Artists Cory Metcalf and David Stout, who collaborate under the moniker NoiseFold, are best-known for their new media performance art pieces. They bring sound waves and abstract imagery into rhythm across digital landscapes, utilizing generative software to act as the virtual conductors of a cross-sensory symphony. If you’re scratching your head, browse David’s Vimeo for a bit and prepare to be amazed.
Because NoiseFold’s oeuvre exists primarily on the digital plane, they were puzzled at first by a special invitation from Seattle’s legendary Pilchuck Glass School. Glass master Dale Chihuly and his army of artists wanted Cory and David to collaborate with them in a two-week artist residency. In the interview and video below, NoiseFold talks about finding a way to translate digital marvels into physical sculptures. Three bodies of work they created there, Metamorph, Swarm Caste and Vestiges, are on view at form & concept through Saturday, July 22.
How did you first strike up your collaboration as NoiseFold?
David: I was awarded a fellowship at Harvest Works in New York City to develop a piece that was an artificial ecosystem of sorts. We were working with live, 3D generation of forms. That is really where the NoiseFold collaboration was born. Once we realized that this method of working with generative images in real time had amazing possibilities for a performance system. We launched Noisefold immediately coming out of that installation.
How did you come up with the name NoiseFold?
David: The name was kind of effortless. There was a certain literalness to the idea that we were working with signal and noise. We were also working with visual forms that we could fold in virtual space, almost like origami. So there was that literal aspect. Also, I like the word fold because a group can be referred to as a fold.
We were interested in the term noise as a kind of field of possibilities. We often think of noise as a disruption but, in fact, noise is infused in everything we do. Our heartbeats create noise.
Cory: We were also looking at what one person considers music and what one person considers noise. There’s always a grey area where something ceases to be musical, and becomes “sound” or “noise.” We wanted to play with that edge where you have discernible form — something that’s really familiar — and where it starts to fall apart and it stops making sense to the ears.
The same thing happens with the visual vocabulary of NoiseFold. The moment that you attach that significance to a certain form, where it starts to represent something in the real world, often it drifts into a “noisier” place again.
Viewers have often reported moments of sensory overload after watching your performances. Could you talk about that?
Cory: There’s a very intense experience often, particularly in our earlier work, of having these things feel like they’re speaking to you or coming at you. It’s very hard to trivialize the forms that you’re seeing, because they seem to be very viscerally active and alive. That, coupled with the forms being almost familiar and yet not quite, many people have reported to us that it can be exhausting to watch our work. This includes fans who come to most of our shows. Your brain is constantly struggling to make sense of what you’re seeing. It’s almost something, but you can’t quite pinpoint what it is.
We’ve had people say things like, for the first 20 minutes they were just trying to understand what they were seeing. And then they had almost a total shutdown of that part of their brain, that kind of language center that’s trying to make sense of things. I think for a lot of people, if it doesn’t shut down, it’s just exhausting. Because you’re just constantly struggling to keep up with what you’re experiencing.
Do you ever experience that as you’re creating the work?
David: Only because we will do this for 10 to 20 hours a day, and then we feel it. Most of the time, I just get lost in the visual wonder of it all. So it doesn’t really exhaust me. We’ve been playing with this thing lately, where we’re creating an image space that alludes to some phenomenon in the real world, whether it’s biomorphic or architectural, macrocosmic or microcosmic. You recognize that you think you recognize it, and then it suddenly, fleetingly becomes something else. We’re constantly asking the audience to fill in the missing space between abstraction and representation.
As the work has evolved, we’ve diversified easily into doing a lot of different kinds of things. Sometimes it’s more musical, sometimes it’s more cinematic. We’ve also gotten into a lot more quiet spaces. We’re willing to explore more empty moments. It’s not quite the same kind of space as when we first began.
When you’re working with generative forms, is it difficult to relinquish control over how the imagery is going to appear?
Cory: Early on in the system we would purposefully build in autonomy of the system. We’d give the system a little bit of a mind of its own. Whatever we performed we’re having to make decisions that change, and we never have complete control over the system. That was always by design. I think that’s one of the things that excites us more than it holds us back or frustrates us.
