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Heavy Rotation: The Cyclical World of Sculpture

Text by Daniel Mackenzie

Following earlier developments in the Middle East, the Copper Age brought into being such developments as the potter’s wheel and the first wheeled vehicles, kicking off a new era of agriculture and industry. Imagine the gravity of such a revelation, and its effects on labour, inventiveness and status. Today we still regard the wheel as a marvel of engineering, comparing a significant leap of ingenuity to its reinvention. 

Wheels in endless iterations now surround us – interlocking to form the mechanisms inside watches, sitting in double-figure formations to support the weight of giant aircraft and assisting with the construction of buildings that together form towering city skylines. It is the relationship between the wheel and the axle that underpins the technology found in the turntable, the basic operation of which is relatively unchanged since Eddison’s phonograph. The flat circular motion of this arrangement is key to how sound is able to be picked up and processed whilst reducing unwanted noise. In refining this even further some manufacturers are able to extract notable sums of cash from individuals who some would call audiophiles.

The rotating disc’s place in visual and moving media brings up a range of instances – spinning plates distributing wax via centrifugal force, the dreamy orbits of celestial bodies on a child’s bedroom wall and, much more abstracted the technology is, DVDs.

For audio-visual duo Sculpture, the primary gears of their work inhabit a number of these associations. Generally speaking, they combine processed tape music with zoetrope animation – the woozy illusion of motion invented by William Horner in the 19th century. The duties for the pair are split neatly in two with no apparent overlap – visual artist Reuben Sutherland takes care of what is seen; electronic audio artist Dan Hayhurst lays down the audio. In the performance setting, there is minimal physical interaction between the two, almost suggestive of an intentional ignorance towards neat synchronisation.

Instead, chaos largely characterises proceedings, disarmed here and there with casual flashes of dialogue that emerge as audio signals from Dan’s devices, into the PA, then out of the speakers into Reuben’s ears and eventually distilled through his limbs into manipulations and jolts in the moving image. Everything is delightfully analogue and playfully rough. A caricature of Escher-like architectural madness may tumble away to make space for a yelping vintage cartoon character, then both swiped aside with a brief shot of fingertips in action before another world is dragged into being.

Deconstructing the setup reveals simple technologies that hold the spinning disc’s magic at their heart. The turntable provides a platform for an unending pile of custom-made images, layered under lights and the eye of the camcorder, set into motion by the motor that drives the platter. The placement of the patterns creates the cascading zoetrope effect, frantic one moment, calm the next, and always woozy.

Switch to the auditory, and it’s winding tape loops, layered and smeared, a framework for all manner of blops and clanks that culminate in abstract rave heights at given times. At others, it’s an indiscernible and constantly shuffling alphabet of radiophonic upchuck, and brilliantly so.

Though the final delivery of the material depends on physical manipulations, the Sculpture project is not a throwback that delights in shunning modern tools. Instead, what is seen, heard and felt comes from a synergy of technologies, the more up-to-date ones occupying a backstage place. Reuben’s command of Photoshop and After Effects finds its way onto the zoetrope discs; Dan’s audio sources find themselves pulled through preparations in Ableton and Max. The physical medium is what delivers a unique sense of liveliness and malleability.

…it never works properly until you move it into a more physical and ‘simpler’ system with more limited possibilities”, says Dan. “And also just sonically it benefits very much from the unique characteristics of various media devices and playback mechanisms and being squeezed through a mixer.

What is so alluring about Sculpture’s material, especially when witnessed live, is how despite the dizzying levels of wonkiness present throughout, it seems familiar, on a level that exists somewhere deeper than pure eye and ear candy. The content of the visuals will momentarily throw up a logo, or recognisable figure, tugging on the part of the brain that tells us to feel nostalgic, to recall a fragmented morsel of pop culture of current affairs.

The persistence of the sounds, their granularity, the alchemy and psychedelia of the visuals – it almost appears to be speaking not to the referential brain but to the microbiome, synapses and molecules; the fraying edge of consciousness is flapping in the same wind. Dan Hayhurst mysteriously skirts around these associations, retaining to some degree a veil of magic, but concedes that there is indeed a likely relationship with the body’s inner systems.

I think there’s a complexity that comes from semi-random superimpositions of patterns (like Moiré) and following branching paths revealed during a partially chaotic accumulation of layers and material and energy and that is a bit NERVOUS yes.

Moving to published work, Sculpture have released records that contain music videos visually whirring away on the vinyl surface itself, most notably 2014’s Plastic Infinite 7”. Accompanying this record was an online video recording that anyone would believe to be a software render. Only it is revealed partway through that the footage is a direct recording of the spinning record itself. Sculptures are nothing if not meta. More recently, they issued Nearest Neighbour, a tape and graphic novel package that pushed their work’s scope into new realms. The music is winding and unpredictable, lurching between warped dancefloors and cerebral outlands and totalling just over 70 minutes. The visuals are vast, at once joyous and disturbing, an unhinged amalgamation of impossibly relational themes and environments.

Sculpture exist to defy reductionism, exploiting contradictions on record and in real-time. If anything sits at the heart of their work, it is alchemy. The duo stand one step diagonally away from their followers, a trailing secret gave over. A case in point is the Nearest Neighbour tape. If this is placed on a vinyl deck and spun, a classic Sculpture illusion is revealed, a treat for the eyes and a reward for following their adventurous spirit.

Sculpture celebrate the release of their new locked groove 5” zoetrope picture disc on Friday, November 29, at The Old Baths in Hackney.

(Media courtesy of Sculpture)
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