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Interview: James Cordas

by: Whole Beast Rag

Special reporting by Zac Tomaszewski.

By the time I pull onto the darkened West Oakland street on which James Cordas keeps his studio, it is already after 11 o’clock. The neighborhood is a patchwork of warehouses, dilapidated homes, and empty lots overgrown with grass. A few atomized individuals idle on the corner, talking to no one in particular. Someone rides his bike in slow circles at the other end of the street.

I haven’t seen James in years. I first met him at Berkeley, where he had been dropping in on classes at the art department. He wasn’t officially a student, but he had been hanging around with some of the art kids and ingratiating himself with one or two instructors—that was good enough, he was more or less in. Then he had just begun to get some audacious ideas off the ground: One piece was a wall-hanging that could take light as input and spit it back out as sound, the frequency dependent upon the color and intensity of the light. This was presented with live music on one or two performance nights.

When I find the studio, it appears as a nondescript garage—long and narrow. On the inside, the once-abandoned property has been fully renovated into a spacious live-work environment, an undertaking executed almost entirely by James and some friends over the last couple of years. It’s large enough that he has built two smaller studios that are shared by other artists off to the side of the main space.

More impressive than that, I could quickly see by the detritus of machinery and electronic parts scattered around me that the incipient technomancy I had admired in his earlier work had progressed to a somewhat astonishing degree.

WHOLE BEAST RAG: OK James, what are you working on right now?

JAMES CORDAS: I’m building tools. I resolved this within the last two weeks and I want to make tools that can be used in the studio to experiment and to push ideas, to bring new ideas into play. Hopefully I get surprised by them. Well, hopefully what could be achieved … [is] I could display them and they could be finished works at the same time. But they have to start as tools. I always run around in a circle of sonically-based objects that I’m creating and then I go to light-based objects, and then I’ll spend a couple weeks producing wall-hangable work.

WBR: And how did you learn electric circuitry initially?

JC: I needed a machine that turned light into sound. I’ve built so many of these machines by now, the one that you saw at Berkeley a long time ago was the first version. I had a guy who was more circuit-oriented help me make it. He was just this punk dude who was kind of a hacker, kind of into heavy noise music stuff, and liked to fuckin’ circuit-bend this TV, and was getting electrocuted every other week, but he was very interesting and he helped me build this thing. I had no way—I would not have been able to do it.

Back then, it was just this thing on the side that I thought was interesting. Then from there, I started getting way more into it. That was step one, where I’m at right now being step, let’s say, thirty. I know jack shit about it, I’m not theory-based, I have no formal education in engineering, but I have to be an amateur engineer every day when I’m working with this stuff. There’s a huge online community and I have resources now. I’ve had to pay someone $150 an hour to help me problem solve these issues that come up, troubleshooting has been the most expensive part of it. But I learn from it, and move forward, and I start getting more comfortable.

What I worked on today was I built these steel, five-foot tall little structures that hold on them these things called Neo Pixels that just came out. And they’re basically LEDs that are very, very controllable through Arduino microcontrollers. I’m sitting there writing out code that can control every millisecond that this thing is either on or off. So the ability to strobe is incredible, the temperature of the light, all the way from off to so bright you want to cover your eyes is available to me, the full color spectrum. So I built seven of these metal structures, each with 25 LEDs.There is a big Bay Area phenomenon of using LEDs, I call it Burning Man art and it’s a problem.

WBR: Didn’t someone just light up the whole Bay Bridge with LEDs?

JC: Yes. I think that’s actually pretty cool. I can think of a few artists that might have done something more along my preferences for light-based work. But whatever, we got a $12 million light installation in our city, and no one else has anything like it, so I’m pumped.

WBR: Above our heads, there’s an arcing wood array that houses a bunch of different colored strobes. So you’re building another iteration of this wood array now?

JC: Yeah, that wood piece is the first thing [I’m going to emulate with the Neo Pixels]. That’s wood and a bunch of $7 strobe lights where I replaced the clear plexi with colored plexi. That piece is called ‘Spectrum Shadow’ and what it does to any static object in front of it is it causes its shadow to be the full color spectrum instead of black. What it also does is it makes it very violent and if there’s no light in the space it’s a totally bizarre feeling. Maybe if we have another beer I’ll turn it on.

