Behind The Screens: Raphaël Bastide
An interview with artist and educator Raphaël Bastide.
Raphaël Bastide is an artist and educator living in Paris. He creates convivial instruments, pedagogic strategies, installations, objects, and performances. In this interview, we’d like to talk about his practices and tools, as well as work in the community and his upcoming activities.
1. What is live coding, what does it mean to you and how has it
influenced your practice of making and thinking about art?
Live coding is a celebration of code. It is about performing language in time, like an exercise of communication between operators, machines and an audience. Keeping a broad idea of what live coding is, helps to make it inclusive and experimental. Although the practice is obviously related to computers and code, it doesn’t have to necessarily produce images or sounds, it can be performed for other than artistic motivations, like engineering. Live coding can also be a very effective pedagogic tool. I learned to code by seeing people coding and I think mimicking is an effective and non-obtrusive way of learning.
2. Could you tell us what your first encounter with live coding was and what are your sources of inspiration?
I was in Brussels around 2008, studying in art school. Our computer art teachers used to invite us to experimental improvisation sessions called SHARE. That was parties with a strong cyberpunk mood, tons of wires and video projectors, glitchy pictures and sounds, proto-meme performances, lots of artists from different universes… Everyone was trying to create something in common, with other people and machines. Beautiful chaos with precious moments of grace. I remember seeing people live coding there, programming was still a bit stranger to me, and I was fascinated by the contrast between the apparent binary nature of programming and the subtle and expressive artistic result. I quickly tried to hack stuff live in my browser and realized I was also live-coding!
At this same time in Brussels, there was a small community of soundpainters that influenced me a lot. Soundpainting is a universal sign language for real-time composition with a group of performers (musicians, dancers…). What is fascinating is the design of the languages that allows both a spontaneous cross-discipline expression, but also a wide range of interpretations. The language lead to new artistic form. That strong idea stuck in my head until now.
But my first love is jazz improvisation. Steve Coleman, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Mingus, and Coltrane still have a very strong influence on me. When I played drums in jazz bands as a teenager, musical communication with others players was the most important and precious thing on earth. This shared experience is something so powerful it is hard to describe it with words. I think I am still looking to reach similar experiences with computers and other persons now. I suppose being able to live code with ease and communicate smoothly with the program / instrument is the key to free improvisation.
More recently I got very interested in Pauline Oliveros career, and Laura Spiegel Spiegel’s creations, especially her program Music Mouse and her writings.
3. Do you have any preferred platforms and/or languages, how did you come to use them and do you have a specific reason for it?
I tried a few things, from PureData to ORCA, I would like to mess more with Tidal Cycles, curious about lots of smaller projects Olivia Jack’s prototypes, Adel Faure’s Garlic... As I don’t use proprietary software, I have no idea what Ableton Live looks like, for instance. I guess my standards are a bit weird because of that, which may explain why I like ambiguous, strange, vaporous projects so much.
I am on a GNU/Linux OS and I feel well connected to that system, It is a safe space I can freely experiment with. On top of that, my favorite environment is the web browser: I often find ways to give a form of my ideas with web technologies. The web standards HTML, JS, CSS, now allow the manipulation of visuals, sounds, 3D, electronics, documents, and kind of live or static data… I am very grateful to have such a wonderful playground within easy reach. Firefox would be the only thing I take on a desert island… wait 🤔…
I sometimes say to creative coding / live coding beginners that opening a web dev tool on a Wikipedia page, and changing random numbers by hand, is already live coding. The more important is not the quality of the code, but the idea, how the performance resonates with the machine, the audience and the world…
4. Are there any platforms, tools, libraries or other extensions you
have developed yourself and if so can you elaborate on why and for
I created a digital instrument called DIGIMP when I was a student. It allowed to improvise abstract visuals with other traditional sound instruments and to have two-ways communication. Like I wrote before, improvisation is for me the most elaborate way of expression. I wanted to create my own instrument, able to express, react, suggest, adapt quickly. DIGIMP was a hacky piece of software made with Processing, tweaked with mouse / keyboard or a MIDI controller. It was not easy to play with, but I liked it, this tough access made it closer to a traditional instrument, and made me kind of a master, the only one! haha
More recently, I began developing Cascade, a web-based live coding environment that interprets HTML elements into sound, depending on their styles. This project binds language, improvisation, musical writing, and graphic composition. Cascade gathers a lot of things that are important to me. It is a collage of ideas, picked here and there, from rhythmic euclidean patterns to musical notation and webaudio synths. As I love CSS (the stylesheets used on the web), I enjoy a lot thinking about sound / graphics associations, and more especially, taking concepts that exist in the visual field, to sound, and vice versa (nesting structure, animation or ADSR envelope, micro rhythms…). All of that makes me very happy and helps me reconsider graphics and sound, even beyond the computer.
