Its been an opportune few weeks for visualists in Europe, with a spread of three festivals all with their own take on the field. Here’s a quick tour through the eyes and itinerary of one *spark.

node08, mapping, vision'r and a sneak at live performers meeting

  • Late at Tate: The AV Social; 4th April
  • NODE08: Forum for digital arts; 5-12th April
  • Mapping: VJing and Audio-Visual Festival; 10th-20th April
  • Vision’r: Festival VJ; 17th-20th April
  • Resolume 3 & Freeframe 1.5
  • On the horizon: Visual Berlin and Live Performer’s Meeting

Late at Tate: The AV Social; 4th April

As if a send-off for the vj pilgrimage, the night before leaving for Node08 saw an outstanding vj-related event in London, something surprisingly rare. The ‘AV Social’ took over the ‘Late at Tate’ evening and transformed itself from so-so bar effort to a near seamless extension of a bastion of the British art establishment. Integrated into the architecture of the Tate Britain’s empire-era halls and plethora of artworks were a number of semi-live installations and a dj/vj-esque performance space, all of which felt right in the space and none of which dropped the ball, quite a feat given their acclaimed and classical neighbours. Downstairs in a more utilitarian reception/bar space were the Narrative Lab screenings. While its a shame that the set-up felt somewhat jerry-rigged there, the curation was really impressive resulting in perhaps one of the most important bodies of vj-work I’ve yet seen put together. I have to admit a bias in having been involved with the Narrative Lab project, and having my big live cinema project represented as one of the works, but if phrased as of the collision of vj practice with ideas beyond aesthetics, I’ll stick to my assertion: it really was that good, and we need such things to document the scene, to etch an otherwise impermanent practice in history.

NODE08: Forum for digital arts; 5-12th April

If there’s one page on the internet that simultaneously crushes and inspires me, its the projects page of the ‘vvvv’ environment. A node based software, free for non-commercial use, that has been developed at the cutting edge of both commercial events and artistic endeavour, it seems to time-warp its users and their computers five years into the future, realising the seemingly impossible. So when I found out that the users of the software were having their first get-together with the vvvv organisation organising a week long conference of workshops, galleries, a club-night, and so on… well it was simply a case of needing to be there.

Watershed Moment #1 – Hacking a night-club’s lighting rig via WiFi. The first day’s workshop I attended hadn’t been so good, a mix of nerds trying to teach and the subject matter being more basic than the description suggested. However, this was soon blown away when we found ourselves in the fairly deluxe club ‘Velvet’ with its already impressive myriad of lights and club-tech added to with LED tiles, strips and so on. DMX was the topic of the day, and with vvvv it was trivial to hack the whole rig, and thanks to ArtNet‘s IP implementation of DMX, we were even doing it over WiFi. This was really a watershed moment for me as a VJ, as while I’ve been working towards making bespoke tour-vj boxes to be handed over to the lighting crew, and thinking about ways to break beyond the tyranny of the screen, whether 4×3 or not, this really broke the whole field open for me: watch out lampies, just as you’re getting video servers, we’re coming with co-ordinated light shows from our laptops designed as one with our video-visualism!

Node08 also had a very impressively curated day of lectures centred around the intersection of tools and art. There was something in there for everyone, but I especially enjoyed Paul Prudence putting his money where his mouth was by incorporating a small performance in his presentation on audio-visual feedback systems, and likewise seeing the super-cool architect / sculptors / mad-scripters theverymany demonstrate live their process of creating physical forms through experimental computation. And it would be rude not to mention the wonderful wild-card in the form of Regine from we-make-money-not-art talking about bio-tech art, whose cultural and ethical questioning in my opinion puts 99% of media art to shame.

Watershed Moment #2 – Mapping visualism to any space: Problem solved. The virtual architecture workshop again suffered from a lack of preparation and a lack of presenter / teacherly nous, but if you’ve ever wanted to break out of the paradigm of a big-tv on stage, this workshop was for you: not musing on what was possible, but just diving straight in with realtime, scalable, 60fps demonstrations on how you can map anything onto anything with vvvv, a 3D model of the architectural space and a bunch of projectors. We’re not talking flat facades here, but whatever curving sinuous spaces you want, and onto those surfaces mapping 2D media or animating realtime 3D through the space. Into this media/architecture/spatial simulation, you just bring up as many vvvv projector modules as you have projectors, type in their specs, and spread them around until you have the best coverage. And bam! wherever you point your virtual projector, out comes a renderer to supply your real projector with the exact imagery required to recreate the virtual in the real. They’ve even got shaders that compute in realtime which projector will give the best mapping for every surface. Unreal. Seeing this has brought forward a project many a project I’ve been wondering just how to achieve: “its possible but” has just changed to “c’mon lets go!”.

Having to leave half-way through to make my way to Geneva for Mapping, I didn’t finish my Arduino workshop, see the club-night and its multi-screen generative glories, and so on, but perhaps beyond such flashy stuff the most enjoyable thing of the festival for me was the three informal pecha kucha / patcher culture evenings. Node08 was a festival where the attendees were invariably just as interesting and represented important bodies of work as those formally invited to present, and so these show-and-tell sessions really were inspirational, diverse and fascinating. Yep, they made the festival. That, and having cake available on the reception desk as you walked in.

Mapping: VJing and Audio-Visual Festival; 10th-20th April

The first two Mapping Festivals quickly became legendary. An audio line-up worthy of a music festival, a cream of visualists married to a playground of seemingly a thousand projectors, and the whole programme rammed through one venue over one weekend. Complete with dormitories above and sofa-strewn cinema to the side, the party didn’t stop.

Now in its fourth edition, Mapping has changed into a two/three week showcase split between the original venue ‘le zoo, pour les animeaux nocturnes’ and Geneva’s modern arts centre hosting gallery installations and an audio-visual stage. Having left the particle systems, avant-garde interactivity and deep geekage of Node to come to Mapping, it was quite a jump to walk into a room literally full of arse-slaps with the Chicks On Speed inaugurating their gallery installation “Butt Slap Bongo” with a suitably frenetic performance. Another interesting installation, in entirely different ways, was “News Jockey“, an informatic spread tiling across a whole room. You typed in your headline, it did the rest. It was also the logical successor to last year’s “web-jockey” installation, delivering on the promise shown there: always nice to see generational progress, directly related or not.

Still in the modern arts centre, the audio-visual stage saw a beautifully contemplative performance by Scanner and Olga Mink that is hopefully the start of an ongoing piece, and also sees Olga breaking out of her graphic comfort zone. The last performance of the opening weekend was a journey into the mind of Raphaël, a renegade filmmaker and long time Narrative Lab favourite. Hard to describe, and as far as I’m aware only experienced at the odd festival (self-promotion, website? pah!), if you see Raphael [ES] on the programme, just go. Crazy, wonderful, not entirely to be understood, but definite in the feeling that you viscerally touched something.

With the first weekend over, and Vision’r clashing with the second, it was time to leave. And also, who would stay for both? Which is perhaps the issue Mapping faces, being effectively two mini-festivals without anything to make the week/two weeks a compelling whole. But if the organisers can do this, I’m sure they’ll work it out. No write-up, however subjective and under-representative, could go by without a mention of Mapping’s 8bit night, with bubblyfish/chika/akira/etc all rocking out beyond their laptops. The special mention has to go to Meneo however, an 8bit musician who tours with entter providing an a/v whole. As you’d expect, the graphics reinforced the 8bit theme and a Meneo identity, but there were real moments of something way beyond that, with a whole world being created and stories spun. Oh, and lots of nakedness at the end: A visual performance of other sorts, and what was it with nakedness and performance at Mapping?

Vision’r: Festival VJ; 17th-20th April

Arguably, the first time the international vj community got together was at the “vjcentral gig” aka avit. A French duo called TZ-Team came, and while enthused by the experience, said it just couldn’t be done in France at that time; the club scene worked differently, the vjs that were out there were hidden in niches and there was no community to speak of. So it was a particularly nice experience to walk into the first Vision’r, effectively avit paris, and see a whole scene very clearly alive, very clearly doing great things. It was also the first time I’d seen frozen-chicken-porn visuals, totally arresting and different to the club clichés, and it was where the wonderment of the vixid mixer was unveiled in beta form. That was 2006, and now Vision’r is in its third edition. The feeling of being somewhere unique is still there, and it still feels slightly shambolic, but the the quality of work and exchange is better than ever. If I could explain why, I’d hazard a theory along the TZ-Team lines where isn’t so much clubbing and club-vjs but there is a strong culture of innovative live performance, which brings visualism and a/v trickery with it, but through a very different lens. Combine that with Vision’r having the feeling of a meeting of practitioners rather than showcase-for-others, and you certainly have an interesting weekend.

So in I walked, and saw Alchimie, a one-man show with narrator/poet/rapper riffing on graffiti (in French, I can’t say I got too much of the literal meaning, but such was the strength of the performance) amongst a minimal-but-effective virtual set made of projections, using prepared footage, live cameras and live drawing with a Wacom behind the mesh. And of course, it ended in the middle of the dance floor covered in paint, what else did you expect?

A beautiful example of a club culture cliché being taken to high-art while loosing none of the jump-up excitement of what made it good in the first place was ‘Projet RVB En Alpha’, which combined a dancing girl, light installation and vj feed into a sublime whole, with I surmise the alpha from the title referring to how the dancer’s movements become the (literal and metaphoric) key to the motion graphics. They even had the stagecraft that when the dancer fainted as ending, the geeks behind the laptops caught her.

And to tie Vision’r back to Mapping were SATI, gallantly performing at both festivals over this weekend. A duo of which one half is long-time VJ Jesse Lucas, and yep there are some brilliant visuals really taking advantage of a dual-head set-up, they are primarily a band, both in it together, both making the music and seeing where it can go… and its that attitude which really elevates them.

Resolume 3 & Freeframe 1.5

Also at Vision’r, and keeping the tradition of the vixid unveiling, were Bart and Edwin with Resolume 3 on their laptops, revealing the future of arguably the most popular vj software out there, and with Russell of VJamm and Freeframe also there, the future of the vj fx standard. Resolume and FreeFrame being both massive but a bit long in the tooth nowadays, this was quite a one-two.

Resolume: A sneak peak for a summer release, the big news is that its cross-platform. Yes, Resolume natively on OSX as well as Windows, and a new Resolume fit for 2008 rather than an incremental upgrade of Resolume as we’ve known it. One and a half years in development, its seen a complete re-write in c++, it now uses Open-GL for its rendering engine, and is now fully audio-visual: sample tight too, allegedly. The interface has also had a complete overhaul, and is not just constrained for a fixed three layers. Its also lost its trademark font and idiosyncratic colour scheme for clarity’s sake, which to me is a kinda shame but the price of progress (or maturation?). And when I started taking photos, Bart said to keep it a secret… there’s still more to come. If you want the spoiler

FreeFrame: If Resolume is cross-platform and renders on the GPU using Open-GL, then what about all those FF1.0 cpu-bound effects that vastly expanded Resolume’s palette? The answer came from Russell, originally Mr VJamm and a leading member of the FreeFrame group who announced the FreeFrame 1.5 aka FFGL spec to the VJ/realtime video world, bringing GPU processing to the FreeFrame standard. It may have taken them a while, but FreeFrame is a broad standard and consensus based, so now they’re here, the form says it will be robust, adoptable and here to stay. If you’re a VJamm user, you should be able to get your hands on the latest, FFGL sporting, build.

On the horizon: Visual Berlin and Live Performer’s Meeting

On a more peer-to-peer tip, late May will see a one-two with Visual Berlin organising a formal one day event of workshops and showcases amongst their ongoing antics at the design fair dmy-berlin, followed the next week by the four day collaborative frenzy of Live Performer’s Meeting in Rome, now in its fifth edition, more successful than ever, and expanding into a cool new venue. Its submissions are still open too. The formal disclaimer should state I have a hand in both, probably doing an in-depth Quartz Composer day-long workshop in Berlin and hosting vj talks in Rome. Come!