NET GALLERY (2003 - 2009)




Between Screen and Projector. 'Live' in Live Media


David Fodel



This essay describes a new way to look at live media practice that moves away from the notion of the screen as final destination for the content of a performance. The author uses a systems aesthetic to unpack a set of entangled elements that gives an audience an alternate means to decode the liveness of a performance based on embodied action, transcoding, and intermedia narrative. The author uses examples of a variety of diverse approaches to achieving liveness in a technologically mediated performative setting, and places the main site of reception and critique of the work somewhere between the projected image on the screen, the perceptual and social context of the presentation and the technological apparatus used in its creation and subsequent projection.

Keywords: live media, live cinema, interface semiotics, intermediality, audiovisual.



Where is the live in live media? Is the screen the primary vessel carrying the content? Or is the screen merely a prop, a vestige of cinematic convention that serves to attach the practice to an established past? Clearly we need something to "project" the "output" onto, even if it is only a cinderblock wall, or a moving body. The weight and fact of the screen has encumbered our appreciation of what is "really going on" in live media. We have to dig deeper into the elements that present themselves as links in the semiotic chain in a live media event/performance/ presentation both individually and as something of a whole, a form, a unity of sorts that demands a different kind of viewing, a watching that shifts its focus between screen and projector, while avoiding a gap between content and mechanism — a watching that considers the process as the form, the back and forth, the tension of the in-between attention, the interpassive sensation.

I’d like to first clarify the specific range of practices I’ve chosen to highlight in this paper, by designating a distinct class of live audiovisual performance that has stemmed from recent technological advances in computing power and mobility. While this may seem an arbitrary distinction within a practice that has a rich history of entanglements between theater, cinema, music, and technology, I believe the distinction is valid for several reasons.

Many practitioners of recent forms of live audiovisual performance are operating outside of the academic and professional contemporary art worlds, having come up through alternative venues and modes of distribution almost solely reliant on the internet and independent cultural production communities. Much of this practice is informed by outsider culture (outside of the academic art world) and is either unaware of, or chooses to ignore, both the historical output of predecessors and the critical analysis and framework which that work has been aligned with. I believe there has been a "re-threading" of this culture back into the academic art culture of late bringing with it a set of situational aesthetics that cannot be ignored, even as they are not entirely unique or new.

The mobility afforded by the rapid decrease in size and cost of the technological apparatus’ involved in staging a performance of this type has contributed to an extremely low barrier of entry for artists, resulting in a glut of works that require little more than a second-hand laptop and some cracked software. I have in the past categorized "laptop performance" as a new form of folk art for this very reason — an almost ubiquitous access to the "instrument" with an equally accessible audience. While this does not necessarily dictate the quality of the work it does to a great degree dictate its form. As this thread of practices has developed within its own community, with its own values and aesthetics, it has also spawned new forms outside of this community that build upon some elements of that culture, while attempting to integrate historical artistic trajectories, and contemporary cultural theory.

To unpack this notion, we can consider a basic example of a live media performance. A table, with some equipment on it, typically a laptop, perhaps some sort of commercially available MIDI controller; knobs, sliders, buttons, all in a compact ergonomic form factor, with some manufacturer logo emblazoned on it. A person comes and sits down in front of the laptop and (perhaps following some brief introduction, depending on the venue/context) images and sound begin to be heard through a sound system, and projected onto a surface, typically off to one side of the table, sometimes directly in back of the table, sometimes in front of the table, leaving the performer facing the projected images, rather than the audience.

For years, this was the formula. This was "Live Cinema". Each performance — ostensibly "live" — was unique in that the combination of images, sounds and transitions between those elements was never exactly the same. In much the same way that seeing a band live is never quite the same from one show to the next, and none of those performances typically will stack up sonically to what becomes refined in the studio setting, the live media performance of this type shares the minor changes in the "set-list", typically produces a very similar outcome in terms of content, and most importantly, lacks the variety in the show-to-show performance dynamics we associate with a live music performance, precisely because there is generally no performance to speak of.

The "live" in this kind of live media may have, at one time, held out the promise of defining a "new kind of liveness" but it has failed to deliver on its promise and could just as well be abandoned in all but a few contexts. Once a novelty of technological and social mobility convergences, the practice is dead on arrival at the door to both the contemporary gallery and the underground club. The good stuff has long since moved forward, having realized early on that the real work was not on the screen, but embedded somewhere between that table with the gear on it and whatever surface the light landed on eventually. To the extent that the artist(s) and the audience are kept guessing, kept engaged with determining what they should be paying attention to, a work could be determined to have been successful or not.

This is unabashedly a formal, yet accurate, reading of a hugely sprawling field of practices. Any other reading relegates the practice to a previously existing form, which merely causes naming and re-naming of the same landscape. We may either simply read the content: like cinema, or theater, music or performance — or seek to define a new form. There is a different aesthetic at play, and this IS a new form, and that as such it deserves a morphology. What sets Live Media apart (or should, or could) is the manner in which it foregrounds and leverages a technological system as part of the content,, directly engages multiple sensory modalities simultaneously by utilizing transcoding, demands an embodied presence for both performer and audience, and allows an audience to witness the process of content generation, and unfolding.



In the first example we seem to be missing some of the pieces, as in many instances what has passed for "liveness" has done so merely on the merits of being billed as such. The elephant in the room, which in this case would be much more entertaining than the "live" cinema in the room, is the lack of even the most rudimentary cues for liveness. This is NOT to say that the work is not good per se, it is merely to point out that it has miscast itself as needing to be live. If we can ask ourselves "could this be a recorded presentation?", then it most likely should be. However, if we find ourselves pulled back and forth from screen to that small table with something on it, or off stage left where some sort of apparatus seems to be operating in someone’s hands, back to the screen... yes I see someone’s hands on the screen too, now to the table where a crumpled sheet of paper falls to the floor, hand scribbled with something that yes... in fact now lingers on the screen in an abstracted trace... we are in the presence of, and we are present in something happening. Even as we sit still, seated cinematically, we can turn to our neighbor, nodding, acknowledging co-present interpassivity, part of something happening, to us, between us, without making it so. Witness to the authentically mediated moment.


Perhaps we are due for another example or two. A person walks in front of an audience and sits at a small table (Figure 1). On the table is a mess of wires, and other small electronic components arranged to some degree on a prototyping breadboard, a small wafer of perforated plastic used for "sketching" electronic circuits. We see the artist survey this small bit of territory and then begin to push the small wires into the holes on the plastic board. Immediately, in direct reaction to these placements, the large screens light up in bursts of saturated color fields, a signal-based Greenbergian dreamscape shot through with staccato punches of white noise and square pulses of sound. The sound IS the image, the image IS the sound. Visions of Woody Vasulka dancing in our heads, as the screen becomes an extension of the circuitry, itself an extension of the "artist’s hand". There is a tangible sense of danger somehow, perhaps even a whiff of ozone, watching the tiny jumper wires being jammed into even tinier holes, decisions being made, the screen playing tricks on perception, flashing colors, erratic yet ordered sounds, feeling uneasy yet unable to look away, something unfolding right now.


Figure 1: Phillip Stearns Live Media Performance Excerpt - Medialive 2013
Curated by David Fodel.


Another instance. Someone walks to a podium; a laptop perched in front of them (Figure 2). A keynote talk perhaps? The over-the-shoulder shot of the screen, as the audience looks at another screen (or is it the same screen?) A finger on a touch-pad, the downward glance of the operator’s eyes, all signaling the ubiquitous "I am working on my computer" sign. What will be "presented"? The audience stares at the cluttered desktop waiting for the transformative moment when screen becomes something else, when "author authors" and one screen controls another tethered invisibly via some underlying proprietary presentation tool. And yet, the moment lingers, the "desktop" is never occluded and subsumed by "the real stuff", because in fact the desktop gradually becomes the real stuff, the artwork, the performance. The screen is exactly what it is, not a gateway or backdrop for something else to happen in, but the stuff itself. The familiar being made strange by somehow driving it into a nightmare version of what most audience members experience each and everyday: their computer desktop. The icons, folders, installers, pop-up menus, given a new and strange life as animated audiovisual units within a common landscape, a psychedelicized excursion into the "interface", not by merely foregrounding the use of some cleverly fabricated novel piece of artist-made hardware, but just simply jamming with some "interfacing-ness". The screen is the screen, not some portal into Neverland, or a means to construct illusions, but in fact a method to destroy them. Not a pulling back of the curtain to reveal the Wizard, rather a remixed quilt from the curtain itself. The shifting attention in this case may not necessarily be an actual physical shifting of gaze from projector to projection, but a shift nonetheless is being demanded by the work — from medium to media, from context to content where they are in fact one and the same, the computer desktop as medium of presentation and as mediated content.


Figure 2: Jon Satrom performing at Performed at transmediale tm2k+12 in/compatible 2012.01.31


Having established this tension/contradiction as one of the core elements of live media practice we can begin to examine its role in a larger chain of relationships. As the screen dissolves from being the end result, the final resting place of the "content" of a performance, and rematerializes as an object, symbolic or otherwise, we open and enter new terrain. We can begin to think about the relationship of the screen to the performer, the things the performer is actually doing, the bits and pieces of physical stuff the performer handles that makes things happen up on that screen, or through those speakers. Does that system reveal itself as something more than just the details of the tech rider? Of course it does, or it better anyway. Live media seeks the narrative that lurks within the complex relationships between screens and projectors, sounds and images, gestures and devices. This is where the story exists, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes with no moral or punchline. It is a story that dares to exist without repeating.

A woman stands in front of a screen. The screen is dark. A point of light snaps to the screen, seemingly held in place by the woman’s hand, fingers delicately holding the light (Figure 3). The light moves, drawing itself upon the screen, while appearing to be either guided or guiding the movements puppeted a few feet in front of the screen. The woman disappears behind the screen now as colorful volcanic imagery erupts, her silhouette casting bits and pieces of her body at various scales, here and there. In her silhouette, where the shadow of her actions should reside, complimentary and contrasting images appear. In a moment of disorienting visual magic we lose ourselves, wanting to know the trick. We try to read the apparatus, decode the projector, all the while sinking deeper into the unfolding story. The screen becomes part of the story, its surface, front and back, allegorically entangled with the actions of the shadow puppet person body, and the choreographed layers of completely pre-recorded images. Yet we would never mistake this for cinema, or video art, or anything else other than what it is. It IS live media, and it lives between the projector and the screen.


Figure 3: Miwa Matreyek's "This World Made Itself" is a multimedia live performance work in which projected animation interacts with the artist’s own shadow silhouette.


A young man walks to a podium, holding a gaming controller, and wearing a pair of tight shorts reminiscent of early William Wegman videos (Figure 4). His image appears simultaneously on the large screen in back of him with overlayed augemented 3D graphics that appear to float magically attached to his image, like a poorly rendered avatar of himself. While the body gesticulates in real space, the avatar follows suit, a puppet of itself making a mockery of its own narcissitic gaze. The content of the presentation has less impact than this basic formal connection to early video art, in the guise of a software demo, a feedback loop of technology, body, theory and play.


Figure 4: Jeremy Bailey performing at MediaLive 2012 @ Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art


Each of these examples seems to consciously stop short of letting the technology take complete control, each appear to be desperately trying to wrest back a sense of agency into the human realm, wrenching it from the seductive grip of technology and reminding the audience where the real magic is. What each of these examples also share is a leveraging of elements outside of the academic contemporary art world, be it through an alignment with dance music culture, corporate boardroom culture, geek culture, DIY maker culture, the software demo scene or hacker culture. This re-threading, as I described previously, manifests in a playful acknowledgement of an "anything-goes" experimentalism that drags whatever it can get its hands on into the (re)mix, while keeping its eyes on the prize of liveness, that elusive quality that those who have grown up with computers in their pockets often forget the impact of.

If live media is to find itself as a form it must pull its audience into the space between the screen and the projector, to remind the audience that there is in fact a performance under way, a performance that goes beyond the crunching of floating point calculations in a black box that can be ignored like the scrolling credits of the special effects teams for a Hollywood blockbuster film. How ironic that what we initially consider to be a screen-based form must pull the eyes away from the screen we’ve become accustomed to staring at.

We can argue that all media might be live, because in fact there it is on the screen, in front of our eyes "media-ing". But we all know when we are in fact witnessing what is live. We’ve come to understand "live" only by measuring it against its technological doppelganger, the recording. As recordings become more and more complex and it becomes more and more difficult to know where the edge is between something happening and something already happened, we may have to tear our eyes away from the screen to see it. We can’t hear the music no matter how hard we stare at a grooved piece of vinyl. How will we see live media if we only look at the screen?





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This article is first published in Ferreira, Helena and Vicente, Ana (eds.) Post-Screen: Device, Medium and Concept, Lisbon:CIEBA-FBAUL, 2014


David is an artist, teacher, and curator whose eclectic installations, livemedia performances, award-winning sound design and video works have been exhibited, screened, and performed internationally including ISEA, Hong Kong; TiMaDi, London, England; Post-Screen Festival, Lisbon, Portugal; Festival ECUAUIO, Quito, Ecuador; Future Places Festival, Porto, Portugal; Transmediale, Berlin, Germany. His work has been written about in Wired Magazine, and published by the Experimental Television Center, New Media Caucus, Post-Screen Festival, and Sekans Cinema Journal. Residencies include the National Center for Contemporary Art, Moscow, STEIM, Amsterdam, and the Experimental Television Center and Signal Culture in New York. He is Director of Testing for Artemis Vision, a machine-vision engineering company and sometimes teaches Electronic Art or Electronic Performance at the University of Colorado. He founded the MediaLive Festival, is Director of the Lafayette Electronic Arts Festival [LEAF], and is a Fellow at the Media Archeology Laboratory. He has worked with electronic media and sound since the late 1970’s, exploring ways of building audiovisual systems that exhibit unexpected behaviors emerging from relatively simple interactions. His latest work is inspired by early 20th century Soviet art + technology experiments, and hybrid imaging techniques to create man-machine entanglements bridging science, history, art and magic.







NET GALLERY (2003 - 2009)





where no other claim is indicated.