Percussive Image Gestural System (PIGS)

PIGS is a software/hardware/percussive framework designed for multi-layered, visual performance. It uses silent percussion to create improvised cinematic performance. It aims to make live visuals more intuitive and fluid, while making the human aspect of visual performance more relatable for audiences.

PIGS is a performable instrument. It’s especially useful for improvising visuals with musicians in live performance, although it’s not limited to that. It focuses on developing an approach to visuals that are not bound to traditions of rectangular frames and “movie” structures — and on developing performable instruments rather than controllable software.

PIGS (Percussive Image Gestural System) Live Studio Jam – People Blowing Things Up on YouTube. October 2016

Here’s PIGS’s first live performance at UCSD’s Qualcomm Institute. The QI crew did a nice job of capturing the performance interfaces:

Rocket's Red Glare at IDEAS

Current PIGS performance interfaces include iPads, Leap Motion controller, and quiet MIDI drums. Strokes are scribbled using the iPads and Leap Motion and can then replayed with variations by striking the MIDI drums. (This in some ways resembles how traditional drums work – each strike of the same drum or cymbal generates roughly the same pitch, but may vary in loudness, choking, etc.) The PIGS system allows for an assortment of variations from the original scribble in both duration and form with each drum stroke. The performer may also use this functionality to create theme and variations or looping structures. Individual drums/video layers may also be set to auto-loop, allowing the performer to improvise on the other drums/layers against the rhythms of the looping background layers.

While PIGS uses musical instruments and strategies as general models for thinking about performativity and temporal structures, care is taken not to attempt to simply translate musical approaches to visual ones. Rather than approaching audiovisual integration as a matter of synchronization of sound and image, the idea is to create an instrument that is performable as a part in a duet or ensemble (analogous to the way various instruments in an ensemble play different musical parts even though they are performing the same piece.) Likewise, while twentieth-century gesture and drawing-based abstract animators like Len Lye and Walter Ruttmann are progenitors, PIGS combines abstract drawing with live action, and it integrates contemporary visual influences from cell phone videos and YouTube, CGI, concert light shows and holographs.

Our research aim in developing PIGS is not to create an “end user” tool for other artists, but to present an expanded approach to live visuals and collaboration between visualists and musicians. Some of the specific issues PIGS addresses are: parity and integration with musicians in improvisation; alternatives to rectangular screen space in live cinematic composition; performance interfaces that are both intuitive for the performer and relatable by audiences as performed with the body and causative to the experience (the way, e.g., audiences understand the movements they see a violinist make as the cause of the music they hear.) Although these problems are by no means completely solved by PIGS, we hope to contribute to the discourse around these issues through its performance and presentation.

PIGS has been performed seven times as of August 2017. In the course of these shows three different “compositions for PIGS” have been performed. Each composition involves building and editing a specific set of video content for performance. Curt Miller created a software instrument in parallel with PIGS, in which he combines live clarinet and talk box with real-time processing of recorded source material. Curt’s instrument focuses on facilitating musical improvisation with visuals. The first four PIGS performances were audiovisual collaborations between Amy and Curt.

Amy Alexander has performed PIGS at:

  • “Postcards from the Disorient”, performance with Arshia Haq. “Summer Happenings at the Broad.” Broad Museum, Los Angeles, August 2017. Video here.
  • “Now Hear This,” recorded visuals for Arshia Haq’s set at Montalvo Arts Center, July 2017.
  • “It’s Your Party,” collaborative performance organized by Nancy Buchanan. With Stephanie Allespach, Arshia Haq, and Marjan Vayghan, The Art of Performance in Irvine, University of California Irvine, November 2016
  • “People Blowing Things Up on YouTube.” Collaboration with Curt Miller. Performed at International Conference on Live Coding 2016, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, October 2016.
  • People Blowing Things Up on YouTube.” Collaboration with Curt Miller. Performed at NIME 2016, Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, Brisbane, July 2016. (PIGS Technical Difficulties Edition! Video here.)
  • “untitled (at the park),” site-specific collaboration with Curt Miller. Performed at Convergence, curated by A Ship in the Woods. Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, November 2015
  • “Rocket’s Red Glare” (early version of “People Blowing Things Up on YouTube.”) Collaboration with Curt Miller. Performed at IDEAS, Qualcomm Institute, UC San Diego, La Jolla, CA, September 2015. Video here.

“People Blowing Things Up on YouTube,” the first composition developed for PIGS, is a rumination on the YouTube culture in which people perform explosions for the camera. The videos run along an uneasy continuum from inquisitive experimentation through toxic aggressiveness and beyond.

Percussive Image Gestural System (PIGS) is created by Amy Alexander. Software development by Amy Alexander and Curt Miller with contributions by Wojciech Kosma.
Audio software: Curt Miller
Research assistant: Doug Rosman

Percussive Image Gestural System (PIGS) development has been supported by the iotaCenter, University of California Institute of Research in the Arts (UCIRA), and UCSD Academic Senate. It has been performed at events in the US, Australia, and Canada.