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Work in Process

A high-resolution glimpse into EMPAC curation through the making of an experimental 3D film

by Ali Hibbs on March 24, 2010

Photo Caption: Out from the dark: the OpenEnded Group—(l-r) Marc Downie, Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

On my first visit to meet the OpenEnded Group, I leave nearly as confused about what the team of digital artists actually does as when I first arrived. Outside, it’s a sunny fall day, but entering the EMPAC Theater, where the group is logging 16-hour workdays on a 10-day stint of their commissioned residency, is entering a chamber hermetically sealed from virtually every variable of the outside world. Save for the red glow of the exit signs and the blue light of the trio’s computer screens, the theater is pitch black. Our voices boom in the silence.

“You’ve come at the worst possible time,” says Marc Downie, the group’s code-writing expert, joking about how vast a chore it would have been to follow the group’s entire two-year project, a piece that is as long in the making as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center is old. With the premiere slated for late March, Upending is beginning to enter its final phase of production, but the steps I’ve already missed are events I’m hard-pressed to even picture—stereoscopic photo shoots, a quadraphonic recording session. “We’re at the transition point between capturing all the material and finalizing scenes,” Downie explains. “This residency has been about turning this into an artwork.”

OpenEnded’s Paul Kaiser hands me a pair of heavy-duty 3D glasses and, after some fiddling with his computer, Downie launches a “scenelet” from early in the piece. It’s still a month or so before the release of James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar, so the precedent for 3D projection hasn’t yet skewed entirely to the ends of action and adventure, but already it’s clear that the OpenEnded Group have something very different in mind. On screen—or rather, in the immense depth of space between the viewer and the theater’s enormous screen—appears a luminous chair. There are no edges to the frame, just a chair hovering like a holograph in space. Downie manually rotates the image so it can be viewed from all directions and, as the scene proceeds, a figure manifests next to the chair, rendered from beams of light that swoop in from around the viewer’s head.

Kaiser explains, “There’s line quality here that I don’t think anyone’s ever seen in a digital way before. The texture both reflects the feeling of hand drawing, yet it’s utterly synthetic, which goes to the heart of what the piece is about.”

The figure begins to take a few steps, approaching the chair amid a cloud of yellow rays. There is something hand-drawn about the image, like it’s a sketch or a figure study, animated from every angle. And, of course, there’s a reason for this. While it can be difficult to parse the group’s individual roles, Shelley Eshkar, the group’s soft-spoken third member, is an expert in drawing and graphic technologies such as motion capture (the technique famously used to animate Avatar’s Na’vi and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings). He explains that the effect is generated by projecting a two- dimensional drawing onto a three-dimensional model—through groundbreaking multimedia software called Field that Downie developed—so that the lines are almost sticking to it. The flashing rays are where the computer-generated pen strokes miss the model and disappear into space. “It’s a fun game,” Eshkar says, “because the intent is not to make something that looks like a perfect drawing but something that’s in between the drawing you intended and this inverse you couldn’t have made.”

Playing the conceptualist to Downie and Eshkar’s technicians, Kaiser elaborates that the effect works well with the piece’s theme of looking at earthly objects from unfamiliar aspects, to engage your sensory system but also violate it to some degree. “You get this sense of weightlessness and disorientation, as if your sense of gravity doesn’t quite exist.”

Needless to say, little of this yet makes any sense, and the fragments I’m allowed to view hardly constitute anything that might be construed as “theme.” At this point in Upending’s evolution, it hasn’t yet even received the cryptic billing as a “stereoscopic theater performance, an actor-less drama of disorientation and reorientation that compels us to rethink our relationship to the material world.” As with the institution that has commissioned the work, core questions of Upending’s function and taxonomy remain cloaked in a semblance of hybridity, high-tech specialization and weirdness. Is it a movie? A video installation?

Yet, despite—or, perhaps, because of—the intellectual rigor required to grapple with this sort of work, there is something incredibly exciting about it. It’s singular, immersive and, like EMPAC itself, close to unprecedented in what it aims to accomplish. Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be told repeatedly that Upending is “a perfect EMPAC piece” in that it plays perfectly to the institution’s potentialities. Reciprocally, Kaiser acknowledged on this first visit that “there’s nowhere else in the country we can do this.” As it turns out, the process of Upending’s creation is also the perfect window into the curatorial process of an institution that may appear enigmatic to most, due to its very focus on the notion of artistic process.

EMPAC founding director Johannes Goebel says that curation for the space differs slightly from other arts institutions. In addition to the common practice of producing and coproducing outside work, and commissioning new works based on proposals submitted by artists, EMPAC’s unique strength lies in its residency program. But, whereas at other performing arts centers an orchestra in residence might offer workshops and a handful of performances over the course of a set period of time, artists in residence at EMPAC are encouraged to use the building’s specific resources to craft a piece from inception to completion. As a result, each project will vary widely in regard to methodology, materials used and ultimate offering.

