Music

Introducing the Phenakistomixer: A Turntable That Lets You DJ Live Animations

Talking to to Vesna Krebs—a.k.a. VJ MissTake—about the Phenakistomixer, her mixed-media live visual performance invention.

Sami Emory

Images courtesy of the artist, GIFs by author

PHENAKISTOMIXER 3.0 from Miss Take on Vimeo.

Substituting records for layered illustrations, music tracks for sonic light waves, the atypical turntables of the Phenakistomixer 3.0 swirl into action. Amplified on a raised projection screen, monochromatic animations bloom in spiraling cycles, one after the next, as the audio feedback responds seamlessly with each switched disk. Behind the desk, controlling it all, stands visual artist Vesna Krebs, assuming her video jockey alter ego, MissTake, as she live mixes her hand-drawn, audiovisual designs.

The Phenakistomixer, now in its third iteration, is a live visual performance tool that began as Krebs’ experimental attempt to experience a more tangible form of visual art. After focusing for several years on primarily digital work—video feedback effects, light bending, digital interfaces like Kinect, and more—she took a step back. “I felt the urge to create something with my bare hands again,” she tells the Creators Project, “to really understand the whole process.”

Soon after, fate intervened in the form of bygone techniques, robotic bartending, and gainful wordplay. “By [an] exploration of an early animation devices I came across the Phenakistoscope,” says Krebs. This early 19th century device, which operates similarly to a zoetrope, creates the illusion of animation through a revolving disk with equidistant slits. At about the same time as her discovery, she explains, “I noticed [a] call for artists for Roboexotica festival (a festival for D.I.Y. cocktail robotics) in Vienna. As cocktails, turntables, and video all revolve around 'mixing,' the idea was born to create a Phenakistoscope-inspired visual project to mix cocktails with turntables.”

At the Roboexotica’s “club night,” aided by programmer Borut Kumperscak, the artist launched the first version of her project: two turntables, a retro video mixer, and a collection of carefully detailed designs. The work, boasting a 360-degree layout thanks to Kumperscak’s custom software, was the result of a long trial-and-error process. But, like a well-balanced “cocktail,” it blended just the right amount of each ingredient.

After tackling the tedious calculations to find the exact parameters for each animation—which came out to be 32 frames on a single vinyl—Krebs set her turntables to 45rpm and stationed the pitch slider to meticulously fix the frames in view. Then, by setting the camera to 25fps, with a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second, Phenakistomixer 1.0 came to life, intoxicating the festival goers with a kinetic display of “visual cocktails.”

Whirling with the success of her first, live Phenakistomixer, the artist pressed on, developing the work into a second version, which premiered at the Strictly Analog Festival. Krebs’ updated edition, a “major visual and technical upgrade” from the Phenakistomixer 1.0, solidified her device’s function as an unconventional performance tool. “In addition to a new overall visual language,” she explains, “the designs were upgraded with the use of transparent layers over the vinyls—hand drawn frame by frame animations on film. With this version I also began experimenting with turntable-camera synchronization parameters and other techniques to achieve broader visual dramaturgy.” Phenakistomixer 2.0 fused these elements into layered, transparent foils, overflowing with ornamented with black-and-white motifs and spinning loops of live GIFs.

Now in its latest version, the Phenakistomixer's designs have become sonified. An added component to Krebs’ turntables translates light into a reactive, synthetic soundscape. By reworking another outdated device, the Variphone (an early 30’s visual synthesizer) “an optical sensor linearly scans monochromatic plates and translates reflected light intensity into sound waves,” Krebs explains. “Currently this is made with capturing video frames and running them through custom software.”

With the completion of this tertiary stage, Krebs looks forward into future iterations of her turntable experiments. “I plan to release some of the designs as actual vinyls,” she says, “and am in a process of experimenting with an iOS-based app to be able to use iOS devices to play the vinyls (instead of a regular camera).” At the same time, Krebs is embarking on other audiovisual enterprises, including sound input manipulation of organic, macro textures and a collaborative, four-hour interactive performance about “food and existence” for the Prague Quadrennial in 2015. Whether crafting as Vesna Krebs, or VJaying as MissTake, the artist keeps our inspiration spinning with each new multimedia project she undertakes.

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