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Genie in a Bottle 

Wet Gate conjures up magic sounds with its all-projector orchestra

Wednesday, Oct 4 2000
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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.

"People often have a predisposition to the image, so I wouldn't say that we're trying to de-emphasize the image, but we're trying to re-emphasize the audio," says Dye. "It is an audiovisual image, but we're like, "Hey, wait a minute, the sound, the sound!'"

"A lot of it is how interesting a soundtrack is in a cinematic experience," says O'Toole, "that so much of it is being driven by the sound. And for me, trying to reduce the importance of the image, and use the projector for other ends, is incredibly exciting and thrilling, and ultimately what we're trying to do is in a way turn off the projector's bulb as much as possible, and allow the sounds that come out of the projector to be the central subject."

That sound might include old cartoon orchestral music, the Twilight Zone theme, the music of Goblin (an Italian goth-prog-rock band that scored numerous soundtracks during the 1970s), or even the pedantic, fatherly voice-overs that littered early newsreels and educational films.

"So many of the educational films involve some yackety voice-over basically telling you what to think," says O'Toole. "That material is interesting because you can use that to point that out, and point out how the history of filmmaking is didactic and dogmatic. But to be able to cut them out, and turn them into other things, that's what's neat about the sampler, is you can take a little loop of somebody saying something very mundane, like "Today is the world,' and you can begin to turn some simple phrase into a cut-up collage that shreds it and remakes it into something else that hopefully has some better meaning."

Wet Gate also takes a cue from the music field in the way that it's set up as a band, with the members' projectors as instruments. "It's akin to almost any other kind of composition, musical composition," says Dye, "you get a feeling -- "Oh yeah, this works well' -- and you learn stuff as you go along."

"We're also trying to say that this is an instrument that we're playing," says O'Toole. "It's a different type of instrument than a guitar, but it's actually very much the same instrument as a clavier or a Moog or something with which there are preordained sounds, and by pressing whatever lever or key you're pulling out those sounds."

"And we've wanted to be in front of the audience in a lot of ways," says Conheim, "to show the projectionist as performer, performing on his instrument."

Wet Gate is now experimenting with O'Toole's idea for flying screens, small vellum sheets attached to moveable arms that extend from the projectors themselves. At a rehearsal for a Sept. 16 show at ATA, each member brought in his own device for rotating a small mirror to cast the images variously on these screens or on the larger main screen. Dye points out that by using the small individual screens they'll sacrifice "the beauty of our overlapping images," but Conheim says, "We've always had the idea to have individual screens instead of one long screen, to focus the attention more on the music."

The resulting show was somewhat mixed. With the three projectors set up perpendicular to the audience and the flying screens shifted to face patrons, one indeed got a better sense of the performative aspect of Wet Gate. O'Toole's screen flickered to life first, showing a newspaper blowing on the sidewalk with the command "LISTEN" repeating over and over again. Then came Conheim's clip, an ironic loop of a rotating mirror deflecting laser beams with the text "As it moves the reflective beam moves," and finally Dye displayed an image of a car driving on a mountain road. Next the images shifted to nature scenes of fish and flowers undulating similarly, with dramatic orchestral music playing. Then all three screens went dark and returned to life, with O'Toole showing a clip of an airplane taking off to the voice-over text "since the second World War," while Conheim looped a Third Man-like bit of guitar strings vibrating and Dye contributed a scene of flowers and buds with the text "when spring returns."

While there was a frantic, nerdy rhythm to the trio's constant reloading and sampling -- like watching extremely dexterous audiovisual monitors engage in a competition -- the pace threatened to overwhelm one's enjoyment of the end product. And the screens, being separate and quite small, lacked some of the grand beauty of past images that drifted and overlapped one another. Later Wet Gate was joined by jazz drummer Danielle Dowers, who emphasized the audio aspect even more but seemed to follow the soundtracks much too closely, almost obliterating them in the process.

Still, Wet Gate began as an experiment, and all three members are intent on keeping it that way. "You'll just get frustrated if you overscript, and we're not into that, anyway," says Dye. "There's definitely the improvisatory sort of jazz aesthetic brought into it, where you have a structure, it's definitely a theme or whatever your skeleton is, and then we're filling in with this stuff ..."

"Yeah, it's an open form," says O'Toole.

"It's a film tag-team wrestling match," says Conheim.

It's the genie in the lamp, and Wet Gate will continue to find various ways of conjuring it from wonderful machines.

About The Author

David Cook

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