composition, ideas, performance, theory

deconstructing AV

All good intentions…

Something I haven’t blogged about recently are my solo AV experiments.

Here is a video from a performance I did at the Installer gig at the Fringe Bar in October 2009.

This footage features compositions i’ve been working on for the next Secret Killer Of Names release with somewhat arbitrary visualisations.  The performance utilises Ableton Live 8VDMX and an APC40.  Sound is easily triggered with the APC, a device i’m quite comfortable with despite its annoyingly proprietary nature. It feels like a mixing desk and allows for some impressive control of what would previously be either pre-rendered and sequenced material or just not possible to perform live as a soloist.  An interesting addition to this is the ability to send midi control data from Live to VDMX.  In combination with the APC40 as a kind of mixing desk, I can trigger and manipulate sound and image concurrently.

The visual material in this piece is for the most part, rudimentary.  There is a place I want to go with the visuals for these tracks but I don’t quite have the footage yet.  Good thing summer is upon is – whereby I have to keep occupied for fear of falling into a humidity induced funk of sweaty despair.

A colleague in audio visual terrorism recently had the following to say about the Installer excerpt posted above:

I can say that I didn’t dislike it, although, twice I had to stop myself from opening another window.. seemed like I keep forgetting I was watching it…
You know, I don’t know that i’d say boring… but I guess that’s kind of it. In a live sense it would be more immersive, and I wouldn’t have a computer I am meant to be doing things on in front of me.

Anyway, if your excerpt is just a step in the right direction, then I think that’s awesome. I do find video to be a bit of a weird medium though, more so than sound even. I get it in the context of a visual part of the whole AV performance, live, in a venue, at whatever volume you feel is appropriate or adequate, or as a visual accompaniment to a sound performance, but I don’t get it as something to just watch.. I always have to imagine I am somewhere, watching it.. not just on a computer, or watching a dvd on a tv.
You are intending it as a performed thing, to see live in preference, right? (Private Correspondence)

As the amount of audience chatter might suggest with the N4rgh1l3 performances – setting has as much, if not more effect on AV performance than the work itself.  I’ve had discussions recently with some audiovisual performers and audience members and a consistent thread evident is that much AV work manages to, at best, exist as a distracting novelty and at worse fail pretty hard on all levels due in part perhaps to the need to capture and hold full audience attention in sound AND sight for a lengthy period of time.

… on the road to hell.

In my paper, “Towards a definition of the Performing Audiovisualist”, I quote author of The VJ Book, Paul Spinrad, as stating that “our expectations and habits around being audience members have atrophied ever since movies became popular. [They] taught us to sit together and pay attention to a dead, unchanging recording rather than something living and responsive.” (2009)  It would be interesting to compare this assertion with expectations of musical performances (the stage, the Proscenium) and the context of the “gallery” in the construction of Art.  Notable director Peter Greenaway directly addressed some of these considerations at his recent “VJ” performance of Tulse Luper at the Gallery of Modern Art.  I have to say, i’m sure there was a diversity of opinion on the performance, however I was bitterly disappointed with what I saw as his inability to successfully connect his evocative manifesto with the space, his own material and the audience.  Here is an example from a performance that actually looks and sounds more dynamic than the one I witnessed.

peter Greenaway en Collegium Hungaricum from Servando Barreiro on Vimeo.

“…my complaint is that now, after 108 years of activity, we have a cinema that is dull, familiar, predictable,
hopelessly weighed down by old conventions and outworn verities, an archaic and heavily restricted system of distribution, and an out-of-date and cumbersome technology.” (Greenaway, 2003)

His rhetoric is superb!  His thesis, while full of holes and ignorant of developments in experimental and expanded cinema throughout the last century, is impressively calculated to stimulate thought on the ephemerality of sound and image. At this point I should disclose that I am:

  1. a fan of his work from the post modern surrealism of the survey-like “The Falls” through the segmented narrative of “Zed and Two Noughts” to his intermedia compositional experiments “A TV Dante” and “Prospero’s Books”, Greenaway is nothing if not an interesting provocateur with a visually engaging style (with or without the great Sacha Vierny as his cinematographer).
  2. familiar with the first half of the six hour Tulse Luper Suitcases from which this VJ performance is excerpted.

