The House of Shadow Silence

When Frederik Kiesler opened his modernist Film Guild Cinema in New York City in 1929, his goal for the viewer was that he would »lose himself in an imaginary, endless space.« The walls and the ceiling cinema would act as projection surfaces and would come to life at dramatic moments during a film. But this feature of Kiesler’s ideal space for viewing films, which he called the »house of shadow silence,« was never completed. For the web artist and Schlosspost web resident Jeremy Rotsztain, virtual reality is now the perfect medium to realize this missing feature, by filling the former art house cinema with graphical forms in the tradition of Hans Richter’s constructivist animations from the 1920s.

CH: For your web residency, you are working on the project The House of Shadow Silence – a real-time audio/visual artwork that takes place within a VR simulation of Frederik Kiesler’s modernist Film Guild Cinema, which opened in New York City in 1929 – how did this idea develop?

»Ascension« (@Upfor). Site-specific virtual reality installation at Upfor Gallery, 2015

Jeremy Rotsztain: In 2015, I made my first virtual reality project Ascension, which was a painterly experience that took place within a virtual copy of Upfor Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The similarity of the virtual world to the viewer’s present environment (the work was displayed in the gallery) was incredibly important. Viewers looked around the gallery and watched floating shapes surround them. Looking upward, they ascended into an oculus/hole in the ceiling and into an pulsating void. After Ascension, I wanted to make other VR works that unfolded in familiar or historic places but where the real world broke apart, and viewer’s experiences were somehow hallucinatory, psychedelic, or transcendental.

Around the same time, I was reading Ann Friedberg’s excellent book on virtuality and art history called The Virtual Window. She wrote about Kiesler’s Film Guild Cinema and quoted his goal for the viewer – that she/he would »lose himself in an imaginary, endless space.« Kiesler was designing a new kind of cinema, an ideal space for viewing film, the »house of shadow silence,« as he called it. His design included an approach to immersion and multimedia that was so forward thinking for the time: the walls and ceiling would act as projection surfaces and would come to life at dramatic moments during a film. Sadly, this feature was never completed due to budgetary constraints.

Virtual reality is the perfect medium to realize this missing feature of Kiesler’s cinema and create an endless experience for viewers. When I began researching the project, I discovered that one of visual music pioneer Hans Richter’s films was screened on the opening weekend. Richter was closely connected to Theo van Doesburg and the De Stijl movement and it seemed fitting to fill the former art house cinema with simple graphical forms in the tradition of Richter’s constructivist animations from the 1920s.

CH: The bigger headline of your project is Back to De Stijl: A Return to Modernist Cinema: Where do we find the artistic principles of the artist group De Stijl in your project?

Study for House of Shadow Silence, 2016.

JR: The principles of De Stijl manifest primarily through the visual design of this project: the black and white color palette of the animations and the selection of three-dimensional forms that fill the cinema.

The signature of the De Stijl movement is the incredibly constrained use of form and color – limited to primary colors, three shades of brightness, and rectangles and squares. You can also see it in Kiesler’s design for the cinema’s interior and exterior (and in the 3D model that was created for this project).

Hans Richter, whose animations I’m referencing throughout this project, also followed these principles for his early animation works. In Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23, from 1921 and 1923 respectively, Richter used a limited palette of forms to reduce feeling in cinema to its most basic elements.

CH: The second call for web residents took Ivan Sutherland’s concept of the »ultimate display« from the mid 1960s as a point of departure, which predicted what William Gibson described as »cyberspace« in the late 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s computer scientists and engineers developed under the term »virtual reality.« How do you re-enter the ultimate display with your concept? What do the users experience when entering your VR world?

Architectural study of Film Guild Cinema (by Jordan Tull)

JR: Viewers donning a VR headset will enter into a cinema with a screen at the front of the room, but they don’t experience it from the usual standpoint of a movie-going spectator (sitting still on a chair and looking forward). Instead they float through the cinema’s interior, looking around and watching abstract moving imagery that extends from the walls, floor, and ceiling.

At the front of Kiesler’s cinema is a retractable eye that opens and closes depending on the size of the film being screened. As viewers approach the screen, they enter into the expanding eye and find themselves in an abstracted world (this treatment is still in flux but I imagine along the lines as being inside of film, where the grain, shadow, and light come to life). Moments later, viewers will float into another version of the cinema with an entirely different arrangement of moving forms. House of Shadow Silence will endlessly unfold with new imagery.

