Talking with the audio-visual creators of Floating Points' live show
Hamill Industries is the creative studio of Pablo Barquín and Anna Diaz – a pair of mixed media artists focused on creating physical audio-visual performances and installations. At the core of what they do is a desire to escape the digital screen to produce a “playful blend of tangible and virtual worlds, supported by intensive research, and the development of different media and technology”.
The main output of the studio is a long standing collaboration with Sam Shepherd, the artist behind Floating Points, with whom they have toured extensively in Europe and America. In addition to their studio work they also teach at the Institute of Advanced Architecture in Barcelona.
I join them on a Friday evening in their cosy studio located in the Bogatell district of Barcelona to discuss their work. Half of the space is a workshop crammed with an array of tools and miscellaneous contraptions. The other half an office where Pablo and Anna are finishing a project pitch. Their charismatic dog Tinta introduces herself affectionately then begins gnawing her way through a 3d printed machine part.
I come from the world of film making and cultural management. I studied audio-visual production and film making in Germany then began making live shows and video mapping. I also worked for CCCB for a long time. Through learning about experimental film makers I developed an interest in analog projects, building things using different processes outside of general film making. We really enjoy not only being in front of the computer but also making things in lens, and creating inventions.
I’ve been here for 7 years, and used to work in the studio upstairs with a motion graphics company. I was trying to escape the whole time away from the computer to make things with my hands. When creating motion graphics you are constantly trying to make the same mistakes as real life, like matching lens distortion or adding motion blur. So I thought why don’t we do this in real life using scale models and real lenses? As the tools I wanted to use were getting bigger and bigger and the amount of time I wanted to spend in front of the computer was getting smaller, so I eventually set up Hamill.
I still love 3d but want to combine it more with prototyping and mechanical designs, in the space between both worlds. Often I find what you can do in the computer just complicates things.
For the Silhouettes project we constructed a 3d printer, but instead of extruding plastic it extrudes light. We then photographed it with a long exposure, two minutes per frame, to create a classic stop motion animation. The rig itself was controlling the shutter and there were also a few tricks in between. We had to flash in the background to get the fill light.
Pablo and I have been working together for two years so we are trying to find our space. We might be good for specific Ad campaigns or installations but our process and approach are more artistic. We feel free in the art and performance space. Vortex for example was an immersive installation we were super happy about and felt very comfortable doing. We are in the middle of so many things and in the end we do a lot of personal development and research behind these projects. Advertising always needs time to accept different ways of working and I believe there is becoming a new need for mixed mediums.
Personally I feel most comfortable developing shows because it’s always interesting working with music. You tend to have more time and there’s a concept that needs developing at the same time as the technology. That’s when the funny things happen.
The work for Floating Points takes up most of our time. Luckily Sam always plans for things in the future and keeps us in the loop. He loves scientific based videos and is actually a neuroscientist. He not practicing now but he’s legally a doctor with a PHD. I guess this is why we share this interest for science and technologic processes.
Floating points is very famous in Europe, but in middle America not so much. We were playing in really small places where you can’t even fit the show, sometimes for as little as 15 people. We’ve been to over 35 states. The first tour was coast to coast across the North of America. The second we went through the South. Then East to West, top to bottom.
You must visit some unusual venues, what kind of reaction do you get from the audience?
Most of the people show a lot of interest for the music and after show, for the visuals. But we also have been with audience that just wants to drink and smoke weed and do drugs and don’t care about the visuals. From time to time you have someone who says ‘I really like it, thank you!’. When it’s in a proper venue that’s closed to people, they seem more interested because it is easier to catch their attention. We have played shows in huge festivals, but it is in concert halls and small venues when people are more interested when they see the set up.
Can you explain the laser show a little more?
We noticed everyone was only using lasers pointed into the crowd to play cheesy 90’s patterns and shapes, so we instead began using the laser as a projector. If you face the laser towards a light sensitive screen (a similar material as glow in the dark stars) all the traces of the light become impressed, leaving patterns that fade away very slowly. You can then make one pattern and paint another on top.
