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John Eyles By

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Artists: Michael Renkel & Sonja Bender

This forty minute DVD, recorded live in Berlin, pairs Sonja Bender's video sampling with Michael Renkel's guitar and electronics. Despite decades of rock videos, the pairing of improvised music with images is still in its infancy, particularly if the images are improvised along with the music. Unlike most rock, improvised music does not lend itself to literal or narrative video, so the visuals put alongside it are often completely abstract.

Here, Bender adopts a rather different approach: as well as abstract images (interference/white noise, "Venetian blind cut ups...) she uses images and sequences (often human images; there is very little time when there isn't something human on screen) that could have a narrative meaning, but she does not use them to construct a narrative.

The end result is a detached view of humanity, most starkly seen in her use of X-ray images—one of a child's skull—and a series of images from a head-to-toe body scan, the latter looking like a selection of cuts of meat. Consequently, there is an emotionally cool feeling throughout, coupled with a looming sense of foreboding—most pronounced in a nightmarish sequence set in a bathroom, reminiscent of Buñuel's early films.

Renkel's approach to music and Bender's approach to images are sufficiently similar to complement each other well; together, their effect is greater than the sum of the parts. Renkel's music is episodic, making for frequent changes of mood, and hence of visual style, so that there is enough variety here to keep the viewer attentive.

For those familiar with Renkel's recent work, the most surprising section will be the prolonged (over four minutes) bout of fuzz-toned sub-Hendrix rock guitar mid-way through, which is accompanied by a procession of diffuse, brightly-coloured patches that could be straight out of a 60's light show. As a section it feels rather out of keeping musically and visually with the rest of the DVD. Elsewhere, we are in more familiar Renkel territory, with extensive use of electronics to create repeated patterns that complement the guitar.

I came to this DVD after several weeks of immersion in Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings software, and the contrasts couldn't have been starker. Whereas Eno's images fade and merge imperceptibly slowly, accompanied by similarly mesmeric slowly- evolving music, Renkel & Bender have produced sound and vision that frequently verge on the hyperactive, although there are passages of calmer beauty.

The opening ninety seconds of the DVD are the most extreme musically and visually, a barrage of multi-layered, rapid-fire guitar accompanied by very rapidly changing images, some overlaid, some held for a second or so—which in context seems like forever. This opening is likely to challenge viewers, a test to see if they have what it takes to stay the course. My advice to anyone daunted by the prologue is to stick with it: there is much here that is intriguing, challenging and rewarding. Renkel and Bender are to be congratulated on a happy marriage of sound and vision.

Personnel: Michael Renkel: electronics, guitar; Sonja Bender: video sampling

Production Notes: 40 minutes. Recorded 2006 at Georg von Rauch haus Berlin


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