Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Views from the Bridges: Pioneer Internet Artists

A collaborative Internet Production produced in a classroom studio as an Internet experiment proved to be a highly creative project undertaken by Steinhardt graduate students in performing arts at NYU. The event was produced "world-wide" to a limited audience on December 15, 2009, and is a testament to the increasing effectiveness of self-contained user-friendly codecs for interactive creative work. Huddled around the equipment and launching their ideas into cyberspace, these creators seemed more like pioneers forging a path into the future of global collaborations. In the past, such activity required extensive technical support by an institution and an army of Internet2 ITS specialists. Instead, these artists were empowered to establish their own avenues of creative exchange via the Internet.

The artists began by discussing themes that might enable them to work independently while developing their ideas around a common thread of creative work. Their study had involved collaborative work throughout the semester with emphasis on technology and multimedia production, including the technical skills that enabled them to transform almost any space into a multimedia broadcast studio.

The artists consisted of Scott Berenson, Jane Blackstone, Sunmin Kim, JoEllen Livick, Laura Montanaro, Andrew Struck-Marcell, and Julie Song, with Dr. Chianan Yen serving as a technical consultant. Their chief technical Guru was composer and audio/video engineer Professor Tom Beyer. In attendance as an Internet audience was Synthia Payne, an educator, composer, and performer. Other collaborators participated via the Internet using iChat or Skype to join the scenes in the studios. These artists were Mariangeles Fernandez Rajoy, a producer and conceptual/visual artist from Buenes Aires; Ernesto Localle, architect and animator from Buenos Aires; N'seeka MacPherson choreographer and dancer, from Connecticut College in New London; and Ocarina performer SunYoung Mun and Technical Coordinator, SungHoe Ku from South Korea; Musicians Alex Nossa, electric bass, and Michael Scheideman, electric guitar connecting from Harlem; The School of Rock in Charlotte, NC and a graphic artist from Brooklyn.

The group developed a theme around the concept of bridges. There are physical bridges that connect people and land masses, but the Internet itself becomes a bridge that dissolves boundaries and connects people. This metaphor seemed to stimulate a number of ideas. The collaborateurs (this term was coined by JoEllen Livick and seems to serve as a descriptor very well) devised a working title of Views from the Bridges. Some discussion emerged about Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, and whether it might have any relevance to this Internet experiment. As it turns out, some of Miller's content was appropriated for Montanaro's work. With Scott Berenson serving as producer, each callaborateur then set about developing a multimedia scene with a target date to mount this creative work (without prior rehearsal) on the Internet December 15th.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect was to develop a schematic of how the Internet Broadcast would be set up, what equipment would be needed, what configuration would be used, and how collaborateurs would function during the set up, for the production as a whole, and for their specific scenes. Ultimately, these kinds of decisions set the criteria for the range of possibilities and improvisational alternatives during the production.

An effort was made to reduce the amount of stress by designing this event as a work in progress and to accept whatever challenges or impediments might arise, but to work through any problems as part of the creative process. Given the time frame, there was no time to rehearse with the distant collaborateurs, although a few quick connections were made as tests.

Six Scenes were developed with transitions between each scene improvised on the Tabla by Andrew Struck-Marcell. The scenes were:

Blocking the Box
(Scott Berenson)
A View Beneath the Bridge (Laura Montanaro)
What's Up With Talking? (Jane Blackstone)
EtherSketch (JoEllen Livick)
Bridge of the Moments (Sunmin Kim)
Dreaming of Going to Korea (Julie Song)

During the performance, Jane Blackstone took on the role of moderator and M.C. Other collaborateurs worked at cameras, mixers, computers, or helping to manage scenes, as well as perform in scenes. All the artists were serving as videographers, musicians, composers, technologists, cable and adapter specialists, critics, and whatever. They managed to transform the room into a serviceable studio, despite the limited space.

Although the production has the trappings of a live-television studio production, the impact of the Internet participants transformed the space, making an interactive medium dramatically different than the more traditional media of theatres or concert halls. All of the connections with iChat and Skype worked remarkably well, and what was even more impressive, the connections were established within the time frame as needed without exception.

Julie Song improvised an additional connection by using her Air laptop to independently connect with her friends in Korea so they could view the production through her computer camera lens. The production computers were connected by Ethernet, but her laptop successfully connected with Korea with a wireless connection. This suggests a possibility for multiple simultaneous connections using many laptops with one-to-one connections that could be merged as a cohesive, unfolding, and spontaneous event.

An important component, although more silent than we would have wished (we lost the iChat connection at the end were not able to have a final group discussion) was "Synthia" Cynthia Payne aka Synthany, Artist and Educator, adept at audio and video production, editing, coordination, networked music improvisation, recording and event installation. She agreed to be our audience of one (although the other Skype/iChat connections added additional ambience). In discussing this idea with Synthia, we observed that when we have conducted these kind of on-line experiments before, the presence of even one person on the Internet expanded our sense of space and established a sense of a new and different medium. She understood this right away and remarked that the cyber connection seems to create extended space and time, altering our fundamental experience. Synthia appeared in our production as audience, sometimes on the main screem, the side screen, and most often as a perpetual resident on the ceiling.

The theme of bridges was quite successful. "Bridges" as a way of connecting, of crossing borders, of providing access, proved to serve as a prolific source of ideas and images. Also impressive was how these young artists produced everything from scratch in six weeks, including filming, editing, composing, and arranging for counterparts at distant locations and designing and setting up a multimedia environment that successfully worked as an Internet Broadcast Studio. There were lots of glitches, of course, but not really as many as might be expected. It was an experiment that tested the range of artistic expression in the context of engaging technology to enhance the expressive capacity of human activity.

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