Chapter 1, Live Graphics Nightly

© 2007 2012 by Fred Lakin   (back to book site: )


"Call me Bluetooth's bitch."

Mo has come up behind me as I hunch over the workbench. He announces this compelling request to my back.

"Hey, Bluetooth's Bitch," I say, swiveling around on my stool to face him. I'm careful not to smile, but instead grimace sympathetically.

"Gesture lossage again?" I ask.

"Yeah, dawg ... sad 'n true." As he shakes his head, Mo's glasses slip down his nose. His lanky body slumps a little, white on black T shirt hanging loose over his baggy pants.

"Shee it." Mo reaches up with his right forefinger to push his glasses back up to their normal position.

It is Mo's usual complaint. His custom gesture glove and touch panel won't play nice with the Bluetooth wireless system on his Mini. Mo is conservative in his choice of computer and software      Apple Mac Mini running OS X and Adobe Visual Jazz Master      but radical when it comes to interface devices, and he often pays for it.

Meanwhile, my rig      ancient Dell Inspiron laptop running my own performing graphics software on top of Debian GNU/Linux (still back at release Potato 2.2r7), gunslinger style hip mount split keyboards plus crotch tablet, and BlueZ with a dongle to wirelessly connect them all      is functioning perfectly and ready to go. Just as it was yesterday at final practice, and just as it was earlier this evening before I left home.

Mo and I are both regulars on Tuesday nights here at Veli's Graphics Bar. Officially, it is "Open Screen Night," giving the beginning and lesser known performing graphics artists a chance to hone their visual riffs in front of a live audience.

Unofficially, Veli stacks the deck a bit. He orders the cards so that the more entertaining graphicists (as determined by him, Veli) are seeded later. He also pays one semi pro a modest fee to do the closing set. So even if some of the acts are pretty bad      and they often are      the crowd has something to look forward to as the evening wears on. Because of these deck manipulations, Veli feels justified in asking patrons to pay half the normal cover charge for the privilege of entry.

And tonight he's getting it. The place was almost full earlier when I came through on my way to the d&r room (debug & ready room), where Mo and I are now. Veli, the cunning old entrepreneur, knows exactly what his market will bear. He's been running night clubs for a long time and manages Open Screen Night with a deft touch.

As for us performers, the question every Tuesday night is just where we will be placed in Veli's Order of Things Performing Graphical.

"Gonna climb out the limb here ..." Mo starts.

I finish the refrain, "... and bet we end up in the middle tonight?"

"That be it, AM." Mo grins.

"Hey, I like it there. Too much pressure on last."

And I haven't been first for a long time.

Mo and I initially met at a Veli's Open Screen Night about four years ago, been friends ever since. Mo is twenty four, black, and started his growing up on the dangerous streets of the Lake Merritt district in Central Oakland. I'm thirty seven, white, and started my growing up on the then not so dangerous streets of Barron Park in South Palo Alto. We both love performing graphics in front of a live audience. And for the previous few weeks we've been awarded neighboring slots in Veli's graphic order.

That order is made public when the performer list for the night is posted. The list is always displayed at the last minute on a big LCD screen which hangs down from the ceiling of the d&r room. As Mo sez, smart money is on him and me being put in the middle. Again. The middle is an achievement for me, a case where two hours of practice everyday ("viz scales") and hardware/software that always works overcome a modicum of talent.

Mo on the other hand is relegated to join me in the middle, brilliant from scratch improvisational imaging compromised by an uncomfortable stage presence and fifty percent failure rate for his custom input hardware (oddly, he never connects the two). However, Mo claims he absolutely cannot perform with off the shelf input devices: too distant and clumsy. Says he wants to feel the pixels between his fingers. A laudable goal, although one most challenging to implement. But when everything is working, magic. Mo can flow the graphics like few performers I've ever seen. The beam he throws is so sweet, your eyes see God and take your heart mind along for the ride.

