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User Preferences: Tech Q&A With Pixlpa

Each week we chat about the tools of the trade with one outstanding creative to find out exactly how they do what they do. The questions are always the same, the answers, not so much. This week: experimental video artist Pixlpa.

The Creators Project: Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Andrew Benson. I’m a visual artist, performer, software creator, and teacher living in San Francisco, CA. I mainly make videos and sounds using computers. I perform live using a collection of altered electronics and some software I am constantly developing. I also work on live video systems for other people and do live visuals. I connect things together and see what happens. Sometimes I paint and draw, and make installation work when I get an opportunity. I have about 4-5 jobs at any given time. I also really like to cook and bake bread.

What hardware do you use?
MacBook Pro 2.4 GHz
Altered PS3eye camera
Unibrain Fire-I Board camera
Canopus ADVC-110
Korg NanoKontrol
Various custom controller circuits and sensors
Arduino, Teensy, and AVR microcontrollers

What software do you use?
I use mainly MaxMSP/Jitter to do the bulk of my work. Within Max, you can connect all sorts of processes and controls together in ways that would be difficult in other environments. The visual layout and patching metaphor really matches the way I think about things. There’s also support for OpenGL drawing and image-processing using GLSL shaders. A lot of my video work now is writing custom shaders and working with the 3D drawing engine in really 2D ways. I’ve also been experimenting a lot with realtime motion tracking. I also work with After Effects, Final Cut Studio, Photoshop, Illustrator, do a lot of quick edits and exporting using Quicktime Pro.

If money were no object, how would you change your current setup?
Money’s always an object, isn’t it? I’m perpetually broke, so a lot of what I do is figuring out how to get by without any cool gear. The first thing I’d get is a bigger apartment/studio and hire an assistant. Then, I’d get some more computers with really awesome graphics cards (I’m pretty much always pushing the limit on my current one). I’d add a couple of really nice cameras, like some of those ImagingSource ones for live work and a production quality HD cam. I’d also get somebody to custom build me a really great live controller to work with. I’m always tinkering around with electronics to get the right kind of interaction for things, and sometimes I wish I just had a small crew of engineers to build stuff for me. A proper work table is also really important, and something that I currently miss.

Is there a piece of technology that changed your life or inspired you?
When I was 13, my parents bought a video camera for the first time. They only ever used it to record family functions for posterity. It was pretty hilarious. They’d stick it on a tripod and hit record and just videotape people eating and being uncomfortable together. It basically just sat in its case most of the time, because it felt precious, until I worked up the nerve to just take it out and start playing with it. I figured out a way to patch the live signal from the camera through the VCR to the TV set, and within a couple of days had discovered video feedback. It was at that moment, staring into the electric vortex, that I became a media artist for life. At age 31, I’m still basically playing with feedback, but the signal chain is a bit more complicated now.

What’s your favorite relic piece of technology from your childhood?
When I was really young I had a little suitcase record player and a cassette recorder. I think I only listened to things all the way through a couple of times, and then I spent a lot of time just screwing around with them, putting my finger on the record as it played or making the tape play funny. I’d replace sections of Thriller with me singing along. Now that I have a young daughter, I’m a little concerned that her experience of media isn’t going to be as plastic and interactive, as physical. That said, she’s already asking if she can go inside the video like I do, so it’s probably not so bad.

What fantasy piece of technology would you like to see invented?
It’s funny, I almost never fantasize about technology really in that way. I think what we have already is pretty amazing, and I get sort of tired with all the constant chasing after every novel new device that hits the market. My fantasies are more about getting my hands on specific gear that I can’t afford or make myself. I am a sort of materialist, in that I believe that making good work comes from developing a deep relationship with your tools and materials. A good example of that is Brian Eno and his DX-7 synthesizer. I don’t think you can develop that relationship if you are constantly buying new toys. The thing I most fantasize about are affordable ways to get high-quality video into a laptop and out to screens. Also, when I’m rendering video, I fantasize about my computer being faster. Does that count?

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