In conceiving this work, I asked myself if it was necessary to realize it in virtual reality or if a single channel video would suffice – and the goggles won! There’s an obvious connection between the design of Kiesler’s cinema and virtual reality headsets – both were intended to transport viewer’s into another space, allowing them to forget about their surrounding physical environment. Similarly, it’s critical that viewers have this first person perspective within the cinema, that they also embody the role of spectator within the virtual environment.

CH: What role do art and culture theories and practices play for your digital art works?

»Action Painting.« 4 channel video installation.

JR: Much of my inspiration comes from looking at visual art and reading books on art history. I’ve never framed it this way, but I guess I treat art history as another material to work with. In his book Pictures of Nothing, American historian Kirk Varnedoe shows how abstract art is a conversation that happens over generations, and I find it fulfilling to add my two cents to this dialog, typically from a technological perspective.

One recurring interest in my work is the phenomenon of the sublime, this experience of greatness, awe, and fear elicited by nature and frequently found in eighteenth and nineteenth century European and American landscape painting. AND is still very relevant in our awe-inspiring technological era surrounded by increasingly larger screens, high-definition special effects, and boundless information.

CH: How would you describe your artistic practice in general? How do you work?

»Electric Fields III.« Realtime software application, 2014.

JR: I work primarily with software as a material – I write computer code to generate moving imagery. Working with software is a hybrid, almost multi-disciplinary practice since it fuses so many different modes of image making from the past: photography, painting, cinema, and animation. My work manifests as run-time graphics software, digital prints, VR worlds, and iPhone applications.

The code that I write typically isn’t explicit; it’s a loose set of instructions run by the computer that dictate the appearance and behavior of graphical forms. Each time the computer runs the code, the results are slightly different. In a way, I utilize the computer as a collaborator who continues to make the work.

My smaller projects are typically more exploratory and improvisational, where I spend hours sketching on paper and programming and then tweaking those programs to get the right imagery. Larger projects, like this one or Action Painting typically require significant research, planning, and labor. I like these works to develop slowly over time, as it offers more time for reflection on the results.

CH: How would you describe the current status of digital art and what is your take on post-internet art?

JR: I’m no expert on the topic, but, aside from the awkwardness of its name, it’s relevant to have a category for the generation of artists who have grown up online and who operate fluidly between virtual and physical spaces (or don’t even see a distinction, for that matter) and whose works speaks to network effects. This new version of Internet art seems to have higher production values and is certainly more commercially minded. Call me nostalgic, but I sometimes miss the throbbing insanity of early browser based art.

It is exciting to see how digital art is proliferating right now after decades at the sidelines, with artists using technology in their practice getting more exposure and opportunities within the art world. As Rhizome’s Michael Connor has pointed out, »›internet culture‹« is just ›culture.‹« I suppose that digital art will also lose its adjective one day soon. I’m excited about platforms like Electric Objects, FRAMED*, and OpenFrame, pushing distribution methods and bringing digital art into people’s homes through screens that access collections of still and moving-image work as well as web-based art.

CH: Which other digital artists interest and/or influence you?

JR: It’s not easy to list! Being from Toronto, I had the opportunity to see David Rokeby’s work frequently and I was really attracted to the projects in which he used computer vision to create densely layered and sometimes painterly collections of visual data – of people moving through spaces, passing automobiles, pigeons, etc. I’ve been inspired by Jason Salavon’s data visualizations and image averaging algorithms that operate on cultural data and other social artifacts – Hollywood films, music videos, Playboy centerfolds, high school albums, Pantone charts, etc. I really admire Jennifer Steinkamp’s use of architecture, projection and all-over compositions. I’ve been following LaTurbo Avedon’s online museum, Panther Modern. LaTurbo invited over 15 artists to create installations that exist within virtual rooms that she designed. The responses range from the immersive, to the sublime, to the impossible. Andrew Benson’s weirdo character animations and Zach Lieberman’s recent burst of dynamic computational forms keep my Twitter feed interesting.

Study for »House of Shadow Silence, 2016

CH: What future projects are you interested in doing?

I’m expecting to continue working on House of Shadow Silence for a few more months after this residency – to add more animations, realize that hallucinatory experience that happens within the cinema’s eye, and work with Chris Carlson to create a fitting soundtrack for the project. Perhaps something with a little bit of film projector flutter.