This research (a work in progress), started a couple of years ago, as a way to re-think the mediums I’ve been using as a Media Artist focusing on the field of live visuals, music and sound, I wanted to look back on the history and meaning of multimedia, real time, and the possibilities of this so-called new technologies. Having so little being written on the subject, this paper traces an outline between key concepts and a timeline of live events and multimedia expressions.

Stills from Gaita.n Vj Mix_ carmenelectric for retroViSOR

Demiurges of the Light

(The art of building sand castles at the speed of light, here… now)

Or… from Plato’s cave (first real time projection), to Vj Culture.

The eternal dream of controlling time and space seems impossible, things happen here and now… time is irreversible. Yet, our minds and bodies are multiple, multilinear. We see, smell, touch, taste, feel… think, and this intricate net is weaved instantly inside our organism.

Today, with the imminent presence of new and changing technologies, terms such as immediateness, virtuality, multiplicity and ubiquity, seem to be reevaluating our space-time continuum. For ordinary people, notions like multimedia and real time are possible because of the existence of computers, for a great percentage of them, this machine has been in our lives for mostly a decade… yes and no.

Demiurges of the Light, traces a cartography (as media archaeology), of audiovisual expressions and more precisely, expanded cinema, researching on crucial moments in which cultural forms, have explored the notions of projection, multimedia and live event, (and with the appearance of television and digital media), the concept of real time narration. The emphasis is oriented towards the generation, control and synchronization of images and sound, and the experiences and objects that these mediums create, considering live events, live. Starting from Wayang Kulit and ending in Live Visuals, this timeline spans over 5.000 years where expressions like baroque theater, 19th century opera, magic and illusionism shows, visual music experiments developed in the 20’s, 60’s liquid shows, 70’s art rock movement, contemporary VJ Culture, Expanded Cinema from Abel Gance to Peter Greenaway from The Light Surgeons to Monumental Projections, draw a line on how the moving image transcends the traditional screen and projects itself into 3 dimensional space, in a journey that has taken its course from the museum to public spaces.

Philosophical random factors ?

I would like to start quoting two thinkers who might give an insight on one of the main subjects of this paper.

“As soon as you walk down a street your consciousness is being cut by random factors. The cut-up is closer to the facts of human perception than linear narrative. Life is a Cut Up”.[1]

William S. Burroughs (Commissioner of Sewers)

“It is thus absolutely necessary to die, because while living we lack meaning, and the language of our lives (with which we express ourselves and which we attribute the greatest importance) is untranslatable: a chaos of possibilities, a search for relations among discontinuous meanings. Death performs a lightning quick montage on our lives, that is, it chooses our truly significant moments (…) and places them in sequence, convening our present, which is infinite, unstable and uncertain, and thus linguistically indescribable, into a clear, stable, certain, and thus describable past (…) It is thanks to death that our lives become expressive.

Montage thus accomplishes for the material of film (…) what death accomplishes for life”[2].

Pier Paolo Pasolini “ Observations on the long take”

Could we think of our lives as sequences of images being (edited) in real time and space ? Is life a montage ?

Now I will make a distinction between Live event (one that takes place before a live audience), and Real Time, which is inherent to the birth of mass media and afterwards, digital media; it can be divided in two kinds of real time: broadcast, or computer controlled.

Live Real Time
Before an audience(Theater, music, dance) Broadcast or transmission(TV origins, radio) Controlled(performer) Triggered (automation)
Edited (or) Fixed on a timeline Variable / Adjustable
Continuous Discrete
Analogue or Digital

To cut or not to cut… (That’s the dilemma).

Artists have always tried to create experiences that resemble the way in which we perceive our environment; multisensory spaces, simultaneous spectacles, multiple narratives, etc.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of multimedia dates back to 1962; and it is described as “using, involving, or encompassing several media”[3]

With this definition in mind it becomes clear that it is not necessary to think about multimedia as a digital invention, if we think about the quintessential multimedial machine, we must take in account our own body.

“All media are extensions of some human faculty, psychic or physical”.[4]

Mc Luhan, The medium is the massage.

