Daniel is a Los Angeles based artist who uses an array of audio and visual media to create unique sound compositions, films, and other intriguing works of art. He often collaborates with his wife, artist Christina Santa Cruz, who is his partner in an experimental music duo called Chestnut.
Want to know more about Daniel's work? Scroll down to see our interview.*
What made you decide to become an artist, and how did you pursue that? Did you go to art school?
I feel like this should be an easy question to answer, but I’m stuck. I’m curious to know what other artists have said. Did they have a moment that they can pinpoint when they decided they wanted to be an artist?
I didn’t grow up with any sort of frame of reference for art being something that you could devote your life to -- that is, outside of movies. We were very much a ‘movie’ household, and I knew that movies were something that people could do for a living (how naïve). So, in a sense, it was pretty pragmatic. When it was time for college, I decided to do the only thing that I was both passionate about and that could be found on a list of majors in the school’s course catalog. I went to film school.
However, by the time I finally made it to university, my tastes had veered pretty far from anything you could consider economically viable -- the Netflix DVDs I got in the mail fed me a steady diet of French and Hong Kong new wave, as well as a smattering of Troma films. Meaning that by the time I got to the first year of course work in the major, I was pretty primed for experimental cinema, and once you start down the path of experimental cinema, you are a mere heartbeat away from expanded cinema, multi-channel video, and installation. And that sorta thing just blows your whole world apart! With experimental film I got to interrogate the frame, but in a three-dimensional space everything was suddenly up for grabs. Everything could be taken apart.
I noticed then that CalArts had an MFA program called Art and Technology that seemed equally interested in taking things apart. I was sold.
How would you describe your art to someone who has never seen it? In other words, please give a very basic description of the medium(s) you use, the overall style and themes, etc.
I usually say that I am an audio/visual artist and filmmaker interested in crypto-geography, useless machines, LoFi technology, and noise. My work, regardless of medium, usually falls into one or more of these themes. Though to get medium-specific, I work primarily in sound art, film, and kinetic sculpture. I’ve also dabbled in a bit of web art as well.
To get in depth on theme I’ll go through each, and give a little bit of explanation. Beginning with crypto-geography, by which I simply mean hidden geography. Plotting the spaces that, though seemingly innocuous, hold secret -- or rather, forgotten -- pasts. Those pasts are often sinister, and the residual trauma that lingers in these locations is incredibly interesting to me. This also bleeds into an interest in criminality. (See works: Cursed Objects and Last Known Whereabouts.)
Useless machines is a bit more playful. It’s a subversion that imagines an alternate reality in which utility and efficiency weren’t the endgame of techno-innovation. They are my subversion of futurism, in which I build a machine to attempt and fail at an impossible task (see works: Water Printer)
LoFi tech and noise are kind of the glue that hold the other two themes together. I work in LoFi tech because, not only is it cheap; it also challenges the notions of resolution fetishism that are especially strong in the film world, but exist all across the fine art world as well. And noise, to me, is a flip-side to the way we typically live our lives from moment to moment. It’s dissonance, and dissonance runs counter to our resting state. Dissonance represents the tension between our logical understanding of the world, and the anomalies that emerge to thwart that understanding. Criminality and useless machines are both dissonant artifacts in that respect.
Your work often combines a range of mediums, so one finished piece might feature sculpture, video, photography, painting, installation, and/or performance. Why do you use so many techniques to express yourself? Do they each serve a different purpose? If so, can you give an example?
