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London keeps it psychedelic at audio-visual performing arts festival

Entering into a darkened room crowded with people, there is a powerful smell of incense. A robed figure touches the forehead of each initiate, uttering an incantation. In the centre, a figure crouches, swaying slightly, engaged in some kind of mystical ritual. Amidst deep sonic drones, the figure seems to burst into flames and transform…

To the uninitiated, this might sound reminiscent of an ancient ritual, such as the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece, where as legend has it, Persephone erupted in a great fire for an audience intoxicated by the hallucinogenic brew kykeon. Yet the above is actually a description of Transcendence by Kimatica, a theatrical performance that utilises cutting-edge motion tracking and video mapping to make a dancer’s body seem to erupt with fire. This performance of Transcendence was staged as part of Splice festival, London 2018.

Splice, now in its third year, has quickly established itself as a significant event on the international circuit of audio-visual arts festivals and VJ events, which also includes Live Performers Meeting, Punto y Raya, Fulldome UK, and Seeing Sound to name just four. There is now a vibrant scene for this type of work, which typically combines moving image with sound and music in various forms. For instance, this year’s Splice also included live video mashups, VJ performances, live coding, audio-visual workshops, talks, and more. As in previous years, the festival places up-and-coming underground artists alongside seasoned pioneers in the field. In the latter category are Addictive TV, who returned to Splice this year to perform their Orchestra of Samples project, which takes sounds and video of many different musicians who the group met and recorded while touring internationally, and turns them into an audio-visual sample collage. Sampled drum breaks sit alongside flute, hang drum, and other exotic instruments, creating a blend that is accessible and visually appealing, while also retaining an irresistible sense of fun—something that is never lost at Splice, which in previous years has seen avant-garde work juxtaposed with video mashups by artists such as Coldcut (known for their sampladelic beat collages on Ninja Tune, but also their innovative VJ collaborations with HEX and music software) and the outstanding Wookie-electro jams of Eclectic Method.

For many, these audio-visual performances will of course seem very “new,” yet in fact there is a considerable history to this type of work, which goes back over a hundred years to the early “colour organ” instruments and the abstract “visual music” paintings of Kandinsky. The term “visual music” was later used to describe films by artists such as Oskar Fischinger and Len Lye, which featured colourful abstract animations arranged to music, and provided the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940). This area was also later developed through the films of Jordan Belson and John Whitney; the liquid light shows of groups such as Joshua Light Show, Boyle Family, and Nova Express; and others. Increasingly, artists creating this type of work began to use early forms of computer graphics, eventually leading to the VJ culture of the late ’80s and ’90s, which saw VJs mixing computer graphics videos to performances by acid house DJs.

Perhaps due to the synesthetic nature of this type of work—which combines sound and image in abstract, kaleidoscopic combinations—these audio-visual works have often been associated with psychedelia and altered states of consciousness. For example: in the beatnik-era, filmmaker Harry Smith created hand-painted visual music films that he projected alongside jazz performances for artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, which he claimed were inspired partly by the visual hallucinations he saw listening to jazz while stoned. Along similar lines, in the ’60s USCO collective, Jordan Belson, and James Whitney created films that explored various ideas related to introspective conscious states. Another example from this period, “Humble Ben” Van Meter’s film Acid Mantra (1967) used composites of multiple layers of film to communicate states of trance-like sensory overload. Later, ’90s rave-era VJ mixes like Future Shock, Dance in Cyberspace, and the projections at mega-raves like Fantazia seemed to also take inspiration from LSD, constructing hallucinatory journeys through fractal universes and surrealistic computer graphics.

At Splice 2018, this trajectory of audio-visual work that relates to ideas of altered states of consciousness is still very much in evidence. Kimatica characterise their performance Transcendence as an altered states ritual, which aims to connect the audience with ancient forms of spirituality. Yet, the altered states theme was also manifested elsewhere at Splice this year in different ways. For example, a talk by Bristol-based video design studio Limbic Cinema discussed their projection mapping work on the project Ergo Sum, a piece written and directed by Sleight of Hand Theatre, which aims to communicate the subjective experiences of “characters living with psychiatric and neurological conditions, exploring the boundaries and transitions between hallucination and reality, and internal self versus the external world.” Elsewhere at the festival, an excellent talk by Weirdcore (the maverick designer behind anarchic live visuals for artists such Aphex Twin and MIA) also discussed a project in which his motion graphics are being used to illustrate the experiences of ravers coming up on ecstasy. This idea of representing internal, subjective experiences, is not a new one—but what makes this work so fresh and exciting is the way these artists are harnessing the power of the latest illusory audio-visual technologies to elicit altered states of consciousness for today’s audiences.

Featured image credit: Ergo Sum performance directed by Sleight of Hand Theatre, 2018 by Limbic Cinema. Image used with permission.

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