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POWEr: Electronics Absorbing into The Air

Ellen Pearlman

A performance by Alexandre Burton and Julien Roy
Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD), Calgary, Canada, November 11, 2010

“We are absorbed by the beauty of electronics absorbing into the air,”  is how Burton and Roy described their literally electrifying, and often frightening forty-five minute audiovisual performance of high-voltage electromagnetic disturbances. The event necessitated everyone present turning off their cell phones, i-whatever’s, and cameras to avoid provoking 800,000 volts of raw Frankenstein-like crackling electricity from throwing out a surprise lightening bolt and zapping an unsuspecting audience member.

POWEr’s instrument is an audio-modulated Tesla Coil with its own “boutique” ground that resembles a stripped down tuba with lots of copper colored coils. A bent over piece of metal culls the tail end of the generated electricity so it can be captured by a high-speed camera, and processed and re-purposed. Both Burton and Roy, who trained in contemporary classical music training in composition and electro-acoustics at the University of Montreal added,  “We like noise so we try not to do melody, except at the end.”

instrment is an audio-modulated, A performance by Alexandre Burton and Julien Roy

The piece is raw and alive, and no photograph or video can substitute for sitting in the line of fire of a sparking raw electrical feed. It smells tangy and metallic; a by-product of its ozone inducing properties and you can practically taste the microscopic particulate matter its hybrid frisson generates on your tongue. The sheer shock of its taser-like impact up close and personal is mesmerizing and anesthetizing but its actual menace doesn’t lie in its extreme voltage, but in its electrical amps, which is the charge that actually goes through you. “If the amp is low it just goes onto your skin, but if the amp is high you can die,” the artists sanguinely informed the audience in a Q & A after the performance. They also explained it took six months to come up with the idea, and another six months to make he piece not explode.

The creator’s studio site says they are interested in “the desubjectification of sound and image materials, R&D creativity as the consequence of artistic research and the building of a genuine digital performance practice.”  This idea is coupled with an astute technical know-how. To capture such an electrifying event the camera runs in a special “forever mode” that can be wiped clean at their discretion. The electromagnetic arc produced by the Tesla coils lasts for just a few very bright nanoseconds, so using a mechanical shutter is impractical. The ISO, dampened down to 50, allows a baseline sensitivity to actually capture the image.

sound, via a high-speed uncompressed connection, digital performance practice

Once captured, the images are transferred to the computer via a high-speed uncompressed connection, where recording, filtering and geometric adjustments are made. The visual data is handled as sound, allowing quick and precise images to be processed on the fly. “It is also a very intuitive approach to “synesthesia,” Burton said as the software abstracts both sound and visuals in the same way. Logic Pro and MAX/MSP/Jitter manipulate duration, signal, timbre, and resonance live time as technology and geekiness combine with a dash of old style showbiz razzle dazzle to produce a truly hair raising show.

(Images above are excerpts from a performance in Québec city 2010)
View video of Alexandre Burton’s and Julien Roy’s live performance here