Audiovisual Narratives: An Illuminating Conversation With Marcel Weber
It’s no secret that visual art and lighting are a major facet of an all-immersive live music experience.
But how does one visually capture sonic narratives? If anyone knows the answer to that, it's Marcel Weber – otherwise known as MFO.
The German visual artist and scenographer has been producing experiential audiovisual performances since 2001.
He has an interest in memory and perception, identity formation and dissolution – “particularly in the context of possible futures and their underlying mythologies”.
To develop his installations and festival experiences, the artist uses analogue projectors, LED spot luminaires, film, lenses, mirrors, paint, chemicals, digital compositing and generative software – among other tools that he carefully customises to the music and location at hand.
Weber is the director of lights and visuals for Atonal, the Berlin festival that celebrates sonic and visual art. He also oversees the festival's video documentation.
At the 2019 edition of the festival, he released the performance “Nervous System 2020”, a reflection on modern-day data-driven society – translated via an eerie dance and holographic imagery.
In 2021, he lit up an eerie industrial space at Berlin’s Kraftwerk megacomplex with burnt cars for This Too Will Pass, a site-specific installation-based commentary on automobile rave culture.
Nervous System 2020, 2019. Photo: Helge Mundt
This too will pass, 2021. Photo: Vira Pogurska
He’s at centre stage with these installations. At other times, he remains lowkey – a neomagician working behind-the-scenes to transform musicians’ storytelling into the hypnotic experiences that make them so memorable, and so accurately visual.
Along with Roly Porter – who the artist frequently collaborates with – Weber developed an audiovisual performance called “Kistvaen”, ahead of the British composer’s 2020 album release.
The show featured cinematic imagery filmed on location in Dartmoor, Bialowieza, Dutch Westland and Tokyo – bits and pieces from here and there that travelled to ten different festivals, premiering at Berlin Atonal in 2019 and closing at Borderline in Athens in 2022.
Earlier, for Ben Frost’s 2014 solo release “A U R O R A”, Weber worked to translate its supernatural quality with the meticulous use of custom-built video-light scanners, stroboscopes, and remote-controlled movable mirrors.
He used custom software to control the tools in an experience that is “not unlike a laser show, but less surgical”.
They later re-collaborated for Frost’s 2017 album release The Centre Cannot Hold, capturing imagery from the North Sea and heading to the studio to delve into digital imaging techniques.
Further out between Krakow, Toronto and Adelaide, he’s been managing lighting for the travelling festival, Unsound, since 2015.
More recently, Weber has been touring with the Italian composer Caterina Barbieri in an audiovisual show as part of her 2022 album release Spirit Exit.
For the EKKO Festival stop in Bergen, Norway, his lighting work landed at a rather fitting location: the city’s fan-shaped Slettebakken Church.
Caterina Barbieri at the Barbican Centre, London. Photo: Nat Urazmetova.
Besides his go-to festivals, his work has been shown at venues like the British Film Institute, Barbican, Centre Pompidou and CERN.
In March 2023, Weber will be collaborating with the British DJ and producer Aya (formerly known as Loft) for a show at the Southbank Centre in London as part of their Purcell Sessions.
Is it all smoke and mirrors? We caught up with Marcel Weber ahead of yet another jam-packed touring season.
To what extent do musicians’ genres and melodies shape your lightscapes?
Each of my projects is a new creation, inspired by the musical partner, and has its own design in light and scenography. Though, sadly, much of it is not Instagrammable.
Most intriguing is often what is most challenging for the eye. Think of intense UV light, high-contrast floods or of fast Strobing patterns – and how distorted these look on camera.
Equally distorted might be my representation on social media. There is so much more than what I can post.
Despite earlier work for opera houses and theatres, it sounds like you’re currently aligned with electronic music for the most part. Was that a decision you made or was it accidental?
I drifted towards where the most freedom was granted. In theatre, you have to work your way up the hierarchy.
It’s exciting, there is plenty to learn, and many crafts combine into a gesamtkunstwerk (German for a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms). But for the same reason, you will always be under someone's vision and direction. In music – especially in the 2000s – lights, visuals and scenography were neglected, this was my chance!
Club music was a very forgiving environment, I could be playful, fail miserably, and learn from it. An autodidact's heaven.
That being said, I still work in (dance) theatre. It is just hard to communicate my part interestingly on social media.
The Xenakis X100 Festival in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Frankie Casillo
Tresor recently commissioned you to work on a series of videos for their 30th anniversary. How did that collaboration come to be?
Tresor is under one roof with Atonal, one big family. Tresor's curators knew my work in Kraftwerk and thus entrusted the art direction to me with total creative freedom.
It was fantastic! Bring all crafts together, while using spaces normally inaccessible to an audience. The cavernous dungeons under Kraftwerk, for example.
New and exciting was also to direct that audience's glance. Employ camera techniques that make this "third eye" another performer, an element to be choreographed. Merging the realms of live concerts and music videos opened a wealth of possibilities.
Sadly, many ideas didn't fit into the limitations of time and budget. I would love to explore those in the future.
You have been touring with Caterina Barbieri and worked closely with Ruben Spini. What was the collaborative process like between the three of you?
We have known one another for many years, from the realms of Atonal.
The three of us share similar views in art, aesthetics and philosophy, so the process of show development was exciting and mutually inspiring, and put simply – very smooth. I think that collectively, we developed something to be proud of!
Caterina Barbieri at Club2Club, Turin, Italy. Photo: Kimberly Ross.
Caterina Barbieri at the Barbican Centre, London. Photo: Nat Urazmetova.
Are there any new technologies you’ve been experimenting with?
Experimenting yes, all the time, but strangely, very little made it into my repertoire.
For example, I toyed with game engines. But ultimately, those glue you to a screen so hard – far removed from what really matters: stage, crowd, ceremony. It felt too isolating as a practice.
That being said, there are trends in physical objects that don't fail to intrigue me: shiny blinky cheapo electronics, UV or infra-red or laser, drones, slow motion and night vision cams, polymers and foils….
None of these is considered cutting-edge, but the availability, affordability and ubiquity are new and bring rich possibilities.
Photo: Helge Mundt
What’s a dream project you’d love to take on? I’d love to know if it’s a “the bigger, the better” sort of vision, or perhaps one that allows for more liberty.
I'm always in pursuit of artistic exploration, so "the bigger, the better" wasn't really a priority.
There isn't a single dream project to work on, but in general: I love to learn and incorporate more of the ancient knowledge of theatre: drama, procession and ritual; in a sense of hypnosis, enchantment, and illusion.
We (the Berlin Atonal team) practised some of it at the Iannis Xenakis homage X100, while my friend Mary-Anne Roberts' (of Bragod) performances are a good example of the later – ancient Welsh storytelling that isn't music or poem reciting, though a bit of both weirdly; a spell-binding profound performance of singing, screaming, wailing, and jerking galvanic motion.
It goes under your skin. Those are the qualities I'm looking for to translate. That's the dream project.
What features should we look out for in your upcoming collaboration with Aya at the Southbank Centre?
It's going to be wild! Expect a great mix of techniques, a 21st-century overabundance and overstimulation, and plenty of errors – possibly orchestrated. A mad opera if all goes well.
I'm so looking forward!
Cover: Photo by Helge Mundt
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Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat