Tal Rosner

by Daniel Warren

Ambient N: Music for Frank Gehry’s Monoliths
When Tal Rosner cuts his videos, he’s not out to match image to sound, nor does he expect a composer to staunchly interpret his visuals. Instead, the Israeli-born UK-based artist works to redefine audio-video’s 100-year relationship to monogamous synchronicity.

“A large part of my practice explores the psychogeography of places, and many of my pieces are visual explorations—where I try to interpret or transcend how I feel when I am where I am.”

Since January 2011, his video mural “Chronograph” has been projected on a 7,000-square-foot wall of the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center of Miami. From dusk to midnight, the “Chronograph” wall shifts between recognizable photographs of Miami’s historic art deco architecture, animating into abstract geometric patterns, and repeating ad infinitum.

In “Chronograph,” software automates a process of recreation, with periodic cycles generating an evolving visual experience. Upon the hour, aspects of the choreography shift: detail and pacing, palette and rhythm, geometry and pattern. No two visitors will ever experience the same sequence.

“I collect, process and present a de- and re-construction of a place, in a way that I hope is both personal and universal.”

Rosner’s universality emerges when juxtaposed with legendary producer, and ambient music visionary, Brian Eno. On 1978’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports, track “2/1,” three layered vocal tape loops in lengths of 23 ½ seconds, 25 7/8   seconds and 29 15/16 seconds each repeat continuously. A sublime sense of traversal enraptures (or bores) the listener. Eno explains, “They all repeat in cycles that are called incommensurable—they are not likely to come back into sync again. So this piece is moving along in time. Your experience of the piece of course is a moment in time, there.”

How incredible? In 1996, one artist discussing his 1978 masterpiece perfectly captured the gestalt of Rosner’s contemporary visual work, “For me,” says Rosner, “processing environments through my filter is a prime artistic expression.” How serendipitous? Eno concepted Ambient 1 while passing time at Cologne Bonn Airport. Uninspired by the obsequious pop melodies, he sought an atmosphere where he could think.

But what does the public think of Rosner’s ambitious sound-free work? When the New Yorker visited the exhibition in February of 2011, three teenagers stopped on a sidewalk to check out the monolithic, Protean mural. Suddenly, one of them said, “this is so gay.” They stood there for a minute longer, not checking their phones, and then they carried on.

Though it risks being dangerously misconstrued in today’s PC world, Rosner’s work is ironically—at least to the skater-haters—absolutely, delightfully gay. This is seen especially when Rosner is constrained to an inside-out format like TV.

In the title sequence for Channel 4’s rom-drama Dates, Rosner animates live footage with rapid swaths of pure radiant color filters—magenta, lavender, lime green—and in his title sequence for longstanding E4 drama Skins he takes brightly shot footage, chopping up various sequences into geometric shapes, overlaying them with breakneck alacrity. Merriment, mirth, glee—all become viable reactions to Rosner’s choices.

In Skins, this Eno-esque notion of moving time—infinitely changing in perception—again resurfaces. On screen, the geometric shapes move as an animation of their own, while within each shape live footage carries on, each experiencing its own time within time. The letters appear isolated, one by one, too large to read, eventually shrinking in size, coming together in legibility.

To say Rosner doesn’t understand narrative would be remiss. His subtle decisions in the Skins title sequence capture the goal of a program about love and romance—inherently isolated beings (in Debord’s scandalous theories: part of a “society of separation”) strive to gain self-awareness and meaningfully connect to peers.

“I feel that I’m most comfortable creating on both levels: the collaborative and the personal, either responding to a sibling art form or creating a piece from scratch,” he says.

In 2011, during the opening week of New World Center, Rosner premiered “Polaris,” a collaboration with virtuosic composer Thomsas Adès. In a gentle composition, an aural visual soundscape, if you will, two Rockwellian women gaze at an ebbing sea accompanied by a forceful, brash musical composition. On the surface—raw emotion aside—the premise is basic.

But Rosner, like Eno in the Cologne airport, wasn’t satisfied. “Polaris” unsealed the stagnant relationship between filmic motion and compositional rhythm; a control room engineer, situated above the stage, was monitoring the progress of the footage, “If the conductor slowed down or sped up, the engineer could compensate,” wrote the New Yorker, saying it was like “witnessing not just a technological forward leap but the emergence of a new genre.”

“Video is a format that we feel close to—we are spending a big part of our day looking at screens after all,” says Rosner, “yet it is still relatively new on stage, and incorporating it to that environment needs to be done with great care and respect.”

Rosner is currently developing “The Hard-Boiled Egg” for the Royal Opera House; an adaptation of a Eugene Ionesco 1966 teleplay. Collaborating with composer Christopher Mayo, the one-act opera will incorporate HD film, live performers, and multiple screens.

“When adding a video to an existing piece of music, I add my personal interpretation of the piece; it’s my way of expression and I’m interested in creating a dialogue between the components.”

In “The Hard-Boiled Egg,” music will be brought to life through interlocking, and overlapping characters. Actors are to play multiple people both on stage, and on the accompanying screens, it feels like a spot-on representation of that anxiety of being here, and there, and online, and on the phone, and on Facebook, etc.

“I think that we are more aware of the difference between ourselves and our image, and of our control over the latter. I believe that this has made us more confident as well as more paranoid,” Rosner states.

He may be onto something; as visionary as Eno’s ambient work was, bringing the concept of “thinking space” into the contemporary pop lexicon, it also creates space for worrisome introspection. While there’s bliss in “2/1’s” motion-oriented, never-syncing tape loops, there’s also a vague sense that one traverses this time, now and forever alone.

Rosner’s latest stage work—overtly paralleling the ethos of ambient music, and vested in the presence of digital media—investigates these emerging contradictions: self-curated emotional spaces, accessible and enjoyable, yet coupled with a sense of profound alienation, even outright empathetic regret. It can be nice to sit in a crowded airport, embryonically wrapped up in Ambient 1, but what if you’re the only person who can afford Spotify? What if they aren’t paying their artists fairly? What if?

“On one hand, we act like exhibitionists,” Rosner says, “We post pictures of ourselves and want to be seen, liked, and so on. On the other hand the thought of losing control over our image or being misinterpreted could make us panic.”

The best part of Rosner’s bleak explorations, his thrust towards meta-advancements (how the sound and image are presented mattering more than what the sound and image itself is) could be saved by the fact that he’s so gay: there’s no doubt Rosner knows how to manipulate image and sound to the tune of jocundity and delight.