Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: CAA Conference Edition, 2010
Live Cinema Summit: A Review of Real-Time Audio-Visual Performance
The cinema is language, above and beyond any particular effect of montage.
Christian Metz, Film Language, 1974.
On the evening of Thursday the February 11, 2010 in the Conaway Center at Columbia College, Chicago, the New Media Caucus held a Live Cinema Summit event featuring back-to-back live cinema performers. The Live Cinema Summit, curated by Leslie Raymond, was a one-night showcase of artists and art collectives working in the emerging field of real-time audio-visual performance, and featured work by Jon Satrom, Robert Martin, Barbara Lattanzi, Jon Cates, Sabine Gruffat and Bill Brown, David Stout of the duo Noisefold, Leslie Raymond & Jason Jay Stevens of Potter-Belmar Labs, Jefferson Goolsby, Reza Safavi and Ian Coronado who make up Data IRJ, and myself, Alessandro Imperato. Some of the issues raised by the summit included form vs. content, art praxis: practice as theory, discourse vs. criticism, art and technology, the artist and/or scientist debate, notions of what live cinema is, art as play, media magic and theatricality. I will touch on some of these issues in the field of new media, real-time performance and Live Cinema. The definition of Live Cinema given at the summit was taken from Holly Willis’ outline in 2009, from the magazine AfterImage where she argued that Live Cinema is the:
… real-time mixing of images and sound for an audience, where the sounds and images no longer exist in a fixed and finished form but evolve as they occur, and the artist’s role becomes performative and the audience’s role becomes participatory.
Just like other cultural forms, Live Cinema is a confluence of many developments of technological and artistic practices. These include performance art of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, conceptualism, happenings, club culture, DJ/VJ/DVJ practices, and video installation. It is also heir to the fruits of experimental cinema of the late 1960’s, the video explorers of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the later digital practices of Media Art and New Media from the 1990’s to the present.
Fig 1: Jon Satrom Deconstructs MacOSX<
Jon Satrom performed an intriguing deconstruction of the Mac OSX interface and Microsoft software packages. As a programmer and artist, he uses his abilities to break down the visual interface of what we have come to accept as the access portal to the functions of ‘easy-to-use’ domestic consumer digital software. The act of interfering with this visual language throws up all kinds of issues relating to the power of software companies such as Apple and Microsoft, how they control the way we use digital technology, and the limitations that are created by this closed-source programming environment. The audience gasped with delight as the Mac OSX system began to malfunction and copies of files, folders, blips and noise duplicated and multiplied like a cancer of O’s and 1’s over a desktop stage. The surprising mid-point appearance of two gif-style animated dinosaurs having sex was a hilarious Monty Python-esque surreal injection into the sterile visuality of the software interface. Satrom’s art is a subtle critique and parody of the day-to-day struggle the user experiences when trying to make their computer work for them. The Sisyphean comic-tragedy of attempts at working to control technology can lead to a realization that in the end, it’s all futile because a new function, software variation or re-design will be created to confuse, commoditize and add complexity to the process of getting simple tasks done. Through the artist’s play, work was parodied and fore-grounded. Ironically, the skill and knowledge to perform such an act of futility and pathos requires consummate mastery. The old adage that to pretend to do something badly takes great skill is obvious in Satrom’s ability to transfix the audience on the edge of possible failure. Satrom humanized an otherwise cold machine – this is the human condition of our relationship to technology – as well as a task that many artists who use digital media have to deal with. In his Q&A Satrom claimed that he was influenced by 1990’s net artists such as Jodi and Nato software authored by the Netochka Nezvanova collective, whose website deconstructed computer interfaces and showed the audience how the magician, or wizard behind the screen works. Satrom’s work it is an effective application of Brechtian techniques of ‘making strange’ in revealing the means of digital production and reproduction.
Fig 2: Robert Martin Performs Theater of War
Wii or War Games
Robert Martin’s use of a wii controller to manipulate the sound and video parameters of his ‘set’ was a new direction compared to his former use of midi interfaces as real-time sound-image tools. As Theater of Warevolved Martin resembled a Beuysian style art Shaman rhythmically shaking his ‘musical’ instrument while sequences of Gulf War related video imagery played on the screens. Martin comments:
I was always appalled that the US Defense Department was using the words ‘military’ and ‘theater’ in the same sentence. The two Iraq wars and CNN’s news reports of the events influenced me to develop a politically charged performance.
