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The Expanded-contracted Field of Recent Audio-Visual Art

Ian Andrews

Recent Audio-Visual Art raises important aesthetic questions for historians of sound and music in audio-visual practices as well as for practitioners. I approach these questions here from the former point of view, rather than as a practitioner of this form myself.  Although my practice comes close, on occasions, to what might be called AV, there are serious differences at a basic level (around the problematics of representation). Although I have been happy for my work to negotiate the new spaces opened up by the emerging practices of contemporary AV performance, and despite Mitchell Whitelaw's kind curatorial inclusion of my work on the Synchresis DVD issue of Filter, I regard this particular component of my work as engaging in a certain "dialogue" with the AV rather than being strictly within the genre.

What is contemporary audio-visual art? Lets start with the most obvious point. It is primarily a live performance practice. This differentiates AV from experimental film and video, or video and media art. But perhaps less obvious, AV is a sonic/music practice. Although the terminology "audio visual" suggests that sound and vision might share equal importance, AV derives its "language" from music. In most cases AV work is concerned with formal compositional structures, of time and rhythm, which are closer to music than to specifically cinematic or visual art codes. The musical activity of improvisation is also an important aspect of its live performance. But further, the associated practices which surround AV could be labelled, as Mitchell Whitelaw argues, as "audio" rather than music, sound, sound art or new media art. (Whitelaw 2001: 49) Audio, in the sense of being an electronic signal in wire, is different from vibrations of air in space. Video and electronic audio share this material status, which in the case of AV, seems to be more important than any distinction between analogue and digital, or old and new media.

AV encompasses a number of technologies and approaches, both old and new: film, video, computer generated audio and video, live coding, circuit bending, oscilloscope work and laser light. Many of these approaches find their raison d'etre in a certain "synchresis," or significant relation between sound and image. (Whitelaw 2007: 3) Perhaps the "purest" form of AV is one where there is a direct causal relation between audio and video - video being a direct consequence of the audio signal (as in Robin Fox's work), or audio generated directly from graphics (sonification) or script (live coding). Perhaps the most interesting area of activity is where there is a crossover of both systems - the audio generating (or influencing) the video, and the video generating the audio - all of this constituting a complex iterative feedback loop.

My contention is that while some AV work merely repeats the "direct to the senses," idealism of early 20th Century avant-garde—"absolute cinema" and the later "expanded cinema" of the 1950s and 60s—the most promising work is instead defined by a "contraction" rather than an expansion of media. I suggest that it is by the adoption of a minimal aesthetic of "static" temporal structures, combined with a contracted focus on the medium, within a set of defined material limits, that recent AV work has its edge.

Absolute Cinema

The largely abstract, non-representational, non-narrative morphology, which characterises much recent AV art, has many similarities with the absolute cinema of the 1920s - the work of Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter, Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Oscar Fischinger. These early films developed out of an effort to "expand the scope of painting," (Wollen 1982: 94)) but they were also informed by a desire to train the human senses, via the new technology of the day (sound film, radio, phonograph), towards accepting and developing enhanced perception in response to new optical-kinetic phenomena and new never-heard-before sounds. In 1922 Moholy-Nagy writes "man is the synthesis of all his functional apparatuses, i.e. man will be most perfect in his own time if the functional apparatus of which he is composed are conscious and trained to the limit of their capacity." (Moholy-Nagy 1985: 289)  Moholy-Nagy believed that this training was one of the most important functions of art. Capitalism, he argued, by using technology against man, had had the effect of attenuating the human senses. Class struggle, he believed would be the motor of revolution, but art's role in training the senses would be the necessary ingredient to rebuild life after the collapse of the system.

Adventures in Optical Sound

As early as 1922 Moholy-Nagy began to pursue the idea of a sound-writing, via etched grooves on the phonograph record, as a means to bypass the musician's activity (as an interpretation of a composer's score) and instrument, to deliver new unfamiliar sounds direct from the mind of the composer. This idea for a grapho-phonetic writing, which would be formed from an acoustic alphabet of opto-acoustic notation—requiring no recording of real sound—developed into his proposal for the "absolute" sound film. These films in which graphisms, such as geometric shapes, letters, finger prints and even human profiles, were traced onto the optical sound track, to produce "true optic-acoustical synthesis," (Moholy-Nagy 1985: 314) began to appear in the early 1930s.i The first synthetic optical sound track was Fischinger's Experiments in Hand-drawn Sound (1931), followed by Rudolph Pfenninger's films, Moholy-Nagy's (lost) ABC of Sound (1933) and Len Lye's Colour Box (1935). This tradition of the abstract sonic writing was continued in the late 1930s by Norman McLaren - Allegro (1939), and then in the 1940s with the Whitney brothers' Variations series (1941-3). John and James Whitney devised an instrument using thirty pendulums to compose their graphic soundtracks.

In the 1960s this strict grapho-sonic expression gave way to a more indeterminate structuring of optical sound, such as David Perry's Halftone (1966) which used the half-tone dot patterns of newspaper photographs to create sound and image, Barry Spinello created the sound and image for his film Soundtrack (1969) from dry transfer (Letraset™) pattern sheets directly applied to clear film stock. This technique was used by Liz Rhodes for Dresden Dynamo (1974). The photographic representation of the pro-filmic event itself is used to generate sound in Guy Sherwin's Stairs (1977) and Railings (1977), where patterns of these physical objects register as they are "over-printed" extending into the area of the optical soundtrack.

Optical Music and Kinetic Art

The formal relation between music and image has been explored technologically since the colour organs of the 19th Century. Developing out of this tradition were the lumia of Thomas Wilfred, and early kinetic art such as Basil Stokes' "Auroratone" (1942) which used polarised crystal plates.

Kinetic art of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, like the early abstract films, saw itself as an extension of modern painting and as an art constituted by movement (change over time). It looked to music for its formal structures. Etienne Bertrand Weill writes "I wonder whether I am composing music for the eyes or pictures for the ears" (Malina 1974: 56) Weill's "metaforms," like much kinetic art, were silent (though occasionally accompanied by live music).  There were, however, a few exceptions in the 1960s: Frank J. Malina's "kusic" (kinetic music), which used photo-cells to trigger audio oscillators in response to his kinetic painting "Lumidyne" system, and the commercially produced "Sonovision" system of Lloyd G. Cross which used laser light modulated by audio.

Expanded Cinema

Much of the abstract film associated with the "underground cinema" of the 1950s and 60s took the "direct to the senses" approach that typified the absolute film and extended it towards an all out assault on the senses. The sheer scope of expanded cinema of the Vortex Concerts at the San Francisco Morrison Planetarium in the late 1950s may perhaps never have been surpassed. Orchestrated sonically by Henry Jacobs, and visually by Jordan Belson, it combined multiple projections and optical effects very closely with electronic music. Although employing much of the idealistic utopian humanism of the 1920s (of Moholy-Nagy and others), the sensory overload notion incorporated, at first, Jungian psychology and Eastern mysticism, and later the hallucinogenic drug experience.  Gene Youngblood, a theorist influenced by the cybernetics and the popular 1960s theories of Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan, describes this intermedia work as "synaesthetic." Youngblood, like Dick Higgins, utilises the term "intermedia" in opposition to "mixed" or "multi" media. But any similarity to Higgins' definition ends here. For Higgins, intermedia means "in-between" different media, incorporating both but in the end being strictly neither one or the other. Youngblood's term instead resembles the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk; that is, by intermedia he means a total environmental experience. Expanded cinema, for Youngblood, equates to expanded consciousness.
By the 1960s the modernist avant-garde idea of training the senses to experience new things (universally) gradually gave way to the idea of training the senses to experience things differently (multiple currents of altered perception) and to resist the mass media structuring of the perception of reality.  Many of the psychedelic films that Youngblood proselytises, along with much of the "personal" cinema of Stan Brakhage and the American underground cinema, failed in this latter goal. They simply provided an alternative, rather than a critique. As a response to this shortcoming a rather loose categorisation labelled structural/materialist, characterised by minimalist "static" self-referential films emerged along side the Fluxus "Flux-films" and  "de-collaged" television sets of Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell.

Structural Film

The flicker films of Peter Kubelka, Tony Conrad, Aggy Read and Paul Sharits combined the optical kinaesthetic-physiological effect of alpha wave stimulation with the questioning of the nature or essence of film itself. This other type of "absolute film" was to some extent an extension of modern painting, but where the first avant-garde was the elaboration of largely Cubist pictorial problems—and the "personal cinema" characterised by the concerns of abstract expressionism—the so-called structuralist film, such as Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967) seems more related to Minimalism and Conceptual Art practices. Gradually these concerns moved away from those formal elements of film shared by painting and music (light, colour, texture, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, movement), towards an interest in purely cinematic codes. The subject matter of the structural/materialist film becomes film itself.  It attempts to engage in a critique of the cinematic means of representation, along with a self-reflexive re-presentation and foregrounding of the material substrate of the filmic medium. The films of Peter Gidal, George Landow, Malcolm Le Grice, William and Birgit Hein and Joyce Wieland are, at the same time, both documents of and experiential experiments in the problematics of representation.

