Byron Perry’s first solo work Obscura opens at Carriageworks this month, October 14-18. We sat down with Byron to talk about the inspiration for the work and his fascination with the phenomena of the camera obscura. If you’re unsure what a camera obscura is – here’s a good article on National Geographic.
From your experience and research, what do you find most interesting and exciting about a camera obscura?
I challenge anyone to not be amazed the first time they experience a camera obscura, it really is a quite a magical experience. I remember being quite obsessed with light for days and weeks after my first encounter with a camera obscura. The realisation that the very air around me was in every moment thick with these criss-crossing streams of coloured light all passing through the same space and not affecting, distorting or blocking each other. Each millimetre of space around me was literally an intersection of billons of trajectories. The light bouncing off and radiating out from every miniscule detail of each and every object, animal and plant in a million different directions. The detail of the image in a camera obscura also has to be seen to be believed. We are so used to projections being made up of pixels that the level of detail in an obscura just seems incredible.
Obscuras are associated with some of the greatest shifts or discoveries in consciousness and in visual art from the paleolithic cave paintings to the sudden and incredible leaps forward in the technical ability to capture representations of daily life using oil paint, to pin hole cameras and of course film cameras.
A camera obscura is one of the only devices that allow us, without too much specialised equipment, to tap into the architecture of one of our senses. It can show us the simplicity and beauty of how we perceive and that awareness can in turn change the way we then perceive. In my opinion it’s one of the most fundamentally amazing natural phenomena you can ever experience. It has been implemented and exploited by almost every species of animal on the planet and in such a limitless variety of ways. It has been harnessed and embraced by humans in such fundamental ways and seems, with the benefit of hindsight to be linked with many of the great shifts in our perception of ourselves, and our understanding of perception itself. The mechanics of it predate our species, our planet and our solar system it is a fundamental part of the structure of the universe and wherever we might eventually find other sighted life in the universe you can be sure this phenomenon will be in use there also.
Obscura is clearly a site-specific work, can you tell us about your relationship to the building/space, and the inspiration behind the work?
This work really only exists because of a series of chance occurrences within and with the Carriageworks building. The original old wooden doors that sit of the side of Track 8 in Carriageworks must once have had a lock or a handle or something similar removed. This left a small circular hole through the door about the size of a 20 cent piece. When the building was refurbished and converted into its present form a slightly opaque sliding glass security door was fitted on the inside of the original wooden door. When this glass door is down, the outside wooden door is closed and the lights in Track 8 turned off then the conditions are just right and an obscura forms. The light bouncing off the concrete, brick and steel of the building opposite Carriageworks is throttled through that 20 cent piece size hole and projects a football sized apparition of the outside scene onto the frosted glass door, albeit upside down. I first happened upon this little happy accident when rehearsing in Track 8 in 2008 and had a little personal epiphany. It has been bouncing around in my head ever since that moment until 2013 when I decided to pursue it as the catalyst for a movement piece.
What is the process for constructing a large-scale camera obscura at Carriageworks?
This has been quite a process! A lot of Google searches involving terms like, light, obscura, lens, diopter, iris etc. A lot of trial and error, some model building, some black plastic on the windows of my study at home. I am working with the fabulous designer Michael Hankin and we both felt that considering the provenance of the idea and its connection with the Carriageworks building, that the obscura we construct should be physically connected to Carriageworks. One of the main issues was making sure we extend the construction far enough away from the building so that the shadows cast by the building don’t work against the obscura. The other difficult thing is trying to construct what is essentially a rather large structure that is robust enough to last many weeks outside in the elements on a tight budget.
How is the sound design interwoven into the work?
My idea for the audio component of the piece was to try to find a way to carry through the same sort of concept that we were looking at with the light. So, finding a way to harness the environmental sound that exists in and around where the obscura is to be constructed. Pickups and microphones will grab electromagnetic pulses from the architecture and electrics contained within the nearby building of Carriageworks and the sounds of the natural environment around it. These ‘live’ streams will form the palette from which the unique soundscape is constructed for each performance, with the raw audio being focused and edited in a similar fashion to the natural light. The sound designer Luke Smiles is looking at making use of a very large number of small speakers laid out in a dense array around the space. This will allow us to combine multiple streams of live audio without mixing or blending them and will allow us to localize sound within the space in a way that is impossible when using a more traditional theatre PA setup.
Through the combined use of these elements, what is the experience the audience will encounter with Obscura?
I tend to construct work intuitively by responding to the parameters, rules or situation I set for myself. Looking back at other work of mine it seems like I like trying to end game myself. It’s like a small malevolent part of me delights in watching myself wriggle and contort, both physically and intellectually to discover the ‘logic’ of the piece.
This work is about the transformative moments in between our decisions in relation to visual stimulus. I am trying to extrapolate and stretch out that brief feeling of uncertainty when you seek to look at something more deeply in order to decide exactly what it is that you are viewing. I feel like this piece is searching for the dance equivalent of the moment you look out of a train window and are not sure whether you are moving or the train next to you is. These processes of interpretation and unconscious decision-making interest me. Our visual seems on one hand so absolute and so concrete and it’s ridiculously and needlessly convoluted and for the most part very easily fooled. This is not a work about illusions or constructing a theatre of surreal imagery or anything like that, it’s much dryer, much simpler and more focussed on the body and how the audience perceives the movement of the body. I am interested in repetition and how it can change how we view things, at what point does the repetition cease to be a number of distinct repeated events and it becomes a whole again. At what point does time spent viewing begin to change the experience and our conclusions about what it is that we are viewing.
I think this work seeks to open up the space between installation and dance performance. In terms of the audience experience I imagine a hypnotic work, the audience will have to ‘settle in’ to get the most out of it. It’s very much a compositional piece that is durational in terms of the performance material and a work that is very much sacrificing itself at the altar of the natural light and live sound upon which it is based. It can really be no other way because of the nature of the lighting and sound and the variability involved. It is a work that will be limited in terms of the creation of pre-defined theatrical states or moments that are orchestrated and choreographed in advance. It is all beyond our control, the planet turns, the lighting changes, the clouds roll in and the train rumbles past. These things happen in their own time and the dance between these natural elements and man made objects is the choreography that my movement will seek to navigate. Normally when you are making a work you operate in this way where you control everything, the space, the lighting, the sound, even the temperature. When making in a traditional theatre setting we have this wealth of experience to draw from, each person has a history of making work and collaborating on work and of problem solving based on similar experiences. This piece feels like it puts us all back to square one, it is both literally and metaphorically ‘a dance with the environment’.
Image: Byron Perry working on the build of the large-scale camera obscura at Carriageworks.