Stranger Than ///Friction: An Interview with Claire Kenway – Andrea Zeffiro

Claire Kenway is the type of person – multi-faceted and multi-talented – who inspires. In discussing one of her most recent works ///Friction, a multi-modal installation that straddles underground electronic music and cycling cultures, Claire details the personal experiences and happenstance encounters that influenced and shaped her artistic approaches and practices. Indeed, the future shines bright for this Montreal based DJ/music producer/writer/artist, and, I for one, look forward to what that future brings


Andrea Zeffiro: First and foremost, and before we discuss the particulars of ///Friction 2.0, I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about yourself, including your artistic/research interests and practices?

Claire Kenway: Sure! I grew up out west – I was born in Edmonton, Alberta. My mum is a violinist and my dad is a mad scientist – well, an engineer, physicist, and inventor who is always pushing the capabilities of new technologies to do practical things. My mum once told me that she played music especially for me before I was even born, and when my brother David and I were little, she used to play me Ravel’s piece Bolero to ‘mesmerize me to sleep.’ My parents split when I was still in Elementary school. I think the split happened mostly due to their strong personalities conflicting with each other, as they both dove more deeply into their own individual modes of existence and expression. My dad quickly moved to BC part-time, and so my childhood time with him was filled with adventures and road trips along the breathtakingly beautiful stretch of highway and ocean between Edmonton and Vancouver Island. Music was everywhere, as was creativity, ingenuity, and nature. Mum blasted classical wherever we went: during breakfast, in the car, in the evenings, so my brother and I quickly learned the main passages of most famous classical pieces by composers like Bartok, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Holst, Schubert, Shostakovich, and Saint-Saens. Additionally mum would play us more experimental contemporary music by artists like Steve Reich and the Kronos Quartet. Most of my early childhood music education came from listening to CBC radio and the records mum put on the record player. Around age five, I started violin lessons, but after a few years decided I hated the violin – a natural teenage rebellion against my mother that began around age 12. I quit soon after but tried my hand at bass guitar and singing before abandoning traditional instruments completely when I discovered electronic music. I heard about rave culture on CBC radio in the car with my dad one afternoon. The radio announcer was talking about music being played super loud all night long and people taking ecstasy, which made them feel happy and dance all night long. At fifteen years old, I was already a vampire at heart who loved to sleep late, so this concept appealed to me immensely. I discovered a local group called the Nexus Tribe who put on raves, and went to my first one at fifteen in an old airplane hanger. I went to several more after that, but they were always huge with three to five thousand people, and the music was progressive or trance that I never really liked. My first boyfriend Ryan introduced me to good electronica via Kruder and Dorfmeister’s DJ kicks album, the Rebirth of Cool series, and intelligent drum’n’bass artists like Plug, Photek, and Alex Reece. I quickly fell in love with both him and the music, but left Edmonton a year and a half later to go to school and study theatre at Acadia University in a small town about an hour out of Halifax.

In my first year of University, I went to my first truly underground rave in Halifax where I experienced quality house and techno music. Soon after, I chopped off my long brown hair, bleached it, and dyed it fire engine red. In January of 2000 a fellow actor friend invited me to a private party at a cabin in the woods. It was there that I, too, took ecstasy, and experienced the music I loved being played to a small crowd of 50 people in an environment where the DJ booth was accessible, and I could actually go up and watch the DJ up close. Intrigued by the fact that with two turntables and a mixer, a DJ could transform individual songs into a continuous DJ ‘set,’ I spent most of my time at the party intently positioned behind the DJ booth where I could see everything that was happening. Late that night, a pretty girl stepped up to play. Her name was Rosie. The way she mixed was delicate and perfect. I realized at that moment that I could do it too, and decided that one day I, too, would learn how to DJ.

More than a decade later, I am living in Montreal – I came here to study communication at Concordia. Though I now have a Masters in Communication, since arriving here (and after graduating), I have made all of my income as a professional artist. I do a combination of DJing, music production, freelance writing, and installation art. My research interests revolve around phenomenology, perception, sound, emotion, music, and how interactivity enhances artistic experience. While at Concordia, although I was taking communications, I quickly discovered that I excelled in and enjoyed the production courses the most. I started with the one-year diploma program where I studied sound with Andra McCartney, documentary and food ethics with Liz Miller, and film with John McKay. I fell in love with Concordia too and decided to do the Masters as well. Concordia’s Media Studies program is very open-minded about the way they structure their course load; in fact, they allow for you to take up to three out of eight courses for the MA in other faculties or even other universities, provided you have permission from the professor and the head of the department. I took full advantage of this, and took three courses in Fine Arts to assist with the development of my thesis project: a course in MAX MSP with Bill Vorn, a course in the philosophy of performance taught by Sha Xin Wei, and a course in Electronics for Artists taught by Peter Flemming. Within the program itself, I managed to find a production course as well, taught by Tagny Duff, all about bio-art, where the final project for the course involved creating a piece of bio-art, rather than writing a paper. The resulting project, called Poisson Passion, involving fishes’ reactions to sound and how it affects their health, happiness, and behavior, yielded some very interesting results, both creatively and scientifically. Tagny invited me to be a part of Fluxmedia, and through a stroke of luck during a presentation I gave at Hexagram about the project and some desired future directions, two members of a small gallery called Les Territoires happened to be present and invited me to present an updated version of the project as a part of a gallery show with Brandon Ballangee and two other students from my class: Alison Loader and Kelly Andres. The exhibition will take place in January 2013.

For my thesis research, I created a project intended to promote cycling through art, called ///Friction, where I transformed three ordinary bicycles into musical instruments, and constructed a performance involving all three for my final presentation of the project at SAT (Societe des Arts Technologiques) in April 2011. I was fortunate enough that while I was waiting for my written thesis revisions to be handed back, in September 2011, I had the time and motivation to apply to the Canada Council for a grant to build a sound installation. My philosophy was simple: the grant was for $20,000, so if I got it, after graduating instead of going to find a job, I could work and be a full-time artist for a year. I got the grant, so at this moment, I am working hard to design and build my third installation called Windcatcher, involving three musical instruments that will be played by the wind.

DJ-wise I am playing more than ever; in addition to playing at Laika every Friday for the three and a half years since I moved here, I got to play two years in a row at the infamous Piknic Electronik, and play regularly at clubs, festivals, and parties in Montreal and across Canada – I even got to DJ in Germany and Japan! I have been writing music like crazy since I graduated and just put out my first digital EP on Beatport (a site where DJs buy their music), the Dark Kiss EP, with an Italian record label called Lost Land Records. I have another EP coming up in not-too-long with a well-respected Montreal label as well, Pheek’s Archipel – very excited for that!

Badass Rhythms of the Bike 

AZ: //Friction 2.0 straddles two particular cultures: underground electronic music, and cycling. I can certainly think of affinities between the two; how do you view these particular cultures as working in tandem? In other words, are there parallels between the two that informed the conceptualization of the work?

CK: I originally had this fantastical idea that with ///Friction, I could get people who weren’t originally excited about electronic music into electronic music, and people who weren’t into biking but liked electronic music into bikes, but my plan didn’t really pan out. I would say more of what really ended up happening is that people who were interested in either electronic music, technology, or bikes came out to the show for different reasons, and came together because of the bikes. This wasn’t entirely a bad thing, and regardless of whether or not the audience members preferred rock’n’roll, jazz, pop, electronic, or different kinds of music, everyone seemed intrigued by how the bicycles worked to create sound, as individual instruments and as a trio.

AZ: I wonder if you’d also like to elaborate on how ///Friction came to fruition, or, how it evolved. Was there a particular moment or event that inspired you? Or did it come from a myriad of variables? I suppose this question is really focused on my own curiosity and interest to know more about the inspiration behind the project.

