An Interview with Nisa Karnsomport and Ellen Phan
With the influx and increasing number of artists in Los Angeles in the past 5-10 years, the state of art, music, and varying forms of expression are abundant and rich. On the surface, it may be daunting to navigate. Competition to show work or perform may occur as a result. One may find themselves confronting the tyranny of choice about which art event to go to, as many great events, art openings, and shows occur simultaneously.
Amazing things do occur as a result, however — where two people from different mediums come together to form a novel and highly expressive dialog. Video artist Nisa Karnsomport and sound experimentalist Ellen Phan have used their collaborative dialog to create a detailed yet highly commanding sensory performance. Both artists are extremely attentive in their own live performances, and the expansion of that attention to each other's output in a live setting gives insight into the possibilities of integrating audio and video. Ellen and Nisa took some time to provide insight into their collaborative and respective artistic backgrounds, influences, and live processes.
Thanks for taking the time to do this. Before collaborative efforts happened, you both had individual undertakings in your respective artistic mediums. Can you talk about how it began for you?
Ellen (EP): I started doing music in 2013 when I got offered to play a show. I wanted to play music and perform years before, but lacked the confidence and skills to do so. I felt like a laggard because almost all my friends did music and have been doing it for a long time. So I decided to work with a friend named Bryan Schuessler who exposed me to a lot of tools such as Max, Ableton, the Olegtron, etc. It all fell into place from there and show offers appeared and kept coming. I went solo sometime in 2015 due to the fact that Bryan was focusing on getting his Ph.D in Behavioral Neuroscience and was planning on moving to Seattle. I also wanted to challenge myself and showcase my own ideas.
Nisa (NK): During the time I met Ellen, I was helping out with a project called Ear Meal (founded by Alan Nakagawa and Mark Walsh) in 2015. Ear Meal was a webcast series that would live stream performances from the Los Angeles experimental music and sound arts community. We would have 3 camera feeds and sometimes process the video with effects. I became interested in the documentation and live aspect of the shows, often improvising our camera work with the performer. It was a great space to experiment with video equipment and be exposed to live performances. At the same time, I was also becoming more interested in generative art and open source frameworks like Pure Data and Processing. This eventually led me to taking a Max workshop taught by Tom Hall in 2016.
What informs and inspires you both to create?
EP: I am inspired by aesthetically pleasing environments, traveling, nature, other artists and seeing what they are expressing. Creating is a huge release of energy. Language can be limiting at times. I love how art can unite people on a global scale based on what you are vibrationally putting out through various mediums. Your vibe attracts your tribe. We are all spiritual beings having a human experience.
NK: My inspiration is often very practical in the sense that it’s usually a programming language or new video equipment that I get excited about rather than an idea. Right now, I’m working as a software developer so most of my week is devoted to interacting with technology in a very dry and mundane way. It’s nice to have a less practical outlet.
Your live performances use visuals and sound to alter physical and temporal space. Where and at what point did you both realize that this artistic conversation could exist between the two of you?
EP: We met in 2015 when I was helping curate artists for Earmeal and Nisa was there doing camera work, so we were casually chatting. I felt compelled to collaborate because I feel comfortable with her energy and I wanted to enhance the live experience when I perform. I loved Nisa’s work, it felt alien, outer-dimensional and complemented the sounds. We debuted our collaborative set in August of 2015. I usually feel like a lone wolf in L.A., so it is nice to have a creative kinship here.
NK: Ellen and I had a strong connection and we started to collaborate almost immediately. I was a fan of her sound and aesthetically we shared the same vision and performance goals. Initially it was pretty informal, no long term collaborative goals outside of “we enjoy working with each other.” Navigating the different logistical realities in different venues forced us to put a little extra thought into how exactly we want the audio and video to relate. This eventually led to our most recent performance at Human Resources where we were able to do a large scale projection. It’s the ideal space for what we’re doing and it was the first place we could have an image large enough for us both to perform in front of. And I think being in close proximity and working face to face like that really added new depth to the ongoing artistic conversation that started when we met.
What does your setup look like in terms of software, sound sources and signal paths?
EP: For software I use Supercollider and Ableton. The former to generate material and Ableton for further processing and performance. I employ a range of sound sources, field recordings of strange moments that resonate with me, most recently a recording of 8 people shoved into a tiny bathroom at the end of a conceptual piece in Barcelona. I also use a device that measures skin conductivity called a GSR as a sound source and also in live settings.
NK: Lately, I have been experimenting with overlapping digital video with analog video. My analog setup is a modular video synthesizer of LZX Industries modules and my digital setup is a mix of different components from Processing, Pure Data, Max and Resolume for projection mapping and implementing capture devices.
In the milieu of electronic music and video art in Los Angeles, your performances are particularly interesting. Often in musical performances, video is seen as secondary and supplementary to the audio with a simple playback of a video file being sufficient. In gallery settings with video, the reverse relationship occurs. You both seem to have an understanding that live manipulation of video is just as important as the live performance of audio. Why is this important in your artistic dialogue?
EP: Thank you, that is a nice compliment. It is important because the synergy between different media modalities has the potential to induce synesthesia in the audience if executed correctly.
With our performances, I aim to leave the audience with the sense that there are still unexplored realms of possibility within the world of audio and visual works and presentations.
NK: The videos only exist in relation to the collaborator I am working with. I’ll set certain parameters, what programs and images and colors I’ll use, but pre-editing or coding something that’s solid and repeatable is always frustrating and unsatisfying. Working live, trying to keep the piece together and cohesive as it’s being created is more interesting. With computer generated sounds and images it’s possible to create perfect synchronization, which works well when making installations but often creates a somewhat sterile live performance. Either the video or audio can easily become supplemental. So the improvisational element is pivotal in our live performances. It helps make each performance unique and let’s us establish a more equal dialogue between us and our computers.
What are some shared and personal influences of yours?
EP: My influences include non-physical entities such as Abraham Hicks and Bashar, as well as altered states of consciousness. I am very much inspired by the subconscious mind as well. It governs our reality. I am a Hypnotherapist and I find working with clients very moving at times. Seeing them eradicate old, self limiting programming is so inspiring. I get amped up by that. Our minds are so much more powerful than we realize. I am inspired by sounds that have a non- human element to them. I am influenced by Florian Hecker, Khaki Blazer, and Lee Gamble’s mixes. I listen to a lot of music and try to stay on top of what is out there but those artists in particular have really resonated with me. I also really like labels such as Nada Recs, Anomia, Banh Mi Verlag, and Dream Disk Labs, who are pushing forward thinking sounds.
NK: My first exposure to A/V sets was seeing Kraftwerk’s imagery in high school. I saw them live in 2004 and that left an imprint on how I connected sound to visuals in a performative setting. Later I became aware of some local video artists which cracked open the whole idea of this as something I could even do. My immediate influence for each project is really whoever I’m collaborating with. Before I start developing any visual ideas, I’ll spend a lot of time listening to their work, figuring out where my interests and their processes intersect. With Ellen, this leads me back to graphic design and grid systems. And to research based artists, people who aestheticize data one way or another, like Alva Noto or Ryoji Ikeda. With another frequent collaborator, Patrick Shiroshi, my work becomes more personal and organic. The images are often more representational and less purely abstract. Color and landscapes become much bigger components in these pieces.
To what varying degrees is your work exploring the self-generative, manually generative, and mutually generative?
EP: I feed sound into a variety of generative algorithms and let them run for a while and then pick the best parts to use compositionally. I'll run the patches live sometimes too.
NK: I start by mapping the audio signal to a pre-established video parameter, so at the beginning of each piece it’s a pretty direct relationship. As the sound develops the images become more complex. Eventually I’ll begin to manually trigger other pre-established video parameters, which starts something like multiple information feedback loops where the lines between who or what is controlling what start to breakdown. My initial instinct is to have control over my work, so it’s nice to work in a way that rubs against that.
Given that the strength of your live performances utilizes physical space and time so well, are there expectations to document these in any format?
EP & NK: We hope to have both physical and digital releases of our work at some point in the future but have no concrete plans yet.
Where and how do you see your artistic dialogue expanding in the future as you move forward?
EP & NK: The collaboration is moving forward with a complete set of new music and visuals. We aim to expand our capabilities by working with new media technology driven institutions and venues, as well as preparing installations for art exhibits and spaces. We hope to showcase our performances for festival settings around the world.
More information about Nisa and Ellen's work:
by Christopher Reid Martin on
Jul 23, 2019 6:18 PM