EK Interview: Defasten

Art Blog - Defasten - Empty Kingdom

Montreal-based motion-VFX-filmmaker Patrick Doan (running under the name of Defasten) presents a bulk of his work through geometrical layers of abstract subject matter. Our conversations with the artist helped us reveal how computer graphics become a tool for storytelling and expression. Check out the Q&A interview after the jump!

Art Blog - Defasten - Empty Kingom

Photo montage from SOFT SPELL (2013).

EK: Hello Patrick, first and foremost I want to thank you for contributing your time to do this interview! Alright, let’s get started. How about giving us a little background info about yourself. Like where you’re from, what you do for a living, what your alias “Defasten” stands for.

PD: I was born in Montreal and I grew up mainly in the comfortable suburbs of Vancouver in Canada, but we moved around a lot when I was young: Paris, San Diego (California) and Sydney (Australia). Right now I work from Montreal as a freelance motion designer, animator/director. Defasten was a name for a solo graphic design project in 2002, and it stuck ever since. I wanted to use a handle that sounded other than English or French (the two official languages of Canada) but with the semblance of. “Defasten” could mean anything from being free, letting go, to unwind, or “to release”. It’s a semantic ambiguity that fits the work I do.

EK: Let us get into the meat of the matter. Just from your portfolio, one can tell that you spent a lot of time and effort dipping your toes (and pretty much diving head first) into varying fields. You got photography, computer graphics, VFX, design, architecture, film, and much more. So what I’m curious to know is how you came to learn all of this? Was there some kind of intensive period of schooling? Lots of experimentation? Did you start with one particular media and then slowly branch off into others?

PD: I’m mostly self-taught. I’ve been on computers and gaming consoles since I was like 7, I used to watch anime and draw manga a lot in high school. Music was – and still is – an important source of inspiration. This led me to graphic design – I loved record sleeve designs. In the mid 1990s I discovered electronic music, like Bjork, The Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack, the “downtempo” genre, deep house, drum ’n’ bass, and later techno like Richie Hawtin and Carl Craig. This eventually led me to the discovery of the work of The Designer’s Republic, Warp Records, and music video directors like Chris Cunningham, Shynola, and Alex Rutterford (director of Autechre’s “Gantz Graf”), which to me was a breakthrough discovery. It was the perfect visual representation of this techno, rave subculture from the UK and Europe that I was missing out on.

When hi-speed internet was introduced around 1998 to 2001, web designers like Designgraphik and Gmunk incorporated a lot of Flash-based “motion graphics” to their designs, essentially creating a proto-version of what formed today as “motion design”. They started a new trend, they were at the centre of it, and I was compelled to get involved in this trend quickly. So I started making these experimental, form over function “websites” out of the techniques I had been refining. After a spell in West Africa doing volunteer work with Oxfam, I returned to Canada and enrolled in an undergrad design program. This incubation period was quite instrumental to my current career, because after my eye opening, reality-check experience in Africa, I was highly driven to excel in whatever I chose to do. At the university, I could freely experiment doing video / animation work within the context of the school’s program. I dropped out in 2006, but I was successful enough to start getting noticed by my peers. Ever since, I’ve been doing predominantly video-based work.

Art Blog - Defasten - Empty Kingom

Snapshot from the music video BEACHES AND FRIENDS (2010).

EK: The cityscapes, sharply edged buildings, and other geometrical fragmentations of structures you present in much of your work seem to resonate something more than just metal and concrete. What does architectural design mean to you? What are you trying to convey to the viewer with these types of images?

PD: As a teenager I read a lot of science-fiction and cyberpunk novels, it fueled a lot of my imagination, so the work I now create is a natural progression of that. A lot of what we think of as “tomorrow’s world” gets depicted with angular forms, from towering and sleek high rises to the synthetic “digital net” to any industrial design. There’s a modernity, a stark purity in these geometric shapes borne from their production methods. To me it always signified in true modernist fashion, the elimination of any needless decorative ornamentation in favor of a structural language that organized itself through its visual rationalism. That probably sounds idealistic and somewhat naïve in its unwavering optimism but at the same time, very relevant and now because contemporary architecture today visibly asserts itself exactly through bold new forms. We can think of the work of deconstructionist architects like Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, Thom Mayne of Morphosis, and the recently deceased conceptual architect Lebbeus Woods who spent his life’s work thinking about the drastic reconfiguration of space through a new and bold architectural language informed by its historic context.

