(R)everse (E)ngineering (V)irtual Fabrications

Keith Armstrong

Fabrication: the making by art and/or labour, an untruthful statement; to fake or to forge the process of manufacturing.
Macquarie Dictionary

A festival based on new fabrications, and “ideas” about music and sound (to paraphrase executive director Zane Trow) inspires much questioning, especially when it brings so many ideas people together. My brain started ticking when David Toop commented to me that performance was no longer a useful term for much of the electronic-based sound-making practices at REV. We are in a phase of transition he suggested, before expressing his deep disquiet about the validity of his own sedentary ‘performance with a laptop’.

Set the task to concentrate on fabrique, a cabaret of electronica and sonic electro-hybridity, and Silent Movie, a live jamming session of REV artists to Russian Dziga Vertov's revolutionary film, Man With a Movie Camera (1929), a number of questions occurred to me.

What do the interfaces to REV’s new media instruments contribute to the performative experience? For example, Greg Jenkin’s pluckable, sonic cacti spines, Amber Hansen’s jangly miked-up jewellery or the ubiquitous laptops utilsed by Pimmon/Scanner/etc. And should we need to understand them more fully in order to accept their roles in performance?

What are the issues of mapping that these new instruments imply? We understand the basic mapping of a grand piano as being a relatively clear relationship between finger velocity, subsequent mechanics, appropriate string tension, physical collision and focussed sound emission. We know what the performer is grappling with, so we focus on the sonics rather than the mechanics of the experience. But it’s much harder to know quite what these R(eal) and/or E(lectronic) and/or V(irtual) instruments are, and herein, maybe, lies a problem. We know that the computer long ago destroyed the relationship and fixity between inputs and outputs. Forever. Hence new performance tools based on computers allow deeply convoluted and dynamic mappings of input action and ultimate sonic response.

So, on that basis, what were the virtually invisible sound artists Scanner and I/O actually doing up there on the roof during the installation/performance Biospheres, Secrets of a City? Was it performative? Now you’d never ask that irritating question of the venerable Jon Rose. His virtuoso performance of an augmented string instrument, using the violin and bow as interface to trigger a bank of sound generators consummately succeeded in mapping action to sonic outcomes.

At REV it seemed that almost any device capable of either self-generating or responsively generating electrical impulses was being employed as a playable interface. For example, performance sense was made through the use of inductive, magnetic coils (Andrew Kettle) or through miniature microphones picking up surface textures (Michael Norris). There were the resolutely digital instruments triggered in the main by velocity sensitive synth keys, MIDI actuators or computer keystrokes (aka Pimmon, Hydatid, Rene Wooller etc). Somewhere in between lay a rather clunky fish-shaped device used to trigger granular-synthetics via MIDI (Tim Opie) and a performer in a Yamaha MIDI body suit producing, through rather mechanical movements, a broad range of sampled sounds ([de]CODE me directed by Lindsay Vickery).

All of these diverse forms of gadgetry were being used by their performers to create sounds for subsequent processing, or to actuate virtual banks of preset and ever changeable sounds. Then of course each performance’s sound mixer could completely re-affect the balance of almost everything before we finally heard it. All this became the means for generating REV’s new sounds. Needless to say, any attempt at reverse engineering on the part of audiences was largely futile.

So what might a performer do to help those of us who care, are curious or simply need to know? Should those players, lit only by their laptop glows, apparently devoid of fingers and face behind their flip up screens demystify their mappings, given their choice to perform rather than be downloaded? (In welcome contrast, REV’s accompanying installations each had an attendant on hand to explain and demonstrate, interface, mapping and intent).

Many might be asking by now, is this line of questioning simply a cul-de-sac? Is the desire/need-to-know actually a major barrier to bringing new, electronically mediated forms to a place worthy of the tag ‘performance'?

This question is integrally tied to how we choose to make the transition to new performance forms. I for one hope it will be towards the ‘transactions’ so characteristic of performance forms that acknowledge their audiences as integral.

Toop is right and, by the way, REV is definitely pushing the right combination of buttons to get there.

REV Festival, Brisbane Powerhouse, April 6

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. web

© Keith Armstrong; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002