Ambience, Rhythm and The Digital

Exhibition essay
Written for Shift, solo exhibition of Chris Denaro
Metro Arts Main Gallery, 15 Oct - 1 Nov 2008

Ambience is all-around. Something to get lost in, as we relocate our bearings… Some ambient works achieve this by completely enveloping our bodies within our surroundings: ambient forms of visual, sonic and architectural installation. But equally so, other ambient works, including those of Chris Denaro, create an ambience within the contained space of framed formats: the (usually rectilinear) still image of painting and photography, the moving image of video, film and computer screen, and the work of music, with its beginning and end, encountered on stage or through speakers. 

The history of framed ambient fields, traceable in both avant-garde and commercial creative practice since the industrial revolution, is a history subject to the three great expanses of our sensorial world – wilderness, cityscape and abstraction. This history includesambient music (a term coined by Brian Eno in the 1970s which brought ambience into popular discourse, but as a genre going back at least to Eric Satie’s day-long loop of piano music in 1890s, and the Furniture Music and Musak Corporation from the 1920s),ambient painting (going back at least to William Turner’s late landscapes around the 1840s), ambient photography (going back at least to the earliest aerial photograph by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon in the late 1850s over the French landscape), and ambient video(going back at least to the early 1900s evident in some of the Visual Music film program shown recently at Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane). 

In all these ambient works, internal form heads towards an ambient-ground which disarms commonplace figure-ground or background-foreground relationships. Rosalind Krauss’ thinking about modernist painting in The Optical Unconsious (1993) helps chart the possibilities for such ambient-grounds (my term, not hers). A careful reading of Chapter One reveals four ways in which ambient-grounds were developed in modernism: the monochrome (one thing blanketed all-around – think Kazimir Malevich), the all-over (many similar things splattered all-around – think Jackson Pollock), the mise-en-abyme (one thing infinitely nested within itself, like a hall of mirrors – think MC Esher) and the grid (a lattice or unit that repeats itself in all directions – think Agnes Martin). In music, we could likewise think of the drone, extreme noise, echo chamber and repeated pulse. Of course, some works combine these four possibilities; the squares and rectangles of Piet Mondrian or Bridget Riley’s Op Art hover between mise-en-abyme and grid, whilst Robert Ryman’s messy monochromes built up of individuated blobs hover between the all-over and monochrome. 

Krauss’ four-part schema can be taken further, by locating two techniques of assemblage which establish radically different ambient rhythms. The space of mise-en-abyme and grid involves discrete bits and pieces repeated to form staccato tessellations. On the other hand, the space of all-over and monochrome involves smudges and blobs blurred to form legato undulations. These two ambient rhythms are contrasted in the music of the American minimalists: Steve Reich and Terry Riley’s quaver-note riffs strung out in pulsating layers (staccato), compared to La Monte Young and Tony Conrad’s slowly morphing drones (legato).

Let’s then consider Chris Denaro’s work exhibited as part of his 2008 Metro Arts residency. We witness here a practice of ambient image-making, using both moving and still formats, that draws on the contemporary city in all its scales both intimate and expansive: floor boards, windows, road markings, building facades, cityscapes. The two rhythms of ambient work – the repeated staccato and blurred legato – are at play here and in many respects Denaro is diving deep into ambient vernaculars and techniques developed last century. It is no wonder that among his stated influences are visual artist MC Esher, Russian constructivist Ilya Chashnik and experimental film-makers Norman McLaren and Len Lye, who were all active in the early twentieth century.

Denaro however is working digitally, using digital animation, image-editing and presentation media of the day, and this makes a difference. The difference is in the rhythms. And the way these rhythms course through an image, across the print or screen, and through our eyes wide open and inner-body-space. In short, the rhythms of digital ambience – well, at least in the hands of expert and nuanced practitioners – can be much tighter than work made by pre-digital means of the hand and the machine. In the realm of digital production, the repetitions are for all intents and purposes exact, which provides a crystalline atmosphere. And the smudges are tighter too. The smear is taut, producing not a crystalline but more a liquid crystal effect. Granted, it’s a subtle thing, which requires a fine-grain attention open to the articulation of the rhythms. Try to stare down these images and you’ll get caught in their pristine lattice.

This tightening of the rhythms in contemporary digital ambient work lends a fresh edge to the long history of ambient creative work – expressed in the work of Denaro and other practitioners who are ‘digital natives’ of the world of CGI, Photoshop, plasma screens, 9600 dpi ink jets, 3D gaming engines, web colour, HD TV and the like. Compare, for instance, Denaro’s cut-ups of city buildings to the photographic documentation of building cuts by the American site-specific artist Gordon Matta-Clark. Or Denaro’s smudge fields with the abstract-figurative blurs of German painter Gerhard Richter. Or the flicker of Denaro’s films with early concrete films by musician and film-maker Tony Conrad. While we think of ambience as an all-over, atmospheric, wafting spread, this doesn’t mean that it cannot also be precise and pristine. The precision of digitised ambient rhythm.