Unpacking the CineChamber – Naut Humon on Nomadic AV Performance

originally published by CreativeApplications.net
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Signal live in the CineChamber, Club Transmediale 2011

Over the last two months CAN has drawn attention to many of the integrated AV performance projects featured at MUTEK 2012. This has taken some time as there was no shortage of material to choose from. Occupying quite a prominent place within this year’s MUTEK programming was the CineChamber, an intimate, “live cinema performance environment” featuring surround sound and panoramic projection surfaces. Originally developed as a state of the art theatre in the San Francisco headquarters of Recombinant Media Labs, in recent years the CineChamber has operated as a nomadic venue, popping up at recent editions of the Club Transmediale and Cynetart festivals. Drawing on a decade of archived work that has either been developed for or adapted to be played within the space, Recombinant Media Labs has cultivated a deep catalogue of experimental media by artists like Ryoichi Kurokawa, Semiconductor and Francisco Lopez. At MUTEK the CineChamber featured a rotation of five hour long ‘modules’ of programmed content as well as live performances by Biosphere, Robin Fox and Artificiel. CineChamber artistic director Naut Humon has graced CAN with the following extended interview wherein he details his extensive history in fusing sound with moving image and reveals much of the backstory behind the CineChamber.

At MUTEK you introduced the CineChamber with a slideshow documenting approximately three decades of experimental event production. Can you provide some information on the origins of Recombinant Media Labs and identify some of the threads that have run throughout the history of the project?

I have been the Artistic Director of International Operations for Recombinant Media Labs (RML), Asphodel Records and AV curator for select portions of the annual Prix ARS Electronica Festival in Austria where I have also helped coordinate their Digital Music’s category for ten years between the 90s and 2000s. Having performed in the past with the avant-garde music group Rhythm & Noise and now about to develop a new sound and vision collective around the CineChamber format, there is a wide range of viewer involvement and constructed environs that build a bridge between these cross media collaborators from several decades.

RML emerged from my lifetime of performance exploration and intermedia cooperations. I started my professional theatre career at age seven in my hometown of Seattle, enacting character roles in various plays. By high school, I had picked up numerous leading roles with established companies and began to direct my own versions of 1984, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, and Marat/Sade amongst other productions. Subsequently I felt constrained by proscenium paradigms and prewritten scripts, and sought to transform the dominion of traditional theatre in provocative, personalized ways. After migrating to the San Francisco Bay Area in the early seventies, me and my young associates presented a series of audience mobilization and abduction events, transporting the observer through various indoor & outdoor sites. Stationary habitats consisted of urban physicalities: pitch-black deprivation environments became weather chambers, driven by gale-force wind machines circulating rain, smoke, scents, and climate change onto a roaming and restlessly curious crowd.

Elsewhere in other circumstances, individual spectators were placed into packing crates on an assembly line and processed via conveyer belt, pulley lifts, and cranes in a custom assembled factory setting. At larger shows, audience members were bussed separately to multiple locations across an entire county, from dusk until dawn. Each stop depicted a unique locale; a giant alpine dam tunnel, railroad bunkers, open air-rock formation bedrooms, graveyard storage vaults, or longboat excursions across an inlet bay. During these travels, the process of moving was interrupted by staging ‘destabilized’ media occurrences— vibrating sound montages coupled with fragmented visual narratives designed to repurpose the visitor’s frame of reference from the prevailing performance paradigms of the day.

Further into the 70s, these transmigratory happenings moved to more exotic locales in desert and mountain locations. Emphasizing a strong musical foundation with tactile instrumentation and audio/ video technologies heralded a fresh focus on the physicalization of form. By the 80s, our constituency had built up the warehouse known as the Compound where the experimental group Rhythm and Noise was spawned, initiating many of the core elements that led to forming the globally distributed Asphodel recording label which fostered projects ranging from DVD chamber orchestra renditions of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (with Lou Reed playing with Zeitkratzer) to the eminently compelling CDs of Mix Master Mike, Diamanda Galas, Rhythm & Sound, Tipsy, Iannis Xenakis and many others.

Rhythm & Noise, live in San Francisco

Rhythm & Noise live in San Francisco

The RML story itself began in the early nineties when its predecessor, Sound Traffic Control, was invited to Tokyo to world premiere its “dub dashboard treatment plant”. While preparing for this engagement in 1991, I portrayed the performance as a “sonic airport where various musical cargos land, taxi, and take off from an imaginary runway inhabited by ‘audience’ passengers amidst the dynamic audio trajectories.” Japan’s Panasonic Corporation took this metaphor literally. According to RML’s television terminal design, they constructed a large air traffic control tower from corroded metal that housed multiple battered video radar screens and searchlights over a bed of fog, in an expansive room of 750 floor-to-ceiling loudspeaker columns. At these shows, Recombinant’s omni-directional media system began to emerge. Upon returning to the States, I set out to construct a nomadic model of what had occurred in Japan.

