Drew McDowall and Florence To’s collaborative energy has the capacity to dissolve the perception of reality in the space they are performing in. Their collaborative AV performance Time Machines is a psychoactive journey where time becomes suspended, as everyone involved sinks deeply into a hallucinatory trance. I was fortunate enough to be able to see them perform Time Machines at Mutek Montreal and talk to them before their performance. Below is our conversation.
Boston Hassle: Drew, the first time I saw you perform was at the PUFFERSS festival in Providence. It was a surreal festival.
Drew McDowall: Right, that was awesome, I did a collaboration with Rene Nunez who does Horoscope. Rachel’s performance as RRLEW was one of the most mind-blowing things I’ve ever experienced in my life. I still talk about it to this day. Her performances are fantastic.
BH: Yes, I don’t understand how she conceives of these performances.
Florence To: What kind of performance was it?
DM: So hard to describe. I will always preface it by saying whatever I tell you is not going to even incrementally do it justice. She uses voice, performance, movement, and absurdity. Any of her pieces just take you through the ringer. You just experience all of these different emotions from laughter to bewilderment, I mean she has moved me to tears. I have cried watching her performances. Her name is Rachel Lewallen, she performs under the name RRLEW. She’s a legit genius. And then Humanbeast, Eli and Maralie, I mean just beyond inspiring and takes you through the whole range of emotions. My favorite thing about their performances is the whole bewilderment part, where I am just trying to figure out what they are doing, I love feeling like I fully don’t understand what is going on. Both of their solo projects are amazing, V. Manuscript and Valise, they are mind blowing.
BH: How did your collaborations begin? I was also curious about how you both approached Time Machines as an AV performance? I am interested in how you both get into creative head spaces in your practice and how important those ideas of immersion are in your practice and also trying to conceive a space for people to experience your work?
DM: Florence and I had collaborated together at Berlin Atonal in 2016. It was one of those things where we really gelled and I loved what she was doing. We hadn’t even met until the day of the performance. Even though I knew Florence was Scottish, I learned she grew a mile from where I grew up.
FT: I knew he was from Paisley. I knew of Coil, but have not followed what happened after the aftermath. When I was asked to play with Drew, at first I felt that I needed to know more about him as a person. The music itself isn’t enough for me, I need to connect with somebody. When I was reading an interview and found out he was from Paisley, I didn’t need any more. That’s all I needed to know.
DM: So we met and did what was supposed to be this one-off piece. Berlin Atonal suggested 3 or 4 different visuals artists to work with, and as soon as I saw Florence’s work there was no question. I wanted to work with Florence. The other ones were all great, but Florence’s work was something special. We met and did this performance and wanted to find different opportunities to work together. So when the idea of doing Time Machines A/V came up, Florence was the first choice.
FT: I think a lot of the development of the visual component was done really late at night. The thing I do, I create a basic idea of geometry and reiterate it thousands of times. I will do it until my mind is really immersed. Usually, it’s really late at night and I am guessing the same with Drew when he dives into the music, especially with the feeling of time. I work a lot with the low frequencies in the music. I am very much inspired by what vibrations are involved in the music and I take that first with the basic geometry, and let that do the movements with X Y Z dimensions. However it evolves, I go with that concept and I am improving the involvement the frequencies have on the movement with the music itself.
I don’t think that I want it to look a certain way, it doesn’t matter to me, it has to come from the frequencies that are developing. The frequencies are jumping everywhere, so I don’t have a continuous organic timeline. The flow of audio analysis, it really just bounces and however it bounces I see a frame, and I evolve that frame. It helps me to visualize things in a very realistic way, and also in a way where I can create a simulation that isn’t in my idealistic point of view. I will usually just start with a single line or dot I always keep it very simple because that’s how our visual system works. We really love simplicity, and we love to develop simplicity in our own visual systems. I want people to understand that their own simulations can evolve based on something that isn’t doing much, I try to not do too much and let the brain do the rest of the work.
BH: It is like you’re creating these frameworks for people to be immersed in as though you are leading them through a space in tandem with the music, where people can move into and lose themselves beyond but also sync into other worlds.
FT: It’s almost durational, you know and the music is very duration as well.
DM: That’s the whole thing and that’s why this collaboration is so rewarding. The music has an intention. If people listen to it just as music that’s fine, I am totally happy with that but the intention is to have a psycho-acoustic or psychoactive effect on people. If it makes people feel like they’re tripping, that’s amazing. So the idea of doing it, and having just visuals just for visual sake would be just beside the point. It would be better to have a dark stage. It’s absolutely crucial to have the visuals be enmeshed with the intent of the music. The idea of just doing it with some pretty visuals wouldn’t be interesting. I want to play with my back to the audience, I don’t but I want to because I am missing out. I get to see videos afterwards and I will turn around and look up at times and I literally get transfixed, I have to pull myself away to get back to what I am supposed to be doing. I have a job to do, and can’t go slack jawed looking at these visuals.
