Expressive Live Video:
  a multimedia artists view.

Greg Jalbert, August 1998

What's happening  in the contemporary arts is that the octopus of 'technology', techno-lust and techno-fear are meeting and fighting and dancing in new ways. We are learning about this tidal wave of electronic media by diving headlong into it and working with the devices in each their own way. We are trying to find what really works. One's goals are many: to bring together a community of like-minded people, to get people away from the one-way media of TV and magazines and to build new independent, interdependent and mutually sustainable ecologies of diverse art and music and life. We are making comments on the world around us, whether we intend to or not. Many performers in this area are questioning the very tools we use.

On the edge  of this turbulance are the inventors. In a way it is a trickster's art, with intended meanings hidden in strange shapes and textures, algorithms of motion, and spatial relationships. Outsiders and historians may see this all in a different light.

When improvising a concert with musicians from a diverse set of backgrounds, all using highly unique and unusual setups, the visual artists may be following the music, or may be creating a separate line of parallel play, to be viewed by the multi-tasking mind of the late 20th century viewer.

Construction/deconstruction and resynthesis are the methods used to provide an audio visual experience that provides a platform for the internal musings of the audience. The fact that the music and visuals are live presents a unique opportunity for the audience and performers. The loosely arranged physical space allows for the audience to freely roam among the performers, even getting into discussions during performances. Audience members even get involved in performing, helping to shape the visuals or music by interacting with the instruments themselves as well as the performers.

Many possible elaborations on the above ideas remain to be discussed, but this article will focus on some of the structural elements of the artists and their tools. Unfortunately, this can be viewed as an advertisement for the benefits of technology, without that being what the artists intend. Are the artists instruments more important than the message? It's up to the artists to make engaging and memorable experiences.

Live Visuals: an example

The OmniMedia .04 concert at the CELL performance space in San Francisco was a collection of over 12 music performers and three video performers. The video performers provided visuals for all of the music which was at first arranged sequentially, and then several groups collaborated at the end. It was a 8-hour performance, with the first 2 hours being a less formal building of balances and arrangements.

The visual performers

Greg Jalbert was using Bliss Paint, live performance animation software for MacOS computers, and mixing these live visuals with video tape material, also created by him using computers and a video camera, the goal being to have a wide vocabulary of abstract visual textures, shapes and motion to work with the music of the moment. At times, the Bliss Paint software was triggered with a MIDI keyboard or sound for very momentary changes in the expressivity of the color and shapes. A large collection of premade animations and images are available from the computer hard disk, and a large collection of cued video tapes is also available for the tape deck. The video tape material and computer animation are both mixed dynamically by Jalbert using a video switcher with a variety of standard wipe, dissolve, keying and special effects.

David Tristram used his proprietary live performance animation software on two matching Windows98-based computers, using a second video switcher to mix these computers with Greg Jalbert's video/animation output, or with live video camera work from performance space. Tristram's software uses complex oscillators to control three-dimensional planes of dynamic textures that are synthesized or taken from digital video or stills on the computer's disk. His software is custom programmed for 3-D accelerator boards installed in the computers. The oscillator relationships create fascinating complex evolving patterns of motion, and a large collection of presets are available.

Jalbert and Tristram were situated side by side and they often interact verbally and aesthetically during the performance, interchangably providing foreground and background materials and harmony and counterpoint to the sound activities of the moment. A complex range of music passed through the event, including minimalism, twisted mass-media resynthesis, to brain-wave controlled widgets and reconstituted gizmos of bygone years, the trademark aesthetic of the forth of the OmniMedia series of concerts. Video switchers provide one form of electronic feedback between video animation systems, as well as video input capabilities of computers.

Tristram was one of the programmer/performers of the Bay Area's Raster Masters visual performing group.

Peter King created a mechanical system for controlling video feedback with a live rotatable camera, a large video monitor and glass and mirrors. His particular system creates fractal patterns of objects moving into the system. His video output was included in the mix of computer graphics for projection.

Geometric pattern slides by music performer Tom Koch, and film by other artists were also projected on the same screens as the video projectors creating multiple layers of visuals, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Some of the visuals were even projected on large hanging sheets that provided a wall seen by people in two different musical performance spaces.

Glenn McKay, a master of the 1960's era lightshows, sat in with his hand-dyed glass slides dissolving using his proprietary XFade software running on a Windows-based laptop, while Greg Jalbert mutated his computer animations to blend with the organic look of McKay's slides. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is presenting a retrospective of 30 years of McKay's visual work with music, Altered States, in February 1999.

Maggie Hoppe, a respected SF Bay Area video artist/producer, sat in on Tristram's video mixer, providing an overview sensibility to the mix of 4 to 6 video sources. Hoppe was the video director of the Bay Area's Raster Masters visual performance group.

Dennis Keefe, another long-time video/lights performer, sat in for a while using a video camera to capture other visuals in the performance space which were mixed with the computer animations.

Three video projecters were used to display the video material, with a distribution box letting performers dynamically determine the destination screen for a given source.



Bliss Paint software brochure

Sample Bliss Images

Glenn McKay: Altered States

Copyright (C) 1998 Greg Jalbert