Shining Soundscapes on “Cats on Mushrooms” and Nurturing the Art of Trippy Community VJing

5 days ago
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I’m easily intimidated around painters and illustrators. For as long as I can remember, whenever the opportunity to illustrate or draw in public came up, I would make a run for it or sneak into a corner where no one would dare bother me. Watching folks be able to some fluidly and (seemingly) effortlessly create something out of nothing is equally mesmerizing and daunting. And with video jockeys (VJs), it’s double that due to the complexity of the software being used – simply another form of wizardry that feels so out of reach to me.

So, when I caught my first glimpse of what the team behind the new music-visual art collaboration series Shining Soundscapes – led by Dann Gaymer and Nan Guazi of Guiguisuisui fame – were cooking up, I was shocked at my reaction. It was not fear, but instead one of intrigue, curiosity, and eventually wonder. They were creating a space for artists of all shades to stretch their wings and find a new way to share their art, as well as giving the chance for novices and straight-up music-going ruffians to get their freak on. Blurring the line between music and art, between illustrator and novice, and between audience and artist – Shining Soundscape (SS) is the latest proof that Beijing’s scene still has plenty of tricks up its sleeve.

I chatted with Dann Gaymer about the evolution of the concept over the past months, “cats on mushrooms flying through space,” and Tagtool – the software that has opened up the concept to a whole new world. 

For our readers out there, can you explain the concept behind Shining Soundscapes?
Shining Soundscape is an artistic performance that combines both digital painting and music, live, ideally in a way that there is a feedback loop between the two mediums. The audience is in the middle of this, yet also participants in the creative process. It started with our band Guiguisuisui but we’ve included different bands and artists in the process. It’s a cross-pollination of creative approaches with a mind to get people who wouldn’t normally engage with live music and people who wouldn’t normally engage with visual art in the same situation.

What’s the origin story behind Tagtool the program I witnessed being used at the Fruityspace show last month? From what I gathered you came upon it while touring in Europe, right? 
That’s right. We were introduced it in Prague to by our friend Cyril (who has an amazing band called Vlozte Kocku – whatever you’re doing stop and check them out!) who did sound for us at our show on a boat/floating gallery called A(void). We had been experimenting with live painting during our performances using Photoshop in Poland, Austria, and Germany, but Photoshop has its limitations for performance. For example when you stop painting the visuals stop. Also either the audience sees all the color palettes and toolbars or the artist has to paint without them, usually in one color. Cyril introduced us to his friend Frances and Dima, who have been working with Tagtool for years; they tour around Europe using it to project moving paintings on the sides of castles and over bands playing at festivals. The app itself overcomes the limitation of Photoshop: the artist sees all the information they need to, but the audience only sees the painting. You can animate what you’re painting in real time, so even if you stop painting the visuals keep moving. We still can’t believe what a brilliant coincidence it was to meet those lovely people in the Czech Republic!

Tagtool itself started out as a DIY machine for live painting and animation. It came in many shapes and forms, most commonly a wooden box featuring a tablet, some sliders, and a video game controller. The idea spread around the world after they made the building instructions available online. Soon new Tagtoolers appeared in all corners of the world. The company OMAi was founded in 2007 in Austria and in 2012 Tagtool was brought to the iPad. What we are using is The New Tagtool, which you can download from the app store.

How was the Shining Soundscape concept evolved since you first gave it a try back in September? Are there any criteria for people who want to get involved?
Compared to two months our concept is more concrete because at that time it was an idea based off of what we had done and seen in Europe. Then we went and tried it in Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Changchun, Dalian, and Harbin, and that really helped solidify it for how that would work with Guiguisuisui: immersive performances that blend structured songs with ambient improvisations, getting the audience involved in choosing the songs and visuals and getting them to help the scene. The set list is literally like a choose your own adventure novel at this point, and the audience chooses, yet they aren’t fully aware of how their choice will influence the songs, costumes, and paintings, so there is a lot of chance involved. 