Video and Electronics

The work of Nam June Paik, with electronics engineer Shuya Abe, inspired further exploration in the optical kinaesthetic perceptual approach to video. The 1970s saw a number of artists and engineers building video synthesisers including: the Paik/Abe video synthesiser, Steve Rutt and Bill Etra's scan processor, Bill Hearn's Vidium, Eric Siegel's Electronic Video Synthesiser, Steven Beck's Direct Video Synthesiser, and Dan Sandin's Image Processor. Australian pioneers include Steven Jones, Bush Video, and Warren Burt. The video synthesiser, unlike the analogue and digital computer animation systems used by Whitney family and others—being more like a musical instrument—could be played live.  Aldo Tambelini's Black Video Two (1968) is exclusively constructed of images and sounds from interdependent electronic circuits.  The work of Steina and Woody Vasulka also exhibits a very strong correlation between sound and vision. Concentrating on video and audio as two different manifestations of electronic alternating voltages Woody Vasulka comments, "There is a certain behaviour of the electronic that is unique... It's liquid, it's shapeable, it's clay, it's an art material, it exists independently." (Popper 1993: 62) Also, as an analogue signal, video is capable of being fed-back and recombined with itself in an iterative self regulating loop where even the simple apparatus of camera directed towards its own display becomes a complex performance instrument in itself.

In tracing the historical precedents for the various characteristics of contemporary AV performance work we have seen that in terms of aesthetics AV inherits the non-representational pure plasticity of the absolute film, the kinaesthetic flow of 1960s "synaesthetic" cinema, and finally, the minimal "static" temporal form, as well as the fore-grounding of the media substrate, that characterised the structural film. However, contemporary AV practices differ from all of these predecessors in that they essentially constitute live performativity and processes, and, in the tradition of kinetic art, lightshows, and expanded cinema, AV adopts a range of hybrid technologies (laser, oscilloscope, optics, etc.)


Clearly one of the most important aspects of AV is the close correlation between sound and vision. Whitelaw describes this, after Michel Chion, as "synchresis." (Whitelaw 2007: 3) This intense close coupling of two modalities finds itself in opposition to positions in which the pure singularity of the medium's modality is privileged. One such position is typified by the work of Stan Brakhage relates to the visual (Brakhage argues that sound distracts attention from the visual, and thus refused to use it in his later films). Another is aural, and is typified by Pierre Schaeffer who argues that visual images distract attention from music (this is a common position in recent electronic music, such as by Francisco Lopez). However, an effective use of interdependent synching of sound and vision does seem to allow easier and more effective concentration on the sounds and the images. In fact, as Whitelaw argues, such "cross-modal binding" even "feels good." (Whitelaw 2007: 7) The tight relation between sound and image is made even more explicit by the fact that the sound and vision are often generated by the same source.

Contracted Aesthetics

The contemporary audio-visual performance work is largely characterised by the synchretic movement of electronic sound and abstract images over time, united at the level of the signal. From these performances we encounter a certain pleasure that is both aesthetic and visceral. But is this all there is at work here? With advances in video and audio production software, the artist is presented with a plethora of possibilities for combining and manipulating sound and image. As technologies advance, the amount of aesthetic options made available begins to become overwhelming. What then distinguishes contemporary AV practices from the expanded cinema is a technological trajectory that heads in the opposite direction. In place of a concern with the cutting edge of advanced technology, contemporary AV often works with cheaply available technologies or older, sometimes obsolete, equipment. Often this equipment is put to an entirely different use than what it was designed for. Instead of an ever expanding palette, where technological advances promise to bring more faithful realisations of the artist's imaginative and expressive will, the contracting direction of current AV practices typically impose a set of limits which reduce the range of aesthetic possibilities, and, curiously enough, end up enhancing the creative process. Aesthetic possibilities become, in a sense, 'built-in.'

