Los Angeles based collaborators Case Simmons and Andrew Burke, better known as the collective Simmons and Burke, revel in the visual cacophony of the depths of Google and cyberspace. By culling thousands of images from disparate sources inspired by themes of popular culture, kitsch, the cult, and the surreal, they construct Palettes whereby the source images are mixed and matched with exactitude.
At first inspection, the Palettes can seem overwhelming even intimidating, however they are reflections of a culture that identifies with an online identity, a culture that depends upon search engines to find answers to the mundane or the significant and in the chaos of the composition we retrieve a part of ourselves. Regardless of our relationship to the web, we are collectively tied to it by an invisible umbilical cord, which connects us all to the same social network and grants us exposure to the same sights and sounds. Simmons and Burke have managed to tame the infinite cyber universe onto a cohesive and tangible form and prove that even in the infiniteness of the Internet, order exists.
Click images to experience the sound
How did you meet each other? You both attended different art schools.
We met in high school while attending the North Carolina School of the Arts. We lived in the same dormitory and became friends. After high school Simmons went to the San Francisco Art Institute and Burke went to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.
What was your area of study in art school?
Simmons started college in the painting department and later switched to New Genres. Burke studied percussion throughout college, but in grad school, at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, focused on composition.
What brought you out to LA?
We began collaborating while still in school. During that time one of Simmons’ professors (Keith Boadwee) showed our work to a Los Angeles dealer (Kim Light) who offered us representation. She convinced us to move to LA
What determined your collaboration?
We both shared an interest in collage and appropriation.
What are your strengths as individuals that are crucial to your partnership?
We both actively work on both image and sound, but our knowledge of the two is quite different. We each have an academic background in one of the two areas. We try and draw from the difference as much as we can rather than isolate each of us to one aspect of our practice.
Do you find that you’re able to communicate better by editing on the computer than speaking with each other?
It depends. We give each other lots of space to work independently, but of course there are decisions that we have to make together. Because our work is often very labor intensive, there is much more work to be done than decisions to be made.
Is it difficult maintaining a professional and personal relationship? Living and working under the same roof must be challenging at times.
We’re often alone, together- coming back together when we need/want to. It can be challenging but we make it work.
Do you feel that LA has influenced your practice? The values of the city, the types of people who live here, or perhaps the illusion that the city was built on, etc.
We don’t specifically look to LA for influence, and we tend to gravitate to the same types of people regardless of where we are. The weather is nice here, and sometimes we work more at night when it is hot out.
Score, Collage, Poem #1-3 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is an example of using text and not images to communicate an idea. What inspired that piece? I believe it was composed on a typewriter so it likely just as tedious as culling images from the web.
The project began with the audio and then moved into the text, the visual. We wanted to do something with a database online called librivox.org. On the site users upload audio recordings of books in the public domain. There is a vast amount of raw material on the site to draw from- we will probably draw from it again in the future. We were specifically interested in these audio recordings because they were done by amateurs. Professional readings of audio books are not as interesting. On the site users upload recordings for various reasons, such as a grandmother wanting to leave behind recordings of her telling stories for future grandchildren, or an assignment for a student taking English as a second language. These motivations can be heard within the recording. Also, amateurs have a whole range of recording equipment, which also is very audible. When we decided to visually represent the words in the samples we selected, it made sense to us to use a mechanical typewriter so traces of the texts creation (smudges on the page, the pressure applied to each keystroke) could also permeate through the final product. And yes, typing 3000 interrogative sentences with an old Kmart mechanical typewriter is tedious. Scanning and digitally rearranging them was just as tedious, but worth it.
When you first begin working on a piece, do you find that there are particular types of images that you gravitate toward?
Generally we are all over the place, but sometimes we will focus on a certain collection or database of images or sounds. We’ve done projects centered on B-movies Country music, Black cats- to name a few. With that said, the projects tend to be more about wrangling in large amounts of different types of content, rather then focusing on an origin or beginning.
Or are you constantly collecting images to use on a future project?
We tend to collect almost entirely new images and sounds for each piece.
Where do you frequently search for images?
On average how many individual images exist in a single work?
We haven’t calculated the average, but they range from 1 to approximately 15,000 (so far).
It must feel like you’re working with a giant puzzle when piecing together the thousand of images that you have gathered and trying to create a harmonious composition.
Sometimes, yes. Except a puzzle is flat. The images within our larger collages overlap; blend and cover- slightly more complicated then a puzzle. Not so neat. Our Palette’s do feel more like a puzzle, both when looking at them and the constructing of them.
When do you know when the piece is completed?
When it is the last day to print before an exhibition.
I remember speaking to you both about the audio compositions- are they based on algorithms so that each time someone picks up a pair of headphones they’re hearing a new composition?
For most of our work we create a controlled random environment. All of the samples are shuffled, but we manipulate the randomness so certain samples are more likely to sound than others, and in various possible combinations. When a person puts the headphones on they are hearing sounds from the same database as everyone else is for that piece, but in different orders, layers, amplitudes, etc. Part of the reason we use headphones for the audio is we want each person to have a unique experience.
Why do you feel that the sound compositions are important in accompanying your work?
The audio affects the way in which one looks at the work, offering a kind of soundtrack to the personal narrative one constructs while viewing.
What books have influenced your practice? I recall John Cage’s 45 Minutes for a Speaker was on your bookshelf.
His book Silence (which includes the score for 45 Minutes For a Speaker) was formidable for us, as we’re sure it was for many. A book that we keep coming back to.
Some recent books of interest include:
(In no particular order)
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee
See the Old Lady Decently, B.S. Johnson
Culture of One, Alice Notley
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters, Hollis Frampton
Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith
Photographing in Color, Paul Outerbridge
I’m sure you have extensive back up files on your computer, but has there ever been a time when an entire project was lost?
There has. Sometimes if a computer loses power while saving a file, that file disappears completely.
If so, how did you recover?
We tried to recover the file using various programs we downloaded. In the process we found highly corrupted versions of files that we had deleted intentionally. We took a liking to some of these so much that we printed them, becoming the series Deleted #s 1-3. We were never able to recover the original file we lost so we started that piece over.
There must come a point when you absolutely cannot stand the sight of your computers. How long does that hiatus typically last?
Looking at light does mess with your eyes after awhile. Often we don’t have time to take a hiatus, and when we do it usually lasts as long as we are out of town. So a week, maybe two.
What is a common misconception about your work that you would like to address?
There is no right or wrong way to view our work. With that said, when all one can recognize from the thousands of bits of image and sound is a moment of contemporary pop culture, it can be troubling. For lack of a better way of saying it.
All images © Simmons + Burke and Michael Kohn Gallery