The Inner Life of Jack Straw: In Conversation With Artist Ellen Sollod

To enter Outside In/Inside Out: The Inner Life of Jack is to submit to an immersive experience. To commemorate Jack Straw’s 50th, local artists Ellen Sollod and Johanna Melamed have transformed the entirety of Jack Straw Productions New Media Gallery into a camera obscura, inviting in the outside world and turning it on its head. Coupled with a quirky and ever-shifting soundtrack, the entire experience proves initially disorienting but ultimately provides a visceral and many layered glimpse into the workings and history of Jack Straw Productions.

Still photo from the installation “Outside In/Inside Out: The inner life of Jack.” Courtesy Jack Straw New Media Productions.

The installation consists of two feeds or inputs: the visual and the audio (or aural). Upon entering the space, the viewer is confronted immediately with a familiar yet transformed vision of the street. This visual, provided by camera obscura, covers an entire wall of the space and is surreally flipped upside down. Cars and pedestrians move across the wall in real-time. After coming inside off of the very same bright and busy street, it is queer to suddenly find myself in the dark and womb-like space, face to face with a dim, removed and magnified vision of the same traffic that I had faced moments before. Mounted in the street facing wall, the camera obscura lens conjures up a ship portal or, perhaps more aptly, a spyglass. Peering through, the visitor assumes the role of voyeur to the street and its pedestrians.

An ever changing soundtrack accompanies this visual feed. Ranging from children talking about blindness to snippets of Jack Straw Productions meetings, and book-ended by what sounds like tape reel rewinding, this feed heightens my initial sense of disorientation. After a period of immersion in the space, the sound composition begins to provide an interesting layering of context, and helps ease any initial tension between the visual and the aural. The free associative way that each sound snippet is worked into the soundtrack are not unlike the wanderings of a brain at rest. As I am fed imagery and sound that is whimsical and spontaneous I begin to feel as if I have found my way into someone’s (Jack Straw’s?) head: assuming the vision of a giant, and engulfed by the mental wanderings of an unseen entity.

Whose head am I trespassing in? Jack Straw’s? The artist’s? What am I hearing? What is the intended relationship between the visual provided by the camera obscura and the sound composition? A talk with Ellen Sollod provided valuable insight.

This is not Ellen Sollod’s first time working with Jack Straw. In 2003, she received a grant from the Jack Straw Foundation’s artist support program to work on a collaborative project called Thinking in Public, which took place in Seattle’s Smith Tower. She recorded sounds heard throughout the building and stitched them together into a soundtrack providing a window into the building’s “inner life.” The building itself was more than perfect for audio recording: its original and now dated furnishings made for an interesting, dynamic, and nostalgic sound composition. In 2009, she worked on another project partially funded by Jack Straw titled Lake Washington Palimpsest which included a sound collage dealing with the lowering of Lake Washington.

The sound score created for Outside In/Inside Out is composed in part from raw materials found in the Jack Straw archives. Sollod described the feeling of going through massive amounts of reel to reel tape–some of which was so old that it was apt to disintegrate when touched–and feeling as if she had barely scratched the surface of what amounts to a massive amount of archival material (50 years worth!). To create a bridge to present day Jack Straw, Sollod also made new recordings in the space. She worked with artist Johanna Melamed in the composition and ordering of the tracks. Melamed also created the score’s transitions, which are comprised of analog sounds: camera shutters clicking, and tape reel rewinding. All of the composition’s recordings function on a number of levels, says Sollod, and are arranged in a specific order which may or may not be experienced as such: Visitors may enter the space at any given moment. I was lucky enough to catch the composition at its beginning.

First I heard the rewinding of tape reel. Then an audio clip of blind kids speaking about blindness, which Sollod relates to the experience of the viewer as they first enter the dark and unfamiliar gallery space and camera obscura. This effect creates a link between the visitor and the soundtrack, as it directly refers to their phenomenological experience in the physical space. The soundtrack proceeds to include snippets from history. A track recorded in 1980 about atomic bomb shelters seems to Ms. Sollod to capture the 60’s period of Jack Straw’s early days. Another track recorded in the 1970’s from KRAB radio’s archive relates strongly to today’s Occupy movement. History has eerily strong ties to the present.

While the soundtrack creates a sense of fluidity between the past and present, Ms. Sollod cites several ways in which it also addresses the relationship between visual and aural modes of perception. In one clip recorded specifically for the installation, Sollod herself can be heard talking about photography versus sound recording. Another voice counters (“Completely unplanned!” she says): “Well, isn’t recording really the photography of sound?” This is exactly what the installation seeks to do in terms of the visual and the aural: create an analogous relationship between the two.

“The House that Jack Built.” Illustration from the Jack Straw New Media Productions Gallery website.

The space also creates a mode for Jack Straw Productions to be experienced simultaneously and immersively. As Ms. Sollod points out, much of Jack Straw’s output is ephemeral, taking the form of sound waves broadcasted outward. A key part of the installation is a reversal of this output, as the camera obscura works to bring the outside world in. The installation at once becomes a zone where Jack Straw’s output and input gel for a while. To her, the camera obscura itself is an anachronistic medium that has always held an element of charm and fascination. Camera obscura has been around forever, it seems. While she has used a camera obscura as well as pinhole photography in her work before, this is the first time that she has chosen to add the element of sound, a unique and critical part of this particular camera obscura’s meaning and function.

Sollod compares the aural experience of the space to what it may feel like to listen in on conversations that the brain has with itself. The frequently shifting soundtrack is also not unlike the experience that we once had changing a radio station: right down to the white noise or static that would happen in-between channels. Smell and sound especially, she notes, can be especially keen keys to memory. This is how the installation can function, with the experience of the visual and aural creating a visceral and deeply felt picture of Jack Straw’s past and present. Visitors to the space are provided with an opportunity to listen in on Jack Straw Production’s memories of…itself: at the intersection and site of outgoing temporal broadcast and the filtering inward of the gallery’s immediate and physical surroundings in the here and now.

So what is next for Ellen Sollod? She will be working on a project as part of the City of Seattle’s “Art Interruptions,” with a work installed on Piers 62 and 63 toward the end of August. In the fall, she expects to install another work in the Mercer Corridor. Keep a lookout!

And as for Outside In/Inside Out, it will only be up for another couple days (through August 17th) so catch it while you can! The full sound score can now be heard on Jack Straw Media Production’s website, link here.