Dark Noise : An Interview with Chris Hammes

September 19, 2012 · Print This Article

At the end of August, Chris Hammes has an exhibition, Twenty-One Motorcycles, at the Hills Esthetic Center. One of my favorite things about the show was probably the sound it created. I walked into a pitch black exhibition space and instantly zoned in on three different kinetic sculptures; flickering lights defined the bounds of each. In the first instance, I saw a stack of recognizable VHS tape player screens — recognizable only because of the disembodied digital numbers. The players themselves were subsumed in darkness and the numbers seemed to hang, like little electronic ghosts. To the right of the door, I saw a dizzy of red — the spinning of a digital clock face. And then, in the far corner, a spinning circle of colored light that looked almost like string. Each machine whirred, cranked and croaked in the darkness. It was white noise in darkness. Lights and sound in tandem created a mesmerizing affect. Every piece was engaged in its own, personal orbit, exhibiting a repeated, kinetic energy that was somehow calming rather than frenetic. It made the darkness full — as a house during the summer in the middle of the night. Fans I could not see, spun lights and pushed air. The various motions of these objects created an complex oral texture. In the following interview, I had a chance to ask how Hammes’ came to create a dark exhibit, where his interest in hypnotism has come from, and why he’s compelled by motorcycles.

Caroline Picard: What is it like to make work for the dark? How do you anticipate what you will see and what you are building (in the light, presumably)?

Chris Hammes: I didn’t actually consider these works to be made for total darkness, it was a decision we made when the show was installed.  I made the work in the light and had intended to have some low-wattage spot lights on the pieces, but when we looked at the works in the space we realized that each piece has a pretty bright luminescence, and viewing in darkness just made it more intense.

Jacob C Hammes, “Prisoner’s Cinema,” Hypnosis performance at New Capital Projects, Chicago, 2012.

CP: I know you have an on-going interest in hypnosis – where did that interest come from and how does it manifest in your practice? 

CH: When I was in high school I picked up a book on self-hypnosis and experimented with it on my own, tape recording myself and then listening back. It was fun but I didn’t see any use for it so I didn’t really do anything with it.  I studied sound at SAIC which lead to improvised electroacoustic performances, which lead to working as a producer and “talent” on a radio show called Blindspot, where I conquered some stage-fright and developed an interest in things like writing and performing for monologue and narrative. About four years ago I started experimenting with hypnosis again. I read a few books and realized this was a really fertile place to develop a collaborative practice that combined a lot of different disciplines that I wanted to explore. After some feeble first attempts, I was lucky enough to meet a professional hypnotist that took an interested in my work, and became somewhat of a mentor that examined my technique and gave me critical input to help me improve. I’m also lucky enough to know some very adventurous artists, so when I needed volunteers they weren’t hard to find.

CP: When you hypnotize people, do you think of it as a kind of performance? What does that say about the artist — i.e. artist-as-hypnotist?

CH: These sessions are a form of collaboration that often manifests as a performance, where the goal is to facilitate new experiences that can lead to the production of a narrative, sometimes music, an object or an image, while exploring the power-relationship between the collaborators. It involves seriously different roles on the parts of the collaborators, and can result in a power imbalance that’s difficult to manage. And this power balance is something to battle against, follow or fall into unexpected places. In preparation I write scripts based on what we mutually want to accomplish in the session, but it’s always an improvisation. For me as an artist, it’s a tool for steering desires and perception towards an unusual creative place.

Jacob C Hammes, “Harley Mandala,” modified oscillating fan, electroilluminescent wire, slip ring, handcut acrylic panel. 2012.

CP: I saw a connection between your work with hypnosis and the Harley Mandala. Can you talk a little bit about that?

CH: The Harley Mandala is one of two works in the show I’ve made using the Harley-Davidson logo, looking into the cultural significance of the Harley brand. Harley seems to possess a notion of freedom fused with rebellion that puts optimism in conflict with pessimism. Considering motorcycle culture symbolized by the Harley logo, I wanted to raise the logo to a spiritual place.

