Genie in a Bottle

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

"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.

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