“We Get Ear Worms, But Do We Get Eye Worms?” An Interview With People Like Us

Ahead of the premiere of her new work, ‘Gone, Gone Beyond,’ Vicki Bennett, aka People Like Us, talks to Daryl Worthington about composing in 3D and collaborations across time and space

“Sometimes it is good to have contrast and sometimes synchronicity – both have roles in the dynamic,” says Vicki Bennett, aka People Like Us. “Synchronicity comes all by itself though, either through the wish of the contrasting edits to be in unison or the mind’s wish for that to be the case.”

She’s speaking ahead of the premiere of ‘Gone, Gone Beyond,’ her new feature length 360º AV spatial cinema piece. The dazzling, multi-speaker and multi-screen work sees her distinct collages of sight and sound flung out to surround the audience. Snippets of movies overlaying and tangling into each other, sometimes creating serene, uncanny interactions, others bending into uneasy juxtapositions. Jumping from surreal fantasy vistas into ominous, gloomy parallel worlds.

‘Gone, Gone Beyond’s’ soundtrack follows a similar trajectory. Fragments of familiar pop songs and musical soundtracks meld together in elegant mash ups, sometimes montaged to create new melodies and lyrics, other times collided to build gorgeous cacophonies from the cultural archive. The whole thing almost feels designed to induce synaesthesia, changing, extending and at points totally shattering the relationship between sight and sound. Interrogating this relationship between media and sense is pivotal to the People Like Us project.

“I feel that using collage is an immersive experience because it consist of layers, angles, movement through time, so there is the physical frame but also things like time frame,” explains Bennett.

“When you make a collage you create collaborations across time and space. Collage in any medium does this. Not only with pre-existing materials, any medium, as soon as it meets something from somewhere else that is not the same as it, you are creating a new relationship. I think a lot about things like this in general, in life, how things are connected, and how nothing has independent origin. When we place things together they already have a relationship and we have to discover it from that part of us that is also connected to it.”

Since 1991 People Like Us has taken a radical approach to sampling from different media. Creating strange AV constructions which seem to push at perception itself. A ten screen, six speaker piece, Gone, Gone Beyond was commissioned by Naut Humon, the founder of San Francisco based immersive theatre project Recombinant Music Labs CineChamber. Originally a structure that would be erected each year for the Recombinant Festival, the CineChamber is a rectangular surround-screen apparatus which can “be played or manipulated as an A/V instrument,” and set up in different auditoriums and theatres.

I spoke to Bennett over email, a few days before the premiere of Gone, Gone Beyond in Ipswich.

Can you tell us how you came to work with Naut Humon?

In the late 1990s I was travelling to San Francisco pretty frequently, and would play small collaborative concerts with different people in small spaces (including Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema), and Naut would always be in the audience, he attends/attended lots of concerts and is a great supporter of the arts. He had the Asphodel label back then too. He used to email me periodically and tell me he had this great surround sound/moving image structure called CineChamber and did I want to make something for it. At the time I was barely getting a dialup connection on the internet and I had no high-speed computer. Also, the idea of even doing 2D sometimes was daunting enough, so I said no. This happened for a number of years.

But time moved on, and with the advent at the turn of the century of high-speed broadband (= access to information and files!) and high-speed affordable computing, my visions began to be fulfilled in terms of being able to access material online that I wanted to work with as content, so I could begin to edit sound and move images in the way that I had always wanted, making an immersive environment through collage.

By then I had also met and was living with Peter Knight and he has a background in animation and compositing so that meant that there was more of a skillset between us to fulfil any vision I may have to make a surround piece of work. I thought that it might be at most a six-month project but I’m still making it! Gone Gone Beyond is currently over an hour long.

To me, there seem to be real arcs, rises and falls in ‘Gone, Gone Beyond’. Narrative isn’t quite the right word, but it seems almost theatrical in the tension and release. What was the process for structuring and sequencing the piece?

When we first went to San Francisco in 2016 we sat for hours in CineChamber and watched and listened and took notes, it helped decide some "rules" on how to deal with something that half exists behind any possible viewpoint, and how to deal with the canvas truly embracing the concept of a seamless projection of images. In other words, just because you have multiple projectors and speakers it doesn’t mean you stay with the initial notion that it’s one image per projector or sound per speaker. How do we go beyond the technical format? When we go to the movies, the film is not about the projector or the screen, it means that we have to go beyond the novelty of the format.

How do we keep the attention of the audience balanced in terms of not overloading them (unless intended), underwhelming them (- too much of the same? Not enough of something?) and how do we work this with directional sound of the content, how do we keep it dynamic? It turned out to be like designing a series of fairground rides, in terms of movement, stimulation and directions of sound in relation to the physicality of the images.

In a cinema the audience all face forwards and generally don’t facially interact. Whereas in CineChamber everyone faces inwards towards each other and there is a lot of eye contact, and following where others opposite might be looking. But once you relax into the space the idea that something behind you is being missed isn’t an irritation, because actually, there’s always something behind you in everyday life, and that’s before you even think about what’s above you!

I saw you perform The Mirror at Café Oto back in 2018. There are some similarities to me in the materials used in this, but more so in the way audio and visual seem to move and connect, although with the extra plane of movement due to the format. How do you see ‘Gone, Gone Beyond’ in relation to the rest of your work?

‘Gone, Gone Beyond’ bears the most relation to ‘The Mirror’ in that ‘The Mirror’ is very immersive and psychedelic, both the concert and the album of the same name. The umbrella concept of The Mirror is not only about reflection, but penetration of and ultimately removal of the point (surface) where we end and something else begins. ‘Gone, Gone Beyond’ as a title comes from the Buddhist "Heart Sutra" which addresses impermanence, emptiness (spaciousness) and the wider project addresses how we ultimately want to be one or integrated between and beyond inner and outer connections and experiences.

This is maybe an overview question of your entire process, but I’m interested to know, firstly, what comes first, audio or video in a composition like ‘The Mirror’ or ‘Gone, Gone Beyond’, and also, what is it that attracts you to certain audio or video?

They walk together: one leg visual, one leg sound. Once I’ve thought of the title, which is really important, I start exploring the widest possible themes and tangents around it. Both of these titles, ‘The Mirror’ and ‘Gone, Gone Beyond’, are related, to do with reflection, duality, surfaces, breaking and penetrating surfaces, doors, windows, corridors, pathways, long zooms (for instance zooming through something like an eyeball), transcendence, and so on.

I’ll look on film forums, browser search, ask friends over social media. I am less familiar with the wealth of movies available although I gradually have built a digital archive of edits. For sound, I tend to hold music in a different way in my mind… we get earworms but do we get eyeworms? I watch around three movies a day, then edit the movie down to the bits that I am interested in and then name the movie file with the description. I continue this for a few months until I have a few hundred movies.

While doing this, musical references will pop up in my mind and I’ll follow each tangent down its own wormhole and come out eventually. I then print out all the descriptions and lay out all the post-it notes where I’ve had audio and structural ideas while watching and listening to material. I lay it on the floor and know that somewhere down there will be the finished piece. Then I put it back into the video and audio timelines and try and get them to speak to one another, it goes between video and audio, video and audio, and re-editing until they actually start to have a coherent conversation. It’s hard to say what attracts me other than it forms the sum of the larger part of transitions well with other things.

‘Gone, Gone Beyond’ opens with candles in the darkness. The connection between that and the sound present isn’t immediately obvious. It’s almost as if a relationship is implied or suggested, the audience’s mind pushed into making connections themselves.

It is designed to bring people into the space after they have likely been in a noisy environment or chatting a lot, and to leave them with themselves to slow and quiet down. It’s as near as I could get to a meditation without it being one.

The sounds are very quiet and directional to the point that one has to really listen to hear some of them at all. It’s a little like Pauline Oliveros’ deep listening concept, it prepares people to relax into whatever comes next – as least, that’s the plan.

You’ve spoken elsewhere about your belief that claiming ownership of an original idea is preposterous or redundant. For many people this will be controversial. In your experience, have attitudes around this changed since you started in 1991? Could you pinpoint a specific moment that led you to thinking this way?

I don’t think it’s about when people have thought these things, it’s beyond politics or law or things like capitalism or banking or property. I look to things like Buddhism and other teachings about interdependence and unified sources of everything. I am looking for what we have in common, and how we use ideas like we use oxygen. You cannot hold your breath.

Certainly, things have changed since the invention of the printing press. And since the digital age, but ultimately, there will always be an earlier argument to reference, like, home taping is killing music, synthesizers are killing orchestras, etc… Bob Dylan spoke in his Chronicles book how the pop song never stopped people going to operas. We have to think beyond the medium. Just because I am using recordings to make more recordings, I am not ultimately doing anything different to a sculptor who uses clay from the ground or rock from a quarry, it’s just the attitude that is different in the journey to the artist, and then what happens after that.

We are not the first people to think or do what we do and more importantly, what we make or do in this world should never ever be the last thing that no one else can touch or feel or bend or recycle. Ideas are like the air, we use, we let go. Where the hell did we think we got them from in the first place?

From Wednesday 28 October, People Like Us is on tour, appearing at:

OSLO Black Box Teater present KinoKammer in collaboration with nyMusikk

13-16 October 2021


28-30 October 2021

BRIGHTON Attenborough Centre (ACCA)

4-6 November 2021

LONDON Barbican Centre

10-13 November 2021

CANTERBURY The Gulbenkian Centre

21-23 April 2022

Concept: People Like Us (Vicki Bennett). Video editing, animation, audio composition: Vicki Bennett. Visual effects, animation: Peter Knight. Producer: Laura Ducceschi

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