EK: Staying on the subject of my previous question, do you feel that the definition for architecture extends beyond the idea of walls and rooftops? Do you see human interaction and nature to have any architectural value? I ask this in reference to your previous shorts like VOURHAUS (2008), STRANDS OF 1951 (2007), and NOISE (2005).

PD: Like many disciplines, architecture is contextual and relative. Different types of buildings and shapes exist and originate in different parts of the world, born from countless centuries of history. Architecture as a discipline has evolved broadly enough today to encompass a range of fields and definitely is not just about designing a space or monument anymore. There wouldn’t be architecture per say without human interaction and natural landscape – or at the very least, it wouldn’t be taken as a serious discipline if human interaction were not part of the equation, which it intrinsically is. In the case of the videos you mentioned, my idea of architecture is usually very kinetic – it involves movement, transformation, deconstruction and fragmentation.

Art Blog - Defasten - Empty Kingom

Photo montage from the video projection SCREAM (2011).

EK: Let’s talk about your feature art film OPENLAND (2009). What’s it all about, and how did you come to turn this idea into a film?

PD: I was approached by Toby who directs the Manchester, UK-based audio / visual label C0C0S0L1DC1T1 (pronounced “cocosolidciti”), which specializes in electronic music and video artworks. They were one of the first few audio / DVD labels promoting music and video art as one package. Toby proposed that I release something on his label within a series themed around “micro nations” that was already in motion. Toby later introduced me to Andrew Coleman (aka Animalsonwheels) who is the musician I worked with on the project. Andrew is known for his records on Ninjatune and Thrill Jockey, so I was quite happy to work with a well- seasoned artist.

OPENLAND was done mostly while I was living in Paris in 2009, which had a big influence on the direction of the project. What started out as a 20 minute abstract, non-narrative visual film turned into some kind of fictional documentary, in the same vein as the work of Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, which combines fictional narrative voiceover, operatic music and decontextualized, apocalyptic footage of burning oil fields of post-Gulf War Kuwait. It’s all very poetic. In Paris I was immersing myself in its very established culture of cinema. I (re)discovered filmmakers like Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander Sokurov and Philippe Grandrieux. After being freshly exposed to those works, I made a conscious decision to have OPENLAND more narrative than my previous works. I didn’t want it to be purely “visual entertainment” like how my previous works could be perceived as. This new piece had to be thoughtful and permeated with an underlying message, which was something I had never done before. Thus, OPENLAND became a 60 minute exposition exploring identity, nationalism, cultural progress, subculture, and virtuality. It does this dissection thru vignettes, interviews, and the subliminal footage of landscapes, sounds and verses of text rolling across the screen. The film became a very personal and poetic work, though not without its flaws. Through the interviews I conducted, it became an outlet for me to externalize some of my own questions.

OPENLAND has two incarnations, which is where things get confusing. One is the playback screener version, which is the first and main incarnation of the project. But I had made another “live cinema” version, exclusively for live performance, which meant mixing the video live, as well as having the sound live. This version was really misunderstood and has divided some of my audience, which is forgivable. It wasn’t initially planned when I started work on OPENLAND, so even I myself wasn’t fully convinced about it. The crux was that I couldn’t dedicate enough time refining this version; it came about midway through working on OPENLAND. By trying to do two works under the timeframe of one, both versions came out very different, with the live version suffering due to this disparity. Basically, it looked unfinished. In hindsight though, working on OPENLAND was a great learning process, and it did have a good run at some select institutions. The only version that lives on now though is the screener version, which is now available online in its entirety.