For example, in February, dance curator Hélène Lesterlin brought the London-based company Wayne McGregor | Random Dance for a two-week residency, during which dancers worked with cognitive scientists to develop choreographic software for a future work. The performance they gave, however, was of a previously completed dance.

Upending, on the other hand, is a commission, a residency and a production. “It’s a collaboration and exchange,” Goebel says, where all the intellectual and artistic material comes from the artist and EMPAC functions as “a sounding board,” providing curatorial and technical expertise—not to mention space, time, money and resources—to the artist. “They started with the idea that they wanted to do a production on moving screens because we had the [robotic] capability like no one else. Then they learned about this 3D technology and said, we’ve always wanted to do this, so let’s forget about the moving screens.”

“When we came here,” Eshkar says, “the goal was simply to do something we’d never be allowed to do on our own. EMPAC was presented to us as a whole palette.” Access to the stereo projection technology planted the seed for the project, a video engineer helped them build a 3D rig for the thousands of photos captured in stereo shoots, and an RPI alum granted them access to prototype scientific imaging cameras that allowed them to tune the convergence of the 3D images for optic effects that, they claim, can’t be achieved with a feature film.

“One of the astonishing things about working here at EMPAC,” Kaiser says, “is that we’re making a piece that proposes an alternative to the kind of 3D films that are emerging from Hollywood, and we have an enormous advantage over all of them because we’re actually editing the piece here in the same space that it’s being shown, at that scale.”

In exchange, EMPAC, like a research science facility, benefits from the advances made under its roof.

When I next visit the group, Avatar has become a box-office sensation, but Upending is growing ever more into its own kind of animal. A dancer is present at this viewing, previewing the capabilities of motion- capture 3D for a future collaboration. This wouldn’t be the first time the OpenEnded Group have worked in modern dance, as their 1999 collaboration with Merce Cunningham, BIPED, was one of their breakthrough pieces. For now, this work period, three months before Upending’s premiere, is deeply concerned with scene building.

In one clip, a hand interacts with a wooden block. The resolution of the image is incredibly precise, defying motion capture’s tendency to capture only the skeleton of a form, and providing it with a sense of flesh. The perspective rotates and the viewer is ushered into the cavity of the phantom hand. In another clip, the viewer is taken on a ghostly tour of “Living Quarters,” where a blue window in the middle of the frame mediates light in a hazy dreamlike fashion. Then, in a tremendous jump of scale, space opens up into an abstract gridded landscape where particles interact with each other and stretch the grid into fractal and fractured configurations.

What’s most striking this time, though, is the tempo and sense of motion achieved as each scene is synched to the musical score. Now, when the yellow beams of light, connoting Eshkar’s pen strokes, render the figure and the chair, they correspond to the bow strokes of two violins, a viola and cello, quadraphonically delivered from respective corners of the theater. The score couldn’t be more perfect, but its selection and recording were a complicated instance in which the creation and curation of Upending struck a serendipitous note.

The idea to use the first String Quartet by 20th-century composer Morton Feldman was proposed by music curator Micah Silver, who commissioned Upending, “almost as an extreme joke.”

Upending originally began as a collaboration between the OpenEnded Group and Hudson Valley electronic composer Maryanne Amacher, who was known for her incredibly loud, visceral, and patterned work. Unfortunately, Amacher died last October, a few months after artistic differences ended the collaboration. It then fell to Silver, who uses the synonyms “producer,” “intermediary” and “psychologist” to describe his many curatorial roles, to help the group find their new score.

“I was trying to find things that had principles of Maryanne’s music on a formal level, that would do something similar psychologically, but were different because of their surface.” In contrast to Amacher, Feldman’s music is very spare, often quiet, and of remarkable duration. In fact, a hallmark of Feldman’s work was a conception of music in terms of “scale” rather than “form.” His String Quartet II, for example, exceeds six hours and trades any sense of repeated theme for a psychic effect in the listener whereby it becomes impossible to tell if what you’re hearing has already occurred. Like Amacher’s music, which can be (is intentionally?) unremarkable on the macro level, it induces a deep sense of attention to the passing details.

“You’ll find with the OpenEnded Group that it’s the same thing,” Silver explains. “From a thousand yards, [Upending] is this slow-moving, abstract thing. You could very easily miss it out-of-hand because of a misunderstanding of what you should be looking at. The Feldman score matches these formal qualities on the micro scale and something happens to your attention because you’re zoomed into this higher resolution.”

Ensuring that the score would suit the piece and the spatial acoustics of the theater, the OpenEnded Group requested that a new recording of String Quartet be made at EMPAC with the acclaimed new-music ensemble FLUX Quartet, utilizing an extremely close-range configuration of microphones that would suggest the physical presence of the musicians in the final work.

Now, even though the OpenEnded Group never would have anticipated this change, Feldman’s score has become critical to the very idea of the piece. As Downie says, “One of our goals is to be like Feldman, to have things reappear where they’re entirely framed in your half- memory of them. These ways of seeing are explored, picked up, examined, then discarded, only to reappear far later in the piece.”

Maybe its another chance convergence, or rather the reason why Upending is the perfect EMPAC piece, but this notion of “high resolution” and focus on “ways of seeing” seem core to EMPAC’s very mission.

Stuck between a concert hall’s imperative to entertain and a research facility’s drive toward technical innovation, EMPAC occupies an ill-defined middle ground where both objectives might not be mutually exclusive. “We build these spaces,” Silver says, “that are quiet and capable of amazing sensory things in order to have high-resolution inner world experiences” via art. The idea of the venue functioning as a sort of test lab for human consciousness might actually not be overly facile. After all, the current group exhibition Dancing on the Ceiling actually features 45-minute sessions in a customized floatation tank. “Upending is about expanding the resolution of the way you see and hear,” says Silver, “which is made possible by technology, but it’s not about it at all.”

In pieces like Upending, it’s easy to let the fact of fancy technology distract from the work’s effect, but as for the idea that EMPAC balances dual objectives, one toward art, the other toward technology, Goebel dismisses the distinction. “There is research always involved in anything that has an artistic experience as an outcome.” Giving the example of a hypothetical painter experimenting with a new brush made from squirrel hair, he says, “there’s always been a direct interchange between the tools and what you do on a content level.” It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by Eshkar when he says, “there’s no technical decision that isn’t also an artistic one.” As for the notion of “experimentation” embedded in the venue’s title, Goebel claims that, as Silver said, “it’s more about creating experiences and challenging people and opening your mind in new directions,” than technological advances for the sake of technology.

This idea, that art and science can pursue common ends, is not an especially prevalent one, but Silver says that this could be changing. “The paradigm [of science] we’re in now is about the extreme quantification of everything,” he says, “and verification through the repetition of quantifiable things. But, obviously, the world isn’t all about things you can quantify. Even though we’ve attempted to quantify it with clocks, the very fabric of time is something that no one has any idea about in a real, concrete, shared way.” The artist’s job, then, is to conduct research in qualitative analysis of these unquantifiable time-based phenomena. Citing Pauline Oliveros’ concept of “deep listening” as an example, he says, “I think the most interesting [artists] I’ve ever met are extremely sensitive people—not in the sense that they have wonderful emotional lives—but in terms of being sensitive to the environment and getting high-resolution information.”

Ten days before the premiere of Upending, the OpenEnded Group are working most of the hours they are not sleeping. Attention has arrived on the arc of the piece, something they were not able to adequately address while adjusting the piece’s smaller details. Eshkar confesses that they’ve never actually viewed more than eight minutes of constant material or three sequences in a row. Kaiser says this is another factor that separates the group from others who deal in this kind of work. Most would simply execute a storyboard but, as Downie explains, theirs is a “living document.” The approach is far from slapdash, though, as Silver marvels at how the group’s work remains balanced with specific philosophical goals. The effect of allowing this degree of flexibility this near the end of the piece was, as Kaiser says, that “associations and meanings arise; they’re not imposed.”

In a way, then, confusion—or, at least, unknowing—is built into the very fabric of the piece. Having been granted this liberty of unqualified naïveté (which is not so unlike authentic wonder), I finally feel comfortable asking the group the big clumsy questions of narrative and theme.

As for narrative, Kaiser replies, “It’s an unbelievably open framework. There’s definitely a journey you take, but I don’t know if I’d call it a narrative. You start in one place and end in another, and when you get there you know you’re there, but it’s not any more explicit than that.”

Rather than “theme,” the group seem to prefer the term “look,” of which there are six or seven, each populated with recurrent elements: man, woman, child, tree, car. More important than even “looks,” though, are “ways of seeing,” some of which recur and behave in the piece as a character might. By withholding the default context of a seemingly mundane scenario, Kaiser says, “your perception of things is delayed because you have to make sense of them. It makes you aware of all these elements of your consciousness and perceptual systems that you normally aren’t aware of at all.”

This is, however, an objective that can only be verified qualitatively, by the experience of every viewer who interacts with Upending’s “psychic landscape.” And, as Goebel says, this sort of project must openly embrace the prospect of failure for it to approach its target depth. Still, the whole endeavor is a pretty daunting proposition. “For most people,” Silver says, “Upending is going to be really challenging on both the musical and visual sides. If you just walk in and say ‘3D movie,’ within 10 minutes you’ll be confused and angry. You really have to open yourself up to it.” The same could be said for almost anything EMPAC has hosted.

Eshkar, however, doesn’t see the project’s goals as in any way running counter to cultural tendencies. “People are activated by this idea of looking,” he says. Whether it’s with 3D Hollywood movies, GPS, Google Earth, Photosynth, or non-narrative, experimental works like Upending, “people are getting used to being able to get visual purchase on things, rotate them, and move [from macro to micro].” As Silver says, the risk is the catalyst, and his approach to curation might serve a casual viewer just as well: “It’s really your responsibility to maintain this ongoing unknowing where you can never really pin down what it’s going to be.”