WeLove Digital is 50 and so we are celebrating with a look at the incredible back catalogue of The Light Surgeons. Innovators in multimedia and live performance, this collective formed in 1995 and is famed for its spectacular marriage of live electronic music with video and intricate graphics. Artistic and creative director Christopher Thomas Allen spoke at the Real Time Visuals 2014 event earlier this year to give an idea of how the group developed its unique style
Multimedia and VJ performances are still not part of mainstream performance despite their innovative use of live and recorded video, graphics and music. The Light Surgeons have been in the game for almost two decades now and have developed a form of ‘live cinema’ using digital video, recorded and live performance, to create orchestrated sonic jams that everyone should experience at least once.
All Points Between
The group developed its first live cinema show in 2001 called ‘All Points Between‘. APB mixed social and political essay with digital art and audio visual performance. It was performed as part of the OneDotZero event at London’s ICA and then toured in the UK and around the world. The results can be seen below. The show incorporated two short films that can also be found on Vimeo (Thumbnail Express and The City of Hollow Mountains) and mixed them with 35mm slide sequences, 16mm film projection and DJ-ing.
APB was one of the first cinematic projects to question the nature of democracy and society in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. Subsequent projects have expanded on that theme, particularly in relation to the basis of American democracy. In Troy, New York, The Light Surgeons worked with local musicians to create a performance for the Uncle Sam Festival at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). Uncle Sam is the iconic character created to represent the United States. It was first used in the colonial war of 1812 and was subsequently used for army recruitment drives.
Samuel Wilson, a meat packer from Troy who supplied rations to the army, gave the character his name and so Troy could be said to be the birthplace of Uncle Sam. The Light Surgeons’ ‘True Fictions’ was created in 2007 for its performance at EMPAC and the group labelled it an ‘exploration of truth and myth’. It is a collage of music and live video using American and Native American voices plus an original score put together with 25 local musicians and vocal artists.
All of the music for the piece was recorded around percussion tracks which the other musicians were then asked to play over. Films were sorted and synchronised with this audio. Manipulating both audio and video live, triggering samples at different times, allows the group to improvise. Adding live music to the final performance creates another layer. Christopher Allen calls the project a “fixed narrative and improvisation with sampling and live music”. Live cinema allows lots of different elements to be performed so that each time the performance is spontaneous.
From True Fictions the group developed a short film called ‘Truth Movements‘ that looked at 9/11 in the wake of widespread cynicism about the incident. Many felt that the US government or factions within the government had cooked up the incident to push a military and economic agenda. ‘Truthers’ want an independent investigation of the 9/11 attacks and the film shows divergent views in conflict as US marines berate a crowd who insist it was an ‘inside job’. Check out avfolklore.blogspot.co.uk for an outline of the project.
By far the most ambitious live cinema project that The Light Surgeons have performed to date is its ‘SuperEverything’ show about the life and culture of Malaysia. It is a step change in that it attempts to soak up the entire multicultural life of Malaysia in one performance. Commissioned by the British Council’s music department, the collective went to Malaysia to film and record everyday sights and sounds. The project’s story arc moves from the least to most populated areas of the country, tracking industrial development as it goes. To get as much detail as possible the group worked with anthropologists to build up a picture of the country’s intricate culture.
Some of the themes explored in the performance include consumption, waste, landfill, identity, society, food, buildings, communities, the internet and freedom. Filming began in 2011 and was intensive for about a month. Recordings were put into Ableton Live and the group used VDMX5 for AV mixing. All video clips were cut into different time signatures (such as 4/4 or 3/4 waltz time) and a video script was then created alongside what Christopher called ‘contrasty’ clips that could be fired randomly in the performance. The resulting show was again toured internationally. SuperEverything has its own website and a short film depicting highlights is below.
Christopher Allen asks where live cinema could take us next. It could incorporate elements of gaming, video, music, theatre performance and be adapted to tour several venues or be specially developed for a specific site either indoors or outdoors. There is no exact formula for live cinema but anyone looking to develop a performance should look carefully at its design – themes, subject matter, atmosphere, the emotion of the piece, genre, connection with the audience, venue and, of course, funding. What live cinema should always aim for is greater interactivity between the audience and the performer, he says.
The Light Surgeons are also members of the Live Cinema Foundation which aims to champion the genre and help others to set up their own projects. The LCF has a Facebook page, Vimeo page and MeetUp group in London.