My problem with the Tulse Luper Suitcase performance is that I feel his rhetoric sets the the scene for a dramatic contribution to live cinema that is not backed up in practice.  My criticism starts with the source material:  the loops of 2-5 secs appear directly ripped from a Tulse Luper DVD or Blu-Ray without any attempt at recomposition.  As there is already a multi-layer conversation occuring in the single image version it would make more sense to take some of the source material and rework it for the space and projection surfaces: why not break this up and have it occur across the three screens – making it a re-composition rather than an ineffectual remix?  To me this would represent a live, in the moment cinema much more effectively.  He stated in his intro that he wanted to reflect the CNN style of information overload, something the Electronic Broadcast Network effectively pioneered.  In practice this overload cheapens HIS OWN art and the repetition of elements provides for a noisy incoherent spectacle that actively distracts the viewer from the artistic composition he clearly wants his cinema to reflect.

Sonically the loud mid frequency cacophony, enhanced as much by his repeated phasing of clips as it was by a poor sound system in an echoey hallway, was apparently backed up by a couple of awesome DJ’s.  Aside from their mid-nineties sounding acid-jazz-electronica intro (think peak period Ninja Tunes at best) I didn’t notice them once peaking beyond the aggressive din of Greenaway’s soundtrack.  It seems like the system he is using to mix this material is remarkable only for its user-friendliness.  Utilising an impressive touch screen to drag clips to one of three windows, each representing a projected image, there appeared to be little else under his control.  Had he outsourced his material to any number of budding underground audiovisualists i’m sure we could have witnessed some unique re-interpretations of audio, visual and textual material.  In his hands it struck me as something of a blow to the art of live cinema and audiovisual performance as it contributes monotony and undercooked “experimentalism” to a field already in danger of being seen as having little merit beyond novelty.

At the same time a lot is happening with underground audio-visualists.  The technology, no matter how expensive or sophisticated, is essentially doing the same thing; projecting digitised image and sound.  It is worth considering how readily comparable a $48 per ticket act in an established gallery is to an underground, legally grey audiovisual art event?  Let me suggest “Company Fuck” as an example.

Scott Sinclair is an Australian artist currently living in Europe who has explored a number of audiovisual avenues as an artist and curator of the Small Black Box experimental music events and the ‘half-theory’ collective.   From solo and group based electro-acoustic improv, his contributions to Botborg and his queer mash-up of breakcore, metal and disco as Company Fuck, Sinclair demonstrates a restless muse, with an emphasis (perhaps unintended) on how technological tools can mutate and transform objects, performance and context.

This particular work demonstrates a number of tricks that the audio-visualist can invoke to support the performative illusion.  He inserts himself within the performance as the body to be projected on – an interesting form of performer projection mapping that is also used to great effect by Sally Golding of Abject Leader / Other Film.  The direction of audience gaze towards both visual material AND the body of the artist is an approach with strong ties to historical applications of the phantasmagoria, echoed also through Dada performance and expanded cinema.   Sinclair’s bodily contortions are translated into control data through a Wiimote, hidden in his extravagant cloak.  This data alters values in a Max patch that serves to manage the AV assets and translate movement and shrieking into an instantaneous and adaptable performative outcome.

It’s obvious that both performances draw from different schools of thought on the nature of performance and both are likely to attract a very particular kind of audience.  In thinking about why I might consider Sinclair’s work as more successful and entertaining than Greenaway’s I can’t help but feel it is too easy to build up a ‘Straw Man’ argument.  When audiovisual performance relies so heavily on the audience being able to “get” the context, particularly in relation to their expectations and prior knowledge, it is easy to be distracted by subjectivity and exaggerate the complicity of the artist in their own failure to meet expectation.  Whether we like the sound or vision in connection with, or separated from the actual performance, it can be difficult to assess their relative worth as our familiarity is more likely to come from artworks that prioritise individual sensory elements or address them quite separately.