When I was studying film, I loved the idea that each film represented an intersection of histories. The story being told, the technology used to capture it, and the piece of music used to score it all come with their own histories, and when you put them all together, those unique histories come into conversation with one another -- and in doing so, they can re-contextualize the moment on screen. For instance, you could be telling a story about Nikola Tesla, and the story could be scored by a piece from Ornette Coleman; suddenly by putting these two things together, you are creating an intersection between the moment in Tesla’s life being recreated for film, and the history of the composition -- and to an extent, Ornette Coleman’s own biography. When this happens, the moment on screen becomes about so much more than what we can see, and instead spirals off into hundreds of different directions. Then if you really want to drive yourself crazy, you can start to think about the history of the capture technology used to film the image and record the sound. You could analyze what ideologies informed the creation of that technology and how those ideologies compare/contrast with what is captured. What I’m getting at is that I love the fact that that any idea has the potential to spiral out into hundreds of directions, with each representation pointing back to the same north star, but also re-contextualizing the piece that came before it. Each iteration brings in new technology, which creates new conversations. Plus, on a practical level, I like the idea of giving viewers multiple points of entry.
You and your wife (Christina Santa Cruz) are both artists in your own right, but you also create work together. How is art-making different for you when you work individually vs. when you work together?
My approach is not really all that different. In the music project we have together, typically we each work on our own compositions apart from one another. When they are in a good place, we share them, provide space for the other to create their own parts, and then put in the production work to make it sound like one cohesive whole. The fact that it does cohere speaks to the fact that even if we are working apart, we are sharing a sensibility. We have a shorthand with each other that’s half intuition and half shared interest. That certainly helps. In other aspects of collaboration, for instance if I am acting as a cinematographer or sound designer for a film of Christina’s, or if she is working on a film of mine, then in that case there is a pretty clear definition of ownership of the project. As a cinematographer, I know I have domain over the lights and camera, and I can make suggestions about pace and blocking, but ultimately in that case Christina would have final say in the execution, and vice versa if the roles are reversed.
The term "noise" appears frequently in descriptions of your work, especially with regard to Chestnut, the experimental sound duo you formed with your wife. Could you please explain to those of us who are unfamiliar with the concept, why someone might be interested in making art out of noise? What is your goal in creating or combining sounds as works of art? What do you hope listeners will hear or feel when they listen to Chestnut recordings?
I mentioned dissonance earlier, and when I think of noise I think in terms of dissonance: essentially, the joining of two things that alone are sonorous, but together form an intentional disharmony. It’s sort of like what I was talking about earlier with intersecting histories and the friction that can come from that. When we hear disharmony, it makes us uneasy. Sorta like when you meet a person and you can tell that they are just a little “off,” and something in your gut tells you to stay away from them. That’s the fun with noise. The compositions are like little sonic horror films, for which Christina and I share a great affinity.
Chestnut has evolved a little bit in recent recordings to embrace more traditional composition techniques. Every time we put together a piece that sounds too structured, Christina and I have the conversation about how we can fuck it up a bit, just to preserve some of that dissonance that first drew us to the project.
We would like each album to feel like its own little world, so when we put together a record we are including a fair amount of non-musical sound design. Music is one of those weird things that changes with the listener's environment. The traffic in the distance, the dog barking next door, all become part of the composition for a listener, and you as the composer have little to say about what other sounds exist in the room in which a piece of music is being heard. What we’ve tried to do is take a little bit of that power back through sound design.
So, not only are we recording the song but we are also designing the room in which the song exists. For example, we may record a song, and decide the best way to hear it would be coming out of a crackley old radio in the corner of a roadside gas station at 3:30 in the morning. So we will add in all of the environmental noise that you would hear in a place like that. It comes from our film background I think.
Is it fair to say that machines and technology are integral to your art practice? What role do they play in your work?
Oh certainly. In so much as I am fascinated by kinetic objects, but not in a futurist way. Almost in an anti-futurist way. Machines are designed to perform tasks precisely and with minimal error. I like watching machines fail, because it humanizes them. We can even sometimes feel empathy for a struggling machine. Talk about dissonance! A human feeling sympathy for a machine.
In a 2019 interview with VoyageLA, you said that a more specific way to talk about what you do would be to discuss what you are currently working on, and where your current obsessions lie. So, what are you working on and what are you obsessed with these days?
