Sunday, 8 February 2009


Brent Coughenour, I Pity the Fool (2007). 

Light Reading: Brent Coughenour,, 4 Feb 2009.

For's first Light Reading of the year, the Milwaukee based artist Brent Coughenour combined two performance pieces - where projected image was accompanied by live soundscapes - with two screenings of recent work. All of which he prefaced by saying that he was interested in exploring the relation of sound and image, trying to give them both equal weight. 

Coughenour suggested that whatever kind of cinema you focussed on, this relationship was often imbalanced. Expanded cinema events could emphasise sound, and leave you dissatisfied with the image, whilst conventional cinema over-prioritised the image. Of course, as he was no doubt aware, precisely what is going on in each of these situations is highly complex. And what does equal weight mean in terms of how the film-experience is perceived? Does it create a viewing experience where sound and image are brought together or one where they become more separate?

Coughenour gave the sense that he asked himself such questions in a precise, disciplined manner. Each of the pieces shown last Wednesday was, as he outlined at the begining, " systems that reveal themselves over the course of the piece." So his first performance comprised a screen of computer generated coloured squares and rectangles,  their complex patterns gradually becoming recognisable people imagery. Coughenour explained how he had shot footage off the TV, before processing it through a computer programme that selected particular colours, the prescribed parameters changing throughout the length of the piece.

In both performance pieces, Coughenour produced the sound live. He said it wasn't improvisation, that most performances were pretty similar, but nonetheless it remained important to his sense of what he was doing to perform the sound. For the first piece this was a "visceral, physical interface" as he held, shook and vibrated an electric guitar. For the second piece - more long, shifting, minimalist drones and arcs of sound - Coughenour was hunched over his Mac Book Pro. 

As several people mentioned in the discussion, such a performance style was curiously related to the history of expanded cinema, particularly its 1970's London Film Makers Co-op incarnation that strongly emphasised the kit of  projector, screen  and film-stuff.  Coughenour, in contrast, seemed to assume a certain visual literacy, or complacency.  Expanded cinema via the laptop has a more immaterial materiality. As Coughenour joked, we had to trust he was actually doing something related on his lap top and not just checking his e-mail. 

For this second performance, Coughenour's presence at his lap top was accompanied by a range of images of an economically depressed Detroit. A long sequence focussed on images of a derelict building. A feeling of economic helplessness was conveyed through images whose content and length seemed partly determined by the random entry, exit and flight of pigeons into the frame, alighting on window sills or shuttling over muddy snow.

Brent Coughenour, I Pity the Fool (2007).

In a final sequence, Coughenour shot through trees at the entrance of a hospital building. The trees criss-crossed the frame, with the buildings doors beyond it. Like the pigeons, people came and entered the hospital as and when. Coughenour's camera watched it all, unmoving, part CCTV, part anti-drama, part (small part) poetic lyricism. 

How to relate all this to Coughenour's concerns with sound-image relationships?  He talked of image and sound coming together and moving away at various moments within a piece, and also of parallel motions. There were some points - the pigeons on the muddy snow, for example - when I felt the equality of sound and image was dependent on a poverty of the image. Similarly, the music - for all its evoking of minmalism, pure noise and drones - had  a rising, dramatic emotionality that the image refused. This refusal struck me as a difficult and slightly perverse state to attain - and one that imposed considerable strictures on the filmmaker's choice of images.

As for the films, Night Flight -  comprised, Coughenour said, of "rogue material wrestled into interior logic" - began with pulses of image very literally accompanied by acoustic drum beats. Sound was a flare of image, a tonal quality, and the image, likewise, became percussive. The flares of image alternated between either side of the screen (originally Night Flight was shown on two monitors). This confirmed how Coughenour's explorations were taking place within sound and within image singularly, not just in their interrelation. So, yes, literalism meets synaesthesia.

Lake, meanwhile, was a meditative study of boats and water, a metonymic portrayal of a place that also evoked a tradition of experimental films turning to water or glass for their potential to open up issues of screen, surface, reflection, and transparency. But Coughenour had a surprise in store that again asserted his difference from structuralist film making. The camera went underwater to abruptly conclude Lake with the gothic melodrama of an underwater skeleton. 

Something about Coughenour's energy as a film maker seemed contained in this gesture. Mixing absurdity and profundity, he explained, having my cake and eating it too... raising the spectre of narrative... making two pieces in one.. I come down on the side of beauty, but at the same time...


The next Light Reading, on Feb 24 at 7pm,  is New Work by David Rimmer. Tickets £5 on the door/ £4 in advance. Reserve a place by e-mailing