When we were kids we could amuse ourselves for hours flipping through the pages of those old vintage illustrated books. We could read them by staring longingly at the pictures. They stirred our imagination and swept us along endless explorations into new mysterious, invisible lands. Such explorations were hidden treasures, as is Nathaniel Whitcomb’s enchanting digital journey. Working in both visual art and collage, Cleveland-based designer Nathaniel Whitcomb (a.k.a Think or Smile) employs vibrant and suggestive narrative elements in his works to create multiple clusters of images in motion. He sits down to talk with us today about his visual arts projects, his motion collages and his recent collaborations with some great musicians you should definitely keep an eye (and ear) on.
Hi Nathaniel. Would you mind introducing yourself to our readers?
Hi, my name is Nathaniel Whitcomb. I’m a designer by day and enjoy filling the rest of my time making things… collages, music videos, album art, whatever I can get my hands on. I have an obsession with music and tend to gravitate toward the experimental, which informs a lot of how I create. I also run Think or Smile, a site that aims to share and celebrate the arts–music, literary and visual alike.
How long have you been doing collages? Has paper always been your preferred medium?
I’ve been making collages steadily for around 8 years, but I’ve experimented with many other materials–yarn, paints, twigs, vinyl, charcoal. Art for me has always been a careful balance between the idea and the tactile process of making so I use whatever tools I have available and manipulate them any way I can in order to get ideas across. I prefer paper and found images because everyone has access to it, it’s mass produced waste and the possibilities of their combinations are limitless. I love the idea that the same image can be interpreted so differently when used by different artists too. Working with a physical piece of paper is also a welcome retreat from constantly being in front of a computer screen.
What about your motion collages, when did you decide that your initial ideas and source materials would evolve in slowly paced audio/visual stories? Can you tell us a little bit about the first piece you ever animated?
The very first collages I animated were what I called breathing collages, precursors to the motion collages. They were cyclic studies in motion, bringing life to still work I had already created. I was working digitally at the time with high res scans from my magazine collection and realized that there were entire levels of depth already built into a piece that simply couldn’t come through as a static image. I had watched a tutorial on AfterEffects and thought I’d do some experimenting. I never deliberately paced them slowly, it happened organically but it would appear as though these early tests shaped my initial efforts in syncing motion to music with the Holy Spirits material.
I consider your music-related work really brilliant in the contemporary scene right now, having directed a number of music videos and collected show posters and album covers. I love the way you assembled the whole motion-collage-series for Brooklyn based band Holy Spirits’ debut EP The Afternoon’s Blood. According to your project description, all of these motion collages were hand cut, scanned and digitally assembled from a pile of 40-year-old National Geographic magazines. Each animated short piece/film has been created to accompany every single track from Holy Spirits’s EP. The result is an excellent and cohesive work underpinned by the repetition of brief visual patterns with the only exception of Contain, the last of the series. It seems to me quite different from the others, and perhaps more intimately connected with the idea of leaving behind nothing but memories. Would you agree?
Thank you for the kind words.
Interestingly, Contain was the first motion collage I made after the initial test but it was the last to be released. The concept is heavily laced with memory and visually based on my earlier Thought Orbs series. It’s meant to be viewed as a man’s reminiscent journey through life–family, love, youth, childhood, all blurring together and ultimately ending where they began. Sometimes life feels like an infinite cycle. We use memory and imagination to travel to the past and future but we always find ourselves back in the present.
We also know that you created some visual performances during their shows. How did this happen?
Yes, I had the pleasure of going on tour with them last winter. When we had initially spoke about doing this project, live performance was always a part of it. I had never done anything like that before so it was a challenge early on to build the motion collages in a way that they could be manipulated in a live environment. I found it to be a bit of a barrier to the creation process, I was too focused on the end result not knowing where to start. I eventually had to set that part aside and just start making things. After they were all finished I back-tracked and chopped them into usable footage for a live video software. The software was new to me but it allowed full control of the interface so I was able to construct layouts that worked for reassembling each collage on the fly. That same tour I did visuals for both Mutual Benefit and Steffaloo. I’ve since been able to do a show with Chrome Sparks, Pepepiano and Kohwi as well as a CMJ showcase for Stadiums & Shrines. All were amazing experiences.
