Visualising 2013: Meet the artists and directors behind the best videos of the year

Dummy catches up with Jon Rafman, Jesse Kanda, Florence To and more visual artists who made 2013 look so fresh.


Words by: Aimee Cliff


London-based graphic designer and director Jesse Kanda collaborated closely with Arca and FKA Twigs this year, designing jelly-textured artwork and a whole live show at the MoMa for the former and directing the excellent Water Me video [below] for the latter. 

Lots of your work seems to play around with the human form. Is that something you're particularly interested in?

Kanda: "Yeah, I use the human body as a starting point a lot. I find that for people to digest my ideas, presenting them through the context of a body works well. It's kinda like using vocal samples in a weird electronic track that might otherwise be too abstract, you know? It makes it easier to relate to. Also we just like seeing people. When you go to a gallery, most of the time you're drawn to work with humans in it.. It's just how we're wired. Who wants to just see abstract lines and landscapes? Fuck that, we want to see one of us!"

What was the principle idea behind the Water Me video? How did you create the enlarged eyes effect, and what inspired it?

Kanda: "Hmm, I think Twigs initially asked if her eyes could change sizes throughout the video and if she could cry in it. Which, apart from the head bobbing, is all that really happens in it! But obviously what makes it good is its simplicity. Both the song and video are fucking weird if you think about it… Even though I was really confident in my choices when I was sitting there making the video, we were really nervous when it first came out, thinking 'shit what did we do?!?!'. A couple of people who saw it before it came out were worried too, asking me if it was finished, haha.

"But I'm really proud of how well it's been received because it was such a risk. The bigger the risk, the bigger the pay off if it works. I love that. Don't do safe shit, what's the point? Do something different and fail. It was also pretty much the debut of Twigs' face as a musician. Imagine your face filling up a whole video for 3 minutes in front of the whole world.. She has balls of steel."

"Don't do safe shit, what's the point? Do something different and fail." – Jesse Kanda

You work on visuals with Arca too; what are the themes you're exploring with him, and how does that work differ from your work with Twigs?

Kanda: "Well, Arca and I are actually best friends. We've collaborated in some way or another since we were kids. We definitely seemed to hit a groove this year with what we're doing and want to do.. him moving here to London from New York made a huge difference. I hope it's okay that I don't speak on the themes yet though – we want to communicate that more through the work first. Walk the walk then talk the talk."

How do you think the music video is evolving; is it becoming a more prestigious medium to work in?

Kanda: "It's evolving in so many ways… It feels a lot less prestigious because there are so many new ones every day, but with the internet it's more important than ever for musicians to have unique visual identities. Personally I like it best when there's continuity in the work so it feels like their own little worlds. Like how The Knife/Fever Ray have a world, or even on a less artsy level the whole Chicago drill sound has that DIY digital SLR look going. It's because they have close collaborators that they build something with over time. I also love how Odd Future have been doing it. They always did their own videos and the quality just kept getting better and better.

"If you're a band, figure out how to do the visuals yourself or find someone who can and stick with them. Even if it's bad at first, at least it's honest and you will get better."

What was your proudest achievement of 2013?

Kanda: "Our show at MoMA PS1! It was the first time I ever showed anything to a live audience. We're hoping to do more of that." 



Image via

Could you talk us through the concept behind your collaboration with Actress and Eddie Peake at St John's church?

Hamilton: "The concept behind the St John's Session night was to put three disparate but related practices together in one place for one night to see what happened. It was about taking things out of the context of the internet, gallery and nightclub. 

"We had discussions about the cycle of beauty and decay in everyday life, then each of us worked through our own interests, filtered by random discussions about old music videos, dance and phone snaps of stuff in the street. The way these sometimes crude combinations of objects, bodies, sounds and situations could be combined into transient paradises became our shared focus."

When setting about creating a visual for a piece of music, what's the first thing you do?

Hamilton: "I listen to the music until I'm nearly sick of it, then leave it for a week or so if I have time. I'll then do some drawings and co-opt some existing models and ideas I have been working on that don't have homes until something clicks. The most enjoyable bit is a making a set of quick rough images describing what it feels like, plus any technical tests to see if something is going to work."

