- Visual technology is advancing at a more rapid pace than audio technology, and visual artists are taking advantage of this. Robert Henke's Lumière and Robin Fox's RGB are two shows that use advanced lasers to create visuals of a standard we're not used to. But they both go even further than this, making something artistic out of the audiovisual systems themselves. The result, you might say, is electronic art taken to its logical conclusion.
Robert Henke first performed Lumière at Unsound last year. Since then, he's been continually developing his technology, which links sound with the retina-burning lasers projected onto the screen. The technical details are constantly in flux—according to Henke's website, they've changed considerably since Unsound, and he told me via email that even the info on his website is out of date by now. Essentially, it works like this: the same MIDI notes control both the sound and the lasers, with each note linked to a particular shape on the screen and to a particular sound. MIDI control data modifies the parameters of both. Sounds such as kick drums are linked to a particular shape, but the number of such sounds has been decreasing. More and more, Henke's been using a Max4Live synthesiser he built, which mirrors—sonically—the laser pattern generator modules. He's also been exploring ways to control the details with more overarching functionality. In short, he's been developing an instrument, where the synergy between light and visuals has been getting ever more intimate.
I didn't know any of this before the show. Put simply, the experience was an intense and accurate assault on both senses. Slamming breakbeat techno sat alongside ascetic soundscapes, without much tonal content at all. Visually, the shapes—pseudo-spirograph traces, Lissajous figures, various geometrical patterns—morphed at high velocity. Sometimes expanding from a pinpoint, the early milliseconds of the shapes were scorched into your eyes. The project aims to explore "synchronicity and divergence," and from the viewer's perspective, it did: the sounds synchronized with their respective shapes, while many of the separate elements were out of synch with each other. The lofty claim on the Barbican's website—that Lumière "expands electronic music"—is a realistic one. Few shows around, if any, are so breathtakingly rational.
Robin Fox's show took a similar but slightly different tack. The sounds were more abstract, like they were being directly generated from raw code. The red, green and blue lasers moved like they were being controlled by the very same code: it was something like the "manufactured synaesthetic experience" that it aimed to be. You could either think about which parameters of the lights and sounds were linked, or simply let it all wash over you.