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LIVE REPORT: Agony Art
Stephen Graham , May 14th, 2014 14:13

Stephen Graham reports on performances from Freida Abtan and Jayna Cavendish, Ryo Ikeshiro and Simon Katanfrom at Chisenhale Dance Studios

Agony Art is a monthly series that has been running at Chisenhale Dance Studios in East London for the past three years. Curated by Antigone Avdi and featuring everything from dance to experimental theatre, the series occasionally includes evenings incorporating music alongside or in place of those other forms. The latest show gave itself entirely over to audio-visual artists whose interests in generative and real-time multimedia digital production methods intersect in fruitful and mutually complementary ways.   Freida Abtan's film work, which uses self-customised patches to manipulate, bend, and distort images in real-time, feels very much of a piece with her taste for sonic noise and ruckus permeated by repetition and rhythmic drive. Both her sounds and visuals work against and with definition, flowering into jewel-like moments of clarity – a luminous dancer, say, or a sampled voice singing movingly amidst swirling effects – before fizzling or spilling out into bent shapes and contorted sonics.

Abtan's performance tonight has her collaboratively improvising with dancer and choreographer Jayna Cavendish, who is projected into and thus stretched and processed within Abtan's film of gleaming cogs and opaque shape and gestures. The performance, which therefore consists of live dancer, real-time film featuring that dancer and real-time laptop improvisation, displayed Abtan's grungy but layered aesthetic especially well. Thumping, dungeon crawl ambient sounds marked the first passage, with Cavendish arching out sculptural shapes in response. IDM noise and scrabbled, sharded pop sounds then drew out a range of intensities and poses from the dancer, from denatured scissor kicks to troubled gymnastic scowls. Cavendish-in-the-film, meanwhile, is reduced to pure colour spectra at times, formed a collage duet with the figure in the film at others, and went swashing across the action like a godly monster at still others. The whole thing feels winningly off-kilter and confusing throughout.

Ryo Ikeshiro's performance is anything but off-kilter, although it is no less impressive for its deliberation than Abtan's is for its unpredictability. Ikeshiro works in the kind of controlled, hyper-synchronised audio-visual world shared with someone like Ryoji Ikeda, where thick digital imagery closely parallels – mickey-mouses, to use the old film music term – noisy, bleepy sonics similar to those of other artists like Wolfgang Hecker or Yasunao Tone in their intricacy and their gaudy, assaultive tactility. Here Ikeshiro draws from his Construction In Kneading, in which the audio and visuals are produced generatively in real-time, based, in Ikeshiro's own words, "on a 3D fractal created through a recursive process much like kneading dough". What this means in practice is that we see a succession of abstract black and white digital images and noisy sounds slowly moving in close, though not exact, parallel from states of stasis (a stable geometric grid, for example, or a repeating noise) into states of thick action.

Ikeshiro's control of drama in what could have been a fairly cold display of digital dexterity is exemplary; following an opening suite of noisily intense detail, the image and audio are suddenly cleared to nothing, before a single tone and square of colour appears, in sync, slowly twisting into view. These gradually crumble and fractalise into dense arrays of on the one hand tiny spots in a grand visual mesh, and on the other bristly pink noise. This "crumbling" continues to the point where Ikeshiro's wonderful audio-visual code-poem starts to swish and swirl in a relaxed, steady motion, and I am put in mind of nothing other than the sea, now revealed as one more data field with its own internal laws, sonic language and fractal visual self-similarities. Definition arcs to nothing by the end, time and motion slow to a giant's lumber.

This gradual, dynamic movement from visual and sonic clarity into confusion is echoed in Simon Katan's What Is Life, another real-time audio-visual piece. In this case Katan's visual and indeed sonic process echoes, at least at its "front end", the kinds of popular smartphone apps (such as Soundrop or Orbits) where it's possible to make astonishingly complex collage-minimalist music simply by toying with tones triggered by the manipulation of a simple 2D visual grid in which objects appear and can be controlled by simple touchscreen mechanisms.

In Katan's case, the objects are small revolving bars he can call up and manipulate in delightfully inventive ways, from blurring them into the background to combining them to form the double helix shapes which gives the piece its title, pinging each time their little ball falls on each revolution. Katan uses various "sieves" – tuned scales, from minor pentatonic to 'Bartok' to 'Partch' (after the composers) to double harmonic minor – to create a mesh of colliding pitch arrays.

Initially, using the minor pentatonic (i.e the black notes on a piano) sieve, Katan creates a child-like web of chiming sound. But through careful visual manipulation of these objects, and through the application of different sieves and generative presets, the sounds are turned into a droning, micro-tonal thronging mass, thick with overtone tendrils if listened to closely, but bonging like large church bells at a distance.

Bearing comparison with earlier minimalist composers such as LaMonte Young or Michael Harrison whilst also playfully suggesting the kinds of digital generative procedures underlying both popular market apps and the two earlier performances, Katan is able to bring together much that is interesting in both commercial music software, and the kinds of experimental multimedia practices explored by Abtan and Ikeshiro.  

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