Marcus Fischer, an internationally renowned ambient musician and sound artist, will be guest teaching for Kinetic Imaging this semester (Spring 2021). Fischer was recently featured with 2 installations and a performance in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. He has released CDs for the 12k label and elsewhere. In 2020, Marcus Fischer was a visiting artist for KI, giving a talk and performance at VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art and then doing class visits. This semester, Marcus will be with us, teaching virtually from his studio in Portland, Oregon. Kinetic Imaging wanted to introduce Marcus with a recent interview conducted by KI MFA student, Brook Vann.
Brook: Could you talk a little bit about your background? I know your mom is from the Philippines and your dad is Swiss. Does this relate to the use of Swiss technology in your practice too? Could you comment on how that relates to what art or the process of creation means to you?
Marcus: Yeah being a first generation American, I feel like having that mixed cultural background between my mom and my dad is an important part of my identity but also just the two of them as individuals. My mom, she was a fashion designer before I was born and when I was little, and throughout my life had a kind of creative mindset. My dad had a very engineering background, so I feel like somewhere between the two of them is sort of like where my aesthetics come into play. Just like the Swiss technology that you are referencing, the Nagra machines, when I first happened upon them I did not know that they were Swiss, but I was totally drawn to them for some reason. It was funny when I found out that they were also Swiss, which totally made sense–especially because the Swiss have this history of watchmaking and all kinds of things. When you open up one of those machines (Nagra) it is a beautifully laid out device that keeps going. You know those machines that I use are from the 1960s and 1970s and are still plugging away. They just don’t make them like that anymore. I think that whole curiosity about the way things work really lends itself to my artistic practice. A lot of it is about revealing what it is that is making the sound or how things interact.
Brook: How do you think about sound? Do you think about sound through listening, image, color, memory, notation, or drawing.
Marcus: Yeah definitely many of those. I think of sound as being multifaceted. There are different aspects that interest me, one is the physical aspect of sound creation and manipulation, another is composition, which I think of very much in terms of photography: you have a foreground, a background, and you have areas that are in focus and areas that are out of focus. I especially like the out of focus areas because your mind fills in the blanks where you are not sure what you are seeing or hear what you are hearing, but your mind just fills that in with whatever your point of reference is for that. You know some people might see a blurry surface and it looks like the surface to one or ice to another or a landscape. I feel like you can do that with sound as well, if you have some well defined areas and some areas of ambiguity your brain just fills in the gaps between those areas in order to make sense of it. And that is something that is really interesting to me because each person brings their own experience to it.
Brook: Do you think that there is a potential connection between the creation of something sonic in juxtaposition to something photographic or visual? I know you have previously had a screen printing shop in Olympia.
Marcus: I feel like you can apply principles of design to principles of composition or sound arranging. Or anything like that, as you are seeking balance. You can talk about contrasting colors or different emotions that colors or sound bring out. I feel like in my arranging in a digital workspace I am sometimes doing it by visual layout before I am even listening to what it is. Arranging clips of sound in space in a visual way then hitting play later, and seeing the way they align. Just between those two disciplines, there is definitely a relationship that you can begin at a certain point, to speak the same language when you are relating the audio to the visual. And I think that that is often where interdisciplinary connections sometimes fall apart when you cannot speak the same language in relating two different things.
Brook: I am curious to hear more about the dust breeding project (http://www.dustbreeding.com – a project where Marcus did one creative thing a day as an experiment in productivity and time) I am wondering what you found or what were things that were good/challenging about it?
Marcus: I was coming off of a year where I was feeling really not productive and I wasn’t feeling connected to like my artistic self. I was caught up in work and other kinds of things that just took me away from the time that I used to have to be creative, so I decided to do a thing a day for a year and document it. I kind of left it open, it could be a photo walk, it could be drawing, music, or whatever but just that act of making time in your day to be open to creativity. I was not certain at any point that I would make it the entire year and it was challenging at certain points; however what I did find throughout that process is, I could go from you know doing any task to jumping into a more creative mindset much quicker than previously. Previous to this, I would find an hour to work on something and I’d go down to my studio and spend the first 20 minutes just rearranging things or getting ready to start working on something. But I felt like after I was a couple months into dust breeding, I could just pick something up and just start working no matter what the conditions were, in any place, even just walking to the store I’d have my eyes open for interesting patterns or colors. I think that a lot of the doubt that I had as far as is this a worthwhile thing to be doing or do I have time in my day to do this just went away. It felt like priming your brain for being open to creative possibilities much quicker, and I think that that’s an important lesson that I took away from it. I tell people you know, just to keep making you don’t need to share everything that you make, but just keep doing it because if you just don’t keep your habits up then you will get rusty. For example, I used to play drums all the time and if I stopped playing drums even for a few days all of a sudden I couldn’t do it anymore. I think it’s the same muscle memory with your creative brain, just having regular practice working on things is super helpful.
