Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: Painting While Dancing, Part 2: How I Got Into This

25 March 2008

Painting While Dancing, Part 2: How I Got Into This

Live painting was a curiosity to me, bizarre and insignificant, until last summer, when I finally got to see it actually happen. I had just moved to Boulder from Lawrence, Kansas, where I had been working as a scientific illustrator. Colorado seemed fertile with opportunity, but I was crazy from coasting on my last few hundred dollars while finishing an online degree program and recovering from what may or may not have been the flaming crash of a three-year relationship. I was teetering like a drunken meadowlark on the fencepost between manic exuberance and a panic attack, when my buddies from Lawrence drove up and took me out to the Red Rocks Amphitheatre to catch Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) in concert.

STS9 is the flagship of a recent musical movement called "livetronica," an integration of traditional band instruments with electronic music elements, manipulated as it is happening, on stage. Although artists had been playing around with "live PA" set-ups for years, a full marriage of traditional and emerging technologies only happened a few years ago, when laptop music production software like Ableton Live suddenly made it possible for artists to do all of their soundsculpting in realtime, while recording, under the heat of stage lights. Live turned the laptop computer into a legitimate instrument, and one of the first bands to capitalize on this was Sound Tribe, for which computers perfectly complimented their already-quasi-electronic breakbeat drumming and trance-inducing guitar patterns. (You can find features on their use of computers in concert here and here.)

But that's all pretext for me to explain how the band's reputation for innovative syntheses led them into partnerships with other performance artists, to augment their already-dazzling concerts. The most famous of these is Kris Davidson, a painter whose works have morphed over time from pretty but somewhat prosaic geometrical diagrams:


...into vivid, layered, and organic dripping scapes reminiscent of natural history illustrations and mycelial microscopy:


The point is that Kris D was painting with STS9 when I saw them at Red Rocks last September. And for the first time in my memory, I got to watch someone paint and dance at the same time. I showed up for the second night of a two-night run, so the evening began with what looked to me like a finished painting on stage...and then Kris spent the next three hours burying it in washes and strokes that systematically and repeatedly redefined it. What started out looking like a wall of cubes became a sprawling cityscape, then the face of a mechanical goat, then a spray of tribal warpaint. The painting was breathing and dripping, shifting and blooming, while Kris dashed in for a few quick brushstrokes before retreating a few feet to gain some perspective. He bounced back and forth in a wide stance, perched on the stage with the ready tension of a bowhunter and the easy, casual hips and shoulders of a track runner.

There was something playful, almost flippant in his back and forth: the springy rave dancer with eagle discernment swooping in to exact some measured micro motion and then yaw back out into loose-limbed and watchful bouncing. And back and forth in those oscillations all night. It was an exaggeration of the double-moded painter stereotype, juiced into a higher octave by the uptempo beats and epileptic light show. Ah: this is the difference between painting alone at home, and painting on the receiving end of ten thousand intoxicated dancers. The incredible intensity of Red Rocks - literally, built over the bones of indians and dinosaurs, and channeling thousands of watts of sound between two ruddy monoliths that thrust up from the mountainside like heaving whales - that energy was rushing down onto the stage and through that brush into the painting.

While my own ass-shaking had merely bled heat energy into the mountain air, Kris D funneled that same vibe into a haunting and mysterious work of art:


Here was someone who wasn't merely doodling in class, or cooped up at home with his canvases and cats. Here was someone who had managed to shine, to really shine, in front of thousands of people, without being a member of the band - a rockstar painter who musicians request to goof off with them on stage. Here was someone who got to play pro at some of the best parties in the country and had found an audience for his work that studio artists can scarcely imagine. Here was someone who made his living by painting while dancing.

And that's when I started taking live painting seriously.

(Written for iggli.com)