The Interactive Fog Illusions That Launched Moderat’s Hyper-Anticipated Album

We go behind the scenes into Moderat's interactive light projection experiment.

Moderat is an electronic music supergroup formed by the happy merger of two separate outfits: Apparat (Sascha Ring) and Modeselektor (Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary). The two acts have wildly different sounds; Apparat is known for his dreamy, blissed-out pop with a large dollop of French Touch cheese, while Modeselektor made their name with sinister and IDM-tinged techno. But ever since their debut in 2009, Moderat has proved to be one of dance music’s most exciting collaborations. Too bad it took four more years before they reunited again. 

Unsurprisingly, anticipation for their second album, Moderat II, reached a feverish pitch in the weeks leading up to its release. Fans quenched their thirsts for Moderat’s sweet elixir by streaming the album two weeks early on NPR—yes, NPR

But for the diehards who visited the supergroup’s website in the days leading up to the launch, another surprise awaited: a livestream of a dark room in some anonymous corner of the world. Clicking on the “activate” button, guests could boot up some fog machines that released a dense haze. Minimal geometric shapes were projected into the haze, complemented by Moderat II’s ghostly beats echoing in the background. The effect was hypnotic, but ephemeral—since the entire experience was happening live, you could only access it for a few precious hours a day. 

To peel back the curtains on this mysterious project, we tracked down the two parties responsible for this audiovisual wizardry: Pfadfinderei, a Berlin-based crew who’ve become the default VJs for large-scale electronic festivals, and DDB Tribal, an interactive agency responsible for pretty much everything else. Turns out those phantasmal effects were constructed exhaust pipe (check out the pictures below)—and that dark room? Well, it was actually a taped-up box in their office. Tricky, tricky…

The Creators Project: How did you and Moderat first start working together? What is it like working with those guys?

Pfadfinderei: We have been collaborating with Moderat since day one, on their first release, the Auf Kosten der Gesundheit EP, in the early 2000s. We kept on collaborating, and in 2009 we released the Moderat CD/DVD, where we visualized each track with an individual material, like wood, water, paper, and concrete. This was followed by a worldwide live show with a special video and light set up to translate the intense music into the space and room. We’ve also been responsible for Modeselektor’s artwork and live shows as well as Apparat’s VJ show in 2011. In short, we’ve known each other for a long time. 

How did the idea for the interactive fog experiment come about?

DDB Tribal: The fog experiment was the third and final project in the Moderat Experiment Series. We thought about how far the band has come since their first album four years ago. The experiment series was a multipurpose way of bridging the gap between the album’s release date, and also, in a way, answering the question of how Moderat has developed over time. The first experiment (“Fingerprints”) was a clear Moderat logo sticker, over a meter tall, put on one of Platoon’s massive display windows. The idea was that as time passed and people and dirt touched the glass, the invisible logo would start to appear. Moderat are not really an in-your-face group of artists. Their visuals by Pfadfinderei are punchy and certainly attention grabbing, but it’s not over the top, so we tried to keep things as natural as possible.

The second experiment, “Bacteria”, was quite interesting. [laughs] We hired a bio hacker, Rüdiger Trojek, to sample the artists and some of their studio equipment. Then he stenciled the bacteria onto a custom-made stamp with Moderat’s logo, and behold! The petri dishes started growing bacteria colonies in the shape of Moderat! We did about six plates and streamed their growth from inside an incubator. It’s a bit gross but really impressive at the same time.

Anyway, all that is to explain how the third experiment came about. I think the last one was the most exciting for fans because they got to interact. A lot of people took part in building and maintaining this project. We were certainly a bit weary of the fog machine overheating and causing trouble, so we had to have “opening hours” to make sure that people were here to check on it at all times.

Can you describe your setup? What kind of equipment did you use? Where did this happen? Did you all sit in that room the whole time? 

DDB Tribal: We built a huge cardboard box that served as our projection room and fog container. We attached a chimney to it and prepared slots for the projector and the fog machine. The fog machine was attached to an Ethernet Arduino that was connected to the backend system—allowing the fog machine to be controlled digitally and remotely. The backend system consisted of a socket-server and a database to make sure only one person at a time could control the installation. The frontend—the website—was connected to this backend as well. Thus, the user got an activate button as soon as an interaction slot was available, and another message displayed whenever the system was occupied. When a second person hit the active button, the projection and audio would restart. 

Since the projection was kindly pre-produced by Pfadfinderei, there was no need to have a person controlling it. The whole installation’s hardware consisted of three computers, one fog machine, one Arduino, one projector, and one webcam. We could fit the whole installation into one tiny office, and two of our colleagues were still working within this same room. 

What specific challenges were involved in working with “analog” fog machines and projections as well as interactive livestreaming online?

DDB Tribal: Making it visually appealing, avoiding latency while video streaming, and enabling enough haze for a significant effect so that projections were visible, but not so much that they would trigger the fire alarm. 

And on the Arduino-side, which wired the analog fog machine to our digital system, there were lots of problems as well—like micro fluctuations that interfered and messed up the software setup that was initially used. 

How exactly were users able to control the fog? What was the interactive element in all of this? 

DDB Tribal: We wanted to keep participation the easiest and most intuitive—resulting in nothing but one button to enable users to activate the installation. Hitting the button on the website started the fog machine, the projection and the music at the same time. The fog as a "chaotic system,” which allowed a unique experience for every user. Each user’s shot of haze would result in a slightly different outcome. And this was the initial intention—to provide your own micro-Moderat experience, unique, live, and broadcast globally.

Were there any funny hijinks or mistakes happening behind the scenes? 

DDB Tribal: It was funny to see the reaction of our colleagues' faces. Everyone who passed by asked what we were up to, because in most cases we work with paper and computers. Originally we were going to fog up an entire office, but then I quickly learned that the fire alarm was an issue so we constructed a giant box to contain the smoke. It was fun for everyone to work physically instead of sitting at our desks.