Tuesday March 21st, 2023
Download SceneNow app

Islam Shabana: Ocular Alchemy

As one of the brilliant minds behind Alchem Studio's visual wizardry, Islam Shabana is one of the pioneering forces of Egypt's multi-dimensional visual/musical art. We talk to him about his hopes, challenges and inspirations.

Staff Writer

Islam Shabana works on another dimension. Literally and figuratively.

Along with Mohamed al-Zaher and Yazaan El Zo-bi, their work at Alchem Studios is shifting, molding, enhancing and glitching our commonplace perceptions of how music should be heard, but also, more importantly, seen.

The 25 year old digital artist has been making a name for himself around Cairo with Alchem’s futuristic multi-dimensional visual feasts that have accompanied performances at underground spaces such as Vent, 100 Copies and Balcon Lounge – elevating soundscapes with his inimitable digital landscapes. His live experiments engulf your senses; hypnotic holographic harmony, journeys through abstract shapes ebbing and flowing in synchronicity with every beat.

We talk to the visual alchemist about his contemporary wizardry…

When did you first start getting into digital visual art, and how did Alchem Studio come about?

I started to learn first about New Media Arts through animation class in AUC. I was always amazed by everything that gathers technology and science with artistic representation. Then I got into Internet Art, especially in that I had some skills in web design, so I played around with some codes and images and I became a GIF maker for a while, implementing holographic GIFs in some exhibitions. That was the start of the digital era for me. I had to develop myself and experiment more, then I started this new VJing obsession with Mohamed Abd El Zaher AKA DADA. I managed to live on my own, where I have my workspace, which I call "The Alchemical Room." Then from Alchemical came "Alchem."

Was it a case of learning through experimentation with different software?

More than softwares actually! Sometimes I have to connect three platforms/softwares to have an imagined image. I use some parametrical graphical programming tools too.

What other technology do you use to create your projections?

I experiment with projection mapping and different materials. I used transparent acrylic to simulate holography without having a hologram projector, like in blink, blink II and The Nymphaeum. I also experimented with 3D stereoscopic technology live with Quit Together and used some coding with CGI tools to generate what I call magic AKA live visuals!

For people who don't know how it works with 3D mapping and sound integrated visuals, can you explain it in layman's terms...

3D projection mapping is used to manipulate the image of any projector to show perfectly over surfaces of a 3D installation, which gives it depth and perspective, especially if you have some 3D illusions that cheat on the eye and make you feel the installation itself is moving. With sound, it's a matter of programming; we can analyze the music to layers, like beat, bass, and synth. Then we plug some of the parameters that change the visual to react to one of the sound layers that create the changeable visual pattern! The brain of course connects the change you see to the sound you listen to, which forms a kind of meditative playful experience. Magic! Right?

What is your process for creating any one piece or collaboration? What are your motives?

When it's VJing, I listen to the music carefully. I start to space out while listening and sometimes I write down what I see or even start working stuff out if I have my laptop on. In exhibitions, I don't have any plans at all. I like to have a dream or a vision, and then just like a child, I start to play around and experiment. I like to trip before tripping the audience, so I work hard to have this done without substances (which is a key for original experiences).

How much of what you do is improvised on the day and how much is planned beforehand?

I did improvised a lot, especially in VENT. Some days it's perfect, other times I was not really satisfied with my work. I liked improvisation with Cellar Door, $$$TAG$$$, Zuli, Neobyrd, and the "Ramy Abadir with Mostafa El Sayed" project of improvised analog electronic music.

Why do you think there aren't many visual artists using digital techniques in the country?

The problem in Egypt is always education! It's whether you are self-taught and motivated or not. We lack such technological and technical education. The digital culture is not yet striking in here due also to the massive blind usage of it. The art scene is about to explode with hidden artists. We are working hard in Alchem Studio to refresh the scene and push it forward.

I also might blame those who hosted visuals before, and how they gave this impression about it as though it's something in the background. Visuals reach your brain through your eyes, which is an additional sense to hearing the music. That mixture can change the experience. We take care of every detail throughout the process. Colours, shapes, and the amount of light can affect the experience.

How important do you feel it is that any music performance is accompanied by visuals? Do you think it's not enough anymore to just be about the music?

I won't fully insist on the necessity of visuals. I would like to say it adds to the performance though. Some genres might be full of sounds and layers to the extent that visuals will make it crowded. I played mostly with electronic and Post-Rock/Ambient. The music is awesome and spiritual in and of itself but with visuals, you are being elevated to a different level of being high and meditating.

What would you say is your design ethos?

Originality and the authenticity of the experience. Being playful and eye/mind tricky is also important for me.

How does the traditional concept of alchemy relate to what you do now?

OK, I believe the process whilst producing art is very alchemical. The whole trip is kind of spiritual to me. Doubting reality is the core of our age of hyper-realism.

Everything our eyes see daily is a kind of processing illusion by gathering pixels together. The whole universe is a holographic trip according to a very fresh theory in quantum physics.

Alchemy was the oldest field of science ever to research all of these theories of everything and the origins of the universe starting from matter. I was always fascinated by how alchemy was trying to reveal the secrets of our magical universe. I do think of myself like a kind of alchemist by experimenting with vision and materials as moving images that carry the element of time. Once I was chilling with Kareem Lotfy, a pioneer in the experimental/internet art scene in Egypt, and he was reacting to my interest in Alchemy by saying "Dude, look around, it's everywhere. Wide screen colored phones is such an example. Damn! We turned solids to moving and talking materials, same concept as turning solids to gold!"

Would you say there is anything particularly unique about how you view the world, whether sensory or otherwise, which reflects your ability and passion for this kind of work that you do?

The universe is marvelous! Our world is my ultimate playground.

For the most part you are creating work that fits with the music being performed or the vibe of the event. Do you think there will be an opportunity where the roles are reversed in the future for live performances here in Egypt, in that the music will be composed as a reaction to your visual projections?

I was actually discussing this lately and I am waiting for it. I might surprise you with such a thing as soon as I find a musician partner in such project. But it actually happens, even in cinema. The Fountain's music by Clint Mansell, which was performed by Mogwai, was written first before the film was shot.

What has been your most memorable gig to date and what projects are you most proud of?

The first 3D projection we did in VENT's opening, though it was a bit squeezed and stressful. I also loved the two times I performed with my favorite, Nadah El Shazly. Cellar Door was marvelous too!

I really love the Kinect Sensor trick I developed by sensing people's motion and putting my visuals inside their bodies. I did it with Bambam and Neobyrd. Lately, I am doing something really awesome with Ramy Abadir and Mostafa El Sayed. These guys are passionately into their hardware analog music!

For the exhibitions, I can't point to only one as every time is a kind of different experience, but we can say the holographic experiments are my obsession.

What kind of music are you into yourself?

I listen to everything from Oriental to Avant-Garde, Noise, and Experimental, but I am an official Post-Rock head since 2007. Indie-pop lately is very playful and nice to chill to.

Would you call yourself a futurist?

Ah… I was waiting for an avant-garde title! Haha… I would like you to call me anything as long as you enjoy our work and find it valuable.

What would be your dream project?

I am now in a transitional phase in my life, which is taking the whole thing seriously and going to do a Digital Media Design M.A. in Germany. I will try to enjoy as much heavy geeky academia and then will see. But my passion is to be a developer of visual technologies, not only a user.

Upcoming events we should look out for?

Cloud 9 festival. It's my farewell visual show before leaving Egypt for some years.

Keep up to date with Alchem Studio's work on their fanpage here or follow Shabana on his Tumblr here.