Living Cinema was a 16-year live performance duo of Bob Ostertag and Quebecois artist and animator Pierre Hébert.
The first performance took place at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in 2000, and the last at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires in 2016. Altogether Living Cinema performed 80 concerts in Europe, North and South America, Asia, and the Middle East. Major venues and festivals included the Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente, Lincoln Center (New York), Encontros de Cinema (Faro, Portugal), Red Cat Theater (Los Angeles), Sensoralia Festival (Rome), Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (Montreal), The Rotterdam International Film Festival, the School of Creative Media (Hong Kong), and the Sons d’Hiver Festival (Paris).
Beginning the late 1960s, Pierre Hébert had been experimenting with animation as live performance, creating frame-by-frame animation by carving directly on 16mm film with a knife while on stage. Over the years, he developed virtuosic skill at this unique craft. He often performed in duo with improvising instrumentalists, including Bob Ostertag.
In 1999, Ostertag’s friend Joshua “Kit” Clayton was developing what would eventually become the well-known video processing language known as Jitter. He showed his work to Ostertag, who quickly saw how Clayton’s software could be used to allow Hébert to take the techniques he had developed for years scratching on film with a knife, and apply them to any medium he wished, capturing the images with a video camera and projecting them as he went. The software Ostertag created become the core tool of Living Cinema, and enabled Ostertag to assemble the sound on stage in parallel to the image. Living Cinema’s first work, Between Science and Garbage, is likely the first ever work made using Jitter, long before the software was on the market and even before it was in beta. The constant evolution of this software, in response to its continual use during performance, became an integral part of the evolution of Living Cinema.
However, the Living Cinema esthetic was never about the amazing marvels of the digital age. Instead, Living Cinema used the process of live animation as transparent as possible by constantly staging the confrontation between the bodily actions of the performers and the processing power of the machines for all to see. Performances became tense and volatile, with human performers frantically attempting to keep up with the technology’s demand for more input of image and sound, mirroring the increasingly frantic life of the citizens of the digital world.
After some exploratory performances in early 2001, Living Cinema found its legs at a concert at The Walker Center for the Arts in Minneapolis on September 20, 2001, days after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. It was at this concert that the performers learned the power of live video performance as a commentary on world events. Cinema created on stage during performance cannot compete with conventional cinema in many ways, but it can respond to world events in ways movies which spend months or years in production cannot.
Between Science and Garbage eventually became a DVD released by John Zorn’s Tzadik label. This was followed by Endangered Species, Shadow Boxing, and other works. But each piece was really a sort of framework for constructing a live cinema performance, the content of which would constantly evolve in response to the world news. By the end of the Living Cinema project, concerts would begin with the projected image of the front page of the newspaper of whatever city the performance was in.
Ostertag devotes a chapter to Living Cinema in his book Creative Life: Music, Politics, People, and Machines.