While moving forward on a new body of work in 2023 for Lightspace Modulator — my continuing intermedia art endeavor — I’ve also been taking some time for a look back at the history of the project and a review of some of the conceptual underpinnings of the process.
(all the stills, below, are from recent live sessions)
What is Intermedia?
There are a number of terms thrown around, these days, to describe the general domain in which I work, including “new media,” “interactive media,” “multimedia,” “transmedia,” “audiovisual performance” — and each of these terms is relevant, in some way:
“New media” has been described by Lev Manovich as representing “a convergence of two separate historical trajectories: computing and media technologies” and that its various elements, “graphics, moving images, sounds, shapes, spaces, and texts … have become computable; that is, they comprise simply another set of computer data.” (The Language of New Media, 2001). Two decades later we pretty much take these things for granted, and CD-ROMs and 8-bit video games certainly don’t feel at all “new” anymore — so what makes something “new media,” now? For me it’s just the idea of always thinking about how I might exploit the latest available technologies as part of my process — always asking the question, “what’s possible, now, that wasn’t possible last year (or last week)?”
“Interactive media” is a fairly straightforward concept: the experience must involve the active participation, in real time, of the artist and/or the audience (preferably both, in my model). This is in contrast to the passive experience of an audience in a linear playback model.
“Multimedia,” “transmedia,” “audiovisual” all imply an experience that involves multiple media (simultaneously): image and sound, of course, but other “traditional” elements such as text might come into play (we also might consider a range of tech-driven components such as lighting, stage effects, haptics, etc.). This often implies a greater degree of “immersion” in the experience through the triggering of multiple senses.
I prefer the term “intermedia” as it implies all of the above, with an emphasis on the connections between the multiple media: the idea that they are not just synchronized, but actively driven by a single source and/or driving or influencing each other (this also implies a dynamic, interactive real time or performance context, as opposed to linear playback).
It should be noted that the term “intermedia” has also been used by many people over the years with varying definitions. For example, Gene Youngblood (Expanded Cinema, 1970) takes the idea of connectedness into a much greater context: “… a universal trend toward the artist as ecologist, art as environment … subsuming the eco-system of our planet itself into the art process.”
Sounds good to me, Thomas! — but I’m probably not thinking quite this big in my process, at the moment. Then again, maybe sometimes I am.
The Lightspace Modulator concept, then, could be described as audio (music, sound design), video, graphics (2D and 3D), text, typography — all seamlessly integrated in real time in a live performance context (and using custom “intermedia instruments”).
While the output of a performance could be recorded, ultimately the “artifact” is a transient experience.
This means that the “art” is (at least) as much about the process of creation as the “output.”
Many 20th-century artists shared the belief that Bruno Munari described this way:
Artists no longer create … works. They create … creation.
Or as the influential conceptualist Sol LeWitt said,
The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.
For me, “creation” (the “machine”) is largely manifested by the code and data structures that go into my tools, or my “instrument.” There are, of course, many “traditional” production tools and techniques involved, as well, from photography and 3D modeling to sound design and music composition — but the “performance instrument” is the key component that brings everything together.
A Process and a Performance Instrument
An essential part — perhaps the most important part — of my work is developing the process of creation, and central to this is the design and implementation of new tools (instruments) to further the “intermedia” concept. For me this means software (as a way to access audio and graphics engines): writing code and designing data structures to manifest paradigms for creation — in a way I think this is related to the Conceptualist idea of written instructions (the directions for the creation of a piece/experience, rather than the resulting piece/artifact/experience) as “artwork.”
My main axe is an application (“instrument”) I created called VSx, driven by game engine technology and controlled with a touchscreen interface (as well as MIDI controllers/instruments). Recently I developed a new performance UI that makes it more “playable” without the need for external (e.g., MIDI trigger) controllers.
Let’s look back on where this instrument came from, shall we?
Light Prop for an Electric Stage
László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage (created over the first three decades of the 20th century) has been an inspiration for my process on multiple levels. It is considered a work of sculpture (and is displayed as such as a museum piece), however the true purpose of the work was as a machine for creating visual effects (in real time, of course — there were no render queues in 1930!). The idea of creating films with dynamic geometric elements and lighting on a (virtual) “electric stage” is also a central concept in my process and the basic architecture of my primary tool (VSx). While the proper name for the piece was “Light Prop for an Electric Stage” it was nicknamed (and is more commonly known as) “Light-Space Modulator” — a phrase I borrowed (and slightly modified).
Harvard Art Museums
One of the earliest electrically powered kinetic sculptures, Light Prop for an Electric Stage holds a central place in the history of modern sculpture. Representing the culmination of Moholy-Nagy’s experimentation at the Bauhaus, it incorporates his interest in technology, new materials, and, above all, light. Moholy sought to revolutionize human perception and thereby enable society to better apprehend the modern technological world. He presented Light Prop at a 1930 exhibition of German design as a mechanism for generating “special lighting and motion effects” on a stage. The rotating construction produces a startling array of visual effects when its moving and reflective surfaces interact with the beam of light. The sculpture became the subject of numerous photographs as well as Moholy’s abstract film Lightplay: Black, White, Gray (1930).
Assemblage and Dynamism
Moholy-Nagy was only one of many artists in the early 20th-century (across multiple movements, including Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Dada) experimenting with related ideas — redefining the concept of “art” in ways that still feel quite relevant, today.
This is a talk I did here in LA that references a few of these topics.
Analog Days on the East Coast
The intermedia journey for me began years ago in Boston and Cambridge, where I went to art school and was part of the live video performance “scene” (with a number of friends from MassArt, the Museum School, MIT and elsewhere). This was also where I built and began using a very early VSx prototype (called VS3 at the time) to generate mix sources that went into our (at the time) very analog live performance process (e.g., video feedback through NTSC mixers, and so on).
I also studied computer science on the east coast, with a focus on “the computer as artistic collaborator” — both from a psychological and social psychological (including “human factors”) perspective as well as engineering application. This really set the stage for all the work to follow.
Interestingly, most of my formal study in music back then was very analog indeed (piano, organ as well as traditional theory) — as my keyboard teacher hated synthesizers! But this was valuable as it forced me to focus on really playing — the tactile, physical performance of pounding on a keyboard — rather than turning knobs or pushing a mouse (though I would do eventually do plenty of knob-turning and, yes, this can be a legitimate way to perform, too).
Eventually I would find my way to LA, unquestionably a (if not the) global center for music and image-making — for media, technology, and storytelling — where I would meet a number of interesting and like-minded people while getting up on a number of the local stages — and would refine the process and the tools (moving into a more digital, game engine-driven model) …
In the immediate pre-pandemic days I had the opportunity to give the latest iteration of the VSx architecture some “beta testing” in front of real audiences — in Barcelona (Ombra Festival) and here in Santa Monica (as part of the CONTACT theater performance).
Synapscape: Dirty Deal
This was followed by a video for German rhythmic noise act Synapscape (created using VSx and the Ableton interface). While only partially a live mix (obviously the track was already complete, so this was just linear playback), visuals were still created “live” in real time using the same triggers and interfaces I’d use in a live music performance context.
Current research topics include ways to create dynamic narrative flow in abstract environments: how can the visual and auditory experience suggest a journey, a (dynamic, and interactive) transformation? Also looking into new ways to create content and environments, through procedural generation and machine learning. And of course continually exploring the possibilities offered by modern graphics engines, which are always changing …
… and I still look to the artistic innovators of a century ago for inspiration.
A New Collaboration
… and so a new intermedia performance collaboration between Los Angeles and Europe is in the works … can’t say too much about it, yet … but stay tuned … !