In a certain way these material limits, as Fluxus artist Dick Higgins puts it, "place the material at one remove from the composer, by allowing it to be determined by a system he determined." (Higgins 1978: 30) Yet these works resist rigorous methodology of the chance operations and indeterminacy of John Cage, where every outcome must be accepted. The imposition of limits, to a certain extent, curtails the expressive will of the artist, but it also shifts composition towards the exploration of material (sonic-optical) possibilities within these limits. In this sense it is an exploratory practice. For the audience the detection of a set of limits helps define the processes, the instrument, the palette—the conditions of the work's making. This defining power is even more pronounced when the work is performed in real time. The limits also set up a challenge for the performer, which can in some ways be shared by the audience since they are made aware of the limits of the system. In a certain sense the "instrument" and the "medium" are interchangeable.

I would suggest that the systemic-processal imposition of limits is the most promising aspect of contemporary AV work from an aesthetic point of view. With Robin Fox's performances utilising the cathode ray oscilloscope, the limitless possibilities of digital image construction are ditched in favour of the constricting limitations of old analogue technology. In order to achieve interesting and uncluttered visual forms Fox is forced to limit his choices and sacrifice depth and complexity in the sound. And conversely, in order to maintain an interesting sound, he is forced to make compromises with the images.  This processal-creative feedback loop is, for me, far more interesting conceptually than any supposed metaphoric connection with synaesthesia.ii

The closed system, where no extraneous elements are allowed to enter, is an important aspect of the work of both Andrew Gadow and Botborg who work with complex feedback loops of audio and video. Here it is not the self-reflexivity, the foregrounding of the media substrate, that is important, but rather the limitations that such a system imposes on creative outcomes. This practice shares some common ground with what is known as "No Input" music. In No Input, audio signals from the output of samplers or mixers are re-routed back into their inputs creating unstable feedback loops. The feedback is delicately manipulated and shaped. "No Input" musicians are inspired by the challenge that such a severe set of limits imposes. The very minimal work of Japan's Sachiko M, Toshimaru Nakamura and Sydney's Peter Blamey is typical of the genre.  Live coding and live data visualisation/sonification is another contemporary AV practice that is based precisely on a set of limits.

The acceptance of limits in contracted AV opens important aesthetic questions and directions at a time when much of the critical theory around contemporary electronic/digital music is still dominated by early modernist (and romantic) ideas of expressive creativity—where the ideal of a direct connection between the mind-consciousness-will of the composer and a contemplative passive audience remains unquestioned. The acceptance of limits, I believe, shifts attention towards the consideration that the composer/performer's work consists of a number of responses to change within a system rather than an unproblematic autonomous generation of expressive output. The limiting system becomes, in a sense, a co-author to the work. However, unlike indeterminate practices, aesthetic judgement, though not the central concern, remains an essential part of the process. Contemporary AV performance then is characterised, at the same time, as the expanded and contracted utilisation of technologies.

Contemplation and Distraction

Contemporary AV performance constitutes a musical practice, which has its roots in the electronic dance music of the 1980s and 90s known as techno. As such it is—like absolute music and absolute cinema—a formal autonomous practice not dependant, or in the service of, representation or narrative. Whitelaw suggests that the sonic basis of this practice presents a reflexive foregrounding of the electronic/digital media substrate which opens up a space operating below and within the electronic media infrastructure—a space that he calls "inframedia." (Whitelaw 2001) However, despite this material reflexivity—that resembles the reflective practices of the structural-materialist cinema of the 1960s and 70s—the object of these practices is one that privileges aesthetic form over ideas and concepts or a critical engagement with the procedures of representation.

The kinaesthetic flow and minimal aesthetics of contemporary AV tends towards what, in borrowing a term from Walter Benjamin, I would call "contemplative." The other term that Benjamin used in contradistinction to the contemplative, and which, for him, characterises our experience of modernity, was "distraction." Is it possible for AV to transcend its aesthetic, contemplative and formal designations? To what extent can AV constitute a distracted practice that reflects and transforms social reality—that is, one that seeks to disrupt and disorganise its own history of organization? These questions aim to suggest a direction for future practice and research, exploring the possibilities of surpassing formal audio-visual relationships, and extending practice towards connotative, discursive and contextual collisions and configurations.


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i The optical soundtrack consists of an analogue waveform, similar to the waveform display in contemporary computer sound editing applications, running beside the film frame on the acetate. Moholy-Nagy tells us that there were others working with "synthetic sound scripts," including Humphries, Avramov, Janovski, Vojnov, and Scolpo (Moholy-Nagy 1947: 277) but little is known of these experiments.

ii Synaesthesia is a condition that occurs with some people, and involves an intermixing of perceptions. They may hear colours, see sounds, etc. Synchresis has been likened to synaesthesia, but any connection is only metaphoric.