You have defined your visuals as a way of marrying art to music the way 12″ cover art did decades ago. «My hope is that these function as modern day album art, used as another means to experience the music…a way of getting lost in it», you said. I totally agree with you. I think this careful consideration can only lead us to the inevitable discussion of why that genuine and authentic approach to music and other related art forms combined to create one unified art piece appears to be dying. What’s your take on this? Which could be the causes? Is the way of consuming music through mp3s and individual tracks a cause or an effect?
I’m very much believe in the idea of an album as an entity. I feel like only consuming single mp3s is the equivalent of going to a museum, cutting a corner off of a painting and only looking at that one piece. Yes, you’ll still see what colors were used but you won’t feel the whole. I feel like its robbing yourself of the experience that someone put all of him/herself into sharing with you.
I think this mindset of only appreciating pieces of a whole is a natural progression of the way music is distributed and the technologies we use to listen to it. We once had to gather around musicians as they played for us, they were in control of the way we experienced it, it was communal. As we moved through developments in recording techniques we’ve untethered ourselves from the environments musicians sought to create. We had to invent new ways to try and supplement multisensory experiences. Album covers–images meant to evoke deeper feelings when combined with sound, have even begun to dwindle, going from 12″ to 4″ to a mere thumbnail on a screen. I think it’s a shame how unattached some music and art have become often making art an afterthought to an album. I like to participate in the creation/concept early on so the sound and vision inform one another. So even if it does become reduced to a set of pixels down the line, it still retains the richness the two were meant to have together. That way if people really want to get into it they can, I know there are others out there that appreciate it as much as I do so its certainly worth the effort.
This month, Kassette Klub releases a nice split LP which includes Mutual Benefit’s ‘The Cowboy’s Prayer’ (with whom you had been working on a series of music videos) and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ‘Your Loving Brother’. Your Loving Brother EP’s cover art reveals your signature. How did you get involved in making the artwork?
The mastermind behind both Kassette Klub and Mutual Benefit, Jordan Lee asked me to. Jordan and I met on tour and during long van rides traversing the California coast we found we shared similar aesthetics in life. I have a library of favorite Jordan quotes but his bands two principles, “do cool stuff and be kind to each other” has always resinated with me. I find him to be a truly inspiring human being so I jump on any chance I get to work with him. This was my first time working with Noah Klein, Philip Seymour Hoffman, but it surely won’t be the last. He’s an amazing mind and I very much enjoyed being able to connect with him on this EP. He’s also doing some wonderful things with the FMLY that I recommend spending some time with.
By now, your work is probably familiar with a wide range of musicians, filmmakers and visual artists’ aesthetic. What can you tell us about how you came to create your latest piece for Pressed And’s debut of Imbue Up, «A Visual EP». Did you have a specific concept in mind?
Pressed And approached me around the same time I was planning visuals for the Stadiums & Shrines CMJ showcase. When I found out they’d be playing the show and I’d need to build a visual set for them, the Imbue Up video was a natural extension. The timing was perfect and the video ended up shaping the feel of the entire live set. During the process I spent hours upon hours listening to the EP, gathering concepts for both video and live, what developed was the idea of constant motion. Traveling without rest but somehow finding comfort in it. Raid was the final track and I had no idea what the other video artists involved would be making for their assigned track, so I went with how I felt when the song came on during complete listens. After a long journey to an unknown space I’d want to come home, to Earth, to warmth. But I imagine after such a journey things wouldn’t appear as they had been left. Earth might look a little different.
The entire set of videos was recently premiered at the Ackland Art Museum Film Forum and it was interesting to see that some of the same concepts of space, travel and energy seemed to run through out. Having not provided us with any direction its was amazing to see that the music alone was capable of directing everyone toward the same ideas.
Are you working on new stuff?
Always. And often too many things at once. Right now I’m working on a set of 50 collages for a book thats being written with a couple friends. I’m slowly expanding my Thought Orb series and just began work on a new set of collaged creatures. I also have a video in the works as well as album art and a few design odds and ends. I like to keep my mind and hands occupied.
Has anything/anyone made you think or smile lately?
Simply having the ability to do both everyday is sufficient to keep the cycle going. But more specifically and most recently, Borges’ short stories “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “The Garden of Forking Paths” have made me think and good friend Michael Barron has made me smile by constantly sharing great literature with me.