Live Graphics Nightly, chapter1
As for me, when I perform graphics, my basic schtick is color washes similar to an "oil slide" light show from the 60's. The regions of color twist and flow, their constantly undulating edges contorting like the pseudopods of frisky amoebae on the hunt. And, yes, the moving/flexing/swirling of the washes is all guided live by me in real time. But my graphics are nowhere near as "from scratch" as Mo's inspired imaging. I need lots of very high level computational help to herd all those pixels into dancing amoebas. I get that help from my visual fluid software. It's performer agile, dead solid reliable, and also, unfortunately, computron hungry in the worst way. As well as requiring close operator attention during performance (my secret code for a graphicist at the controls who has an inspired hand and is totally in the moment). Which I can do. Often. Sometimes.

"What's your noise tonight?" Mo asks. He takes a sip of his bottled water.

"Professor Longhair." I take a hit of The Giant Roast of Sumatra, the high test house coffee they serve here at Veli's.

I perform my graphics to music. Mo absolutely does not, so it's "noise" to him. Tonight I'm riffing off a few cuts from the exciting New Orleans pianist, justly famous for his own brand of uptempo barrelhouse blues.

"I'm starting out with ‘Big Chief’, then ‘You're Driving Me Crazy’, and finishing up with ‘In the Wee Wee Hours’." All heavily syncopated. Not the best fit with my style or my rig, but I do love syncopation so. Even if it ain't good for me.

Mo raises an eyebrow.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," I say. "Kind of a stretch."

For both me and the cpu. The ol' amoebas just don't like to move that fast.

"But it looked OK in practice," I add hopefully.

Mo tilts his head down slightly and contemplates me for a moment over the top of his glasses.

"Many things OK in practice." He knows my rehearsals sometimes tend to be a bit overly optimistic, thanks to herbal augmentation.

"Yeah, like I bet ‘Moonlyte on the Bytes’ looked great in practice." I grin, referring to Mo's one and only artistic failure.

"Yo, dawg, good thing you smilin' when you say that."

"Don't get touchy. Remember, I was the one who liked it." Hey, I did; a lot. Mo at his worst is so far above my best.

And, OK, yeah, Mo's scepticism about my trying to play along with the Professor at his liveliest could be justified. But I don't care what Mo thinks      I think I can bring it off in a way that will be well received by tonight's crowd. Besides, what the hell does Mo know? He works silent for God's sake. He's the only artist currently performing at Veli's who does so, and one of only a handful of graphicists running silentio in the whole SF Bay area.

The rest of us all use rhythmic sounds to emphasize the visual rhythms in our imaging. Although most styles of performing graphics can be loosely categorized as "visual music," in truth the graphics can rarely carry it alone      the audience usually needs accompanying audio with a beat to help them see the temporal patterns in the flow of the compositions. For the majority of beam throwers, that audio is music, along with voice for the vizsingers and vizrappers.

But be hip to the fact that this main streamy, music dependent orientation misses a lot of the outliers in the world of graphic performers. For instance, Sal is a visual poet who uses only spoken word to accompany her live illustratings. And then, of course, there's Mo, the Marcel Marceau of the viz 'hood.

Mo pulls up his baggy pants, turns, and walks toward his spot at the back workbench. Hoping, I'm sure, that more jiggling and soldering might get his gesture glove on better terms with his Bluetooth      Bluetooth! Uht oh ...

And sure enough, just now he stops abruptly, spins on his heel, and comes back in my direction.

"Say, Amoeba Man, you did bring that new Bluetooth driver for me, right?"

Oops. I forgot completely. "Not yet, Mo. No problem, I'll get it right now."

A driver is a low level piece of software which interacts with peripherals, such as the Bluetooth wireless system that Mo uses. My friend Dave at my day job is a Mac Mini head like Mo. Dave is also into non standard Bluetooth devices, and he has hacked together a driver mod that might fix some of Mo's problems.

Mo gives me a look.

"Hey, don't worry, I'm on it."

Mo adds some eye narrowing to the look, then shrugs and walks away. Tough street kid and sensitive performing graphics artist are always on the mix in Mo, never sure who'll be in front. Mostly, when he interacts with me, it's Mo the artist, but ...

And, yeah, yeah, don't sweat it, homeboy; I'll do it already. Just take me a few seconds to log into the system at where I work, grab the loadable module for the driver, and then email it as a base64 attachment to Mo.


Live Graphics Nightly, chapter1
But gee, it's not like I have to do that immediately immediately. There's still time before I suffer the hassle of getting the file from blogdyne. In fact, plenty of time to check out the d&r room, see who's here and who's not. Swiveled around on the stool, with my back resting against the workbench, I have a good view of the place.


The debug & ready room is long and narrow. The walls are made of rough concrete cinder blocks painted white. Wooden workbenches are mounted against all four walls, with gaps cut in the benches for two doorways. Beside me on my left is the curtained performers' doorway to the stage. The other doorway is to my right at the far end of the room. That's the one to the kitchen, which then connects to the bar via swinging saloon doors. Of course you could also get to the bar by going up the ramp and through the peformers' doorway, out on stage, and then jumping down amongst the tables and the patrons, but that route is severely discouraged by Veli for obvious reasons.

Above the benches every few feet are small lights on swing arms. In front of the benches sit raggedy old bar stools, long since retired from customer service. And built into the back of each bench is a power/com strip with 110 volts AC and ten gig Ethernet to the d&r Linux server. The d&r room is not a bad place for last minute software tweaking, downloads, and hardware repair (providing you brought your own tools; and, no, Linda, the house sysadmin, will not loan you hers, so don't even bother to ask).

I'm sitting at the front bench, in my customary spot next to the ramp up to the stage doorway (stage level is two feet above the floor). Directly opposite me is the other long workbench      the "back bench," so called because it is set against the back wall of Veli's. On the other side of the wall: the wilds of West Oakland's MLK district and the 580 freeway passing overhead. The back bench is where Mo has set up camp in his customary spot.

Standing next to me at the front bench is Oakboy. In his vegetable green Ganja Graphics T shirt, levis, and long dreadlocks, he occasionally does a small dance step as he listens to his soundtrack on headphones and adjusts the straps on his fratoire style chest tablet (patterned after the zydeco rubboard). Oakboy is like most of us and prefers to perform standing up, hence the input device hanging down from his shoulders.

As for the rest of the artists, it's a good turnout tonight. Majority are ones I know like Mo, Oakboy, Sal the Shooter, the Eds, Bobby G, and all four of the Mexican Lightning Crew. Plus two I haven't seen before. A tall Japanese guy with a fancy Euroflash rig. And in the back corner by the kitchen door, a slender girl/woman in short dark hair who is unpacking her equipment from a battered cardboard box that announces "Oakland U haul" on the side.

Each performer is going through their own preparatory ritual, and each has brought their own unique combination of computer and input device for performing graphics      their "rig." Which vary widely in brand, cost, and off the shelf ness. All Veli requires is that your rig has DVI video out for the big screen, Dolby Digital EX compatible audio out for the sound system if you need accompanying noise, and that you can carry it on stage by yourself, "in one fucking trip." Like a sequence of guitarists all sharing the same amp, last one unplugs and next one plugs in.

See, on Open Screen Night, Veli wants the performer changes to be fast: "Use your damn ten minutes for imaging, not equipment wrangling!" (yeah, yeah, sure; Veli's rants notwithstanding, there's often a good fifteen minutes or more between opening riffs, one performer to the next).

Sometimes newcomers bitch a lot about the all in one trip rule, but Veli won't budge. When they get to be headliners and are playing two full sets on their own night, then they can bring all the fancy hardware they want, but not on Open Screen Night. Even the Mexican Lightning Crew is OK (finally) with this. Tonight Robert will carry his own rig on stage and do the gig. The other three MLC members are here for last minute d&r tinkering, moral support during his performance, and, of course, partying afterwards.

I finish scoping out the d&r room and end up looking at Big Ed, who is set up on the back bench next to Mo. Big must be the semi pro ringer tonite, unless it's one of the newbies, either the Euroflash guy or the young woman, which I doubt. We'll know for sure as soon as Veli gets his shit together and has Linda post tonight's performer list on the hanging LCD screen. Right now it just shows the big analog clock face with the empty performer list beside it.