Throughout the rest of the decade, a succession of Recombinant spectacles were mounted at festivals, and customized for special locations around the world. During this time, its sponsoring partner Asphodel LTD., began releasing CDs for artists selected from these events. One of the most renowned Recombinant presentations occurred at the 20th anniversary year of the Ars Electronica Festival on September 9, 1999 in Linz, Austria. Playing on the 9/9/99 calendar date, Recombinant designated Recombinant 9.9.99, a nine hour, nine minute and nine second timeline format, consisting of 61 timed modules created by 33 participants. After viewing connective events in the outdoors and adjacent auditoriums, spectators entered into a larger hall surrounded by stages on all sides occupied by Laptop orchestras, turntable assemblies, sizeable steel sculptures and an encompassing matrix of screens, lights, and loudspeakers. This technological configuration provided a springboard for a substantive, content-driven array of artists and film/ video works as each nine minute performance combination segment unfolded. After appearances in Asia, America and Europe, myself and associates drafted the blueprint for two fixed-location media laboratories that included a base for the Asphodel imprint, and a comprehensive studio complex. Within this structure, the RML consolidation was substantiated as a culturally coherent enterprise, hosting a vast range of visual artists, musicians, engineers, designers, curators, organizers, technologists, educators and theorists from around the world.

The fundamental thread running through the cross media fabric that RML has woven originates from its music driven foundation of immersive airborne surround sound formations as they are gradually applied to its multi-channel image and display amalgamations which are adding screens to where the speaker locations are custom configured when they encircle the listener in 5.1 or larger channel counts. The nomadic CineChamber utilizes an 8.8.2 loudspeaker positioning that punctuates the current ten screen rectangular audience enclosure.

CineChamber setup, Club Transmediale 2011

CineChamber setup, Club Transmediale 2011, photo: Barry Threw

So the current configuration of the CineChamber is 8.8.2 sound with a ten screen enclosure, how many square metres is that? Could you describe the configuration of key past iterations of the space? I’m curious how you came to this current arrangement – presumably there was some experimenting with the area and sound.

Length = 12 meters and width = 8 meters. 12×8 = 96 square meters. Our US system was 36 by 24 feet – the new one is larger. We’ve experimented with cyclorama circle shapes with 12 screens in a circle and TouchDesigner can calibrate for domes and other shape shifter surface canvas configurations.

The previous iteration of the CineChamber was fixed in the RML’s San Fransisco Headquarters. What made you decide to make the project mobile and what logistical challenges has that presented?

After a number of years of blending live vs. programmed events of symphonic scale and substance, RML and Asphodel joined forces to occupy two fixed-location warehouses in San Francisco to headquarter a performance-residency center for developing their panoramic, simulation style of surround cinema. After working several years in a fixed location within the central city of San Francisco, a organization with a focus on mobile setups was founded. This was done in order to formulate an answer to the increasing requests for international presentations at museums and festivals. Over the years RML has built up a selected resource of artworks and it was time to highlight this body of AV pieces out to the world. Freed from the constraints of a geographically anchored construction, RML’s nomadic approach is also able to offer residencies together with organizations in metropolitan locations. This vanguard hybrid media platform encompasses many presentational options to potential partners, (co)-producers and curators.

So instead of artists and audiences having to come to California to work and perform at RML’s facility, it was time that RML return to the international circuit and bring the CineChamber experience directly to the cities and locales where many of these composers in residence came from.

Logistically, the nomadic oriented system faces the same challenges as many road worthy stage acts. There is currently a North American CineChamber edition which got underway at MUTEK, a CineChamber test-lab at the University in San Diego (UCSD) and another portable setup has been touring Europe – our staff and artists are located in different cities all around the globe. The RML tech director Vance Galloway resides in Seattle and is in the same role for the citywide Decibel electronic arts festival that takes place there. Barry Threw is the chief programming architect on the CineChamber and works with Obscura Digital out of San Francisco. Over in Europe, Egbert Mittelstädt (who sometimes does visuals for Biosphere) is operations coordinator for the european edition of the CineChamber.

In a video documenting RML’s participation in the 2011 edition of the Cynetart Festival you describe the CineChamber as a “live cinema performance environment” and an “audiovisual instrument”. VJ culture has definitely imprinted most audiences with ideas and expectations about ‘live cinema’ but the idea of a space being used as an instrument might be a bit abstract for some potential viewers/listeners. Could you describe what you mean by this phrase and maybe cite some examples from material you’ve programmed?

