Interview with Quayola

Lara Sedbon conducts an email interview with Quayola for the LISA blog.

LS: When and why did you start to focus on art and technology?

Q: I was 13 when I first approached computers. My brother was studying architecture at the time and I got incredibly fascinated by all those amazing architecture books he had. Taking inspiration from architects like Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au and Daniel Libeskind, I started experimenting with computer graphics with a focus on abstract forms and imaginary structures and spaces. One of the first software applications I learned and played with was FormZ, an old technical 3D tool for architects and designers.

My approach with technology is subsequent to my interest in art and architecture and it has always been driven by a very specific visual imaginary. What I am doing now is somehow very similar to what I was doing when I started, just more coherent and structured both in terms of concept and techniques.

I believe that the use of technology in art is just a spontaneous result of its ever-increasingly presence in our life (from the way we communicate to the way we consume, share and distribute information, the way we shop or extend our social life, etc.). Technology had such a massive impact on every aspect of my life since I was a kid, including the way my creativity is explored.

Technology however has never been the main focus of my work, rather always remained just the tool that allows me to produce the work.

LS: Who do you admire in the technology and art field?

Q: I admire many people in the art&tech field from many different disciplines and backgrounds. Beside London-based talented friends like UnitedVisualArtists, Field, Memo Akten and Karsten Schmidt, Abstract Birds

Here some names of artists that really inspired me and of which I really respect the work. The work of the following artists is heavily based on technology in different ways, however it is also somehow detached from it at the same time:

LS: Your work is pretty eclectic, is there a common theme/language that you use to link your video, audio, photography, installation, live performance, print or are they completely independent?

Q: I think my artworks are rather the opposite to eclectic. I’m interested in developing series where all the projects and related outputs (prints, films, installations, etc..) are interconnected by precise themes and aesthetics. I’m interested in the dialogues, collisions, tensions and equilibrium between the real and the artificial, the figurative and abstract, the old and new.

The Strata Series for example is evolving from 2006 and comprise many artworks from photographic prints to films and immersive site-specific installations… So yes many different outputs but at the same time all focused on a precise theme.

In parallel there is also another theme that I keep exploring from a few years, which is the development of abstract systems aimed at visualising sounds. The output of this research are live audiovisual concerts.

I’m interested in fact in creating some sort of systems to bring forward my projects. Systems that define the areas of exploration, processes and aesthetic guidelines… both conceptually and technically.

LS: On your website, it is said that you are working in both the commercial and artistic fields.  How do you divide your work according to this statement? How do you define yourself? More artistic or commercial? How is this double identity seen by the artistic community? Do you consider that working on digital art always implies this double target?

Q: Well this is a strange controversial topic…

I mostly work as an artist, that’s my background and what I’ve always done. This means developing artworks (commissioned or self-initiated), exhibiting/licensing them (festivals, museums, galleries, events) and then ultimately eventually selling them (as editions through my gallery).

Through the visibility of my artworks I recently started to be approached by brand-related commercial opportunities. In these cases the cycle described above is very different, as usually you develop pieces of which you don’t have full control and that ultimately are not your property. However beside this, the actual piece of work  itself and some of the processes and aesthetics might be very similar and connected to the ones behind my personal artworks.

Ultimately it is like running two parallel trajectories simultaneously (that rarely meet on some unusual hybrid art/com projects). Yes the two trajectories might conflict in some cases, however I believe if you have a clear vision of what is what and how it is handled, than they can coexist with one another… Or at least is what I’m trying to do.

LS: For Partitura, how much of the action is automatically derived from the audio input and how much is determined by the manual input?  It looks like it’s doing polyphonic analysis, where different musical instruments are mapped to different geometries, is that right?  What would it look like if you fed in some different music, like rock-and-roll or a symphony?

Partitura by Quayola and Abstract Birds

Q: Partitura is not an automated visualiser that can be turned on and it works with any sound or music. Partitura is rather is a sort of realtime 3D animation software designed for a very specific purpose (visualising sound) and with a very precise visual rule in mind (its horizontal linear structure).

