SCREEN QUEST: LABYRINTHS – THE FILMS OF PETER BURR at Edge of Frame 2018

RADIANT CIRCUS went to see LABYRINTHS – THE FILMS OF PETER BURR + Q&A with the artist at Edge of Frame Weekend (03 MAR 2018, Barbican). Here’s our writeup.

RADIANT CIRCUS SCREEN QUEST - PATTERN LANGUAGE (2017, Peter Burr) screened at Barbican (03 MAR).
PATTERN LANGUAGE (2017, Peter Burr) screened at Barbican (03 MAR).

“THIS IS A BEAUTIFUL AND EVIL PLACE”

Even though there are more screens on this planet than ever in our history, the economies of moving picture production – and that includes the blockbuster obsessed art world – seem to be muscling out smaller scale, more challenging works. Everywhere beyond the mainstream multiplex, artists are struggling to get their work paid for, distributed and exhibited. It’s therefore refreshing to hear Brooklyn-based digital artist Peter Burr – at the first UK retrospective of his work – speak about how he is resolving the challenging economies of experimental animation, one collaborative frame at a time.

His expansive talk is full of examples from his early career performing with arts collectives out of caravans funded by the state, to kickstarter campaigns to commission video “disruptions” for his multi-media performances and the “hiring” of friends, games designers and programmers to co-create more recent grant-funded work. Ok, so you might only own two pairs of shoes and risk “being a bum” all your life, but people really do get paid for the value they co-create in his liminal universe.

This experimental economy is also, and perhaps most importantly to Burr, about “being nice to people and expecting that back”. Throughout his two presentations at the Edge Of Frame Weekend 2018 (one at BFI, the other at Barbican), he consistently gives good credit to his many collaborators. A more polite and appreciative artist – about his hosts, his collaborators, his educators – is a hard find. Which makes the absolute digital assault of his artwork even more enthralling, as if these Jekyll and Hyde personas are being (barely) mediated by a spasming Atari motherboard.

“THE INTESTINES ARE VERY EMOTIONALLY SENSITIVE, LIKE A SECOND BRAIN”

Burr’s animations demand – at least in the Barbican’s most cinematic of set ups – that you be baptised in pure white light so that every pore can absorb his maximalist explosion of digital detail. These are extraordinary, expansive artworks where, as Q&A enabler Dr Lilly Husbands put it, “The entire screen is alive… every single pixel is what is actually operating… in every scene of your work, every frame.”

As more and more of our moving image experiences are handheld, private affairs, Burr gives good caution: “The internet is such a terrible way to look at this work because of contemporary compression codecs, it adds all this blur and fuzz that fucks up that visceral response we get.” He might as well be talking about orchestral classical music or live theatre (you know, where you’re actually in the same room as the cast…). These things matter more when they are in your face and you can feel them in your gut (or lower…).

Given our fondness of showmanship and spectacle, we’re delighted to say, for Burr, the extreme bright lights don’t go far enough: “I would have loved to have a better subwoofer… if we could have had like transducers under all the chairs…” Coming after earlier explanation of his most recent installation PATTERN LANGUAGE – commissioned for a residency at the 3-Legged Dog in Lower Manhattan – where “the subs were underneath you so it really gave you an anal seizure, it was really in your body”, you could almost feel the audience’s sphincteral spasms of fearful expectation.

“AS I CAME, I IMAGINED MY FEATURES SWIRLING IN AN EXCRUCIATING, INFLATING SOUP”

Throughout the five animations that made up his Barbican programme, Burr’s pixel murmuration has an almost shamanistic effect. What initially appears aggressive and alienating swiftly becomes soothing, immersive and somewhat hypnotic, embracing a lineage that reaches back through analogue antecedents such as legendary celluloid artist Jordan Belson.

Works ranging from ALONE WITH THE MOON (2012) to PATTERN IMAGE (2017) conjure a futuristic space of, as the programme notes put it, “uncharted realms, vast architectural structures and post apocalyptic environments hovering on the boundary between abstraction and figuration, ready to dissolve into pure pattern and rhythm at any point”.

If you’ve seen John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS and it’s voice from the future hot-wired into the dreams of the protagonists, you’ll already know something about how these messages channel into your brain.