FT: It’s not so much about intellectualism. I really want to bring that out, especially in A/V performance because you get some political performances that have a lot of meaning and make you think. With this piece it is really about overriding the intellect, and understanding our own intention of why we are here because it is about presence as well.
DM: This physicality, there should be physicality, I love it when you look up and people are stuck to the floor. We have done it at a few venues when you look up and the people are just lying on the floor.
FT: I loved it when we did Unsound last year and one person wrote that it made them feel so sick, he had to get up and leave. I was like “Yes we did it! We did it!” It’s funny because it could have went the other way around like “You made me feel so sick it was terrible!” or “You made me feel so sick it was great!”
DM: Well, sometimes it’s the actual physicality of the space itself. You can have that and form where the direction or where the performance goes. If there’s enough time, if we have enough time at sound check, I’ll try to figure out the resonant frequencies of the room and go with something that is sympathetic or antagonistic in a good way with those frequencies. As far as the effect of the performance, I always think that if there’s a moment where the hairs on my arms stand up, I get goosebumps, I get I feel the slipping into another state and I know it’s working. If it doesn’t work for me, I don’t know how I can assume that it’s going to work for other people.
FT: That’s interesting because the visuals are very much live, so when the music starts and feeling those frequencies, I will sometimes go a little bit longer with a one particular visual element to keep people sustained. If you are sustaining as well and I really wait, sometimes I am waiting and waiting and I’m thinking: “what’s happening here?”
DM: It really stretches and contacts. We have a rough amount of time and we know we are going to go for some kind of markers along the way but those can change. I see Florence looking at me waiting. What was it after that one performance we did where you are like “What the hell were you doing?” I wasn’t sure if you were saying that as a compliment.
FT: I was waiting. Usually, I know there’s a specific time frame where I know when this thing has to come.
DM: I like to challenge Florence, that’s my goal upset her equilibrium
FT: Then a tone came in and I’m like: “I’m not familiar with this tone.” and I’m just changing the parameters of the visuals and the motion element to be triggered by this amplitude mid range of the music and I’m thinking: “Ok, this has to work.” I am just changing everything in the visual element because it’s purely generative. The visuals, how they move to the music some of it doesn’t make any sense but it’s gesturing to some parts and there’s also this delay I put in that sometimes freezes moments of the visuals and it doesn’t make sense because its so fast. My frame rate is very irregular. It went from 29.5, 34.3 and goes to 40 then go back to 18.2 and you really don’t understand what’s going on. Say your water levels aren’t equal in your head, you will definitely feel sick. Only the human eye can notice it and that it can actually make up some information that isn’t there. I’m really interested in those optical effects where I can make the eyes make up an idea of it, but in real life it doesn’t exist.
DM: I just wanted to say something were talking about, you know new tones coming in or having it stretching and compressing in a way that’s not always predictable. That’s the whole point of doing this. The original piece was recorded in I think 1997 or 98. So it’s around 20 years old now and the idea of doing just a literal copy of Time Machines would be just so boring to do that. The whole point is to just assume that this entity, this Time Machines entity is alive and has its own agenda. We just go with that and see where it wants to go, trying to like see the control, trying to not feel that we are in charge of everything. People who have seen it recently and have seen the first iteration of recent live performance have said it has changed a lot. I don’t even know that it’s changed, I’m assuming it has but it has not been a conscious thing. Every show, every performance it incrementally changes and I think that’s really fascinating. The goal being that it’s still supposed to be Time Machines to have that intent to have that experience. There are familiar motifs, there’s a couple of things that I don’t want to let go of because they are so dear to my heart, those won’t change. I mean it’s ritual music, it’s ritualistic and it is supposed to have an effect. How that effect is correlated with the individual is sort of up to them. I think I know what I’d like it to do to people, but when people tell me something that’s very different from what my expectations I’m like “awesome”, it’s wonderful.
FT: When in the beginning, we were talking about how to develop the AV version of Time Machines, I obviously had in the back of my head when I first listened to it years ago and I didn’t want to be subjective. I could easily go back to that feeling and I went back to read old articles about the record and see what that experience was like back then. Then I listed to the re-release of it and then I thought that it’s best to start fresh, it’s a new experience, it’s a new time, you’ve changed.
DM: The world has changed, how we view, not just on a macro level, but on a micro level our relationship unto the world has changed. Our relationships to each other on the micro level have changed, and that has to inform it to some degree.I would think 20 years doesn’t seem like it’s a long time, but just take it from and old geezer, the world has changed In 20 years. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but just feels like such an insanely different world.
