INTERNATIONAL NOTICE explores the intersection of technology and performance visuals.
As a scenographer, I spend a lot of my time looking at the way things look. I work lo-fi, building scale models by hand, drawing with ink and rulers. The materials I use on stage – most often wood, metal, paint, cloth – are chosen and combined to produce images and atmospheres that work on the audience, producing a temporal, physical experience. It’s a handcraft. I use my computer for sending emails.
Some years ago I stumbled across the work of Jürg Lehni – specifically a short video of his drawing machine Viktor (2008) – and immediately dreamt of an opera stage; a huge blackboard wall, machines whirring to produce moving images in chalkdust. There is a magical effect when Viktor – and sibling-machines Rita, Otto and Hektor – are set in motion. An (almost) disembodied white stick draws perfectly to a pre-set algorithm. I imagined an empty space, a dark void, transforming slowly around the singers, thin lines appearing, landscapes emerging, clarification, revisions, automated strangenesses. This led to late night imaginings with a director friend, talking through possibilities, red wine. A drawing score. This integration of tech and tangible visuals made sense to me. I wrote a letter to Jürg, but he never wrote back.
Revisiting his site today, I’m still completely hooked. There’s something about the mix of technical mastery and analogue tools that I find compelling. In Moving Picture Show (2012), Lehni takes the redundant technical equipment used to subtitle 35 mm motion pictures, and adapts it to draw on film. ‘A high-power laser is moved rapidly over the surface of the film, burning away the emulsion layer and leaving thin lines where only the clear base of the celluloid remains.’ Projected in space, these marks take on a flickering, ghostly form, glowing and not quite part of the image. OTTO (2014) turns a triangle into a perfect circle. If you’re equally inspired by maths, here’s a conversation with Lehni and Rafaël Rozendaal all about vectors. These projects are already performative – the machines perform in space – but I continue to wonder what would happen if they were to intersect with theatrical stages.
A friend, Jacques-Andrés, sends me a link. I’ve been watching a different film, where he collaborates with a street artist to animate live-painted club visuals. I’m intrigued by the experiment; this collaboration between definite, physical brush-marks and the ability to remotely activate what’s painted using projection mapping. Light flickers across wet black marks. Circles of negative space appear / disappear. It’s full of creative possibility; hybrid, performative forms arising out of the landscape of VJ-ing. The link is a brief, illustrated history of video mapping (also known as projection mapping, or, better still, Spatial Augmented Reality). First developed in the 1960s, this technology was used in an early, notable example by Disneyland, to bring fake disembodied heads to life on their Haunted Mansion ride – 16 mm film projected onto blank skulls. The description immediately reminds me of Tony Oursler, and his filmed faces stretched over oversize egg-heads. Huge pop-art eyes blinking in multiples, enlivening the gallery space disconcertingly. Installation artist Michael Naimark made a detailed investigation of mapping in the 1980s, conjuring filmed illusions in realistic settings. His extensive writings on the subject are archived on his website.
In theatre, this technique of turning irregularly shaped objects and rooms into display surfaces for video projection has captured the imagination of artists and audiences alike. London-based projection heavyweights, 59 Productions regularly realise Katie Mitchell’s theatre / film fusions, and Finn Ross’s film installations are seen from the West End to Broadway – his collaboration with scenographer Bunny Christie for the gleaming, transformative, grid-like environment of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (2012) scooped multiple awards. In Berlin, performance collective 1927 – Paul Barritt, Suzanne Andrade, Esme Appleton – imagined a totally animated, silent-movie world for The Magic Flute (2012) together with Barry Koskie at the Komische Oper. ‘Cartoons, hand tinting and sequential images move kaleidoscopically in front of our eyes. Astonishing stage images tumble out one after another,’ wowed the reviewers.
Beyond these stages, video mapping teams are pushing at the boundaries of what’s possible, manipulating more complex shapes and spaces. Klip Collective, led by Ricardo Rivera, who controversially won the patent rights for projection mapping in 2007, animate the surfaces of buildings; basketball players swooping over blocks of the city, Gilliam-esque graphics peeling away from warehouses. Bot & Dolly’s Box (2013) is a short film of a live performance captured entirely ‘in camera’, generating a fluid, uncanny world that defies what previously seemed only possible in post-production. There’s a You-Tube behind-the-scenes for the curious. In Seoul, media arts collective Jonpasang shift this mapping technology into Brilliant Cube (2013) a 6 x 6 x 6 m glass box at the Gangnam station crossroads, filled with 576 LED poles. The effect is a ‘kinetic 3D matrix’ that ripples amid the city nightlife, shimmering like jellyfish, dream futures, glittering space magic. The collective share the Making-Of for this project and Hyper-Matrix (2012) over on Vimeo. In Bristol (UK) Dr. David Glowacki and collaborators bring together scientific research with projected visualisations in Danceroom Spectroscopy. Fusing 3D imagery with molecular dynamics, dS allows participants to see their own energy fields, and use them to interact with the otherwise invisible atomic world. Stepping into a sound- and light-box, participants interact with molecular simulations, triggering immersive, real-time effects. Colour trails, bleeps, and beats react as the hidden nano-world becomes manifest.
I’m excited to attend Performersion. I don’t know if Jürg will be there, but I’m curious to step into CR8TR’s Omnidome, a 360° immersive display described as ‘social VR’, to see how LiCHTPiRATEN generate atmospheres from AV projection, to consider the potentials of wrap-around film-making with Christian Zöllner, to meet and talk over an interactive lunch, discovering how technologies might alter the stage worlds I produce.
See you there. Perhaps we’ll even start that opera together.
- APR 2016
Writer: Chris GYLEE for INTERNATIONAL NOTICE
Credits: Jürg LEHNI (V #1) | Murdo MACLEOD (IM #1) | JONPASANG (V #2) | Paul BLAKEMORE (IM #2)