EK: With the imagery you represent in your videos, photos, and graphic design, there’s a political / sociological weight to them that that really puts “flesh onto bone” so to speak. What do you believe is the importance of politics in art? Do you feel that our current era of noteworthy art is just degenerating into a mass-produced fad, or is in your opinion is it constantly developing into a newer and better outlet for expression?

PD: I don’t think a lot of my work is directly political. There are probably only two works that are consciously political, and that would be OPENLAND (2009), and the short video NOISE (2005), which was done in the context of a festival inspired by Adbusters, the seminal culture jam magazine. I do think though that my work prior to 2009 is consciously existential and philosophical in tone. What comes to mind is “Transrec” (2006) and the 2005 video “concv/convx” (pronounced “concave convex”) that I made at Fabrica in Treviso, Italy. These works have an introspective feeling, from the emphasis on atmospheric drones to the abstracted visuals. In both works, there’s a faint voiceover where you hear some words being spoken referencing Baudrillard and Sartre. That said, I think politics in art is inevitable and therefore to be taken seriously. What comes to mind is the recent controversy and severe violence provoked by the anti-Islam satire film “Innocence of Muslims”.

Whether you are creating a work that is overtly political in nature or not, someone will take a political position on it, you can’t help it. The idea of “taste” itself is already very politically charged and activates all kinds of reactions in people. This can work for or against you. While I don’t consider myself a politically engaged artist, I do think politics in art is inescapable. It also adds a dimension to a work which could otherwise feel flat and vapid. I respect artists who strive to make political, transgressive artworks – they put their beliefs on the line as a way to measure their audience’s reaction, tolerance and / or acceptance, and maybe even their transformation. On the other hand, it could be faddish to do political art. In this case, it’s the responsibility of the artist to make sure they are conveying their message without being too self-indulgent, misconstrued and / or redundant.

Our era and culture of plenty enables this kind of “mass-produced art”, and I am probably a victim of this as well. Certain comfort levels in the arts do acts as springboards for other kinds of artistic expression that would not occur otherwise, we can’t deny that. We couldn’t have “net art” if the internet didn’t exist, and we certainly wouldn’t have “electronic music” if electricity didn’t exist either, the same goes for filmmaking and any electricity dependent art. Those are extreme examples, but what matters is how we refine the materials we’re given, and how we choose to re-appropriate them for self-expression and other practices.

Art Blog - Defasten - Empty Kingom

Selected photograph from collection HKG (2011).

EK: CONSTELLATION (2012) was the first project I watched that immediately peaked my interest. Not just because of it’s beautifully complicated construction and message, but it also seemed to me to be the one collaborative effort that stood out against your previous videos. What interested you in pursuing this particular work? Was Janina Fialkowska, or classical music in general, an incentive? Could you give us a brief walkthrough of how you tackled this from fruition to completion?

PD: I was approached by the National Film Board of Canada to do this short video early in the year. I personally have [an] affinity for classical music, but this was essentially a commission and I was glad to lend my skills to make a video for a world-class pianist. The video was made on the occasion of the Canadian Governor General’s Award Gala. Pianist Janina Fialkowska was one of the recipients of this year’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award, it’s the highest artistic honor an artist can achieve in this country. I felt the stakes were high on this gig, because I had never done anything so directly for – dare I say – Canada before. The video screened at the gala in the presence of some of Canada’s political heavyweights, I found this to be exciting and unnerving to know beforehand.

Initially we had worked out a first concept around a continuously disintegrating piano, but we scraped that idea about two thirds into the production timeline. I was going to work with some 3d animators on that version, but due to the new concept and impending deadline, I animated the final version entirely myself. I also had a chance to work with Shervin Shaeri, a sound designer who had previously done some notable work for the BBC, Nowness (Jacob Sutton’s “Glowing Man”), and MTV. His sound work really helped anchor the visualization of the classical music.

EK: How do you perceive your jack-of-all-trades methodology when starting up a fresh project? Is it solely based on how you want to best represent the subject matter in a specific medium? Do you see film, animation, photography, and design to be all part of the same toolbox, or are there areas in each category that you find to be unique in their own special application?