To go into more detail:

In Partitura there are modules that do different things, from controlling meshes, splines, particles, colors and lighting. Each of these modules has many many parameters that can be animated in either by a manual midi input (controller), by internal preset animations or by connecting it to the sound analysis. It is possible therefore to create very different scenes that react to sound in very different ways and that can be more automated or even completely controlled manually like a musical instrument (or anywhere in the middle). Our idea is to be inspired by a given music and visualise it using this tool (and not let the tool visualise it for us).

The audio analysis is handled separately as a plugin for Ableton Live. The analysis in order to be precise needs to be customised on the specific sound and also on what should trigger in the visuals. We can run many types of analysis, from beat-detection to FFT, pitch, Mel Scale, amplitude, etc.. These analyses can run simultaneously on various audio tracks, so depending on the music setup and type, the analysis rig is different each time.

So yes we can get various data from various audio signals (for example different instruments) and map them onto whatever parameters of any visual module in Partitura.

For the moment we are still finishing the tool as we haven’t created any work with it yet (beside the preview test we have on vimeo). We will hopefully start soon with a new series of works…

LS: How did you and Abstract Birds divide up the project?

Q: I have known Pedro and Natan (Abstract Birds) for a long time and we’ve both been (in different ways) exploring and experimenting with systems for visualising sound. We have similar interests and obsessions in this field of visual music and it is a very smooth process and a big pleasure to work together on the Partitura project.

I’ve been developing Partitura for quite a while and had already developed an earlier version with a Swedish coder called Mondi. However we got stock in evolving the system in a more sophisticated way. So last October I proposed that Abstract Birds jump in and make this a 50/50 collaboration and re-design the whole thing from scratch in a better way.

In general the creative direction is now shared between the 3 of us equally. We have a very similar vision on where we want to go with this tool.

The programming is done in VVVV and is handled by Abstract Birds while the audio analysis plugin has been developed by Henrik Ekeus from UVA. I follow every step of the process and plan a general direction of the project; I’m also obviously very much present for any aesthetic/concept decision.

Once the tool is completely ready we will then work all together to create the artworks with it (hopefully very soon!)

LS: Have you tried using Echo Nest?  What are your thoughts on realtime versus studio compositions?  Do you ever work on stage with a band or do live performance?

Q: I’m not entirely sure I’ve understood the questions… Concerning Partitura, yes it is a tool to be used live and be played as a musical instrument. We still don’t know who we will be playing with yet, anyway there will be a series of collaborations with different musicians (obviously we will be in a stage together with the musicians).

However still I believe in preparing the shows quite carefully and not just randomly improvising. So even if Partitura is a realtime tool there will always be studio rehearsal to prepare the shows with the musicians.

I didn’t know Echo Nest, however it doesn’t seem very pertinent to our project.

LS: Sometimes you are credited as an animator, sometimes as a director.  What tools do you use?  Do you do any programming or scripting?

Q: I work as a director on my projects with groups of people that specifically do different things, a bit like in a film. I am generally quite hands-on on all the production steps, however depending on the complexity and the budget I will be more or less involved with the animation.

I am very interested in developing custom tools that are specifically thought out for the project. I’m not a coder but have a general understanding on the technology and how something could work. Usually I collaborate with a few good coders to develop these tools and to integrate them into the animation pipeline (or in the case of Partitura, a standalone tool).

LS: Your installation pieces involve layering geometry over traditionally shot video of nature or architecture.  How did you arrive at this technique?  Why do you avoid figurative material and portraiture in general?

Q: Depends what you mean for “figurative”. A classical painting is usually described as “figurative art”, so I guess there are figurative elements in my Strata Series. The term Strata is in fact a metaphor for stratification of languages and aesthetics apparently very distant from one another…

I’ve always been quite fascinated by this very point between abstract and figurative, between real and artificial. I like to create dialogues between these two opposites and find harmonious points in between. I think that through this process you also reach a different perception of the original subject itself… So in a way these metamorphosis that I create are also a sort of analysis of the subjects, almost a personal way to study and look at them.

Aesthetically and conceptually I’m interested in focusing on icons of universal perfection, from classical art and architecture to natural objects and landscapes.

LS: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!