In the same way where a band goes on tour and their shows evolve over the course of a year, we built a platform where the visuals can also evolve over time.
Yeasayer is at what might, with a degree of understatement, be termed an interesting juncture in their career. Now three albums in with their most recent release, Fragrant World, they’re doing whatever the hell they please—and with good taste. The Brooklyn indie act’s compulsion to push creative boundaries has continued to extend far beyond the realm of music. So it seems appropriate that, upon deciding to offer a new kind of visual experience to audiences on their Fragrant World tour, the band would approach The Creators Project. Founded in 2010 by VICE and Intel, TCP is an institution known for providing a space where artists can develop and realize innovative ideas, and collaborate with fellow peers that, too, think outside the box. This is how Casey Reas, an artist and professor at the University of California Los Angeles, entered the picture. Reas, who has been writing software to create visual art for over a decade, expressed interest in applying his expertise to new concepts once given the opportunity to work on a highly calibrated team project.
To get better insight into this collaboration, we caught up with Reas to discuss the details behind the concept, the production and the resulting presentation of Yeasayer’s new stage environment on tour.
There’s still time to catch one of Yeasayer’s performances in person as they continue to tour up until November. Click over to the band’s website for upcoming tour dates.
How did you get into software programming? What sparked your interest in that field?
Drawing was always my greatest passion and that eventually led me into doing some work on the computer. I started discovering that working with various software would create limits and boundaries whereas working with materials is very much a boundless kind of creative act. A lot of the software that I was using created constraints, forcing me to think in a certain way. That got me really excited about learning programs as a way of implementing my own way of approaching the computer as a tool for creative work. The reason I was interested in using computers in the first place was because I wanted to do things that were highly dynamic and interactive, and more importantly, utilize this idea of emergence. Emergence builds on a lot of ideas from the visual arts like chance operations, working with processes and systems, but it does it in a more conceptual and immaterial way. Learning how to program became necessary in order for me to explore that. I think a lot of people start programming when they’re 5 years old and take to it like fish in water whereas other people are forced into it in order to pursue the kind of work they’re doing, like myself, although it doesn’t seem like a natural thing to do.
When did you start to really apply yourself?
I started programming in my late 20s in a real way. It took a couple years to become proficient at it. At this point, it’s not technical at all for me—it’s as fluent as writing. If we think back to how painful it was to learn how to write when we were younger and how we become more and more proficient as years go on, it’s really a similar thing with programming.
Since programming didn’t come to you naturally and you were sort of forced to learn it as you’re saying, was it a source of frustration in those earlier days?
I tried to learn programming a few times when I was a little bit younger and failed. It was once I was properly motivated that it became easier. The way you typically learn programming doesn’t apply or isn’t applicable to how visual people think and how people in the arts usually like to approach their work. Programming is a really radical visual way of working. Over the past decade, I’ve met a large group of artists and designers that have been working hard in order to reinvent what programming means within their respective fields. We’ve come up with new programming languages and developed new approaches in order to teach it. It’s really different now than it was a decade ago.
How have these developments changed the art world in the past decade?
That’s a really complicated question and it’s not an easy one to answer. Computers in general have transformed everything, right? Let’s take photography as an example. Everything is done computationally and digitally through software download now. Fifteen years ago, everything was done in an analogue way. But it really isn’t changing how people think about their work. It has changed some of the work, but not in a radical way. The changes you see now are always on the fringes. There are a lot of people out there now that are imagining new ways of working and producing works of a different quality. But it hasn’t reached the primary, dominant art market or art world yet. There’s a lot of frenetic energy art happening at the moment.
Are you big on releasing your findings to the public be it in the form of source codes, software and/or how-to guides?
