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It was the sort of oddball idea one has late at night at a club, perhaps after a certain amount of drinking. "Steve [Dye] and I were watching some friends of ours in a band, who could almost resolutely be defined as an industrial band," says Peter Conheim, "and Steve just leaned over and said, "I wonder what a band of all movie projectionists would be like.' And we just looked at each other and this bulb went off in our heads."
Ordinarily ideas like that are good for a laugh or two, and then, like most fanciful, quixotic notions, fade into oblivion. Yet Dye and Conheim were already working in sound and film collage, and were already playing in other bands -- Conheim with East Bay spoof rockers Mono Pause and Dye with his acoustic sound project the Dactyls of Phrygia. So, says Conheim, "it was an automatic idea that we'd take this work we'd already done in other disciplines and bring it to this group that marries those things." Their idea was as simple as it was strange: to use actual film in place of music, and 16mm projectors instead of instruments, casting images and sound on the eyes and ears of audiences in a grouplike format.
It took about a year for Dye to make his idea a reality: Wet Gate, which also includes filmmaker and longtime college radio programmer Owen O'Toole, delivered its first performance at the Film Arts Foundation Festival in late 1995. The response was positive, and other shows soon followed, not only at screening spaces like Artists' Television Access and Fine Arts Cinema but at music clubs like Bottom of the Hill and the Great American Music Hall, where Wet Gate has performed with Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and Fred Frith. "You might say we were fully formed when we started," says Conheim. "We had a show that worked and breathed from the beginning because we brought so much to it."
It's almost impossible to describe the experience of a Wet Gate performance given the number of sensory events taking place simultaneously. Each group member runs loops from about 10 to 20 seconds in duration through a 16mm projector, with each loop just long enough to capture some evocative gesture or movement -- snow falling, a flower opening, a plane taking off, a landslide. Meanwhile, each projector is outfitted with a sampler that grabs audio bits from the optical soundtrack of the film, slowing text down or speeding it up, isolating and repeating it even as the images repeat and overlap, thus "slowly ripping the stitching out from between the soundtrack and image coupled in the film material" as Wet Gate's manifesto claims. The trio also occasionally treats the audio track with scratches and adhesive to create totally new sounds.
The real magic occurs when an ordinary image, such as a sunrise, overlaps with that of a woman's naked belly as she lies in bed beside a man. Or a man ripping pages from a calendar is juxtaposed with a newspaper blowing on the street while a voice repeats the phrase "What he hears on the soundtrack greatly affects what the viewer sees" and another voice asks "What do you want to drink?" Through repetition, juxtaposition, and overlap, the mundane becomes absurd, the silly becomes sinister.
"I was just thinking that it's almost like rubbing a genie's lamp," says O'Toole in the Berkeley office Wet Gate uses for a rehearsal space. "When I'm trying to pull something out [from found footage], I'll look for an image and listen for a sound. And until you cut it into a loop you don't know what it's really going to be. But your projector warms up and the goblins begin to sort of drift up out of it. And they either smell good or they don't."
O'Toole's vast office, littered with assorted LPs, samplers, gadgets, furniture, cabinets, and tools, is where Wet Gate comes to find out how the goblins smell. With each member bringing several dozen new loops to rehearse, the group begins scripting a show, hoping to find those magic combinations of sound and image.
Conheim says that five years of working together have improved their chances of achieving that magic. "When we made our first shows five years ago," he says, "we were much more rigid about coming up with themes first, then going to our collections and looking for film that matched a theme, then building a show around a theme which we had discussed or hinted at. Now, our shows have gotten -- I wouldn't say looser -- but it's almost as though we know the genie in the bottle a little better now; the creation process is more fluid."
Indeed, a Wet Gate rehearsal is like a prolonged screening of very short films, each member threading new loops, which immediately sends the other two scrambling for matching films. While found-footage collage in itself is nothing new -- from Bruce Conner's 1950s experiments to new collectives such as the Bay Area's Animal Charm -- Wet Gate believes that its live collaborative improvisation, with its emphasis on the sound element of the footage, makes the group unique.
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