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Synthesthetic Illusions

Jennifer Lucy Allan

At this year’s Mutek, the series of A/V performances (as well as Amon Tobin’s bombastic stage spectacle) were notable for treating visuals with an extra gravity that isn’t often extended to VJs and A/V artists. Across the festival schedule, visuals were brought to the fore and rendered in pin sharp graphics.

Here's a clip of Purform, whose set was most collaborative, with the audio visual elements merged into a coherent package, where neither medium is the prime mover. It's this duo that got me to thinking about the effect of hi res visuals on the audio in an A/V show. Here, the monochromatic visuals were rendered across a three screen array.

The effect of these super hi-res visuals is a sort of synthesthetic illusion, whereby the audio is exaggerated because of the visuals. There's a phenomenon like this in consumer technology: people watching a higher resolution screen think that they are hearing better quality audio than those watching a lower resolution screen, even when the audio is identical. The same phenomena seemed to be happening in the context of the A/V shows too, particularly at Amon Tobin.

Tobin's stage set up was one of the centre pieces of the festival: 3D projection mapping onto a stage set constructed from giant white stacked cubes. The visuals run the gamut from abstract lights and animated graphics to Transformer-like robots and enormous spaceships in starry skies. The extravagance of this spectacle appeared to give the booming of the bass an extra dimension, and at the very least the sound for Tobin was noticeably better than for other artists in the same venue.

The AntiVJ/Murcof collaboration benefited from a similar synesthetic illusion: flexing, angular, monochrome noodles, designed to react according to the frequencies Murcof was pushing, stretched their vibrating coils into the foreground of the broad screen, gave the bass an extra dimension, feeling like it got deeper into my head. It reminded me of the the Lustmord show at Unsound Festival in Krakow last year (also performed at Unsound New York), where curling smoke trails spiralled into blackness.

Whether the brain's mixing up of good sound and good visuals is a real effect in A/V performances or not, generally speaking visual artists at Mutek were treated as legitimate acts alongside their musical collaborators. This doesn't happen often - one reason suggested to me has been that great audio visual shows are suspicious: the more paranoid among us immediately ask what the visuals are distracting us from in the music, like the card trick that distracts you from the fact you've had your wallet nicked. Are the bright lights just a diversion from what's going on somewhere else in our senses, or are we just too used to music being performed with little or nothing in the way of visuals to be comfortable with it being done really well?

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Comments

first off: both amon tobin and plastikman's sets were played several decibels higher than anyone else's

second - you're confusing a lot here. in our day to say life, most sounds can be confirmed from a visual source. think of a hand clap. you'll be more stunned if someone claps in front of your face while your eyes are open than when they are closed. point is, visuals don't just complement our aural experience, they're integral to it.

in electronic music, when the processes used to create sounds are inside machines, the visual input is almost entirely missing (who has tried to figure out what a certain knob on the performer's gear is actually doing and failed? even other producers will not understand it)

watching an orchestra perform gives us a pretty honest visual of what is going on. perhaps the conductor is very grandiose and this affects your feeling during certain key parts. but overall, you can see the bows on strings, the hammer hit the glockenspiel, etc. there is no such visual feedback in electronic music.

however i thought it was brilliant when the names of the samples triggered during plastikman's set came up on the led curtain. 909_BD, 909_HC, 909_SD. we could 'see' the processes of the drum machine (albeit a computer emulated one..)

so you understand what i'm saying ~ that visual feedback are integral to the sound performance that grandiose visuals enhance it, etc. but that this is normal in art. it makes an immersive experience.

no question, some visuals are quite maximalist and put much emphasis on technology (although i hated amon tobin's set and thought those bricks on stage looked rather small ~ they took up such a narrow field of vision even at front stage.) others (like audion's two years ago or purform or tristan perich) are more real i find. they don't try to make you feel like you're at some hollywood 3d cinema. they're honest, like any good art.

but aren't all these visual to be expected with electronic music? it seems almost natural, to finally have a feedback like this. no? like any art, it's for the spectator to decide what they like.

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