The virtual realities of Brenna Murphy

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In last week's issue of the Reader, I wrote about Portland artist Brenna Murphy and her forthcoming appearance at the Gene Siskel Film Center (Thu 9/27, 6 PM), where she'll be presenting her work as part of the ongoing experimental film series, Conversations at the Edge, in collaboration with Lampo, a nonprofit organization dedicated to experimental multimedia events in Chicago. Murphy works in a variety of forms and therefore isn't a "filmmaker" in the traditional sense—in addition to sculpting and music, she also creates experimental "video games" and labyrinth-like Web pages—but her video work, which utilizes 21st-century technology in truly unique ways, is some of the most sensuous filmmaking you're likely to come across. Sight and sound are morphed and twisted to represent a reality that resembles our own but nevertheless yields to a burgeoning digital influence.

I asked Murphy a few questions about her work and the nature of her process.

First, could define the words "image" and "ontology" for me? Not their dictionary definitions per say, but how you think they apply to your work and what they mean to you as concepts.

I play with visual/aural artifacts (images) as a way of studying the nature of reality/existence (ontology). The aesthetic qualities of reality are endlessly trippy and I think that considering them closely can reveal emergent shapes that compose the structure of human experience. In my work, I use my intuition in collaboration with computer programs to construct models of reality in the form of 2-D collages, 3-D virtual spaces, rhythmic videos, labyrinthian Web pages, etc. This process is a method for expanding my perceptual framework. I must look at things closely in order to create the models, then I must consider my model and how it reflects my mental shape. Something like: ecstatic engagement~> positive feedback loop~> expanded consciousness.

I've honestly never seen anyone use After Effects quite like you do. What is it about that program and its capabilities that's so alluring to you? What other programs do you use?

I was immediately hooked to After Effects because it allowed me to extend my Photoshop workflow into the fourth dimension. I love warping my videos and images and AE has endless great effects that can be layered into infinitely varied combos. I also really like "nesting compositions" inside each other. Building one composition and putting it into another one, warping that one and putting it inside another, etc. It's so fluid and expansive! I also use Photoshop, iMovie, Final Cut, Dreamweaver, Garage Band, Unity, and Blender. I use Blender to build and animate my 3-D objects and make textures for them. I use these objects to make video games in Unity, animations in AE, and collages in Photoshop and Dreamweaver.

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The textures you give your digital designs appear quite tangible and realistic. Why do you give such attention to these details? Is it to counterbalance the seemingly intangible aspects of digital imagery

Textures of surfaces in reality are extremely compelling to me. They all have their own insane beautiful structures/colors. I am always trying to see them more deeply. One way of studying them is by mimicking them in graphics programs. When I texture my digital objects, I spend a lot of time layering various preset textures and tweaking all of the overlaid colors and bumpiness until a certain quality of iridescent realness unfolds itself. I find that going through this process of mimicking textures expands my awareness of them in "reality."

I'm a native of Oregon and spent a good amount of time in Portland before moving to Chicago. Is there anything about PDX, itself, that inspires you? Its landscapes, textures, etc?

Yes, for sure. I take a lot of inspiration from my surroundings, so naturally the physical qualities of the place I live affect my palette. I grew up in Seattle and have lived in Portland since then, so my intake has been fully northwestern. Moist, green, grey, living fungus on everything, weird clouds, misty atmosphere. The Pacific Northwest is a pretty psychedelic zone.

Considering you work in such a wide variety of forms—from video, to performance art, to sculpting—do you feel as if you get equal amounts of satisfaction from each one? Does a particular form offer something that the others do not?

Each form offers something unique and they all feed into one another. Arranging images in collages led me to arrange physical objects in space; making interactive sculptural/sound installations with my art collective Oregon Painting Society influenced the 3-D virtual spaces that I'm building now; finding rhythmic patterns in my video work has influenced my use of video imagery in 2-D collages, etc. Working flexibly between mediums gives me a broader sense of how each can function in its own way and how it can be stretched. It also helps keep me fresh—in one day I can start off by working on a collage for a few hours, then switch to playing with a video, then have band practice with my group MSHR. No reason to get bored or stuck in one mind frame!

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Sort of a hacky question, but I'm curious: which of the films you'll be presenting at the Film Center is your personal favorite and why?

Making videos is a really meditative activity for me. I get really deep into all of these short clips of image and sound and lock into these looped rhythms as I'm weaving them. When I finish a video, I watch it over and over for a while. It feels like I'm unlocking a secret song/message that is woven into the thread of my DNA. So my new videos are always my favorite because they are fresh and alien to me—exciting because they hold weird codes that I haven't cracked yet. Half of the program [at the Gene Siskel Film Center] includes new videos that I made in the last month, so these are the ones that are my favorite at the moment.

Are you at all influenced by any narrative filmmakers? I see a bit of David Lynch in your films (particularly Mindfold), and some of your landscape shots remind me of Werner Herzog.

Yes, for sure I love Lynch, Herzog, Tarkovsky, Roeg, Antonioni, Tati especially. I think they are some of the greatest artists of our time. They are all masters of narrative film, but they are also deeply sensual in their approaches. All of these guys are freaks about the sensual experience of reality! When you watch their movies, you can feel that each shot is a carefully sculpted visual/aural poem that uses aesthetics to reveal the agony/ecstasy of human existence. I feel really lucky to have been introduced (mostly by fellow LAMPO guest Matt Carlson) to their films while I was in college. Their masterful visual/aural compositions definitely had a huge influence on my approach to video.

Do you have aspirations to incorporate more outwardly narrative elements to your work? Some of your films, like Sublayer 1, seem to inch toward some semblance of narrative but never quite take the plunge.

For some reason, I have no creative urges to make outwardly narrative works. Making up dialogue feels completely outside the realm of my universe. I'm only 26 though, so hopefully my interests will broaden and morph as I grow. Who knows, maybe I'll make narrative films when I'm 40! Right now I have this very specific strong drive to make work that explores the aesthetic composition of reality and that just doesn't include the drama of human relationships as much as it includes particular aesthetic arrangements of textures and rhythms. Maybe my work is a narrative about a spiritual alien insect who has found itself on Earth and is trying to understand what's up.

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