Let Me Tell You a Few Things About My Camera Roll

The musician and composer C. Spencer Yeh talks about his latest piece for Issue Project Room, "The Big Share."

by Sophie Kemp
Jun 28 2020, 9:30am

The latest project from C. Spencer Yeh, a composer, improviser, and violinist based in Queens, is "The Big Share," a twenty minute video that might as well be fragments of a novel of life during quarantine. The video is compromised of field recordings, dissonant and urgent music, and three distinct clips: starting off with a long section of videos of food taken directly from Yeh's camera roll, the video then shifts to a series of AI-generated memes, and ends with a video of Yeh's cat Mikki, whom he adopted right before the pandemic started. Even though it isn't that long, each section feels like an extended journey through Yeh's psyche. The resulting video is one that is intense, hypnotic, and captivating.

To learn more about the video as well as Yeh's process, GARAGE chatted with the artist over Gchat for over an hour. What started out as a conversation about the making of this movie unfolded into a larger conversation about how our camera rolls shape our sense of self, and what it feels like to listen to music right now.

GARAGE: In your artist's statement, you say that you view these as chapters in an unfinished novel...
C. Spencer Yeh: The original plan for "The Big Share" [was] for the work to be a few hours long. I had some previous works that were super long in duration, because I was interested in how that affected the material. I had thought a lot about what strategies there were left in "abstracting" sound, voice, and language as well, in another work (SOLO VOICE I-X for Primary Information), so this sorta leaked into the video work. The original plan was to have MORE of the chapters from this "novel" though there would have been less a "narrative arc" to each chapter and more like, a loose composition or like an "ambient" strategy. There was going to be a lot more text involved, perhaps these narratives around particular things that got cooked, like the preamble in so many recipe blogs.

Can you tell us about how you chose the food that appeared in that first chapter or movement? Does it relate at all to the quarantine mindset of feeling like cooking is the only way to stay sane?
I just lined up all the video of the food I cooked chronologically, and did a couple selects-passes and trims, and then got the idea to just start from the beginning and throw all these sorta Experimental Film and Video "101" moves on them. I was taking more stills of the food in the beginning of the quar, and often I don't really have any distant sense of using this stuff in work at first but when I get a feeling it may be used as material, it definitely changes how I shoot, even if it ends up sitting on a drive for years, without a specific project.

Cooking has always sort of been a consistent but also manic on/off thing, definitely to stay sane, definitely to procrastinate, definitely to chase after some taste I got in my brain's mouth while walking around or like, watching The Sopranos, and then suddenly you want to make a baked ziti. Before quar would be no cooking for a long stretches of time back when there was this thing called work. I'd have to go into the city and I'd just get takeout. I could never get it together to have a sack lunch plan I hate that I even have to think about "ambition" when it comes to cooking food because I feel like food and drink appreciation has been totally ruined by mostly dudes.

Still from "The Big Share."

Yeah totally, it also feels like instagram has flattened that as well.
I mean, I really enjoyed posting food, mostly to stories. I didn't understand and feared stories (expressed as a contempt) but then one day I woke up and I was in this vertical frame that was 15secs long) putting a pin in this as well. I used to be a "horizontal video-only" type (like, I end up making all these dumb rules for myself, thinking that'll result in interesting work) but IG stories basically ruined me for that I mean, the real lesson there is to understand why you may set boundaries, and to stop mistaking being a cop or gatekeeper to yourself as "artistic rigor"

When quar hit, I guess it's like ugh the stock market or something, like you know, when cloud money rises, gold falls. I [had] pretty much stopped posting a lot to the stories prior to quar, I had been feeling that way anyways, for probably all the reasons others had. There was a stress in grocery shopping, where I just grabbed random "staples" like, my heart beating overtime, glasses fogging up, trying to stay the fuck away from people barreling towards you, feeling like you have big clay hands from the gloves as you try to open your shopping list. I sure as hell wasn't gonna pause and think about what special ingredients I needed to cook something special for an upcoming weekend THREE WEEKS from now, when I haven't gone grocery shopping. For me, it was a real "I DON'T HAVE TIME TO THINK ABOUT THIS" approach to cooking.

That's something you can feel from watching the Big Share, like there was this sense of urgency and almost horror in that first section.
There was definitely an urgency when making the section, like very much a tunnel vision so that when I watched back on the first decent draft, it was like, who the fuck is this, this is unhinged like if I got so deep into "quarvival," by April I'm like... what have I done?

Also that intensity is really magnified by the music.
The plan for this work was to also use it as a "cover" for actually getting to make some new Music (music with a capital M! as opposed to the more conceptual stuff I had been working on the last few years. I feel like it's a different process, like using a different kind of intuition) that's what I was having a tough time with pre-quar, getting back to Music. It was sort of obscuring and backgrounding this act of making music that I'm still associated with in my work like, it would be funny to be like, "premiering new Music, supported by visuals..." and have the visuals be of slo-mo batter in reverse.

What's the relationship between your camera roll and your music and how do they influence each other?
Not that everything has to be so grand, but I feel like the relationship relates to the question of if everything you make creatively is supposed to be put into like a system like, if someone told me they were recording some music, my reflex is to ask if they are gonna put it out so like, what am I taking these pictures for? Was it so simple, the act of picture-taking, prior to major image-based social media? Do you take vacation photos thinking ahead to the slideshow you make your friends sit through weeks later? I'd always enjoyed figuring out working with the mobile phone camera because it was right there, it was "instant" and within its limitations there’s all sorts of shit you can do with it like, bracing the camera steadily on a car or train window. It's also funny because I can't really think of an equivalent of that kind of generating material and ideas for soundwork or Music. Making soundwork and Music is different from like, when I play improvised music on violin, I rarely record that when I practice. There's so many other uses for the camera roll than there is for like, an hour of guitar noodling like.

Regarding the AI-made meme section, in the last ten years a lot of pop culture is free associative and some of it literally comes from random generators. Like, uh, the name Childish Gambino. Can you talk about that? Also, is humor something that is actively important to you in your work?
The memes were like from a couple afternoons of being on the couch, just chuckling and saving ones I thought were funny I think I did end up posting a couple somewhere. I thought it would be interesting to have that section represent just like, those couple afternoons because there were so many versus like, the other two sections that span days/weeks/months.

I think I like being funny, but I have a weird thing about humor, because I feel like that can very much be its own thing I also have a tough time with funny because it can flatten. There's this thing I’ve been thinking about during quar, about "aspirational listening" tied in with "empathetic listening" like, wanting to feel for a person (or impression of a person) when checking their stuff out I think I've encountered so much weirdness and alienation from coming up in the noise scene that I really don't think I'm extended much an effort in digging into what I make. You know how you can feel an artist casts a spell on you, and that changes your engagement and feeling about the music?

Still from "The Big Share."

Yes totally!
I've thought for years about the term of like "oh, what do I think of that record? Well, I'm biased because I know that person." like, I basically feel like using the term "biased" is not helpful because I think it is a really great thing to know someone and then experience their work and it isn't necessarily rarified because (most) everyone has that experience already maybe, just with different people this pursuit of a state of "objectivity." I hate it. It reminds me of reply guys, which reminds me of whiteness. When applying that to like, artists you may not know personally, there's the impression of the artist out there, whether through pictures, video, or text and interviews. There is a choice to decide if you see them as a person, and how and what kind and if you feel like you want to get to know or support or whatever, your impression of a certain type of person, then like, you listen aspiring to connect I want to be careful here because, again, the curse of "objectivity" makes it sound like things are "false" because these desires and emotions are involved.

I'm wondering if we can shift gears to talking about the section featuring your cat, Mikki.
I imagined long stretches of "nanny cam" it was cut with a tunnel vision/instinct, but like, totally vérité/cut-up style. In that section, the sound feels important like, just fast cut-up style, like especially when it's abrupt, it's like sticking a piece of paper into a fan the fan being the cuts on the video which, when working in that way, I like to fall back on my internal pulse which is erratic, which is why I don't have good rhythm, which is why I was never good at the Playing of Music which is why I then got over that insecurity and decided to just make stuff while leaning into what I did have which is why I am super into "real people" stuff, where it isn't a demonstration of an ideal, but like, the person and their weird shapes.

field recordings
C Spencer Yeh
Issue Project Room