Live Graphics Nightly, chapter1
Big sees me looking in his direction and scowls.

Big Ed is in fact big, around 300 pounds and an inch or so shorter than my six feet. He's also black, which matters more than it should. Tonight he's dressed in his Raiders jacket, black T shirt, only one gold chain, loose black pants, and what I must assume are currently the most hip and expensive cross trainer basketball whatever shoes (I can't keep track of that shit). Once again Big is with his sidekick/bodyguard, Little Ed.

I didn't know Little was out so soon after his weapons charge. Cool; I always liked Little, though he can be pretty scary. Lot of controlled mayhem in five and a half feet, even without hardware, thanks to martial arts. And, I'm positive Little isn't carrying tonight      Veli is "sincere" in the street sense (deadly serious with emphasis on the dead) about his "No Guns, No Knives" rule. Efficiently enforced by six and a half feet of Sweet Jesse at the door.

Big Ed does VizRap, and he's not bad at the ol' vizzle and flow. Quite the contrast to my psychedelic amoeboid washes, or Mo's starkly pure Improvisation Graphique, or Sally's powerful visual poems.

Big scowls at me again and lumbers over, doing his street tough walk.

Behind Big I can see Little still sitting on his stool at the bench. Little catches my eye, then shakes his head and shrugs his shoulders with a quick `I'm not in this' grin. I expected as much, but good to know.

Big and I don't get along. He suffers under three delusions: he thinks there is a king of the d&r room, that he's it, and that I want the job. I don't think there's any king; if there was, it would never be him; and for sure I don't want the job.

I have made all this very clear to him in the past. But Big Ed thinks it's just a clever ploy to hide my political ambitions. Typical sneaky white guy.

See, when you have a computer graphics bar in a poor black neighborhood, race is always an issue. Sometimes it's an issue in a don't make much difference kinda way, like between Mo and me. And sometimes it's an issue in a makes a whole lotta difference kinda way, like between Big and anybody white. Though in fairness, Big would undoubtably be on my case even if I were black. We just plain don't like each other; my skin color simply adds another dimension to his serious disesteem.

"Wha'chew lookin at, Amoeba Boy?"

"Something big and ugly, why?"

Uplifting pleasantries, but not why he came over.

"You in my parking place again, asshole."

It's true, I did get the much coveted nearest the door slot in the performer section of Veli's parking lot.

"Didn't see your name on it."

In Big's egomaniacal fantasies, I'm sure there actually is a kingly crown icon stenciled on the asphalt in white paint, with "reserved for Big Ed" underneath.

"Told you before, that's my spot. Everybody know."

"No they don't. What everybody knows, you're full of shit."

Big bristles and takes a step closer.

"Last warning, Amoeba Boy ..."

"That's Mister Amoeba Boy to you, poser."

"... next time your ratty old Toy oda in my spot, something bad will happen. To it. And you."

Big turns on his heel and stalks off.

He's bluffing. Nothing will happen to me or my faithful ten year old Forerunner. At least, not in the club or the parking lot. Veli has declared them to be a violence free zone, making his club and the immediate environs an enclave of safety in this less than safe neighborhood. Sweet Jesse sees to that, ably assisted by Vernon and Fred. They're the agreeable muscle who work for Jesse; parking lot patrol is one of their duties. And if additional firepower is required to enforce Veli's sphere of protection, there's always the stuff in the basement bunker that nobody knows about.

Outside Veli's sphere is a different story, where both the Forerunner and my personal Alan Morgan hide may be at risk. But slashed tires can be replaced. And I doubt Big can get his real gangster friends in the Mosslocks to bodily harm me for a vendetta of such obvious stupidity. So it will be just him and me.

When that goes down, Big thinks he can take me. I think different.

I was a teenager in South Palo Alto when the gangs moved in. For the most part, the middle class white folk were completely unprepared. The El Camino Real edge of their peaceful burg now belonged to the violence prone of a different color. But one guy was prepared. That was my friend and neighbor Billy, who trained me to take care of myself. Billy was an ex Navy SEAL with a ponytail. He looked like a harmless hippie      short, cheery, and rolly polly. But the bulk was actually solid muscle, and he had the skills and reflexes to use it.

