Ian Gibbins is an Adelaide poet, working across diverse forms, including electronic music, digital media, and video. He used to be a neuroscientist and Professor of Anatomy at Flinders University. His poetry has been widely published in print and on-line, often accompanied by his electronic music and videos, and includes the collections Urban Biology (2012); The Microscope Project: How Things Work (with artists Catherine Truman and Deb Jones, 2014) and Floribunda (with artist Judy Morris, 2015). With customary kindliness, Ian agreed to answer some questions about his astounding range of creative practices for the first in this special DWIR interview series.
1. Could you give a brief history of your creative practice (analogue and digital)?
When I first started writing poetry in the 70s, everything was decidedly analogue. I was part of a poetry workshop at Melbourne University, and co-edited University poetry magazine for a few years. Digital computing was available on mainframes but that was outside the reach of most people. I began using mainframe-based computers for statistics in 1975, but it never occurred to me to consider them for creative work!
I used a lot of digital technology and computing in my research at Flinders University. As microscopists, we were among the first anywhere to use digital image acquisition and processing. We had one of first the desktop computers in Australia that could do 3D animations (in this case of single nerve cells), and we used Photoshop for preparing images for publication almost as soon as it came out. My electrical recordings of the activity of nerve cells as they communicate with each other required all kinds of digital amplifiers, displays and data-gathering devices. By the time I retired in 2014, we had fully digital microscopes, powerful desktop data analysis, and all our publishing was fully digital.
As my scientific career took off, I stopped writing poetry for no special reason. But I maintained a strong interest in the arts throughout. Then, around 2003 or so, I started writing again, and things took off from there. I write in different styles, which seem to suit different audiences , so I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot work published and performed in a wide range of places over the last few years. However, more and more my work is relying on digital production processes, including sampling, generative rules, and the incorporation of visual elements with the text.
Another analogue-to-digital transition was in music. I’m a self-taught keyboard player and I really like the two extremes of keyboard music: traditional piano blues and experimental electronica. The arrival of affordable, professional-quality music-making software completely changed my approach to music, opening up all kinds of creative possibilities I’d never really imagined.
Now all these strands have come together in my recent video-poetry work, where I can combine text, sound and moving image in ever-changing ways.
2a. What is it about new/digital media that draws you to use them in your work?
Undoubtedly, it’s the huge range of creative possibilities I can access, mostly just from sitting at my computer: graphics, sounds, animation, code, or whatever.
2b. What kind of equipment do you use?
For all my experience with electronics and digital instrumentation, or maybe because of it, I’m not an equipment nerd. I like to use the most minimal set-up I can and then exploit it to the full. However, I do try to get the best quality components I can afford to do the work I want to do.
When I retired in 2014, I bought a top-of-the-line iMac with loads of memory, the fastest processors, and a giant solid-state main drive, as well as a heap of fast external storage (14 TB at the moment!). This means I can make videos with minimal waiting time for rendering, which had been driving me nuts on my previous computer.
I use Final Cut Pro X for making my videos along with Motion, Isadora, Image J and a couple of other specialised little programs for generating individual clips. I’m still learning how to use these programs to generate images from scratch, make animations, etc. My video camera is just a good quality Canon handicam, and my still camera is a fairly old Olympus digital SLR, which can take some wonderful specialist lenses I’ve had for over 30 years! I process still images with Photoshop and Image J (a scientific image processing program).
For music and sound production, I mostly use Logic Pro X, but I have some specialist smaller programs for severely warping or generating sound files, such as Audacity, PaulStretch, Photosounder, and High C. I use a Roland MIDI keyboard for input, and an Edirol analogue-to-digital module for voice and sound recordings. I’ve also got a full size digital stage piano and an wonderful old Korg synth (one of the first semi-digital models), that has almost died… And the main reason I take an iPhone around with me is to record environmental sounds.
3. Is there a correlation between your science background and your creative practice? If so, how would you describe it?
Clearly the answer is yes! And in many ways… Perhaps most surprising is that my experience in the poetry writing workshops as an undergraduate made me a much better scientific writer: I was trained to think hard about economy of language, shades of meaning and rigorous editing. I published about 120 scientific articles, an equivalent number of words to two full length novels. They are still quoted pretty widely in the field, in part because they are clearly written.
As mentioned above, much of my research involved microscopic imaging and we had get illustrations for our papers print-ready ourselves. We always aimed to have images that were both scientifically meaningful and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. We must have been successful at this because many of our images were used for cover illustrations on journals, University promotional material, and so on. Now coming into the more creative side of things, I have some confidence that I know what looks good.
The content and subject matter of much of my creative work has been generated from my scientific practice. Many of my published poems consider aspects of neuroscience, anatomy or zoology (my specialty areas), and I like to adapt scientific terminology to new meanings and contexts. I’ve been part of four collaborative art exhibitions / installations that have been explicitly based on anatomy (not absolute, 2009; Body of Evidence, 2016), microscopy (The Microscope Project, 2014) and botany (Floribunda, 2015). Some of this work has re-used old laboratory equipment and text from my scientific papers, which is very satisfying.
There is another interesting correlation between the scientific and creative practice: the mind-set you need succeed in each domain is not very different. Artists and scientists share an inexplicable drive to enter the unknown and try something that may or may not work; there are the hours of tedium as you practice the craft skills required to operate an instrument or get the best of some software or come to grips with the properties of your raw materials or nail the emotional impact you are after; and then, when it’s all done, there is an equally inexplicable impetus to get out there and show everyone what you have found, no matter how uncertain you are, no matter how daunting the potential audience may be.
Collaboration is the norm in much modern science, and I always taken that aspect of it for granted, even while maintaining my own hands-on projects. However, in conventional creative writing and in many visual arts, collaboration is rare, even if it is common in theatre, the film industry, and so on. Much of the creative work I’ve done over the last few years has been in collaboration, and it’s been really enjoyable (and productive!) for everyone concerned. But having said that, it’s really liberating to be able to sit at home and make things on my computer without requiring massive infrastructural support or a team of technicians or the necessity to cite 100 references along the way!!
4. How does digital media succeed as a method for your creative practice where language might fail?
Brilliantly!! I love the way digital media let me work across multiple sensory channels at once, incorporating text, audio, still and moving images as I like. More importantly, digital processing allows me to sample, re-sample / process / distort words, sounds and pictures in ways that are impossible otherwise. When you combine these processes with chance, or at least unpredictable, operations, there are endless possibilities for generating new worlds of narrative and emotional expression outside the bounds of normal language.
We live in a mainly visual world. Yet, we simply do not have enough words to describe everything we can see. And although we have hundreds of words for colours, English is largely bereft of comparable words for sounds. I love the idea that we can use digital media to try to fill these gaps.
Digital media can be shared and made interactive in ways that can bring the audience and the artist together in a kind of extended collaboration. I’m gradually learning the (minimal) tools required to make more interactive work… stay tuned, but don’t hold your breath!
5. What advice could you give to someone who’s unsure of digital creative work but would like to start experimenting?
Get going… !! Creating work in digital space is no different from anything else. You have to try things for yourself, make mistakes, learn from them, from what people say about them, and be willing to be frustrated and bored brainless for extended periods of time. However, it is just as important to get good advice: read / watch / hear everything you can; look at as many on-line videos / forums / help desks / equipment reviews as you need to understand how to do something; talk to people doing work you admire; go to exhibitions; attend festivals; subscribe to journals / websites that publish the best cutting edge work; join on-line groups with interests you share. And then get back to it…