Get To Know: Mira Calix

From the 26-28th May the second edition of Splice Festival hits East London's multi-arts centres Rich Mix, Red Gallery and Kamio to celebrate the diverse field of AV performance, including AV remixing, VJing, video art and project mapping.

Among the performers is awarding winning artist, composer and performer Mira Calix who will headline on Saturday night, with a set inspired by the art of Josef Albers, in particular his Experiments In Colour. We caught up with her to discuss what we can expect from her set, how art informs her compositions, and why she loves opening up lines of communication with her audience and peers alike.

This Saturday you headline Splice Festival. How would you describe your show to someone who’ll be coming to it for the first time?

That’s really difficult to answer because my show can be so many different things. I can really go either way. I’m planning to go up-tempo but genuinely for all I know the crowd might all be lying on the floor by then. That’s what I like about DJing – the spontaneity. The only rule I have from when I was playing vinyl is to have the first three records in your head. Nowadays instead of packing a record box I pack a playlist full of ideas. I don’t know in what order I’ll play them, and if it’s a completely different mood I can access stuff from my hard drive. I like the element of the unknown.

Do you prefer to play for people to dance, or to think?

There’s a really nice energy if people are dancing and you keep them on their feet. Anything so long as long as I’m not clearing the floor. Unlike live, for me, DJing is much more participatory. I think it’s just because I’m sharing tunes I like. When it works and people are dancing it's lovely -there’s usually some crazy dancer I fall in love with up the front. On Saturday I’ll be playing the main room, but it can sometimes also be fun to be in the second room, where there’s less pressure, and where people can be more open. You can throw in a Tom Waits track into an electronic set and people are receptive. The space you’re in can inform what you play and how you play.  

Your set at Splice Festival is inspired by Josef Albers’ experiments with colour. How will we see that within your set?

The main thing for me is really about colour contextualisation. My version of red and your version of red are different, that we know already. Albers’ series is really about how if you see a certain red surrounded by blue, it looks a completely different shade than if you surrounded it by white. If you shift the context around something you see it differently. It’s the same with hearing music in room one and room two. On Saturday, I won’t be manipulating the picture live. For me it’s just something to respond to. We’re always led with our eyes - if there’s a TV in the room we’ll always look at it, and although I love that, this piece is more like an ambient landscape. I’m asking ‘how do you hear this music, does it have a colour to you or not, and are these the colours you see?’

Would you describe that as synaesthesia, and do you see music that way?

There are some people who experience synaesthesia very strongly, who see numbers and vowels as colour, but I don’t experience it on that level. I do associate music with colour though, and I always have. As with many other things we can’t know whether that’s common or uncommon, but I know quite a few people who have the same kind of association. A friend and I listened to a piece recently, and when it finished he described it as blue, when I’d heard burnt sienna. Our perceptions of it were completely different but both of us had a reaction that was based on colour, which I found interesting.  Colour always in forms my work.

Albers’ work is also very geometric. To what extent does shape come into your process?

Shape has a lot to do with it, but largely with respect to the compositional structure. When I draw I’m asking myself ‘what is the shape of the piece, what is the intention?’ I might know the instrumentation, or what I’m trying to say, but it’s not like I’m hearing melodies in my head. In a way I’m going back to basics with the Albers’ simple shapes and colours. The question I’m asking is when does picture begin to deflect from the music, when do you stop listening because you’re concentrating on looking? That’s almost my reason for taking it back to basics with the Albers’ cut outs - to give people some room to listen. Does it look like moving wallpaper, and does that free us?

You recently launched Portal, a site for music, conversations and materials, where we’re able to see your own artwork. What comes first, the drawings or the music?

It’s funny because I mostly do drawings before, and collages after. Often people I’m working with see the drawings because they can be useful as blueprints for my ideas, but I haven’t shown them publicly very much. The collages I made public via Portal because I needed artwork for the new releases. People seem to really like them, and I love doing them.

How far do you think what’s happening at Splice represents a new way of thinking about AV?

I think audio-visual modes of consumption have already made their way into the mainstream – just look at Beyoncé! She creates whole environments centred around AV, and we all use visual tools like Instagram and YouTube. What Splice is doing that’s different is presenting experimentations within the form, and exposing the experimentations of a lot of people who might usually work behind the scenes. At Splice you’ll get an insight into their process through performance but also through talks, so it’s a holistic presentation of AV. Having audio-visual elements within any show is the norm, but this is a way you can see the nuts and bolts of it.

How does going to these kinds of talks, and holding conversations with your colleagues and contemporaries help you in your work?

I’ve recently been doing these recorded podcast-things called The Conversation on Portal. I’ve always loved the way conversations move around. I tend to jump around a lot and with people I know we’re often talking about three things at once – it can be cheese, and existentialism, and a new bow for someone’s violin, all at the same time. The idea for these conversations was to just to start talking, and see where we ended up. Just like everybody else, I learn from everyone I talk to. I’m a great believer in peer sharing and mentoring. I find that happens from exposing yourself to things that you don’t know about yet, or that you don’t know you like. Those kinds of discoveries seems to me to be one of the best things about being alive.

What’s next post-Splice?

Next week I’ll be at the Oram Awards, a brand new awards initiative named after the BBC Radiophonic Workshop co-founder Daphne Oram, celebrating women in sound and music. I’ll be doing a short diffusion piece there using multiple speaker systems. I’ve also been making a lot more live-action video art pieces. I have one coming up in Berlin, and one in Huddersfield, which is connected to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. They’re giving me a shop to fill, so there’ll be a lot of weird art in there. It was commissioned by the Yorkshire Sound Women Network – they’re super cool and they do lots of experimental stuff. I’m a big supporter of women in music, and especially in experimental music.

Mira Calix performs at Splice Festival - the UK’s only dedicated audiovisual performing arts festival which runs from 26-28 May 2017.