Mathstatic, Time Squid & more: Twin Cities' live visual jockeys talk shop
Maybe you've seen them, wild-eyed and laser-focused behind a rig with a million glowing things. Somewhere in the room the image of a log floating through space gets metamorphed into a burst of geometric shapes in time with the music and you think "holy shit."
We wanted to get into the heads of the Cities' most talented live visual artists to see where they came from, where they're going, and just what exactly it is that they do so strangely and perfectly. We spoke to Max McDougall aka Mathstatic, whose light shows recall a certain subculture from a half-century ago, repurposed and Toxic Avengered, Matt Bardins aka Visionquest about his goof-a-loop tweaks and shudders, Nico Demonte aka 000000000001 who has dove deep into the discursive possibilities of vintage technologies, and Hal Schuler aka Time Squid, the man, the force, the mystery.
MAX MCDOUGALL, AKA MATHSTATIC
So you performed at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival? Do you call it performing?
It was more work than a performance, if that makes sense. Very laborious. I was running lights and video for an after party called Centre Street Socia in this cool old place called the Harmonie Club in downtown Detroit. It was an old jazz club that doesn't get used much anymore. The Particle People guys asked me to come.
Who are they?
Particle people is made up of Aaron Bliss and Jesse Jacob, they are two local techno DJs. who do the Black nights every Saturday night in the Record Room. There were other promoters as well: Kontrol, Humanaut, Beretta Music. There were guys from all over the place. Juan Atkins' manager was there and had me stay the following night to run lights for the Metroplex anniversary party. I got to run a little light show for the originators of Detroit techno. That was kind of fun, and VERY hot.
So what would you call what you do? I've tried several names, none of which are very elegant. 'Veejaying' is personally my least favorite.
Mine too. I prefer 'visuals' or "light show," even if I'm doing all video it's still a light show.
And how did you stumble upon this odd little world?
I think it all started back when I was in school for audio, I had a copy of Max/MSP on my computer and was bringing my laptop EVERYWHERE with me. I ended up over at club underground one night beneath Spring St. Bar in Northeast.
How old were you, what year about was this? And what's MAX/MSP?
Too young to be drinking haha, probably like 19-20, so a few years ago (I'm turning 24 on August 4th). So I was downstairs and they had DJs playing electronic music with a REALLY crappy anime playing on this huge screen just looping it was bright and obnoxious and very distracting. In a drunken stupor I convinced the sound guy to let me plug my laptop into their line I just opened some really simple patches in Max and rolled with it and everyone thought it was great, and boom. I was back every week for months. It's funny too because I liked electronic music but I didn't know anything about the local scene whatsoever. But one night Steve Centrific was DJing down at Club Underground and he introduced himself. We got along and starting doing more underground/warehouse stuff together
Sorry, what is MAX again?
It's a really overpriced piece of software for writing your own multimedia patches and software. I mean it's great, I still use it quite a bit it's just really expensive. Pure Data is like the same thing and it's free.
So you sort of fell into this situation at club underground, started experimenting there, then hooked up with Centrific? You started booking gigs together?
That's pretty much it. I would come out and do video during his sets. That led to doing the Intellephunk 10 Year Party and Profile Center. That was really fun. I think that's one of the first times I brought a ridiculous amount of hardware out. By now I am kind of known for doing that during my sets.
Which I wanted to ask you about. You started with a laptop and some patches, but you're now doing all this work with mirrors, and giant TV walls, and some maybe more 'conventional' - in the sense of psychedelia - type of live visuals. Is that fair? do you see yourself as sort of updating and redefining the work of the old 'colored water' guys?
I try to treat the video like a light show - there is nothing worse that a video loop just hanging out on a screen. The video projector is another lighting instrument just like a par can, ellipsoidal, fresnel, or what have you. I try to use as many different 'instruments' as possible. Like CRT monitors for example. I LOVE the color you get from real phosphor on a CRT display. There is nothing like it.
Did you start thinking about it this way fairly quickly?
When I use LCD projectors I tend to do a lot of squares and hard edges. I really dislike the 'screendoor' effect that LCDs make (where you can see the individual pixels) but by using only hard edges you don't see that and it looks like you have infinite resolution. I make content specifically for the tools I will be using. Yes, I am very technical, and I sort of obsess over this stuff. Mostly because it really bothers me.
When did you start thinking about using different tools? How did you go from a laptop to a 4x4 wall of TVs?
As soon as I was getting gigs and didn't have anything to connect my computer to! Haha.