Brook: I know that you wear many hats as a photographer, a father, a sound artist, among other things, how do you balance keeping up a creative practice with other parts of like a day job, having children, ect?
Marcus: yeah I feel like I’m constantly searching for balance and I feel like things come in phases. Sometimes I’m much more into visual, and sometimes I’m much more into music or sound and it’s about following those tendencies, I’m not very good at chasing things down, but when opportunities come I just take that as a cue to follow. For a long time it was just me not sleeping very much, so when the family would go to bed that’s when I would start working on projects. Being freelance working in the photo industry, sometimes I may have a day off to work on some things, but I also might be stuck on another project or preparing for a shoot, which makes it impossible to plan for the future. I am just constantly just jumping from one thing to the next, which doesn’t feel long-term sustainable but I’ve been at it for more than a decade now. The hardest part I think is it’s easy to commit to projects but it’s much harder to follow through you know when life happens.
Brook: What goes into the process of thinking about a new piece in terms of either performance, sound or visual?
Marcus: In thinking about a new project, I think of a concept or a set of words, and other times it’s a sound palette. For graphic projects (photo or design), usually there’s a reason for it whether it’s shooting something that could be an album cover or poster, then there’s a period of experimentation, and finally the images are processed. I feel that both of these processes for making sound and graphic projects are similar in terms of capturing, experimenting, and editing. However, that being said, sometimes happy accidents wind up yielding the best results. It’s like improvisation, you’re hoping for something unexpected to happen that’s better than what you brought in the beginning. I have a friend who was involved in improv comedy and talked about how in improv comedy there’s this whole concept of “yes and”, so if somebody comes up with an idea and goes down a certain path — you don’t say no or try to force your ideas to make it go the way that you’re expecting it to go. Instead you agree and add something to it. I think that that’s kind of true with life too, you’re not just constantly trying to fight and control things, as you might wind up wasting all your energy doing that; meanwhile there are some beautiful things that could have happened that you’ve closed yourself off to. It’s that kind of mindset of being open, just like in improvised live music, listening and adding what you can to it. I think that’s where you want to get to and hopefully in the end like it’s better than the sum of its parts.
I think that you can do that on your own too, like leaving certain things open for experimentation and following where things go rather than just shutting it down when it doesn’t meet your expectations.
Brook: How do you come to the found objects and decide to record with them?
Marcus: Sometimes it’s about just the form that it takes, or listening to the textures or what’s possible. But overall, I think it just goes back to keeping your eyes and ears open looking for possibilities. I was in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for a festival last year, and went to a great junk shop, called Rose’s furniture and auction. I was looking for something to use as tape guides for tape loops and there were these ceramic tubes. I think they’re meant as a part used in wiring electricity, but they’re perfect for tape guides, they fit mic clips, and make a nice shiny sound. I probably would have never found them if I was not on the prairies of Saskatchewan. Often, these things are multi purpose, as a memory attached to a place and maybe have another quality like aesthetically, texturally, or melodically interesting. I try to just always keep my eyes peeled for that stuff, which is how the Multiples installation came about. My wife had found these seed pods, which wound up in that installation. The pods aesthetically had an interesting look and a really nice texture to them, so they caught my eye. Recently I’ve been going on walks trying to find more of those trees, and I’ve found three different ones in my neighborhood.The original ones were found on the other side of town.
Brook: What’s catching your interest now?
Marcus: I have a weird polaroid camera that is modified to take macro pictures, I think it was made so dentists could take pictures of teeth. The focal plane is very close and so at the beginning of the pandemic when spring was beginning, I was taking a lot of macro polaroids of plants that were coming up or leaves changing. Lately the thing that’s been catching my interest is an mpc 1000 sampler that I found years ago. It’s a drum machine I got at a pawn shop years ago with a couple broken buttons that I fixed. I didn’t really learn how to use it until the last month. I dug it out and started teaching myself how to actually use it, which has been kind of rewarding, especially just to be able to bang out drums or take little samples from things. I am realizing all of these ways to make more experimental or ambient sounds. I like finding things and sort of learning to use them and then bending it to how I would rather use it. I’ve been enjoying it– it’s totally outdated but really satisfying in a weird way and has a kind of gritty sound quality.