
It’s something that excited me about the untapped potential of obsolete technology and thinking about how 50’s and 60’s pop artists would make use of comic books and things because they were redundant, pulp and lying around. Nearly ten years ago when I started doing this, second hand shops would have piles of old consoles, overlooked by most people. I wondered what might be possible with them and they were insanely cheap, I could pick up a Sega or Nintendo for a pound in some cases.
I knew people involved in sonic arts and knew they had been modifying toys and keyboards to create music with, I saw these consoles as perhaps an equivalent technology.
The things made in the late eighties and early nineties are ideal as they were complex enough for you to get some interesting results when bending them, and they were manufactured in a way that you could see the components on the circuit board and could modify them. Objects made after that became too miniaturised and are impossible to interact with in a DIY manner.
So the aesthetic was lead by the materials, the process excited me and the imagery they produced was like nothing else I could have imagined. I became aware of the this growing scene and thirst for glitch as I worked more with the process and have been able to share and view some amazing work done with the techniques.
Did you also delve into Amiga’s and Commodore’s?
Yeah I did a bit of coding, but the consoles were really appealing because they didn’t need much to get them going, so you could strip them right down and get some really interesting, simple and physical modifications to the boards. It becomes quite a visceral process.
Was it a case of putting in a signal, seeing what happens and recording it?
It’s basically creating loops within the circuit board so that the signals aren’t going where they should you’re rerouting them to different parts of the graphics processor and so it causes the aberrations and artifacts. I’d make mental notes of things that were interesting and see if I could then replicate them, but a lot of the time they’re very unstable because of the modifications so I record them to tape and then sequence recordings into the most successful passages.
Tell me about your imminent London show and what you have planned for it?
It’s about thinking how little you can use to try and make something. I’ve always been interested in using those ideas and minimal means to do stuff. So this is using video feedback, not a lens, camera or screen, it’s literally just using various daisy chain video mixers and looping the ins to the outs and the outs to the ins until they all start generating static, when that builds up and feedbacks it turns into large colour fields that are bright and engaging and is something that I think suits Luke’s current music, trying to harness or channel a chaos but without dulling it. I like the unpredictability of using the process.
Do you think you’re visuals will give off a warm atmosphere?
It depends on your perspective, some people see them as quite sterile and clinical but I see them as very rich and warm because it’s very soft and you’re provoking and unearthing the fundamental nature of how a video signal is being put together. I kind of have a warm association to that. On a very simplistic level it does end up creating a lot of reds and oranges, so warm in that sense too.
With the show it’s not going to be a predetermined loop, it’s going to be completely live for the entirety of Luke’s performance.
Yes! Entirely live and generated in the venue, I will be sharing the experience with the audience as I will have never seen it before either. Can’t wait!