"Shit, there's not a projector here."
Pretty much. And most projectors look like garbage the blacks are grey... ick. And as far as the video wall goes. Who doesn't want a fucking video wall? I mean, seriously.
When I started looking at your stuff, and I don't mean to beleaguer the fact, but I immediately thought of the old psychedelic light show guys, with odd mirrored projections etc, but on a completely different level, for a different type of music, and for a different audience. As in the construction of your shows are as much art as what they create.
Exactly. What I really love about those old psychedelic light shows, that I have the most connection with as far as what I do, is the mystery behind some of it. It's not always completely obvious what's going on back there! You can't just go online and read a tutorial you know?
This isn't QBASIC!
Apples being apples and oranges being oranges, how would you contrast your stuff to say, Nico's, who you're collaborating with at Bassgasm on Friday?
That reminds me.. I need to pull out some of the old demos I made on the C128. But I'm not sure I am collaborating with Nico on [Friday], that would be a suprise to me. Apparently I am running a small moving light show in the entry throughout the night. I think I am bringing the UFO as well so it should be pretty old school.
The Clay Paky Astrodisco, it kills people. It's an old centerpiece light from 1982. It's big. It's loud. It's awesome. In fact I won't be bringing any video with. Just my light desk.
So, for someone who obviously puts a lot of time and research and a least a heaping tablespoon of money to your light shows, what's your opinion of how veejays (lol) are received, locally or otherwise?
I think there are a lot of hacks. The same way there are a lot of hack rave promoters, doing it for all the wrong reasons. Most the guys I know are pretty rad I mean, Timesquid, Nico, Rastermind. They all have very different styles, some of it I like and some I don't and I'm sure they have the same opinions about my stuff. Most importantly they are doing it for the right reasons and that really shows.
And what about audience reaction?
Crowds are different.I've done Too Much Love and nobody gave a damn. I mean, I don't think the crowd reacted at all. Put Hal up in the booth and he's like a fucking rock star, they love it. That's what I really love about Timesquid is his booth presence. Dancing around all crazy. That guy is awesome. That's another thing: a friend once told me that she doesn't trust a DJ that doesn't dance. I feel the same way about the visuals
Do you dance?
Hell yeah I dance! If you can't get down to the party that's happening then what's the point in contributing to it? That really separates the wheat from the chaff in my opinion.
I'm planning some pretty big things so keep your eyes open. Bigger. Heavier. Things.
BIGGER. MORE HEAVIER, FOR MAKE DAZZLE.
Exactly. STOP BREAK BREAK.
You can see Mathstatic next at Bassgasm in the 7th St. Entry this Friday, July 23rd
Check the laptop decals
What do you call what you do?
I do live video processing. When I perform I'm a VJ. It's the easiest thing to describe myself to anyone who doesn't know what I'm doing, which is everyone.
Haha, everyone gets it once you throw that "j" in there.
We're all jockeying for attention.
And what does that mean exactly? Are you putting oddly colored globules on a petri dish on an overhead projector?
Nah, what I do is make animations and strange shapes and manipulate live with software.
Is there any planned set involved?
What I do is make animations and strange shapes and manipulate them along with sampled video live with software.
To any specific beat? It sounds sort of like an interpretive dance.
I'm fairly open to any beat. I started out doing dance parties have somehow wormed my way into experimental drone and noise music, mixing things ranging from replaying a kid crashing a bike over and over to sweeping animations that change with a soundscape. I'm inspired by Americas funniest home videos as much as any abstract art piece.
So you're grabbing things that ring some sort of bell, and twisting them up into some kind of swirling spaghetti?
Ha, I pretty much just do whatever makes me laugh or space out like a stoned 16-year-old watching Fantastic Planet for the first time.
Like pressing on closed eyelids.
If you could only see the insides of my eyelids.
How did you get all up in this mess?
I was always fascinated by video of any kind, I grew up in the KARE 11 studios that my mother was a producer fopr and eventually found myself studying motion graphics. While studying I met Hal [Time Squid] and we bonded in a way with video and such. Eventually he taught me his tricks and introduced me to the idea of performing video live. From there it was gig to gig become more involved as time passed. Now I'm finally reaching a point where this is more than just a fun gig but also that performance release I got from playing guitar on stage. Live masturbation.
Where were you studying? And what exactly is motion graphics, like the CGI Culligan lady?