CK: There was, as a matter of fact. It all started as a final project for another class at Concordia! It was my first summer in Montreal. Living on the Plateau, I had been taking public transit to school for a full 8 months – a process which involved taking both the metro and a bus, and took between one hour and seventy five minutes, that I hated with a passion. Nothing is worse than being squeezed like a sardine on public transit without even a place to sit, carrying heavy books and praying that the bus won’t take ‘extra long’ on that particular ride and make me late for class! Eventually in late spring, I discovered that one of my friends was biking all the way from the Mile-End to Loyola on a daily basis, and it only took her about 45 minutes! Soon after this discovery, I was wandering about in Park LaFontaine with a friend on a beautiful summer’s day and I saw a purple bike chained to a fence with a price tag on it: for sale for $50! I went and rang the bell, and after questioning the seller extensively about the reason for the sale, came to the conclusion that the bike was not stolen despite its ridiculously affordable price. My friend bought me the bike as a ‘late birthday present’ and from that day on, I started riding my bike to school. The difference in both time and pleasure transformed my experience from the drudges of public transportation hell into that of actually enjoying the ride and the fresh air and exercise it afforded me. That summer, I happened to be taking a class during the summer session of my Communication diploma program with Ken Briscoe, called Production Administration, which was all about how to get funding for a project and produce it. Our final assignment was to create a project and make a public presentation ‘pitch’ to the class to try to get funding… It seemed like everyone in the class was doing a production pitch for a film or TV show. I wanted to be different, and I was so much happier riding my bike than taking the bus, so I decided to do a pitch for a project involving bicycles that create energy, to promote cycling as a source of energy as well as a mode of green transportation. After the pitch, I was chatting with a friend on my rooftop terasse over a glass of wine, and she suggested it would be even cooler to make a bicycle quartet. I was seduced by the idea and determined to do it – out of school – as a part of a publicly-presented bicycle-themed event intended to showcase the musical bikes and promote cycling in general. I managed to make three prototype soundbikes in less than three months, booked the Sala Rossa, solicited funding from local bike co-ops, Dumoulin Bicylettes, and Laika, and did a party with DJs and a one-minute performance of the sound bikes, where after the performance, audience members could come try the bikes for themselves. That event was called ///Friction, and was presented in October 2009. In addition to the musical bikes, I also curated other types of artistic bikes: a bike-powered film projector, a Bixi stand turned into a drum machine trigger, a blender bike, and a sculpture made from bike parts. At the end of the event I gave a refurbished bicycle to a random audience member who won a dance-off contest on the stage. It was a wonderful event, and that was the beginning…

Welcome To My Concrete Jungle 

AZ: ///Friction 2.0 is a project, or more appropriately, an installation, which is processual. By this I mean to imply that the project – and its final manifestation as an installation – is created in increments. Could you explain more about the process – the creation, stimulation, and transformation? What are the various project components, and how does it all come together in the installation?

CK: Well, its funny because in my application to my Masters, I applied with the intention of doing an environmentally-themed documentary as my final project. But, after seeing my musical bikes, Liz Miller, who was at that point my supervisor, suggested I ditch the documentary idea completely and continue on with the bikes. At first I was opposed to the idea, but it grew on me, especially as I noticed people’s ears perked up whenever I mentioned the project.

But yes, the project was definitely processual in that it evolved in steps – a process which in itself was further emphasized by the fact that I had never built an installation before and had no idea what I was doing! Like any pioneering project in an artist’s career, it took way longer than I originally anticipated – I intended to present the full version of the project in November 2010, but when it was obvious to me that it wouldn’t be ready, I pushed the date back to April 2011.

The original ///Friction had three bikes: one involved using MAX MSP and transforming the bicycle, effectively, into a turntable-like device, where pedaling speed corresponded to the tempo of the beats; the second transformed atmospheric sounds into a mishmash of effects using Nintendo Wii-motes to wirelessly transmit data corresponding to the revolution speed of a bicycle wheel; and the third simply took the sound of a dynamo generator rubbing against a bicycle tire and transformed it into a tone generator, producing a single tone which rises in pitch the faster you pedal. For ///Friction 2.0, I wanted the first bike – which controlled the tempo of the music – to also control the tempo of a bike video, with the handlebars in the frame, to give a videogame-like perspective from the rider’s point of view. In the original incarnation, I handed out anonymous paper surveys to find out what people did and didn’t like about the musical bikes, and one complaint I got was that not all sounds in the installation were obviously bike-related, so the first step I took was to break down how I could transform the sonic elements to be all made from bike sounds.

I decided that for the rhythms I would record the sounds of a bicycle – the chains spinning, spokes turning, the sounds of different parts of a bike being hit with a drumstick, and transform those sounds into rhythms. I made a virtual pathway along which I would film, and I set out to get some real funding in place to buy electronics and pay a professional programmer to do the complicated programming to make the tempo bike – called the Electronique – into a stable and real instrument that would work every time (the first version was fickle and totally unstable). I applied for funding from Mountain Equipment Co-op, Sustainable Concordia, and DuMoulin Biyclettes, and got all of it! Then I set out to build a team of dedicated people who would help me with various aspects of the project.

In the midst of all of this, I was invited to present the bicycles at a number of smaller community events – MEC’s Festivelo, Mile-End Car Free Day, Velo-Velo cycling conference, and a symposium at the Biosphere to educate youth about energy efficiency.  Amidst all of this, I was going crazy taking field recordings while I rode my bike, taking video, and researching other related types of bicycle and sound installations.