Before we started, Billy told me, "If you work hard, I can teach you enough so that you will never lose a fight with an amateur."

Not losing is good. I worked very hard. And Big is no pro.

Unlike Little Ed. They don't come much more non amateur than Little. So I go out of my way to be on good terms with him. Which is easy, fortunately, since Little is not an asshole. Just as with Sweet Jesse, Little's total confidence in his physical abilities affords him the option to be really mellow and cut folks a lot of slack. Which he does, right up to the instant that he drops them.

I'm counting on that slack when Big and I get into it. And we will. Unlike Little in this respect as well, Big is an asshole. Of the first water. So he keeps pushing me. And so sooner or later he'll force me to not lose on his ass with great sincerity. Or, what the fuck, just hurt him badly enough that he stops screwing with me. Either way works for me.

When that dance finally does happen, I'm pretty sure that Little will simply let us have at it as long as I don't kill or maim. But if things should go the other way, then I hope he'll step in before I'm at the receiving end of much killing or maiming.

Me and Big mixing it up, something to look forward to.

Live Graphics Nightly, chapter1
The root of Big's problem, besides being a racist jerk, is the way he does the VizRap thing. He really bought into the dark side, that whole Gangsta Graphics persona. So he thinks he's obligated to throw his considerable weight around.

It's too bad. I like most of the vizrappers who hang out at Veli's. And I really enjoy their style of throwin' beam, a nice contrast with what I do.

Take the Mexican Lightning Crew. Vizrap with a Spanish accent. It's been a treat to watch them develop over the past year. Their beamer Robert is awesome. Extreme speed skillz let him bend the computer to his visual will, performing traditionally ornate Hispanic graffiti in real time.

See, that's the great thing about Open Screen Night      it brings together any and all brands of performing graphics. Most evenings at Veli's, with one or two name acts, the artists end up naturally segregated by genre. Makes sense. But if you limit yourself to nights when there's only VizRap, or Movin' Tattooin', or Visual Jazz, then you miss out on all the other cool stuff that's happening these days. As the kids in say, "Mo' different flavors you schooled in, more juice for yo' own." Amen. So I like Tuesday nights.

In spite of Big Ed. Can't let him ruin my groove. He's just one more item in the long list of stuff not to be thinking about as I get ready to perform. Either you're distracted by "the thousand and one things" or you're in the flow. And Professor Longhair is gonna take all the flow I can muster.


It must be nearly 9pm, showtime. OK, so why isn't the performer list up for viewing yet? And just as I wonder and swing my glance, there is a small flash up high. Ah, finally. The flash was the big LCD screen hanging down from the ceiling at the kitchen end of the d&r room; the screen now displays tonight's performer list.

The big analog clock face is on the left, and on the right is the list. I give it a quick scan. Gee, Mo and I got a promotion; tonight we're late middle after the break, cool. As I expected, Big Ed is batting cleanup. But, whoa!      "Liz" has been put right before Big. Gotta be the young woman in the corner. Hey, just who is this new kid and how come she's so privileged?

And, "Hiro," must be the Japanese guy, is going first. Figures.

Apparently, like me, Veli has never seen him work before. In addition, Veli has that one small prejudice. So Hiro gets the lowly leadoff spot in the order. He also saw the flash of the LCD clock & list, finds that he is due on stage in two minutes(!), and hurriedly starts putting on his equipment. Hiro is tall, dressed serious and not too hip in beige sport coat, grey shirt, blue tie, grey slacks.

But it's his rig that triggered Veli's prejudice: the guy is running heavy "Euroflash." Momo/Philips segmented 3D input gloves with right hand typing, Porsche see through LCD glasses for personal display, and processing by a Schnell Komputronz suitcase cluster with 8 of its 32 liquid cooled AMD processors visible through the transparent side. The cluster is connected by wire to the gloves and glasses, since the damn hardware puts out so much EMF it screws up any chance of wireless connectivity. And probably cell phone reception for nearby tables (which doesn't really matter since Veli jams cell reception in the club anyway).