FT: You’re older than me, but I also feel it’s changed. I meant of course Glasgows completely different. Your perceptions are completely different, I mean he had guns, we had knives.
DM: We had knives in the 90’s, the 80’s and 90’s. I had people waiting for me with poles wanting to kill me.
FT: Yeah because I don’t know if our upbringing has anything to do with it, I was born in a place called Grangemouth which is like next to a chemical plant, and I lived there for 4 or 5 years. How would you describe it?
DM: It’s surreal, even though it’s not post-apocalyptic, it looks it. It’s this chemical and refinery plant.
FT: That’s the area, I lived there. It was a 5 minute walk from where I lived.
DM: Like the end of the world. It looks like some deranged science fiction landscape, just insane colors, plumes of god knows what gas and the light is really bizarre. If you look at it across the river, it’s definitely a vision of hell but also had a weird beauty to it as well. That’s the thing about it, where you can’t untangle, you don’t want to fall into the hole where it’s aestheticizing somethings that’s fucked up. Even if you bear that in mind, it has this awesome kind of quality to it, Grangemouth is bizarre.
FT: The Cocteau Twins came from Grangemouth. Actually when I got old enough to know where the Cocteau Twins were from, I thought Grangemouth was a cool place, but Paisley…
DM: Paisley is a rough act. Where I came from, industry had already collapsed. It was the harbinger of the post-Fordist capitalism. It was actually before industry had just collapsed. No one left school thinking they had any future. It was grim, it was dark, it was like the third most violent place in the world at the time. It was really insane, but it was also in its weird way, it’s one of those things that’s always a bit of a quandry. How to say that you are inspired and took something from the hellhole you came from when your friends and stuff didn’t. You know some of them didn’t make it, a lot of people died, people still in prison, but I’m still very conflicted about it. I don’t have a clear answer. Where I grew up, I just went back there in may spent a week there and that was interesting.
FT: I don’t go back much, I have my mum and my brothers there, but I mean there’s a big depression in Glasgow. I don’t wanna say it’s that way now, because it’s obvious changed a lot, but I had to leave at some point. I was working doing a lot in club environments, doing some raves and developing stuff for spaces. That’s sort of where I came from. I came from doing stuff in a lot of derelict spaces in Glasgow, building installations and then after two years I went to London and did a lot of warehouses and car parks building large scale installations. I was careful where I would work. In the sense of type of music, type of communities and I ended up doing visual work. I definitely came from the DIY scene. I did stuff in NYC awhile ago when I would just bring my projectors with me, mapping spaces. That was quite fun, space is a very big part of the work I do.
DM: I was just thinking about Paisley and those parts of Scotland. That we were kind of the first places that were kind of gutted and there are probably equivalents here and off in America. We were the first places that were gutted in the neoliberal experiments. How much can we just, basically just they were the front line of the class war. The economic power, Thatcherism in the UK had a couple of dry runs, a couple of experiments like how could they get away with gutting a place, just closing down all the industry, closing down all the social services, and making the people living here surplus to requirements. Then the later stage, how can we financialize these people, how can we drain them even more. That was really interesting to see, to be on the front edge of those things that are now, it seems so savage at the time and actually doesn’t seem any less savage now that we’ve been living with them for 30 or 40 years. That’s the world we live in now.
FT: I remember I was quite young with Thatcher, the politics behind it. I just remember the jokes we made about Thatcher. Jokes about how she was destroying industry, coal mining and ship building, the stuff Scotland was known for. I was quite young.
DM: We definitely went off on a tangent from Time Machines to class war.
BH: Those things that influence your life push into your work, it kind of gives a sense of where you came from with you work and how it has influenced your experience.
FT: I also find it quite interesting how people end up bonding together and coming together. The types of people that come into your life. When you work with somebody, obviously I would never have thought I would work with you, and now this one day I get this email, I make this proposal this crazy proposal about simulacra. I wrote this whole theory of how the ghost in the eyes work, the simulations. It was all about minute images the eyes create. That was the first show we did with Atonal. Images going into images, but they were moving really fast. You didn’t know they were moving, and when the image would form you would look at this huge image, it was a really interesting project. I wanted to embed that into Time Machines but didn’t make sense to do that.
It started off granular, sort of pixels I guess. It was sort of this expanse of dots, really fine dots that were flat. All of a sudden they just would appear, and then when the music got deeper they extruded and became 3D. Some of the pixels were iterating and started to run like grass and the grass would form these images and would change. I would program the iterations of some of the dots and then they would come up with these abstract images. It was all metallic, but only because they’re moving so fast. It looked like it was just popping out of the screen. Eventually the entire grass like texture became this geometry behind it which is how the physics works, and starts unfolding in 3D dimensions and makes you feel like your falling.
