#01 – michael khayata


Michael Khayata is a Montreal-based audiovisual artist and electronic music producer.


Hearing a synthesized version of Aaliyah’s Try Again was a lightbulb moment: “My mind was blown. It sounded so similar. It was a digital remake, but I was like, that’s it, that’s the song! That’s when the concept of electronic entered my mind.” And so, thanks to a neighbour who introduced him to the Fruity Loops digital audio workstation in the early 2000s, Michael found his way into the electronic world. Around the same time, his dad got an MP3 Jukebox, telling a then-12-year-old Michael that it could hold 5,000 songs. Another revelation: “there’s so much music out there.”

In the following years, he made mixes and compilations for his friends at college in Dubai, and before long he found himself playing at house parties every weekend. DJing and record collecting quickly became a passion.

Moving to Montreal at the age of 17 might have been a huge life moment but, having already established his own tastes in dance, house, and electronic, he found that the electronic scene in Montreal wasn’t so different from the one he had left in the UAE. The starkest contrast, musically speaking, was cultural: rave culture just wasn’t a thing in Dubai, where parties in warehouses would have been unthinkable. “People would get really classist about it.” The scene existed, but “Dubai tends to bastardize these things—it’ll be some big fancy club night,” whereas in Montreal, “you could go to a warehouse and fucking hear techno like it was done in ’89, ’90.”

Creative curve

After an earlier release with Departures Records, his focus shifted to electroacoustics, sound art, and audiovisual installation.

Studying for a degree in electroacoustics gave Michael the chance to delve into the history of musique concrète, which has remained a major interest. “I would love to time-travel to Paris in the forties, Germany in the fifties, and be a fly on the wall… see Pierre Schaeffer, Stockhausen, Pauline Oliveros. They were so limited [in the technology available to them] and yet they developed everything we have now that we take for granted.”

And if we’re time-travelling, there’s another event that’s even closer to his heart: Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1969 visit to the limestone caves of Jeita Grotto in Lebanon. “They hauled equipment down to the grotto and he did this whole show—it was incredible. I would have loved to be there back then. He played it for a few people, a couple of diplomats.” At that time, Lebanon was enjoying relative stability and a boom in economic growth. “The late sixties were the ‘golden days,’ pre-civil war, back when people called it the Paris of the Middle East.” The way early practitioners such as Stockhausen approached the interaction of sound and environment is fascinating. “There were about nine seconds of reverb—can you imagine? Stockhausen says, ‘I’m using the space as part of the composition.’ He would adjust for the frequency of events: you can’t just have things going off super frequently when you have nine seconds of reverb… I mean, you might want that very chaotic effect. But he also wanted to let the space do some work.”

Inspired by the historical foundations of electroacoustic art, Michael’s creative work explores how new technologies and innovations can continue the trajectory of experimentation in sound. In this regard, another pivotal moment came when Michael discovered the Max/MSP visual programming software, which proved to be his springboard into coding and, as a result, audiovisual creation. Learning to code has been a major part of his creative professional development—albeit one that once felt unattainable. “There was this voice in my head telling me that I’m a producer, I can’t do coding.” He had also felt held back by the clichés surrounding “learning to code” as an end in itself. But through school, coding found him anyway. “The first project I made was a sampler. That really gave me motivation. After that, I kept using Max, but I wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes.” He taught himself JavaScript p5.js, a language that allows the user to draw onscreen. Because p5.js can communicate with other programming interfaces, he was able to make it communicate with Max, such that “the shape can affect the audio, and vice versa.” The potential of audiovisuals opened up a whole new avenue for exploration, and Michael continued to delve into the capabilities of different coding languages, moving on to OpenFrameworks, C++, and eventually GLSL (a “shading language” for creating and rendering 3D objects). Despite those early doubts, coding is now “the driver of everything I do in my audiovisual career. I’m writing the scripts and writing code, as well as designing large networks and systems that exchange data, to generate visuals and audio and ultimately create an experience.”

AV projects

Equipped with these creative tools, Michael has experimented widely with mesmerizing visuals, and his Vimeo portfolio is amply stocked with intricately rendered shapes, patterns, colours, and textures. The Cellular Noise series (trypophobics look away now) is like peering through a microscope at pulsating, living matter. Elsewhere there are deliciously gloopy forms and glittering clouds of flocking particles, satisfying inkblots and gently hypnotic patterns of rotating Moroccan tiles. But while these are deeply pleasing audiovisual studies in themselves, their creation has also paved the way for Michael’s latest and more complex works, Aerial GAN and Interactive Flock Prototype.

Aerial GAN to Vector Field [A] and [B]

In this two-part study, aerial photos of Montreal taken between 1947 and 1992 are processed using machine learning. An algorithm generates images, which in turn generate video. The final step turns the video images into a vector field—in this case, an abstracted version of the image broken down into individual points, or vectors.

How did this piece come about? “I used code to scrape 11,000 images from the publicly available archive provided by Ville de Montréal. I cropped and resized them before feeding them into a machine learning algorithm called a style GAN. This essentially recreated these beautiful photos of a non-existent place, based on real aerial photos of Montreal.” Recognizable fragments of latter-day Montreal pop up amid alien landscapes whose strangeness comes, perhaps, from their obsolescence: vast, blank areas of fields and long threads of country roads, long since swallowed up by the city sprawl. Viewing these maps through the pointillist lens of the vector field adds to the curious sense of half-recognition.

Interactive Flock

As its title suggests, this piece allows the user to guide flocks of glowing particles simply by moving around in front of a screen, which is fitted with a motion-capture camera. The particles swirl and cluster satisfyingly with the user’s movements, and as the music plays, “you’re encouraged to dance and have the flocks follow your hands around.” In addition, “I’ve also programmed a whole system where your hands trigger audio, so the music I provide, you can add to and dance to as well.” Interactive Flock is a fascinating study of human/machine collaboration. Indeed, “the program wouldn’t even start without you being there. It has to be a collaboration.”

music and rediscovery

While this deep-dive into coding and audiovisuals meant that music took a couple of years’ hiatus, Michael is now working on a new EP and playing regular DJ sets that he streams on Twitch, both under the Okliis moniker. The return to playing records has been inspiring, he says. “I got to discover my record collection all over again.” It seems that his childhood sense of wonder at the MP3 player’s capacity—that feeling of endless musicout there to discover—has never really faded. Even today, his focus is less on new releases and more on the wealth of classics already out in the world. Indeed, his current inspirations are “very established artists who’ve been around for decades. John Heckle, Orlando Voorn. Lawrence [of label Dial and sub-label Laid] is amazing.” Aside from these favourites, he’s also been immersing himself in Detroit electro, a genre he wasn’t familiar with before. “Playing it is so hype and so fun. It’s really inspiring me right now.” And, of course, artists he’s just discovering: “I’m super into Lis Sarroca. It’s a very classical house EP, I play the whole thing on the stream. She nailed the vibe.”

Streaming sets has also been a chance to combine mixing with audiovisuals, and Michael uses Twitch’s API to program interactive functions: by typing specific commands into the chat, the viewer can change the background visuals. This makes DJing into an ongoing, collaborative, and evolving process. “I’m always adding things and changing things.”

a strange year

After the initial anxiety of those early pandemic weeks, Michael found himself reframing the prospect of a year of closures and suspense as a chance to go deep into his creative work. “After that decrease in activity, that depression, I thought, I have to get my shit together. And that helped me to be more organized than pre-Covid. It gave me a different perspective—thinking, OK, things are going to be closed for a year and a half or two. I saw this as a positive pressure, and it gave me a new work ethic.”

That said, creating art and DJing in isolation is never an end in itself, and like everyone, he’s looking forward to when things can open up again. “I want to get back on the scene, DJ around the city, and start networking again! Reconnect. Or just connect with new people. I can’t wait.”

Michael’s latest EP under the Okliis moniker is forthcoming with Departures Records.

Departures Records:

Okliis music:

Michael Khayata on Vimeo:

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