The second big thing was actually getting Tagtool into the mix. That involved investing in some hardware and getting to know the software and then getting more people involved. If you’ve never used Tagtool it can seem a bit daunting if no one guides you (when you actually get down to it it’s actually very simple and fun), and if you’ve never seen it someone explaining it to you might not fully capture what is it. Yet between Fruityspace and Halloween at DDC, both in the last week of October, we were able to get a great little group of artists together (Angie, Nick, Shui, Alia) and work with bands other than Guiguisuisui, namely thruoutin, The Burning Deck, and Electric Lady (Nekroma kind of counts but it’s still our band). The more people you get involved the more magic happens, literally because Tagtool supports multiplayer sessions! That’s what excites us about the SS concept, drawing connections and bringing people together to share and create. We live in selfish, troubled times, so anything that brings people together in the spirit of sharing is worth doing in our mind, especially if it’s connecting people of different backgrounds and nationalities.

In terms of criteria to be involved we’d say the only criteria would be attitude and perception: if you’re a musician and want to do shows that don’t follow what most folks think of as a “regular” show, you can. If you’re an artist and you want to bring your work out of your studio and into a space to share with others, you can. Really you just have to have the mindset: “I can try.”

How was the reaction been so far? Do you see an idea like this gaining traction across China?
Really positive! When we played in Dalian some of the members of Wangwen watched the show and gave us some really nice words afterward, which is a huge honor as we adore that band. From audiences as well we’ve had really nice feedback about how they felt during the performance, and all the artists we’ve worked with have had a blast. We’re now in touch with some groups of illustrators in China and also the folks at OMAi about building the Tagtool scene in China.

One of the things I appreciated was how user-friendly and accessible TagTool is – just about anyone can pick it up. When compared to the more technically-intricate and classical methods of VJing out there – what kind of musicians and artists do you imagine would get the most out of Tagtool?

That’s just it, anyone can pick it up and have a bash. If you’re a serious professional illustrator like Nan Guazi you can use it create some gorgeous, intricate work and then mess with in real time, you can. If you don’t consider yourself an artist at all you can also use it because it enables you to layer very simple ideas and then animate, similar to looping techniques in music. If you make a mistake, you can erase it, or just go with it!

For musicians, it presents visuals that are only limited by your imagination, whether you want them to be super serious works of art or cats on mushrooms flying through space. With VJing you have to have a lot of stock footage and there’s always that moment when you think “Damn, I wish right now I had a flying saucer to drop in.” With Tagtool if you can imagine it, you can draw it and then animate it, copy it, remix it, and so on.

We suppose the only musicians and artists this wouldn’t work for is people who have a very strict idea of what should be happening: the whole point is one medium feeds on the other and the creation builds. If you want visuals that are going to be exactly the same every time then you want VLC media player; the same goes for if you want the music to stay exactly the same.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the software is the various ways (many not even fathomable yet) the application can be utilized depending on the event. What are some of the ideas floating in your head on how Tagtool could be used? 
When we were introduced to Tagtool in the summer there were a couple of awesome things in the works: one included a prototype controller for the app that would allow the artist to control different variables, kind of like a mixing desk for visuals. Currently, you do this in the app by pinching and sliding with one hand, which isn’t going to feel nature for everyone. It’s similar to how you can do everything with Ableton Live on a computer, but some people like midi controllers to a have a physical interaction with the software. So that will be a really nice addition, and it also goes back to the early days of Tagtool mentioned above.

The second we were told about was a patch that would allow midi information to be sent to and from the Tagtool app. For readers who aren’t too savvy on what midi is and how it’s used it would basically mean you could hook up Tagtool to an instrument like a synthesizer or a drum machine and play it by painting, for example, different colors triggering different notes. On the other hand, you could take signals from these instruments into Tagtool to influence the painting itself, for example, the speed of the beat influencing the thickness of the lines drawn.

When you consider that in the context of having a feedback between sound and vision and getting the audience involved you could have some pretty crazy possibilities.

What Shining Soundscapes events do you have lined up?
This Friday (Nov 9), Guiguisuisui will play at Aotu Space with special guests Rudi Botes (cello), Wei Qi (pipa), and Yin (visuals). After that, on Dec 7 Guiguisuisui will play with the “Beijing Tagtool Collective” at Mogu Space, which will basically be everyone who has jumped on the Tagtool train so far.

After that, we’ll probably book something in early January, and then Guiguisuisui will go on tour to the south of China, Thailand, and Cambodia to take the Shining Soundscapes and Tagtool to some new places and faces. It’s going to be awesome!

More noise, you say? Check out all of the upcoming live music happenings right here.

Images: Live Beijing Music, courtesy of Shining Soundscapes

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