ABOVE/BELOW: THE BOUNDS OF NON-DUALITY WITH OSCAR ZABALA
The artist Oscar Zabala opened the door of his studio in Brooklyn to MATTE Projects for an exclusive interview about his work and his upcoming exhibition “Above/Below” at Museum of Future Experiences (MoFE) in New York.
The exhibition will be open to the public from May 18th until May 22nd, 2022.
ABOVE/BELOW is an audio-visual art installation exploring the use of technology to tap into the subconscious. The installation consists of a 7-foot LED cube nestled in the only Ambisonic 3D spatial-sound theater in New York. The experience takes viewers through an audio-visual symphony of hypnotic and meditative sequences that echo patterns in psychedelic and non-ordinary states of consciousness.
MATTE: How would you explain the breadth of the installation to someone?
OZ: I guess the way I would explain it to anyone not familiar with audio-visual installations is that it’s a mixture of a light sculpture, moving paintings, and hypnotic soundscapes. A sort of Visual and Audio meditative experience.
MATTE: How did you first get started with CGI (Computer-generated imagery) and how did that kind of become one of your main mediums?
OZ: Well I think most of the things that I’ve been drawn to, when it comes to creation, have to do with discovery for me. The process of creation to me appears to be the process of discovering an image or a sound. It often feels like remembering something you knew already but you’ll only know it again when see it or hear it. So I’ve been pulled towards any medium that allows me to get into the space of ‘discovery’.
I’ve worked often with analog mediums because there’s so much variance what you can happen in the analog process, sort of allows to step into creating a lot of quote-unquote errors. But those errors are actually the most interesting discoveries, right? So with film for example, I was always trying to replicate some of the light leak errors that certain cameras would give me. You know, eventually you become familiar enough with the camera or the medium to consistently replicate these moments of randomness in the output. All that to say, I’ve found that same process can be explored with glitches and machine generated chaos. I suppose ‘organized chaos’ reigns as to what I’m most intrigued by.
MATTE: What was the turning point for you?
OZ: As everything shut down in 2020, all of my upcoming shoots went away, everything I had scheduled for that year, and for the upcoming months, just completely vanished. I was no longer going to be able to photograph people, create with other people, or go anywhere, apart from just my home, so in a weird way that opened up a whole new internal realm for me: I had the time to explore new ways of creating imagery.
In 2020, I saw a demo of Unreal Engine (UE), which is a software in which you’re able to build video games, 3D spaces, simulations essentially. The photorealism achievable in UE actually blew my mind. And I went as deep as I could down that rabbit hole. I was able to kind of make the correlation between the cinema equipment, cameras, lighting, etc. that I’ve been using forever and translated that directly into creating virtual spaces and filming them inside of simulated environments.
That was a game-changer. Once I saw this, I ended up getting deep into learning how to build custom servers and I ended up building a ridiculous rendering machine that could allow me to play inside these spaces with few limits. All of a sudden, I had the ability to create entire buildings, light them, place sounds inside of them and film it all within a photorealistic virtual environment.
MATTE: I think this is a good space to ask you about the artificial intelligence that is involved in the project. Even though you’re using a computer-generated intelligence, it still could give you some of these beautiful mistakes or, it iterates on your existing imagery and creates another space of freedom.
OZ: What I’m working on now has been a marriage of analog and digital. It’s a mixture of taking my analog work, audio recordings, photographs and motion film scans, that I’ve been working on for years and mashing it together inside 3D simulations. So the many layers involved in the process create both a tension and harmony between two mediums.
Since I was confined to being at home during the lockdown, I started shooting the only changing visual I could shoot from my house, which was the sky. And so I started capturing New York skies from my balcony weekly, essentially, anytime there would be a really beautiful sky moment. Then I ventured out to the Midwest that following year and continued shooting a bunch of skies there as well. I became obsessed with the sky. That imagery gets brought into the 3D spaces and became what the ‘above’ series – using actual film scans from these panoramic sky images I captured. And then as for ‘below,’ this is where we get into some of the AI (artificial intelligence) generated imagery. As far as machine learning and what I’m playing with, you’re basically dueling two neural networks; you train each networks on sets of images. And what they do is they war against eachother to create a new iteraltion of an image, but one that isn’t an original image of any of the sets that you’ve fed it.
This process is really fascinating to me because it allows me to create imagery that would have taken me thousands of iterations to arrive to, but instead I do it with machine processing power. Again this where the discovery takes place. It’s like you’re training a computer to see for the first time, and the you sit back and watch the machine open its eyes and see, the way you’ve trained it to see.
So the imagery for the ‘below’ series comes from films and photographs of raves that I’ve been capturing for a very long time. Music’s been the foundation to everything I do. Sound comes first. That’s the first step to any visual I do. I had imagery for years and years pilling up from shooting people in movement at raves. So in essence this is what I “trained” the machine to “see”. The imagery that came from that is what then became the ‘below’ series.
"And so to me, the symbolism that started to surface was, you have the above, which is like this blissful state of being lost in the clouds and the below, being this sort of dive into the shadow, this dark space of discovering the unknown."
To me it’s about the introspective journey of looking at both your light and your dark side, facing your shadow, and then actually integrating it in order to be able to transcend.
MATTE: When you started thinking about the exhibit and sort of pulling this together into an experience when it was coming together, what triggered it first? Was it the above or the below, or was it working with the machine?
OZ: These were the two sets of imagery that I had been creating for a while and it became clear they were one in the same. So the concept of ‘as above, so below’ is a hermetic axiom, it’s about the interrelationship between the material and the divine. It’s this paradox of dualing ideas as being one in the same.
And so I realized I’d been exploring the duality of digital and analog, skies above and underground raves below, exploring this idea of adversarial networks, two networks, warring against each other to create one image. So very quickly, the interrelationship found in dualing ideas became of central interest to me.
"The concept of “Above Below” is actually that they’re one and the same, a reflection of one another, it’s an exploration of non-duality."
When I first realized this and looked at the body of work that I had created, I was like, whoa, these are exactly the two dueling natures within me.
MATTE: That’s very interesting. Your work explores subconscious, altered states of consciousness, symbolism. As above, so below, in hermetics and even, alchemical practices there’s so much more than the one-to-one and the duality that you’re speaking to. So often people think of it and it’s earth or heaven. It’s like it’s upwards when really it’s much like the 3d worlds that you create, it’s always happening around us. It’s inside us. When do you feel most transcendent when you’re creating? When do you feel like you’re in the zone or tapping into this other, I’m wondering when it happens in the, in the vessel for you?
OZ: I suppose it’s about truly just showing up. My buddy Nick has a tattoo on his hand that says ‘show up’. He would see it every time he would play the piano, his idea was simply just that, show up to the creation process. And that always rang true for me.
Truly showing up consistently to the space of creation. Once you set up the parameters of that playground, just jumping in and actually treating it as a sort of sacred space. When I do jump into that playground I do treat it like a ritual, a sacred time.
MATTE: It reminds me of how an athlete prepares. Because there’s this timeframe, which could be like the “box” of the basketball game, but there’s so much time spent off the court or in training and you’re ritualistically learning the motions, the movements you’re putting the skillset together and the tools that when you get thrown into this box of the game, you then have other players and it’s up to you, to show up and, exercise literally and figuratively, and create within the space.
OZ: Exactly, because what you’re training is your intuition, So that at the moment that you get thrown a ball, to use your analogy, or an idea arrises you’ve trained your subconscious to listen and react. I love that.
I think it’s tricky for creatives though, because there’s most people have the idea that not having boundaries, or just jumping into chaos is the ultimate creative freedom.
"But the truth is that ultimate freedom is actually found in creating the boundaries; the banks of the river don’t constrain the river. They actually give it its strength and its form."
So then you create the boundaries, you show up to that space and that consistency, that discipline in essence kind of allows you to invite those “peak” moments.
MATTE: I want to come back to the music and the soundtrack. What it was like collaborating with Andrew Fox and how you decide what it sounds like, how it changes in collaboration and then to actually having it in the theater, because an ambisonic theater is very different from what we’re used to hearing, we’re all on ear pods and having sound coming from one direction.
OZ: This piece less of sound design and more of a composition. The format that for me has been the most interesting to play within is the mix format. As in the typical hour long DJ Mixtape.
Mixes are pretty much exclusively how I listen to music. I very rarely listened to a single track or even an album. I mainly consume mixes and that format is such a beautiful format to me because it’s the closest audio format to what it feels like to watching a film, but the sound version of that.
My favorite mixes all guide you through this really hypnotic sonic journey. And so that is in essence how I wrote the music for this piece. The sounds ground the viewer and create space to sync your subconscious mind with the visuals. So that’s basically what this is. It started very much as a sound meditational but it evolved to a bit more of a mixtape format.
Andrew Fox, he’s the producer and sound engineer, he’s like at the forefront of my friends in understanding the ambisonic world. The collaboration has been a lot about him guiding me through into these analog sound playgrounds. Being like, okay, now play with this synth for a little bit and see what you come up with.
So Ambisonics is 360-degree surround sound, using several speakers to create that 360-degree sound sphere. The format allows you to place and move sounds inside of that sphere so it becomes quite immersive which is why it’s most often used in VR.
MATTE: NFTs. A lot of your work focuses on immersion and different realms, how we’re experiencing things. What’s your approach to the NFT space and how does this as a form, further express your work or is it more of a commercial piece?
OZ: The NFT series that I’m releasing, is about being able to own a piece of immersive media. I’ll be releasing the ORBS series. Each one of the orbs actually come from one of the sequences that you’re going to see at the installation. In a nutshell, I’ll be releasing a series of my ORBS as immersive NFTs, they use the Dolby Atmos surround-sound format, which will allow collectors to have a pretty immersive experience using their own sound system at home. Not to mention galleries that own them can setup a four-speaker or more sound setup and create a mini installation with each NFT.
Oscar Zabala is a New York-based artist working at the fringes of both analog and digital mediums to depict visions.