Fission or Fusion?

In order to quanitfy and assess different approaches to audiovisual performance objectively, i’m working on designing an analytical framework which I intend to road-test at the Electundra audiovisual festival this weekend.  As with the paper, where I used Panyiotis Kokoras’ Morphopoeisis to outline the approach to an audiovisual performance, I’m approaching this from musician/composer perspective by utilising David Hirst’s procedure outlined in “Fission or fusion: analysing the acousmatic reaction.” (2004)  While by no means a final solution, this procedure complements Morphopoesis well and is sufficiently broad in scope to encompass divergent modes of performance and composition in the search for context and meaning.


Elaboration will be provided after i test-drive this approach over the weekend; for now a summary.

As with Morphopoesis, Fission and Fusion can be read from top to bottom (knowledge driven) and bottom to top (data driven).  Hirst’s approach considers the following elements which, while in many ways analogous to the levels outlined by Kokoras, occur constantly in a cycle that (hopefully) expands understanding through each iteration:

  • Segregation of AV objects;
    • identification of audio visual objects and their relative weightings;
  • Horizontal integration/segregation;
    • the manner in which linkages are established between AV objects over time, both technically (cuts, wipes) and cognitively (juxtapositions);
    • – the manner in which these linkages demonstrate a progression that can be perceived and understood by the audience;
  • Vertical integration/segregation;
    • the connection between sound and image at each point and how these elements work together to support or challenge audience perception (dissonance and consonance);
  • Assimilation and meaning;
    • the architecture of ideas;
    • awareness of the global organisation within the work that is built upon a shifting foundation of formal structures and hierarchical relationships.

The play between form (syntax) and meaning (semantics) is addressed as polar opposites bridged by various factors; semantic, ecological/physical, acoustic/visual, spectral & temporal. The dominance of a discourse being either based more towards recognition of meaning through mimesis of source/cause in the audiovisual work or a typological/relational discourse that plays towards more abstract forms, informed by historical approaches to the practice of audio and visual performance/composition.
While an audio/visual mash-up or prototypical VJ performance demonstrates traits familiar to similar examples of the practice as it has evolved culturally over time, the success of the work relies heavily on a familiarity with the concepts being juxtaposed.  This is often reflected in the reinterpretation of pop culture memes as meaning is more readily generated when the associated elements are already clearly defined in the minds of the audience.  Using Hirst’s framework this would place AV/VJ mash-ups more towards a source/cause dominant discourse, as they are built upon a concrete reality, defined by the context of place or culture and reliant on semantic factors and conscious recognition/association with the elements being delivered.

By contrast, a performance like that of Company Fuck relies less on an appreciation of concrete elements, ideas and philosophies and more on the construction, by the artist, of an abstract compositional framework that demonstrates a clear, consistent logic.  Combining acoustic, visual, spectral and temporal factors to generate an array of symbolic gestures that stimulate emotions directly without the need for cohesive global meaning.  As an exploration of performative possibilities, the connection between sound, vision and gesture unfolds in real-time, generating a syntactic relationship as the understanding between performer and audience is developed.  The conjured form is as much defined by this exchange of meaning as it is by the approach to technological tools and conscious acknowledgement of culture and context.

Anyway, let’s see how it works in the field.


Greenaway, P. (2003) “Toward a re-invention of cinema”, from accessed 20/04/2009.

Hirst, David. (2004) “Fission or fusion: analysing the acousmatic reaction”, in the Australasian Computer Music Conference 2004 proceedings, pp. 48-52.

Kokoras, P. A. (2005) “Morphopoiesis: a general procedure for structuring form”, 5th International Music Theory Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2005

Spinrad, Paul. (2009) “The Video Injected Hive Mind” in Boing Boing from, accessed 15/04/2009


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