A Precarious Night at Plumb Point
Jake Couri presents A Precarious Night at Plumb Point via Milan Machinima Festival's exhibition program VRAL.
Jake Couri is one of the three artists exhibiting in Digital Rorschach at Green Kill until Saturday 25th. Here’s a link to the exhibition.
During this tie Jake has been participaiting in VRAL. For your enjoyment, here’s a link to information about that exhibiton. For your convinience the information is also available below.
A PRECARIOUS NIGHT AT PLUMB POINT
Digital video (2160 × 3840), sound, color, 24’ 04”, 2023, United States
Created by Jake Couri
A Precarious Night at Plumb Point. Beginning today, February 10th - February 23, 2023, the film is screening online via Milan Machinima Festival's exhibition program VRAL. The screening is accompanied by a written discussion with curator Matteo Bittanti, which is included in the link below. Additionally, a catalog will be produced as part of VRAL S03 with CONCRETE PRESS and will be available May 2023.
A Precarious Night at Plumb Point finds our lead character positioned at sea, guided by the innate voyeurism hard coded into the world of gaming. Possessed by an internal dialogue, the viewer is presented with an assemblage-like simulation indicative of first-person exploration games, survival adventures, and cinematic trailers. Structurally based on the tragic fate of the first cruise ship intended for pleasure voyages, the SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise reached its unexpected demise the night of December 16th, 1906, after crash landing at Plumb Point Lighthouse. We follow our lead character aboard a modern-day cruise ship as he traverses through a series of environments led by the result of his perceived reality.
Jake Couri’s practice leverages digital space, employing computer-generated characters, environments, and conditions for the viewer to navigate. The artist examines the relationship between digital and physical reality, leaning on the possibility of making sense of the human condition through CGI avatars, cinematic effects, and theatrical sound composition. After completing a BFA in Fine Arts from Syracuse University, Jake Couri moved to San Francisco, where he received his MFA in Fine Arts with honors at California College of the Arts. His work has been shown at Superposition Gallery in Los Angeles, California (2019), Public Records in Brooklyn, New York (2020), and 4Culture in Seattle, Washington State (2021). He completed an artist residency at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass Village, Colorado (2019). He currently lives and works in New York City.
Matteo Bittanti: You received your MFA in Fine Arts from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where I taught for many years. Can you describe your experience on the West Coast, and specifically in the Bay Area, during the Trump era and before Covid-19? How did this milieu influence your artistic exploration and your process?
Jake Couri: My introduction to making video work in the form of 3D animation started at CCA. I began experimenting with organic matter and found objects, which gradually melded with the digital work, either replacing the physical objects or accompanying them. There were a variety of factors that influenced my studio practice at the time, and the environment of the Bay Area contributed significantly. The looming tech presence in contrast to the beautiful, grandiose nature felt at odds with another. An intense, almost dire quality was exemplified by polarities like seeing rows of Teslas parked in front of homeless encampments throughout San Francisco. It was impossible to ignore the presence of both the natural landscape and the effects of industry existing simultaneously.
Matteo Bittanti: I couldn’t agree more: the contrast between the dream of prosperity promised by Silicon Valley and the dire reality of San Francisco is stark. The inhumane levels of inequality that one experiences just by walking down the street say so much about the failures of “solutionism” and “computation” in addressing social issues. Such a concern is clearly manifest in your practice. Moreover, the dichotomy between the “looming tech presence” and “beautiful, grandiose nature” that you mention is at play in several of your works, insofar as the material - stones, objects, metals (cast iron, stainless steel, aluminum) - and the intangible - CGI in primis - are either juxtaposed or intertwined. After all, the latter is a byproduct of the former: silicon comes from sand. How do you relate to the connection between the slick technologies “Made in Cupertino” and the raw materials needed to manufacture them, with their related industrial processes of inexorable extraction, exploitation, and destruction?
Jake Couri: I’m fascinated by both ends of the spectrum; the raw material and polished object. Within gaming worlds, I’m drawn to recreating processes or environments where natural resources have been extracted. Even if not experienced literally, we’re able to feel the digital fruits of our labor through the accumulation of raw materials, allowing us to build equity, purchase goods, or trade for resources.
In A Precarious Night at Plumb Point these aren’t presented as real-time actions, but as remnants of things left behind. The lead character explores an abandoned salt mine, and floats within a brine pool, both of which contain the origins of salt as a raw material. In contradiction, our character experiences life at a ship breaking yard, the final resting place for industrial materials after serving their purpose. I’m not only interested in where things begin or end, but also the “Path to Cupertino'' and its stopping points along the way.
Matteo Bittanti: Several of your works are somehow evocative of Jussi Parikka’s seminal book A Geology of Media, in which the scholar argues that to adequately grasp the contemporary media culture we must set out from material realities that precede media themselves, i.e. Earth’s history, geological formations, minerals, and energy. Simplifying Parikka’s argument, it’s impossible to separate culture from nature. Where does your interest in the mineral come from?
Jake Couri: I haven’t read Parikka’s text directly although the desire to understand material histories to “live networked lives” does resonate with me. As our media advances, so does the ability to observe the journey from raw material through production and into the marketplace. Is an abandoned salt mine or ship breaking yard residue of digital culture or just another fossil of consumption? I’m interested in the cyclical nature of many things, especially the inherent demand to innovate and discover new methods of production by almost any means.
Matteo Bittanti: Although there’s a constant oscillation between utopia and dystopia, the natural and the industrial, the micro and the macro in your oeuvre, this is especially manifest in your 2020 single-channel video CHEAPSHOT. Is computer graphics the medium that best expresses this binary because our own lives are inextricably enmeshed with the digital?
Jake Couri: Once I started working with gaming software I quickly realized digital space felt more malleable than the physical world. I’m constantly looking for balance between the aspects you mention, while considering what metaphors best serve the project. In CHEAPSHOT, the boy performs EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) on himself in an empty digital field, yet the sound of him tapping was recorded by a foley artist hitting a pillow with the back of a large metal spoon. So even within the oscillations, we’re presented with conflicted information concerning duplexity and what reality we’re in.
Matteo Bittanti: Game-like images and metaphors are pervasive in your work. For instance, A Stone Throw (2022) clearly evokes simulation games “where tasks are endlessly performed in search of reward”. Incidentally, here the digital is referenced through the original meaning of the Latin word digitus, finger, which appears throughout the entire video. Moreover, in Find Your Ritual (2019), the greenscreen aesthetics of our so-called streaming life are combined with the rituals of yoga classes and wellness training: we see a gender-less humanoid (an avatar? An NPC?) doing exercises in a room surrounded by water as a female-sounding voice guides us through the routine. The outcome is something like a post-human “tutorial”. How would you describe your relationship to the medium of digital gaming? What role did it play in your upbringing? And how did it influence your way of seeing the world, as an artist?
Jake Couri: I find solace in digital environments and always have, taking form in both video games and animation. Growing up these alternate realities were mesmerizing, especially as a device to experience the multitude of layers within our physical world. Just as a curious mind would take apart an object to understand how it’s made, I’ve approached gaming software in a similar way, isolating and expanding certain facets to apply them in a studio context. I see how some of my work can be read as post-human, although it’s dealing with symbiosis and navigating relationships, with or without a playable experience. Many of the video works I’ve made flesh out a single component or few parts of a larger gaming system. This is especially apparent in A Stone’s Throw where six character actions (plus an idle pose) are repeated indefinitely, void of objects and an environment, relying solely on movement and sound. Dissimilarly, A Precarious Night at Plumb Point is self-contained in a world of itself, incorporating almost all the digital anatomy one would expect in a gaming habitat.
Matteo Bittanti: Indeed. A Precarious Night at Plumb Point appropriates the language, iconography, and mechanics of video games to create a non-interactive narrative, originally intended as a four channel video installation. Can you describe the origin of the project? How did you become interested in the SS Prinzessin Victoria? I must admit I was not aware of its existence, but after watching your video and learning about its history, I found it incredibly fascinating. I was reminded of Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness but also of the Russian oligarchs’ mega-yachts relentlessly crossing the Mediterranean. Like its modern counterparts, the SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise featured all sorts of amenities, including among other things, a library, a gymnasium, and a darkroom for the development of film by amateur photographers. Basically, it’s like a floating palace of the 1%. Why did you choose to tell this specific story through game-like aesthetics?
Jake Couri: I’m captivated by first person exploration games, where there isn’t a definite objective outside of discovering the game world itself and facing the carefully crafted environments. In these games, the narrative seems to be mostly driven by landscape and sound composition with limited interaction for the player, if any. I wanted to prioritize these ingredients for A Precarious Night at Plumb Point while writing narration that questioned the characters place in time and source of dialogue. Much of the film takes place in environments modeled after a present-day Royal Caribbean cruise ship fleet, which contains an open air promenade called Central Park. It mirrors the actual Central Park in Manhattan, designed to be at the core of the ship, functioning as a place of gathering and quiet amongst a bustling environment. Passengers experience the park while floating in the open sea, booking staterooms that face the park, ocean, or otherwise. I’m intrigued by the amenities of modern ships and the level of grooming required to sell ancillary modes of solitude.
