Intro: One to Hold, One to Echo: a Performance in Glass, Video, and Music
My work as an artist is to distill the noise of the world into meaningful, compelling experiences. For me, art making is truly a practice, a way of being that’s not about the goals of making this or that but rather about listening closely to the patterns and rhythms of being a human and crafting them into immediate, physical form. I seek out the emotional, psychological, mythological non-stuff; I try to understand the forces and structures behind those rare moments I feel connected to my surroundings. The process of making is a way for me to be honest with the world, to approach my environment with joy, curiosity, and excitement.
With that in mind, this instructable is about the process that takes me from the tiny flickers of an idea to a complete project, a live performance using projected video, generative music, and two mirrored glass bowls I made by hand. I see it less as a manual for how to do exactly what I did (though if you want to, that's so awesome – send me pictures!) and more as a virtual studio visit, an open-door invitation to my creative process.
* * *
Step 1: Forming an Idea :: Where I Was Coming From
To say this project “began” at a certain place or with a specific idea wouldn’t really be true; I’d been working with vessels for a long time. Such a rich word, “vessel.” It often means a container – a bowl, glass, vase, or bottle built to hold liquid. But a vessel can also be a ship, a vehicle that carries you from familiar territory into the unknown, a mechanism for navigating treacherous waters. A vessel might even be a medium or messenger, a carrier of information. It might even be a conduit of precious material, as in blood vessels or the vessels that connect a tree to its roots. I’m fascinated by objects that hold within them something precious, mysterious, immaterial. I even think a vessel is a nice metaphor for being human: a vessel, like a human, is an entity that has both its own mass and also the mass of all that resides within it, a thing defined in some way by what it holds and in other ways by its external characteristics.
I was researching memory as a substance; what it feels like, how it works, and what kinds of questions a study of memory might open. I had tried a few different approaches to making holders of memory: more literal ones, like a pool full of mirrors and water, and more abstract approaches, like a body of driftwood that serves as the vessel for breakup letters from the Earth to humans. I was interested in what kinds of things could carry memory in their very material – driftwood, stones, viscous liquids like mercury or glass.
Step 2: Forming an Idea :: Where I Wanted to Go
I knew I wanted to join one of these materials with video (an unstable placeholder for lived memory) and I was already deep in the process of sifting through and digitizing family videos, dating back to the 1950’s. I wanted to address my role in these videos, some of which were shot long before I was an inkling of a notion. Live performance was a way for me to create something new from these flickering VHS and Super-8 memory stand-ins, to use the stories of my own family to get at something deeper, something more visceral about the feeling of remembering. I had been working on another performance with videos and mirrors, using flexible acrylic mirrors to bend video projections in a live theater context. I felt like I wasn’t done with that aesthetic investigation, so I wanted to use some of the same elements again, and try and push my understanding a little deeper.
Step 3: Articulating the Idea :: Sketching
So I started sketching. I had four characters chasing each other around my thoughts, a group of personalities that I wanted to imbue into sculptural vessels: one to hear, one to hold, one to echo, and one to reminisce.
I was sketching, hunting for inspiration, and digging through these old family videos, a strange, sometimes compelling and sometimes tedious combination of VHS and 8mm baby footage. I was collaging video into scenes, writing code that would allow me to mix videos live, and pushing myself technically in the glass shop. I began to put the two together in a lighthearted experimental way, things as simple as holding up a glass vessel I’d made in front of a video projector.
Step 4: Articulating the Idea :: Solidifying the Form
I began to hone in on a sculptural idea, now that I had some of the initial concept in place: I knew I wanted to project video onto glass vessels, I knew I wanted them to be mirrored to really throw the projection out onto the walls and ceiling, and I knew I wanted the video itself to come from a combination of my own nature footage and my family’s video archive. I decided to start with two of the four characters: one to hold, one to echo.
It was time to start the fabrication of the two vessels. I enlisted my professor Niels Cosman to help with blowing the initial bubbles – he’s a totally amazing artist and glass guru, and he was generous enough to help me blow the forms I needed.
Step 5: Making the Idea Real :: Cutting
Once I had my two beautiful bubbles, the next step was to cut them into a rough approximation of their bowl form. To do that, I used a sintered diamond circular saw – kind of like a woodworking chop saw except that it’s constantly flooded with water and removes material by abrasion rather than cutting chips the way a blade for wood or metal might. Everything in a glass coldworking shop is soaked in water, to keep the glass from heating up and cracking, and to keep the glass dust and shards contained and out of the air. The diamond saw leaves a super sharp, super jagged, super splintery, super unfriendly edge.
