Colour, vibrancy, abstraction and what he calls a “psychedelic aesthetic” have always informed the work of Thomas Russell, but he’s wary of the connotations his art might sometimes imply. “I don’t like the misconception that because I make colourful stuff, and I like warped visuals, that it’s all about drugs,” he says. “It’s more of a philosophical thing.”
Two minutes with the young Melbourne video artist is enough to convince you that his beautiful and kaleidoscopic visuals come from a considered collection of fascinations with the biological world, human cognisance, the role of the observer and a real-time response to stimuli.
Having left his bedroom studio for a workspace at Carlton’s Goodtime Studios in late 2012, Russell has since built a twofold practice: creating contemporary art pieces and also live visual content which he projects onto stage during band performances. For the latter, his inventive techniques have won him work with Chet Faker, Owl Eyes, Snakadaktal, Hiatus Kaiyote and more. “I like to work with artists who have integrity,” he offers. “It’s something I try to do in my own work – to be true to a very core philosophy. If I can create artwork that talks about what I’m passionate about, it’s close to home, so it has a truth to it.”
Russell’s basic performance kit is filled with prints of Aztec tapestry, some watercolours he’s painted for a Flyying Colours show, blue cardboard with diagonal scalpel slits cut through, old Magic Eye prints, a plastic magnifying card, a piece of black card pitted with staple holes and myriad other bits and pieces. He carries the black card over to his projector and demonstrates how he uses it for a starry effect, describing how his hybrid system of analogue and digital equipment with video feedback can create “a labyrinth of dots”. This is the kind of thing that he will decide upon spontaneously at a show and manipulate the material with his own hands under the projector’s eye.
“When I started VJing for bands, I [used] VJ software,” he says. “It was all pre-made and planned and I found that it was restricting, because a live performance is live; it happens differently every time the performer gets on stage. [Now] I use live cameras, so I can respond to the flow of the set. I can have a much wider spectrum of feeling and expression by having a hands-on approach and working with crafts and the textures of things,” he says.
“I think most VJs work with pre-recorded content. I think there’s a lot of bad visual content out there and a lot of VJs who are doing visuals that aren’t relevant to what’s going on or that don’t truly respond to the atmosphere that’s going on. They’re just a hired gun,” continues Russell. “It takes on this very commercial style: flashing lights! Boom-boom-boom! You’ve just seen a live show! You’ve been blown away!” he laughs. “I’m interested in what’s outside of human perception. [I’m] trying to push those boundaries a little bit, by making light seem like it’s doing something that’s sort of impossible.”
Russell’s recent projects include the Nuggets compilation record showcase at the Sydney Festival (in which he had the opportunity to work with a 20K Barco projector with a screen of cinematic size), some radiant artwork for Rat & Co’s just-released debut album and a thought-provoking piece at 2013’s Sugar Mountain Festival titled You Are Environment. The album artwork in particular is paving an avenue towards fine art practice, which is in line with Russell’s earlier work manipulating still images in interesting ways to extend their meaning.
At the end of February, Russell’s collaboration with rising Melbourne experimental-electro group I’lls will culminate in a clip he’s created for their single Plans Only Drawn. He met the band through their support slots on tour with Chet Faker, whom Thomas travelled with on the musician’s 2012 east coast dates.
“The song’s about having plans to change your life. So I used this blueprint paper,” he says, pointing out the blossoming symmetric diagrams on his screen. “It’s introspective – it’s sort of about self-reflection, and regret, and looking for change.” The clip was created in much the same way as his live visuals are: he played the track and within a few takes had produced the material which he then projected onto I’lls vocalist Simon Lam’s face in an explication of the song’s vocal delay effects.
“It’s a humbling realisation that there’s much more to what’s going on than an individual can perceive on a surface level,” he says. “The universe, the cosmos, the inner life, the outer life. That’s why I like abstract stuff; it makes people create their own interpretation.”
Thomas Russell will be VJing live for Flyying Colours on Friday February 15 at Cherry Bar. I’lls single Plans Only Drawn will be released late February 2013.