Lasers, batteries and fire turned music and art
Around 40 art students and faculty found their seats in a nearly pitch-black theater in Old Main to attend a lecture by advanced media artist Paul DeMarinis as part of the decade old biannual Sound Culture Adventures Festival.
As someone found the lights, DeMarinis sat patiently waiting for his cue at a tiny desk in front of the stage with a laptop while four professors huddled around attempting to turn on the projector.
Sound Culture is an exposition of experimental music, sound art and other underrepresented media forms in various locations on Western’s campus and downtown Bellingham. The festival took place from April 30 to May 3 featuring four evening concerts, lectures, presentations and gallery pieces in the Performing Arts Center and Western Gallery.
DeMarinis has been making noises with wires, batteries and household appliances since the age of four.
Known as one of the first artists to use the microcomputers popular in the 1970s and 1980s as a creative tool, DeMarinis has toiled in the areas of interactive software, synthetic speech and obsolete media since the 1970s. Such contraptions include one using lasers to play distorted music from old vinyl records and projecting sound through an acetylene gas flame.
“I didn’t set out to be an artist, I just set out to do the things I was interested in,” DeMarinis said.
He has created installations, performances and public artwork throughout North America, Europe, Australia and Asia.
DeMarinis is not new to Western’s campus. In October of 2014, with help from University of Washington professor and artist Rebecca Cummins, DeMarinis created the “Lunar Drift” sculpture that is on display in the Miller Hall commons area.
After someone turned on the projector, Sebastian Mendes, professor of interdisciplinary art at Western, introduced the DeMarinis as a friend whom he had met years ago and was grateful to have back at Western.
DeMarinis started his presentation with images from one of his major installations made by using scans of phonograph records. The work, titled “The Edison Effect,” was a combination of visuals and sounds. DeMarinis said he got the idea around 1989 when CD players were becoming popular and people began throwing all of their old records and record players away. He realized he could do the same thing a CD player did to a CD with just a laser and a vinyl record.
After playing some videos of past presentations, the settings for DeMarinis’ pieces are like something out of Stanley Kurbick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” peculiar placement and ambient noise give one the feeling of walking into another dimension.
DeMarinis has noticed his influences to exist among the avant-garde artists like John Cage and Marcel Duchamp.
When describing his creative process, Demarinis said he takes a very long-term approach to things.
“I have things kicking around and ideas,” DeMarinis said. “They’ve been around for decades and sometimes they come from things I’ve seen or noticed and sometimes they just come from sheer orneriness.”
The next step is making the ideas work. “I do two kinds of research,” DeMarinis said.
“One is researching literature, reading old physics books, and then trying stuff out in the studio to see if it works.”
By work DeMarinis does not just mean physically, but also technically and aesthetically. DeMarinis described a piece he’s been working on for 15 years that he has not been able to make work yet.
“I’ve got it on the shelf, and some days you get one wonderful day when everything works, and I work on it on those days.”
This knowledge is not something that is acquired overnight. “I go to the parts of the library that no one goes to,” DeMarinis said.
With his expansive knowledge in both art and science, his presentation brings up the question of art in education in this day and age. The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics program style is a fairly new approach to education that many schools are adapting these days, leaving funding for arts education on the floor of many budget cutting rooms.
According to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 1.5 million elementary school students are without music and nearly 4 million without the visual arts.
“By overemphasizing math and technology over the humanities and arts, schools are making a generation of people who will grow up to informed only by the media machine,” DeMarinis said. “While these are not without value, they are very tightly controlled and tend to separate rather than unite people.”
As for advice to aspiring young artists: “Don’t neglect to do the things you’re interested in,” DeMarinis said. “It doesn’t mean you’re not going to have to do things you aren’t interested in to make a living, but don’t neglect to do things you are interested in, that’s all.”