An Interview with Mark Henrickson
When we do interviews with artists, we often stick kind of close to “the work”, with a little biography thrown in for good measure (since it presumably helps to define the work). One of the things I am generally tremendously interested in has to do with something we don’t talk much about: our day jobs. There are so few people in the world who put food on the table and pay the rent by doing the art we get interviewed about… I occasionally worry that this tendency gives beginners the idea that the whole tournament economy of the art world is the only thing to aspire to, that there’s nothing to be gained by knowing about our quotidian working life, and that we miss the chance to connect how our working lives inform our art. So I thought I’d try to do a little of this by interviewing my improvising visualist friend Mark Henrickson. Yes – an improvising visualist. Not a throbbing technodonut in sight – he’s more the “Walk out on stage with a couple of folders full of raw material and let ‘er rip” kind of guy in the Sonny Sharrock/Derek Bailey school.
If you’re unfamiliar with Mark, the place to start is with Mark’s visual work, of course. Darwin Grosse’s Art + Music + Technology podcast includes a great extended interview with Mark that will certainly complement your reading here. In fact, this interview sort of follows on and lets Mark speak a little more about his influences and practice beyond those regular “what tools are you using right now?” chats.
What are you doing to pay your rent when you’re not being my favorite visualist? How does it connect with what you think of as your practice? Do those worlds intersect and overlap in ways besides being in competition for time and headspace?
My day job is as a programmer and video engineer at Tekamaki. It’s hard to summarize exactly what I do daily, as it can look quite different – some days I’m writing Max patches or doing work in Touchdesigner, and other days I may be working with media servers like d3. A significant portion of my job is related to help create a media environment where video projection, lighting, LED or custom display technology is being used are integrated into a seamless event or installation, whether that’s working on the physical system that is created, designing and creating templates for content creators or helping to pick the right equipment (projectors, displays, signal path…) to do what our clients need.
The worlds of my personal video work and my day job do intersect in a few places – one thing that has definitely affected my own work is an increased comfort level when it comes to working with display technology and software. Often, solving technical problems at my day job has parallels to what I’m thinking about in my own work as a toolmaker, and it helps me to see problems in a new light. Large format media systems can effectively be thought of as digital systems much as you would with a Max patch; physical devices with their own protocols replacing objects – so you end up shipping pixels across devices with bandwidth limitations, or you’re compensating for latency induced by buffers in various elements in a system and so on.
I think that you grew up like I did, in some ways – removed from the places where, as a listener or viewer, where you thought that “stuff was happening,” and getting exposed haphazardly to the kinds of stuff you could have gone to find several places in the same evening if you were in Berlin or Paris or New York or Tokyo or wherever. Is that kid still with you?
I think that part of me has definitely waned over time. I have probably shifted my focus away from specific creative artifacts as I defined them when I was younger and have become more interested in how something functions culturally. the notion of where its happening has definitely shifted. As simple as it sounds, I’ve realized as I become older that important cultural practice happens everywhere, not just in specific locales. there are definitely places where specific cultural practices may seem more appealing from time to time, but I increasingly find inspiring things in surprising places.
Well, there you are in the Bay Area and – both in terms of access and also in terms of basic knowledge of your city – you’re in the place you dreamed of or imagined. Has the place “where it’s happening” moved on you? Do you feel like you’re an artist whose work can be categorized geolocally?
I don’t think of my work as explicitly coming from where I currently live, but perhaps more as an engagement with the things have seen and places I’ve lived over the duration of my life. I did grow up in the Midwest, but after being on the west coast for around 10 years I’ve started to identify a bit with this side of the country. Almost all of my video material since I moved to the west coast has been shot here, and my practice has changed some, but I don’t know what exactly would make it “from San Francisco”.
So I’m your fairy god-interviewer and I have a magic ticket in my breast pocket. It’ll take you to any city in the world. Where would you want to go and what would you want to see or hear?
Rodeo Beach in Marin County.
I happen to know that something’s happened to you recently that I’m sure everyone who reads this lives in fear and dread of: the kind of loss that involves the utter destruction or absence of the software/equipment you’ve created and use as part of your practice. What I’ve found so interesting in talking to you about it has been that it’s been something of a positive experience for you.
The live video platform that I’d been performing with had been slowly built up and cobbled together since basically the beginning of Jitter. A lot of what I do when I’m performing is listening and observing what is going on around me and finding a way to play my patch as an instrument. This being the case, a large portion of what comes out of the projector ends up being the result of engaging with not only my video material (all shot on camera at this point) but also with my software – in whatever state it’s currently in. So when I lost my software, my first reaction was something akin to “Fuck. Well, there goes that video thing.”
Once some time had passed, I remembered that it has never really been an extraordinary ability to program or some secret magic sauce I’ve got under the hood that makes what I’m doing interesting, but hopefully something about how I’m translating what’s happening musically into something that one can see. That said, a large part of what I’m doing is about discovery and experimentation both when programming and when performing. A chance to make something all new again can be liberating, if a bit intimidating.
So your newly imagined rig is still Jitter. Has starting over meant that you approach Max differently as well, or are you just better/faster/more efficient at coding up the ideas you once had?
I think I do approach Max differently, not least because it’s changed quite a bit from when when I started. A lot of… let’s say unsightly things dated from the days before Presentation View existed in the old software. A lot of things are getting swapped out and redone in gen, and so on. That said, I’m definitely not to rebuild exactly the same software that I used to have, but to slowly play with little bits as I make them and see how I can tease new things out of what might be basic processing.
For example, I recently have been toying with a basic blur/feedback/smeary process, and I’m finding parameter ranges which may be interesting when chained together in various ways. One of the big things I’ve been looking at is bit depth in the processing – once you get into long subtle feedback chains it makes a huge difference in the end result. I wouldn’t have done any of that ten years ago, probably because I’d just leave it as char data and do it on the CPU. The point is that I’m even looking at basic problems a bit differently as I go.
One of the things that comes from any kind of focus on tools or craft – and this is really obvious when we talk about more technologically mediated art forms – is that it’s so easy to not talk about what we think your current sources of “nourishment” are….
It’s difficult to locate exactly where I draw my inspiration from as I think I draw it from many sources.
Okay. Let’s try it this way: Is there anything about the work you’re doing now that you think would really surprise the person who used to be you?
When I started working in improvised video, I definitely felt more of a technological and digital motive for what I was doing, and was strongly influenced by my understanding of electronic and computer computer music long before any interest in video. In many ways, my first years of doing improvising visuals was focused on “finding cool tricks,” learning how to work with digital video, and finding new ways of manipulating what a viewer sees.
I often felt the tools I was using sat in front of whatever work I was making – so I suppose I identified strongly with Max/Jitter/nato/SoftVNS/auvi/Supercoolider/Pd or whatever. As time as gone by, my relationship to my tools has changed. Of course, I still use a computer and digital video and my main tool is Max, but ultimately I could be working with analogue video, audio, Touchdesigner, acoustic instruments or whatever and still be producing work that I’d find rewarding.
The tools still matter, of course – but I’m more comfortable understanding that it is my own relationship to how I use these things that interests me rather than the tools themselves or some idea of mastery of the machine. Twelve years ago, I was way more enamored with the machines than I am now.