When winter came around, I decided it was time to set a date for the final presentation and settled on April. Once I got my bid in at the SAT and the date was confirmed, production went into full swing in March to get the bikes working. Owen Chapman and Kim Sawchuk, both on my supervisorial team, offered me some space in the Mobile Media Lab in the C-pod to work on my bikes. I scheduled work sessions to get the bikes functioning properly, and at home spent countless hours transforming the bike sounds and field recordings into electronic music that I now call ‘bike techno.’ With the assistance of my friend Marc-André, we built a website and managed to smooth the extremely shaky video I had taken from my bike, and cut it into useable sections.

A lot of the process was experimental; I (we) would try things and see what worked and what didn’t, for both the technical and creative aspects. For example, I originally wanted the video to be one long shot of the bike ride from the Plateau to the Parc Jean-Drapeau, but because the ride was so bumpy and the rig for the video camera was so shaky, the video camera created unusable gaps in the video where the camera jolted too much, so we had to cut it into smaller chunks.

My collaborators – Jacques Gallant and Freida Abtan – suggested things to me that came up as we went, such as an additional modification to the Electronique where the right-hand brake lever was transformed into a switch to change between audio and video tracks. We also changed the way sound was triggered for the bicycle tone generator – called the Wazou – so that it was necessary to press down on the right-hand brake lever to create sound, rather than having sound continually produced and the brake lever acting to cut the sound. This last-minute addition was done the day of the show, and functioned to prevent overexcited pedalers from annoying the hell out of the audience by pedaling fast to create an annoying stream of loud, high-pitched sound, encouraging them instead to play the bike in single ‘notes.’ The Wii-One (The bike using Nintendo Wii-motes) was the only bicycle that I worked on exclusively solo, so that bike was perpetually changing as I explored different types of responsivity in relation to bicycle movements and sonic results.

The stimulation was occurring perpetually, everywhere all the time, through all aspects of creation, through my research, through artistic explorations – I went to see so many art installations and met so many artists through the creation of this project – and through discussions with other academics, artists, musicians, and cyclists about the project.

The transformation happened in ripples; every time we presented the bikes, the bikes themselves were transformed through the experience into a newer, better incarnation.  I presented the bicycles a total of seven times between the original ///Friction and ///Friction 2.0, and in between each performance, I took a lot of time to reflect on the experience, asking how we could do it better next time, making small changes to different aspects of how the bicycles worked and how we presented them.

Shed Esque Bike Sounds

Eventually this all came together for the final incarnation at SAT, where I decided as a result of sheer observation and reflection from past events, that it would be wisest to present the bicycles as a performance first and then explain how the bicycles worked and invite audience members to hop on and try the bikes for themselves, but to do so three times throughout the evening to accommodate audience members with different schedules. I decided, based on the amount of music I had composed, that fifteen minutes would be a suitable duration for the performances, followed by a five-minute explanation by me, with forty-five minutes in between performances when audience members could get on and play the bicycles. I hired three of my DJ friends to be the ‘cyclist musicians’ and structured the evening so that after each performance – all of which were 100% improvised, featuring a different musician on each bike every time – they would play a short DJ set, so that people who wanted to enjoy a cocktail or dance to some electronic music in a separate space, would have the opportunity to do so.

In my research I discovered the work of Claire Bishop, an art historian and theorist who posits a theory of ‘activated spectatorship’ as a result of physical interaction with artworks, which I quite agree with. The theory goes as follows: if viewers look at a painting from afar, their experience is much different than if they, for example, watch a performance of musical bicycles, and later hop on the bikes and try ‘playing them’ for themselves. Bishop argues that physical engagement with artworks produces a more profound and lasting memory, as well as a more intense visceral experience for the viewer-participants, one that lingers both in their intellectual mind and in their physical body long after the fact. I also read a lot about the phenomenology of perception, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which focuses on the importance of individual experience. It is for these reasons that I decided it was so important for the audience members to try the bikes after they were performed. The performance was designed to show people how the bikes worked, and the sonic result that was capable; the period afterward was intended for individual exploration and open play among viewer-participants.

From the perspective of artistic design, the project is kind of a hybrid performance-installation, rather than simply an installation, as it is meant to be performed first and then experienced, rather than simply existing as an entity in a gallery or other artistic space. In terms of sound, the sound design was inspired largely by Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis. LeFebvre stressed the importance of a balance among melody, harmony, and rhythm, so I strove to create that with the three bikes. The Wii-One provided the melody, the Wazou the harmony (and bass), and the Electronique provided the rhythms.

AZ: According to the Oxford Dictionary, friction is defined as:

– The resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another: a lubrication system which reduces friction
– The action of one surface or object rubbing against another: the friction of braking
– Conflict or animosity caused by a clash of wills, temperaments, or opinions: a considerable amount of friction between father and son

Apart from my general interest as to the reasons behind naming the work ///Friction, I’m hoping you could also speak to how the concept relates to the work, or, how friction is encompassed by/within the work?