I was studying in the program offered at McNally Smith [then Musictech], which was cut about halfway through my run. At that point we were left with a brilliant but not terribly academic head of the department that pushed us to be more creative with our endeavors and really push the limits of what we can do as artists and not just people programming infographics for the news. That's where I met Hal. Also not being much of the studious type I pretty much ran with the whole college free your mind idea, haha.
So you said you get the same charge from doing live visuals as you did playing guitar live - those two things seem pretty far apart. Why do you think veejaying [lol] puts you in that same place?
It's the energy of a live performance, putting yourself out there with all of your flaws on display and enjoying every minute of it. Pushing your talents hoping you don't fall off the stage, and if you do making sure that its funny or looks cool at least.
What are you trying to 'accomplish' when you're doing it?
A lot of it for me is just creative outlet but its also entertainment and I would hope someone would space out to my visuals for a good 20 minutes.
You can see Visionquest next at The Somethin' Else #3 at the Rogue Buddha Gallery on Friday, August 13th
Let me know when you would like to start.
Well I suppose I'd like to start with the beginning: how'd you come to experiment with live visuals/projected art/light shows (as Max called them)? And what would you call what you do?
It's a combination of my exposure to vintage technologies - C64, Amiga, Atari computers, assembly language, exposure to art films, which then moved from electropop and science fiction themes to Dadaism, Surrealism, Concept Art, Fluxus, post-punk, ancient, modern, contemporary art. I then met Justin Kent, Funk Software, Tributary, Nate, Toshi Hoo forming EJ Enterprises where we released the EJ Midi Turntable, performed with the world's first MIDI Turntable and ScratchTV at venues like Winter Music Conference, M3, International DJ Expo, Fashion shows, the Supercollision series at MIT and more. I call myself an EJ, or experience jockey, a term coined by Justin Kent, the inventor of the EJ Midi Turntable.
So you've had an interest in technology and art since basically forever? Or to rephrase: how old were you when you first started messing around with computers?
When I was eight years old, my friend next door and programmed on the Atari ST computer. My first computer was the Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore 64, of which I own 5 at the moment. And I then started collecting Amiga 500 computers and have been doing video and animation graphics with both the C64 and Amiga 500 (as it was popular with Andy Warhol back in the 80s).
What wasn't popular with Warhol at one time or another, right? So you said you own five Commodore 64s right now, and I assume you use those in your shows...did you get to a point where the technology only went so far or too far, and you came back to the oldtimer computers?
I am constantly fascinated with technology on all levels and am looking to the future in many respects. I use the C64's to sync with MIDI on video and use them in my compositions. I am also a fan of PC's and Apple computers. I program ASCII video, forming one of the installations titled Arnold Schwarzenegger as an example of pure data on the screen, where Arnold is reduced to 1's, 0's, numbers, binary code, and teletype font. These "ASCII" compositions are then incorporated into my installations at various venues, galleries, museums, and visual shows.
What types of environments do you usually do your shows in? Many live visual performances are incorporated, sometimes overly sidelined maybe, into music shows. Some work in time or adaptive to the music, some have programmed shows, but it seems like yours are more theoretical, if that's the right word.
I like the diversity of shows from live, working with other visual artists and DJ's, while meshing with other artists who may or may not be exhibiting video works, but may be working on canvas as we performed at MIT, to kinetic and choreographed dance with Tributary, to DJ sets with Frankie Bones and Naughty Wood, Woody McBride, Felix Da Housecat, Tommie Sunshine, Skylab 2000, Green Velvet, Jimi Custer to scoring soundtracks on Harvard Radcliffe Television. One video performance was next to inventors of robotics, human-computer interactive circuitry, LCD installations. DJ Times put on the DJ Expo where we performed live next to companies like Korg, Roland, Yamaha, and other music manufacturers. Other shows are poolside, or as in case of Remix Hotel in Miami, right on the ocean. What a great view that was.
In five words or less: what do you as an artist hope to accomplish with a live visual show?
Visual mixing that heightens awareness.
One last question: could you define awareness? What I mean is what little corner of people's brains are you trying nudge?
Awareness is the capacity for one to use imagination, creativity, and spontaneity to live in the moment and experience the conceptual, graphic, intellectual, environmental, and informational processes of our experience with others. Awareness is about feeling the music and opening up to the visual side of life. Awareness is about reflecting on technology, pop culture, and the digital age. Kraftwerk emphasized "Business, Numbers, Money, People." Add environmental sustainability and other issues to this list and the formula is complete.
