Portcard from the Edge
Chris Craig interview | The Orb
Bruce Hepton trips the light fantastic with The Orb's visuals, man
Behind The Orb live experience lies Chris Craig, audio-visual pioneer. Bruce Hepton sees the light...
Working with the The Orb to create an ever-expanding visual feast makes Chris Craig an integral part of their live shows. Like most of the new wave of audio-visual designers, Craig's work is divided between making a living and funding his own R&D. The Orb provide the perfect base...
"R&D is what I'm really interested in. Working with The Orb lets me do that. We've got a lovely set up and good budgets, and they're willing to experiment - so I've got a free hand." Craig has grown with the rave scene since 1988, but his biggest achievement was setting up The Shamen's groundbreaking Synergy nights, whose influence is seen in clubs like Megadog.
Chris' input was the essence of Synergy. It was he that translated The Shamen's dance/rock musical blend into a radical blurring of club and gig styles, combining performance art, lighting, DJs and live musicians in a continuous audio-visual mix. The medium was the message, signalling a way forward and building bridges between the indie and dance scenes.
Like Synergy before it, The Orb experience represents the flowering of a variety of sub-cultural influences, as Chris explains.
"House music is an idea that has definitely come of age. The punk rock movement was very nihilistic and negative, and swept away the previous hippy ethos of 'turn on, tune in, drop out'. Now, it's more like 'turn on, tune in, and get with it.
"It's about young professionals getting up, finding the finance and doing something positive. I don't think it's skanking anyone asking more or less £10 to come through the door for The Orb when you see what we do. I think punters are more sophisticated than a lot of promoters realise."
A lot of the people Craig works with are at the cutting edge of their fields, and would rather keep new products defiantly small, cheap and available - ignoring the potential for corporate licensing.
"Potentially," thinks Chris, "the next stage of human development and evolution could come through technology. There's a friend of mine in Japan who develops a thing called an IBVA - Interactive Brainwave Visual Analyser. You've got a headband with sensors, and a radio transmitter, and a receiver hooked up to a Mac. You can read electrical transmissions from the brain when you're on a rollercoaster, or on the point of orgasm, or tripping. And you can use this as a MIDI switch, controlling music, or lighting. What I want to develop is using these brain patterns as chase patterns - say, with a bank of strobes - to visualise your state of mind."
According to Chris, virtual reality and multimedia aren't specific products: they're states of mind, creative tools. Politicisation and commodification of the new technology will undoubtedly happen, but certain pioneers are attempting to ensure it gets into the right hands first. Mondo 2000, the bible of the Californian computer art and VR subculture, is very close to Chris' heart.
"Mondo are beautiful, they entertain with the technology. It's whacky, intelligent, far out. I mean, a bit too far out! - but that's due to the nature of the technology. It's not all come through, they're all waiting for VR, and they're having fun speculating. This is the route to true VR, and a lot of interesting things are happening"
At an Orb gig, just as with VR, the key word is 'immersiveness': the creation of an artificial environment in which one can become totally immersed.
"On that basis," agrees Chris, "what we're looking to do is get larger venues like Earls Court 2 and have the band in the middle, with 360-degree immersive visuals all round. The emphasis has always been on the music alone: the musicians have had the technology and the media push. Now, with lighting, we're getting there. Musicians have been using 16-bit technology - samplers, computers - for years, but it's only really lately that we're starting to get good intelligent 8- and 16-bit lighting technology. Musicians and visual artists are working together, or becoming one. I now want to get involved in some of the underground video/music networks, like how there used to be underground networks for punk rock and punk art".
Multimedia, for Chris Craig, is a gestalt effect: "...where the total is greater than the sum of the parts. You should be able to put the two sensory stimulants of music and lighting together, and a greater whole should emerge. At some concerts you can go 'wow!' at the amount of big TV screens or whatever, but people miss the point, which is that big music and big lights do not necessarily equal a great show."
He also believes that much of the potential for multimedia and VR technology will be realised in the future by the supplanting of the TV generation by a generation of Nintendo and Sega kids.
"There's still a screen that they're sat in front of, but they're interacting with it - becoming technologically literate and dextrous. Nintendo is going to give us the next generation." This is the reason why Craig views most efforts in the field of multimedia as more than mere entertainment. It's about the blurring of traditional concepts of education, entertainment, information and - deep breath - use of the human brain.
"Sure, what I do now is put on flashy shows, but the ongoing R&D that leads from these fields... that's the future! I love interacting with people, that's what all this is about. I mean, you pay £10.60 a month and you can get on EtherNet - access to 60 million computer terminals worldwide. But it's not just terminals, there's people and knowledge out there. If you want to learn about anthropology through Colorado University, for example, it's right there in front of you. Geography matters less and less. But, with The Orb shows, we're still faced with the logistics of being somewhere on a particular night. Eventually it'd be fun to do gigs through the networks!"
Interview by Bruce Hepton
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