Christopher Lowther

Pixilated Lifeboat

by Brett Levine     Photo by Jerry Siegel

Christopher Lowther is a director, but he doesn’t make feature films.  Instead, this digital artist and professor of time-based media at UAB begins where the medium of film ends.  “My earliest work revolved around media censorship, sexual orientation and the poetics and politics of relationships,” he explains.  Three early video installations, “Cowboy Cruising,” “Rope Reconstructed” and “Rebel Love: A Woman Scorned,” all drew on original source materials to tell stories that Lowther perceived as having been repressed.

Lowther, a 2012 recipient of a grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, has always been interested in the relationships between cinema and digital or new media.  “I’ve always been influenced by cinema,” he says, “but I try to refine my work down to a series of digestible moments, and to create experiences that are time-based, but the duration is well-defined.” Lowther understands that one of the major challenges in time-based work is convincing the audience to remain engaged. So Lowther strives to set up the experience very directly, often by using an approach that audiences find comfortable — film itself.   Still, being direct doesn’t mean that the subject matter is straightforward, and given the ways in which he has reconstructed familiar works, this is clearly not the case.  “In my work, I always believe that it is possible to convey a really complex idea in a very short period of time.”

Lowther is now working on a new series exploring the idea of disasters and how they are represented. He is working with actors, creating and recreating scenes, and constructing cinematic experiences that will be depicted in still images. In many ways, Lowther is confounding our expectations, mixing the autographed eight-by-ten of the star with the excitement of the trailer. Unusually, the images themselves are still. “I think what is so important for me as an artist is to convey that although I am not using moving images to express my ideas, I use the medium of film to reflect the idea,”  he says.

Perhaps the biggest challenges Lowther faces are not those of complex productions, of costuming, of staging or of filming or photographing, but instead they are those of the march of technology.  “You know, using technology can be tough, and the medium itself is often very unforgiving,” he says, laughing. He recounts the challenges of a work triggered by a sensor. “I realized very quickly that my sensor was not sensitive enough,” he says. “It reacted to the viewer far later than it should have. I realized that although interactive works are all the rage, programming for them is just really not that simple.”

Planning for and reacting to the vagaries and life spans of particular technologies led Lowther to consider earlier forms of media that could also be used in surprising ways.  “I do projects with my students that involve flip books — single sheets of paper where the action moves just a little at a time,” he says. “It is hard to get much easier than that, but it is definitely one of the earliest forms of animation, or what we would call motion graphics today.”

As well as being an artist, Lowther is also a committed and dedicated educator. He is co-director of the Leonardo Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The program partners engineers and artists, working together to solve real-world problems.  “I believe that the most significant development we will have in the creative world in the near future is a closer partnership between science and art,” he says. “I know the outcomes to the questions being explored will be more complex and better simply because of collaboration.”

For now, Lowther is continuing to work on the disaster series. “In many ways, disaster movies stand as metaphors for our own lives,” he says. “They tear people and things apart, often only to bring them back together.  They challenge individuals and societies, questioning who will make the right choice.  Strangers become friends and caregivers, the hopeless find hope and in the end we are always left with a different, though arguably better world.” In whatever medium, with whatever manifestation, it is likely that Lowther will continue to explore, reflect and dissect our fascination with and love for films. Through technologies old and new, through images moving and still, his works will pinpoint those moments that make audiences stop and think.  And could Lowther imagine creating in a world without film?  “Not really,” he says.  “Cinema and film are everything to me.”

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