The paradigm of the CineChamber activates an architectural discourse around various approaches toward utilizing the space itself and being able to adapt the large cubicle towards customized applications. Blurring the boundaries between temporal one night appearances’, and capturing the experiential archived totality of a whole 360-degree concert for todays & future audiences to relive or discover anew is only part of RML’s concept of Experiential Engineering. This kind of modus operandi affects a philosophy of methods, pedagogies, and systems of production for preserving and presenting precocious content that can be built upon and ‘experienced’ by chambergoers for generations to come.

By viewing the CineChamber room as an ‘instrument’, RML invites various artists to come in for a given residency period and be able to ‘play’ and navigate the space according to how they wish to map, manipulate and steer the interior elements as a whole apparatus. By uniting the chamber orchestra of loudspeakers, screens, projections, sensors, tools, atmospheres and optional rumble floors as physical components of a central show control engine, the full CineChamber becomes the compositional hub that a group or solo artist can recombine the architectural aspects of a live cinematic environment that can be previsualized, rendered and played back accordingly with or without live musicians or projectionists present

This type of synesthetic habitat formed an ongoing basis for a plethora of real time AV engagements involving groups of humans and their devices. When these performers do occasionally slip out of sight, temporarily leaving the attendees to their own ‘devices’ what was then the experiential implication of a non-human, machine-driven spectacle? From lip sync to human sync where does the flesh and blood make the difference in our experience of these personality-propelled portrayals? As our hand-operated species stands up for their side we would say a lot and that we still care a lot in a transformative age where our bio-technological inventions are gradually changing the definition of what all this so-called ‘humanness’ in the theatre is all about.

So what is real and what is not? Is it live or is it in memory? Is it hot or is it cold? How does this still really even matter in 2012? So even with the CineChamber screening format the audio soundtracks are all mixed live by me as an active music translator of the composers wishes and instructions unless the performer is there on visit during the festival renditions of their residency works.

The ‘active music translation’ coupled with mobility makes me think of the sound system culture that flourished in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1960s and 70s. Do you see the CineChamber extending out of that lineage and subsequent global DJ/remix culture?

Since we have utilized so many multi speaker setups over the years the sound system cultures from both Jamaica and those others from the 50s with Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen etc. were all antecedents of the chosen CineChamber model. At our fixed “CineStation” locations, the CineChamber has sometimes been stationed with a 16.8.2 system with 8 more channels being elevated above the others below in a cubic formation; one channel in each of the four corners and one channel halfway between each of the four corners top and bottom. The traveling system is 8.8.2 with the occasional rumble vibrational floor where the venue permits.

So in a way adding the multi channel dub attitude incentive to the optical side of things is a prevailing thread to the CineChamber undertaking and how the long term audio iterations inform the polyphonic panoramic compositional dynamic.

There is enough of a CineChamber ‘back catalogue’ of work prepared for the space to fill out several programs. Could you describe some of the first works that were developed for the space? Additionally, I’m curious if there are any trends you’ve noted in the way that artists/musicians go about composing for the space?

For the transportable CineChamber unit we first developed works from live concerts in the downtown San Francisco facility. Artists from Europe and elsewhere would be invited for varying residency periods to develop their custom appearances and ways to repurpose older and more recent transmutations of their visual ideas across the panoramic spectrum of screening area.

Early RML visitors in the 2000s included Richard Devine, Daniel Menche with Zbigniew Karkowski, Thomas Brinkmann, Florian Hecker and Maryanne Amacher, all of whom did audio surround live performance residency stints and were utilizing behaviour, gravity and space mappings for various versions of RML’s extended musical system.

For a pivotal example of an early RML module process and outline of a Maryanne Amacher piece, entitled Plaything, started in the nineties. Here is a description:

Over a period of several residencies Maryanne Amacher had been working on a 12 channel composition for the Recombinant Media Labs audio visual surround environment now known as the CineChamber in San Francisco. For Maryanne the double array of 2 X 6 channel speaker placement that was in the RML compound represented a more prevailing style of configuration found in many 5.1 or higher rectangular studios and auditoriums. As her ideas of structure borne sound & speaker locations placed the audio frequency emitter sources in architecturally exotic destinations in the rooms and passageways of buildings during a large majority of her performances, the conventionally located surround reference monitor PA at RML was truly an unusual setting atypical of her preferred real time concert diffusion geographies. This is one of several occurrences where Amacher utilized a rather customary X-Y-Z corners and wall loudspeaker configuration to realize and listen to the progress of the piece intended for this type of “AIRBORNE” style playback in venues where RML would install slight channel count variations on provided audio and image arrays in festivals and theatre spaces.

Recombinant Media Labs

See also: CineChamber chief technician/software architect Barry Threw’s documentation.