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Video Artist Barret Hodgson on Chinese New Year Celebrations 2017

28 January 17 interview: Ali Emm

The University of Nottingham decided to change thing up this year and instead of their usual fireworks display to celebrate the Chinese New Year, they got Nottingham video artist and digital producer Barret Hodgson to apply some magic to the Trent Building...


After studying fine art at the Newcastle University in the nineties, Barret Hodgson went on to become a VJ for the likes of Fat Boy Slim and DJ Yoda and produced work with artist Hetain Patel in his spare time. He’s made his passion his job and now runs Vent Media, a digital media production company who create some amazing light and video installations and sets for plays and dance productions, among other things. He was commissioned by The University of Nottingham to create the centrepiece for this years Chinese New Year celebrations, which promise to be as spectacular as their firework displays in previous years. We caught up with him at his Arboretum studio to find out what we can expect this weekend and what his work’s all about...

Where did it all start for you with the video art?
When I was a student at Newcastle we used to put on quite a lot of parties and I started getting interested in adding visual elements to them using slide projectors and super 8 film projections. I used to buy all this stuff second hand and I made stuff as well. It used to be a bit of hobby but I was creating these visuals that started going into pubs and clubs. I’d moved back to Nottingham and was building up a reputation as a VJ, and because of the way technology was emerging at the time, my day time job – doing graphic design and motion graphics commercially – was slowly creeping into my night job in that I was doing things more digitally. Also, I was ready to get back into the art scene proper. Then an MA course came up at Nottingham Trent University, Collaborative Arts Practice. I thought it'd be a perfect way to refocus what I was doing, a good way of getting my foot in the door of the Nottingham arts scene and bridge the two areas I was involved with. The course had people like myself, and theatre practitioners, dancers etc. who were open to ideas of working across platforms and across genres, and through that I was introduced more into theatre and dance.

How did you transition from doing projections at mates’ parties, to VJing for the top DJs of the time? Detonate is probably the one that really bridged that gap more than anything. I did a lot of all-night parties and would generally be the first one to turn up and last one to leave. I stayed sober and with the long hours, it meant that I could really try things out. At those kind of gigs as well there's a lot of people coming through, acts and the like, so a lot of people saw my stuff who weren’t just punters. It was word of mouth and talking to people in that environment, and also trying to push the boundaries of what you're doing so you don't get bored with it. Detonate did a lot with DHP and Rock City so I got involved with them directly and would oversee their video needs, be it setting things up or creating content for them, and I met acts through that too.

It can’t have been long after you finished your MA that you worked on Bunny and the Bull - how did that come about?  
Word of mouth. I do motion graphics and projection, and they needed someone with a specialism in projection because the technique they used for Bunny and the Bull was back projecting various animations live while they were filming. So it was a different way of the filmmaking technique that they'd established with Mighty Boosh. It's actually a really old Hollywood technique of having the film projected in the back of roads going past, like with Hitchcock films, but without the possibilities of layering images together, compositing, as you would do now. And they re-established that technique with projections, so it was great to work on that film set with massive projectors. It was a good project.

Is the work that you do mostly collaborative, or are you left to your own devices with a loose brief?
It can be very much both. In theatre it's probably 90% collaborative, so as a rule I'll be brought in quite early in the creative process and the script will be in an early draft. I'll look over that, and then sit round a table with the rest of the creative team. If it’s a new venue or production, or people who've not necessarily worked with what I do, it's about introducing the possibilities and ideas and laying that down early on. If what I'm doing is meant to have a direct relationship with what's going on – whether it's actors, dancers, musicians or lighting – then that creative relationship’s got to really be there. But then there's the other end of spectrum; the Chinese New Year show at Lakeside, that’s been purely down to me. 


So did you have an initial brief for the Chinese New Year piece?