In the case of the SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise, I initially set out to understand the inception of pleasure voyages (cruise ships) and what led to the inevitable demise of the PVL, the first cruise ship built solely for luxury travel. Initially launching in 1900 and completing several successful expeditions, the ship's career ended in 1906 while on a cruise of the Caribbean off the coast of Jamaica. As you know, on the evening of December 12th, 1906, Captain H. Brunswig mistook the lighthouse at Plumb Point for the westernmost point of Port Royal, grounding and ultimately destroying the ship. Upon running the ship aground he retreated to his cabin and took his own life. Regarding the direct influence of the SS Prinzessin Victoria Luise for A Precarious night at Plumb Point, I drew from an imagined POV of both the captain and passengers on board during that time. This helped construct the tone of loss, anticipation, and introspection.
Matteo Bittanti: In your work, the cinematic informs the digital, perhaps through the mediation of machinima. How did you become interested in machinima? What is machinima to you?
Jake Couri: It was important for me to make A Precarious Night at Plumb Point in Unreal Engine for this reason, and to disrupt an expectation of gameplay footage by utilizing cinematics instead. Every character in the film has motion capture on their face and body, which potentially slants the machinima much closer to reality. I spent a lot of time experimenting with sources of motion to either perpetuate the effect of machinima or flatten it, based on how organic I wanted things to look and feel. I think machinima can exist by incorporating individual parts of a game's build, almost as a gesture, or embody the defining characteristics in its total form.
Matteo Bittanti: A Precarious Night at Plumb Point was originally conceived as a four channel video installation. This particular set up encourages the viewer to “solve the riddle”, that is, to actively and effectively connect the various audiovisual texts in order to make sense of the whole experience. In other words, the original set up reproduces the logic of video games. The recontextualized work as a single channel video introduces a sequential, linear logic largely absent (or, rather, implied) in the previous version, making it closer to a game video or a walk-through. How do you feel about this iteration, i.e. a more “cinematic” presentation of A Precarious Night at Plumb Point?
Jake Couri: Presenting the film in four channels appeals as a strategy to reinforce the lack of resolution, impressing upon the existence of simultaneous realities and potentially numerous players controlling the experience. Considering the aspect of physical proximity within a four channel installation, introducing physical sculptures in the space becomes possible, perhaps creating more ambiguity or resolve for the viewer. Within the single channel iteration there isn’t any cross contamination of audiovisuals, so information is being absorbed directly while gaining momentum. It’s intriguing to find brief moments of contemplation through the natural transitions between “chapters” while viewing the film. In my opinion the narrative is inconclusive as a four channel installation and I’m curious to see if screening the work sequentially leads to a comparable outcome.
Matteo Bittanti: The Unreal Engine, a tool typically used for high-end video game development, was instrumental in the creation of your latest work. At first I was reminded of Ed Atkins, another artist who relies on a (custom) version of UE, but as I watched A Precarious Night at Plumb Point multiple times, I realized that your remediation of the medium of video games is much more complex and subtle. The very "materiality" of your video is made possible by a tool used to create big budget video games, but the game logic also permeates its diegesis, both as a four-channel installation - with its apparent non sequitur - and as a single channel video. A Precarious Night at Plumb Point evokes different genres (the adventure, the first person shooter, the puzzle game and so on) with their own conventions (equipment, levers, weapons) and environments (the cave, the corridor etc.). How do the potential and limitations of the Unreal Engine influence - or even shape - your practice, both at the level of aesthetics and logic? Lastly, for this specific project did you use any workaround or hack to reach your intended goals?
Jake Couri: Mirroring the mechanics of a game without actually producing one posed a few challenges. For instance, manually simulating interactions with an object rather than assigning keys or relying on distance to trigger events created a paradoxical workflow. Surprisingly this process made certain characters feel more pliable, especially when synchronizing their motion to MetaHuman. I suppose this could be considered a limitation within cinematics, yet it helped inform specific aesthetics like camerawork and the duration of a sequence.
As you mention, A Precarious Night at Plumb Point alludes to several genres and modes of interaction without “experiencing” any of them for ourselves. As an artist I’m curious about the expectations of work made with Unreal Engine, due to the profile of the software and the way we interact with new media. Are we obligated to appropriate the tropes and glossy CGI of AAA games simply out of habit, or to project our own digital psyche?
Matteo Bittanti: The “digital unconscious”, perhaps… Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Jake Couri: Thank you again for the opportunity to share my work. I greatly appreciate your thoughtful inquiries and the presentation format of VRAL S03.
A PRECARIOUS NIGHT AT PLUMB POINT
Digital video (2160 × 3840), sound, color, 24’ 04”, 2023, United States
Created by Jake Couri, 2022-2023
Courtesy of Jake Couri, 2023
Sound Design: Kris Force
Environment Artist: Francou Bosch
Voice Artist: Matthew Curtis
Made with Unreal Engine 5