Ben [Fry] and I started processing together about eleven years ago. The whole point of that was to provide a foundation for people to learn from. I spent over a decade trying to write examples and basically write textbooks for people so they could learn to program. That has been a major factor in my life. Ben and I feel really strongly that infrastructure should be free and open to everybody. However, when it comes to precise artistic expressions, like the code that I write for projections to be used in an exhibition for instance, I don’t really feel like that kind of code has any relevance to anyone else. That would be equivalent to doing a time-lapse of a painting. I don’t think it adds to the appreciation of the work because it distracts from the overall effect or the presence of the piece. So in those cases, I don’t release the codes.
How is your curriculum structured at UCLA? What are some important ideas that you like to instill in your students?
We go back to the history of this kind of work. There was a huge push in this field in the mid to late 1960s and there were a number of key, important exhibitions that happened around the world. As a backlash to the Vietnam War and the energy crisis in the 1970s, these new artforms emerged that really pushed technology away from things like landscape work and more concept-driven performance work. So we go back and look at these first pieces that used computation and electronics in order to think about the idea of living, dynamic works. We also go back to look at works from the early twentieth century that are conceptually related to the works we’re creating now. A lot of the same ideas from the past like working in systems and process-based works are employed today using different media like software. We’re still building on these old concepts. My students and I spend a lot of time in museums and galleries looking at contemporary work.
In your work, you employ rules that dictate what the resulting pieces will ultimately look like. How do those rules usually come into play? Is there are lot of experimenting involved?
Sometimes I put rules together to see what happens before going back and modifying the rules to figure out what changes. Other times, I have a sense of what I want to achieve and start writing rules in order to produce that. I see these rules as the most fundamental level of building my pseudo-science, which involves a new kind of physics with new properties. I’m able to explore this really open space and modify the rules that dictate various outcomes. It’s really about the process itself and finding out what happens. Once I start to discover what’s happening, I make modifications to push it in other directions.
For the Yeasayer collaboration, what were some of the ideas that were brought to the table in those early conversations? Were there any constraints?
There weren’t constraints. It was more about finding where we all overlap. I have a natural affinity for a lot of what the band is doing both musically and visually. I really like the stuff they’ve commissioned in the past. It was a matter of finding a common ground and a place where our visions merge. We built everything out from there.
Could you talk about the crystalline fractured environment that we see in the band’s live shows? How did that concept originate?
There are a number of different ideas behind it. One idea was to just build from crystals. The physical and cultural properties of crystals relate significantly to what I envision Yeasayer is as a band. Crystals have this long-standing cultural significance and a certain spiritual quality that’s both profound and a little bit… the opposite of profound. [Laughs] At the same time, crystals play a strong role in technology meaning that crystals sort of make up the guts of every microprocessor. As you run an electronic signal through crystals, very much like a current, it vibrates with strong precision. I think technology mixing with music brings about a spiritual and religious experience during the performance and that seemed like an interesting place to start. The idea of vibrations and the idea of crystals in itself isn’t so much about having these static sculptures onstage. They’re things that have grown into the environment. I think it would be extraordinary to see this environment animated and kinetic, but in order to realistically produce what we were aiming for, we had to make static objects. We project onto the structures, thereby reactivating it and re-exploring the potential of these crystalline forms, and try to bring it back to the immaterial. The band symbolizes an information center sending out data and signals as this crystalline environment is forming around them onstage.
Once you had this concept set in stone, how did you cobble a team together that could potentially execute it?
We found ourselves in this extraordinary situation where, through The Creators Project, we were able to commission the people we felt were the most capable. I’ve always admired the work of Aranda/Lash and felt strongly drawn to it. When we settled on this idea of building crystalline structures, they were brought in to design it and to oversee the fabrication. They were equal collaborators on this project. It’s this natural synchronicity between Yeasayer, Aranda/Lash and myself that made all of our work come together in a seamless way with clean integration. With that, a lot of the constraints and logistical questions came up pretty early on. For example, these sculptures weren’t meant to live in a gallery. They’re objects that need to be taken down every night in a short amount of time, packed up into a tight space and then shipped somewhere else on a bus or a plane. The crystal forms were designed a bit like origami and they actually fold down for efficiency. I think the most difficult constraint has been setting everything up in a really short timespan night after night. We need to get it out of the trucks and onto the stage, set it up, get the projects going, set up the lights and make sure everything is mapped together. It’s a really intense and ambitious undertaking on tour.
Have you run into any technical difficulties?
We’re having technical difficulties all the time. We’re continually working to make things stronger and that’s just part of the process. But it hasn’t affected the overall presence of the show because these are things that aren’t seen by the audience or felt by them. We’ve only been touring for a couple weeks now.
Did this art project sort of dictate the kind of venues that Yeasayer could perform in while on tour? For instance, the size of a venue must affect the audience’s perception of the scale of the sculptures.
That was definitely something we kept in mind while designing with Aranda/Lash. We needed it to be modular. The idea to design in a modular format came really naturally. The primary structure, which is the back sculpture, is comprised of three separate pieces. For the smaller venues, the middle piece is the only one present onstage. We first premiered the sculptures on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and only used that one section of the back wall because that’s all that would fit in their performance space. For the larger stages we obviously build the whole thing out.
It’s really nice that it’s malleable like that, not only for the sake of efficency, but it takes on the quality of living things because it’s never going to look exactly the same as before.
Exactly. And there are two people on tour with the band, Jay and Nick, doing live visual performances along to the music every night. It’s a rare thing to tour and travel with two visual performers. Unlike a DJ set where things can get too pre-programmed, we can put on incredibly dynamic live shows. More so than designing a series of events that unfold in a similar progression night after night, we designed a platform that can allow for many different kinds of visual shows to emerge from it. In the same way where a band goes on tour and their shows evolve over the course of a year, we built a platform where the visuals can also evolve over time. Oftentimes, the visuals at shows become a distraction and it feels like an entirely different thing going on. There’s no real synthesis between the sound and the image. In the case of Yeasayer’s Fragrant World tour, we’re trying to have the music and the visuals synchronize in a way where it makes this third thing, which is bigger than the sum of its parts. The sculptures move beyond a projection screen—it’s a full environment with elements front-to-back.
From your perspective, how important is it that a band is as mindful and precious about their visual output as they are about their music?
I think it depends on the band and who their audience is. I think what you’re talking about, having a visual presence and a visual style, really started in a strong way in the early 1980s with MTV. Sometimes it was as important as the music. There’s always been bands that put a lot of work into their style and presence, and integrated their image into the music. Those are oftentimes the bands that I’m most fascinated by.
What bands are you referring to if you don’t mind me asking?
They’re not new at all, but the band that I’m most obsessed with, in terms of presence and their live shows, is Daft Punk. I haven’t mentioned this to anybody before this, but their pyramid show at Coachella was the strongest inspiration for the Yeasayer project. I’m not talking in a visual sense, but in terms of the choreography of that piece, it was extraordinary. Daft Punk was basically playing in a pyramid stage environment that they were mounted onto, and the way it unfolded over time from really minimal lights to solid colors and to full video—it just erupted over the course of the show as it kept building. For me, Daft Punk is the example of primary excellence in pulling stuff like that off. I never migrated to listening to singles. I only listen to full albums because I really believe in the power of having a long, overarching build. It’s definitely not a narrative, but it’s a rhythm structure based around tension and release. I think live shows need to have that as well.
What attracts you to installations and putting things up in public spaces as opposed to creating one-off pieces that people might see in a magazine or online somewhere?
I make two kinds of works. I like to be in my studio by myself day after day and work on things in a focused, meticulous way. On the other hand, I need to balance that with collaborations. I really strongly enjoy working with different people. I’ve been doing collaborative work with architects and fashion designers over the years as a way of exploring things that are beyond my own areas of expertise. It allows me to push my work in new directions. For me, the Yeasayer project scaled up that level of collaboration because I got to work with people like Aranda/Lash and Nick. In many ways, it synthesized the things I’d been working on in isolation for a long time.