Just A Gut Feeling: An Interview With interdisciplinary Artist Eric Parren

Eric Parren on the swell of a new wave of artists that are borrowing from the forces of science to create major artistic statements. Parren, an interdisciplinary artist who lives and works in Los Angeles, combines facets of art, science, technology and investigates the human connection with deeply complex notions about the technologies that shape our future – often without our knowing – such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and space exploration. The works are often deeply sensory experiences dealing with modes of perception and the physics of light and sound. For instance, Parren has genetically manipulated the e. coli bacteria, which are naturally occurring in the intestine, to light up red, green and cyan – he then filmed them with a time-lapse laser-scanning confocal microscope. With the visuals of dancing bacteria, like microscopic ballerinas, he played an algorithmically composed composition based on the biosynthetic pathways of the e. coli’s genome. The project, entitled Gut Feeling, was presented as an audiovisual performance to an audience and as an installation. Parren has also created The Synesthesia Glasses, which allows the wearer to experience what it would be like to have synesthesia, a condition where the person can see sounds.  Indeed, through close study of the histories of media arts, composition, and film, Eric’s work makes connections between the past, the present, and what is to come. Parren is also a member of the art collective Macular, which includes a number of artists within the same technologically and scientifically advanced artistic milieu. In the following interview, Parren talks about his unique interdisciplinary practice, genetically manipulating e. coli bacteria for the sake of art and how rave culture influenced his trajectory as an artist. 

Joe McKee: Tell me about your practice.

Eric Parren: My practice is a little all over the place, but sound and music is definitely a part of it.

JM: It was really exciting to stumble upon your work. You’re doing something with academically-inclined ideas, but it’s fun and engaging.

EP: In my work, I put myself in this triangle of art, science, and technology. That’s where the future is happening. We need all these things to go forward. I want to go towards the future. But an important thing with music and with art is that they are experiential. There’s an academic background, and there’s research behind it. But the work in itself has to be something that you can experience. You don’t have to read ten pages of explanation before you understand what’s going on. For me, it’s a sensory thing. Sensory experience of art and music is the most important way of experiencing it. The thought processes of that are another layer. Initially, I want to give people a direct, sensory experience.

JM: Sometimes art can be so alienating. It’s nice to invite people in and create something immersive for them.

EP: The most recent project that I’ve done was in the same show with William Basinski at the Pasadena Art & Science Festival. It was organized by the Pasadena Arts Council - some of the members part of an organization called Volume. They are an organization that brings sound artists here to do performances. So, they got these people from Europe who have been working on this project called Sphaerae. It’s three big domes that are inflated to this 1960s style experiential thing that you can go in. Projections were set up to project all over the ceiling. There was an amazing sound system. The project I did there is called “Gut Feeling.”

JM: Yeah, can you talk a little more about Gut Feeling?

EP: It’s research that I did at UCLA—the California Nanosystems Institute. They have all these crazy microscopes—things that can see the size of an atom. I got interested in these devices that could extend our senses. I asked him if I could work in the lab and use the microscopes. They didn’t give me the most expensive, craziest microscope, but he did give me an interesting microscope—a laser-scanning confocal microscope. It doesn’t look at things for what they are, but it shoots lasers at the sample. Whatever fluorescence is the image. At first, I was just learning how the thing worked, just putting different things under it. The microscope is used a lot in biosciences, so I met this synthetic biologist. She helped me get my hands on genetically-modified E coli bacteria that have this specific gene in them so they light up when you shoot a laser at them. I used (maybe abused) those in the microscope, and took all these time-lapse images with them. I did all kinds of crazy experiments with them. The original idea was to make a film with them, but now I’ve been using the visuals in live performances.  The sound part of it is a synthesizer that looks at the biological processes inside the E coli bacteria, and turns those into micro-sound elements. It’s a songification of the processes.

JM: Can you tell me about Macular?

EP: Macular is this artist collective that I started with a friend of mine in Holland in 2009. It started as a live cinema group. Live cinema is a big thing in Holland—the idea is that live visuals are generated with live sound. It’s not some musician and some video guy; it’s people who are doing those things at the same time. You’re working together to create a whole. We started out in super-analog stuff. We were hacking online analog/video processors—color correctors, that kind of stuff. And then, we plugged the video into the audio mixer. You get these amazing sounds. Over time, it grew into a super-complicated setup in which digital and analog were feedbacking on each other. We had created a monster that was just alive, doing its own thing. If you tweaked one knob, all this stuff would happen. We started working together on other projects also. We started doing installations. The focus of Macular had always been synesthesia—how to induce artificial synesthesia in people. We’re evolving the organization of Macular into more of a label, a research institute, and a studio. We’re interested in natural and emergent processes, and synesthesia.

"I always got in big fights with the professor about what sculpture was. But I always wanted to do audio-visual stuff. It might come from raves. I’ve been going to those since I was fifteen. A rave is an audio-visual experience. I always want to translate that into a different setting."

JM: When you say natural processes, what do you mean by that?

EP: Emergence is something that everyone in Macular has worked with at one point. Emergence is the idea that simple, individual rules can lead to unexpected, big patterns. The classic example is a school of fish. Every fish is his own fish, but is also trying to follow the other fish. You get these beautiful patterns of fish swirling around. We’re playing that into installations, sound work. We’re trying to set up an online repository in which we have this research to share with each other and the world. We’re also trying to set up a label so we can produce our own work, then a studio so we can work.

JM: How did you find yourself at this point, creatively? Did you come from a musical background or a visual background? Was it a science background?

EP: I wish I had a science background. What I’ve learned is how to learn. If you understand how to learn, you don’t have to go to school. The information is there. You can teach yourself.  I come from media-arts background. In Holland, after high school, you don’t go to college. You immediately decide what you’re going to study. I went to art school—doing painting, sculpture, all that. I always got in big fights with the professor about what sculpture was. But I always wanted to do audio-visual stuff. It might come from raves. I’ve been going to those since I was fifteen. A rave is an audio-visual experience. I always want to translate that into a different setting.

JM: In the academic world and art world, sound art is still trying to find its way in.

EP: There are certain places that understand that better. Santa Barbara has a Media Arts and Technology program that has a very clear understanding of sound. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy has an amazing experimental media performing arts center. They’ve built this whole temple for performance, music, and sound. It’s an interesting problem—how to get sound art integrated.

JM: Perhaps it shouldn’t be. In which case, we have to find a model to allow people to experience it.

EP: Performance art also has a really hard time. There’s an audience; there are people interested in it, but it’s hard to integrate.

JM: Also, performance art is such a temporal thing. Sound art can suffer from the same thing. Not that they have to be temporary.

EP: It’s time-based. It’s loud.

JM: It creates this noise pollution.

EP: But that’s still a part that I love about it. For me, interacting with an artwork, something that I’ve taught myself to do is force myself to spend ten, fifteen minutes with the work. You get so much more out of it. With sound stuff, it automatically is temporal. You get that engagement already with the work. You can’t interact with a sound piece for two seconds, or however people long people look at a painting. It requires patience and engagement. That interests me about the artwork itself. It actively asks the audience to spend more time with the work.

You can learn more about Eric Parren by visiting his website. You can also follow him on Twitter to stay up to date with performances and exhibitions. Watch below video of "Gut Feeling." Interview by Joe McKee. Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE