Inspired by visual feedback, distortion and geometry, Liam Roberts is an exploratory visual artist based in Norwich, UK. Passionate about live performance as much as he is immersed in film and music video production, Liam has had the pleasure of working with electronic labels such as Traum Schallplatten and Mille Plateaux.
A graduate from Norwich University of The Arts, Liam studied Film & Moving Image Production with a bias towards experimental studies involving freedom of movement within an image, and the symbiosis between live moving image and audio, and ultimately how this relationship can be manipulated real-time.
Liam has had material featured in the 2012 BBC Music Video Festival, has received music video commissions for leading electronic acts such as These Ghosts, Olympians, Magic Panda, Duke Slammer & Ulfur Hansson. Liam was also given the opportunity to perform at Mira Festival 2013 in Barcelona, whereby he collaborated with LA based music-maker Will Wiesenfeld aka, Baths and London based producer Dauwd. Liam was subsequently commissioned to provide live visuals for Baths at their sold out show at London’s Oval Space.
Through collaboration with Spectro events at Norwich Arts Centre, he has been requested to perform live visuals alongside acts such as – Lapalux, Daedelus, Kidsuke, D/R/U/G/S, Magic Panda and Duke Slammer. Liam has subsequently been commissioned to provide tour visuals for Lapalux in support of their North American tour.
Liam can you please introduce yourself, tell us what where you’re from, what you do/have done and what you’ve been up to over the past couple of months?
I’m Liam and I’m a visual artist, specialising in live video performance (VJ’ing). I’m interested in how video can be manipulated/generated in real time and the relationship between sound and image.
I’m originally from Sudbury in Suffolk. I moved to Norwich in 2008 to study at the Art School, and I loved it so much I never left.
These last couple of months have been pretty crazy for me. I recently flew over to Barcelona to perform at Mira Festival. This was a big deal for me as it was my first appearance at a major visual art event, and a lot of people over there were very excited to see my work. I was overwhelmed with the whole experience. It’s going to always stand out as one of those pinnacle moments in my career.
What was it like being taught by such a leading light in the visual world such as Dan Tombs?
I need to be careful here, as Dan will probably be reading this. So I will start by saying that he was by far the best tutor I had when I was at university!
But yeah it was great; I was very lucky studying on the Film & Moving course at NUA. Having tutors like Liam Wells, Phil Archer (of Transept fame) and of course Dan Tombs, they were all a great help and influence to me. Dan’s renowned VJ’ing lecture was what initially got me interested in live moving image.
First Dan Tombs and now Liam Roberts, it would seem there is certainly something in the water up In Norwich having produced such forward thinking visual artists. Is Norwich the new center of all things visual?
Haha yes, Norwich water is very special. I’m not sure I would say all things visual, but there is a lot of creativity in Norfolk, audio and visual.
I feel really lucky to be living here, Norwich is just this perfect mix between a city and a small town. There’s a really nice community spirit amongst artists, pretty much everyone knows everyone else. There’s a lot of support going on, some really great events and I think that has a lot to do with all the great work coming out of it.
Have you always been interested in manipulating visual images? Where did this interest stem from and how did you hone your skills to reach the level that you are now currently at?
I studied art at college for 3 years straight after I left school; I got into doing a lot of hands on mixed media pieces. I spent most of my time taking black and white photographs on old SLR cameras, developing them in the darkroom.
I would then cut them up and stick them back together, paint onto them, scratch them, tear them, you know just a bunch of crazy stuff. I just really liked the idea of pulling an image apart and putting it back together all wrong, but making something completely new and interesting.
I started to play around with video; I was really into the idea of having multiple shots framed on the screen at the same time. Kind of giving the impression that events are happening simultaneously.
For ages I was forcing myself to try and make short films, thinking this was what I wanted to do. But I could never get on with it, the process of pre-production / production / post-production always seemed so stressful to me.
I wanted to make stuff that was visually interesting, with no real meaning to it. Some of the really early stuff I made was just my hand moving around in front of a bright light or something, with loads of ridiculous effects.
I went on to experiment with a live video camera – plugging it into a projector and then aiming the camera at the projection, to create loops of feedback. I would obstruct the field between the projection and the camera with different objects, creating warping tunnels of colour. It was a really fun and quick way to create interesting visual effects.
I thought about how I could use this technique as some kind of live performance, using live cameras and recording loops to create a fully live visual performance. And this is when all my thoughts went into how I could produce video for a live performance.
The live camera was crucial to some of my first performance pieces. It would always start with a blank canvas; I’d record a short loop of something really simple, like a moving light and then I’d make a feedback loop of that clip, and then layer it up throughout the piece. Through doing this I ended up with a huge bank of clips, and it got to the point where I had so many, that I would re-use them and turn them into something else. I liked the idea of the video being fresh and improvised for every performance. (Watch Video)
I’ve slowly moved away from using the live camera in my performances, and I’m now using other techniques to produce material, but trying to keep that core idea of layering and feedback present in my work.
Can you describe what the Liam Roberts aesthetic is and walk us through your workflow?
My aesthetic is changes a lot as I progress. I think it would be kind of hard to go through it in a way that makes sense.
In my current pieces, I’ve been starting with a backdrop of feedback and distortion. Created in a similar way to when I was using the live camera, but using more digital methods. Once it looks like an electric snowstorm, I start to bring in other elements to layer over the top. Like geometric shapes, and overlaying footage.
It’s just playing around with layers really, merging different visual elements together to create one image.
Do you have a pre-determined formula for making visuals, a template of some sort? Is the viewer expected to go on some type of visual journey?
I guess so; I find my work mainly develops through live performing. It’s only in a live gig setting that you can get a real sense of what martial works, and what doesn’t.
You need to take certain things into account, like the architecture of a venue, the size of a venue, the crowd and the sound. All those kinds of things you can’t really rehearse in your studio.
I try to mix the visuals to match the aesthetic of the whole event itself, so my pre-determined formula would be that I would have all of these visual elements to hand, but how and when I use them will be very different each performance. Sometimes it’s even a visual journey for myself, as by the end of it I might be mixing content together in a way I never have before, which is something I can build on for future work, and that’s the most exciting bit!
How much of a live set are original content and how much of it is manipulated, what’s the split and would we actually be able to tell the difference?
Well pretty much all of my content is original, with a few small bits of footage I stole from the net. But I’d say the live show is 50/50 live generated and pre-recorded stuff. But even the pre-recorded footage is also being manipulated. I have some really big clips that I like to save for a really big moment in a set, if you’ve seen me perform more than once; you’ll know what bits are pre-recorded.
Lets talk about music, who are you into and do you only work with musicians you admire?
I’m into a lot of different music, which is really handy when working in live visuals!
Right now I’m really into this band called ‘Lasers‘ who are from Barcelona, they’re the perfect blend of a band and a live electronic act. It’s my favorite kind of music, and I’d really love to work with them at some point! Definitely check them out!
I’m also listening to a lot of ‘Yppah‘ right now; he’s an artist on Ninja Tune. Kind of a more Hip-Hop sounding Bonobo, lovely stuff!
And then there’s music that’s been with me for years, and just inspires me to live, people like – Jónsi, School Of Seven Bells, Kyte, Boards Of Canada, 65 Days Of Static, M83 and Tycho.
In terms of working with musicians, it’s not something I subconsciously think about. But usually yes they are people I admire, but if I don’t like an artists music, chances are my visuals aren’t going to work with them.
Do you think visuals enhance audio or that audio enhances visuals? Is there a perfect balance?
That’s a tricky one; I think it’s very hard to find that perfect balance. You’d have to be very naive to go into a performance without any knowledge or contact with the audio artist you’re going to be working with. You need to prepare appropriate content, and get a sense of the pacing of the show. But yeah, visuals need to be able to compliment the audio perfectly. If the music slows down, then so should the visuals!
How did you start to work with Lapalux and Baths? Have you met them or is it a purely online working relationship?
I was running live visuals alongside Baths at Mira Festival in Barcelona, prior to the festival the organisers got in touch and asked if I was up for working with them. They sent Will over some of my work, and before we even did the show, he invited me to perform at their sold out Oval Space show later that month as well. Both shows were pretty unbelievable; I had so much fun performing with them. And Will and Morgan are really great guys too; I hope to do more shows with them in the future.
I met Lapalux at his show at Norwich Arts Centre; I was doing visuals for another act on that night. He didn’t have any visuals with him, so he asked if I would be up for mixing something during his set. I couldn’t turn it down, and completely improvised a set of visuals for him. My current visual style and aesthetic was basically created during that performance, very please with how it worked out.
A couple of months later I was in contact with his manger Alex, and he was looking for visual content for Lapalux to take on tour. I sent over some content that was used on his recent tour of North America.
Lets talk hardware & software. Can you take us through your live set-up?
Hmm it’s pretty simple really… I’m running VDMX on my laptop. Which is really great visuals software, highly recommended!
I usually have 3 layers running – 1 layer that is generative stuff, usually some kind of rotating 3D object that has a Rutt Etra filter on it. (I’m a total sucker for Rutt Etra at the moment, search it in YouTube and you’ll see what I’m on about!)
I’ll probably have an analog glitch plugin over this as well, it kind of gives it an old wobbly TV effect.
Layer 2 would be pre-recorded content, which is usually glitched up as well, plus RGB EQ/Delay and other stuff.
Layer 3 is the feedback layer, so would set the layer source to the main output, causing the image to burn and warp. Also it’s fun to add a layer zoom to this, so when the layer size is offset with the main output, it kind of makes a tunnel vortex effect, which is really effective on really large screens! `
I usually take an audio feed of the full mix of the audio, and then set certain effect parameters to react to the audio levels. And then I will also have a lot of manual control over other parameters too. I control these with a Livid Alias 8 midi controller (which is one of the best controllers i’ve even owned!) Plus I have a Novation launch pad, which I use to trigger clips from.
I like everything to be very loose and live, I need to keep busy during the performance, otherwise I get bored!
I’m not sure if you agree but there is an evident crossover with visuals between the arts arena i.e. installations exhibitions and the dance floor orientated world of electronica, do you ever feel like you have to make a choice or can both careers sit alongside each other in a complimentary fashion?
Yes I think they definitely can compliment each other, I’m currently in a position where the majority of my work is taking place at club nights and gigs. But I’d definitely love to more installation work later on down the line.
There’s a bunch of artists out there doing all of this crazy hardware hacking and live coding. Really interesting stuff that can work as an installation piece, or those ideas can be taken and used in a live performance at a music event.
Do you have any major gigs or installations lined up, where could we see Liam Roberts in the coming months?
I’m currently preparing some work for a show at Norwich Arts Centre for Independent Venue Week. This show feels like a really big deal for me as I did my first ever visuals show at NAC with a friends band in 2011. They’ve always supported me through the years, and I owe a lot them for where I am now.
I’m going to be doing 3 sets of live visuals throughout the night for 3 acts – Mammal Hands, The Boy With Two Heads and Unix. It’s also my first show since I’ve signed with Derelicht, so I need to make sure I’m on top form!
Once that show’s out the way, I’m going to be working on a new A/V show that I’m performing in London in March. As for what’s it’s going to be, I’m not too sure yet. But I know it’s going to have guitars and drums machines.
And I’m just going to be busy working on as much new content as I can, and I have some festivals coming up in the summer. But I’m sure I’ll have plenty of shows between now and then, so keep your eyes peeled!
And finally a little bird informs me you’ve just recently been signed to Audio Visual Booking & Management agency Derelicht, how did you land that and what do you hope to achieve with working with them?
Yes you would be correct! It’s all happened really fast actually. I followed them on Twitter, Gavin who runs Derelicht got in touch and said he liked my work and would I be interested in joining, and then it went from there really!
Derelicht have some really ambitious plans for the future, they’re so much more than a regular agency. Focusing on developing artists to achieve their goals and giving a platform for new and experimental audiovisual performance.
I really feel that Derelicht will be able to take me where I want in my career over the next couple of years, and I’m very excited to be working with them!
What other visual artists do you recommend? Do you have a favourite music video?
There’s this amazing Polish visual duo ‘Pussykrew‘ they make these kind of amazing 3D objects and landscapes, and then do some impressive datamoshing/glitch work with it. It really is amazing! (View website)
I always end up going back to the video for ‘Excuses‘ by Bibio, I just love it. All of the colours and techniques. It always inspires me!
Finally any words of advice / warning to those who are also working in visual arts?
Just do your best to make sure your live set doesn’t crash mid set, and master the quick reboot.
Make sure you output desktop background is just black or something. There’s a great picture from one of my gigs somewhere, and the visuals are just a swirly mac galaxy desktop!
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