DM: A lot of people were commenting on how the felt like they lost their sense of balance. That was amazing, plus it was on the Atonal in the huge power station (Kraftwerk). I only got to see it vicariously.
FT: I got lost in that, it went by really fast. I was expecting it was going really slow, and then it was done.
BH: Time is a strange thing.
FT: Every time we do the show, time goes by so quickly.
DM: I know it’s insane. It’s like an hour, and it doesn’t feel like any time, but that’s the point.
BH: You’ve also played Time Machines at the Berlin Atonal?
DM: That wasn’t Time Machines, that was what became Unnatural Channels. That was the premiere even though the recorded work took a different direction. That was 2016.
FT: It feels like much longer.
DM: So we’ve been doing Time Machines AV for how long?
FT: It feels like two years, but it’s not been two years. The first one was last year.
DM: It was in Portugal.
FT: Because we’re doing Portugal this year. No, you are right. It was only one year ago.
BH: Are you going to continue working with Time Machines? Are you thinking of doing other collaborations together for different projects?
DM: I’m sure we will. We did some for my album, The Third Helix.
FT: I think if we do another project, I would probably think more about lights than the visuals, to make it more interesting or something with a different dimension.
DM: Time Machines will have its own path, it will incrementally mutate. I can’t imagine us doing lights for Time Machines, but for other things. I mean, I love strobes. I think strobes when they are done well, can take you to another level.
FT: There’s interesting ways of using strobes, I always think of ways to get out of formats that everyone else is using. Strobes are great, and very minimal use is great, but there’s so many amazing artists using strobes. So how can you create a different experience? I hate predictable situations, and I think it’s always good to challenge the mind.
DM: What was the piece? It was essential a piece for strobes at the Recombinant.
FT: That was done very well. The video had different channels, it was in color. That piece was NIL, by Ulf Langheinrich, he is a legend from Dresden. He was in this collective, Granular~Synthesis with Kurt Hentschläger. There were strobe screens, because it’s around the edges of a square. He has 16 channels and is working from this remote control. It’s the colors of the strobes that are changing and you end up seeing past those. You see waves, but there’s not really a screen, it’s inside a wall.
DM: So it’s slightly a James Turrell kind of thing, but much more kinetic.
FT: You don’t see the strobes at all.
DM: It’s like a cross between James Turrell, and the dream machine.
FT: You can’t see the strobes, you just see these flashes of light and color that’s in the form of a blurred square because the strobes are inside the wall. It looks like transparent screen, but it’s not.
DM: It’s all just the interaction of the different frequencies and colors.
FT: The colors were outstanding. Ulf Langheinrich, I did a talk with him here like five years ago. At the time he was really disagreeing with the idea of 3D, about virtuality, and how people can see in 3D now. Whereas we have always seen in 3D. I love his talk because he was basically saying what everyone else is thinking. It’s all based on immersion, so I got asked to do this talk on 3D, yet we see in 3D.
DM: That’s genius, the future is 3D.
FT: My work is a lot about 2D vectors in 3D space. Some people don’t know so much about these types of relationships with planes, and how making animation works. For me, I feel like it’s more beautiful In a sense to create 2D elements, but working in music in a 3D space. It ends up becoming 3D, but people just say because they are conscious of 3D animation in 2D elements, they would just say that’s 2D but it’s actually moving in 3D. I find all these ideas of philosophy and geometry quite interesting. It’s the same with music though, with the planes moving in space.
DM: That’s the thing, you can create really interesting psycho-acoustic effects with just two sine waves. Two simple sine waves, at close tones creating some indifference tones. With careful manipulation you can just make your brain feel like its rippling, and that’s just two sine waves.
FT: That’s the same with binaural frequencies. When you have a 5hz difference in headphones, you just have one tone, but it’s two different tones moving.
DM: It’s the same principle, close tones, but I’m not so much interested in binaural stuff. It’s great, but even in mono the sound of those two close frequencies.
FT: It’s the resonating frequencies and manipulation, the harmonics come through.
DM: So you got just the pure two tones. Each of them is generating a sum of the frequencies and the difference of frequencies. You can create a world with just two frequencies.
FT: Especially at the pitch level. What tone, wherever you’re sitting and how its moving, complete changes the pitch as well, but in a very big, sort of melodic way.
Drew and Florence have taken their Time Machines all over the world, concluding 2019 with performances in Utrecht and Brussels. Their performance at Mutek Montreal was part of the festivals A/Visions series. Dedicated to showing works that integrate audio and visual elements in unique and innovative ways, A/Visions provides a continuously inspiring and immersive atmosphere at Mutek. Taking place in Montreal where the international festival first began, Mutek brings together an wide range of artists working with digital media and electronic music.