Live Cinema — Language and Elements | Mia Makela
What is Live Cinema? Depending on how you set the boundaries, Live Cinema could be anything—from the visuals of the VJ in the club last night to sophisticated realtime performances based on complex interaction between musicians and visual artists at renowned festivals like Sónar in Barcelona. Generally it may be defined as a recently coined term for realtime audiovisual performances. But there is one difference: “VJing can be used to design video wallpapers, for fun or as a technical hobby amongst other possibilities. Besides the traditional VJing practice, which takes place in clubs and at parties, there are also creators whose approach to visuals is artistic and who work in the realm of Live Cinema.” Live Cinema has a long history. Maybe even the first shadow plays in ancient times could be seen as predecessors of this art form: there is a projector—the sun—and something that creates a shadow.
This is enough to produce a live projection you can use e.g. to tell a story. Technically refined, these principles led to inventions like the Magic Lantern and later the Cinematograph. But especially the last one is missing the live element—which, though, has been a point of interest, too. Altough less known there have been inventions like the Colour Organ: a synaesthetic organ with keys that not only trigger tones but also change the colour of (candle) lights. All those ideas, combined with the notion that a film does not necessarily have to be narratic to make sense and the experiments in early Video Art led to today‘s Live Cinema. Mia Makela—an active Live Cinema performer—wrote a thesis investigating the principles of this genre. She distincts between ‘elements’ and ‘language’, thus to define parameters to work with, when it comes to issues of Live Cinema—both in the state of analyzing or doing a live cinematic performance.
Live Cinema is a quite new experience you sometimes separate from VJ-culture. Do you think there is a gap between these two, comparable to the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art?
Actually, Live Cinema has a long trajectory if we understand it as audiovisual real-time performance, it just lacks a comprehensive written theory and history. So I don’t understand Live Cinema as something that has developed from VJ-ing even though the tools for both practices were the same. Many Live Cinema works continue the long tradition of Visual Music, which is closer to real-time visual composition than real-time visual montage. I think that VJ-ing and Live Cinema practices mainly differ in their goals as VJ-ing is attached to club culture and Live Cinema is not. Still, VJs can do Live Cinema and vice versa, just as DJs can make music and musicians can be DJs. To answer your question, I don’t think VJ-ing and Live Cinema practices can be divided in high and low arts, as this separation may be outdated anyway. If the creators’ goals are artistic, i.e. the content has thought and personal expression, then the output could be called art, even though it would be presented in a nightclub. It’s just a matter of context. On the other hand, the question of what is art seems to be time-based as nowadays we don’t ask ourselves if photography is art, as it used to be questioned some 30 years ago.
In your thesis you write about ‘elements’ and ‘language’ of Live Cinema. Thinking of a live performance, do you believe you are using a language with fixed grammar and rules?
Maybe not fixed grammar and rules. Anyway, I would like to know what the grammar might be… Imagine the grammar of dreams: how do you know you’re ‘just’ dreaming and not awake? I guess we know that the dream language is a bit different from the ‘real life’ language so that we don’t get confused… at least every day… but what is that language based on? If we think of cinema, it has certain basic rules, like the 180 degrees rule, which was developed in order to make the movie more comprehensible for the audience. For example, if the cinema maker wants the audience to understand that two people are having a conversation, facing each other, this rule comes in handy. Actually it could also be understood as a tool rather than a rule.
So I would like to imagine this kind of toolbox for Live Cinema artists too: if you want the audience to get excited, what kind of rhythmic composition you could use, how quickly should the image sequences change and how long, what colors make people react in the way you would like them to, would zooming in create that kind of emotional feedback you’re looking for? These kinds of tools would not affect the content, rather they would act like grammar in language, like question marks and dots do in order for us to understand the context.
In cinema, for example, the blur effect tells us that a dream/memory sequence is starting. Does Live Cinema works with these kinds of techniques too? Is there narration?
Most of visual rules are based on human perception, and Live Cinema is very much created for a live human audience. I guess the biggest challenge for Live Cinema is to be stimulating for its audience, whether mentally, emotionally, physically or metaphysically, to make the audience go home feeling like they have caught something during the performance.
Is Live Cinema closer to theatre than to cinema? Is it more about performance or more about visual impressions?
