Interview: The Mind of Video Artist Chris LeBlanc

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Chris LeBlanc is a video artist who I have been collaborating with frequently for the last year and a half. The body of work that he has produced in this short period is remarkable. His improvised visuals for musical performances include mash-ups from rare VHS tapes of bizarre B-movies; usually of the sci-fi, horror, or fighting genres. He augments these mix tapes with circuit-bent Nintendos and a vast collection of other analog video devices to produce uncanny, audio-responsive, visual experiences that enhance musical performances and draw in listeners. Recently he added a modular video synthesis system to his rig and salvaged a nine-by-nine CRT video wall for display.

On Thursday, October 22nd Chris produced visuals for a solo performance of mine at a club with a projector and fifty-one flat screen monitors dispersed throughout the venue. Chris managed to display his video art on the projector and all of the flat screens during my performance. This lasted for about half the set until an irate bar manager found him and made him put the hockey game back on a few of the flatscreens. In addition to his performances he creates music videos and stills using the same equipment and similar techniques. After our most recent show I thought it would be great to share a discussion with Chris here on ACB. I interviewed him on what drives his decisions as an artist and how he makes his analog imagery so engaging while using content and technology from a bygone era.

Read on for the interview with Chris LeBlanc plus more videos and still photo examples of his work.

Keston: First of all, thanks for doing this! I am really excited to hear about your process and I’m sure ACB readers will also enjoy what you have to say. My first question is what got you interested projecting visuals for music? It obviously wasn’t for the fame and fortune!

CLB: Thanks for the interview! I’ve been a big fan of Audio Cookbook for as long as I’ve known you, so it’s pretty cool to be able to contribute here. I went to school for communication at the University of Massachusetts which is essentially a degree in media studies. I’ve always been a junkie for all forms of media and all genres, the weirder the better, and live music has always been a part of my life. Video has been a way for me to contribute to that world, to add something to a show where otherwise I wouldn’t be able to. I’m not musical at all beyond being a fan and my father has been a video editor his whole life, so video seemed like a natural fit. It’s in my blood!

The second I knew I wanted to make video art was a couple years ago when I was in Washington, D.C. for work and I had some downtime at the Smithsonian. I stumbled into the room featuring Megatron/Matrix by Nam June Paik and ended up watching it for an hour or so. I was blown away that this piece of video art made almost 20 years before I was viewing it could have such a sensory overload effect on me. It was so beautiful and it made me fall in love with the glow of CRT monitors again. They have such a nice psychedelic neon characteristic that you don’t see much anymore with flat panel screens. I began to research modern video art techniques and found the easiest way in was through modified vintage video processors. I started talking to Logan at Tachyons + in Florida and he helped me get set up with a VHS based glitch rig. Tachyons + takes specific pieces of vintage video gear and they rebuild them into studio and live performance glitch machines. It was a great way into the world of video because these glitch boxes make everything look so strange and mysterious and they are also pretty affordable. Tachyons + have a cool philosophy of bringing affordable video art tools to the VHS collector punks who want to put something good on the wall at their shows. I got myself the aptly named “Vortex Decoder” and started collecting the weirdest VHS tapes I could find and it all flowed from there. Logan runs a really great Facebook group called “Tachyons + Video Dimensions” where we all pitch in and help each other figuring out this old gear since most of the manuals are long gone; it’s a really collaborative and welcoming page.

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Keston: The majority of artists who do this kind of work are doing it digitally using laptops. Wouldn’t it be easier for you to take that route? The other night I heard the sound engineer tell you that VDMX was pretty capable, but you seemed to be biting your tongue.

CLB: I definitely have to bite my tongue when people tell me to just use a laptop and ask about projection mapping etc. I got into this because it’s a fun outlet for me and I only use computers when they are necessary. I fight with computers a lot for my day job and I’d rather not do it at shows too. Dedicated video hardware is much more fun for me and it is much more expressive than a laptop would be. It boils down to what’s most fun for me and what can make things look the way I want. There are all these glitch apps and filters. I can do that for real and dial it all in with knobs, so why would I use an app that only simulates it? Doing things the hard way can be more fun, you know? I don’t want to make it sound like I’m down on computers in art though, tons of people are making beautiful video art pieces with computers. Just not me right now.

Keston: I do know because I force myself to make electronic music with hardware instead of computers. For me it’s because the computer has virtually limitless possibilities. I find that almost crippling. Having limitations stimulates my creativity because I have to work around them. How is “doing things the hard[ware] way” more expressive for you? Do you find this process more creative? How is using vintage video hardware relevant in our computer-driven, digital-dominated domain?

CLB: It almost becomes relevant again because it is now the subversive way to do things. Of course it’s easier to grab some VJ loops and use one of the laptop programs to make everything look perfect. With hardware, there is a lot more room for error and it forces you to be on top of everything and right in the moment. I guess it’s kind of the difference between loading up a VST plugin and using a preset versus having something like an analog hardware synth where there are no presets, only full manual controls. It forces you out of being lazy, and into a more “designer” mode of thinking from start to finish.

There’s another weird element to it that I’ve found by accident, which is that using real glitches on CRT now looks completely alien to most of a crowd. We have all pretty much forgotten what CRTs really used to look like, so it kind of becomes new again for most people to see media presented that way. I like reintroducing people to that familiar but also forgotten glow.

Keston: Do you have any particular concepts or philosophies when you produce a show or music video? I know you spend a lot of time gathering and compiling source material, but what is it about certain shots that do or don’t make the cut?

CLB: Choosing the right source content when using things like glitch processors or colorizers is a huge part of the actual work involved. I used to use a lot more horror clips and now I’m using a lot more space imagery and NASA footage. I’ve mangled all sorts of footage and one thing I learned early on is that you have to be very careful about the statement you are making with the footage for a musician. I used this really old police training footage for part of a band’s song and it made me laugh in my studio with how quaint it was compared to police today, but when I was colorizing it and projecting it the size of a wall, it kind of took on a different, menacing context. I took it down pretty quick because I don’t want to put any political statements into a musician’s performance unless we’ve discussed it first. It’s not my show, I’m adding to someone else’s show, so I’ve been a lot more careful about that.

Now, I’ve been trying to make any statement be a purely sensory one. I have full control of shapes, speed, light, and color, so I’ve been working on making things more of a synesthesia for the audience rather than saying anything with my footage. I did a liquid light show recently with my good friend Mike Lund where we processed oils and dyes through my modular synth and that sort of thing is what I want to explore: a pure sensory expression in response to music. Mike comes from a video editing and live production background, so he has a great sense of color and how to frame things. Mach Fox and I are also working on integrating our audio and video systems to a point where the audio influences the video and vice versa. That kind of stuff is really difficult to do right, but it’s super fun and abstract. Mach has performed as both an audio and video artist in the Twin Cities for a long time and his career spans glam rock to industrial noise to room sized video installations. It’s fun working with Mach because he slaps me down when I make dumb new guy mistakes.

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Keston: I know for a fact that your rig isn’t always entirely analog. Sometimes you use a Roland P-10 video sampler rather than lugging a VHS deck to the gig. Is that a compromise? If you had volunteer roadies would you dispense with the digital gear? Or is there a place for digital gear alongside the analog?

CLB: There is absolutely a place for digital gear in my rig so long as it is fun and expressive. The P-10 for instance, was made in the era when VHS was still standard, so the formats lineup and it’s an easy transfer. It still has buttons and knobs to dork around with when playing live, so it’s at home in my setup as it’s more expressive and flexible than a linear VHS tape. I ended up using loads of analog gear because it was cheaper when starting out, though. Video can be an incredibly expensive hobby if you let it, so I could get my hands on a lot more gear to play with if I went with older analog stuff. I would modify it myself or buy it from artists like Tachyons + who have certain pieces of older gear mastered and modify them with precision.

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You have to be careful using lots of old gear though, because you can fall into the trap of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. You have to push the horizons of this gear and do something new, even if it has been around for 30 years. I modified an old sima video processor from the late 80s that cost 20 dollars into one of the most whacked out unstable effect boxes around. There’s always a new life for old stuff in that way whether it is digital or analog and that is a really appealing aspect of technology to me.

I’ll always haul out the gear I want for each show, no matter how unreasonable. It’s something I’m working on. My girlfriend Tamra has been a saint helping me out with rides and carrying stuff around at stupid hours of the night. It’s a lot to ask like “Can you help me haul some VCRs out to the club tonight?” She puts up with a lot so if you like my stuff, thank her!

Keston: Thanks, Tamra! How has your process changed since you started? I know your equipment has been updated significantly, but how has your aesthetic developed? What are you trying to accomplish now versus then?

CLB: My process has changed a ton since I first started out. I think back to the first few shows I did and I shake my head a bit. Fortunately no one else knew what the hell I was doing either so I got a pass until I got my act together a little. I remember showing up to one of the first DKO shows we did together at the Dakota Jazz Club, which is a very serious and prestigious venue here, and unpacking these VCRs and circuit bent Nintendos like “hoo boy, not so sure about this.” Minneapolis is a very open minded place, thankfully! It also really helps having musicians who support what I’ve been doing.

My biggest change in workflow is working with modular video synthesis instead of processing existing video and using only glitch effects. I’ve upgraded the bulk of my rig to the point where I can do what I want within my modular system. I use a system with LZX Industries video modules, made in Portland, Oregon by Lars Larsen and some by BrownShoesOnly out of Chicago. The LZX modules are capable of such vibrant, beautiful colors and patterns that are rarely seen this side of a heroic dose of hallucinogens. The modular system lets me have a direct relationship with electricity and allows me to turn audio into voltages to control different colors and waveforms. It’s such a beautiful combination of the colorization seen in 1970s video art with a futuristic way (to me anyway) to interact with synthesizers.

The modular setup lends itself very well to live environments, since I show up with nothing patched in and by the end of a set, I’ll have a rat’s nest of cables that route colors and patterns and voltages through a labyrinth of video circuitry. I can build patches that are a direct response to what the music makes me feel. When the performance is finished, all the cables come out and the patch vanishes into thin air. If you weren’t there, you will never see it again because the next time I patch it, things will be completely different. It’s like a mad science mandala, you put together this wild evolving sculpture of electricity, then wipe it away forever when you are done.

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More information about Chris and examples of his work can be found on twitter @TheBlindProphet, on Instagram as BlindProphet, and on tumblr at blindprophet.tumblr.com.