The designer as performer

Pub date November 9, 2010

MUSIC/VISUAL ART It’s late at night, and I’m sitting at my laptop transcribing an interview with visual designer Adam Guzman, when I notice the graphics on my screen, twitching along dully to the sound of our recorded conversation. A fuchsia tube made out of small crosses rises up against a black background, something between a digitized sand worm and a Slinky, and opens its yellow maw in a pointless sort of way that’s familiar to anyone who uses Windows Media Player. All I can think of is how much Guzman must hate these visualizations.

Guzman, you see, is one-half of Fair Enough, a design partnership with Julia Tsao. In the last year they’ve been working in creating concert visuals for musicians. But these aren’t your typical, canned images projected near the stage; stock footage and trippy clip art looped or automated to roughly coincide with the beat. “We wanted to do the opposite,” Guzman says during our phone interview. “We both hated that. You go to a concert and someone is playing, and the visuals have nothing to do with what [the sound] on stage. They’re just found clips of stuff. This doesn’t make sense, and I was sort of tired of that. We wanted to make simple things that were synced to [the music] and do it in a different way.”

The Fair Enough project started when Guzman was studying at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Through Tsao, Guzman was introduced to Jason Chung, who records and performs under the name Nosaj Thing. “I actually lived with him for a little bit,” Guzman says. “He got to talking, and he was really into doing a synchronized show inspired by [shows by the Japanese rock innovator] Cornelius. At the same time, I was starting my thesis and I was really into doing projects with music and sound experiments. It just made sense to do a project with him, and it turned into this thing that consumed me for a year.”

A great deal of Guzman’s process for the project is documented on his thesis blog, But it began the way it does usually for him, with exploration. “When I started, I didn’t really know what direction it was going to go in,” he says. “I started drawing and shooting video, trying to edit it together, playing with MIDI controllers and stuff like that. I tried programming too, but wasn’t really into that. Julie had been gone, and when she came back, everything just sort of clicked and we decided to do something really simple. You know, embrace our constraints. Because I’m not a pro at animation or programming or anything. Neither is she. We just wanted to use that as a design tool.”

The final product is a stunning presentation, blanketing Nosaj Thing, his DJ booth, and the music under a series of graphic banners. Whereas typical concert visuals bombard your corneas with collages of disparate elements, each image of Fair Enough’s presentation is simplified down to an aesthetic essence. The displays range from organic suggestions with flowing blobs and swarming fireflies to geometric patterns shuttering crosses and a succession of colors. But each stands out on its own.

“We modeled the show after Jason’s set,” Guzman explains. “It made sense, because for his songs there’s pieces, and he calls them up when he’s performing. A bassline, or a synth, the drums, parts of the song. We thought it would be cool to do the same thing with the visuals and have parts of songs that we could call up as well. I was into the idea of the designer as performer, and what that [might] mean. I developed what the show is today from that. It’s the same. We have two MIDI controllers, and for each song there will be anything from three to seven clips that go with different parts, and we’re mixing and calling them up live.”

Guzman goes back repeatedly to the idea of the designer as performer. It was the subject of his thesis, Sound and Vision. Interested in musical artists who have pushed visual performances to the forefront — Daft Punk, Kanye West, U2, and especially the Talking Heads and Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense — he initiated the project as a way of exploring how sound influences visuals and how visuals create music. As David Byrne puts it: “Music is physical. The body understands it before the mind.” What Guzman and Tsao have created is a musical appeal to the sense of sight.

For Nosaj Thing’s November tour, they’re essentially members of the band, rehearsing, traveling on the bus with the other acts — Toro y Moi (who they also designed visuals for) and Jogger — and performing live at the shows.

Did Guzman see this happening when he was studying design? “I always knew I wanted to do something like this,” he says. “I didn’t envision this, though. I’m really excited about what’s happening.”

If Guzman wanted to explore the relationship between design as performance, he has done so — by becoming a performer. *


With Toro Y Moi and Jogger

Fri/12, 9 p.m., $15–$18

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF