I remember every detail of what the first show I attended looked like, but you couldn’t pay me to tell you which songs were played. This was nearly twenty years ago, and what stuck was not the music. It was the complete experience. The music just happened to be the reason I was there. Music does not merely affect your ears, it seems the visual experience of a live performance is often as important as the auditory. Many bands can carry themselves without the aid of visual performance, but some feel they can enhance their presence with a visual element.
“Bands have done it for a long time,” explains Jinsen Liu, member of 28 Degrees Taurus. “I liked how Velvet Underground did it with Andy Warhol in the Factory days.”
Liu is referring to the use of projection behind a band as they perform. Andy Warhol was involved in the marketing of the Velvet Underground in the 1960s, and he aided them in constructing their live performance by providing them with video. Liu’s band occasionally uses projection during their performances, but only when they want to create a specific environment for their audience.
Liu, like many other performers, often finds himself looking back at musical performers of the past in his creative process.
“I remember seeing the multi-media format for the first time at the original Deep Heaven performances in the 90s. It adds an extra dimension to any performance [using] sight, sound, sensory overload, etcetera. I also liked the way Jefferson Airplane used it in the height of the late 60s as well. It goes with the psych genre particularly well which is what I'm primarily involved in these days anyway.”
Liu described the process for his bands projection selection.
“It's often really random. The best that I've seen was Dr. T, who used four DVD players and a video mixer to mix all the images coming in from four sources. Joe Turner who does a lot of the Deep Heaven festivals with me just takes the typical psychedelic pattern thing and just manipulates and spirals everything. Then there are bands I saw back in the day like Lightning Bolt, who play to violent cartoons fast-forwarded backwards. The image choices depend a lot on the music and the bands playing,”
Many other bands are more involved in the process of selecting their imaging. Myke Cameron of Luau and of Dig Safe described what he created with a previous band, called Pretty Faces, “We were going for a sort of horror/slasher aesthetic that was sort of popular at the time, so we essentially did the easiest thing to incorporate some multimedia in that theme that we could think of. I had a slide projector (and they still made slide film at the time) so we had our friend Julie take pictures of us all covered in karo syrup fake blood in a construction site.”
Unlike Liu, Cameron feels that the images were integral to the success of his bands live performances.
“The visuals were pretty crucial in getting the audience to respond to us. The music we were playing was incredibly simplistic and somewhat cliché already, and at the time we weren't very tight,” Cameron explained. “I think 90 percent of the credit for the mostly positive responses we got at shows was due to the visual element (along with us jumping around a lot). We created a sort of atmosphere of chaos that got people into it even though our music was not really all that great yet.”
He has considered incorporating visual elements with his new musical projects as well, but has encountered difficulty.
“Dig Safe has talked a lot about doing stuff like that, Luau is less receptive to ideas like that, mostly because we're wary that it will just complicate things. Its hard to pull that stuff off unless you have someone involved that’s willing to take the reigns on it, ideally someone who isn't busy performing and can control the visual thing (Pretty Faces had a guy who all he did was operate the slide projector / light board / fog machine). I sort of think music videos are essentially a similar concept, albeit recorded rather than live, and both bands have talked about doing videos,”
Cameron and band mates have been hard pressed to find someone to help them with this element of their performance. They have also had a hard time fixing their projector, which cost a great deal to repair when they’re not digital.
“We also have discussed doing a Mario Kart tournament where bands play while people compete on a projector behind the bands,” Cameron added, also explaining that this would bring an entire new market to their performances.
Another popular form of visual aid is live painting. It is not a new concept. The 1960s band The Creation used to create a live painting themselves when they performed the song “Painter Man.” The singer would let out all his aggression on a canvas throughout the song, and then destroy the painting once he had completed it, strewing the bits of artwork into the crowd or lighting it on fire. It is less common now to see a musician take part in a live painting performance, but it is not uncommon to see a painter. Doug Gately has done several live performances.
“I had known about (live painting) being done, but never saw it until Melissa Ross was doing an event with Unstandard, I think at Cantab, it was a music show and I asked if I could hop on and try to do some live painting. She had left the description of the show sort of wide open, so I figured there may be room for it. There were bands and I think some hanging art, and then from there, it was kind of just a matter of asking my friends who have bands if they would want live painting at any of their shows.”
Gately described the process of getting involved in live painting, which at times he found very strange.
“Honestly, I found it pretty uncomfortable, as its something I’ve been doing by myself for years, and suddenly there are people all around asking about it, or drunk and bumping into me or whatever, but what I really liked was the increased energy of having people around as well as a live band playing. It definitely brought some new aspect to the process that hadn’t existed before.”
Gately has worked with many different performers, and he really feels that the music has a huge impact on what he creates.
“Different music will have different energy to it,” he said. “And it definitely kind of affects the painting process. If not directly in terms of the image itself, it at least affects my body and mind while I'm doing the painting. This can manifest itself in the rhythm of the piece, as well as how hard I hit it with the brush. Also I think there's some time limit to it in terms of trying to complete whatever you’re working on before the show is over. It forces you to work more directly and not obsess over tiny details that I may get stuck on if I were just working alone.”
In reference to the viability of creating live art, Gately was very enthusiastic. He seems jaded with the traditional art scene.
“My biggest frustration with visual art is the orthodox culture of how to display and share that art. You can work for months on pieces, struggle to make the right connections to get a gallery showing, work to arrange an opening, and then depending on the turnout, some people might see your art, or it very well may be that no one sees your art,” stated Gately. “Art openings cater to a very specific crowd, and for many of them, the art is the backdrop for an excuse to schmooze and get drunk for free. It can actually have a negative effect on how you feel about your own art, in my experience. But with live painting, it's totally different. It's happening in a different venue, under different conditions, with a different crowd (who more than likely had no intention of seeing art that night) and the entire artistic process is different. It's all happening RIGHT NOW in front of you, just like the band is playing RIGHT NOW. I think it's a great way to meet people who aren't there for the same reasons people would be at a traditional art opening.”
Gately feels that it is very important to include the audience in the process, and show them something they may not otherwise have seen.
“I think it adds a layer of understanding to the process. Most of the time, with visual art, you only see the finished product,” he said. “And despite whatever your opinion of that finished piece may be, whether you hate it or are in awe of it, you only get that last step in the process. But to see it being created adds a very basic underlying truth to it: that it was made by someone, and if you want, you can watch the entire process take place. It's why Bob Ross was a success, it's why things like the Food Network exist. Showing the process automatically increases someone's interest in and appreciation of something exponentially, in my opinion.”
An exciting aspect for Gately is the opportunity to work with other artists.
“I think I've worked the most times alongside “The Great Miles Anders,” who I find to be incredibly talented,” he said of his colleague. “I've never really felt pressured to consciously remain independent from what he's doing, as I think we both bring our own ideas and techniques to the table. I do find it pretty refreshing and inspiring to be working alongside an artist I respect, as I think it's energizing to step back and see what someone else is doing, and then take that energy back into my work.”
Miles Anders, on the other hand, has a very different experience with live painting. As painting is a very personal experience for the artist, it stands to reason that everyone’s opinions on the matter will differ.
“Doug Gately said to me ‘Miles we’re doing live painting, it’s awesome.’ So I started doing live painting right away.” Anders laughed.
Unlike Gately, Anders isn’t sure that live painting will get him any more credit in the art world.
“Maybe if we were at pricier bars where people had money it would be viable,” he said. “For me, at least, it’s just fun. It’s completely different than painting alone, and painting with live music is amazing, and, obviously, you can’t do that at your house. It made me start painting again. I get to go out and have fun with my friends and I get to paint at the same time and that’s great. From my first experience with it people appreciated me and the band interacted with us. The venue was great, it was large and the audience was receptive. That’s what’s important.”
Despite not being able to make money from it, Anders has come out if the experience with great stories.
“People’s ideas and suggestions influence the work. At the same time you always have people looking over your shoulder, and you sort of want to engage with them but you’re not sure if they just want to observe or if they’re a weirdo or a drunk person,” said Anders. “I think this one guy who had sunglasses and who was standing two inches away may have been tripping. His words were so slurred and I was like, yeah, okay I guess I won’t talk to you. He probably saw something really cool in my painting.”
Anders thinks it’s important for a lot of people to see how art is created.
“A lot of the people don’t really see art being made,” he said. “Even with guys painting on Newbury Street or guys painting in Harvard Square. It’s something that people don’t see every day. The way I paint specifically I restart a lot, and many people don’t understand that about art. Sometimes, a lot of times, I don’t have a plan. Painting is a journey, it’s not always the end product. Painting itself is fun, and working toward a goal while you’re painting is good, but it’s painting itself that is sort of more important than that.”
For now at least, this seems to be a fun and interesting way to combine media, and work with new ideas. A lot of this can be said about music as well, so it seems that painting and music have a lot more in common than many people may think. As technology makes combining media formats easier, this may be a real life response which can evolve and make live performance last through the digital age.
Doug Gately painting at the Unstandard
Jinsen Liu performing with aid of projection