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“Every shape I create I think about the rhythm,” says Grangemouth-born, London-based artist Florence To of the graceful installations she builds that are shaking up preconceptions of live visuals. If you’re tuned in to the electronic music scene in London or Glasgow it’s more than likely you’ll have seen her work at Boiler Room, Sub Club, Dollop, Soundcrash or Red Bull Music Academy. To’s also worked closely with producers including Shigeto and Auntie Flo to create custom installations for their live events. In fact, it was at Boiler Room last summer that I first locked eyes on To’s work: a giant abstract African mask made of different shaped screens, each one pulsing with different colours and animating in sync with Auntie Flo’s music. The visuals were mapped to each screen shape and programmed to respond to the frequencies of the music. “The music decides how the visual looks,” says To.
“When I did tailoring I had to learn about the body. When I moved over to visual elements, I didn’t just see the flat space; I saw there was so much opportunity.” Florence To
While live visuals have a long history as simple projections onto a wall behind the DJ or band, that was never a goal for To: “I’ve never been able to see anything as flat,” she says. “The body isn’t flat.” To’s innovative approach stems from her background in textiles. She did internships with the fashion labels Preen (“I learned a lot about draping.”) and Boudicca (“They were really strict on tailoring. Nothing was computerised, everything was really hands-on; the old-fashioned way.”) following her degree and masters in fashion design, both of which have informed her approach. “When I did tailoring I had to learn about the body and grading the darts to the right position,” she explains. “When I moved over to visual elements, I didn’t just see the flat space; I saw there was so much opportunity.”
The move from dressing people to dressing spaces came about when To returned to Glasgow and got involved in the local music scene. It was at a monthly night at the Centre of Contemporary Arts that To started with two friends that she made her first – extremely DIY – forays into visuals. Having never created any before or edited film (“I didn’t have the software for it.”), she did things the long way round. Inspired by the 19th century Russian director Yevgeni Bauer who would dip his film in ink to achieve colour effects his black and white movies, she created a makeshift screen with squares of old acetate. The acetate absorbed the black and white film she projected onto it in unusual ways: showing up in colour in some places and not displaying at all in others. She stayed up all night to film her acetate projections using a dodgy camera and screened the resulting footage on the night. Everyone asked her what software she used. “Nothing,” she laughs.
Florence To’s African mask inspired installation at Auntie Flo’s Boiler Room live set.
“[Sub Club was] my canvas; I utilised the space as much as I could until I couldn’t do anything else.” Florence To
To did later learn how to use After Effects, but explains “it didn’t last very long because when I was rendering things I wasn’t satisfied with using video.” She moved towards her current process when she started creating a single visual and using frequencies to animate it, “so the dimensions would be dancing in XYZ.” That discovery led to a year-long residency at legendary local nightspot the Sub Club in Glasgow in 2011, where she further honed her practice as a live visual artist. While working with different music events helped To develop “a library of different rhythmic visuals”, the Sub Club also gave her a chance to experiment with different set-ups and installations: “They were my canvas; I utilised the space as much as I could until I couldn’t do anything else.”
Florence To’s visuals at the Sub Club, Glasgow.
Working with the restrictions of a space is something that is at the heart of To’s ethos. It’s a starting point that springs from her handcraft-focused tailoring background: “It’s really affected how I pitch my design and the way I approach a space. It’s not about what I want to do – because if I see the space and I see what restrictions there are, I use that first.” Her restrictions-focused approach has led to much experimentation – not just in the size, shape and position of her screens but in the choice of her materials. She’s fascinated by how different textures work with her visuals: “The more I do this, the more technical I get and the more abstract I want to be about how I use material. I don’t want to just project on something; I want to see how surfaces reflect, how surfaces create shadows.” To’s interest in detail is something that started as a small child: “I was born in Grangemouth – it’s between Edinburgh and Glasgow – not the nicest of towns but I think that’s really influenced the way I think as well. My family weren’t well off and growing up I really appreciated the really small things.”
That inquisitiveness is reflected in her personal practice. Last year she collaborated with Scottish producer Alex Smoke on a project titled FOVEA that sought to build on Biophysics professor Selig Hecht’s research into how our eyes adapt to the dark. She created a multiple-screen installation that once again echoed the body: “The installation was curved because the eyes are curved.” Visitors would stand in a dark room, immersed in Smoke’s sound design and soaking up To’s visuals. People would come up to her afterwards and say they felt hypnotised. While To enjoyed their responses, that was never her intention: “I always like to make sure people don’t have to think too much when they go to something. I want them to come as a complete blank canvas. That’s very important to me; I don’t want to dictate their brain. I really want the audience to choose themselves. I like to believe in people.”
While To’s work over the last couple of years has built her a reputation as an innovative projection artist, she is resistant to fixity. “I hate being comfortable. I still have the energy for change and different projects.” She talks warmly of the DIY installations she saw at a festival in Prague: “Technology is great but for people to still remember how to be clever with DIY, I find that so amazing.” Fittingly, it all comes back to craft for To; about how to work with what you’ve got. This year, to keep things interesting, she’s shifting her focus a little to graphic design to work on developing the visual identity of Jon Convex’s Convex Industries label. Then there’s a big collaboration on the cards with Dutch techno stalwart Speedy J that she’s also excited about. Perhaps her ultimate goal, though, is something that’s been fluttering in the wings for a while: having learned piano and drums when she was a kid, she’d like to develop her own music and visual project. It’s never felt more appropriate to say watch this space.
Florence To’s graphic design work for Alex Smoke’s Wraetlic side-project release.