It seems that Live Cinema refers to making cinema (static) live, like practicing live montage. Live theatre would sound kind of funny, also as many Live Cinema performances are not very performative (physically), although very audiovisual, so in the end the experience for the audience may resemble cinema more than theatre. On the other hand more and more Live Cinema artists are collaborating with theatres and some software, such as Isadora, has been programmed for dance theatre rather than for clubs. So lets say that Live Cinema can be a mixture of both theatre and cinema.
Using the term ‘cinema’ is also controversial, as it could/should also be called live video performance. Henry Warvick uses the term ‘performance cinema,’ so it appears that the word cinema seems to have stuck, probably because cinema still creates magical connotations in our minds and Live Cinema sounds better than real-time audiovisual creation. Also it fits nicely as continuation of Expanded Cinema. During the silent movies the orchestras that played in the theatres were sometimes referred to as Live Cinema, this tradition actually still continues, with the Russian State Symphony Cinema Orchestra for example. Even the Dogma cinema movement has been referred to as Live Cinema.
Live Cinema is strongly connected to music. How do you think this symbiosis will develop?
There are facilities such as SAT in Montreal who are pushing forward the idea of surround audiovisual environment. This sounds logical, as real-time image has faithfully been following in the footsteps of real-time audio… soon we might have visual 5.1 systems.
How important is technology in doing Live Cinema? Do you think it is crucial to have some knowledge of particular tools in order to become a ‘Live Cinematographer’?
I suppose knowing your tools is important in every art/craft. In the real-time visual world knowing what digital video/material is made of forms the basis of the work. I would say that skilful compression and optimization of the material is essential. Processing video in real-time is one of the most exhausting jobs for the computer so the creator has to know how to optimize the material without ‘losing quality’. Also there is special software for real-time creation, such as Max/Msp/Jitter, Puredata, Modul8, Isadora and Processing, just to name a few. Each software has its own interface, which also defines what kind of work can be created with it. Open architecture software, such as Max/Msp/Jitter or Puredata, offers the widest range of options, from interactive installations to creating real-time 3D-spaces, while Modul8 is more VJ-oriented, offering an easy interface in which using layers is the method of working. Actually most Live Cinematographers have a wide spectrum of knowledge: they are movie makers, video artists, editors, camera operators, post-producers, video processors, interface designers, programmers, promoters and performers—sometimes all in one person.
How important do you consider theory for doing Live Cinema performances?
I consider talking about the content equally important as talking about technology. Personally I get easily bored talking about the tools all the time. In technologically driven creative fields the creators are often so in love with their tools that the output seems like the scenes from the fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes. Everything should be cool just because a lot of technology has been used to produce it. So in this kind of environment I find theory and criticism kind of refreshing.
What are the main points of interest of the theoretical debates about Live Cinema?
It is starting to happen. I guess now when the first wave of (Digital) Live Cinema avant-garde has passed, creators are starting to ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing. Many artists have passed similar thresholds. First they started to do visuals and played at clubs for the joy of it, then they got tired of it and started to create audiovisual performances with musicians and from then on searched for their own unique expression. And at this point discussion comes into the picture. One of the main questions, at least for me, is how to unite real-time with a story/narrative of some kind? What are the real-time narratives and mythologies?
During 2006 several books on VJ-ing were published, including The VJbook edited by Paul Spinrad and Ve-Ja edited by Xárene Eskander. Even though VJ-ing has been going on for decades, it seems that this is the first time publications like this were popping up. This might be a turning point for real-time audiovisual culture, as more and more creators are getting interested in it. Many visual creators and movie makers start to do real-time performances as they have noticed that they can express themselves in this way without the drag of having to find huge budgets for movie production. This may also say a lot about visual-culture production in general.
Talking about spaces: is there a perfect physical space for Live Cinema, such as the White Cube for the Visual Arts for example?
I can imagine that a space that allows a spatial set-up of the projections is closer to a perfect space than a place where that is not possible. I have just done visuals in Monkey Town in New York, which had a projection on each wall. It was possible to create an ambient, rather than cinematic screening situation, which worked out fine. I hope that one day we won’t need projectors anymore but will have affordable canvases or different kinds of materials that could be directly connected to the computer or imagine 3D-projections in the air.
Thank you very much for the interview!