PD: I mainly identify as a moving image artist, so usually my final works are in video form. I gather my different skills into a single product, but when I get the chance, I do like to do illustration, static graphic design, photography, and also music, which I am sorely lacking in these days. I do see all these areas to be inter-related in the work I pursue, since they all emerged and are unified by my visual aesthetic.

Art Blog - Defasten - Empty Kingom

Photo montage from 2012 reel KNIGHTGEIST.

EK: Okay, time lighten things up a bit. Who are some of your heroes / role models / major artistic influences that pushed you in the direction you’re going in today?

PD: I have to reiterate that the combination of my discovery of electronic music in the mid-1990s and the web design boom was the largest impetus into explaining what I am doing today. Had I not discovered techno and the German minimal techno scene (Kompakt, Basic Channel, Force-Inc, etc), and early motion design work like “Anamorph” (WDDG, 2002), I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now in 2012. Lately though, I’ve been really interested in the dance and fashion film format, I see lots of flexibility there to experiment with form, figure, and sound. I also look to the digital audio / visual scene, like the works of Tokyo label BRDG who focus on this particular brand of audio / visual glitch overload. Through this I somehow discovered Perfume, a J-Pop group turned-techno-pop who put on these amazing stadium-sized shows combining new trends in visual technology with electronic music and fashion. British filmmaker Steve McQueen also interests me, for his uncompromised take on filmmaking. He directed Hunger and Shame, both intense films starring Michael Fassbender, who as an actor I find to be an inspiration – his raw acting ability is alluring and very persuasive.

On the same topic of cinema, I recently saw Holy Motors by French director Leos Carax, which was a revelation. It’s my favorite movie of the year and the critics are raving about it even though the audience may be divided on its authenticity. Respected French film review magazine Cahier du Cinéma dedicated an entire issue on Leos Carax’ film. To me the film is successful because it convincingly pushes the boundaries of traditional narrative form through seamless vignettes featuring one actor, Denis Lavant, playing twelve different personas. For an actor to do all that in a single film, that’s quite a feat. The film is funny, witty, intense, weird and provoking. I do think David Lynch is jealous.

Art Blog - Defasten - Empty Kingom

Photo montage from short film CONSTELLATION (2012).

EK: What hobbies or pastimes do you have outside of your artistic talents?

PD: I would have to say travel is high on the list. I’m also unsuccessfully trying to get back into writing again. Travel is very important to me because I don’t have a deep connection to any place, so I find inspiration in other cultures and lifestyles. I’d like to take time exploring the Nordic countries of Europe like Scandinavia and Iceland. I’m a romantic adventurer, so a journey onboard the Trans Siberian Railway is also a must do. Asia has been on my mind lately too. I visited Hong Kong last year, and it blew my mind. The modernity of the city’s infrastructure, the flow of people, the contrast of the high-density verticality with the picturesque mountainous backdrop and its proximity to ocean water is truly inspiring. I’ve also been watching unhealthy amounts of anime lately, like the Evangelion series, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Mobile Suit Gundam. The level of detail that goes into carving out these animations and their universes is simply amazing. As a motion designer conditioned to keyframe animation, it’s refreshing to see. It also puts a lot Hollywood cinema to shame for their lack of narrative complexity and daring storytelling.

EK: That about wraps up the interview. Again I can’t thank you enough for spending the time to “speak” with me about yourself and your work. The EK team and myself wish you best of luck to your current and future endeavors. Before we stop, do you have any other upcoming projects or potential ideas that you’d love to share with us and our readers?

PD: I’ve been catching up on all these sci-fi anime as “research” for a new animation around cybernetics, the android body, the digitization of the human body. I’m immersing myself in literature on the subject and its surrounding visual culture to help me better understand what’s been said and done, to see what I could do with it. It will probably be the next solo video work I release.

Full stream for NOISE, 2005.

Full stream for STRANDS OF 1951, 2007.

Music video for VORHAUS, 2008.

Full feature length film for OPENLAND, 2009.

Full stream for CONSTELLATION, 2012.

Full stream for SOFT SPELL, 2013.

Patrick Down // Defasten