There’ll always be a place for the traditional light show and the humble strobe, but in recent years the popularity of projections and audiovisual sets has been steadily increasing, as artists both musical and visual find new ways to pair music and visual art to create an experience that affects the audience in new and different ways.
To get a deeper understanding of just how and why A/V sets have become so popular, and what makes them such an exciting part of the live music scene, we’ve spoken to three people who have been heavily involved in Melbourne’s A/V scene for years: Digital media artist Brendan Harwood, who is an expert in digital projectors and video mapping; Joshua Delaney, a member of Melbourne electronic outfit Rat & Co, who frequently incorporate A/V elements into their sets; and Troy Rainbow of Stargazed, organisers of the upcoming projection festival Underwater Galaxies.
Brendan will be teaming with Rat & Co. for a specially-tailored audiovisual set, and will be joined by a lineup of electronic acts including Fierce Mild and Primitive Calculators, teaming up with a talented visual artists including Dotahn Caspi and VJ Mandala.
Talking Visuals With Brendan, Josh and Troy
What’s been each of your experience so far with audiovisual sets?
Brendan: It all came about when I was doing my Masters in Animation at RMIT a few years ago. I shaped my graduate project as putting on a gig: designing a 3D structure to project on, collaborating with Jerry Poon from The Operatives doing visuals for his DJ set and bringing together another well respected visual projection artist Kit Webster to do visuals for the other DJs I booked. This helped me gain momentum and forge new working relationships with a number of visuals artists and DJs/producers. Three years later, here we are!
Troy: Our artistic director Stephanie Peters and I have been collaborating for quite some time, both with Fierce Mild and in our own art exhibitions. There is a big VJ and video art scene in Melbourne and Australia more widely. We looked around and saw that many high quality artists in both audio and visual disciplines. These artists work so incredibly hard to create depth and detail in their pieces.
However, the world is an extremely noisy place for all senses. We noticed that visual art is often buried or even mistaken for advertising, and music is often dismissed as an ambient service. We felt that binding them together in a cohesive event that transports people to a state that best enables them to receive each piece of work as it was intended.
Josh: Rat & Co have been running live projection art now for around five years – itss become a huge and crucial part of our set. We’re currently working with Brendan, but in the past we have worked with Oliver Elmers, Krystal Schultheiss, Thom Russel & Ribal Swang.
Have visual sets seen a rise in popularity in recent times, and what scenes or genres have driven that growth?
Brendan: The inclusion of visual sets has definitely grown over the years. I have noticed it a lot more in electronic styles from beats to bass, trance to ambient electronic. It works better in some styles over others.
In a broad consideration I believe it has to do with helping amplify the presence of performer/s onstage, especially if someone is playing on a stage to tens of thousands of people – the performer is lost to those that aren’t front-row-center. But it can also create a more immersive experience for those more intimate gigs, too.
Troy: The rise of electronics in music as well as the saturation point we have reached means audiences are demanding more of the concerts which they pay for. Bands performing with visuals is not a new concept, but the manner in which you can create a multi-sensory experience certainly has risen.
There’s a whole raft of integration happening. Projection Mapping is extremely popular – just look at White Night. MIDI and OSC are being used more and more to create reactive systems where by visual stimuli can trigger music and vice versa. Sensor and controller technologies are also transforming the traditional notions of what a musical instrument can even be.
Any style of music can be paired with visual art and vice versa. A film score is fundamental to the meaning construed in a film. The pairing of the two mediums can drastically alter meaning for an audience. In terms of a live performance, it’s not always the case. The more introspective the style, the more the visual voice can often come through. Psychedelic, Ambient Electro, Shoegaze, Post-Rock are some really good styles that lend themselves easily to the moving image.
Josh: Every second show I see now has projections. It’s certainly more prominent in the electronic scene, but I do see it becoming more of a thing everywhere else now, as well. I think there was a hole that needed filling when talking about stage lighting for performance – the old stage lights couldn’t cutit anymore, so projections were the next logical step.
Of course, it’s not a new artform at all, but with increased usage of technology in music it makes sense that projection art has come along way from the ’60s too.
Rat & Co. are no strangers to interactive visuals during their sets
Aside from sheer spectacle, what are some of the things that visuals can bring to a set that may not be able to be achieved otherwise?
Brendan: It is very important and often overlooked how visuals can add greater context to the performance. When you are negotiating this relationship between sound and vision there is a responsibility and a necessary understanding that the visuals that accompany the music are going to inevitably add to the experience in ways, that might be; visuals synthetic interpretations of the music, use some visual styles, figuration or motifs that are paralleled with the styles of music which add context to the music, or break beyond the four walls of the screen and cover the stage in an immersive way.
