It’s 7:15 and it’s beginning. A flash of light. The floor starts to shake. The roof rattles. An artist sits quietly on the floor manipulating his creation, entitled “Static Room” – a strange cross between an earthquake, a rock concert, and an electrical storm. The other artists walk quietly across the stage, seemingly oblivious to the wailing, flashing projection on the wall. After all, it’s only a dress rehearsal.

The fifth annual Activating the Medium Festival toured the state last week, beginning at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and traveling across the state to San Luis Obispo, Chico, and Venice, California. Each year, the festival features artists who utilize sound as their medium. This year, the festival focused on sound and technology.

The show included an installation by Christopher Musgrave, and featured performances by Scott Arford (creator of Static “Room”), Paul DeMarinis, and the international performance group, Sensorband. The show’s finale came when artists from UCSB’s Media Arts and Technology Graduate Program (MAT-P) unveiled an interactive exhibit on the stage and invited the audience to come and walk through it.

The Activating the Medium Festival is only the beginning for MAT-P’s new installation, entitled Speaking/Sensing Space. The exhibit will go on to tour in Sweden, Austria, and Japan before finding its way back to UCSB for exhibition in July and August.

Its creators, art studio professor George Legrady and music researcher Stephen Pope, along with their grad students in MAT-P, are pleased with their first collaborative project.

A Work of Art

The Activating the Medium Festival commissioned the installation. Originally the festival contacted Legrady, a visual artist. Because the festival deals primarily with sound, he in turn, invited Pope – an electronic composer – to collaborate on the project. Legrady coordinated the overall look, while Pope was responsible for composing and coordinating the sound aspects of the installation.

Speaking/Sensing Space consists of an arena where its audience is free to move around. The arena is surrounded by six sets of speakers and a large projection screen. As the spectators move through the arena, their motions are tracked by a video camera, which relays information to two computers. The computers control the sounds put out by the speakers, as well as the images projected on the screen.

As audience members traverse the arena, the images and sounds move and change in response to their movements, creating an interactive display. Layered words, questions, and phrases appear selectively on the screen accompanied by multiple levels of computerized whispering noises and sound effects, which change in direction and intensity.

The more movement the system detects the more active the whispers and the more intense the display becomes: “DNA evidence in courts,” “is technology making us better?” “computers versus humans, who will when” All of the phrases deal with people’s anxiety towards technology.

At the exhibition, audience members attempt to figure out exactly how the installation works, marching back and forth across the arena and huddling occasionally to design plays that might reveal the method behind the madness. It’s a carefully designed exhibit.

Media, Arts, and Technology graduate students took charge of different technical aspects of the project. Gilroy Menezes designed the motion tracking software for the installation. Garry Kling designed the network software that allowed all the pieces of technology to work together. Andreas Schlegel assisted in designing the interactive interface that allows audience members to interact with the piece. Despite their clear technical expertise, each contributed to the artistic aspects of the project as well.

“The work uses technological know how but addresses issues coming out of contemporary art,” Legrady said. “It examines what it means to look at the world through technological eyes.”

Activating the Medium

“Every true virtuoso solders,” Paul DeMarinis jokes, grinning at Sensorband member Edwin van der Heide who is tediously repairing one of his high-tech musical instruments. Van der Heide grins. The two handheld controllers steaming under his soldering iron are capable of producing enough noise to make all the chairs in the room tremor and crawl across the floor.

The controllers plug into a computer. They each contain sensors, which detect one’s proximity to the other. As the two are pulled apart, they signal the computer and switches on each controller determine what each movement will do to the sound. At various points in the performance, the instrument can sound like a helicopter, a crashing wave, a choir of crickets, or nearly anything else, for that matter.

DeMarinis’ own art involves tinkering with radio transmitters, receivers, and speakers to distort familiar sounds into increasingly bizarre melodies.

Scott Arford busies himself with a sound check for “Static Room.” The piece is such an odd collection of distorted video and sound that the last twenty minutes of 2001 has the narrative simplicity of a nursery rhyme by comparison.

Outside, Christopher Musgrave is setting up an installation to greet the arriving audience. Like Speaking/Sensing Space it changes in response to its spectators, but displays shifting geometric forms and distorted video stills, rather than cryptic messages.

These are some of the artists performing at the 2002 Activating the Medium Festival. The invitational festival was founded five years ago by Randy Yau in association with the Cuesta College fine arts departments. Today, Cuesta is joined by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Cal State Chico, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and 23five Incorporated. The list continues to grow and each year international artists come from further away to join the show.

The festival focuses on sound as a medium for art and its current theme is the representation of reality by technology and new media.

Media, Arts and Technology

The Media, Arts, and Technology Program is a new graduate program at UCSB and, surprisingly enough, is administered by the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) – UCSB’s state-funded research center for designing computers on a molecular scale. The program is a strange combination of technological expertise and artistic flair.

“Artists are learning network protocols and JAVA while computer engineers are learning about the history and impact of various artistic mediums,” Pope said.

The purpose of all this is to enable scientists to work with new technologies, which are difficult to visualize. The hope is that technically minded artists (or artistically minded technicians) will be able to produce tools that will allow researchers to see or hear their subject matter on some metaphoric level.

“We can’t really see and touch and feel at the molecular level so what we do is make visualizations that make us feel like we’re connected to it. It gives us a certain amount of feedback,” Legrady said. “For instance, if I push a molecule to the left and it moves two inches to the left, at the nano level it’s obviously moving on a much smaller scale. To visualize an idea requires a lot of investigation into what makes sense visually. That’s where artistic research is useful for nanolevel research.”

The challenge for the program is to get people to work together who traditionally think very differently.

“We’re looking to build up the idea that engineers and designers and artists and composers work together and come up with new solutions for creating representations,” Legrady said. “You learn from each other to come up with new solutions.”

Artists also stand to benefit from nanotech research.

“[MAT-P] is both a client and a provider of services. CNSI develops better speakers, flatscreen monitors, etc. MAT[-P] develops new methods of visualization for CNSI,” Pope said.