Step 6: Making the Idea Real :: Shaping
Next up was the “flat lap wheel” – a big metal disc covered in water and “slurry,” a gloopy mix of grit (usually silicon carbide), water, and old glass dust. At this point, the goal was just to remove the jagged, razor-sharp edge left by the diamond saw and create a nice flat rim in its place. It’s not so hard to grind down small glass objects this way, but my bubbles were big – each one was around 18 inches in diameter and weighed between five and ten pounds. It’s easy to make mistakes with glass that big, and I did: at the end of one night’s work my arms were getting tired and I was getting impatient, and as a result I chipped out a huge chunk from the edge of the “hold” bowl. You can’t fill in or hide a chip like that, the only solution is to grind down past its deepest point – in this case a process that took most of a day.
I shaped the edges of each bowl with grinding wheels on a lathe, which (just like the diamond saw) is constantly doused with a steady stream of water. The lathe “wheels,” the things that actually spin and eat away the glass, are either metal with diamonds sintered into an outer rim or plastic with a band of metal-bonded diamond plated to the outer rim.
Step 7: Making the Idea Real :: True Grit
Once I had the shape of the edges roughly there, I had to shape the facets on the “echo” bowl and bring both vessels, as it’s called, to a full polish. What that means is repeating the same process over and over again, each time moving from a rougher grit to a finer one. Rougher grits grind away more material quickly, but they leave a rough, opaque surface. Finer grits smooth out the imperfections, but take much longer to do so since they’re removing much smaller amounts of material. Eventually, the grit gets small enough that the surface becomes transparent, setting the stage for a true optical polish. This process was especially difficult with the faceted “battuto” surface I wanted on the “echo” bowl, since each round of grit had the potential to change the geometry of the facets, either throwing the facets’ proportions off or destroying their flatness.
When glass is wet, it looks shinier, so it becomes nearly impossible to tell which areas of your object have been hit with the current level of grit. It’s important to go in even passes, covering the full surface each pass through, because if you skip a level of grit on one part but not another, that inconsistency will show up later as scratches or pitting in the polished surface. The way to tell what you’ve already ground is a highly sophisticated technique – cover the whole thing in black sharpie. When the ink’s gone, you know you’ve touched every surface with that level of grit. After the initial shaping, I used a series of increasingly finer “diamond wheels,” (thin, flat metal discs like a big vinyl record studded with diamonds) to hone and tweak the geometry of each facet while bringing the whole outer surface closer to a polish.
After many (so many) hours, the facets were done and all that remained was to smooth the transitions and polish the whole thing. I used a fine belt sander – a giant strip of rotating wet sandpaper – to smooth the transitions, and a polishing compound of water and cerium on a spinning felt wheel to make the whole surface optically transparent.
Step 8: Making the Idea Real :: Mirroring
The last step was to mirror the bowls. Mirroring is a chemical process that, truth be told, I don’t fully understand. It involves swirling together silver nitrate and a bunch of other scary chemicals in super clean glass, and requires all kinds of protective equipment (thick rubber gloves, a fume mask, dedicated waste buckets, that kind of thing). At this stage, I again had help from someone who really knew what she was doing – Yidan Zeng, a fellow student at RISD and a super cool glass artist.
It's a quick process and it was a totally gratifying departure from the endless hours of baby-step sanding and grinding and polishing. I was blown away by the result -- photos don't do justice to the glow of a thin film of pure silver.
Step 9: Crafting the Performance :: Setup and Practice
It was time to bring the vessels back to my studio, and start to bring things together – the glass, the video, the live performative elements. It took me all night to get everything working and set up, but eventually I had a keyboard controlling the video live, and three layers of projection neatly mapped onto the floor, the “echo” bowl, and the “hold” bowl respectively. I had built the whole software from scratch in the graphical programming language Max/MSP/Jitter, because I wasn’t sure what I needed yet; I wanted the flexibility to write and rewrite the vocabulary I was going to use in the performance.
Step 10: Crafting the Performance :: Sharing the Work
Finally, it was time to present the piece, as realized as it could possibly be. Now that I knew what I needed in terms of the video performance, I could move away from custom software and towards something purpose-built that would be easier to perform with, more powerful, and more efficient. I used VDMX5 (a live video or VJ software) to play, cut, stretch, and manipulate the videos with a keyboard, sent the video to a projection mapping program called MadMapper, and sent the audio to Ableton Live, which allowed me to build up a complex soundtrack in real time alongside the videos.
The software setup was crucial, but I wanted the software and gear to fall away into the immersive experience of the performance, disappear into the strange nostalgic conversation between the two vessels. To facilitate that, I turned my studio into a projection chamber, covering the walls and floor with white paper and fabric to catch the delicate reflections from the mirrored vessels. I hid my laptop and all the audio and projection gear out of sight, so the only things in the space were me, a keyboard, and the two vessels. The piece runs around ten minutes, arcing from a contemplative combination of static and nature footage through a cacophony of exclamations and uncertainty – tiny clips of my family saying things like “um” and “so” and “I dunno” – to end with a resonant crescendo of clips that deal with expectation and identity, finally disappearing into silence.