In a viewing room at the University of Montana’s Social Sciences Building, a voice resonates from the speakers: “Hello, Alaska? Purdue?” In the background, faint murmurs ripple through the air as several computer windows pop up on a viewing screen covering the entire wall.
“Testing…Montana, can you hear me?”
At his computer in the back corner of the room, UM staff member Bob Wachtel pipes up. “We can hear you,” he says and then waves toward a camera—his gesture is caught on the big screen through a real-time video stream. Charles Nichols, an assistant professor in the same room as Wachtel, acknowledges his video image from a separate camera. In addition to Wachtel and Nichols, a series of separate windows start to appear on the screen: A woman waits expectantly with a headset; a man diligently unfolds a blue tarp; a figure in a smaller window sits at a desktop computer. Despite the crowded display, Nichols and Wachtel are the only people physically in this viewing room on UM’s campus. The other voices and faces are being streamed in from various points across the nation.
For some, this spectacle of hi-tech video streaming might evoke images of business meetings among Pentagon officials or Wall Street stockbrokers. But Wachtel, director of presentation technology services at UM, and Nichols, who teaches acoustic and computer music composition, aren’t here to talk business. They’re here to make art.
They are the Montana component of a performance art piece titled “InterPlay: Loose Minds in a Box”—part of a cross-country interactive multimedia collaboration. The presentation will be streamed live via the Internet with artists at 13 different sites representing the universities of Alaska, Illinois, Maryland, Purdue and Utah. At each site, audiences can watch the interactive performance on a screen while being treated to certain aspects of the concert by their school’s respective artists.
Grand scale interaction aside, it’s noteworthy that Nichols’ violin playing is an interactive system in itself. His Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI, computer is preprogrammed to distort the violin sounds as he plays each piece. MIDI technology enables electronic instruments to communicate and break down musical scores. At times Nichols’ violin is classically symphonic, while at others it wah wahs and reverbs like an electric guitar.
“I enjoy that I can play my MIDI violin and the computer will respond,” Nichols says. “This collaboration is an extension of that. Instead of it just being my self-contained interactive system, now my interactive system is the Internet and I’m interacting with visual artists and an animation artist way across the country.”
And while this creative communication translates easily to the title “InterPlay,” the theme of “Loose Minds in a Box” is also apt because the Internet medium naturally frames each performance in boxes on the screen. The artists push the theme even further by making boxes a motif throughout the performance: People in Illinois crouch on a floor drawing boxes continuously in chalk; a dancer at Purdue attempts to escape a box; one man in Utah actually constructs a wooden box during the evening; and other on-screen windows contain animated boxes and box-headed people in virtual reality backgrounds.
“InterPlay” is a true multimedia performance, even in the traditional sense—it is music, art and dance all in one. For instance, Nichols provides more than a soundtrack, and interacts directly with a performer at Purdue who sports a motion capture suit. As the Perdue performer moves, Nichols’ computer detects motion and distorts the music accordingly.
“Think Gollum or Polar Bear Express,” says Nichols, referring to special effects used in major motion pictures. This time, instead of capturing movement to illustrate a creature like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, movement instigates sound.
Wachtel, who has been a UM tech for 32 years, enjoys his role with the Internet medium. “Learning new technology is learning new ways to communicate,” he says. “And as an old dog on campus, I like to learn new tricks.”
Of course, if performances like “InterPlay” inspire further use of interactive Internet art, what are now advanced technological tricks might soon become old hat. Nichols says the technology is becoming exceedingly robust and that more universities are using this high-tech medium for practical purposes.
“And this is impractical?,” Wachtel jokingly interjects.
Nichols laughs shooting back in mock arrogance, “Well, it’s very important.” Rehearsal has ended and the symphony of images has disappeared, leaving a blank screen. After a second thought Nichols says, “Well, it is important, just like all art is important. The reason for doing this is to show that this medium, the Internet, can be a viable medium for interactive collaboration of art, not just business.”
Which is, after all, really thinking outside the box.
“InterPlay: Loose Minds in a Box” will be performed Friday, April 15, and Saturday, April 16, at 7 PM, and again Sunday, April 17, at 4 PM. The concert takes place in UM’s Social Sciences Building, Room 127, and tickets cost $5 for general public and $3 for students.