We initially performed using pre-generated imagery live. By switching between animations you can play the laser to make it sing with the music. At that point we didn’t have the system in place to connect the visuals directly to the music. We also realised that to achieve that would be logistically very complicated.
“you can play the laser to make it sing with the music”
The difference is with video mapping you build something that happens one time. When you do live shows that have to tour you have to make something adaptable to any kind of festival or even a bar. The difficulty was we had to rebuild it every time. In Australia I actually lost one third of the screen mid-tour!
To make the videos for the laser shows we would listen to the music then draw out the layers of rhythm. This way we were able to figure out when the drums come in and what does this sound mean visually. Sam’s music is very psychic so it’s actually easy to draw these patterns. We then did this for every song, making images to represent the sounds.
Where did these ideas come from? What’s your inspiration?
We started with the idea of using an oscilloscopes to create these shapes inspired by the work of Oskar Fischinger and John Whitney. We then went beyond lissajous imagery into celestial harmonics.
We eventually wanted to use not only to use representations of sounds but the actual traces – less of a direct input of sound and more of an interpretation. The next show we did was more of a literal translation.
At some points we also used algorithms to reproduce certain shapes. We also used mathematical equations like a black hole that was falling in on itself. For the solo show we worked closely with Sam to create frequencies to discover new shapes. Our visual forms actually pushed back to create his music.
We eventually built a whole self communicating system. A friend of ours helped create a program using Open Frameworks that was capable of translating shapes we designed in 3d into sound. So we made a system that was able to receive Sam’s input through Ableton, filter every individual channel, and then interpret any MIDI trigger such as the drums, the Harmonic or the Buchla (the instrument that creates the crazy shapes). That way we can decide if we assign certain sounds to certain moments. There are things that are triggered in sync, but we ultimately decide what to use live with the midi pad. Everything you see in the show is real time. We then film the screen output of an 80’s console game called a Vectrex with a GoPro and then project the signal through a mixing table.
Live show setup
“We opened a new frame of collaboration between sound and image”
By the end when we started to get comfortable Sam used my makeup mirror so he could see what was being projected. He actually started performing sounds to create interesting shapes on screen. As we improvised it quickly became very gothic and super messy. We opened a new frame of collaboration between sound and image. To be honest it was the first I really had fun performing live.
Jerobeam Fenderson was undeniably a huge inspiration, however our software is different in that we can take sequences and animated images, not just shapes. I think if you don’t modify the sound it just seems cheap.
Jerobeam Fenderson Oscilloscope
With the Oscilloscope the volume is the size of the shape, then you have X and Y which is the frequency of the sound. Using a frequency shifter to add a third fixed sign wave can create the Z axis depth.
“We aren’t looking for equations, we are looking for things that are beautiful”
We are not mathematicians or scientific like Sam, although we have a deep interest in physics and robotics that we often use as inspiration. So we are always to pushing him to explain things. We had an agreement early on that we would teach him Spanish in exchange for Scientific knowledge. We like mathematical shapes, but we don’t feel comfortable with functions. We aren’t looking for equations, we are looking for things that are beautiful.
So do you think there is an absolute direct relationship between sound and image?
I wanted to listen and convert the sounds into shapes. The sound of basic shapes are very pure and only going through one channel. As you add stuff you listen to it growing. Of course there is always a background of imagery you build with. I start by drawing the arc of the music, like you would a child, it’s very simple, converting the music into sound shapes. It’s still scientific because you have to adapt to what the sounds produces. We are just exploring. It’s very personal, discovering what we like. Not always if its a shape we like, but does the shape relate strongly to the sound?
I am sure all of us can distinguish between a circle and square in terms of the sound produced. (Pablo hums and mimes a circle then a square)
I am not so sure! I think they are very similar. When you start to add frequencies or multiply the same shape over and over is when it starts to do that. You can really hear the points as a sharp change of frequency when you have depth. It’s not so clear on a flat shape.
After working with these sounds I don’t find them annoying any more. I am becoming more tolerant. They can initially drive you crazy, but become beautiful when you see what they create visually.