This was a change from his usual work: “Most of my art is autobiographical and usually presented within an abstract format.” The idea of a Live Cinema theater is intriguing if we consider Martin’s idea of a “Theater of War”; the roots of technological research, the Internet (RAND corporation) and many other developments in domestic technology began as military experiments funded by public taxation. It is not such a leap of imagination to see the connection between militarism, gaming, and the ideological role that war games play in a time of international warfare, which may be an underlying issue in Martin’s performance, especially with the training of remote warriors and un-manned Drone missile aircraft currently being used in Afghanistan, videos of which circulate the Internet and YouTube and look like footage of remote virtual space exploration probes.
Fig 3: Barbara Lantanzi Performs with her Cinema Instrument Software
The Audience Performs
The theme of space exploration, politics and military technology re-surfaced in the work of Barbara Lattanzi. Her performance had several sources, but for me the most significant was a re-mix of 1960’s Hollis Frampton’s structuralist experimental film of the moon landing, Critical Mass (1971), through the use of her real-time code-breaking software packages. Using a past exponent of concrete film such as Frampton and samples of NASA footage from 1968-72, the issue of concrete and abstract virtual cinema was raised. Although Lattanzi does not usually perform (as she claims), she conducted a well-executed demonstration of her older cinema software, “HF Critical Mass” and created a pedagogical Live Cinema event at the same time. She also introduced more improvisational and free software such as “Unwriting.” It was like a master class in live-programming art. The performance hinted at the skepticism surrounding the first moon landing, media simulacra, as well as the Cold War dialectic of U.S. imperial military industrial expansion and claims for the ‘progressive’ use of technology and exploration. This political dualism was explored with a staccato and disrupted time-line of video static and low-resolution footage from the era of the late 1960’s. In terms of the audience/performer relationship, Lattanzi Claims:
The new ubiquity of real-time processes for image and sound mixing completely leaves the “artist’s role” in the dust. It is the artist that is now taking turns at watching and listening to images and sounds in real-time for an audience. In other words, whoever is “on stage”, riffing on images and sounds, is performing AS an audience FOR the audience.
In terms of the role of software, the audience and the artist in Live Cinema, Lattanzi is very clear. In this new art paradigm, the artist is lost and the software is played by the audience – as both technology and crowd ignore the creative and authorial presence of the performer. This raises very interesting questions regarding Roland Barthes ‘author function’ and the idea and/or reality that an audience creates art. In many live situations, the audience zones in and out of the performance, such as VJing at clubs or open access events like the CAA Summit. As Lattanzi observed, the audience stayed for this event, but in other situations they can be in flux. Unlike traditional cinema where the audience is locked into their chairs as a ‘captive’ audience, a different phenomenology of cinema exists. In the traditional situation a ‘Plato’s Cave’ effect is created and the virtual screen space and spectacle of Hollywood can weave its illusions, desires and political meanings in an uninterrupted flow. It is this limitation that led to the ‘Expanded Cinema’ movement of the late 1960’s, as exemplified in the writings of the critic and film theorist Gene Youngblood. Youngblood was reacting and protesting to the passive reception but active reading and ‘immersion’ in ideological and escapist film narratives.
Fig 4: Jon Cates and his Trip to the Moon
The Impossible ‘Live Cinema’ Document?
