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experimental audiovisual: room to move

lucy benson: overlap, transmediale 2010 berlin

Lucy Benson is an Australian media artist currently based in Berlin. She was a 2009 recipient of the Ian Potter Cultural Trust for further study at Zürich’s ZHdK University of the Arts. http://lucybenson.net

Sosolimited, The Long Conversion Sosolimited, The Long Conversion
photo Jonathan Gröger/transmediale
THIS YEAR’S EDITION OF TRANSMEDIALE MARKED A NEW COLLABORATION BETWEEN THE FESTIVAL AND ITS SISTER EVENT CLUB TRANSMEDIALE. THE RESULTING PROGRAM, OVERLAP—SOUND & OTHER MEDIA, BROUGHT A SERIES OF EXPERIMENTAL AUDIOVISUAL PERFORMANCES TO TRANSMEDIALE’S MAIN HUB, THE HOUSE OF WORLD CULTURES IN BERLIN.

Probably the most anticipated performance was the much-hyped live AV set from Japan’s Ryoki Ikeda. Having been impressed by his immense, exquisitely designed installation data.tron [3 SXGA version] (2007-9) I was hoping Ikeda’s performance would elevate his sublime, yet somehow unsatisfying graphics to a more meaningful level. What a disappointment then, that Test Pattern actually delivered something far less. Against a large square projection, Ikeda stood at his laptop and set loose an onslaught of driving percussion, the minimal beats occasionally disrupted by bleeps and bursts of static and noise. On the screen behind, horizontal black and white lines flickered up and down across two vertical panels—the lines, their frequency and shade constituting a direct conversion of Ikeda’s audio signal. Initially the perfectly synchronised beats and stark graphics made an impressive impact, however as the minutes passed by the effect wore thin. The screen eventually subdividing into smaller sections did little to reinvigorate the relentless, flickering graphics.

Stylistically similar, but infinitely more intriguing was POWEr by Canadian duo Artificiel, a commissioned AV work developed around a Tesla coil. Two cameras and a microphone relay video and audio to Artificiel’s laptops where it is processed and played back live. For the performance the Tesla coil stood to the front left of the stage under a soft spotlight. A large screen hung vertically at the back and Artificiel themselves were as far offstage as to be effectively invisible. The piece started simply, just the coil and the wonderfully powerful, amplified electric current. After this small tribute, a pause and the real show commenced. In a slow, deliberate rhythm Artificiel fired off the Tesla. With each beat a stark black and white still shot of the electricity burst onto screen. The milky white arc was captured in stunning quality, complex rivers and veins set beautifully against black. As the soundtrack progressed and grew more complex, the images started to overlap, replace, repeat, eventually inverting and breaking into smaller panels. Artificiel at times confused the integrity of the ‘live’ footage by mixing in time-delayed samples or continuing playback while the Tesla stood silent.
POWEr, Artificiel POWEr, Artificiel
photo © de_buurman
Continuing the dominant black and white theme, I caught a nice performance, A Cable Plays, at Club Transmediale using openFrameworks open source software. Two artists, Chris Sugrue (US) and Damian Stewart (NZ), both part of the openFrameworks development group, sat cross-legged opposite each other at a black, square board decorated with a tight grid of pins. The artists took turns threading white string through the grid, building up interesting, minimal geometries. Meanwhile a live overhead camera transmitted the scene to a large screen for the audience. The position and movement of the string was analysed in openFrameworks to trigger, warp and distort a live electronic soundtrack. Additional graphics and animations popped onto the main screen occasionally and were ‘pushed aside’ or otherwise affected by the threading of the string. A simple piece, “inspired by the hidden codes of human behaviour and the hidden logic of games,” but well executed.

Another highlight for me was The Long Conversion by American MIT graduates, Sosolimited. Soso hijacked the audiovisual stream of Transmediale’s eight-hour keynote discussion and presented their own subversive remix. Two volunteer typists sat at computers under a large screen and entered the spoken conversation in real time. This text data was then scanned, analysed, and playfully repositioned over the top of the original feed. Presented as info-graphics, the piece subverted the content of the discussion, charting the frequency of particular words, finding ‘hidden’ syntax clues and otherwise messing with the signal. The actual video and audio streams were also manipulated and distorted to render the discussion at times comical, threatening, dream-like or plain false. It was clever, funny and beautifully designed.

In celebration of Transmediale’s new partnership with eArts Festival Shanghai, the festival closed with a special showcase from contemporary Chinese media artists. The first of the two performances started promisingly, with sound artist Zhang Jian hidden behind a screen at the front left of the stage on which a large golden ‘sun’ was rear-projected. He and his instrument appeared only as shadows against the golden orb. Visual artist Aaajiao stood at a console at the right of the stage and controlled a projection of generative cloud formations onto the back wall. Zhang Jian stepped in and out of the projected sun, augmenting the sound from his mysterious instrument (which through later research I discovered to be several of his Buddha Machines placed on a ‘wooden-man’ martial-arts training structure). Meanwhile Aaajiao played with the volume, texture and speed of his ever-drifting clouds, the most interesting moments coming when he amped up the pace of these transformations to build some kind of rhythm. For the most part however, these changes felt awkward and off-time. Also questionable was the decision to generate the clouds onscreen. Watching the little puffs obviously being clicked into existence was disconcerting. The main problem with this show, however, was that nothing really happened before it abruptly ended 30 minutes later.

Next Feng Mengbo took the stage, games console in hand. Immediately we were hit with the bright colour and bouncing electronic soundtrack of his self-developed computer game in which a Chinese character in Communist greens takes over the world country by country (level by level), armed with Coke cans for ammunition. After claiming America, he heads to the moon—at which point, unforutnately, the game got stuck in an irrecoverable loop and, after sitting through two restarts, the impatient crowd forced the performance to be abandoned. The game was really quite good and there was a certain audacity in closing the festival with a Nintendo console performance, but the programming seemed questionable rather than being about maverick artistic intervention.

While it had looked good on paper, Overlap was not exactly successful. Despite some highlights, the works generally felt safe and often just a bit dull. It was disheartening to witness the shortage of fun, poetry and adventure. This is particularly disappointing in Berlin, a mecca for experimental electronic arts of all imaginable forms. Perhaps Transmediale had decided their festival was not the place for a sound performance using algae-generated electricity to search radio frequencies for interdimensional beings. (No, I didn’t make this up.)


Overlap—Sound & Other Media, Transmediale, 2010, various venues, Berlin, Jan 28-Feb 7, www.clubtransmediale.de/ctm-festival

Lucy Benson is an Australian media artist currently based in Berlin. She was a 2009 recipient of the Ian Potter Cultural Trust for further study at Zürich’s ZHdK University of the Arts. http://lucybenson.net

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 23

© Lucy Benson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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