Live Cascade - Le Zorba
I would like to share a list of things I found important for instrument making. It helps me working in a good direction for Cascade.
For me a good instrument:
— allows performing a work or an art piece
— can, must be learned
— can be mastered
— can be modified, prepared, improved
— can be discreet, quiet
— can be combined with other instruments
— has to be an object of conviviality
I recently noticed this list has a lot in common with the definition of free software. Thus, it is not surprising that the best creative tools, and more precisely live coding environments, are under free software licenses.
5. Are you part of a (local) community? How do you organize and do you share works or collaborate often?
Around Paris, and more generally in France, we are gathering under the labels TopLap FR, or Cookie Collective. I take part in IRL parties and discussions since 2021, before that I was more an observer of the scene. As things are getting slowly back to normal after the pandemic, meetings are getting more and more frequent, lots of students hear about gigs or software, and are getting curious. We try to keep meeting two times a month in Paris / Montreuil, and lives happen from time to time in squats and wet vaulted cellars. For instance, I will perform at an algorave in a couple of days near Lyon. Online, post.lurk and merveille.town Mastodon instances are full of very talented and inspiring people I would like to meet some days. And of course, the TOPLAP community is a very important and friendly hub.
6. In what forms are algorithms and randomness applied in your practice or performance? Do you try to pursue serendipity and how or why not?
Intuition is an important creative companion. I first trust an environment, spacial, software, or hardware, then I get to know it, understand its system and eventually I try to integrate it. I evaluate what could be my place in it to create something great for me and others. I use algorithms when I understand them –which by the way is not so often– and I use them carefully. I believe simple designs can do beautiful things. Algorithmic randomness, for instance, is a trick I use rarely. I don’t think it is a very interesting principle. However I enjoy reacting to more natural random events part of the environment because those events are shared with the public, they are part of a language the public understands well, not a pretentious Math.random().
As a procrastinator, I can very easily switch from a task to another. What was a problem before slowly becomes part of my working process. Things melt during my work time, I can code a bit, try to understand an article about fungal dynamics, cook something, and go back to coding, with a different (mushroom flavored) mindset. In this sense serendipity plays an important role, and that is the same for live performances: I keep things wide open and I am not afraid of mistakes or glitches. Those guys are my buddies whatever the media I work with.
7. Do you have any recommendations for people who have not gotten into live/creative coding but are curious to give it a try?
I would recommend starting by trying things online, as installations can be sometimes frustrating. Wags is great to start hacking loops online, take a look at those very cool collaborative pads for instance. There is also this great website: Learn ORCA, that gathers a web version of ORCA with an interactive tutorial. Going further, this kind of tutorial to start live coding with Sonic Pi, can be found for other languages as well, like Tidal Cycles, ORCA or FoxDot. Connecting and talking with people is also a smart way to start, and lives are not reserved for an elite of live coders: try to face a public as soon as possible, even 5 of your friends during 5 minutes, that’s the best boost ever. Finally, if you need to go with one link only: here it is.
8. Could you share a sneak-peek into an upcoming project or something you are currently working on and very excited about?
Here is a sneak peek of Cascade Pool, a collaborative / broadcasted mode for Cascade. That allows either to broadcast a live, directly from browser to browser, or to collaborate on audiovisual compositions.
9. Is there anything we did not ask about but you would really like to
share with the readers?
[evasive.tech](https://evasive.tech/) is a project I developed during the 2020 lockdown. I am still very attached to it, because it has a singular graphic and conceptual signature. Each day for 35 days I created a web page, part of a larger improvised story. I used a lot of different techniques and mediums, experimented with web standards combined with more traditional visual art techniques, drawing, animation, collage… While this project can be seen as “creative coding”, it was really a writing performance where both my body and mind were deeply involved. I am not sure if people really consider netart as an artistic medium today given the fact it is out of the art industry, I don’t even know how much people took the time to browse all the days of evasive.tech. What I know is that I achieved something very personal, and I am happy it exists.
This article is part of the Behind The Screens series of Creative Coding Utrecht — a series of events where digital artists and live coders create a piece in ten minutes.
The Behind The Screens series is suppported by Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industries and Gemeente Utrecht.