A Conversation with Michele Ayoub
Written by Nicole Coon
Whether you have stumbled upon or intentionally sought out Michele Ayoub’s video installation FOUND., which inhabits our storefront gallery space Little Sister, it is likely that you wondered what you were looking at. Maybe you were mesmerized by the blue glitchy imagery, or maybe you were disillusioned by incomprehension – hopefully both. Either way, FOUND. prompts the question: how do we consume digital images and sounds that are no longer legible to us?
FOUND. is a combination of discarded footage, voice memos, iPhone videos and interviews from Ayoub’s collected documentary projects, constructed into an abstract narrative of pixelated images. The screens, which stand staggered in the storefront window, display a mirage of shapes and hues of Chroma Blue (X11) and random sound bites, inviting you to experience the work differently and to guess at its meaning. Glitches, pixilation, The Blue Screen, system error, CTRL+ALT+DEL, in passing, a stranger’s window, last night, the future, an alien meteorite. FOUND. is both familiar and disorienting, intriguing and futile; a reminder that the digital “realities” we capture are, in fact, constructed.
N: How and when did you get the idea for the show?
I got the idea the moment that Holden [curator of Little Sister] asked me to do something in the space. I already had some set ideas developed – like working with sound over abstracted documentary images- but FOUND. was not in the works yet. When Holden and I began talking about the show I envisioned the blue imagery and the poster, and that’s exactly how I ended up doing it. I knew I wanted to work within the theme of anonymity, and expose people through images and sound. I had already been making documentary visuals that I had obscured, so I had already been manipulating hours and hours of documentary footage into abstract forms.
I had been thinking of making more installations that represent a lot of my themes, using these anonymous visuals and sound to create one succinct narrative, where everything blends together, and its this alien experience. So I decided to make it about connecting random moments without any specific subject matter.
I knew it was all going to be in blue, and knew that was going to tie it all together. With the screens too, I wanted it to look as if you were watching it from across the street looking into someone’s window, or someone’s apartment. Which works well with the specific location of the storefront because at night DundasStreet is still fairly quiet and residential, but has night dwellers passing by.
I want people to look at the screens without being able to judge the specific images that are underneath the abstractions. Some of the footage might be pornography, or a man feeding birds, or kids running around the park. But you have no idea what you’re actually looking at.
N: What kind of effects/processes did you put on the original footage?
It’s a mixture of so many different things and hours playing around on Final Cut. I like to use really basic effects and combine a bunch on top of each other to make something completely different. Or I’ll process the footage through old cameras and capture soft-wares, which basically breaks down the files so it will pixelate more and more until it starts to glitch. And then through that, you can add an effect and change the contrast…ect. Also I lose myself in the process and go into these late night editing binges where I am just experimenting and making new images out of footage I’ve filmed . When I was making the sound scape, I went through hours and hours of footage from over the past 4 years I had on hard drive and just dragged randomly selected ones onto my desktop, and gave some of the process up to chance. From there I would go in and edit/select different parts from all the different audio recordings.
N: Are people only able to observe your footage in a abstract visual way, because the original images are no longer legible to us in a conventional sense?
Yeah even the t-shirts and prints I made for the exhibit, they have glitched images on them and it could be of anything and we don’t know it. For the t-shirt you might be wearing images of my face or something pornographic but you have no idea.
N: Did you have a strong idea about what you wanted the show to look like?
Yes, very much so. I wanted to do at least 4 channel blue abstract videos that would appear to dance or be in rhythm with each other. At one point Holden suggested vinyl covering the window with squares for the screens and that really inspired the idea of “peaking in” to these little moments. The whole time I had a picture in my head of what the window would look like from across the street or from a car driving by, the blue hues moving, and these little imaginary lives that you have to peak in and look at. It’s captivating but kind of disregards any judgment or comprehension because you don’t know what it is. Just like when you peer into someone’s house window and get a glimpse of their life and assume some sort of story or make up a fantasy in your head. These little blue windows are my interpretation of those moments.
N: How does the location of FOUND., as displayed in a storefront, impact its viewership in different ways? What factors did you have consider when you were conceptualizing and mounting show.
I am interested in trying to always change the experience of viewing a piece, specifically within film and video installations, by making the presentation feel different each time, unique and “present” to the viewer. I didn’t want FOUND. to fit into a narrative that “finishes” but rather is always shifting and changing. The video loops are all different lengths, and the sound is longer than the videos, and I want the whole thing to have a feeling that it could go on infinitely and you will always have a different experience viewing it. Also working with such old technology I know that the videos might lag sometimes, throwing an original synchronicity off, but that actually pleases me and renders the whole experience more unpredictable.
