Real Time Live

Posted on July 9, 2009 by Holly Willis

In March 2009, DreamWorks Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg announced that in conjunction with the release of the animated feature film Monsters Vs. Aliens, all of his company’s subsequent film projects would be produced and exhibited in 3-D. The gambit allows the studio to delineate clearly between the cinematic experience as it is enjoyed in the theater versus the DVD screening situated in the home – or airplane, desktop, mobile device and so on. The immersive film event could in addition prompt higher ticket prices and hinder piracy. Despite the wonders of 3-D, this attempt to revitalize Hollywood’s increasingly marginal role in moving-image entertainment remains merely one of many examples of a broad-based dismantling and reconfiguration of cinema at the turn of the century as a once relatively stable form splinters into dozens of image/sound practices, ones that reference the generally elided history of avant-garde experiments of the last century but also respond to new forms of networked, digital life that invite artful reconfigurations of time, space and social interaction.

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,” by which I mean the live, 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. As described, this notion of live cinema remains cheerfully broad, welcoming at once the Nervous System Projection performances of the New York-based avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and the audiovisual spectacles produced by the Light Surgeons, a group of British artists who work intensively with the relationship between sound, image and, on occasion, story. In embraces VJ performances, in which video is mixed live to accompany the performance of music, as well as immersive, ambient media environments crafted on the fly. In an interview about live cinema in 2008, Thomas Beard, who edited the collection of essays for San Francisco Cinematheque titled “Cinematograph 7 – Live Cinema: A Contemporary Reader,” adds several other examples to emphasize the diversity of the form. He says, “It means the manipulations of multiple small-gauge projectors by artists like Guy Sherwin or silt or Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, the image processing of LoVid on their custom-made hardware video equipment, or even intrepid uses of moving images in musical performances, like Text of Light, who situate silent experimental films as a sort of additional member in a broader improvisation.”[i]

In each of these instances, artists perform with moving images, sometimes playing overtly with the structural conditions of traditional cinema, and at other times moving more toward illustrated musical performance. While these examples diverge dramatically in terms of histories, tools, objectives, practices and audiences, they are nevertheless emblematic of the form’s expressive potential, and both underscore a widespread international interest in exploring diverse cinematic forms and suggest that the unity of the definition is grounded in the desire for liveness.

Recent developments in media processing software have certainly helped enable these new genres of computer-facilitated live cinema expression across the world, and for the last five years, the form has at once emerged and returned, with performances illuminating galleries, museums and festivals around the world, and while there may not be as yet any kind of coalescence or sense of stability, live cinema, in its myriad manifestations, points to new needs and agendas in a networked, mediated culture. Despite the range of performance styles or genres, three aspects characterize this recent spate of live cinema work: first, the works insist on the live interaction of artwork, performer and audience and suggest the desire for the event and its specificity; second, they propose an interrogation of forms, asking us to contextualize the event within histories of cinema, video, performance, art and music; and third, the works often play on the liquidity of information and the sense that we exist in a world characterized not by concrete spatial boundaries and fixed temporal coordinates, but instead by a mobile, accelerating experience of fluidity and flows. These three characteristics, then, hover at the boundary of cinema’s specificity and its reconfiguration through digital media, as the materials specific to cinema ­– light, the projector itself, filmic emulsion – become what Marius Walz calls “soft media objects,” digital artifacts easily retooled for new uses.

Some examples of live cinema center on an exploration of the phenomenology of cinematic experience. Jacobs’ work, for example, which has enjoyed a renaissance over the last few years, often revisits very early examples of filmmaking. For Opening the 19th Century: 1896, Jacobs investigates the process of vision by attempting to create what he calls “deep space.” For the project, he reprinted footage shot in 1896 by the Lumière brothers, such that for long sections, all of the disparate original tracking shots now move in a single direction. With this project, Jacobs wants to recapture what he believes is the sense of wonder felt by viewers in 1896 as they first experienced cinematic motion.

Jacobs also sparks a sense of curiosity and intense perception with his Nervous System projects in which he pairs two single-frame projectors each projecting the same images; he then rocks back and forth across the images, frame by frame, playing the images like a DJ to produce a dense flickering dance of movement that seems to extend outward into space. In these live cinema events, cinema and its singular properties are brought to the fore and celebrated in exquisite detail.

Similarly artists Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder focus on the particularities of cinematic performance, with attention paid to the physicality of light in space. In an interview discussing their “projector performance” titled “Untitled,” which invites viewers to contemplate the nuances of projected light as it shifts throughout the course of a performance, they explain that their work evolves “from project to project, from show to show, from one end of the collaboration to the other, from one audience to the other. The work reverberates or ricochets in the in-between.” Indeed, while light and its materiality is central, so too is the performative aspect. The artists explain that they do not use a written script for a performance, preferring instead to understand the event as a “temporal passagework.” They also focus specifically on the role of the spectator and explain their process in poetic terms. “To set up the spectatorial imaginary: to assume the role of the one who arrives early, the one who arrives late, in the middle (always in the middle), and who is always already leaving early. To identify with all aspects of this hesitancy that knows nothing but beautiful radical indecision.”

