Performing Video | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

One memorable passage in Squonk Opera's stage show Pittsburgh: The Opera featured a series of small white discs held aloft, lollipop-style, on long sticks, each reflecting projected video footage of a single human eye, blinking or peering about. The Squonky bit of accessible surrealism resulted from the troupe's ongoing collaboration with local artist Buzz Miller, a specialist in making video to accompany live performances.

It's a growing field, says Miller, 41, who in recent years has also designed video for companies including Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theater, Quantum Theatre and dance troupe Attack Theatre. At the Jan. 8 installment of the Film Kitchen screening series (a CP-sponsored event), Miller will excerpt some of his work in this vein, along with samples of video-for-performance by local artists including: Jessi Sedon and Michael Cooper (from The Pillow Project's adventuresome "By Volume" series); Staycee Pearl, with Isabelle Strollo and Herman Pearl (from dance-for-camera installation RECOIL); Jessica Fenlon (from video commissioned by rock band New Invisible Joy); Jim Mueller and Scott Federman; and Jennifer Keller.

Moving pictures are so ubiquitous today that it's easy to forget that once, the only place to see them was in a movie theater. The use of film in live performances inevitably exploded in the 1960s, when Warhol projected images on The Velvet Underground in concert. The medium broadened again in the past decade, with cheaper and more flexible digital technologies in the hands of more groups willing to experiment.

Still, even these days, most projected images that wash over performers, or otherwise share the stage, are simply a variation on the box-shaped, flat-surface imagery of TV and cinema. With efforts like Squonk's "All Eyes on You" passage, designers like Miller have gone further. Squonk co-founder Steve O'Hearn says of Miller, "What he's willing to do, and does so well, is jump into the third dimension."

Miller's projections for Squonk often interact with live performers: He also provided the video for the group's spectacular First Night 2006 show, performed Downtown on three stories of scaffolding draped in translucent plastic. And, like those "eyes," the works sometimes play out on multiple surfaces at different distances from the audience.

"He's a real find in Pittsburgh," says O'Hearn. "I don't think we'd be able to do a lot of the things we do without him."

Miller has worked with Squonk for four years, and is now its artist-in-residence (courtesy of a Heinz Endowments Creative Heights grant). Since the 2006 premiere of Pittsburgh: The Opera, he's worked on six additional versions of the [Your Hometown's Name Here]: The Opera series, in places including Baltimore and St. Louis. (The "Pittsburgh" iteration returns to the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, on Jan. 17-20.)

Some of Miller's challenge is technical: mastering editing software, authoring DVDs to facilitate cues. Some of it requires such innovations as masking video imagery so one projector can do the work of many -- say, precisely casting eyeballs on multiple onstage lollipop heads. Miller, says O'Hearn, introduces Squonk to the medium's technical possibilities -- even as he mixes and matches, chops and channels evocative, dreamlike imagery whose sources include everything from online archives to his own home movies.

Still, Miller's work with Squonk is highly collaborative. It must jibe with the set elements O'Hearn creates, and mesh with composer Jackie Dempsey's music. During a percussion interlude in Pittsburgh: The Opera, for instance, Miller rides a video mixer on the beat, flashing white light that momentarily obliterates his own projected imagery, all to better foreground Squonk drummer Kevin Kornicki.

"You have to know when to take focus from the live performances and when to surrender it," says Miller.


Film Kitchen 8 p.m. Tue., Jan. 8 (7 p.m. reception). Melwood Screening Room, 477 Melwood Ave., N. Oakland. $4. 412-681-5449, x237

click to enlarge Buzz Miller's video sings in Pittsburgh: The Opera. Photo courtesy of Larry Rippel.
Buzz Miller's video sings in Pittsburgh: The Opera. Photo courtesy of Larry Rippel.

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