Also the fact that the exhibit is controlled by the environment, in that, from 6PM to 8PM the sun goes down and the exhibit starts looking different, the images begin to appear and then darken and become more vibrant, almost as if the show turns on itself and that each angle that people are viewing the window will be different. You can walk by and completely ignore it. Or be captivated from across the street, or from a streetcar window.
N: Why did you make the shirt and the prints? How do you feel about translating intangible digital images into material objects?
Well I have been thinking a lot about that. In the 90’s there used to be a big collectors market for owning and selling videos. But to me I’m interested in exploring precious objects and owning these precious objects. I do think the feeling of a video work can be translated into other mediums/objects that will then take on different meanings and change the way that visual art can be seen. You know, why can’t I make a print of this still? There are so many different modes of viewing something. I also like the idea of someone owning a moment of documentary footage, of captured reality, but put onto an object. They have to love this moment of documented life or wear it, or put it up on their wall, and yet they have no idea if they would even like the actual source behind the image.
N: Do you think you will you ever screen FOUND. again?
I definitely wouldn’t screen it in the same way. I think I would have to make alterations, like making the audio longer or altering some of the images. I just don’t feel like I own it anymore, but rather it belongs to that space. I enjoy having certain constraints on works and feeling that some things can’t be repeated or contained, even if you want to, you just have to let it go. You make that experience unique. At the opening, people came out of their homes to watch these public screens together instead of just thinking, “I will just wait till it comes out on Vimeo to watch it.” Even if it goes online it won’t be the same experience and it won’t capture how it was. It is a different experience to watch something in real life with real people, in a moment in time, especially when you know it’s always changing and in progress.
N: Are you saying that FOUND. is site-specific in terms of the physical space of the storefront, geographic location and its public viewership?
Yeah and that’s what I love about that space too, is that you don’t have to go into the gallery space. It’s public; it’s like street art for the digital age. It doesn’t have many limitations, there are no set “gallery time,” rather, it can be viewed by anybody at any time. It infiltrates into a space that doesn’t make “sense” in a traditional way
N: Did you have any set backs with the show?
It was actually so hard and we didn’t have much time to figure it all out. We tried plinths to hold up the computers but we didn’t have enough space, and I was almost forced to abandon what had now become a super clear image of how I wanted everything with a week before the show. It didn’t seem possible. But once the plinths didn’t work and I took some time to think about it I sort of went into survival mode and bought these thin metal shelves and started doing tests to see if they could hold up the weight of the computers. The original setback actually led to things working out better because I could create this space inside the window, behind the painted black shield, where there was like a secret art installation for myself. I wanted these big alien computer bodies, of the eMac’s, on stark metal shelves and blue LED tube lights everywhere glowing and pulsating from inside and through the cracks. I imagined it like an alien meteorite that is a living breathing organism that just fell into this space. It has this wired inside. There were so many things that had to be taken into account and went wrong prior but everything ended up working out perfectly once we opened. Also setting up and working with the eMac’s, and constantly testing them before the show, and trying to get them in the space required such a specific routine, that it sort of made me feel like I was nourishing this alien creature.
N: Why did you choose to work with eMac’s as your visual and technological medium?
Well as hard as they were to work with I actually ended up loving that process and challenge, as well as the restrictions, which I definitely need since I leave so many aspects to chance and experiment so much with visuals and narrative structure. I need to be contained in some ways. I invested a lot of time with those computers, trying to work with them, having to adjust the quality of the video files in order for them to work on such old computers whilst also listening to their loud but soothing hum as I worked. It was such a unique and special experience working with them.
N: Something feels more substantial about that process.
Yeah and they are so heavy! I was constantly carrying them upstairs and back and forth to the space. It was a bit exhausting. Every time I had to drive them anywhere I had to seat belt them in! Cause they’re like babies!
N: Where does the name of the show “FOUND.” come from?
It’s “found” footage from my records. I have year’s worth of sounds and videos that I’ve collected and filmed that I can just choose from. Everything is found in a way. You find inspiration, moments…etc. “Found” as in - you walk by and you find this person’s house, or this exhibit, or you find this alien probe in the middle of the city.