Fundamental Forces at Recombinant Media Labs’ CineChamber

Cycling ’74 (the developers of MaxMSP) recently posted an interview with audio/visual composer Tarik Barri discussing his collaboration with Robert Henke (a.k.a Monolake) for the RML Cinechamber. Called Fundamental Forces, this work was remarkable on a number of levels both for its processes and product. Having been in the room for the development of this piece there are a number of insights that I think are worth adding to the conversation about the creation of technologically ambitious virtual worlds and electronic art in general. I think this work was exceptional in a number of respects that it addressed some “fundamental” problems in electronic art production, archival and performance and so is worth exploring further.

The first thing to note is that both artists are extremely accomplished and brilliant independently, who have refined their working methods and tools to a point that they can be extremely prolific using both broad strokes and later fine grained control to polish a work. Both should be particularly noted for putting massive development effort into their own working environments; Robert being in the core development team behind the venerable Ableton Live software suite, and Tarik single-handedly creating his own intimidatingly powerful and flexible 3d visual composing tool, Versum (built with the media toolkit and visual programming language MaxMSP).

An introduction to Versum:

Even with their considerable skill and custom toolset Robert and Tarik had a monumental task ahead of them when the set out to create a work for the CineChamber. Like any complex system there are a number of limitations in processing headroom, options for control and in this case a severe time restriction for the development of the work. For the Club Transmediale presentations we had a non-stop month of residencies prior to the festival dedicated to the development of new material. All three groups who participated in the residency (Signal, Monolake + Tarik Barri, Deadbeat + Lillivan) had only a week each to develop both a 20 minute re-playable audio/visual “module” and a 40 minute live set. The artists all used drastically different approaches and produced an incredible amount of work, but Fundamental Forces was the only work that was completed in anything near a exhibition ready state. I think part of the reason for its success was because of its working methods. The theme of CTM ’11, “Live?”, focused directly on these questions of live vs. recorded performance, and Fundamental Forces is a outstanding case study.

The senario as described by Tarik:

The real problem was that the CineChamber doesn’t have any gaps between the screens, so any slight timing differences between them would immediately and easily be seen. So this implied that I would have to seriously think about accurate ways of time syncing. I discussed possible solutions with Robert Henke and he had some nice ideas, but I didn’t go there since I couldn’t obtain enough computers to pull this off. I only had the possibility of making use of RML’s single supercomputer, which handles all of the 10 projections. So to make sure I would get the most out of the CineChamber setup, without totally overloading the CPU or sacrificing frame rate or resolution, I decided to use Versum in a non-real time way and render everything in full resolution at 30fps. These projections combined, formed one big panoramic surround window, through which the audience could see the Versum universe all around them in 360 degrees.

Basically the real brilliance here was to use a classic technique of media production, the control path. By having a separate control data system inside Versum, Tarik was able to use a multi-pass production process to allow Robert and himself to work in parallel, and to bring a live performance feel to his work. This tactic has been used in audio and video production programs since time immemorial, the first implementation coming to mind is in MUSIC I-V by Max Mathews. The basic idea is to have a separate data and recording path for all input controller data that can then be replayed at a slower rate to coincide with a processor intensive render process.

Fundamental Forces rehearsals:

By separating themselves during the development of the piece Robert and Tarik were able to make significant headway independently, while ensuring that their work would link together at the end to form a cohesive whole. The basic process went something like this; Robert would do a rough mix of some tracks with the basic forms, beat and time arcs mostly set. Tarik could then listen to this and set up a world of 3d objects, transformations and camera movements that reinforced and responded to this soundtrack.  In the interest of time he rendered this composition into a low resolution single or multi-screen composition quickly, which Robert watched to make further refinements and adjustments to his music.

Because all of Tarik’s camera and controller movements were recorded, the entire video composition could be recreated with an arbitrary number of screen viewports at any resolution at a later time. This coincided with Robert’s Live set, his controller movements and mix were also captured. The process allowed the content to be hocketed back and forth between the two artists, creating tighter integration among the parts, but allowing independent work at different times. Also, the data recording process in both the sound and video setups made it possible to play along and compose the performance with live gestures.

This gave the final composition the feeling of a live performance even though the CTM version was largely pre-rendered. While this is a worthwhile goal in itself, such a working process also future proofs the composition in a large way. The actual composition is not so much what was seen on the screens on the CineChamber, it was an abstracted set of data and processes that could be rendered to any kind of format. One could imagine Fundamental Forces on any arrangement of screens and speakers, from single screen/monaural to dome/wavefront. In this sense it was very much analogous to music notation … a composition is deeper than any single performance and can be performed in a variety of circumstances. This structure also makes it open to interpretation, in theory two more artists could pick up this piece and create a derivative version that maintained affinity with the original, but built upon it.

These issues, interpretation, archival and re-performance are some of the biggest issues facing our culture right now in terms of electronic art. As we worth through the issues it is vital to take a look at works such as Fundamental Forces that light a path forward.

Fundamental Forces live performance: