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Interview: The Ever-Experimental Gabriel Baskin

by Saffron Forsberg

Arts & Culture Editor

art by Gabriel Baskin

[originally published March 25, 2022]


When I attended Gabriel Baskin’s Junior TIMARA recital in Stull last week, I knew of his work only peripherally, as that made by a musician-friend-of-a-musician-friend. Oberlin, in its way, is an ideal place to reside if you’re the sort to stumble into such things on a Sunday evening — I consider myself artistically open-minded though technically naive, thus apt to wander around campus grazing on anything that glints in my periphery. Often that “anything” is of the broad sect of art deemed, in any attempt to shy away from a label too constraining or prone to further academic alienation, “experimental.” And with experimental music, and especially regarding TIMARA, I have little concept of what is “good” nor successful, but only what stimulates my brain in such a way that, chest bubbling with post-show chemistry, I can gather the nerve to cross the room and ask a clever guy with a laptop, or a table mapped with chords and synths, or some fucked-up string instrument: hey would you ever want to talk to me about your work for The Grape?

I did so after Gabriel Baskin’s show. We met up the following Wednesday.

The first thing I noticed about Baskin was his way of speaking; he’s articulate, soft-spoken, honest. He possesses a quick, unsarcastic sense of humor. His voice was something that caught my attention at his recital, as well. Lights lowered, he explained his complex thesis with an unpretentious warmth I wanted to siphon off and sprinkle around campus. The conservatory does not often feel so intimate…particularly not to me, a Sunday evening stumbler. But at Baskin’s show, I could feel everyone – friends, family, faculty, and all those who stumble – smiling together. Baskin laughs when I tell him about his voice. “I was lucky to have been feeling communicative that day.”

I ask him about his thesis and how he went about presenting it.

GB: I’ve been experimenting with text art stuff ever since last summer…and it took on sort of a weird personal and emotional significance, and at the time, the idea of doing a presentation about it, it felt imperative to express it. But fast forward months later, that expressive impulse has…diminished. And so I’m glad that it wasn’t imposing and that it was sort of just explicative.

But he’s funny, I point out. There’s a sense of humor draped over his work, a tongue-in-cheek sincerity, a passion that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

GB: I mean I didn’t want to be a dick about it; it can be easy to just beat people over the head when you’re trying to explain something. As opposed to, sort of, universally important, I just wanted to convey that it was personally significant. And I like to be funny when I can.

So what’s Baskin’s deal? What’s there to explain? Well, in short: he’s a musician and visual artist. He’s in the small, intense, and bleating TIMARA neck of the Con, but lately he’s taken to the visual. At his most recent recital, his visual art seemed to hold about as equal weight content- and concept-wise as his music. His audio and visual work really do hold their own – they’re all “separate experiments” – but also work well in conjunction under a broader thesis about technology, specifically the internet, and its experimental capabilities.

GB: I make a little bit of music, but mostly what’s occupied my attention for the past year has been coding and generative visual art. And then some interactive musical stuff. But a lot it comes down to the technical, the building of the systems.

…I found working with generative stuff very freeing. It felt natural…the way in which you sort-of explore those systems…you’re led by the quirks to develop new additions or go in new directions. It felt more exploratory, as opposed to the top-down approach to music. Yeah, it was very helpful. Because then I was able to reapply those ideas back to music.

His Junior Recital, where spectral electronic soundscapes mingled with clever visual projections, showcased this well. On a table across the room: Baskin’s “scrolls” – long, table-length skeins of paper printed with intricate code. Beside them sat prints of Baskin’s generative art – viscous, extraterrestrial experiments in Blender. All such pieces are of their own tone and medium yet, somehow they all function well together under Baskin’s overarching conceptual premise, that which is at once somehow both deeply and abstractly philosophical, and as concrete as a gif of “Betty Boop on a surfboard in Hawaii.” His work makes notions of the internet and its assorted mechanisms contort in one's mind. How can it encompass so much at once? And yet remain wholly intangible? What happens when one begins to understand such technology as a set of freeing, exploratory tools rather than the strange portal through which one may view a classmate’s bisexually-lit bedroom pop music video? How can it all exist, in actuality, as a capable sea of code? And how the fuck does code work anyway? (Well, maybe that’s just a question relegated to the churning mind of your darling old-soul A + C editor who hasn’t had a grasp on online technology since a heated tweenage stent in Sims 2 modding. But you understand where I’m coming from.)