The brief was "We're doing Chinese New Year". I've known Shona [Managing Director of Lakeside] for a long time, and she was the one that asked me. They've really gone out of their way this year to try to do something different, it's great. Maybe a bit nerve-wracking, especially because the fireworks nights for it in the past have always been such a big occasion. My partner's first reaction was, "What, they're not doing the fireworks? They’re just got you. Really?" There's a bit of trust there and they were open to me pushing it in a direction I wanted. We spoke about some other elements in the evening, we’re using music from Ling Peng. She’s a Nottingham-based Chinese musician, she's fantastic. I’ve worked with her in the past, I initially met her on a piece that I did with Hetain Patel. I asked her if I could use some of the music and I've had her in prior to the event to film her playing to that music. There's a good mixture of elements in the piece. It opens with a very traditional Chinese classical score, establishing itself with a gentle start before building up to one of Ling’s pieces, which has traditional Chinese elements but it’s a very contemporary piece that becomes electronica. It's not heavy, but it builds up in tempo and gets more contemporary as it moves forward.

Was it exciting getting to use the Trent Building as a canvas?
It's fantastic. The number of times I've walked past it, looked up, and thought what a perfect building it would be to work with. Over the years I've mentioned it to Shona – I’ve been slowly leaking the idea in. It's taken some sorting out technically. That's another side to what I do – I bounce between the creative side, creating the actual content, to the technical side, like overseeing how the projectors are going to work, what projectors we need, and programming it all. The starting point for this kind of work is going to the building, measuring it up, understanding what the requirements for it are. Only once that’s been absolutely nailed down can you start creating content, once otherwise you’re wasting your time.

How long has it taken to put the Chinese New Year piece together?
I was asked about a year ago. One of the things I had to do was convince them how much of the building I could project onto because when we were talking about it was the middle summer and all the trees were full of leaves and you see so little of the building through them. A big part of it that nobody ever sees is the set up. I have a scale drawing of the building and have to map the projections on to it in sections. Purely on this show alone, I've almost done a terabyte worth of work – it’s massive. I work out the mapping, it’s a mesh over the building that works out how the video gets stretched like a skin over the building, taking into consideration that the building’s façade isn’t flat. The clock tower was very difficult to work out with the capabilities of the projectors because it’s so high. It’s all got to be so precise – I have to set it up on the Thursday, we have a rehearsal on the Friday night, and the shows are at the weekend. There’s no real room for error.

What’s the technical difference in creating a piece like this to something you might do as part of a theatre or dance production?
Space is a big considerations. Projects like this which are one offs, I know exactly where the projectors are going to be. When you're working on a touring show, you have to work within the limitations – the maximum space, the minimum space. We’ve had to say no to certain venues if their space doesn’t fit into the parameters. With Digitopia, and shows like that, the set up's bonkers so I have to tour with them. There were only two cues for that show, but it was the first show where there were more computers than projectors. Four projectors, six computers, two connect cameras that are all talking to each other, and on top on that is music and trying to keep it all in sync. There was two twelve-hour days of set-up for each venue. We'd just did it in Shanghai in December so we've resurrected it and we're taking it back out there again to China in May.

Anything else coming up?
I've just finished a Christmas show of Alice in Wonderland in Derby, and we’ll be going out to China with Digitopia. I've also got another piece down at Lakeside working with some classical musicians, and then I’ll be working with an artist, Wilkie Branson, for Saddler's Wells. We’ve just done a week of testing things out, it’s going to be really interesting, pushing things in a different direction technically and artistically, merging film and theatre.

Finally, are there any buildings, spaces or venues that you have on your dream hit list to work on?
There was talk about going over to India to do some work on a palace which is in the same architectural style as Brighton Pavilion. That would have been another level. But unfortunately it fell through. I tell you one building I would love to do in Nottingham, the Newton Building at NTU. I did it briefly projecting out from Stealth sneakily one time, years ago, but it would be fantastic to do something with that.

Chinese New Year Celebrations 2017 – Jiaxing (Propitious), Saturday 28 – Sunday 29 January.

Vent Media website

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