I mentioned it already, but Christina and I both have a healthy obsession with horror and exploitation cinema. I’m working on a couple scripts at the moment that are certainly reckoning with that obsession. In addition, Christina and I are working on new Chestnut material that we hope to share sometime in 2022.
Outside of that, I’ve gotten really into magnetic credit card strips and magnetic card readers. Not for crime, I promise.
Some of your film and video descriptions use the term "re-photography." Could you explain what that means, and why you use that technique?
Of course. It’s basically just making a copy of a copy of a copy, etc. So, you photograph an image, or you take a found image, and you photograph it over and over into nothingness. Then you assemble the generations of video on a timeline, press play, and watch them age into a blur of color.
Your portfolio includes some fascinating and unusual works. Do you have a favorite project that we haven't talked about yet? Please tell us about it.
I’ve alluded to it a little in the question about machines, but I love the Water Printer project.
It’s basically a pinter that I built to attempt and intentionally fail to print on the surface of water. It was my first attempt to build something that subverts our expectation of “the machine.”
What other artists or art movements inspire or influence your work?
I would say that I haven’t bought wholesale into in one movement, but I love to cherrypick ideas here and there. Isidore Isou of the Letterist movement had an early impact on the way I viewed structure. When he was an angry young man, he came up with the idea that all art moves in two phases: the amplique phase and the chiselante phase. In the amplique phase, he believed that essentially everything that could be done with a certain technique had been done, and that that technique would need to be abandoned or destroyed (the chiselante phase) in order for something new to be created. He saw that narrative film had reached the peak of its execution in the 1950s, meaning that the makers of a film knew exactly what combinations of shots and music they needed to elicit whatever emotion they wanted to elicit. The formula had essentially been perfected. In response, he made the film Venom and Eternity as a manifesto of sorts. In the film, much of the sound track is incongruous with the action, and there are moments where he is actually scratching on to the celluloid -- essentially creating dissonance, and hoping that from that dissonance he can create a new way of capturing and seeing filmic images. That idea has certainly stuck with me.
Other than that, I love a lot of the work of the transgressive artists of the 1980s and early 1990s; people like Lisa Carver, Vaginal Davis, and Bill Callahan. In a way, they were doing the same thing as Isidore Isou, but with different motivation. Isou believed that his Letterism could become the new popular mode of seeing. Essentially a new mainstream that was constantly self-investigating and reinventing. The transgressives on the other hand had no ambitions of mainstream acceptance, but rather embraced the underground and proved that you can make great art inexpensively.
What are some of your inspirations outside of the “Fine Art World?”
I’ve told this story many times to friends, but my mom and my brother and I lived in the woods in Central Florida for a bit. Without getting into specifics I will just say that it was not in a fun “off-the-grid-experiment” kind of way, but in a “mishandling-of-money-and-now-this-is-our-only-option” sort of way. I was about thirteen, and there were many things about it that I would consider lasting traumas, but when it got to be dusk, right before the sun when down completely - the sky was a deep, dark blue and you would hear the most beautiful noises. The sounds of insects harmonizing with one another, and the distant rustling of nocturnal animals just waking up. That, and the air was so thick and clean. Those two things together would afford me the most beautiful wave of forgetfulness - where for a moment I would forget the reality of our situation and I could get lost in the sensory experience. I feel that the best art does the same. It doesn’t teach you something about yourself, but rather makes you forget about yourself entirely.
That, and I as I said earlier, Troma films. They are also a great tool for forgetting, and I suppose by that rubric they are great art.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about your work? Anything that our questions didn’t cover?
I think we’ve done a really great job of covering a lot of ground. I appreciate these questions, and thank you for entertaining some of my more rambling answers.
Daniel Watkins' website is http://noiseandart.com/. You can also follow him on Instagram: @d.anielwaa. Chestnut on Instagram: @chestnutnoise.
*All images on this page are property of the artist, unless otherwise noted.