Saturday, 6 April 2013

Altered States.

In March I created and performed live visuals with James Holden and band as part of a performance lecture by Marcus du Sautoy. The video, below, is a ‘regular’ edit of the piece accompanied by an audio recording from the event. The rest of this article documents the development of the piece from start to finish.

Over Christmas 2012 I received a telephone call from One Of Us a boutique studio based in Soho, London. They were developing lighting and visuals for a performance lecture by Marcus du Sautoy to be held at the Barbican, Europes largest multi-arts conference venue. The evening was billed as part of, “…a season of events that explore, and are inspired by, the human brain.” The British musician James Holden was providing sound throughout the show, culminating in a live performance with invited band members.

The lecture explored notions of consciousness with the live musical performance providing an opportunity to reflect upon the evening’s topics and an investigation of the penultimate topic, collective consciousness and altered states as experienced through art. It was the visual aspect of this section that One Of Us invited me to be involved with. The duration of the piece was dictated by the music, approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. As this was to be a live performance it was agreed that the visuals would by necessity involve a live element. Otherwise, the project had all the advantages and hurdles of an open brief.

I spent time over Christmas reading around the subject. Frequently I found myself returning to research by Lewis-Williamson and Dawson that proposed Palaeolithic art was inspired by visual phenomena experienced by Shamans and spiritual leaders during altered states of consciousness. The work focused on the similarities between entoptic images and abstract rock art. This seemed like an ideal jumping off point for the piece.

Entoptic Phenomena, from the Greek entos, "within" and opsis, "seeing", are visual effects that occur anywhere within the visual system. As they require no external stimulus they can be observed when the eyes are open or closed. There are many types of entoptic images, typically categorised by stimulus. They can be invoked or experienced passively.

A ‘floater’ is an example of an entoptic image that is experienced passively. Created by deposits on the eyeball they are visible because of the shadows they cast on the retina. Hallucinations created by mind-altering drugs such as mescaline or psilocybins are examples of intentionally stimulated entoptic images. Prior to legal regulation research into the effects of such drugs was practiced. Heinrich Kluvers work on form constants, recurring geometric patterns experienced by different users, is particularly interesting. It’s worth mentioning that form constants are also experienced in naturally occurring hallucinations.

Left: Floaters. Right: An example of a form constant (both images from Wikipedia)

Drugs are not the only way of invoking entoptic images. Sensory deprivation is another well-documented means. Whilst a gonzo approach to the project did have its charm, the latter approach seemed more sensible. An isolation (or floatation) tank provides comfortable sensory deprivation. Users float on salt water at body temperature in a light and soundproof environment. I visited a floatation centre several times and recorded my experiences. The entoptic images were subtle but interesting. In addition to sensory deprivation I found pressing against closed eyelids effectively stimulated entoptic images. The results were much different to that of the isolation tank but definitely from the same palette.

By their nature the entoptic based concepts were very similar, typically noisy, primary and secondary colours on black (this no doubt because of the dark environment in which they were experienced) I resolved to investigate a different approach in an effort to give these works some contrast.

I attempted to create entoptic images within a digital camera, replacing my own visual system with that of the equipment. I endeavoured to adjust the cameras perception via shutter/film speed and focus, whilst recreating entoptic effects such as after images and light blooming by shooting long exposures directly in to various light sources. I manipulated the material using my previous entoptic tests and reading as inspiration.

James Holden had a plan of how to approach the piece musically, however, due to other engagements he and the other band members would not meet until 3 days prior to the performance. The intention was that each of the musicians would bring their expertise in saxophone, tabla and percussion and that the piece would develop collaboratively. Consequently production of the visuals had to begin before the audio.

Whilst I do not consider myself a narrative film-maker/artist I do endeavour to create an arc of progression across my time-based work, a beginning, middle and end, otherwise I find I am just not engaged. James Holden and I discussed the performance and agreed that this ‘arc’ should begin simple, monochromatic, before introducing light and colour during the finale. I reviewed about two-dozen concepts forming two storyboards that document the change in passages.

Whilst I had a clear plan of how the visuals would progress, the duration of each passage and the transition points were unknown (they were going to be dictated by the music) therefore these aspects of the project would be executed live. The term ‘live’ is broad. I would liken this interpretation to theatre stage lighting, where planned changes occur according to the performance of other artists.

Animation is labour intensive therefore artists try to create only those frames that are absolutely necessary. It’s a fixed linear process. Live musical performance is not. Whilst the band agreed on particular passages the length and moment of transition was grey, indeed it was this that made each performance ‘alive’.

I developed the visuals in two forms, as sequences (that progressed from beginning to end) and as loops. The first ended in the latter allowing for a ‘slack’ edit that could be mixed live. I built a live setup using VJ software and a MIDI control surface. Attending the rehearsals I learnt to massage my visuals around the musicians’ performance. The MIDI control surface allowed me to manipulate the visuals in real time, observing the cues between musicians. A MIDI signal from James Holdens electronic composition provided an additional stream of control synchronising pulses and other elements that would be too complex to control manually.

The live setup(anti-clockwise): Laptop, Fire Wire Drive, APC 20 MIDI Control Surface, External Sound Card (connected to James Holdens setup)

The main hall in the Barbican where the performance took place seats approximately 2000 people. I had never done any kind of live performance before so I didn’t know what to expect. Some aspects didn’t go as planned, others worked better than I’d imagined. I’ve attended screenings and exhibitions of my own work, but I was passive during those, in this situation I was part of the work. The beginning of this blog entry includes an online version of the performance that was edited in the traditional (digital) manner. Whilst this has been crafted, refined, I would not say that it is not better or worse than the live performance, that was simply a different version. What is different is the collective experience of a live performance, the very aspect Marcus Du Sautoy discussed when introducing this part of the evening. What I discovered was that the experience is not limited to the audience but also the [performing] artists themselves.

I’d like to thank Dominic Parker at One Of Us for inviting me to be involved, then providing his ever-steady critique. Louis Mustill for his creative and technical production support and finally James Holden and band, Ettiene Jaumet, Camilo Tirado and Tom Page who were an absolute pleasure to work with.