Wednesday 3:30 – 6:00
Caren Rabbino, Instructor
Thesis concept paper.
Experimental Devices for Performance are wearable and handheld devices used for media interaction in experimental performance. Being performer oriented, the devices make the connection between media and performer inseparable. The performer affects the media through the devices and the devices affects the performer. Together, they become the performance.
Experimental Devices for Performance roots itself in the history of technological stage innovation. Artaud, Marinetti, and Kandinsky were some of the early adopters of technology in the arts. Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism firmly planted the machine into a generation of artists to come. Technical innovation for the stage continued to rapidly evolve since then. Today, everything from live video manipulation, to dancing robotics is considered performance. Multimedia theatre companies like The Wooster Group have pioneered the integration of video and narrative performance. These artists have turned to technology as the lens through which to view their art. As technology continues to proliferate and change our relationship to the world and to ourselves, I propose to update this lens by introducing technology into my performance. I am building a series of devices embedded with sensors to be used in performance. I am most interested in the live manipulation of media though haptic response to a performer’s movement. The devices currently include prototypes for a pair of sneakers and a hat. I will describe the prototypes separately and then explain the proposal for newer prototypes to be built.
The sneakers use sensors embedded in the heel to detect the height of the foot off the ground. This information can be transmitted to an off-stage computer and used to manipulate audio, video, lighting, and mechanics. The sneakers are a pair of ordinary tennis shoes connected to a pair of wireless transmitters attached above the performer’s calves.
The hat is outfitted with wireless and wired video cameras, a wireless lavaliere microphone, and a Piezo sensor. The wireless video cameras and microphone transmit image and voice to various screens and speakers. The wired cameras are connected to the device with exposed leads of conductive fabric. Physical contact with an output device is required for the operation of the wired video cameras. In this way the hat is used both to constrain movement and as a manual video switcher.
Other proposed devices include small wearable screens and speakers, as well as custom built handheld screens and speakers.
I want to make experimental performance. An elemental building block of performance is movement. Dance, theatre, and film all incorporate movement as a part of their language. Theatre incorporates blocking to move the action along by literally moving the characters. Dance uses movement and gesture as a language in itself. Film and video uses camera movement (such as the tracking shot) as well as intra-media movement (such as the jump-cut or optical flow) to move the action. The common characteristic of movement can be used to fuse together dance, theatre, and film. Experimental devices for Performance use the movement of performers to control and manipulate media.
I am interested in creating performance that utilizes constraints. The devices are built in such a way to augment natural movement. For instance, the leads of conductive fabric on the devices require a physical connection with an output device in order for the image to be transmitted. This constraint dictates the movement of the performer. In this same way, other microphones, cameras, speakers and televisions are placed in awkward positions so as to require the performer to perhaps squeeze his head under a couch in order to use a certain microphone, or slam his face against the floorboards in order to be seen by a certain camera. This can be seen as a metaphor for the way technology both overtly and covertly affects our everyday action.
I use video and sound in stage performances, in part, to borrow from the language of film, which carries with it a different toolbox than theatre. For instance, theatre does not have the “close-up” in its vocabulary. I borrow the “close-up” from film terminology and couple it with stage techniques such as magnification extension to achieve a unique effect somewhere between video and performance. These couplings will be further exploded though rehearsal and experimentation.
The physical design must be robust. The software side of things must also allow for flexibility and change. The devices should be able to be used under different performance circumstances and venues. For example, all of the devices might be used to develop, rehearse, and perform a piece in a traditional black box theatre, while only one of the devices might be used to give an impromptu performance on the subway ride home from the theatre.
The devices should be modular. Many devices can be used at once or one device can be used alone. This way, the maximum amount of performances can be conceived, with little or no co-dependency on any of the other devices.
The devices should be designed toward a common aesthetic. For example, I have chosen to use New Balance brand sneakers in the design of a prototype because they are accessible as objects. This is to say, I see people wear New Balance sneakers on a regular basis. I wear New Balance sneakers. They are comfortable, practical, and do not stand out as anything other than common tennis shoes. This is what makes them accessible to an audience as performance tools, or performative objects. All of the designs for Experimental Devices for Performance should be approached in this way. They should be practical, comfortable, and not signify anything outside of what they are.
Audience and/or market:
The audience I envision for this project is the audience that already frequents the seats of the “downtown“ New York theatre scene. It is a private audience in the sense that they have paid for their tickets. They have come to see a performance. They have taken on the roll of audience. The contract has been made. I hope to appeal to this market the strongest. I am also interested in gaining the attention of presenting institutions, and residency-granting organizations such as Performance Space 122, H.E.R.E., and Eyebeam. Outside of this private sphere I am looking to entertain a public audience. I would like to use the devices for impromptu street performance. This performance would most likely appeal to those who enjoy public spectacle. The public performances would be a more casual interaction between performer and audience. The audience becomes the audience when they start paying attention. There is no performer/audience contract in public performance of this kind.
Environmental scenario (specific location, time it will take someone to use it, etc):
I would like Experimental Devices for Performance to be used for experimental performance inside and outside of the traditional theatre space. The devices should be built in a way that minimizes set up time and reliance on external technical needs. They should be as self-contained and “plug and play” as possible. This way they can be used first inside the rented rehearsal space, then transition easily to the performance space. Experimental Devices for Performance will be built primarily for the standard black box theatre that includes a basic lighting board, soundboard, and power supply. Most, but not all devices will require this minimum technical backend. A few of the devices should be self-contained enough to operate without any external amplification or power needs other than what can be carried on the body of the performer. The devices can be used in a performance of any length.
Media and technology proposed, and core features:
I propose to use a plethora of media for the completion of this project. Live video and audio will be fed back into the performance as part of the show. Prerecorded and found video footage will be played back, controlled, and manipulated by the performer. Much of the footage I plan to use will be found during the rehearsal period. The specific footage I will use will depend less on the content of the media, and more on the look and feel of the media. Prerecorded and live audio will also be played back, controlled, and manipulated by the performer. I plan to use the programming language Max/MSP to synthesize and manipulate live vocal input. For instance, the performer’s voice will be made to sound unnaturally high or low by using a pitch-shifting patch.
Video will be played back, controlled, and manipulated mainly using Max/MSP and Isadora. Manual manipulation of magnetic videotape may also be performed.
Live and prerecorded audio and video will also be used to affect itself. Sound levels may affect the vertical roll of a television screen. Video tracking may be used to raise or lower the pitch of the vocals. Feedback loops will be created and experimented with for content and spectacle.
The technology specific to the devices I propose includes various sensors for input, microcontrollers and radios for processing and transmission, and speakers and screens for output.
The prototypes for the sneakers include a photocell in each heel. The information sent and received varies depending on how much or how little light the sensors are exposed to.
Similarly, the hat includes a Piezo sensor to detect how much or how little the performer’s head is moving.
All of these embedded sensors talk to on-board microcontrollers also embedded within the devices. The microcontrollers process the information being gathered the sensors and send it along to wireless radio transmitters called Zigbee radios. Each Zigbee radio has a twin that listens to it on the other end. This twin Zigbee feeds the data it gets into a computer running Max/MSP or Isadora or both.
Ballpark budget or what it would need to be made real:
Looking at my proposal for the technology and media I will use, I can reasonably assume that I will need $500 to $1,000 to complete this project. I am only taking into account device experimentation and new prototype manufacturing in this estimate. I am not taking into account manufacture beyond what I have described here. The expense for back-end technical support in the theatre space varies with each institution and is also not taken in to consideration in this estimate. Back-end technical support in the theatre includes external equipment and cabling, various mixing boards, lighting and soundboards, projectors, extra televisions, and speakers.
Criteria for success:
Experimental Devices for Performance will be judged by the seamlessness of integration it achieves in performance. Due to this particular criteria’s subjectivity and reliance on outside factors such as performance quality, writing quality, and staging, I have decided to give the success of the performance itself very little weight in the overall assessment of Experimental Devices for Performance’s success. More weight will be given to the device’s physical and technological stability under the duress of performance.