Traditional Cinematics

(cinema, video, tv)

Expanded Cinema

(installations, live visuals, architectural projections, etc.)

Fixed duration (static time) Variable  duration (dynamic time)
Screened Spatialized
Localized Mobile, adaptive

Fire is the first elemental, one that puts under evidence the existence of another world, fire projects images on to Plato’s cave (maybe we can say that it has been the 1st real time projection).

Almost 3.000 years ago, nomadic tribes (mainly in southeast Asia), developed what is known to us as Wayang Kulit, or Shadow Puppet Theatre, the principle: very simple; an animal skin was stretched, behind it a light source would flicker, (in this case… fire) between the fire and the emerging screen troops of elaborated cut figures were controlled by a Dalang or (puppet master), which also was the story teller and had control over the musicians and special sound effects; traditional stories such as Ramayana or Mahabharata were performed, the public opened their eyes dazed in wonder, this spectacle which had Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Greek and even European versions, still runs today and has been listed as Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Today the principle is still the same, fire has been replaced for HD projectors or LED screens, the Dalang may be a human or a machine, the sound is all around us, the public is still amazed.

Centuries later: on Magic, spectral appearances and retinal persistence (or life in darkness)

In the early nineteenth century the labor of the traveler lanternist or “Savoyard” (which worked as a minstrel or jester), wandering through towns and cities, carrying on his back a box full of lenses and “slides” which where projected while a story was being told, draws an interesting image on the fusion of nomadic behavior, oral tradition, live event and new technologies, and also recalls the Indonesian Dalang.

In the 19th century, a large number of magicians and illusionists used optical toys in their shows; the terrifying images and atmospheres created by phantasmagorias became popular, achieved by means of special effects done with mirrors, lighting control, smoke and sound in front of a live audience.

“The magicians of the nineteenth century were the first to adopt the technology of their time. Long before the audiences became familiar with electricity and projection techniques, magicians and illusionists developed these tools to make them wonder. (..) Sensitive to the extraordinary violence of the period, the magician Étienne-Gaspard Robertson, opened his Phantasmagoria on the outskirts of Paris in 1798. A consummate showman, Robertson often traveled by hot air balloon. Settling in an abandoned convent Robertson brilliantly manipulated the tools of pre-cinema to entertain and terrify his audience. For a high price they were treated to visions of Danton, Marat and other famous victims of the Great Terror. Robertson used rear projection by magic lanterns on rails with a rack and pinion lens to create the illusion that the recently dead were rushing towards the audience. Each evening. Playing on the collective trauma of the community. Phantasmagoria was hugely successful and only shut down when forced to, by the authorities that feared that he might actually revive Louis XVI”

Ruth Sergel, The Alchemy of Light.[5]

Though cinema was developing as a groundbreaking technique, it was not until the twenties, when its potential was fully exploited, with the montage technique developed by the Russians, including Eisenstein and Vertov, whom envisioned its potential as a Visual Esperanto cinema was born as the language of the future, it was probably in Vertov’s masterpiece Man With a Movie Camera, when the possible architectures of the audiovisual were explored, concepts such as the Kino Eye (cinema eye, or eye in movement), reflected on the capacity that the camera had of seeing things that the human eye couldn’t perceive, it is also important to review the role of sound in his film Vertov wrote a specific instruction set, instructions that today have been a driving force for contemporary assemblies such as the Alloy Orchestra or the Cinematic Orchestra, artists who have recorded the score, seeking to give the film the atmosphere Vertov, originally sought.

Everything that moves & sounds (visual music and even stranger toys)

Also in the second decade of the twentieth century, some artists began to experiment on the integration of images and music, (reminding us of Kandinsky’s experiments) like Mary-Hallock Greenwalt; musician, inventor, lecturer, writer and political activist, she began to investigate “how color gradation can enhance the spiritual experience of music”. With this in mind she developed a series of organs including the Sarabet; a machine with the purpose of generating sounds and a light spectrum. Greenwalt strongly believed she was the inventor of a new kind of art she called “Nourathar, The essence of light”.

At the same time, Thomas Wilfred (Denmark 1889 – USA 1968), started to work on the Lumia series, being the Clavilux (his name meaning light performed by musical notes), and the Optophonic Piano, representative of his experiments; these visual-music instruments emitted light and sounds through a special mechanism, based on color disks driven by a gear system. Although Wilfred is not very renowned in the contemporary art scene, he has been recognized as an avant-garde artist by institutions such as MoMA in New York and is one of the key inspiring figures for the psychedelia movement of the sixties, who developed the liquid Shows.

By the mid-twentieth century, other concerns arose within the art world. Questions about the static and immutable matter in the work of art were answered by movements such as Kinetic and Op art, people like Nicholas Schoeffer and Julio Le Parc among others, generated works that interacted with movement and light to generate dynamic and changing spaces.

On the other hand William S. Burroughs, Bryon Gysin and Ian Sommervile, built the Dream Machine, with a strobe light and a rotating disc the machine was designed to generate Beta rays, which produced in the viewer (or user?) an altered state of consciousness.

“Had a transcendental storm of color visions today in the bus going to Marseilles. We ran through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright colors exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space.

I was swept out of time. I was out in a world of infinite numbers. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees. Was that a vision ? What happened to me ?”[6]

Extract from  Brion Gysin’s Diary

December 21, 1958.

Though these experiences relate to the integration of images, sound and space, the result was an abstract atmosphere, not a narrative based on images or montage.

In the early sixties the Scopitone emerged as the first video jukebox (it was very big in France and USA and is seen as the grandmother of MTV), and at the end of the sixties the Psychedelia I, promised to “Open new Vistas in the display of sound”.

In 1966 Andy Warhol created a multimedia show called Exploding Plastic Inevitable at the same time, he discovered The Velvet Underground & Lou Reed and Nico, started to work with him on their mise en scene, his experimental films were projected behind the band while it performed, special lighting and costumes were also designed; “A symphony of sound” is a clear example of this era, thus Art Rock was born.

In the following years companies such as The Joshua Light Show and Single Wing Turquoise Bird, developed the famous 60s Liquid Shows for artists like Frank Zappa, The grateful Dead, Jimmy Hendrix or Janis Joplin, among others and so (with a little help from Dr Hoffmann and LSD), psychedelia was born. These projects worked with the visual possibilities that liquid painting done in real time allowed. Companies such as The Joshua Light Show still perform today, mixing the old school technique with the digital Vj practice.

During the seventies Pink Floyd would become one of the most recognized shows for their work combining images, sound and lights; working hand in hand with media artist Jeffrey Shaw (flying pig famous designer), they produced multiple experiments. Shaw also worked with inflatable structures and multiple screens in other projects such as the Genesis show The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, in 1975, here, three synchronized slide projectors were used to generate a composite image or panoramas synched to the music.

It is also worth mentioning the work of Laurie Anderson who since the seventies, had begun working in her multimedia stage, a dialogue between the actions that took place on the stage and the projected Live images and sounds generated by a midi instrument, were crucial for her work.

In the next decade, the nineties, and with the proliferation of the computer and new media, the Vj (or Video Jockey, though this term is widely used, some artists preferred to be called: live visuals artist) emerged, its job consisting on being a digital/real time editor, who works right in the spot to make the sound and music be seen … to generate synesthesia.

On Vjs and LVA[7]

The work of a Vj implies mixing and improvising visuals, generally delivered through a projection of light, although as stated above the concept of producing and controlling images is not new, perhaps the work of the Vj reunites the two possibilities we mentioned before, Live event and Real Time.

Paul Spinrad points out in his introduction to the book called The Vj Book, that :

“visual music instruments experiences, allowed a wonderful exploration of images and colors which were, however abstract and indefinite, while film has a great definition and power of evocation, unfortunately its meaning is more that of a dead and fixed file, rather than a live experience”[8].


“The central issue is that, every moment is unique such is life (…) The work of a Vj is connected with the instant and connected to others. It is a gift to the public, it will never be duplicated”[9].

