Amon Tobin Taxed : ISAM AV in Melbourne


amon tobin isam melbourne performance

Apologies if you’ve arrived in search of Tobin Tax discussions (a tax on market speculation proposed by Nobel Laureate James Tobin as a way of managing exchange-rate volatility..). Here we have only a murky swamp of audiovisual performance questions, all of them generated by Amon Tobin’s recent performance of ISAM in Melbourne.

– AKA  >> An album. And a projection mapped, audiovisual extravaganza, premiered at Mutek, 2011.
– Lengthy behind the scenes article, including video and storyboard examples .. over at the Touch Designer blog, the software used to run the show.
– Pixel creation by V Squared Labs and Leviathan, production design by Alex Lazarus, stage design and set design by Vitamotus.
– And yes, the stage set was designed to fit within a few inches of biggest possible travel container. Precision mapped, video glimpse.

Ramblings / Rants / Observations

1. First up – some congratulations are in order – ISAM’s a stunning and well fleshed out achievement, raising the technical benchmark for live audiovisual shows. And perhaps because of that, the next 22 points are an assortment of thoughts the show triggered during and after. What is this live audiovisual thing, anyway?

2. Some of my favourite bits were the more imaginative transitions – the projected video morphing between different content, while simultaneously transforming the type of perspective being overlaid on the cubes. ( eg shifting from a scene where the three dimensionality of the cubes were being emphasised – with each surface mapped as walls / textures of a spaceship… and then a zooming morph that ‘flattened’ everything to more of a cinema screen showing a spaceship shrinking away into the distance…). I remember thinking these bits appealed because they were moments where imagination seemed more dominant than visual plug-ins or render farm hours.

3. How much of this was real-time, how much was choreographed? Does this matter? Paging Toby. From my vantage point, it was clear that the visual director/ technician / booth operator was doing very little behind his console for many of the tracks, arms literally folded as he leaned against the desk.

4. “It’s like we’re watching something that happened 12 months ago”, said a friend, referencing the online saturation of ISAM over the last year, and perhaps, that the visual creativity was mostly employed long ago in pre-production, rather than the live arena.

5. If you were looking at the audience for most of the gig, it would’ve been hard to tell whether they were at a screening or a concert. Does this matter?

6. After the visual avalanche – the outside world seemed more vivid… and on several occasions while riding my bicycle home afterwards, I found myself thinking – this is way more beautiful than the show –  the crisp and vivid  silhouettes of spotlit cathedral architectural elements ( flanked by fluffy night clouds ), later – a golden second floor window streaming light out onto a bunch of autumn leaves, composited within a mostly pitch black sky, and while crossing train tracks, looking right and catching bright red train lights reflected in the curve of shiny metal train tracks, glistening lines in the dark. ISAM is visually exquisite – but something bugged me – and it’s possibly the complete emphasis on synthesised environments, which alway seek to simulate but can never quite get there. A lot of the charm of Amon Tobin’s music comes from the way he uses field recordings and everyday sounds as part of his heavy digital processing – I wonder why the visual aspects weren’t considered the same way?

7. The window reveals of Amon inside the structure worked great, the lighting perfectly compositing him within the overall picture. Where and how else could rear lighting have been used playfully with the structure?

8. The music! Oh yes. Almost forgot. Periodically closed my eyes, and alternately felt the music was less – or more – interesting without the visual. Lots of the set featured luscious sound, but after a while the compositions themselves struggled to distinguish themselves from the rest of the set. The bass heavier finale hinted at directions it could’ve gone in, and friends mentioned the after-show DJ set by Amon was musically much better.

9. Wonder how modular / flexible that structure and overall software system they have is – how easily could they re-fit / re-model the shapes differently in another space?

10. What would the combined creative crew do differently if they were starting this project from scratch again? How much could their combined system be considered a platform / foundation for a more flexible / organic approach next time?

11. If it did feel a little bit like early cinema viewings, where the audience swoons at a train coming at the camera, where will the process of video-mapped surfaces go from here?

12. Are we starting to see an increasing divide between what’s possible with a few clever friends with some imaginatively deployed DIY tools – and larger scaled spectacles with matching budgets and limitations?

13. What’s with the overdose of mechanical sci-fi imagery? Galactic Giger transmissions might be contributing to the oversaturation, but surely there’s room for a projection mapping palette that expands beyond a Quake skin, to aesthetics that might include organic shapes, lifeforms, or even characters (whether narrative driven or not)? Not everyone has to be Gangpol Und Mit, (1000 people band, yo!) but other spatial composition palettes are possible!

14. Yes, there was more than visual-machine-lust, we also got geometric deconstruction – sophisticated even, but still, there it was, almost like a logo popping up logo for a software plug-in, the virtual form outlined, crumbled and rebuilt. What other ways can we play with spatial composition?

amon tobin in Melbourne, 2012

15. I was definitely transported at times, enchanted.

16. DJ as cloud? The kinect bit was effective, transforming the stage cubes with a swarm of Amon dots, as he manipulated his DJ booth gear. Was kinda arbitrary though, equivalent of stepping on a giant FX pedal during a song, and letting it utterly dominate the composition. Which is fine… but yes, trains coming towards the camera. Great effect – how could it be integrated meaningfully?

17. The audience was often quiet, near motionless. Weird for a music gig of an esteemed producer. A constant nearby soundtrack? People laughing in an excitable disbelief ( kind of like a cough-laugh) as though they were watching a sideshow circus of things that possibly shouldn’t be happening.

18. Overheard outside: “I think Melbourne is now out of weed.”

19. No matter the cost of the algorithm or render farm rental, an object artificially shattering into pieces still looks like 90’s desktop publishing. Or Lawnmower man. If you’re contractually bound to deconstruct, stylise it to some interesting degree, or show us some actual ruins, or some hybrid of your go-pro kite in Baghdad and your abstract shape plug-in of the moment.

20. So you’ve watched / listened to ISAM in Montreal, Melbourne and Manchester. How different were those shows? How different could they be?

21. Was that a pair of stacked Christie projectors?

22. Who knew the Palce in Melbourne went 4 levels high? New to me and quite the vantage point from up there, gave the cubes a much more pronounced 3D effect, from the floor it definitely felt much more cinema screen flattened rather than 3dimensional.

23. I was impressed by ISAM rather than seduced by it. Undeniably a really accomplished show, it deserves the praise, but I’m wondering if it left other live-video-heads with such mixed feelings about what was sacrificed as part of the production upscaling.

Totally curious as to what any other folks thought.

PS. I did a phone interview with Amon a long time ago, and he seems like a lovely guy.


Autobot Roulette:


  1. One thing clear to me, even though I have not been present at the show, and after listening to the music and then seeing the visual reports/documentation of the show, is that the music conceptually needs or better yet, demands, a visual aspect. Ofcourse there are and have been beautifully executed audiovisual shows, but Tobin is not a visual artist, and this fact is what transcends or establishes, probably a new paradigm: music which demands a strong visual component (without demiriting or discrediting the musical prowess)

  2. goto80 says:

    Since Tobin’s music is more abstract now, perhaps it gets better by such bombastic visuals. But his old music? I think visuals could not make it justice. No synergy. Sometimes music is enough, too. (don’t think he had visuals when i saw him in melbourne, back in the days, p00le!)

    But it’s great to see new experiments of music/visuals/room. And I think that your confusion is a good sign that he’s on to something great here.

  3. j-p says:

    Hi Gabriel – I’m curious – what about his music – makes you think Amon Tobin’s music suits having a visual aspect?

  4. j-p says:

    Sometimes music is enough, aye..
    In particular, I’m thinking of you playing some kind of vanilla ice remix with c64 vocoded vocals, and maybe a larger version of this instrument, inside a jumping castle…. I don’t think you’d need any video for that either…

  5. XyZ says:

    Intereating critique. Where is this wow train of great meaning you speak of? Standing by.


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