The whole setup cost more than my car if I was driving a Jaguar this year. Which hardware bling tends to piss Veli off since his bias is most passionately on the side of cheap and funky.



Live Graphics Nightly, chapter1
Over the decades "Performing Graphics" has always been an obscure practice, springing up afresh when each new visual technology comes along, independently re invented and re implemented by the artist/hackers of the time to flourish briefly in underground venues, then fade to oblivion.

That final fading is inevitable because in each era the performing of live images is invariably seen as subversive by whatever graphics establishment is in power. Again and again, thanks to institutional derision or even persecution, the latest incarnation of performing graphics in its turn becomes a deviant act committed by outlaws on homebrew hardware. So most of the rigs are built in dank basement workshops, cobbled together with investment low in cash but high in craft      i.e. cheap, funky, and very very dear. And exactly there with the seditious instrumentality is Veli's bias. He is much against fancy off the shelf Euroflash equipment alá Hiro, and much in favor of custom built tools for outlaw graphics.

The underground glory of performing graphics and its miscreants can be traced through time and technology. In the 40's and 50's it was a severely deprecated offspring of Abstract Film, delivered via heavily modded movie projectors or special light boxes. In the 60's it was psychedelic light shows by means of overhead projectors. In the 70's it was live video synthesizer presentations. And finally in the 80's performing graphics became computer powered, with very crude prototypes appearing at grass root conclaves like Howard Pearlmutter's Graphics Gathering in Palo Alto. By the early 90's a few real time computer graphicists      Ron Fischer and the Raster Masters, Peter Broadwell of MIMI and the Illuminati      garnered local followings yet not widespread attention.

But that was before Moore's Law began at long last to impact big screen display technology. Cheap projectors became available, just aching to be hooked up to cheap processors. The necessary pieces were present, the stage was set, the solution was super saturated. All it took was a singular event to crystalize everything and bring computer powered performing graphics screaming out of the basement. And that event finally occurred the evening of July 23, 1996 when Flashmaster Grandé invented hip optical on the walls of San Jose's Saint James Park neighborhood.

The night was warm and auspicious. FmG´'s rig was hot and bodacious. He proceeded to beam top notch sweet, lighting out through a second hand projector that was suckin' juice from a car battery. Such was the birthing of Hip Op.


And then everything changed.

Homeboys could already make their own turntables and cars that jumped with sub woofers that shook buildings. So once they decided they wanted it, was no big deal to learn some new skills and build rigs for throwin' beam on the walls of the 'hood.

FmG´'s grand and masterful flash of illumination in the Park that night spread across the land at 186,000 miles per second. Virtually overnight there was vizjammin' on street corners in Oakland and San Francisco, and soon thereafter Chicago and New Orleans, and can't forget the Motor City.



It's those street corners, and those viz homeboys, fronting ghetto mods hacked together with love and skill, that Veli likes to claim as his visual roots. Hence guys with no rep and Euroflash rigs get to go first.

And I get to watch just by sticking my head through the black curtain covering the performers' entrance. One reason I like to sit in this spot, easy to check out everybody else's graphicizing. But I have to be careful. Too much light leaks through onto the stage, then Veli will come and yank my head back into the d&r room. When that happens, as it's been known to, there are consequences. For the rest of the night, if I want to watch the other artists, then I'll have to go around the long way through the kitchen and do my viewing from the rear corner of the club at the end of the bar.

The Japanese guy Hiro struggles past me and up the ramp. His suitcase cluster rig is quite a load due to the liquid cooling (it's one heavy mutha suitcase). He'll just park the rig on the table at the back of the stage, and then do his performance on tether.

Hiro glances over as he goes by. I smile encouragingly and give him the thumbs up. A return smile flickers briefly, then he turns his head and pushes through the curtain.

This should be interesting. I slide off the stool, move up the ramp to the stage doorway, part the curtain, and stick my head through      and abruptly get pulled back as strong hands grab my shoulders.

© 2007 2012 by Fred Lakin   (back to book site: