Audio / Visual DJ Experiences Pt 1: Amon Tobin (ISAM), Plastikman, Daedelus, Sub Swara +

Electronic music is a culture that thrives in the darkness,  just far enough from society’s reach for its participants to feel they have something secret to discover and share. But over the past three decades this culture has evolved out of low-lit basements and into festivals of vision and explosions of light that synchronize to the sounds. A man with a laptop only provides so much excitement so it seems natural that VJs, sound mapping specialists and visual performers have found a niche creating kinesthetic visual creations to go with the underground sounds that musicians create. Lights that explode with the rhythm, projections that emphasize the music’s atmosphere, and installations that challenge our perceptions of space are examples of the new movements in visual design. These elements help to heighten performance and stimulate a society raised on full sensory envelopment.

This union of sound and vision is fitting for a generation that has grown up on fast edits but it’s also a natural progression of technology. As computers become our primary watching and listening devices we have witnessed the audio and visual realms merging through simple means like screen savers and simultaneously through programming platforms like Max, Jitter, Pure Data and Touch Designer. Technology now provides the means to create elaborate visual shows that can be mapped onto three dimensional structures  and synced to the rhythm of an audio performance. While some of this was possible previously, we are currently witnessing exponential growth in the potential of light and sound performance.

The most notable audio/visual performances in recent years have come from two legendary pioneers of underground music: Amon Tobin and Richie Hawtin. Both artists have created all-encompassing structures that put the artists in the middle of the visual performance and both artists are using the revolutionary Touch Designer platform for creation of their live show. Plastikman employs a carousel cage of LED lights that morph with the music and create an abstract performance that gained him Top Live Act of 2010 in Resident Advisor’s reader poll.

Not to be outdone, Amon Tobin has recently taken this idea to a different spacial design that heavily uses video mapping to project images on all sides of a complex cube-based installation for his recent ISAM tour. With many sold out shows this performance is gaining much respect for intricate sound mapping and psychedelic visual show. The performance centers around a massive structure of floating cubes, glowing with projected images that conform to its contours, react to the music, and paint images related to the sounds Tobin plays while comfortably ensconced in the center cube. The visual component was created by V Squared Labs and Leviathan and stands as one of the coolest things we have ever seen live.

As impressive and progressive an achievement the ISAM show is, Tobin is not the first to come with such a serious installation. AntiVJ‘s iceberg shaped construction that enveloped and roofed the DJ at Nuit Sonores in ’09 with glittering and glitching imagery was otherworldly itself. And the shifting array of towering cubes that Exyzt created for Etienne de Crecy in ’07 likely opened up endless minds to a new era of possibilities.

Of course these are super-sized, expensive setups created for established artists and events way out of reach for most acts. But New York’s Sub Swara has stepped into the arena with mobility in mind. Working alongside Lucid Technology and Design and Videolicious, they created a jagged, throne-like set up to perform inside lit up by video mapping that can be broken down and packed into a surfboard bag.

In all of these examples so far, projections play the largest role, but there’s certainly other artists working with different mediums. Archimedes is a robotic backing that looms over Daedelus while on stage. Developed alongside visualist Emmanuel Biard and engineer David Leonard, the set up is comprised of moving mirrors that catch projections, both of which move with the music through a combination of audio responsive technology and manual direction. Dry ice is also used to suck the projected imagery out into the audience.

Alec Sutherland has set up a temporary installation for AraabMUZIK that transformed his drum machine into a life size video game controller of sorts. Surrounded by a room full of posts with LED lights, he would bang his beats out on a machine attached to the lights, so that when ever he struck a particular pad, a corresponding post would light up.

But perhaps the best way to make such ideas and technologies accessible to more musicians, visualists, and fans would be for venues to create their own set ups and invite artists to take advantage of them.

One venue here in New York does just that. Called 3LD Arts & Technology Center, they offer a studio with multiple projectors aimed at a semi-circular wall that wraps around the audience seating. A film of clear Eyeliner foil is draped in front of the stage, catching projections in thin air allowing for a 3D, holographic effect.

Perhaps more venues will step up to the plate, tending the breeding ground for ideas and bringing visual artists together with musicians. This seems like the best way to get some real momentum going. - MS

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