At your standard dance party, visuals can often seem like an afterthought. But for a party to be a special and not merely an elaborate, expensive way to get hammered, it has to transport you somehow, take you out of your everyday life and maybe even your everyday persona. Stepping into a space that’s been transformed from a familiar bar into a live piece of art creates a barrier between the world of the party and the real world outside. That’s what happens at CVLT, an elusive, semi-retired art and dance party that will pop up at Middlesex Lounge tonight for one night only. I talked to Robert McElaney, the visual artist behind the night, about how he does his thing. (Full disclosure: I had a brief stint working for Robert’s design firm Ctrl Alt Design, mostly writing emails and drinking enormous iced coffees.)
Q. For the uninitiated, what is hell is CVLT?
A. CVLT’s ethos is all about celebrating the darker and more experimental side of electronic music. When [DJ and CVLT co-founder] El Poser and I started the night, we wanted a sound that encompassed classic EBM acts such as Skinny Puppy, Haujobb, and Nitzer Ebb, as well as some of the harder edge techno and bass music coming out like Black Asteroid, Deathface, and Jokers of the Scene.
Q. EBM? Evidence Based Medicine? Oh no, (dammit, Google!) you mean “Electronic Body Music”?
A. We like to sum up the whole combination of genres as “Electronic Death Music,” but yeah, EBM is a large part of our foundation.
Q. What’s the dress code? Will people laugh at me if I show up in a cardigan?
A. We encourage people to express themselves. Its a great opportunity to get weird. No dress code per se, but we like to say “dress to kill.” Cardigans are fine, too, though.
Q. What inspires the visual aspect of the night? Can you describe the aesthetic?
A. The visuals are generally inspired by a very loose abstract theme — e.g. “Alien Rainbow Attack” or “AzTech Doomsday Gravewave” — the Internet, and urban dynamics. For each event, I try to create imagery that will fit the ebb and flow of the DJs or live acts sets. It’s kind of like combining a Tumblr and a Heavy Ion Collider of dope shit. And I try to flood the space with as many projectors as possible to create a really immersive experience.
Q. How do you fire up the Heavy Ion Collider?
A. The visuals are all created using web technologies. Essentially they are all pages made up of HTML5, Canvas/Jscript, WebGL, Processing, my own art, animated GIFs, etc. These act as, say, a separate rendered video would. To perform live, I built a web app that works as a “web page mixer” that can mix, fade, and place effects on up to 10 of these pages. So I’m essentially mixing webpages while the DJ mixes music. This is what it looks like:
Q. The feel really is different from video art.
A. Yes. That’s because the visuals are created algorithmically, giving a dynamic edge to the art. I can also integrate other web technologies like pulling in tweets, for example. At the moment, I am experimenting with HTML5/Canvas so participants can interact with a group canvas in the visuals.
Q. So, potentially people could beam all kinds of stuff at you via Twitter or something and see it projected? Their favorite GIFs, their own photos?
A. Potentially, yes. Though I might want people to use preset elements to keep the themes tight. On the other hand, the possibility of it going all dick pics is kind of hilarious.
Q. That would be one hell of an immersive experience. For now, can I just give you this GIF and have you put in the visuals tomorrow?
A. That’s darling. It’s going in.
The future is now. Immerse yourself in Robert’s visuals at CVLT with DJs El Poser, Glass Teeth, Punketta, and Shimoda at Middlesex Lounge on Dec. 16 at 9 p.m. Share your GIFs and Robert might toss ‘em up.