On Curating Recent Digital Abstract Visual Music

By Jack Ox and Cindy Keefer



In 2005, the authors were asked to serve as consultants and co-curators for the New York Digital Salon's Abstract Visual Music Project. After preliminary discussion and planning, in November 2005 NYDS put out a call for artists' work for the exhibition. Over 200 submissions were received, encompassing a wide range of styles, techniques, visions - and formats. DVDs, miniDVs, Quicktimes, web art, installation proposals, essays and software programs were submitted. Though the majority of entries were from the United States, many came from Europe, plus a handful from Canada, Uruguay, Slovenia, Singapore, Thailand, Australia and Russia.

We were encouraged to find such abundant and diverse work in contemporary Visual Music. To address the recurring question, what exactly is Visual Music?

Defining Visual Music

There are differently formed visual structures that can be called Visual Music.

A large proportion of contemporary visualization comes in the form of algorithmically manipulated digital images. Fewer in number are works actually analyzing the structure of a given piece of music and translating it into a new visual language. Very few of the submissions for the Abstract Visual Music exhibition were in this category. Far more common are compositions that use musical kinds of progressions through time.

Intermedia art is a fertile source for visual music. Dick Higgins, the noted Fluxus artist and theorist, first named and defined the phenomenon in 1966 in the Something Else Newsletter No. 1. [2] Intermedia occurs when there are structural elements from two or more different media combined into one medium. It is a term that must be differentiated from multimedia. Intermedia can actually be multimedia, but it does not need to be, and it is frequently visual music. Conversely, many examples of visual music are intermedia.

Whenever a subject suddenly achieves a level of great attention focused upon it, its definitions undergo a transformation and expansion - as seen currently in the art world, VJ culture, and newcomers to the field. We're experiencing boundaries and definitions tested, by many who consider that any correlation of sound and image is Visual Music. Similarly, much emphasis has been placed on ideas of 'synaesthesia' in an attempt to define Visual Music. While this is one aspect of the field, it's certainly not the prominent or most significant definition. As Paul Hertz, an artist and theorist included in the exhibition, writes: "Persons, not artworks, are synesthetic." [3] A more correct way to include synaesthesia in the equation would be to modify the word with metaphoric. This opens up the field to artists who are actually not synesthetic in their brain structures.

Prior Visual Music Exhibitions

We consider this project part of the ongoing exhibitions in this realm, for instance "Soundings" at the Neuberger Museum, Purchase, NY in 1981, or "-auf ein Wort! Aspekte visueller Poesie und Musik" in 1987 at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany. In 1985 we saw "Vom Klang der Bilder" at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, perhaps the most comprehensive exhibition to date in its exploration of the relationship of art to sound and music (in non-film materials). Then in 2001 there was "Between Sound and Vision" at Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Sons et Lumières" glowed at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2004-2005, and "What Sound Does a Color Make?" traveled to several venues from 2005-2006. Very recently there was the well publicized "Visual Music" at MOCA in Los Angeles and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. We are only citing large group shows here, but there have also been numerous solo exhibitions for artists like Oskar Fischinger and Len Lye which included film and artworks, plus many decades of film and video exhibitions focused on Visual Music.

Further back, there were also the four Color Music Congresses (Kongresse für Farbe-Ton-Forschung) in Germany during the Twenties and Thirties. From the Sixties on we have been fortunate to have Fluxus and Intermedia exhibitions throughout Europe and the U.S, showing such artists as John Cage.

Curatorial Process and Concerns

The AVM exhibition was limited to artists who submitted entries in response to the open call, which guidelines stated "All work must be in digital format." Only four works entered had originated on film. With one exception, all work received was created after 1997, with the majority made in 2004-2005.

It soon became clear that the exhibition could only represent a small fraction of the work done in Abstract Visual Music, a 21st century digital fraction. Given these parameters, we began to view submissions and the project started to take shape. First and foremost, a set of definitions were formed (please see above) about what kind of works could be considered. Only after those had been established could we judge the validity and success of individual works.

