Video Art of Moving Still Pictures - See video
The Japanese Language School spoke to Dan Senn.
Its nooks and crannies were poetic. Its undulations were rhythmic. Four exterior walls became one great metaphor.
Senn is a video-sound artist, not a linguist. Language holds a different meaning in his world. Buildings like the language school communicate in unexpected ways that inform his art.
In this instance, a simple, moss-covered structure on Tacoma Avenue near 17th Street inspired a full production. 'Still Moving: Four Sides of a Japanese Language School.' the latest in a large portfolio of video-sound installations by Senn, now graces the new video room at the Commencement Art Gallery.
"I like volatile subjects, and the school has that quality," he said. "If it weren't so poetic and beautiful in its dilapidated state, I wouldn't have given it a second look."
Senn rediscovered the school by happenstance. He and a group of his students at the University ofWashington Tacoma were on a field trip near campus when they stumbled onto the building. Ou came the video camera. "I rarely do pieces that have a metaphorical element," he said. "M building suggested a vibrant com munity, a community that disap peared with the Japanese intern ment in World War II."
Senn compiled a "video cluster" of the language school. The project in volved hundreds of single images, or "stills," of varying duration, all col rated into what Senn calls a "visual mapping" of the building.
The school had everything I needed to make a piece," he said. "The mold was full of color. The walls had lots of texture. There's something pure and functional about the building that speaks to the Japanese aesthetic. And then there's this large green field around it that I shot as a final image. If you didn't know better, you'd think you were seeing the Swiss countryside."
Senn was a ceramist before he started making sound sculptures in 1977 and video-sound installations after that. At the University of Illinois in the early '70s, he played French horn and learned the ancient art of raku pottery. The ceramic work "fundamentally shifted my aesthetic." he said.
One art form led to another. Senn started making sculptural instruments and, in 1978, began to develop a computer software project called the "Raku Composition Program."
Senn also has kept personal journals for the past 25 years. The writing - another language source for the artist - has found its way into his performance art and improvisational videos. It has even crept into his instrument making, which lately is focused on pendulum-based pieces ranging from 18-by- 18-by-18 inch studio miniatures to outdoor pieces covering 600 square feet.
The ingenuity and diversity of Senn's. myriad projects have drawn an international audience. He has toured Europe, New Zealand, Canada and the United States with his work, exhibiting and performing at festivals and venues for experimental music or art. In 1995 he was awarded the McKnight Composer-in-Residence Award in Minnesota, where he produced "Catacombs of Yucatan," a sound and video installation shot in- side a remote limestone cave. Two years ago, he received the 10th Aniversary President's Award from Artist Trust in Seattle for his influence on the arts in the Pacific Northwest.
Senn was a lecturer in electronic music at the Canberra School of Music in Australia for four years, an associate professor of composition at Ball State University for six and a visiting professor at the University of Illinois. The UW Tacoma hired him this year as the school's first artist-in-residence.
"When I took up video, it was really just a means to document my other work," he said. "The rest sort of followed by accident and by the way I observe the world around me." Senn has shot videos of everything from cars to landforins, but nothing as large as the Japanese Language School.
"I shot for five days, two hours at a time," he said. "I'd locate the camera on part of the building, get close up, pull away, move to another place. Between each location, I shot gray or blue sky and used the sections as kind of musical segues.
"The videos are rhythmic mappings. A dancer or someone in the theater might be very good at the process whereas a photographer might not be."
In the "Still Moving" installation, Senn's tracing of the language school is projected simultaneously on three video monitors. One monitor is 27 inches and sits upright. Two 13-inch monitors rest on their sides on top of the bigger screen. The same signal feeds all of the monitors, creating a kaleidoscopic sequence of images.
"For the viewer, the effect of the presentation is a progression from a literal understanding of the object -a school building- to an abstraction of it in lines created by three monitors feeding images at once," Senn said.
He didn't stop at images, however. The charted rhythms of the video became a music score for Senn. So he married the images to a sound-track of one of his sculptural instruments.
"The images and the sound of this particular instrument seemed to work together," he said. "The two aren't matched exactly, one-to-one. I'm never that literal in what I do."