Aesthetics of the future: An interview with filmmaker/AV artist Richard Grant

Richard Grant |

Richard Grant is an independent filmmaker whose work producing visuals for bands and sound artists spans over two decades. Grant’s trademark style is non-narrative and intensely visceral, and while not science fictional in a traditional sense – only obliquely referencing traditional tropes of other worlds or clashes with technology – there is a strong futurist aesthetic that runs throughout his body of work. In particular, Grant’s visuals produce a sense of de-materialising and re-materialising, layering images and magnifying details in a way that pushes the viewer to reimagine their relationship with space and time.

Grant’s recent works – including the Amnion piece included in this Episode of Deletion – elicit the ghost of the analogue in the digital age; visuals for the Amnion piece were made using foil, glass, and washing powder on a record turntable. Paradoxically perhaps, these analogue elements are infused with a particularly science fictional sensibility – the glass pieces appear as a kind of data visualisation, or animations of deep space.

Trent Griffiths of Deletion talked with Grant about his creative process, the science fiction that has inspired his work, and about the future of futurist aesthetics.

Richard Grant 3Deletion: Looking over your back catalogue of video clip work, there emerge certain recurring themes related to science fiction – layering of images, an exploration of the textures of technology, and representing familiar “worldly” objects in unfamiliar “otherworldly” contexts. Are these themes you have in mind or things you set out to explore, or do they emerge more organically from the process and the source materials you find to work with?

Richard Grant: I really am interested that you’ve framed my work in terms of sci-fi – I’m kind of intrigued about that process because I’ve never really thought about my work in that way, and it makes a lot of sense because I read science fiction and I watch it, and as a kid I was especially interested in it. And thinking about [my work] in those terms there are elements of sci-fi in there, and I can see images and ideas that have that influence.

When I hear any piece of music, there are certain movements and colours and shapes that I see in my head, so I find a way adapting that so it fits into the music. A lot of my work is intentionally non-narrative; I’m just playing with abstract shapes, but then I try and structure it in a way that you’re constantly being fed new looks, and you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at. I guess if there’s an ongoing theme it’s that I want to make new imagery that I haven’t seen before.

D: Do you think about the effect in the viewer as you’re creating?

RG: Yeah I do. I’m always thinking “Is the viewer bored of this?” because I tend to work in sections – with a more abstract work it would be ten to fifteen seconds sections – and I’ll think, well okay, have I either reached a point where it’s not working with the music, or have I reached a point where the viewer is probably going to be bored of this. And I’ll switch to a new section, which will be an evolved version of what I’ve done, so there’s a continuity. But that’s probably as much as I think about the viewer – it’s more me experimenting, and surprising myself.

D: That experimentation and surprising yourself plays out across the timeline of your work – you started out in the early days [Grant’s early 1990s film clips] plugging wrong colour channels into things and playing with digital imagery and software, and now you’ve reached a point for yourself where that aesthetic isn’t interesting anymore, and you’ve gone back to analogue techniques and filming different materials.

Richard Grant 5RG: I think early on, when I first started making clips – and I’m talking very early 90s – video when it was shot was an incredibly expensive thing to do, and if you shot a video and you just wanted to change the colours in it you had to go to a post-production house that was going to charge you thousands of dollars an hour just to change the colour of the video. So early on I was experimenting by using video cards in computers and finding glitches where I could run it through Photoshop and do all this wacky colour grading stuff for free, basically. And then that went on to computer graphic programs coming out, and again they were quite expensive so I was looking at other ways of layering and playing with images. But now you can do that for free with apps on your phone, so that aesthetic is something I’m not really interested in anymore – it’s sort of, it’s not new for me.

So now I’m trying to create imagery… It’s kind of funny – I’ve gone the other way. I’m now just shooting raw imagery and not treating it that much and trying to create something new for myself that way.

I’ve always been intrigued by traditional special effects. As a kid I grew up watching sci fi films, so I really love those non-digital special effects. So when I hear about tricks they did in Aliens using mirrors to extend scenes – I find that fascinating.

D: Are there any seminal science fiction films for you?

RG: Obviously [Stanley Kubrick’s] 2001, and Alien. Probably those two the most. Definitely 2001, just for the sense of vast space, and the use of sound I find amazing – or the lack of sound.

D: In terms of the actual process of creating this Amnion piece, what did you film, what technology did you use?

RG: It was shot in my garage, just with my DSLR, and I’ve got objects that I’m lighting from above, basically – that was the process. No specialist gear. I think it might have just been a light globe that I had attached to a bit of string that I could move around to change the lighting. So it’s pretty basic. I really like the idea of using really… I don’t think you need a lot of gear to shoot interesting films. You can just shoot it with a DSLR and a light globe in the right space. I think people get caught up in technology, and the idea that you need this software, and asking “What software did you use and how did you shoot it?” To me it doesn’t really matter – you can shoot stuff on your phone. So my thought process doesn’t go into being too concerned with how I make it; I just focus on the imagery I’m trying to capture.

So the Amnion one was just foil, a broken drink bottle, and some dishwashing powder on a turntable.

Richard_Grant_4D: That process is interesting in terms of thinking about science fiction as a genre that’s specifically concerned with imagining the future, or positioning “us” in relation to technology and how humans develop and are developed by technology, and in the contemporary world where digital technology is everywhere the analogue has returned in a new relationship with the digital. In some ways analogue is what digital was 30 years ago; when the digital was emerging in our everyday lives and among the excitement there was a kind of anxiety about how it could change and affect us, and now that the digital is everyday, our relationship with analogue has a new sense of both excitement and anxiety. Digital technology is the norm and analogue is the unfamiliar…

RG: I think it’s not necessarily a divide between analogue and digital; I think now computers are just tools again, like any other tool, so before they used to be new exciting objects and people were thinking when you make imagery it has to look futuristic, but now those futuristic technologies are just like pencils or something.

D: So if the digital aesthetic is no longer enough to mark something out as futurist, what do we have to create that sense? If digital in and of itself is no longer futurist, what do we look for?

RG: That’s a good question. I don’t know. To me, things are getting more minimal. I’m talking about design here, and user interfaces on computers and that kind of thing – for a while I think people thought “Oh, they have to be complex and have a lot of buttons and lines everywhere”, but they seem to be getting more and more simple and having a more “analogue” feel to them. I think people are realising you don’t need things to be complex; they actually have to be simpler. So in terms of what the future aesthetic will be I don’t know. Maybe there’ll be a reaction against that and people will want more complex things I don’t know.

But in terms of what I’m looking for – what is new and exciting to me – I’m looking for a simpler cleaner look to whatever vision it is that I’m creating, the new images I’m trying to create.

D: As opposed to your earlier work, which was…

RG: Which was very layered and dense and there was a lot going on.

D: That makes sense if your driving force is to create images you haven’t seen before, and something that is new to you – in your earlier work what was new was overlayed and complex and dense and emphasised the digital, but what is new now is stripping all that back.

Richard Grant 1RG: I think it’s newer, and things that are cutting through… We live in an incredibly visual world with the new media technologies around us, in our everyday life, so the things that cut through for me now are simpler things. There is so much – even just looking at your computer desktop there are so many layers going on there already – so just a simpler, clean image is what is standing out now.


[Interview conducted on 9 November 2014] 


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