WBR: Yes.

JC: But this is version one, it’s very uncontrollable. The timing circuits inside of these strobe lights, they have their own mind and I can’t at all understand it. That’s just because they’re cheap. With this new rig I can control the hell out of it. I’ve moved on from this idea, but I want to finish it with this device first—this will take me an hour of programming and I’ve got a version that’s ten times more controllable. I’m gonna start involving more static objects and thinking about, like, ways to talk about a static object using its own shadow. The biggest problem is staying out of the Burning Man realm; I’ll drop LEDs completely if I can’t resolve that issue.

WBR: Well, I think you can use LEDs while avoiding those self-conscious psychedelic references pretty easily.

JC: Yeah, I definitely do have a problem with psychedelia, mainly because it scares the shit out of me.

WBR: But hanging here I see a very psychedelic-seeming piece, there’s an ocean seascape overlaid with these kaleidoscopic, rainbow-colored distortions.

JC: This piece is called ‘An Image Altered By Its Own Sound.’ What I did for it was I wrote this little bit of code that takes this image—it’s Bikini Atoll—[and] what happens is as my mouse drags across it, algorithms start playing out, so you can totally affect it. Depending on where you come into it, it plays out differently. For that image, I built this accelerometer, really sensitive, plus some custom software. I took the sound of this image, you can take any photograph, turn it into text, and pump that text into an audio player, pretend it’s an audio file—you can trick the computer into playing music from a photo, but it’s usually very harsh sounds.

I used this image’s sound to distort itself using the accelerometer and putting it on the speaker, the accelerometer started shaking from the speaker’s vibration and started to distort it. There were a couple things in my control and a couple things out of it. I did this experiment like 400 times and just chose that one for aesthetic reasons.

WBR: This looks like another demo piece, but I like this reflective material.

JC: This is material from M3 that we got a sample of at TechShop—I just sandwiched it between two pieces of plexi, one of them kind of frosted and one not so frosted. It does all this crazy shit to light, I could show you; it works really well with sunlight, but let’s see. It does this interesting thing where it starts to suck certain colors out and keep other colors in, from green to yellow, violet, purple.

WBR: Look at how intense that shadow is right there. It even casts its shadow in color when you bend it to the floor.

JC: Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. I get way crazier effects out of the sun. I’m definitely into this material. This is just a studio tool right now.

At some point, we take a smoke break in the narrow gap between his studio and the flaking clapboard of the house next door. When we go back inside, he pulls out a small circuit board that he has programmed to play analgorithmic piece of music. It is only 1-bit sound, but complex nonetheless, manipulated down to the millisecond. He has added a potentiometer to the circuit board, the effect of which is to gradually starve the battery of power until the entire sequence decays and finally dies. We listen for a few minutes as the haunting melody around us is slowly distorted.

WBR: There’s this tension here, and throughout your work, like a contradiction between what is very precisely, painstakingly controlled on one hand, and what is just total contingency on the other. It’s both at once, it’s odd.

JC: This is something I’ve been thinking about more is—I don’t know, I’ve been talking about my work or thinking about my work a little bit more directly lately. With kind of abstract stuff, more stuff that’s less the work and more the things that I personally impose upon it and the reasons I’m interested in one thing or another. I thought, Why am I interested in a light flickering out and dying? And why am I interested in the kind of distortion that happens when a pedal, when the battery power starts to drain and it’s about to shut down? The most beautiful sounds come out right at the end of its life, and it’s like this swan song in technology where you get all of this chance stuff happening, all this rare stuff that’s unrepeatable, all this phenomena comes through its death. It’s the most fascinating stuff that happens with technology is when it dies for me, and it’s the stuff I have not just the most interest in, but the best relationship with. So, for me, thinking about where I’m going, what I want to talk about and what tools I want to use, I’ve been trying to kill everything. I think I’ve been staring at light bulbs dying too long.