CK: Well, I would say that definitions 1) and 2) are encompassed within the project in a literal way. When you pedal on a regular bicycle, it is the friction against the earth that propels the bicycle forward. When you brake, it is the friction of the brake pads against the wheels that causes it to stop. When you pedal on a bicycle and there is a dynamo generator attached to a wheel of the bicycle, the added friction of the dynamo rubbing against the tire slows down the motion of the wheel, and in so doing, converts human energy into electrical energy.

For the project, I view ///Friction also as a metaphor: for the friction that exists between cyclists and automobile drivers, between environmentalists and consumerists, and between those who oppose change and those who invite it.

AZ: How do you envision future iterations of the project? On the one hand, you can take the installation component ‘on the road,’ and showcase sonic elements of Montreal’s urban space. Are you also interested in creating versions for other cities? What is in store for ///Friction?

CK: I envision the project going on tour to other Canadian cities, with complimentary video segments specific to each city. Of course, the instruments could be further fine-tuned in terms of achieving greater control over sound by the bicycles, as well as adding layers of sound. But I think the most important thing about the project (besides exposing it to people who would not normally think about cycling, and encouraging new people to try cycling) is that people are inspired by it and can identify with at least one aspect of the project. For this reason I found the video to be a surprisingly important aspect of the project – one that contributed greatly to the recognition factor amongst viewer-participants. They would see the image and react as a result of recognizing the place they saw on the screen, and it would enhance their experience and enjoyment of the bikes. When they hopped on, instead of just hopping onto an art installation, suddenly that experience signified something deeper; they may imagine taking a ride through a familiar place they know or once knew. For this reason, making city-specific video segments to go with traveling versions of the project in the future is the one modification I am committed to making if the project indeed ends up going on tour.

This summer, my main focus is on the design and building of my new installation, Windcatcher. That has pretty much all of my attention at the moment.

AZ: Finally, given that the theme of the issue is ‘record,’ I wonder if you’d like to reflect on how this theme is also channeled through the project in the literal sense of the recorded sounds and images, or perhaps, you might relate ‘record’ to something deeper within the conceptualization of the project.

CK: Well obviously recording is a large part of the project, both in concept and in practice. The project is about capturing sounds from everyday life and transforming them into organized audio compositions that are then shaped into an improvised performance using bicycles. This improvisation is then recorded on video, transformed into another medium; a mere record of its previous state. That is the essence of what this project is all about: transforming perceptions, transforming sounds, transforming behavior. All of the sounds in the project are bicycle-related sounds that have been recorded. The bicycle rhythms (except for the low sine tones) are constructed entirely using recorded sounds either produced directly by a bicycle, or recorded by hitting a bicycle with a pair of drumsticks to capture the different sounds it makes when coming into contact with these objects. Recording is deeply embedded within both the practices and processes of this project. And a lucky result of the project is that I have a series of recordings that are now permanent (yet virtual) entities which will continue to exist indefinitely.

Andrea Zeffiro is a writer & researcher whose work intersects the political economy of emerging technologies, digital media and social justice initiatives, feminist media studies, and multidisciplinary research methods. For more: 

Claire Kenway has a background in music and sound art stemming from the time she was in the womb. The daughter of a violinist and a mad scientist, her DNA contains a unique and special blend of creativity and academic smarts. Endlessly intrigued by the intersections between sound, space, experience, and emotion, Claire has been performing internationally as a DJ for more than a decade and since her move to Montreal in 2008 has taken her artistic endeavors to new heights exploring the realm of sound installation. Her first project, ///Friction, involves three bicycles that produce and manipulate sounds to create a multimedia psychedelic bike ride. Her second project, Poisson Passion, which started as a classroom project at Concordia University, is currently being redeveloped for a gallery installation to be presented at Les Territoires in January 2013 alongside works by Brandon Ballangee, Alison Loader, and Kelly Andres.  In this work, which investigates the relationship of fish responding to different sounds, in a giant-sized aquarium, fishes’ movements will trigger sounds played back to the fish themselves and the human viewers of the work.  For her latest project, Windcatcher, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, she is designing and building three musical instruments which will be played by the wind.  Additionally, Claire just released her first EP on Lost Land Records (Italy) in May 2012.  When she is not busy creating and recording, Claire bikes enjoys the many delights of Montreal’s cultural playground and writes about her experiences in the Scout Network Blog.

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