Vibrant colors, eerie music and an exhilarating embrace of the unknown are among the many joys to be found in films by Joshua Churchill and John Davis. But there are two things you won't find: story and character.
By altering music and imagery in real time, Churchill and Davis' projects, which are rooted in the unorthodox practice of expanded cinema, deliver a unique experience that seeks to challenge the typically passive relationship between audience and art. Their latest effort, Night Country, will be screened in Portland, Vancouver, Astoria and Olympia, with each city experiencing a different rendition.
Not inclined to decode their work, the duo instead sum it up with phrases like, "It's really difficult to describe" and "It's kind of esoteric and hard to talk about." But WW spoke to them about what audiences can expect from Night Country and why they don't care whether their work is a commercial success.
WW: Joshua, you wrote, "I am always interested in challenging the audience and the passive role assigned to them." Is that what drew you to expanded cinema?
Joshua Churchill: A lot of what we do is based on chance and chaos. Sound and moving image are not joined together in a traditional scoring fashion—they're both manipulated and performed improvisationally. So what ends up coming together in the actual performance is unexpected, even to us.
John Davis: There's no narrative structure or clear beginning and end, other than in a time-based way. It provides the viewer an opportunity to make connections for themselves between what they're seeing and what they're hearing. We find that's a lot more interesting in the long run.
Could you walk me through the logistics of how your performances work?
Davis: Oftentimes, Josh would be near the screen facing the audience and not watching the films. It allows him to work independent of the images, so as to operate in an organic and personal way. I project films that are sometimes controlled, where I have the ability to manipulate the images with remote controls on Analyzer projectors.
Were there certain visual motifs you wanted to explore in Night Country?
Churchill: I would say we do the opposite.
How did you choose the title?
Davis: That's a title I conjured up. It doesn't really mean anything.
Do your roles overlap during the film or does one of you focus strictly on music and the other on images?
Davis: There's two sets. On one, we'll be collaborating on Super 8. The next set is just Josh on music and I'll be doing three separate projectors. Each projector has remote controls that allow me to manipulate the speed of the shutter, so I can go forward or reverse or isolate a frame. Each time I click a frame, there's a rhythmic sound. It's a way for us to create a relationship between the film projectors and the music from a sonic standpoint. I am listening to Josh's music and some of my response on the projector side has a relationship to that. And Josh is also listening to the rhythm and responding to that. So there's an interesting call and response, as opposed to me just turning on a projector and Josh performing music in the spirit of that projection or that moment.
Do you use instruments or a synthesizer?
Churchill: I'm generally using a guitar and a lot of processing—a lot of loops and layering and distortion of the signal. Some of it is more traditional guitar sounds, but most of it becomes textures and layers.
Was it challenging to get the point where you were in tune with each other?
Davis: We're both interested in doing the work for ourselves, and if people respond to it, that's all the better. It's not really commercially viable—there's no career opportunity necessarily with this kind of work. But I think we're both interested in pushing boundaries and trying to do something new and different. We're both invested in the process and seeing where it can take us and inform whatever innovative things we may or may not be doing.
SEE IT: Night Country screens, with musicians Dolphin Midwives and Brin opening the performance, at Disjecta, 8371 N Interstate Ave., disjecta.org, on Thursday, Aug. 9. 8 pm. $8-$10.