Every time I start to describe MSHR to the uninitiated, I think of the cliché about trying to describe a psychedelic experience to someone who's never had one.
"They make these multidimensional installations and play instruments they design and build themselves. What do they sound like? Hmm. Have you tried DMT?"
MSHR—pronounced "mesher"—is the duo of Portland-based artists Brenna Murphy and Birch Cooper. The project was formed in 2011 during both artists' involvement in another experimental art collective, Oregon Painting Society. My first encounter with OPS was at Seattle University's Hedreen Gallery in 2010, where they had created an immersive environment of eerie objects, motion-activated lights, and an array of hand-built instruments, including synthesizers that used the bodies of living plants as conductors for sound that could be modulated by gently touching a leaf or stem.
This marriage of the electronic and the organic finds full thematic fruition in the multimedia works of MSHR. Their visual aesthetic is a vocabulary of intricate, often symmetrical glyph-like patterns developed within the parameters of various 3-D image processing programs. These shapes are presented both physically and virtually: printed onto two-dimensional surfaces, laser-cut from sheet plastic and assembled into 3-D sculptures, and projected in videos that show them as objects in movement, a process of dimensional unfolding.
"Our work is to sketch the invisible shapes that frame reality," Murphy and Cooper tell me over e-mail from New York, where they have been in residence since last summer. "We draw inspiration from all human cultural forms, with a specific focus on the contemporary—those forms that are so ubiquitous, they are hard to see."
In Nested Transmuter Cycle, their current installation at Interstitial, these forms are assembled into "magic lantern infinity mirrors"—two-way mirrors, laser cut into patterns, facing each other with a colored light bulb hanging between them. There are light sensors in the mirrors, resulting in a feedback loop between the light bulb and the sensors. The action of the light sensors drives the audio parameters to form a cybernetic system that continually generates light and sound from its own inputs, which may be left to evolve on its own—like a "synthetic, stylized life form"—or modulated by human intervention.
"I think of our work as feedback between physical sculpture, digital sculpture, and sound sculpture," explains Cooper. At no point are these feedback loops more evident than when the duo is physically interacting with their hand-built sound and light machines in the context of a live performance—as they did on March 17 at Gary Hill's Belltown studio as part of a series of artist presentations called This Might Not Work. MSHR performances are synesthetic, ritualistic acts of electronically-mediated pageantry where the objects truly come alive.
For a static exhibition like Nested Transmuter Cycle, the artists' bodies are absent from the final presentation. In their place is MSHR's first-ever virtual reality installation—an Oculus Rift dangling from the ceiling, inviting viewers to navigate an alternate space nested within the exhibition space, "like a secret room within a room."
The interior layout of the VR landscape was programmed on site so that it would correspond to the layout of the installation within the gallery. The result is an expanded spatial experience that makes entirely new dimensions visible, like an infinity mirror inside your mind.
For all the technical specificity inherent in MSHR's work, the best word to describe the overall effect is magical. You don't have to know how these things work to appreciate their pulsing, uncanny beauty—but if you are technically inclined, there are layers upon layers to delight in.
Another word I'll use with no trace of irony is spiritual, in a sense that these shapes and sounds really do seem to resonate with certain structures of perceptual consciousness. There is a transcendence to be felt in these intricate forms, like sacred art for a virtual era.
MSHR have shown and performed all over the world, but Nested Transmuter Cycle is their first full-fledged gallery exhibition in Seattle. Bring your sense of wonder, and maybe a little weed.