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Master course - Site specific Media Intervention 1 | Spring 2010

Christian M. Fischer

The Cairo Caleidoscope - transcultural multi media

Abstract: This work was commissioned by the 11th Weimarer Frühjahrstage für zeitgenössische Musik 2010 and performed on the 28th of April in Weimar. The starting point where egyptian and arabic stereotypes and the typical impressions Europeans have, dealing with islamic countries, especially Egypt and the decision not to use these stereotypes. We wanted to explore, how we could create a sonic and visual experience, which origin could still be perceived, while remixing and using unusual and new material.


Keywords: Pure Data, GEM, netPD, transcultural, electro acoustics, WFT


Introduction:

In contrast to Europe, there has been almost no development of a picture language in the arabic world. The main reason for this might be the lack of iconography in the islam. Instead ornaments and patterns are very important. Their symmetry, structure and the mathematics used to create them, make them a perfect starting point for audio visual compositions (electro acoustic music and video), that try to capture and transform the spirit of Egypt beyond the pyramids.

Of course the idea to reveal the cultural difference, to deal with cultural identity or to exmine a culture by artistically transforming a cuntries cultural heritage is not new, as we can for instance read in this NY Times article from 2004. But nevertheless, due to the enhanced and reshaped adoption of media techniques and the constant changing of cultural processes, one is always able to take a look from a new, different and interesting angle.

Technically, the idea was to connect electro acoustic music, composed and performed by Leipzig based composer and sound artist Robert Rehnig live in Weimar with my photo and video footage, mixed in realtime, live from Cairo. There was a need to set up some kind of interface to process the visual material and to set up a form of communication between Germany and Egypt for the performance. Therefore I choose Pure Data with GEM for the visual processing and netPD to share control data via the internet, while Robert used mainly Max/MSP for the music. The following text focuses on the visual part of this work.


Composition and structure:

The fact that Robert and I live far away from each other, had a deep impact on the process of work and the composition itself. Usually we would have worked close together during the whole process, from the first ideas and sketches to the final composition. This was not possible. So we set up a simple framework, that provided the timing for the start and ending of the piece, as well as the segmentation into three separate units of three minutes each, that followed a typical A-B-A' structure. This decision allowed us to work independently but on the same topic. We only shared milestones of our work in order to see if the outcome fits together. Additionally we agreed on using chance operations within our work because coincidence as a part of the composition fitted perfectly in the topic of Egypt and its everyday chaos.


Visual content:

The used material consists of three parts: computer generated video material (abstract moving patterns), photographs from everyday egypt (drive-bys) and computer generated abstract graphics (fillings). The generated videos are 150 seconds each and divided into three, six, nine or twelve sections of certain types of linear movement. The photographs are colored images, made with a small digital consumer camera while driving through the vast urban areas of Cairo. The fillings are abstract colored graphics, manipulated in Photoshop.


Techniques:

In Pure Data, I built a patch to process the pictures and video material via a MIDI interface with knobs and sliders, in order to be able to manipulate several parameters at the same time. The patch consists of three visual streams (video, pictures and graphics) that can be mixed together. Each stream can be colored via a separate adjustable RGB filter, because the excessive use of colors is a fundamental part of the everyday life in egypt. Regarding arabic patterns and ornaments, Pure Data provides a kaleidoscope object, with a lot of parameters to be set individually. I assigned the most important ones, source angle and number of segments for each stream to the MIDI interface. According to the parameter, the kaleidoscope filter segments the picture symmetrically in realtime. The result reminds in a striking manner of moving arabic ornaments.

These visual material and the final patch was transfered to Germany and stored on Roberts PC, that was said to be used within the concert performance. In netPD, an environment to share client created patches and broadcast control data, we used a simple chat feature to communicate. At the same time control data from my MIDI interface in Cairo could be transfered to the PD patch on Roberts PC in Germany, that was connected to a projector in the concert hall. With a small delay (drastically depending on the speed of the internet connection) I was able to compose the three visual streams to a new visual experience in realtime.

Out of about 50 selected pictures, graphics and videos, the patch choose acording to limited chance operations and the A-B-A' structure, one of each category to play. Therefore the outcome for every concert performance (or rehearsal) has a similar structure, according to the used framework, but can look quite different. This again is a reference to Egypt, where every day is different and one always has to expect the undexpectable...


Rehearsal and Performance:

After finalizing the work, we had to rehearse the piece, if the timing fits and to check out any kind of technical difficulties. One problem for instance was caused by the netPD server, where anyone using the netPD software can logon to the system and manipulate the uploaded patches at any time. However, we decided to use leave this problem as a reference to egypt and the unexpected. So basically everybody on the planet could interfere with our performance. The rehearsals also led to some modifications and enhencements of the patch and the structure of the work as a whole.


Rehearsal Video:

Unfortunately, it was not possible to do a live recording from the performance in Weimar. Here you can see a recording of one of the rehearsals. The audio and video footage was recorded separately and then stitched together. This video shows only a work in progress, but gives a good impression about the look and feel.


Evaluation:

An evaluation of a volatile live performance within a concert of contempoary music is a difficult task. However, the following quote from a Weimar based newspaper might bring a little light into the darkness:
"Das Cairo Diary von Christian Fischer und Robert Rehnig geriet zum audiovisuellen Kulminationspunkt: Via Internet begegneten hypnotische Kaleidoskope aus Kairo dem elektroakustischen Grundton "G" und der arabischen Sikah-Tonleiter. Wie im Film "2001" ging die mystische Reise ins Innere des Monolithen." from Thüringer Allgemeine Zeitung 04/29/2010


References:

The used PD patch
Pure Data Homepage
netPD Homepage
Invisible Cities/Transcultural Images, by Johannes Birringer, Performing Arts Journal, Vol.11/12, 1989
Museums, national, postnational and transcultural Identities, by Sharon McDonald, University of Sheffield, 2003
Images on a Transcultural Highway, by Benjamin Genoccio, NYT, 2004
Via Nova - Host of the Weimarer Frühjahrstage für zeitgenössische Musik