Digital Practice: Philip Clemo

Digital Practice: Philip Clemo

At Sedition we are lucky enough to host and present works by artists working with digital technologies in varied and challenging ways. Each artist on the platform asks different questions, via different media, forms and symbolic systems, about the influence of the algorithm on life, art and culture.  

To acknowledge and celebrate this varied interrogation of art and the digital, we are publishing a series of interviews with Sedition artists about how their practice and process connects with digital media. As part of this series we spoke to Philip Clemo, a UK based artist whose work with sound and image composition and live performance has been shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Eden Project and the Cannes Film Festival. Through his practice Clemo considers the relationship between abstraction and coherence, chaos and resolution, and poses questions about what it means to ‘see’ and to ‘understand’ for both humans and non-humans.  As part of his practice Clemo performs internationally with his band Dream Maps, interacting live with imagery from his Breath Project; these performances and Clemo’s screen and sound based works have a symbiotic relationship, feeding into one another and informing the direction his research takes. Read on to learn more about the questions, inspirations and driving forces underpinning Clemo’s work.

Could you tell us more about the process you use when recording landscapes? 

Two things come to mind … I like to have access to the very best technology - that way I can squeeze every last drop out of the sensory potential of the recording device, and secondly I need to spend time with my subject so I can learn what it wants to share. I try to scramble any familiar perspectives I have and work on the edges of the usability of my technology - that way I engage with the essence of what I am capturing rather than any preconceived idea of what it might or should be.

I often set out to capture qualities of spaces that are beyond human perception. I am intrigued by how we react to imagery or sound when we don’t actually know the origins of the material. What does it mean when we are entranced by something, finding it profoundly beautiful, but having no idea what it actually is? Maybe I am exploring imagery in a similar way to how I compose music: working with abstract material for its qualities alone rather than any literal meaning that can be extracted.

Filming geothermal activity in northern Iceland. Image copyright Philip Clemo

You have worked with sound since you were a child. Could you tell us more about your changing relationship with sound, and how it has influenced your visual practice?

I think I work with sound and imagery in similar ways - I am interested in the ambiguity of sources and intentionally taking things out of context to change how we engage. Music has been central to my life and I used to carry around a 45rpm single when I was a toddler. I have always been entranced by recording studios and how you can enter these mysterious semi-lit worlds and create something out of nothing.

When I capture sound from an environment there is already a complex soundworld. But when I add a second sonic space everything shifts. When we add sound to a silent image it very much changes how we experience that image, sound largely driving our emotional reaction to imagery. I often capture imagery mute and then add sound recordings that I have captured elsewhere. That creates new emphasis and relationships. As artist Georgia O’Keefe said "Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” Music, by its very nature, is an abstract art form and its stories unfold in non-literal ways, often through the creation of moods and atmospheres. I try to bring that approach to visual storytelling. 

Working in the studio with legendary sound engineer Phill Brown (Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Talk Talk). Image copyright Philip Clemo

Could you talk more about your thoughts on the difference and relationship between processing image and processing sound?

I often feel that I have more scope when I process audio, particularly when I am working with high resolution audio - I can stretch it beyond comprehension, combine it with other sounds, in strange and wonderful ways, and emphasise delicate elements that might ordinarily be overlooked altogether. On the whole I don’t actually process my imagery very much - what I do is capture what is around me in unusual ways, whether using extreme slow motion cameras to slow down a gas explosion or an ultra-close-up lens to capture a micro cosmos in a petri dish. Once I have the right technology and approach the imagery is right there in front of me. I don’t need to process it much, other than what happens in camera - the world around us is already extraordinary enough.

What do you think the impact of digital images comprised of pixels and processed via algorithms is on the way we process image and sound?

I hope there is an opportunity for us to realise that there is no objective reality. How we experience the world around us is only our perspective based on our own sensory abilities - there are some extraordinary creatures sharing this planet with us that have hugely different sensory perspectives and therefore live in a different world altogether.

Digital technology gives us the opportunity to sit with something that may have been only one moment in time. This technology is, by its very nature, only able to catch an approximation of what is really there but it has the potential to make us question our familiarity with the world around us. If we do that maybe we will see that we are not at all separate from the spaces we inhabit and the impact we are having on this fragile planet could be catastrophic for us and the species we share our home with.

Your documentary and installation project Breath explores the connections between the human body and the landscape, defining the latter as a living being in its own right. What insights did you learn from the project about the similarities and ambiguities between body and landscape? 

I am fascinated by abstraction and ambiguity and what happens when we don’t know what we are looking at. When working on Breath there have been times when I have been intercutting motion-control close-up imagery of the human body with aerial imagery of Iceland that I had shot from a helicopter. Sometimes it throws me and I get lost in what was what. I have realised that our own body landscapes can be quite unfamiliar, particularly when we get in really close. And minute worlds can often mirror and mimic expansive landscapes. We inhabit many different terrains on hugely different scales and we can have profound positive or negative effects on these landscapes.

You often play live with your band Dream Maps, alongside the installation of your Breath project. What qualities do these live performances have that video works do not? What power do video works have that live performances don’t?

Philip Clemo’s Dream Maps live at Kings Place, London. Image copyright Richard Hubert Smith. 

Chance and volatility are the main challenges of live performance for me. I am used to production environments - recording studios or edit suites - where I am largely in control of the output. But performing live is a much more dangerous pursuit - there are no re-cuts or further takes - what happens, happens and you have to respond there and then. That can be terrifying but also hugely exhilarating - there is nothing like it. I love to hear how the musicians respond to the changes I make in imagery and how that affects the audience.

I think my video works have the power to focus in on details and stay in one space, making subtle changes in a way that we can’t really do live - there are just too many variables then.

What are the challenges and joys of working with digital technology outdoors?

Filming on Vatnajökull glacier, Iceland. Image copyright Philip Clemo

Weather, temperature and light are all big challenges. I remember filming the aurora borealis in winter in the Arctic Circle, alone in the early hours. I was working with a red beam headtorch to protect my night vision and my hands were in huge mitts with thin inner gloves. I didn’t want to expose any body part for too long in the plummeting temperatures and the cameras would fog up if taken indoors so we used cold rooms. If I’m working with a very well designed piece of technology, such as an Arri Alexa Digital Cinema camera (on that occasion), things become a lot easier - I can rely on that gear, see clearly what is going on and make any changes quickly. 

The joys of filming with digital technology can be great and the potential of new gear develops in leaps and bounds. When I’m filming I lose myself in landscapes and time falls away. I feel at peace and I can engage with very small things that I would normally miss, interacting with the world around me like a young child.

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Top image: Filming on the south coast of Iceland. Image copyright Philip Clemo