Imagine going to see a band play live at a local club. Only the club is not your typical bar and the band plays video equipment instead of guitars and drums. And the videos they play are not your everyday MTV videos, but complex semi-abstract imagery created in real time using cameras, video switchers, props and lighting. Imagine you're watching The Poool, a live video performance group of which Nancy Meli Walker and Benton Bainbridge are two of the main members, along with Angie Eng. They've been playing together since 1993, doing shows in and around New York City for increasingly enthusiastic audiences.
Jump back a few years. Nancy got her start in the arts studying fashion design, which she supposed would lead to a sensible career that could make some money. After a trip to Japan however, her interests shifted from cloth to class when she saw some stained glass and cast glass work there. After learning the techniques, she started making cast glass sculptures. In these sculptures she would integrate computer animations and video, often using real live television broadcasts within the pieces. A few years later back in New York, she met up with Benton Bainbridge and was invited to join the 77Hz video performance group initiated by Bainbridge and other founding members Philip R. Bonner, Jonathan Giles, Eric Schefter and Michael Schell. 77Hz had been performing live with video and music since 1991 when Nancy joined up two years later.
Benton comes from a childhood "misspent playing with fire, food and electronics to create low-tech visual phenomena for performance, tape, and digital dissemination." From early in his life he worked in a variety of media including Super 8 films, live performances in the high school gym, electronics, and video. He considers himself a product of the Children's Television Workshop and carries a certain fun-loving sensibility from that time of Sesame Street and The Electric Company. From an early age, he viewed media as something that could be played like an instrument.
"Art is most exciting when it is something collaborative. And this collaborating process leads you into realms you would not go into on your own. The other thing I learned from these very youthful experiments in the countryside, is that the process of making art, makes it possible to play media like making music."
Inspiration comes from such sources as underground comics, in which the comic artists would get together in what they called "the jam," where all the artists would create the comic together in a somewhat improvised manner. In many ways The Poool and other projects of Benton's work this way.
After getting involved with video using the porta pack at his high school, he went on to study film and video at New York University, where he would often invite people into the editing room to get an immediate reaction to some work he'd just put together. He was very interested in that kind of social interaction and it was part of what led him on to investigate the use of video in live performance. NYU had bought the Fairlight CVI in 1985, a device for processing video that was part of the new generation of digital video equipment arising after the analog equipment trend of the 70's. Armed with this new interest, Benton became aware of the Experimental Television Center in 1989 and had his first residency there. It was during this trip that he and long-time friend Phil Bonner discussed the idea of forming a band to play video. While they were experimenting around at the center, they decided to try an idea to use their dog to trigger the video sequencer. Using an audio to video trigger, they had the dog bark and this switched the video. This fueled their enthusiasm for performing live video.
"We talked about the idea of having actually forming a band to play video, and didn¼t have much of an idea of who'd been out there before us doing this. We just knew that we were interested in doing this."
When Nancy joined up with 77Hz, she was mainly performing pieces others had created. The creative process of that group encouraged a developing of the works over time. Initially she felt more like a technician than creator. There was a sense of rehearsed repetition that wasn't as performative or vibrant as what she might have wanted, and so over time, she began to create her own pieces which the group performed. Coming in with no formal background in video, it took her a while to learn the new medium, so inevitably it took some time to find her way.
When I asked her about what she experienced when she first became involved:
"There was no way you were ever going to get me on a stage before that. I never even thought about it. I had grown up being a solo artist making scuplture my whole life."
Now she is 100% motivated by live performance, to the point of favoring the live camera over prerecorded video segments used in performance.
"It¼s strange. In one way we're performers because we're up on stage. In another way we're not because we're not in the spotlight really. Because there is no spotlight because we work with video. We can't have a spotlight So we're not up there singing and dancing. It's a weird thing being a video performer, because I'm not a persona."
For Nancy, performance creates a situation in which there is attention focused on the person performing as much on the work being created. There needs to be some way to bring the audience into it by allowing them to see the performers at work. "I am just up there creating in front of somebody" she says. She sees a problem with performance works in which the players sit behind tables and racks full of equipment string at a screen and hardly moving. She recalls a computer music performance where all she could see was the back of the performer's equipment with all the wires hanging out and the performer sat in front of his computer the whole time. "That is not performance" she insists. This is a common complaint of many viewers of non-theatrical or non-musical performance works, specifically that the audience can't tell which performers are doing what, and so why have them up there on stage at all, why not just play a tape?
"We¼re trying to figure out ways we can be performers, but still within the limitations of having to sit in front of equipment and touch those knobs and things."
Benton added "Very few of us really came into it with a clear idea of how we were going to perform. Meaning the actual on-stage antics of how we would present ourselves."
Of the 77Hz group, a few of them had previously done performance. Michael Schell had been doing music, Phil Bonner had some experience doing theater and acting and Benton had arranged numerous performances in his high school days, but video was a new thing for all of them. Most of the early days of The Poool and NNeng was spent just trying to arrange the technical issues of the pieces, getting the equipment set up right and making sure the pieces developed as planned. There was no attention to the act of performing or thinking about issues of staging a performance such as lighting, costumes, pacing of pieces, etc. In the past few years they've started to think about these more. The Poool now plays about once a year, so they have the time to really work up a whole suite of pieces and really plan the performance more as a whole show. The work of The Poool is largely scripted out, so rehearsal become a key focus of their work. With NNeng playing about once a month, (the name comes from the fact that Angie Eng is not in that group, so No Eng = NNeng) Nancy and Benton were more interested in working improvisationally with another musician, Brian Moran in which the pieces aren't as absolute. Nancy felt that at times the pieces became so tightly scripted that they weren't fun. "When you stop having fun you don't want to do it any more."
They wanted a certain amount of freedom to create in the moment, the same kind of sensibility that sparked the early video art pioneers of the late 60's and early 70's. Interestingly enough, The Poool folks hadn't really heard much about the early days of video, in fact very few people had heard about it (see elsewhere on this site for more information about early video art history). Despite this lack of knowledge, the new wave of video creators in the nineties seems to be following in the track of the previous video generation of the seventies,without even knowing it. It seems that regardless of the times or the technology available, certain aspects of live performance remain consistent. Started in the late 60's, these trends continue in today's art performances. What will tomorrow bring?