Semiconductor: Mistaken Identities

Pull Quote: ""We're not hiding away in the art scene, we like to engage a bit more and communicate what we do.""

Feature by Liam Arnold | 10 Feb 2007
In 2001, Semiconductor created a visual manifestation of QT?'s qqq; a fifty-three second experimentation in blasting static, squealing reverb and minimalist crackles, balanced neatly between sound-art and glitch music. Semiconductor rendered these explosions of sound as viruses battling in a virtual world, and with its precise intertwining of sound and image, it was a truly unique piece of work. So MTV used it as an ident.

Becoming an audio-visual palette-cleanser for the bastion of commercial music seems an odd fate for the work of the first artists-in-residence at the NASA Space Sciences Laboratory (Berkeley, CA), but it's symptomatic of Semiconductor's continual expansion and ability to transcend confines posed by genre. Ruth Jarman, one half of Semiconductor, describes the bizarre situation of a residency at a science laboratory as "terrifying, because we had no idea what we were walking into and it was the first time they'd had artists in the science lab… It was a pretty big experiment." Meeting at university, Ruth and fellow art student Joseph Gerhadt formed the Semiconductor project and began to make what they call "sound films"; a combination of computer animation and found images that were directly connected to an original soundtrack. Semiconductor released one of the first ever independently produced DVDs, Hi-Fi Rise, in 2001, bringing together their early 'sound films' and the work of other audio-visual artists. They have just released the Worlds in Flux DVD (Fatcat), composed entirely of their own work, on which they showcase collaborations with experimental artists like Max Richter, Christian Vogel and the spellcheck nightmare that is Gæoudjiparl, as well as their music videos for Múm, QT? and Double Adaptor.

From early on, Semiconductor established their status as cross-overs, simultaneously curating a series of art events called E.M.I (Electro-Magnetic Interference) and a London club night called Nesh, both of which saw performance with their Sonic Inc. software. Any monkey with a laptop and a few psychedelic images can make poor visuals and hypnotise a club, but Semiconductor stand out for their precise co-ordination between sight and sound, appealing technically and emotionally. The Sonic Inc. excerpts showcased on Worlds in Flux render image and noise indistinguishable; bass throbs swell as fuzzy lines twang, sound waves crystallise into three-dimensional forms and tinny, skittering static lurks in the corners of the screen. The inverse is also applicable though, and on Brilliant Noise they collaged N.A.S.A archive footage of the sun and used the flaring light to trigger organic, melancholic electro-noise that hypnotically swoops and crackles. Joe explains: "We used the luminescence of parts of the image to control the sound… we essentially allowed the archive footage of the sun to create the soundtrack." The Brilliant Noise film comes with eleven other soundtracks as well, and each reinvents the film differently, from the climatic narrative of Christian Vogel's single note drones to the moody, disconsolate air of Max Richter's sonata of cello and tape.

In circulating their work, Semiconductor behave more like the electronic musicians they work with, and despite the weighty intellectual probes into geology, landscapes, chaos theory and artificial intelligence, Joe claims that they "like to think about these films in the same way that a musician would create an album of music tracks… instead of one film in an art gallery that has ten copies that sell for ten thousand pounds each, we get work out there." Ruth describes the two of them as "Oddballs", adding: "We're not hiding away in the art scene, we like to engage a bit more and communicate what we do." It's reminiscent of the Warp Records pioneers like Squarepusher, Autechre, or the AFX/Chris Cunningham collaborations; as much for procrastinating art musos enthralled by the interplay of sound and image as for face-chewing Venetian Snares fans chasing the next evolution of noise.

With the exception of a couple of excerpts from Sonic Inc and the gnarly glitch-fuelled breaks of Digital Anthrax (accompanied by raving computerised polygons) the pieces on Worlds in Flux shy away from beats and club music, and are imbued with tranquillity, a reverence for nature and an introspective feel. Ruth tells me that this advance from their earlier days is tied to a knowledge of their central preoccupations: "we're very much about the notion of the limits of human perception." Discussing their piece created with millions of years of seismic data from Northumbria, Joe adds that they "constantly forget how insignificant we are, or we try to hide it away in our minds, so when we make our films, we try to remind people of the overpowering force of nature." It's captured beautifully and this is powerful stuff in its own right.
Worlds in Flux is available now on Fatcat Records. Their Animate! Commission, Magnetic Media will appear on Channel 4 in Autumn.