RADIANT CIRCUS SCREEN QUEST - SPECIAL EFFECT (2014, Peter Burr) screened at Barbican (03 MAR).
SPECIAL EFFECT (2014, Peter Burr) screened at Barbican (03 MAR).

“LIKE ASTRONAUTS SEALED UP IN GOD’S CLEAN AIR”

Asked by Husbands about the development of his aesthetic, Burr speaks about his fine art education and the inspiration of one teacher in particular. “I didn’t study animation formally but there was a professor there who animated by the name of James Duesing – his work is amazing.” Duesing gave Burr the idea that:

“One of the great things that animation does – or compositing or anything in this realm of motion graphics – we’re not bound when putting films together to leveraging the hard cut… we’re also not bound to a single take because those frames are already fluid, right?”

What this gives us in Burr’s films are endlessly shifting and swirling environments where scenes transition into each other, a morphing vortex of mooréd patterns, blending both 8-bit pixels as well as (deliberately stretched-to-breaking point) 3D graphics. This involves “editing up or editing out” from their “genesis forms” pieces originally made for installation or performance. For example, SPECIAL EFFECT was originally performed by Burr as a live TV station given extra dimensional support from lasers and live music as well as, we expect, prolapse-inducing base levels…

But it isn’t just our rear ends that are in danger. This was bright and strobing light to an almost extreme extent. Curator and godfather of all things Edge of Frame, Edwin Rostron gave good warning with his cautionary opening salvos: “If you have light sensitivities, this really isn’t the programme for you.”

This full-on optical assault is important to Burr as his work explores and exploits fundamental flaws in our biology: “optical phenomena – where our bodies maybe malfunction to a certain degree, and we really notice the difference between the external world and the internal world”. He sees analogies between the human body and the equipment used to display and project his digital works as if human and machine are similar technologies wired into the same, permanently glitching, grid: “It’s an interesting way to dance between our own biological aberrations and those of the projector.”

“WE DIDN”T NOTICE THE ANTS AT FIRST – THEIR STILLNESS”

We were most taken by SPECIAL EFFECT, a work that is both “a response to maybe me doing too much Freudian therapy but also it was trying to honour what this film STALKER by Andrei Tarkovsky was about to me…” Resisting a simple formalist response – Burr admits he is not the right artist to do this, making neither 35 nor 16mm films – the work channels an interior realm through a mixture of digital animations and live action footage.

Echoing the route Tarkovsky travelled to shoot his film – “[he] went into these abandoned zones of exclusion, these industrial sites to shoot essentially this translation of this pulpy science fiction story…” – Burr shot live action footage in New York’s “Borscht Belt”, a place of abandoned resorts that also once gave rise to DIRTY DANCING.

Speaking of his origins as a painter where “you make a mark and the next mark responds to that”, the weird, barely dimensional characters we meet in the zone “emerged out of that shit environment, this abandoned, decayed environment as well as out of this shit software.”

SPECIAL EFFECT features a digital soup of physics simulations pushed to breaking point, alpha patterns and green screens – more familiar to digital artists as “signifiers of voids” – and research into historic Russian theatre costume. The result is “this mess of a human – or three humans – that represent the different characters in STALKER….and myself if you want to get Freudian”.

“WE WERE IN THE PRESENCE OF AN ENDURING ENDLESSNESS”

Speaking about his next work, DIRT SCRAPER – another collaborative piece in  development with John Also Bennett that is being built in computer game engine Unity – Burr again draws on his background as a fine artist:

“This is in part why I am really interested in moving to using game engines so those images are actually being drawn directly to the screen through the graphics processor… I get really excited about removing as much translation as possible… as a digital artist it’s like a way of working directly on the surface that’s being projected.”

Like one of the artist’s own creatures, we’ve encountered a fascinating chimera in Peter Burr, part Cecil B. DeMille and part William Castle. A master digital artist at the forefront of animation committed to filling every corner of every frame with glorious detail whilst seeking pure physical sensation as an integral part of the public performance of his works.

In his world of “everything all of the time”, we want more.

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All quotes: Peter Burr in conversation with Dr Lilly Husbands (Middlesex University), as part of the Edge Of Frame Weekend (Barbican Centre, 03 MAR 2018)

ALL CAPS subheadings quoted from: Porpentine.

Featured image: THE MESS (2016, Peter Burr).

Radiant Circus