Sound into light: the techno colour dreams of Double Vision

Producer Atom TM once made salsa versions of Kraftwerk songs. Now with artist Robin Fox, he has created a spectacular laser dance show delivering noise straight to our ‘reptilian brains’

The sight of a head bobbing slightly behind a laptop can’t really compare with the axe-wielding spectacle of rock, so electronic musicians have long paired themselves with flashy visuals. The best are unforgettable – Daft Punk’s disco pyramid, Kraftwerk’s 3D projections – but many, generally based around zooming geometric graphics or photo collages, look a bit like a screensaver made for an introspective Bond villain.

With their new collaboration Double Vision, German producer Atom TM (aka Uwe Schmidt aka Señor Coconut) and Australian artist Robin Fox are avoiding these cliches, with music that swings between sleek pop and mangled noise, and visuals dominated by a trio of red, green and blue lasers. These shudder across all four walls and three dimensions, until your body feels diced by colour. It’s even more impressive when you realise Fox is taking Schmidt’s improvised noise and translating it directly into laser light.

I meet them in Montreal, where they’re performing Double Vision at the Mutek festival; they come to Britain next week. Each appears every inch their national stereotype: Schmidt is neat and black-clad, Fox shaggily bearded and baggily dressed. But both feel like outsiders. “It would be really nice if Melbourne was just off the coast of Spain,” says Fox. “Australia has this incredible indigenous history that I don’t feel a part of. I remember coming to Europe and feeling like I’d come home.”

Schmidt has lived in Santiago, Chile, since 1997 after the music scene in Frankfurt had ossified into techno. “If you look back at what happened to techno, it’s disgusting. I felt disgust for 20 years. When I started in music, I naively thought it was all about progress – then I realised it was not the case for everybody. A lot of people in the early 90s reached a certain point of comfort and just froze there. I wanted to disconnect from all that and be isolated.”

But, since the advent of the internet, Chile no longer feels so remote. “It’s good for Chile,” Schmidt continues. “It’s a really reactionary society, very racist, classist, sexist. And they’re being reset to a default level of decency. But for me, personally, I don’t like being in touch with things. I don’t care what’s going on. I don’t read the news, I don’t watch TV, I don’t go on the blogs. I only receive information that’s given to me personally, or when events are so big I can’t avoid them.”

Schmidt has made an enormous amount of work, at one point in the mid-90s churning out an album a month. “I’ve gone through a lot of different phases, ranging from industrial to techno to acid house to pop and back. I’ve always touched everything a little bit, and whenever I’ve felt trapped somewhere, I’ve run away. That’s been my career so far: whenever someone says I’m this and that, I’m like, ‘Oh fuck, no I’m not!’”

Atom TM, left, and Robin Fox perform at Montreal's Mutek 2015.
Atom TM, left, and Robin Fox perform at Montreal’s Mutek 2015. Photograph: Trung Dung Nguyen/Mutek festival

Fox studied law before switching to a PhD in music composition, and has since made immersive sculptures from lasers, smoke and sound, as well as scores for contemporary dance pieces, and large-scale public works like the giant theremin he installed in Melbourne. With projects like Double Vision, he’s been moving away from the sonic chaos of his youth. “There’s a tendency in experimental music to resist musicality and I really don’t like that any more,” he says. “I love pop music, but artistically, in my group of peers, you were resolutely not making music: it was sound art, or noise, things that were an argument with music. Experimentalism is all about an argument with culture, but that argumentative tendency gets really exhausting, and not that interesting. It becomes more about exclusion.”

The pure bewildering experience of noise still stuns him though. “You’re constantly in a state of fight or flight listening to it, you’re constantly adrenalised,” Fox says. “Sound goes straight to your reptilian brain, you get such a shock from it. You can affect a person with experience so much more immediately than with information.” Indeed, it’s information and theory that Fox is retreating from. “My work is increasingly anti-intellectual. I was described recently as ‘part of the post-conceptual military entertainment complex’, and I kind of like that. My frustration with the art world generally has been this hyperconceptualised way of going about things. There’s a big act of bravado in showing how much you know. I find that intellectual machismo really disgusting, to use your word, Uwe!”

He laughs, before his brow resets its furrow. “I can’t stand an artwork that’s just advertising someone’s reading of Deleuze and Guattari. It becomes an exclusive activity. It’s exactly like the tendency of the legal fraternity to use Latin as a means of keeping people outside what they’re talking about. When I was in law school, my lecturer said, ‘Do you know why we use Latin? So we can charge $300 an hour.’ The more I explain to you, the more you’re being charged.”

Schmidt is a little more open to chin-stroking readings of his work. He gives the example of Señor Coconut, his cult band that did latin pop covers of Kraftwerk songs. “When we played in Germany, it was perceived in an ironic way: you must be making fun of this and that. Whereas the latin people, they never thought it was ironic. We played a public square in Mexico City and there were 80-year-old couples dancing cha-cha-cha to a Kraftwerk song.”

Where they differ the most is that, while Schmidt was banging out acid house in Germany, Fox was oblivious to rave culture, despite his beloved lasers being such a familiar part of it. “I’ve never seen lasers in that context,” says Fox. “I just walked into a really shitty nightclub in Melbourne and saw a little green laser making smiley faces and unicorns and was blown away by the idea I could turn it around, make it three-dimensional.” But he had his own recent dance music epiphany watching UK producer Shackleton. “I realised after an hour that I’d done more exercise than I’d done in the previous year. He could eventually have caused the whole audience to have cardiac arrest and die. That seemed like the end point of what he was doing. I loved being swept up in that feeling.”

Schmidt, who has now rediscovered his love of techno via this new generation of artists, contrasts their constant build of energy with the sugary peaks and troughs of mainstream dance. “The drop – that’s the disgusting part of clubs. To just take out the bass and then put it back in, I find that really lame. When I play clubs, I don’t work with drops. I layer energy, making it more intense without being too baroque. Maintaining that core spine, instead of becoming too voluptuous, tuning the machine until you have the minimum amount of elements making the maximum amount of energy.” He sees EDM and dubstep as “the shit stuff that fell off the sides” of techno: “EDM’s kind of interesting, but interesting like a heart attack is interesting.”

With their visions finally combined, they’ve made work that recreates the whirl of the club, by recombining its very visual and sonic language – meaningless perhaps, but a reminder that the dancefloor is so freeing because there’s no lesson to be learned. As Schmidt says of their project: “I’m more interested in what it does than what it could mean.”


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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