One of the most fascinating parts of the prevalence of the world of social networking and online, user-generated media is the effect it seems to be having on artists and the type of media used to create art. Digital media is so widely used that the technical knowledge of these tools seems an integral part of developing a technique as a 21st century artist. The students in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program seem to be on the cutting edge of this idea with their exhibit entitled Luminance, showing at the Paley Center for Media. Here is a preview of what you will see there:
Both a use of new technology as well as a meditation on the rapid development of digital entertainment in our daily lives, this exhibit focuses on the increasingly popular notion of interacting with digital entities. It also seems to get at the increasingly democratized notion of art making – in some of the installations the viewer is integral to the work. The piece of art is in fact not complete, or does not function properly until another entity begins to interact with it.
Particularly fascinating is the work Skittish Tree by Martín Bravo, housed downstairs from the others, in the lobby of the Paley Center’s main screening room. Described as a “sound-reactive installation”, the piece consists of a projected image of a tree, mostly white and gray and devoid of leaves. The tree is designed to react to loud noises, much in the same way an animal might –by crouching to make itself smaller or hiding completely. Alternatively, the tree may react favorably to soothing or pleasant sounds such as a hum or purring type noise.
Feeling just a bit self-conscious about commencing a conversation with a picture of a tree while alone in a theatre lobby, I tested the claim the easiest way I knew how. One sharp, loud clap of my hands sent the tree cowering to less than half its height. Pretty fascinating stuff. Even more so though, was how attuned this digital…creature? plant? creation?…was to its surroundings. As I backed away, clapping at about the same volume every few steps, the tree’s reactions grew less extreme. Indeed, it seemed that what the tree was “hearing” was growing less startling as the sound got further away from it.
After a few more experiments, I realized the installation could pick up high-pitched noises particularly well, so I let out a small hiss. The tree fidgeted a bit. Almost without thinking, I elaborated on this interaction, beginning to create a rhythm with simple vocal sounds. And there, just a few feet in front of me, the tree began to bob and dance, precisely to the rhythm, giving it a more human and alive quality than I ever thought possible.
I hung around this particular work for quite some time, thinking about all the artistic and philosophical questions it provoked for me. Among them: What is our role as viewers in this work? Without our interaction, does it become something else entirely? Does it truly exist without external sounds for stimulation? What does it mean to have a plant that reacts like a human? A piece of art that seems “alive”?
This last question seemed to hold the most interest for me as I stuck around this one particular work. Why? I liked this tree. I wanted to keep interacting with it. I had a strange sense of power over it – I was the one making the sounds – but it also seemed to have a life of its own. And I couldn’t wait to see what it would do next.
If you want to dance with a tree, and experience other interactive digital works, check out Luminance at the Paley Center for Media, through April 30th. Admission is FREE with your student CUID through the Passport to NY program.
– Meropi Peponides, Theatre MFA, 2013