We’ve spent an enormous amount of time just kind of reigning our system in. A lot of times we start out by developing a technique, and that technique in and of itself might be extremely chaotic. But we always have a large number of parameters that we can fine-tune and explore. We seek out these sweet spots and kind of unfold vast areas of fruitful materials. From here, our approach is often to make sure we don’t confine it too much.
Did you find connections between your performance art and the work you were doing at Pilchuck Glass School?
David: There’s an exciting challenge to that virtual, cinematic space, where some aspect of what you’re doing is sort of ephemeral. It’s never repeated in exactly the same way. It can be more liberating than when we’re making objects, like the work we were doing at Pilchuck. When you’re making sculptures, it feels like there’s more pressure to be perfect in that realm than there is in the performative realm. On the other hand, one thing we discovered at the residency is that glass making is performance.
Cory: It has a lot of the same time constraints that real-time performance has. You can’t infinitely work the material. There’s many parts of the process where you can’t even slow down, and if you do it completely changes the potential for the rest of the process. So it has the same level of immediacy. And it has, in its own way, the same level of imperfection.
How did you end up at Pilchuck?
David: We were part of an exhibit at the Cornish College of the Arts, at the end of 2014. The director of the Pilchuck Glass School saw what we were doing and invited us to the residency program shortly thereafter. It wasn’t something that we would’ve thought of on our own. It was an intriguing idea.
Pilchuck is considered among the very top glass schools in the world. It was founded by Dale Chihuly. It has a long tradition. The students that go there are often very accomplished professionals. And the current director is very interested in digital media artists and conceptual artists.
Did you plan what you were going to do during the residency?
Cory: We went there thinking very digitally. We were going to take a number of our forms and do some 3D printing of molds to create cast glass forms.
David: When we got there, we were told that we had eight solid days with two of Dale Chihuly’s glass blowers. So we changed gears instantly, because that was really exciting. We used the software that we’d developed to generate novel forms, and then chose various forms. In the case of the piece that we’re showing there, the Metamorph series, that is actually a transformation between one shape and another. We set out to recreate different parts of the transformation in glass.
The glass artists had never done anything like this before and it turned out to be very effective. When Chihuly is making work, he essentially sits at a table and draws something in charcoal, and shows it to the gaffers, as they’re called, and they blow it. We were doing something very similar except we were showing them a 3D model that they could rotate in space, and look at two different views simultaneously. We could get very technical about how we were realizing the forms.
Cory: Each piece in Metamorph can stand on its own, but really it’s a series of 8 pieces that make a transition from the sphere into this other double cone form. It’s really intended to be viewed so you can actually see the transition from one state to the next. And so the 8 pieces together make up the whole of this time based process that you see in this transformation.
You’re accustomed to collaborating with each other. How did you feel about the process of bringing in these glass artists as collaborators?
Cory: It was one of the best collaborations that I think both of us have ever experienced. It was very interesting to see how collaboration works in a hot shop, a glass space, because it’s this incredible level of non-verbal communication. It’s almost like watching people dance with—
David: Flaming hot substances.
Cory: It was very interesting to see the degree to which it was both very challenging and very possible to realize the forms that we presented to these guys.
form & concept explores the boundaries of perceived distinctions between art, craft and design. How do you connect with that mission?
David: I would say it really resonates with us after our experience at Pilchuck. It was eye-opening to be there among these craftspeople who are involved in the contemporary art world, but also the production glass world or design world. The distinctions between those worlds start to break down a little bit, and the common meeting place is the joy of the craft.
I think that’s a boundary that’s going to fall. These things kind of ebb and flow. It goes along with this old media versus new media question. People want something tangible along with their virtual experience.
Cory: The opportunity for new media artists, traditional artists and production environments to merge together is just so obvious. Creating artificial boundaries between those worlds is not the right thing to do at this juncture. I think it’s an important moment to start breaking those boundaries in the art world as much as possible.
David: We did similar things working with musicians, because we’ve done a number of projects where we’re working with more traditionally trained, classical musicians, even though the music itself was more experimental. The glass work fits completely within that same kind of paradigm.