Flickering lines jump and crawl across the faces of a trio of darkwave musicians at RBC as Evan Henry is on deck with his analog video electronics. He manipulates the video art in real time and projects it onto the stage, bathing the band, Troller, in colorful abstract light.
An often underappreciated part of a musical performance, visuals can make or break a show. And musicians in North Texas are increasingly using visuals in their performances, according to Sean Miller, a professor at UNT and SMU who is one of the foremost projection artists in town.
“It can be everything from somebody projecting a video of cartoons from YouTube, versus somebody creating original artwork,” says Miller. “It can be very simple or get very complicated, like the stuff that I do. I'm programming it myself. It's a pretty involved process.”
With Miller’s work, he programs software to make computers interact with each other and create “generative” visuals in real time. He’ll set up parameters so that if 1, 2, 3 happens, it will make x, y, z, happen.
For his collaboration called "Locations" with his wife, Lily Taylor, Miller manipulates visuals in real time as a response to Taylor’s singing, and vice versa, playing off each other.
“I have a controller that has a bunch of knobs and buttons and faders. I have control over colors, different kinds of textures, shapes. My stuff uses feedback, so the textures are building on themselves, and I'm intervening with that,” says Miller. “It's like I'm controlling where the flow of water goes, like when you're a kid and there's a puddle and you're digging trenches to divert the water.”
Miller also created the “Omniverse” music video for the band Survive, who are responsible for the score of the Netflix series Stranger Things. While Miller assembles his videoscapes mostly digitally, Henry, who often does visuals at RBC for local and touring bands and Dallas Ambient Music Nights (DAMN), uses almost all analog devices.
“I'm terrible with computers. I'm a human being first and foremost, so to use physical objects instead of software is a world of difference, it's very intuitive,” says Henry. “The great thing about my video hardware, there's little-to-no menu diving — you press a button and it does its function, you turn a knob and it does its function.”
Henry is relatively new on the scene; he only started a year-and-a-half ago after going to DAMN as a fan. “It was this interesting experience that I had to be a part of,” he explains. “There's four or five top video artists and Brian Tomerlin is one of the top dudes. He brought a huge stack of CRTs [tube televisions] and chained them all together in the midst of really nice, complex music. That next week he gave me the ins-and-outs of circuit-bent video electronics.”
Henry is now a part of the DAMN crew, along with Tomerlin, that puts together visuals for the monthly series, and he does gigs several times a week at other venues around town. Yet he first started in the music scene as a writer, covering bands and music news for Central Track and the Observer while he was getting his associate degree in journalism. Ultimately he decided he wanted to make his own art instead of writing about other people’s.
“I started off manipulating found video footage in the form of VHS. I would go to thrift stores and dig for yoga tapes, homemade UFO exploration tapes, computer animation art,” says Henry. “Through an analog video mixer you can create a feedback loop and put machines between the feedback loop, like video enhancers, and you circuit bend those, then you get things you didn't think were possible, that aren’t normal. A lot of my stuff is textural, sometimes it's soft and colorful and a lot of times it's rigid.”
Henry realizes this work is fleeting — there’s no way to save it or replicate it again exactly as it was, and much of it is a happy accident. He explains one serendipitous experience for a recent touring act:
“When the band Drab Majesty came through, right before they went on, I asked them what kind of colors they want — dark blues and greens and purples and that sort of thing, and so I adjust my colorizer. There's something that happens in a live setting when you have all this equipment set up in a room, it's all electricity flowing together,” Henry says. “At the end of Drab Majesty's set, coincidentally all the color in my video dropped out as they ended. It was so perfect. Things will be strangely perfectly in sync with the music — a lot of it is free-form jamming with video and audio in correlation with each other.”
Tomerlin, who originally inspired Henry with his CRT set-up — “CRT” is the shorthand for cathode ray tubes, or old fashioned tube televisions — is also relatively new on the scene, having done video work for less than two years, but he’s quickly become one of the top projection artists in North Texas also.
“I built my very first synthesizer out of a kit in February of last year — it was a 10-hour soldering job,” he says. “The first show I did was a Black Taffy show. I brought my first projector that day, and then I did a show for Cygnus and Botany.”
It started in December 2014 when he took an audio-visual hacking class at Oil and Cotton in Oak Cliff. He says he needed a hobby at the time, and didn’t really expect it to take off in the way that it did.
“We built a device to transmit signals to old tube televisions via an antennae, so you could broadcast without plugging into it,” he says. “You could use this to glitch it out and manipulate it from there. And I thought, 'What am I going to do with this?'”
Tomerlin started researching and then bought more equipment, and he’s now doing visuals several nights a week for different performers. He even went on a West Coast tour with the band This Will Destroy You, doing their visuals in the spring of this year.
“Everything that I do is a video synthesis, and I use a modular video synthesizer by LZX industries [which used to be based out of Denton] and I use a certain amount of circuit-bent, hacked devices,” Tomerlin says, to provide an explanation of the nitty gritty, or in other words, the end product. “[It's] fluid, textural stuff, it almost looks like a big liquid mess, but not quite. I don't really create content, it's really just improvised in the moment.”
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This highly technical, largely male-dominated field is being infiltrated by at least one female newcomer, Blair Johnston, who previously studied video art at UNT under a colleague of Miller’s. She doesn’t really know why the field is weighted so heavily toward men.
“It's really easy to get started with a projector,” says Johnston. “But doing visuals for events is a combination of audio-visual and programming, which are mostly male-dominated.”
She’s also part of the DAMN crew, and she’s contributed to Oaktopia, Ci-fi at Crown and Harp, and house parties in Denton. She creates and animates visuals electronically, making kaleidoscopic works that typically back electronic music.
“Accompanying live performances is a challenge because I never know what's going to happen auditorily, not to mention that since I'm working live, things do sometimes go wrong, and it is way easier to notice a visual mistake versus audio,” says Johnston. “It does create a kind of meditative experience by engaging with multiple sensory systems. That really fascinates me.”