At Baskin’s recital in Stull, the first pieces I stumbled upon were his scrolls of code laid out on the table, and almost resembling maps. When I ask about them, Baskin pulls out his laptop. He shows me a few files; the first is a birthday collage created for a friend. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY GEORGE” bobs amid horizons of characters – some abstract, some forming simple yet familiar figures. He tells me they’re gifs rendered in code. He zooms in. We enter a sea of keysmashes. A moon. A malevolent baby. He shows me another he calls a tapestry. He used a different overlay program for this one – one meant to give the code a fanned effect – but it glitched and created a complicated pattern. It looks abstract at first, but Baskin zooms in again, pointing at lines of code.

GB: Here you can see there’s a gif, a frame of an elf lady.

SF: An elf?”

GB: Well, there’s like a half-naked elf woman. A gif. A huge one.

I can’t help but laugh.

SF: Man what. I can’t see it at all.

GB: You can see, like, the mirror down the center…the actual elf is right there. The eyes are right there. See the arms?

It clicks and now I can’t unsee it. The elf woman.

Baskin uses a lot of images like this one. He finds most of them on Neocities, the contemporary of Geocities, and a corner of the internet he’s particularly taken with. We traverse it a bit together. It’s a realm I’d forgotten about; one that recalls my older millennial brother’s deep teenage immersion in MySpace, and within a broader culture of having a personalized website — a digital bedroom in which one is constantly changing the wallpaper and the autoplay track. Baskin doesn’t tend to engage in this himself, but its remaining cultural dregs interest him. “It’s more voyeuristic and educational,” he admits. For, so much of his fascination is not with individual social expressions through the use of such tools, but of the tools themselves and their capabilities. “It’s led me to a lot of phenomenal stuff, but I don’t really think of it as a home.” He tells me.

But, of course, Baskin’s recital was conducted within the walls of the conservatory. So I wanted to discuss that element of his work a bit more. When I wheedled him on his music, Baskin told me:

GB: The last two songs [in the recital] are pretty squarely in the electronic acousmatic [genre] – which is like academic speaker music, pretty much. From what I understand: early 2000s French-Canadian composers at universities making very, very sort of seamless, kinetic, sample-based music. I greatly admire the cohesiveness of that kind of music. And then the other stuff is….collage? Experimental collage? *laughs* I don’t really go into it with any genre in mind.

Baskin started experimenting with music as a teenager. At first with synths, and then later, the quickness of digital. He still has a soft spot for the analog though. Sitting over his laptop in Wilder, he introduces me to Peter Blasser’s (OC ‘02) “Plum Butter” — a modular synthesizer with an eccentric and almost whimsically difficult interface.

GB: I had an older friend I used to carpool with, and he would play electronic music in the car. I was like thirteen, fourteen. I would go and look up the stuff that he had played afterward and go along from there. I pirated music-making software…did piddling little experiments with that for many years. And then coming out of high school, I had to decide where to go to college. And I’m looking at electronic music programs and I find Oberlin, the TIMARA program. I had been introduced to the work of a TIMARA alum in the early 2000s, Peter Blasser.

I understand this more and more as Baskin gives me a run-down on Peter Blasser’s work, where there are no upturned noses nor conceptual declarations, but instead: eager experiments in sound and design. I recalled something Baskin said in passing: “It’s all about the tools.”

GB: I like the puzzle of putting something together. I think when I find myself drained artistically, that’s something I return to.

Indeed, leaving my hour-or-so conversation with Gabriel Baskin, I felt endeared to a world of creation focused less on the ego of the conceptual, and more on the elements of exploration and play that make great experimental artwork. It’s great to remember that artists with such mindsets are active and passionate about what they do, and not merely prone to the theater of being seen as someone capable of creating newness from that which already exists. Yada yada yada. Insert grouchy tirade about Gen Z late-capitalist social media egotism here. What I’m really getting at is: when I asked if Baskin planned to work on music post-Oberlin, there was no careerist flourishing of the hands, no promises to transpose himself in NYC or LA. He wants only to continue learning and expressing his particularly experimental processes. His is an affirming sincerity…and it doesn’t help that his shit just fucks, either.

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