You can see 000000000001 next at Bassgasm at First Avenue this Friday, July 23rd
When did you first start playing around with live video?
Well, it's actually a little bit of an adventure. I was 17 living in Panama on an exchange program, with a Panamanian family, and all while after having studied a little video fun in high school. I met this fascinating kid on the streets who had this notebook filled with connections all over the city, really spastic weird kid of kids. But anyway, we hung out for a while, and he found out I was a video artist, so one day told me I had to be at this club downtown for an afterparty to do live video. This is 2004.
I knew I was interested in live video, but to be thrown into this gig was quite a shock. My experience in Panama put me in a bit of a crazed fearlessness, so I committed, showed up, and ended up mixing live Final Cut renders and the iTunes visualizer with some strange video art I had done in high school. The night went on and I started to put up some really hyper-weird porno-effect remixes I was working with (puberty), and was having a blast. Then the owner came up and asked me to take off the hypersex psychedelia, so I did. Then to my complete surprise twenty-plus super-uber-lust-hot Colombian stripper hookers showed up with their "clients" after the strip clubs closed. Then the same dude comes over and tells me "more sexies." I walked away a little more of a man.
That's a pretty holy-moly story and I'd say a pretty great inspiration for continuing along that path.
And the most incredible megamazing adventure ensued.
So what IS it, exactly?
Well, live video is so dynamic and performing it is completely open for interpretation; live video is different for everyone, music performance is similar, but can also be judged less. Video can so easily be cheesy, and learning to embrace cheese and gauge the reactions people have when interacting with the images changes it for every approach. Personally, I am completely geared toward interactivity. It's the most rewarding for me, to give people a chance to play and have fun. Period. Play is key to evolution. Especially at nightclubs, there are very limited amounts of play, mainly just DANCE. Believe me, I love dance almost more than anyone I know, but there is only so much wigglefun you can do at an event. Typically socializing usually wins over dance, and to facilitate good socializing, the peoples' brains need sparks.
What kind of sparks?
Direction... sometimes people need a little poke, just a nudge into having more fun, like a hint from your camp counselor. I like to entice play, suggest fun games, looks, aesthetics. Come to Menergy at the Kitty Kat club on July 31st and funtasia yourself into the PLAYATTA Video Portal! You will see what I mean...
So how do you do it? Programs, inspiration, equipment...?
Over the many years I've engaged my body and brain fingers into this whole shiboingz. Ive accumulated a mashmegamount of toys, half hardware and half software, and I pride myself on the harmony I can sometimes romance between the two. They each have their P's 'n C's, but like I said its all toys, and FUN is the key word here! I've got a toy box of FUN! Recently I built a portal, it takes adventuring people into a virtual fungasm of expressive play. We call it the PLAYATTA Video Portal, It will pop your eyeballs with funtasia...you will simply have to see it for yourselves.
What's your most favoritest gig ever?
I am easily the luckiest video artist on the planet: Freaky Deeky as a whole. I was lucky enough to meet Hamil Griffin-Cassidy at MTN [Minneapolis' public access station], and dive into his world of freeform expressionism. Cable Access freak fest. Over the year or so we've done this crazy show I've learned soo much about working with people, hardware, narratives...it's the most amazing performance possible.
What are you working on right now?
I am unlocking the potential of the videofun universe by bringing the audience and adventurers into this big video portal and letting them have fun. Pure magical fun. Its a chromascreen walk-in video booth with a teleprompter. It's so rad... I wish I had had one as a 12 year old kid. Soon to come, multimodal karaoke service with an autotune option and a plethora of backgrounds and effects. So rad! It's in the form of a rad company, PLAYATTA.
Do you think live visual artists have been getting more respect recently? Less backgrounded?
YESSS! We are catching up to the rest of the world. What's next is for the musicians and DJs to have more respect for it, and more willingness to collaborate, for full AV experience.
How should music and visuals interact towards that do you think? For maximum play, I mean?
In my whacked out brain, ideally, I would like to see the music magicians, and the video wizards follow themes. Play and include the audiences as participants, recording them and using it all in the setting, making everybody smile into a certain funmosphere. Giving them some time to shine! Have them walk away feeling a little more confident about themselves, and play a little more with their faces and mouths in their everyday lives...playhouse style!
What is your ultimate goal?
To induce creative potential with interactive play. We all for some reason stopped playing. It's what will let us evolve...KIDZONE 2000!
Time Squid is currently attending and documenting Space Camp, but will be performing very soon somewhere very fun
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.