"Crude combinations of objects, bodies, sounds and situations combined into transient paradises." – Nic Hamilton

How did you come up with the sub-aquatic landscape of L-Vis 1990's Ballads video?

Hamilton: "The video and 12" illustration was driven by Alex [Bok Bok] and James [L-Via 1990] from a concept point of view. I acted as the producer forming the references and ideas into architecture and environment. 

"We were concentrating on the underwater atmosphere of the space more than the architecture.  The light, colours and sense of depth became the most important things. There is a detailed city and plaza beyond that murky water, but once flooded it became much less of a focus.

"James wanted something tender and beautiful as the centrepiece to offset the nondescript corporate modernist architecture. We looked for models but nothing was as perfect as Rodin's 'The Kiss' so I got that modelled up.

"In a continuation of the original artwork the 3D model then went on to be the white label artwork on NSW017 in the form of a photo of the 3D print. A fitting bootleg appropriation of the artwork added to by the nice strata grain of the 3D printer."

What exciting projects do you have on the horizon?

Hamilton: "I have just started a personal short film/CG work that was filmed in Tasmania over winter which will have music by a past collaborator. Locally I'm working with Kane Ikin on an ongoing project involving video and pints of Guinness. Kane has some great music on the horizon, and it's nice to be in the Melbourne time zone for a change." 


What was the initial concept behind the Ego Free Sex Free video?

Tsypin: "The initial idea was to take the cover art of Autre Ne Veut's 'Anxiety' and bring it to life. I wanted to create a cinematic context for the 'art handlers' to exist in.  That was our point of departure and then Arthur [Autre Ne Veut] and I spent six months developing this world before the video was actually produced. We were interested in creating a very specific environment that was defined by its limitations, in terms of both physical movement and cinematography." 

We love how the eye is free to roam inside the frame, taking in so many details – it's such a change from the standard music video form. What influences were you drawing on outside of music videos?

Tsypin: "One of the biggest inspirations for the video was the opening shot of Michael Haneke's Amour.  It's a super wide shot of an audience in a concert hall, and it lingers for a while so you are forced to really look at all the audience members.  Other influences were old Busby Berkeley videos and Pina Bausch choreographies."

Did it take a long time to get it all in one take like that?

Tsypin: "Yes! It was a very impeccably planned 10 hour shoot.  It was especially insane to shoot in such a lavish banquet hall with limited hours because it felt like a high-pressure theatre performance – I was standing on the stage with a mic shouting directions."   

What do you think is the future of the music video? Got any recent favourites?

Tsypin: "It takes one look at recent Nicki Minaj videos to see that we've reached a peak of over-sexualised booty shots and seizure-inducing editing tricks.  While that's totally cool,  I think it's natural that directors have started moving to the other end of the spectrum. 15 minute 'short films', one-take videos, extreme slow motion, super long 'boring' videos, art films – it's a very exciting climate to be working in. I guess a recent favorite is Mitch Moore's M1NDFVCK video for Ian Isaiah…it gives me the chills every time."  


Can you tell us about the main idea behind your installation with Yosi Horikawa?

To: "I wanted to create a pattern that could evolve in different layers with Yosi’s music. There’s a lot of textures and definition in his field recordings as well as in the digital elements. I had done a lot of recording within natural environments in different lightings of the day to work with the field recordings and created simple vector frames for the digital elements. I wouldn’t usually use video in my installations as it can take away the purpose of the installation itself but in this case I used it as a way of looking through a window to the outside during the specific times in Yosi’s performance."

What was the most exciting project you worked on in 2013?

To: "The project I work with on Yosi was quite special, it was just great to work with him…we both believe in trying to keep the live element in performance as much as we can. Our first show at Scopitone festival was the first time we tested the installation… while I’m asking Yosi to give me the tracklist it always changed so we just worked with whatever happened. I also did some shows while I was in New York this summer and working with my good friend Matt (Jahiliyya Fields) on L.I.E.S was also one of my highlights of 2013. Hopefully we will be doing more work together in 2014."

"Light should compliment the music and not take too much away. I try not to think visual and sound as separate, if you treat it as an entire composition the audience will too." – Florence To

Do you see shapes and lights when you listen to any piece of music? 

To: "People tend to ask if I’m obsessed with triangles and I can see why they might think that, however polygon shapes are the most adaptable to fitting in any form of space and it was great to experiment with this for a while.

"I see light visuals as part of the composition of the music; light should compliment the music and not take too much away. I try not to think visual and sound as separate, if you treat it as an entire composition the audience will too."

What would be your dream piece of music to bring to life in visual form?

To: "My interest in visuals began with using different ranges of frequencies to process the dimensions of vector frames live; working with the sound of brainwaves is something I’ve been researching for a while. I had quite bad insomnia for about 20 years and it wasn't til only a year ago I started using binaural and isochronic tones. Binaural tones are a response in the brain which occurs when two tones below 1000 Hz are heard in opposing ears – there is a difference of 5 Hz in each ear to create one tone when listened through headphones, whereas isochronic uses one tone in a form of a sine wave.

"I used to listen to Alvin Lucier whenever I wanted to switch off, which later made sense. Each type of brainwave is associated with different functions with the lower frequencies; I’ve been evolving this idea when creating sounds to activate certain movements in the visuals which I feel looks more organic in terms of response."


Your video for Glasser's 'Design' was an extension of your collaboration with her on the aesthetic of her whole album, which really became its own liquid-metallic world. Could you summarise the visual concept of 'Interiors' as a whole?

Turner: "Cameron and I talked for the better part of a year about her motivations for the album. She shared a lot of ideas about experiencing New York as a recent transplant. I could relate to a lot of these depictions, such as stepping outside of your cosy apartment onto St. Mark's street. It's this very shocking experience because there is no transition. Almost like jumping in an alpine lake on a hot summer day. A lot of themes kept coming back relating to architecture or agoraphobia, the overwhelming nature of our manufactured environment and this sense of existing in multiple dimensions.

"Chrome was really stumbled upon because it was the signature material when the concept of design as form following function was introduced (Le Corbusier's chairs, etc.). I wanted the 'shape' in the Design video to take on this early modernist design quality. Almost like it had been made by Isamu Noguchi when he was working for Brancusi. Chrome also expresses this multidimensional quality because it reflects the world in a strange and distorted way."

What was the main idea behind the video?

Turner: "If I remember correctly, the idea for the Design video came from this depiction that Cameron had of this alien object of energy invading her personal space. At the time I was working on a concept for a different song where Cameron is surrounded by an architectural environment that reacts to her every move and is trying to contain her as much as it is trying to console her. I had referenced an image from the book Delirious New York where two of New York's great skyscrapers are in bed together. So architecture is sort of imbued with sexuality in a emotional way and the physical way that spaces affect us.

"I thought that we could invert that concept and imbue this invasive design object with those qualities. I also thought that maybe this invasive object is a metaphor for something like the iPhone. It seemingly came from the heavens and has this almost tabula rasa quality that allows us to project ourselves onto it. However, at the end of the day it's just another gadget that eventually gets outmoded and gets placed in a drawer. The choreographer Megha Barnabas brought this profound quality of a seduction or mating ritual into it that really activated the concept. The ritualistic dance could sort of anthropomorphise the alien object and the object would bring joy and ecstasy to the designed woman."

"We can't help but be influenced by the past but I'd prefer more videos take things into completely uncharted realms." – Jonathan Turner

The shots of Cameron's body and her angular dance moves make it feel like a parody of mainstream music videos – she rebels against convention, can't be framed in the traditional way. Were you toying with the music video form?

Turner: "I think we set out to do the opposite actually. If there is one thing I dislike about today's creative culture it's this sense of being hyper-derivative and completely okay with it. It's like, 'I am aware that I'm lifting the cinematography, styling and choreography of this specific reference and not adding anything of myself to it.' We can't help but be influenced by the past but I'd prefer more videos take things into completely uncharted realms. Maybe a parody of something hyper-derivative is something that seeks not to be a parody at all.

"Cameron and I both agreed that we wanted to do something that was as original as possible. Something that might not be cool now but maybe in 10 years would make sense. Also, we wanted to transform her into a character that wasn't herself (or it's a part that isn't expressed often). The detailed choreography, the extreme heels and the dress were really a way to make that transformation complete.