Today the LVA, is not only working to support a DJ or creating “abstract environments” for parties. As with every new technology hundreds of new adepts emerge everyday, but this field has proved to be very rich and diverse.

Contemporary musical ensembles have been exploring visuals as another instrument (in every genre we can imagine (academic music, electronics, rock, world music, etc.), experimental narrative shows, public or private presentations, architectural projections, augmented sculpture, three dimensional projections, have come to raise very interesting arguments on the questioning of traditional cinematic forms.

Peter Greenaway’s famous phrase “cinema is dead” suggests an exact date for the death of cinema: September 31st, 1983 when the zapper, or the remote control, entered the living-rooms of the world; in every cinema festival he attends, he finishes the speech, with an even more shocking sentence: Bill Viola is worth 10 Scorcesses.

The Tulse Luper Suitcases is one of Greenaway’s recent works, Luper is a recurring character in his work, the total Compendium of the project includes: 3 films that are shown in traditional cinemas, 2 films created for festivals, 16 TV episodes, and live performances in which Greenaway acts as Vj (though he says he is not one), additionally, a set of DVDs, books, a website, an interactive game and an exhibition are being prepared.

In his live shows a minimum of three screens can be seen, the director manipulates a touch plasma screen interface, and a DJ (Radar), launches musical sequences. The film is not always the same; the end is not the same. Greenaway’s case (for some) opens a window into the future of cinema, a framework for rethinking the way we perceive images, sounds space and time.

Nowadays, a lot of young artists are finding in these fields interesting means of expression :

EasyWeb is a French collective, which makes monumental and site specific projections, mapping video to the architecture of the place.

AntiVj is another collective that uses the city as a canvas for the development of site specific interventions, once again, the syncing of images and sound are the main subject of their work, but their aim is to re-read space and architecture and the practice of the Live Visuals artist.

Augmented sculpture experiments with 3 dimensional objects intervened with images, change the way we look at objects and spaces (Peter Kogler and Pablo Valbuena are artists currently working on the subject).

The Light Surgeons, a UK based collective of artists, musicians and architects, work to produce one of the most interesting “mise en scenes” today; gigantic sets that mix multiple screens, digital and analog projections, synched with music and electronic sounds produced live and controlled in real time, their work is ground breaking on experimental en multilinear narratives and in the use of space as a dispositive for the construction of experimental ephemeral architectures.


In 2002 an exhibition entitled Future Cinema (The Cinematic Imaginary after Film), was held at the ZKM, the foreword to the exposition presented new technologies as a medium to challenge traditional ways of production and exhibition : could we envision a future in which new cinematic forms would expand the existing methods and propose physical and spatial relationships on a more profound scale ?

Multiple screens, immersion, haptics, augmented sculpture, mapping … are terms that we’ll be hearing, at least in the field of arts for a while in the years to come.

We have barely begun to exit the screen, the canvas is large and increasingly multifaceted, the representation has changed, now the painting is being painted and erased before our own eyes, will we ever see moving images in the same way again ?

It is the art of building sand castles at speed of light, here and now.

[1] William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers; Maeck, Klaus. Screen Edge, 1991.

DVD Release Date: December 2, 2003

Documentary featuring: interviews, archives, public lectures and experimental films.

[2] Pier Paolo Pasolini, Norman MacAfee, Craig Owens; Observations on the Long Take, Source: October, Vol. 13, (Summer, 1980), pp. 3-6 Published by: The MIT Press

[3] multimedia. (2008). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Retrieved on August 24, 2008, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/multimedia

[4] Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore; The medium is the massage, Gingko Press (October 2005), p. 26?

[5] Ruth Sergel, The Alchemy of Light. Dissertation paper, ITP, NYU, 2008-2009.

[6] John Geiger, Nothing is True – Everything is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin. The Disinformation Company, 2005

[7] LVA Live visuals artists.

[8] Paul Spinrad, The Vj Book. Feral House Book, San Francisco, California, 2005, p. 12?

[9] Paul Spinrad, The Vj Book. Feral House Book, San Francisco, California, 2005, p. 15?