These instances of live cinema mobilize “liveness” in service to the often occluded role of the projector, which in traditional cinema remains absolutely invisible. What’s at stake in the revealing the apparatus? In part, there are connections to be made, especially in the work of Gibson and Recoder, to the creation of conceptual spaces produced by the Light and Space artists of the 1970s, as well to the early experiments of video artists, many of whom used video as part of their live performance work to underscore the presence and functionality of technology, but in conjunction with the artist’s presence.

While these examples privilege cinema and endeavor to explore its core elements, other artists emphasize some of the practices of cinema – editing, for example, which in live cinema becomes a performance rather than a hidden process. Finnish artist Mia Makela, who performs using the name Solu, is fascinated by editing, but not in service to a story. Indeed, she argues boldly in her essay, “The Practice of Live Cinema,” that “live cinema is not cinema” at all. Her assertion rests on the idea that cinema privileges storytelling and a temporal and spatial coherence that supports that story. For Makela, however, live cinema thrives in the exploration of the transitions between bits of storytelling sequences. Referencing the haunting and lengthy shots of the dark asphalt that stretches through certain segments of David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway, she writes that these kinds of shots “are the basic material for live cinema performances: the transitions, the movements, the pure visual beauty and intrigue, the atmosphere.”[ii] For Makela, poetry rather than storytelling offers a more appropriate correlate; live cinema should grapple with metaphor and the layering of meaning; it functions best through spatial montage, she argues, using the affordances of real-time visual software to show several images simultaneously. This predilection suffuses her work, which renders lush, stuttering imagery flecked with information and graphics, as in Field Reports (2004), or the pulsing drama of Remscapes (2005) in which the music suggests a looming catastrophe.

In this sense of live cinema, storytelling emerges from a database, with an emphasis on selection and combination. As curator, technologist and educator Michael Lew explains, “Stored as chunks of data on a hard disk that can be randomly accessed, film no longer needs to be presented in a linear, deterministic way, as a static sequence of shots on a one-dimensional timeline.” He continues, “Rather it can be presented as a connected constellation of shots in a multidimensional narrative or performance space, that can be traversed in multiple ways, generating a different interpretation of the same film each time.”[iii] In this sense, live cinema aligns with database narrative, which allows narrative to emerge algorithmically. Stories are emergent rather than predetermined, and the artist’s role involves crafting the database from which to compose a story as much as it does in performing that composition in a live event.

For other artists, live cinema offers an opportunity to emphasize the very visceral interaction with an audience. Writing about Tony Conrad’s recent “Unprojectable: Projection and Perspective” piece commissioned by the Tate Museum in 2008, Stuart Comer and Alice Koegel trace Conrad’s interest in physiological phenomena produced in art events. They write, “Carrying over from one medium to another, Conrad sets up situations that encourage free experiences of audiovisual perception and perceptual engagement.”[iv] Here, Conrad’s work aligns with that chronicled by Gene Youngblood in his 1971 book titled Expanded Cinema, which documents and explains cinematic experimentation in the 1960s. Youngblood notes that the work of these filmmakers was often dedicated to crafting an immersive “synaesthetic cinema,” one that used graphics to create a new kind of vision, which in turn was supposed to lead to a new kind of consciousness.

Some artists work to craft story environments that are at once site-specific and attentive to the audience in attendance. San Francisco-based artists Sue Costabile (who also goes by the name SUE-C.) and Laetitia Sonami’s Sheepwoman is a live cinema project inspired by Haruki Murakami’s novels Dance, Dance, Dance and The Wild Sheep Chase. Working with a range of materials in front of the audience, including drawings, shadows, photographs and video, the artists create a hybrid story space between the real and the fictional.

While Costabile and Sonami often emphasize the narrative components of their collaborative projects, they also characterize their work in terms of software, and sometimes even music. Describing the evolution of her work, especially in collaboration with musician Antye Greie, in Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists, Costabile, for example, highlights the increasing significance of software in her work over the last decade. “As a video artist, I found the popular VJ software and hardware setups to be quite restricting. The idea for using a live camera as the only video signal input evolved out of frustration with working with a confined set of video clips and combining them in a limited number of ways.” She goes on to explain that software tools allowed her to expand compositing modes, noting that “after a long period of experimentation, the software has become an instrument that I have learned to play.”[v]

The musical analogy resonates for many artists who understand live cinema performance using digital tools as being akin to performing with an instrument. Michael Lew, for example, joins a cadre of other artists, including Golan Levin, seeking ways to enhance the possibilities of the performance aspect of live cinema through specific mixing tools. In his 2004 essay “Live Cinema: Designing an Instrument for Cinema Editing as a Live Performance,” Lew describes a device he developed that is designed to allow easier access to and mixing of image sequences.[vi] He writes that the device “is the hybdrization of a tangible interface to perform electronic music and an editing tool for motion picture. The instrument must allow a performer to assemble a feature-length film from beginning to end in front of the audience, suggesting relevant shots at the right time, based on various time- and context-based organizations of the footage prepared in advance by the performer in the live cinema score.”[vii]

The diverse practices associated with definitions live cinema suggest that the form is still in its infancy. Juha Huuskonen, curator of PixelAche, an annual festival of media in Finland, compares the range of experimentation to that of artists in the 1970s, such as David Rokeby, Myron Krueger and Erkki Kurenniemi, who were playing with video cameras and hardware extensions, and creating live video performances or interactive installations. He explains that there are “many people out there who are starting from the same point as in the ’70s with early video – starting from scratch and experimenting with using video as a performance tool, without much knowledge of what has been done before.”[viii] He adds that this is due in part to the accessibility of tools, and the fact that one can be an amateur and participate. In this regard, advances in the increased ability of graphics cards to process high quality video imagery in real time, the drop in price of video projectors and the growing prevalence of differing software tools all have helped create a rich tool base for artists interested in working with images and sound in a live context.

While Huuskonen points out an important factor in the formation of current live cinema practices, namely the availability and user-friendly nature of many of the tools, making access and cross-media experimentation much more viable, what if we flip the equation and understand the tools to be expressions of some cultural need? If so, we can ask again, why is this explosion of sound/image performance work happening now?

Jan Rohlf of the Berlin-based festival of media titled Transmediale, suggests that the interest in the interplay between sound and color, light or images exists as a constant throughout the history of art and technology. That said, however, he notes that the last decade and the explosion of digital technologies have had a specific impact. “From a general perspective one might argue that with the digital revolution of the 1990s, questions concerning the function of our sensorial organs and the way our psychic apparatus processes and interprets the signals received by our senses gained a new urgency and relevance. This happened mainly because the new digital technologies provide radically enhanced possibilities to construct, manipulate and alter what we consider as our reality.”[ix] The ability to “construct, manipulate and alter” reality in turn invites us to seek some semblance of stability and groundedness, often in the body and in events that enact a kind of hybridity, being at once constructed and yet entirely “real” and unique. Live cinema responds to these needs.

Huuskonen adds a series of other factors that make the emergence of screen-based performance work so widespread, including the prevalence of television and video, and the desire on the part of artists as varied as Nam June Paik, Emergency Broadcast Network and Coldcut/Hexstatic to take the equipment and image vernacular of mainstream video and re-use it toward alternative ends. This process of critical remix centers on the act – on the process of mixing and tactically undercutting the original footage – rather than on a finished artwork. Artists step into the ubiquitous flow of imagery that is increasingly a part of public space and manipulate it toward their own ends. As Huuskonen notes, “Taking control over this one way stream and turning it into a performance instrument is an important act.”

The various analogies used to describe live cinema performance point to the growing ease for transposing media forms. Jan Rohlf notes, “Today, we understand information as a signal that is potentially not bound to a specific medium as its carrier.” He continues, “Information has become free and mobile. Digitally encoded, it can be endlessly translated from one carrier to the next. Thus every bit of information potentially can be mapped onto and translated into any kind of medium. Hurricane statistics can become sound, the genetic sequence of a living being can become film, the stock market figures can control the movements of a kinetic sculpture and so on. The many mediums of the past have become one medium – digital data. This condition of information and media surely affects all aspects of our lives, but within audio-visual performances or ‘live cinema’ the fluidity and continuity of the digital media becomes obvious, visible and intuitively understandable.”

Rohlf here captures the core function of live cinema, namely to reconsider subjectivity as it emerges within a networked culture. Live cinema, with its emphasis on liveness and the interaction both between performer and audience members, and among audience members and the live cinema event, embodies what Anna Munster describes as an “ethico-aesthetic paradigm for information.”[x] In attempting to articulate a specifically digital aesthetics she writes, “Aesthetics in contemporary culture cannot rise above and remain undisturbed by the machine, for the machine is more intimately than ever an arranger of our perceptual apparatus.” She then adds, “Equally, the aesthetics of technologically inflected, augmented and managed modes of perception is also about relations to others in the socius.”[xi] Live cinema, in its myriad forms, in its fluidity, in its attempt to conjure and illuminate embodied interaction, reckons with and enacts contemporary subjectivity as at once mediated and performed.

[i] Michael Fox, “Thomas Beard exposes ‘Live Cinema,’” SF 360, accessed March 1, 2009.

[ii] Mia Makela, “The Practice of Live Cinema,” Media Space Journal, Issue 1, 2008, 1.

[iii] Michael Lew, “Live Cinema: Designing and Instrument for Cinema Editing as a Live Performance,” Proceedings of the 2004 Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME04), Hamamatsu, Japan, 1.

[iv] Stuart Comer and Alice Koegel, “Unprojectable: Projection and Perspective, July 2008,” accessed March 1, 2009.

[v] Casey Reas and Ben Fry, Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007), 503.

[vi] Lew, 1.

[vii] Lew, 1.

[viii] This and all other quotations are from an interview with Juha Huuskonen that took place in January 2006.

[ix] This and all other quotations are from an interview with Jan Rohlf that took place in January 2006.

[x] Anna Munster, Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics” (Hanover, New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press, 2006).

[xi] Munster, 151.