There are a number of themes that have emerged in and around the building of electronic instruments and performance technologies over the past 50 years (STEIM represents a large cross-section of these through its research and residency programmes). Every once in a while these diverse approaches seem to converge around a common set of musical, technical and conceptual concerns. These brief condensations of contemporary artistic tactics isn’t necessarily either enduring or deliberate, but can point to exciting ideas floating in the ether – and perhaps a new or important awareness or two about what it is we do as musical and technologically concerned artists and performers, and why. And for me – just like learning a new word or idea – once such an awareness is suggested to you, it seems to show up everywhere you look. Discussions between performers, the electronic arts festival beat, and video, image and audio online of course make awareness and intersection of these new artistic energies pretty damn quick.
MLB was initiated quite a while ago, as it happens (2006! It takes a while to match up the agendas of groups in North America, Asia and Europe) The project convened at STEIM in November 2010. During the intervening years, I kept notice of a certain strand of electronic musical/visual performance style popping up here and there. The people simultaneously exemplifying and defining this style work in relative isolation from one another, and come from a host of backgrounds, motivations and contexts. But, to me at least, in a number of these works there is a common thread: A desire to treat the audio-visual signal as an energy for directly investigating the materialities of sound and image.
By “materialities” here, I mean both the opening up (a dissecting, a direct experience) of the ways we produce audio/visual signals, as well as an interest in the ways that these signals, perhaps most particularly in performance, can act as a kind of probe – or instrument – for assessing, testing and defining the limits of a technology, space or audience group or member. Although I don’t think it was intended as a performance of the kind represented in MLB, I’m always reminded in discussing these ideas of Bill Viola’s Street Music piece where he “fired a rifle into the air several times on the corner of Cedar and Nassau streets in the Wall Street district of New York,” on Sunday, September 26, 1976 at 8 a.m., and recorded the acoustic result on a number of microphones placed around the area. What can we come to know about a given material situation via the aesthetics and simplicity of a provocative impulse?
A first insight might be the possibility of an electronic-sound-performance that is seeking a kind of minimalist obviousness. Let us try first to build an interface-less interface, or (as I have described both my own circuitMusic performances and Loud Objects‘ work) “the electronic-arts equivalent of banging two stones together.” So much of our interface culture comes out of a desire to trick our senses, reduce our understanding of reality or diminish our roles as sensing and experiencing beings. Most digital electronic interfaces are either convoluted or cheap substitutes for what is actually going on. Abstractions of abstractions of abstractions – developed through functionalised (at best) or militarised (not even at worst…) models of what technologies should be. Could we resist this supposed progress with a kind of simple signal aesthetics? While the idea of an un-mediated experience through an electronic media arts is oxymoronic, we move ever-towards the ideal of an honest interface, and conflate with musical and performative goals the ambitions of deep understanding and transparency of process. The action of even the most accomplished musician reduces to the simple action of the switch – moving most appropriately from one state (now) to another (next) – nothing more.
The environments we inhabit as performers and audience, such as they are, and as they have evolved over the past few thousand years, are remarkably unaware of themselves. So, we might also develop strategies that go beyond cliche attempts to “break down the fourth wall,” towards a comparable opening-up of the real material of the performance space. One way of doing this is through high-amplitude signal effects – that is: bright lights, and loud noise. Which sounds perfectly awesome to me. One of the best things an audience member said to me following our MLB show in Vienna had to do with their physical inability to focus on the performance stage: “I had no choice but to look at the room around me, at the other people in the space…” Again, here we use the audio-visual to inquire into the condition of things. Our prompting towards a social archaeoacoustics of electronic performance might somewhat balance out the apparent need to coat all of our lived surfaces with a mirage-layer of ever-higher definition digital digitalis?
So here we have the technologies of transparency and the impulse function, and the echoes and shadows of a resonant physical space. So what of the neuro-, psycho- and socio-logical effects of these investments and investigations via signal aesthetics? What does a concentration of non-metaphoric, non-narrative and non-representational signals do to us? The apparent severity and immediacy of these kinds of experiences is, for some, an opportunity to reflect on the function of perception – sort of like watching yourself produce your own induced, inner state. Like an optical illusion “showing” us that what we perceive is not in fact what we see, a wash of noise and bright flashes can allow for a kind of pure-perception, an experience of media without meaning, light without information, noise without referent.
[MLB continues into 2011 as both a research project and performance tour. Along with other activities, Issue Project Room NYC will host an upcoming performance featuring Atsuhiro Ito (OPTRON), Loud Objects, Phil Stearns, Jamie Allen, Yao Chung-Han, Kazuhiro Jo in May, 2011. Check the MLB site or download the current MLB Press Release for details.]