When you establish and respect these relationships between music and visuals (and lighting and stage design etc.) and how they work together then what is presented to the audience is a much more considered and harmonious performance that is beyond just the music. Many times people will walk away from it, not necessarily being able to articulate why it was so good, but nonetheless have a very enjoyable time.
Troy: Music is a very sub-literal medium. People often can’t express what exactly it is about a song or piece of music that they like or why it resonates with them. Particularly if the emotion and story are delivered indirectly. Adding in other dimensions allows people to better form a picture of how they interpret it. When you listen to music, you often see or smell things. When you look at visual art it can evoke auditory sensations. Combining more elements allows you to create a more cinematic and holistic experience for people.
Josh: It’s mostly about making it easier for the audience to immerse themselves in the music and performance. I always found so hard to get into the right headspace watching instrumental electronic acts, and projection art is the best way to get you into that headspace.
What sort of understanding of an artist’s music do you need to have to create an effective visual set?
Brendan: An understating of the music is integral. If not the specific productions of each respective artist then at least a knowledge of the styles which they are identified with. The couple of times I’ve toured with LUCIANBLOMKAMP, I have had a set list or a rough rehearsed set at least a month in advance, so come the time of performance I know exactly when I am to expect key moments or changes in his performance.
Other times when I’ve played for DJs on tour in Melbourne, I might not know exactly what they are going to mix or how they will, but with a knowledge of their music and styles I can at least anticipate how it might the set might progress. It can become obvious very quickly if there is are incongruities between the visual artist and the performer onstage.
Brendan Harwood has worked extensively on visuals for artists like LUCIANBLOMKAMP
How have you worked together for this particular set?
Brendan: The initial movements forward came in the exchange of references – from images to animation and film. With this dialogue I started to create some motion sketches to better visualise my ideas and would bounce them back to him and the band.
He has a very strong understanding of the band’s visual identity and whether the visuals would fit or not fit with what they were doing on stage. The conversation has always been kept open and professional which has helped inform how I curate the visuals for each show as it changes and develops further.
Josh: Apart from those content ideas and aesthetic boundaries, we’ve basically gave Brendan free rule.
Is there a particular type of music or style of act you gravitate towards when deciding who you’d like to work with?
Brendan: I generally prefer artists or styles that are known or close to my understanding. Almost entirely an electronic sound with a lean to hip hop/jazz influenced beats, U.K. Bass and Footwork. Think labels like Brainfeeder, Warp and Planet Mu.
There is a vibrancy and forward thinkingness to the artists that these record labels sign which is always surprising me, and reminding me of those moments I felt when I first discovered these styles of electronic music.
Who are some of the visual artists and bands doing the best work with projections and other visual art?
Brendan: There are too many to name, but to keep it short, I have the utmost respect for the Melbourne group friendships – their visuals are equally as important as the music and definitely a performance that should be experienced live. Daito Manabe’s collaborative efforts with Nosaj Thing and elevenplay are some of the most technologically advanced I’ve seen (online).
Also – and performing at Melbourne Music Week this year – Nonotak, who have an ability to create incredibly engaging work with such a refined visual palette.
How did Stargazed pick the lineup for the event, and how did each pairing get decided?
Troy: We keep a careful eye on the arts and music scenes of Melbourne and Australia more broadly. We definitely know what we’re after, we started off with a more psych/shoegaze leaning but have always wanted to broaden that to include any artist that shows detail and depth in their expression and executed with a high level of skill.
We work with the visual artists and bands and facilitate the collaboration so that everyone is happy. We make recommendations as to who we think will stylistically match, but we want all our collaborators to feel completely in control of their performance.
What can we expect from Underwater Galaxies?
Troy: A considered combination of visuals and sounds that will transport you to the unknown – we’ve reached out to many artists around Melbourne who we believe are doing great work.
In different parts of the venue, emerging musician Obsa will be performing a spoken word/music collaboration. Our space will also play host to installation artist Guled Abdulwasi, who has previously exhibited work at the Gertrude Street Projection Festival. As independent artists, they are associated with the exciting Still Nomads collective.
Josh: We’ll be playing a new set rather than what most people would have seen, with a change in projections as well as the band lineup. It’s going to be a more intense show, but hopefully rewarding for the crowd.
Feature image visual by Oliver Elmers for Rat & Co.