"The specific movement is really a reflection of the choreographer Megha. We've been working together as part of the art collective Yemenwed since 2007, so there is an amazing built-in familiarity. I know she is really interested in Indian dance and how these small gestures and smiles really suggest a deeper messaging. Also Megha is a filmmaker herself so she has the ability to imagine movement that couldn't exist in a single fluid performance but only makes sense when cut up and edited into isolated moments."

Got any exciting projects on the horizon?

Turner: "I'm deep in post-production on a new video for Glasser as well a new video piece for Yemenwed. Also I'm in pre-produciton on a trilogy of my own art videos which hopefully we see the light of day in early 2014."


How did you come up with the concept for your Girl Like Me video?

Kotlyarenko: "During a late-night pow-wow at Whole Foods cafeteria, Slava and I were throwing around a lot of sexual scenarios that we thought would provide an uncanny complement to the song. At one point he suggested a true-life incident, wherein his uncle had lost his virginity to an older woman that took advantage of him. Which is horrible, but also an abstract fantasy for a lot of boys just discovering sex. It also introduced a morality where the woman might not in fact be the sort of explicit predator one associates with these situations. Immediately it seemed like the right way to go. 

"We transposed the scenario to Southern California and made the woman a best friend's older sister. See, originally it was two boys and an older woman. When we got to LA, I found that Coachella had drawn away a lot of the young boy options we had lined up…and so after 2 days of scouring skateparks, schools and beaches for photogenic tween boys — in what is undoubtedly its own perverted tale — I decided to go with the only boy we had complete trust and faith in: that was Jack. 

"So 12 hours before the shoot, we had one boy to work with instead of two, and I think at that point it became very clear to me that he wasn't going to the be this girl's younger brother's best friend…he was going to be the younger brother. 

"Necessity is the mother of invention. You turn a shortcoming into an asset."

How did you want the viewer to feel after watching it?

Kotlyarenko: "Entertained. Tuned in. Turnt up. Uncomfortable. A little melancholic, a little overwhelmed. I want people to feel like they made a good time investment and be compelled to share with their friends, and maybe even their relatives. (LOL)"

Right now it's harder than ever to get audiences to actually watch music videos. Does this factor into your creative process?

Kotlyarenko: "Well, I'm always thinking about the fact that we live in a one-of-a-kind 'Attention Economy'. Viewership now has much more agency than ever before, since people can watch whatever content they want, whenever they want, on whatever viewing screen they want. As a filmmaker, who isn't necessarily playing the majority of my stuff in a movie theater, I have to actively contend with that reality. I've directly dealt with these issues in my feature films 0s & 1s and SkyDiver, both of which tell their stories through desktop and operating system imagery. They are attempts to conceptually foreground the confrontation with these sorts of emerging viewing habits.

"At the end of the day though, those ideas are nothing without emotional engagement. I really do think people will always respond to a captivating story, told in an engaging (visually, editorially, performatively) fashion that has a few WTF moments in it. So that's the attitude with which I'm trying to approach my videos. The WTF moments seem particularly crucial to things going viral, but you don't want to shoehorn them in unless they fit. It's a tough balance, but that's why they pay me [or whomever] the BIG BUCKS."

What were the key influences you were drawing on when working on Girl Like Me?

Kotlyarenko: "From the beginning I wanted there to be an overwhelming quality to the sex scene. Like, not make it generically sensual or awkward in an accepted way. I just wanted it to be a sensory overload, with no normative morality involved. I've always been a fan of single-frame edits from Daisies to Oliver Stone's early 90s movies, I felt like the effects of flash-cuts were always cool and overpowering. I'd never seen sex cut together like that and wanted that to happen.

"Other than that, I think Slava asked for a sort of Hollister vibe and after doing my dark-couture webseries, Feast of Burden, I just wanted the characters to be as generic/normal as possible. During editing, I did think about the sort of history of incest cinema that exists; great movies like As Tears Go By and Les Enfants Terribles, just cause my mind works like that, but I wouldn't say they influenced anything."

Anything exciting coming up for 2014?

Kotlyarenko: "Yes, lots of stuff. Before 2013 is out, I'll be finishing up the script of a techno-erotic-thriller I've been working on recently, and hopefully making that in 2014. Until then there are a few more music videos on the slate, plus I'm gonna try to fuck around with some movies that can only work as experimental shorts and get back to my old practice of recording 'live webcam performances'. Should be a pretty good year. *knocks on wood*"


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