The Harley Mandala piece spins at about 1000 RPMs, which transforms the spinning Harley Davidson logo into concentric circles of light, similar in appearance to a circular mandala. This is one of two spinning pieces in the show composed of modified fans.  Part of the motivation with these two kinetic pieces is to exploit the limitations of vision by spinning an object so fast that it masks the true shape and appears to be something else.  Along with looking like a mandala, it also has that mesmerizing effect of the spiral use by hypnotists in movies.  This mesmerism can happen when you know an object is different than what you’re perceiving, which is similar to a perceptual shift that can happen with hypnosis. Maybe that’s the connection.

CP: I also understand that, with the namesake sculpture, Twenty-One Motorcycles, you modified the interior of VHS machines, causing them to rattle and whir. VHS machines have such a curious presence — they’re like these obsolete but very nostalgic machines. Somehow, by making them whirl especially loudly, you’re connecting them to movement — specifically the open road, the motorcycle: can you talk more about that connection? 

CH: I attached metal tines to the spinning player head that reads the magnetic tape in a way that allows the machine to still function, but sound as if it’s broken. When I press play, the motor slowly starts up and gains momentum, sounding like a much larger motor. It occurred to me that this kind of noise-making is similar to the pretending that a child does when attaching a playing card to the spokes of a bicycle, transforming it into a motorcycle. This ability to transcend through pretending feeds back to the VCR as another formative presence in the youth of my generation. The sound is created by this circular movement, but unlike the other work in the show with visible motion, this is announced by a screeching mechanical drone. They’re stacked up at a height of a little under 7ft because I wanted it to be the height of a really tall, intimidating human. These machines still work as well as they always have, but nobody wants them anymore. The drone sounds aggressive, like a scream.

Jacob C Hammes, “Twenty-One Motorcycles,” modified VCRs, 6hr VHS tapes, handmade pallet, shipping straps, powerstrips, 2012.

CP: The last thing I wanted to ask — in some way I feel like my questions have been leading up to this, but I was interested in the place of Romanticism in your show. Calling forth the specter of Voltaire and connecting them to motorcycles in Candide-Voltaire Motorcycles (as though they had a specific shop somewhere and fixed up bikes) or too, with Enlightenment, where one can drink a shot out of a resin cast shape of Voltaire’s head….how does Romanticism play into this? I can’t help feeling like there are ideas about justice and liberty, also connected to the open road, and a sense of space and nature — all of which come together here in a very Romantic, and especially American, fantasy. Maybe a better way to ask this question is, what does Voltaire’s motorcycle shop look like? 

CH: I hadn’t thought of a motorcycle shop run by a mechanic team of Candide and Voltaire, but I love the idea.  I’m picturing modified pantaloon coveralls, maybe a mesh John Deere cap on top of Voltaire’s powdered wig.

I’m not sure if it’s Romanticism I’m interested in as much as a pairing of symbols of different cultural value.  Candide is valued European literature while Harley is working-class America, and both can be Romantic for different reasons. I’ve made a number of works that reference Candide by Voltaire to signal a division between Optimism and Pessimism. The novel is famously pessimistic, but also a political satire against the theological optimism of the Enlightenment era. It describes youthful naivete in a chaotic and malevolent world. I’m pairing Candide-Voltaire with Harley-Davidson to represent a similar conflict between optimism and pessimism.  Harley always reads as patriotic  and American. It was one of a few companies supplying motorcycles to WWII, and the formation of motorcycle gangs comes in large part from the post-war alienation felt by veterans returning home. On the surface, there’s an obsession with death imagery, black leather, skulls and flames.  Underneath is a clear corporate marketing presence and commodities feeding these images. This logo can read as a celebration of fearlessness, a “burn out before you fade away” kind of freedom. But it can also invite fearfulness, playing into the dark-side of outlaw motorcycle clubs engaging in organized crime, drugs, violence, prostitution, human trafficking, ritual initiations, etc. We know the motion picture Easy Rider, and we know the Hells Angels at Altamont. With both symbols there’s a spiritual aspect, and a separate blunt reality to contend with.