In March 2006, the curators including NYDS Director Bruce Wands, met in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the new ARTSLab, part of the Art and Technology Center at University of New Mexico, to view nearly 200 submissions. This was a daunting task, given the enormous range of styles, formats and visions. A number of pieces were eliminated as they clearly did not fall into any definition of Visual Music. Sound art pieces that were entirely sound with no visuals were not considered, nor were representational works not incorporating any type of abstraction or musical structures. We wondered if some of the artists' definitions of visual music were actually as incredibly broad as their work indicated, or whether they might routinely submit work to all festivals and exhibitions, without studying guidelines or standards required - in this case, abstraction and Visual Music. It's important to clarify that we support strongly the tradition of silent Visual Music (as well as that with sound), so silent work was definitely eligible. Regarding the "Abstract" parameter in the project's title, it should be noted that while the majority of Visual Music work to date has been abstract, it is not exclusively so, nor is it a required definition in the broader field. [4]

Portions of the first day's viewing session were devoted to comparing and honing our collective definitions of visual music. Jack Ox has a 30 year history of visualizing musical compositions by a variety of composers [5]. In order to accomplish this she has studied harpsichord, music theory, phonetics and German. Ox has published on Visual Music, metaphoric synaesthesia, and intermedia. Currently she is an Adjunct Professor at the University of New Mexico, connected to the new ARTSLab where she is producing and creating the visualization of Alvin Curran's music in "Gridjam", a real-time, interactive, 3D performance and multimedia event to be performed and distributed over the National Lambdarail, the national optical network. She served as co-editor with Jacques Mandelbrojt in a special section of Leonardo called "Synesthesia and Intersenses," and is also an International Co-Editor there. Keefer, the director of The Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles, has a background in curating, preserving, researching and exhibiting Visual Music, particularly the historical and cinematic aspects of the genre. She has curated, produced and/or consulted on numerous Visual Music exhibitions, including consulting for the 2005 MOCA/Hirshhorn "Visual Music" show. She has worked with the Fischinger Archive for nine years, and has screened and lectured on Visual Music at cultural and educational institutions worldwide including Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and University of Southern California. Bruce Wands, the director of NYDS, was our expert on computer programs, and has extensive previous experience curating digital shows. Bruce has taught, lectured and published on contemporary digital art and new media.

During the curating sessions, we explored and tested our own definitions, often while considering if a piece really was Visual Music. Often we were unable to find any criteria that qualified it as such no matter how far we tried to expand our boundaries. Certain pieces in the exhibition were considered to be Visual Music, applying the standard of 'borrowing from structures of music.' While the curators were usually in agreement judging work, in certain cases votes were not unanimous. Additionally, some works were added later by NYDS which we were not able to view in New Mexico.

We all admired Scott Draves' Dreams in High Fidelity, and George Stadnik's Flame, made in the pure silent visual music tradition of Thomas Wilfred's work (called Lumia). Sylvia Pengilly's Patterns of Organic Energy is a gorgeous work, containing some literal translations of image to music, made using Artmatic Pro and MetaSynth. Vivek Patel is one of the few examples of visualization of music, and employs excellent abstract images combined with humor in much of his work. Phoebe Legere's piece was recommended to be included not as a work of Visual Music but rather a work about Visual Music. Also included in the exhibition are works from some VJs, a rapidly-expanding culture with a growing body of work, some of which is considered an offshoot of the traditional forms of Visual Music, and can be seen as a direct descendant of the color organ practice of projecting light, color and forms.

A few works with rich organic textures stood out visually, particularly in comparison to some of the "slicker" CG pieces. Samantha Krukowski's painterly Chalazae and Scott Nyerges's Flow incorporate lush textural imagery drawn from nature and organic objects. The alchemical, transformative work of Elisa Justel is impressive, as was her statement about Destellos. Paul Hertz has a collaboration between his visuals and musicians, in a give and take of structure. In Chika Iijima's Chronos III and Chris Nava's Introspectre, we witness the continuation of a long tradition in Visual Music film of circular imagery and mandalic structures (e.g. Oskar Fischinger, Jordan Belson and the Whitneys), as well the influence of structuralist/flicker films.

We found the visual works submitted to be of much broader range and quality than the essays and papers submitted. A recurring problem in the Visual Music field today is lack of thorough research and accurate scholarship. After all, this is a discipline that has shown consistent development for well over one hundred fifty years, with sporadic developments during the two prior centuries, and there is a significant bibliography attached. Perhaps it is the nature of the computer as a tool with a natural proclivity to combining visual and aural structures that has contributed to the quantity of works made without previous research or knowledge. The easy accessibility of information on the internet appears to fuel much current writing on Visual Music; unfortunately a significant amount of online material in this field contains inaccuracies, and in some cases major errors. Internet discussion groups and wikipedia entries often further perpetrate and perpetuate misinformation, all to the detriment of the field.

Our job was made more difficult because many interesting visual pieces had soundtracks that did not really relate in an equivalent way. If the original intent had been to create Visual Music, we had to wonder why an inappropriate soundtrack would have been attached. We believe that much of the best Visual Music is made with a clear intent on the part of the artist to make Visual Music. Many pieces we felt happened to 'accidentally' be Visual Music, or 'could be defined' to be Visual Music. Those that were intended and planned to be Visual Music clearly stood out.

As mentioned above, this is also an exhibition including work post-1997, and not intended to be representative of every aspect of current work in the field. This is a very small sample of the thinking and practice through all of the history of Visual Music, a history that could be said to begin with the Greeks, but more concretely in France with Castel's Clavecin Oculaire (Ocular Harpsichord) of 1734.

Historical Background of Visual Music

The origins of Visual Music can be found in the theories of Pythagoras and Aristotle, then in Goethe, Sir Isaac Newton, and numerous other texts on the correspondences of the color spectrum and sound waves, music and color, and sound and light. The color organ tradition - machines constructed to project colored light in rhythmic structures borrowed from music, and sometimes specifically to visualize accompanying music, began with Castel as noted above. There was a plethora of color organs at the end of the 19th Century, and many more throughout the 20th Century - first mechanical and electronic versions and then computer versions.

A corollary is the tradition of Visual Music artists who began inventing other kinds of mechanical and analog devices to achieve their visions. Beginning in the 1920s, examples include Oskar Fischinger (Wax-Slicing Machine, Lumigraph) and the Whitneys (pendulum sound devices, motion cam machine, early analog computer), progressing through early computers and video synthesis tools, and continuing to present day in the form of artists writing their own code and developing their own programs, notably Scott Draves (Electric Sheep, Bomb) and Richard Baily (SPORE), among other contemporary artists.

Perhaps the better-known history of visual music is its rich body of abstract film, a history originating with painters who turned to film and animation in order to bring movement to their artworks. Abstract Visual Music film developed beginning with the c. 1910 work (now lost) of Italian Futurists Arnoldo Ginna and Bruno Corra, then received enormous attention with the German Absolute Film movement of the Twenties (Viking Eggeling, Walther Ruttmann, Fischinger, Hans Richter). Visual Music films include work hand-painting and scratching on film (Len Lye, Norman McLaren, Harry Smith and numerous contemporary artists), and a wide variety of cinematic, optical and animation techniques. Notable historical movements in Visual Music film include the European avant-garde of the Twenties and Thirties, the California School of Color Music beginning in the Thirties; the San Francisco filmmakers associated with the Beat Era; a substantial tradition of spiritually-influenced work; a group affiliated with The Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York in the Forties; work in Fifties and Sixties light shows; early computer graphics beginning in the Sixties; and video synthesis work in the Seventies.

So now, where are we? In this exhibition one can see a slice of one area, contemporary digital moving images, all made on computers with very few exceptions. What is not in this exhibition and why is it important to talk about this? It would be terribly misleading to create a show with a broad title and not mention groups of artists who have worked diligently in the field who are not included. A few examples are Fluxus artists, a large collection of visual scores at Northwestern [6], painted images from which sounds were constructed by musicians, painted images coming directly from music, the entire historical tradition of work on film and mechanical color organs, and a large portion of current work in the field, specifically work in film and non-US work.

In conclusion, it's exciting that so much new work and attention are expanding the field rapidly, and elevating Visual Music to new levels of cultural and aesthetic significance. The increasing amount of attention through exhibitions, panels, and texts on Visual Music is encouraging. We feel this shows a line of thinking that will not fade into the past because of its inherent richness of content and possible structures. As musical composition continues to develop and change, so too will the field of Visual Music. Visual Music is also part of the relatively new theoretical field of Visual Culture, and will progress to challenge people who are thinking about how it fits into the increasing visual information that bombards society today and into the future.

© Jack Ox and Cindy Keefer, 2006-08.

Authored for The New York Digital Salon's Abstract Visual Music catalog and website. Slight revision, 2008.



[1] Klein, Adrian Bernard. "Colour-Music: The Art of Light." London: The Technical Press Ltd., 1930. Second edition, p. 37.

[2] Reprinted in Leonardo Vol. 34, No. 1, along with an appendix by Hannah Higgins. San Francisco: MIT Press, 2001, pp. 49-54.

[3] Hertz, Paul. "Synesthetic Art - An Imaginary Number?" Leonardo Vol. 32, No. 5. San Francisco: MIT Press, 1999, p. 400.

[4] Visual Music historian William Moritz often cited films comprised of representational images such as Ballet Mecanique, Entr'acte, a number of Bruce Conner's films, and even some Busby Berkeley film sequences of choreographed dance as examples of Visual Music films.

[5] For more specific information see www.jackox.net

[6] "Pictures of Music," a collaborative project of the Block Museum of Art and the Academic Technologies Department of Northwestern University. www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu/picturesofmusic



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