Cadie Desbiens-Desmeules, AKA Push 1 stop, is a self-taught interactive media artist. After working in Montreal's post-production and visual effects industry for 10 years, in 2008, she began VJing and got into generative design citing TouchDesigner as her platform of choice. She quickly became a residing force on the scene and at the Satosphere dome with a succession of visually lush, invariably glitchy and ever-evolving performances.
Cadie's latest work Membrane an "algorithmic performance for transparent materials" premieres at MUTEK Montreal August 22nd in collaboration with sound artist Wiklow. In anticipation we had many questions about her practice, inspiration, experience with TouchDesigner and more.
Cadie responded in rich detail, tackling nuances in the creative desire and process as well as detailing her great love for working generatively and building powerful engines that are "by themselves creative". That using code and algorithms to create systems with infinite growth and variation potential feels to her as an artist like a collaboration with technology that can shape experiences, giving people special powers to step outside of reality. It's an excellent and insightful read that we are enormously pleased to share with our readers and urge Mutek attendees to secure their tickets now! Un grand merci Cadie.
Derivative: Cadie, can you give us a short history of life before TouchDesigner? :-)
Cadie Desbiens-Desmeules: I come from the world of Visual FX and electronic art. I was a digital compositor, what they called a 'Flame artist' during the day. Flame is a node-based compositing software. It's similar to Touchdesigner in it's structure.
At night, I was a VJ playing with electronic music producers and DJs. I did that for about 10 years before really focusing on generative art. VJing is about creating visuals in real-time so it's no surprise that I got into TouchDesigner. It was like merging these two worlds of VFX and VJing.
D: How did you discover TouchDesigner and what was the first project you made with the software?
CDD: I discovered TouchDesigner because I wanted to do audio-reactive visuals. I was dreaming about being able to create in real-time, to really perform live, affecting both sound and image at the same time. TouchDesigner was perfect for that - real-time graphics, data analysis, the capacity to create my own interface. Even just using the node-based built-in UI. The UI is already so fun to play with even on its own.
I think it's great when you feel that the sound and the visuals are together, in cohesion. It should always be this way. When I used to VJ, it always felt wrong to me to play videos and then to try to follow the sound. I knew that the only way to make my visuals truly react to sound would be to actually create them in real-time. This was pretty obvious to me right from the start.
I was already into generative design with platforms like Processing but TouchDesigner was like my dream come-true, a place where Flame and Shadertoy would meet. I fell in love but it took some time for me to actually get comfortable working with it.
My first project with TD was a collaboration with Greb Debicki, a producer named Woulg. Greg is an extremely talented musician and he's into generative design as well. I realized that we both had the same vision about A/V shows, the same interest in creating visuals and sounds simultaneously. We did our first official performance for the dome at the Société des Arts Technologiques last year.
D: How did it affect your future work?
CDD: I have to admit that the learning curve was not that easy at the beginning. It took me about a year to really start doing interesting stuff with it (so don't give up if you are struggling!). But once you're in, it gets very addictive.
I now focus mainly on generative design. I pretty much left the VFX world to do TouchDesigner full time. You can't get bored! I've done a wide variety of different projects now using generative techniques, from music events to installations, interactive video conception for theatre to real-time VFX on movie sets.
D: What drew you to generative design in the first place?
CDD: I am fascinated by the concept of generative art, using code and algorithms to create. I think it's incredible that now, with the help of the technology, we have the capacity to do artwork that can sometimes grow like plants. It behaves in unpredictable ways, respecting certain constraints with or without the help of an artist. The system might never even show the same pattern twice. It's infinite. It's mathematics.
I can imagine how far it's going to go when this is combined with artificial intelligence. I believe this combination will completely change the artistic world. Digital technology already transforms many practices, but I believe we are just witnessing the early age. It's very exciting. I remembered when I first jumped on Processing and started messing around with it. I felt that I was truly collaborating with my computer. It wasn't just a tool anymore. I thought, "now I'm doing smart visuals".
D: What do you look for in your collaborations with music artists?
CDD: I specialize in video so I usually pair with a musician that inspires me. It's without exception that it's their music that first draws me to them but there are also other reasons. I search for artists that are interested in using generative art to shape experiences, more than just creating music and visuals independently. They need to share this same goal.
I have always been captivated by the world of electronic music and digital art. Yet at the same time I criticize it. Many of the performances I witness are a bit cold. It's less often these days, fortunately, but I have to say I don't always feel the human behind the computer in the digital world. The music and the visuals often feels disconnected, and so does the public from the performance. To me, generative art is an answer to that. It can be interactive between multiple artists or even with an audience.
When you create your own programs, it becomes real performance. It gives an organic feeling combined with an improvisational structure. You can get away a bit more from the traditional laptop show because the audience can get a sense of what's going on. There's cause and effect between sound and image. They can tell you are messing with something live. They see you have both your hands on it.
Often people ask, "what difference does it makes to play live or to do generative? Can people tell the difference? Is it worth it?". I believe people can tell the difference. From my experience, they definitely do. And if they don't, why bother creating your own platform to do a show? It is not the easiest road. It often means spending a lot of time solving problems. I mainly look for artists who share these ideas when collaborating, people that are not scared of troubleshooting.
D: What informs your creative process in a work such as Membrane for example? Is that an instance where the inspiration was first about the technique? Hologram/scrim system? And comparatively, what inspired Interpolate AV?
CDD: In both of these projects, it all starts with the intention of creating a moment, to invite the audience to enter a room and feel something new, something unusual. From my part, this is not about telling stories. It's more about stepping out of the reality. It's like giving special powers to people for an instant.
So in this sense, my main inspiration is the technology, but it's more about what you can do with it. I think that technology gives the artist new ways to express themselves. It's about emotions. It can be a key to access their imagination.
Interpolate is an immersive AV. It was designed to be presented in dome venues where people are lying down and invited to visit a world of complex parametric design and particle systems that maps the emotional landscape of the melody. It was inspired mostly by architecture. Working in a 360-degree environment already gives some sense of large-scale structures.
This influenced my next project, Membrane. Interpolate is about bringing people inside a virtual world while Membrane is about bringing the virtual inside an audience's world. The concept is a reflection around mixed reality. We try to bring digitalism into the real world.
For Membrane, I collaborated with an artist called Wiklow. In his practice, Michael incorporates techniques influenced by meditation, techniques he refers to as 'metamusic'. For example, using sine tones or binaural sound to bring the spectator into a second state, like a hypnosis. We wanted to have this type of interaction with the public.
We built a custom transparent screen to help create some sort of synchronicity with the audience. The floating image seem to vibrate in unison with the sound and creates a type of hologram within a room. It's like a virtual creature that people can perceive in the real world. It's a work that is three-dimensional by using a technique called 'volumetric projection'. So we project images on a cloud of smoke and then on to a transparent surface to create a 'hologram'.
D: Please tell us a bit about how you go about creating your work with TouchDesigner.
CDD: Membrane is a great project to work with TouchDesigner because the sound is also generative. Wiklow is using Reaktor on his side and there are a lot of similarities between the two softwares. We end up having very similar workflows which opens a lot of possibilities in terms of interaction. Michael can send precise information and I can do the same. I can send him so much data to create sounds. The performance becomes unified rather than being two separated mediums.
I used phong vertex shader materials to mimic the texture of the transparent screen - the 'membrane'. It is really great to work in TD with the custom screen we created. It's a twelve-foot tall scrim immersed in fog where light is projected onto it.
D: What do you like about the 360 dome? :-) (or did you start to work for the dome because the SAT offered that opportunity in Montreal) None-the-less I think you like it!
CDD: I love to work in dome venues, yes, it's the best. For a visual artist it's ideal because it's frameless. It's like accessing the full 3D scene. Immersion makes you feel like an omniscient character, all-seeing, almost like virtual reality without headsets. You have the power to make the audience feel the movements of the camera. It's very invasive. You have to be careful with that because people can feel disoriented in the dome sometimes if the images are moving too fast. That is what I like about dome so much. It's a very physical creative process.
D: What excites you right now in the AV world, other artists, techniques, forms, technology etc?! (Sorry that's a big question!!)
CDD: It's a big question yes because there are so many things that excite me at the moment. Technology is moving fast and its uses are becoming more democratic every day. Generative art is accessible to everyone now and I am completely amazed by what people are making.
I am excited by the work of so many artists, but I'm thinking of the recent works of Vincent Houzé with shaders or the Lumière laser show of Robert Henke. But there are so many others like Markus Heckmann, Alba G. Corral, Maotik, Herman Kolgen, Tetsuji Ohno, Michael Fullman, Mary Franck and Mathew Ragan.
I am also very enthusiastic to see what is coming up with artificial intelligence in the art world. I am looking forward to creating with the help of AI. I have great hope that it will save me a lot of time and give me tons of new ideas.
D: What advice would you give to young artists and performers starting off on their careers?
CDD: I feel like I am just starting, so I'm a bit uncomfortable giving advice.
I would just say that it's important to remember that technology comes after creativity. We should always focus on the purpose of an artwork rather than the techniques it uses because we are all new in this domain anyway. It's constantly changing so let's not worry too much about not knowing how it works, about not being an expert at it. Nobody is really.
D: So what is next for you?
CDD: I recently had the privilege to witness the work of some of the best creative light designers in the industry, Cory Fitzgerald, Davey Martinez and Jason Baeri. These guys really inspired me to work with lights. It was so fascinating to see how they use this powerful medium to create incredible metaphysical sculptures that make you feel strong emotions.
In my current project Membrane, I've started to use DMX lights that are controlled with TouchDesigner. Even the video projection is treated as lighting. My next project will probably be an interactive installation with lights. I would like to use devices that appeal to the sense of touch. I would like to create full immersion experiences on a more individual level, to step into the consciousness of people.
D: That sounds enormously exciting and I can't wait to experience it! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions so thoughtfully. One final little question: if you could design your own TouchDesigner Operator what would it be/do?
CDD: An operator that makes deep learning easily accessible for creativity!