Jon Cates’ performance resonated with me, especially when I knew I was going to be writing this article about the Summit. He highlighted the contradictions and problems involved in trying to write a history of something that is fleeting, in flux, performative and unstable. The activity of writing this review is based on accounts, interviews, memories and witnessing of the artist’s work. Sometimes this activity can be mistaken, invented or just plain misinterpreted. If I had followed Cates’ lead I would have dedicated this essay to my own work in the field. His performance reminded me that you can make-up and invent stories or fictions of your own past and work. Cate’s ‘dirty’ new media exploration/punk media show was low-resolution but hi-information fill-in, as he narrated stories of his performances. The Dadaist absurdity of using the Lumiere Brother’s early Twentieth Century, sci-fi and pioneering visual effects cinema spectacle, A Trip to the Moon(1902), was parodied and noted as he talked about his own adventures while using clips from the seminal film. In terms of serendipity, Lattanzi’s use of ‘real’ moon trip footage crossed over into the simulated history theme. Without discourse, writing and the chronicling of history, transitory art forms like Live Cinema would be forgotten. We would be left to invent stories and fictions to account for it, or maybe this is what Cates is telling us? Maybe it is impossible to document and capture this form of art? Maybe Cates is laughing at the absurdity of this task, and he would be in agreement with John Robert’s thesis on conceptual art of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in “The Impossible Document”? The punk xerox aesthetic of the real-time visual projections on three screens behind Cates fitted the concept of information gaps, and a ‘rip-it-up and start again’ history of new media. Cates’ response to his Q&A session was ‘in character’, ironic and very quick witted. When I pushed him on the issue of history, discourse and whether an accurate history could ever be written about his practice, he was thoughtful and said that “it would take a long and serious discourse in itself.” This is my account and my paraphrasing of his performance, but then again, it could also be my fiction. This I believe, is the point of Cates’ performance and I’m sure Michel Foucault’s ghost would agree. As the audience responded with shouts and interruptions, it was clear that this work had occurred many times with the live audience creating part of the work. Or at least that is the impression given by the performance. One meaning of ‘live’ in the term ‘Live Cinema’ is that it lives in and through the audience without whom there would be no live event.
Fig 5: Sabine Gruffat and Bill Brown Perform Time Machine
Art/Toy/Tech: The Meeting of the Past and Future
Sabine Gruffat and Bill Brown’s performance Time Machine involved an interplay of old and new technology. Gruffat worked the technology of Max MSP patches to manipulate abstract video of color fields while Brown played and performed, combining past analog 35 mm slide projectors to tell nostalgic stories with real-time abstract video and slides. Another component of the performance involved sensor-based physical computing, in the form of glowing future-tech soft-toy balls that could be thrown around by the audience. It was interesting to conceive of art as a toy to be played with, touched, thrown and enjoyed.
The spectacle of seeing a D.I.Y, homemade, and futuristic art-toy, as well as the mixing of the past, present and future technology was a very powerful paradox contained in the work. As the media theorist Paul Levinson posits in his essay “Toy, Mirror, and Art: The Metamorphosis of Technological Culture”, (1977): “…media tend to make their grand entrances into society at large as toys – as a gadget or gimmick that people appreciate for the fun of it, not for the work they may accomplish.” Foregrounding this aspect of new media can help us see more clearly how technology comes to be used and pervades our lives, and maybe what we can expect in the future. The issue of the audience as authors of the work also came into play (no pun intended); the work would not exist if the audience’s interaction with it did not take place. The work’s observer dependency is a key feature of interactive art. An important issue here is what control the artists have over meaning, and how much meaning were they trying to impute into their work?
Fig 6: David Stout of Noisefold
Man Vs Art
One of the performances that can be considered spectacular and spectator holding was by David Stout of Noisefold. The reason for this was the way that Stout worked physically with an abstract form on the screen. The artwork was described by Stout as a ‘behemoth’ creature of abstraction. During the performance, a dance between Stout’s hand gestures of control, noise, chaos and random algorithmic processes ensued. Sound and image were complimentary in an audio-visual paradigm based on frequency oscillations. Through the use of input/output technologies, Max MSP patches, algorithmic production techniques and very simple geometric forms, a very complex system was created. Half way through the performance a parabolic microphone was used to pick up the sounds of the environment and feed them back into the work. The use of infrared sensors also added to the control Stout had in interacting with his deconstructed geometric forms. It is interesting that a work that appears to be pure formal abstraction can have a level of real, performative presence as a character. Stout’s role was to channel chaos, order, algorithmic probability, and organic systems inside of the technological and creative process.
The sheer spectacle of a man versus machine or geometric-organic abstract artwork can be seen as analogous to action painting in the 1950’s and Jackson Pollock’s ‘heroic struggle’ or at least ‘mythologized’ interaction with paint drips and the art work in-itself. Turning off the machine was akin to killing a creature that had just been born and was struggling to survive outside of the creator’s Frankenstein scenario. For the performance to succeed an element of control had to be maintained, and this had to be balanced against letting the levels of complexity develop. This fine line of success and failure also gave the work a ‘live’ danger, which is a key aspect of any improvisational art form.
Fig 7: Leslie Raymond and Jason Jay Stevens of Potter-Belmar Labs Perform
Memory, Live Film and Transience
Potter-Belmar Labs is comprised of Leslie Raymond and Jason Jay Stevens. The duo work together to create midi-controlled image-sound scapes of romantic, poetic, and visually evocative textures. Painterly effects and mood-scapes are derived from media such as video or film. Occasionally, PBL video-sample their environment and mediate it for the audience. When I saw their performance I couldn’t help but think of Brian Eno’s ambient video work such as 77 Million Paintings (2006) and Abel Gance’s experimental film Napoleon(1927) in which Gance showed on three screens that he called Polyvision, a format very difficult to synchronize in the early twentieth century. The debt to early cinema and celluloid is evident in PBL’s work.
In terms of the issue of cold technology versus the warmth of human touch, as raised by Jon Satrom’s work, PBL touched upon similar themes. The improvisational task of constructing a loose narrative but with structure and direction is a key factor in the creation of the duo’s work. Finding the right harmony in the co-decision making process is crucial to their work. The mood textures and sound/image environment immersed the audience and the fact that this was live meant that the color-field effect of subtle nuances, gradations of tone and color temperature could be tweaked and changed to suit the audience, venue and how the work evolved. PBL work with film traces, fleeting memory and cinematic nostalgia visualized on a mediated stage.
Film memory and history is also prescient in relation to Cates’ memory-history-discourse fictions and Lattanzi’s homage to and use of concrete film via digital media and idiomatic software. The notion of a visual-sound phrase inscribed on the screen intersects with forms of abstraction, digital code and concrete film. Many theorists of film have noted the relationship between cinema and time, the past as nostalgia or film as a memory machine, but if considered in terms of real-time computing systems, the present act of performance can bring the past into the present, as Cates, PBL and Lattanzi manage to do. PBL are also involved in exploring new poetics of narrative. This is a common feature of Live Cinema exponents who are involved in opening narrative structures, new ways of telling, and novel ways of re-telling the past in the present.
Fig 8: DataIRJ Perform
Tele-Visual Polar Bear Blues
DataIRJ is a performance group composed of the artists Jefferson Goolsby, Reza Safavi and Ian Coronado. The strange and madcap aesthetic of the group is an ironic, theatrical and humorous satire of kitschy Live Cinema and surreal theater. The performance consisted of an ‘actor’ (Safavi) on stage in a polar bear suit, seated in front of a makeshift green-screen and a camera. The screen projection of this scene involved a real-time composite of the bear onto the choir singing cut-up and scratched opera using the VJ software Isadora. The overall effect was that of a tragedy due to the juxtaposition of the choir and lone but pitiful iconic animal. The set was more akin to television or theater than cinema, although it was a live cinematic scenario. After the initial set-up, an uncomfortable stasis followed, broken when a person from the audience took a large pair of scissors and started to cut at the bear’s fur. The bear-actor was wearing a full body green suit so as the scissors cut away at the white fur, the green-screen keying let the choir in the background show through the figure as the scenario unfolded. As the performance progressed the bear slowly disappeared until his/her head and fur skin had been totally removed, at which time the show was over. Eventually, the bear’s tragic-comic presence slowly disappeared. The overall show was a mixture of real and virtual presence and absence.
During the Q&A DataIRJ refused to speak about the work, explain any meanings or answer questions in detail, but when I talked to Safavi after the show he said that the bear idea came from the title of ‘Live Cinema Summit’, apparently the concept of a ‘World Summit’ seemed appropriate for the show. Other connotations that can be read from the performance involve prison camps like Guantanamo, animal fur trade, protecting endangered species and themes of Green environmentalism – which is dominant in the current Zeitgeist of the West. The ironic approach of DataIRJ left the audience wondering what had happened in this bizarre surreal happening. Indeed, without the audience, the work could not have happened or been completed. Letting the audience ‘in on the act’ is a key aspect of Live Cinema. Of all the performances in the summit, DataIRJ’s was the most theatrical. The issue of the audience’s participation raised the question as to who is the author of the work, and what is the line between art and life?
We are currently witnessing the recognition of an art practice that emerged in the late 1990’s and early 21st century, and has evolved due to developments in real-time systems of data, sound and video processing. The techno-economic implications of the spread of consumer desktop computers, VJ software such as VDMX, Isadora, Module8, Max MSP, Jitter, MsPinky (VJ turn table video controllers) and many other software and hardware capacities have enabled cultural producers with diverse economic means to flourish. We are in a moment of cross-media art and culture, which also traverses the borders and boundaries of expanded, live and interdisciplinary forms of cinema. Live Cinema is one form and practice of this tendency, and it will potentially transform, mutate and ‘live’ on in the many futures of cinema yet to come. No doubt ‘Live Cinema’ will also grow and develop into new configurations by splintering into novel and culturally diverse manifestations, exponents, venues and techniques.
Fig 9: Alessandro Imperato Performing Conspiracy Coda Joy
1. Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, trans. Michael Taylor, (New York University Press: New York, 1974). 47.
2. I was also involved in the summit and performed that evening. For the sake of ‘objectivity’, ego and transference, I have decided to forego writing about my own work. This is the price that a theorist/practitioner pays to chronicle an art practice they have been involved in since 2002. If you want to see my work please visit: www.alessandroimperato.com. I am also a founding member of the live cinema/performance group The Medeology Collective, see: www.medeologycollective.com. Unfortunately the performance duo Black and Jones could not make it due to the heavy snow that was affecting travel arrangements on the day. To see their work go to: www.blackandjones.net
3. Holly Willis, ‘Real Time Live: Cinema as Performance’, AfterImage (Vol. 37, No 1, 2009), 11. Hollis continues: “One of the happier outcomes of this dismantling and reconfiguration is the convergence of visual music, forms of video art, and the fundamental properties of cinema in what is known as “live cinema…” Ibid.
Leslie Raymond gave her reasons for choosing Hollis’ definition in my online interview with her: “What we do as real-time audio-visual performers has been nameless for most of the time that I have been doing it (since 2002). A couple/few years ago “Live Cinema” came forward as a viable term, and I associate Mia Makela with galvanizing it through her dissertation work on the subject. When putting the summit together, I needed a very concrete definition to return to in making decisions about who’s work to include– I knew what I was after, and the term as defined by USC School of Cinematic Arts Research Assistant Professor Holly Willis in herAfterImage article really fit the bill. And I like that it was coming from a scholar in the field, and not just my own subjective point of view that might be grounds for questioning or uncertainty. Makela’s definitions (that I have seen) seem slightly too esoteric for a general audience.” Author’s Interview with Leslie Raymond, February, 2010.
6. Author’s Interview with Robert Martin, February, 2010.
8. ‘Critical Mass’ (1971) 25:30 min 16mm
9. Author’s Interview with Barbara Lattanzi, February, 2010. Lattanzi’s cinema software is available as open source and can be downloaded for use at her website: www.wildernesspuppets.net.
10. See ‘What is so Cinematic About Software?’ Barbara Lattanzi, www.wildernesspuppets.net Also see Barbara Lattanzi, Critical Mass, the Software, 11.6.2004 on the website.
11. Author’s Interview with Barbara Lattanzi, also quoted from a short text written by the artist for the Live Cinema Summit: Cinema Software and Audience as Instrument, Barbara Lattanzi, Nov. 8th, 2009:www.wildernesspuppets.net.
12. See Barthes, Roland, ‘Death of the Author’, in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath, (Noonday Press: London, 1977), 142-149.
13. See Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, (Dutton: New York, 1970).
14. See Jon Cates work at: systemsapproach.net
15. John Roberts, The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain, 1966-1976, (Camerawork: London, 1997).
17. Cited in Paul Levinson, Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium, (Routledge: London, 1999), 140.
18. Unfortunately, the other half of the performance duo, Cory Metcalf could not attend the Summit. See:nfold.csf.edu/Pages/Noisefold.htm