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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

DAMPF_LAB Dialogue about Messa di Voce

Group conversation with Golan Levin and Zach Lieberman, hosted by DAMPF_LAB (Dance and Media Performance Fusions). 9 September 2003, Linz.

Scott de la Hunta: Zach Lieberman is on his way. As we all know they spent the whole night up, before the show.

Golan: The whole month up.

Scott: The whole month up, some very odd sleep cycles.

Golan: I'm terribly sorry that we're late, for separate reasons, but we're totally on board and mean nothing by it.

Scott: Zach is on his way, so he'll be here shortly and I also have to apologise that I have to leave at 10:00am because I have to go to the symposium. I think there's plenty to talk about from the show.

Golan: I didn't know this breakfast talk was going to be all about our show!

Scott: To express it properly, also as I expressed in the email this is also a starting point, a trigger for discussions, and we've had two mornings already, two breakfasts, the first one with Scott Snibbe and Marie Sester. So there's been a lot of discussion, so things are starting to recycle a bit through the discussion. It's good as a starting point and what I was going to say was that for Christa, it turned out to be really useful because we had her website and because she made some references to performer's works. So we could have that up but for now I think we should just start but if you think that's useful at some point. I am going to introduce Golan Levin, and then the DAMPF group I'm going to turn over to Madeline to introduce a little bit as a project. We have some guests here today that we won't go around and make introductions just yet because we'll try to get right into the discussion I think.

Madeline: Just really shortly then, do you know anything about the DAMPF project?

Golan: I'm very sorry to say I know only some sense of an overview, so I'm happy to really just listen.

Madeline: Well the background is that it's a collaboration between institutions, one is the Animax multimedia theatre in Bonn, the Ars Electronica festival, V_2, and it's for research and production in the field of dance and media arts. Specifically we use an integration of interactive technologies and performing arts. With the three labs this is the starting point of discussions here within the festival and there will be others. The co-productions are with Klaus Obermaier, who is here today…

Golan: Very good!

Madeline: And Angelika Oei who is sitting over there. She works with a different starting point with more installation than theatre performanc. Also present here are Francois Raffinot, Prue Lang, Cindy Lee, choreographers who are also working with the project. And Philippe from Monaco Dance.

Philippe: Yes, I am head of the multimedia department and I am preparing a production and media centre.

Madeline: And then the starting point of what we already discussed in the other days, is the links, or controversies in the use of interactive technologies.

Golan: Like what?!

Madeline: The difficulties with the stage; the interest with installation work to work with so-called expert users, professional dancers, how they would make use of the system. So these are some points we have been discussing and will go on discussing. So maybe you can start by telling us a little bit…

Golan: I could say a couple of things. Did any of you see Howard Reingold's talk?

Scott: No we were here!

Golan: It was very interesting, his concept of Smart Mobs enables a kind of rebirth of 60s era 'happenings' as a kind of performance, which is actually one of things I am kicking around in my head right now. Because Zach and I just did this very conventional performance last night with these two people singing on stage. The kinds of performance that Reingold is talking about is where, via SMS, a thousand normal, regular people suddenly spontaneously organise themselves to create a two-second happening that then achieves what it achieves and then dissipates. To me this is the future of performance, I think this is a kind of self-organising, cellular happening, it's an incredibly fascinating possibility, made possible not by a sort of audio/visual spectacle like you saw with our concert, but just made by something as simple as a phone.

Madeline: You wouldn't need a producer for that right?!

Golan: Not a producer but you need an 'instigator', and possibly a legal defence!

Scott: It's Flash Mobs isn't it?

Golan: Yes, Flash Mobs.

Scott: Flash Mobs, if you aren't already aware, it's been in the media as a phenomenon that's been occurring..

Golan: Yes, I like Flash Mobs better, the idea is suddenly that everybody, by virtue of SMS communicates that, "at 3 o'clock, if you're on this square, adjust your tie." So then suddenly you see like fifteen men all adjusting their tie for like two seconds and then they go on.

Madeline: There was a small one, with four people in Koln, just when we left they were crawling in front of the cathedral!

Golan: I think Flash Mobs are a very interesting possibility for performance because they take the 60s era of Fluxus and Dada, motives in performance, and make it into something that isn't so premeditated.

Francois: And you say the people don't know each other? That's very important for me, that nobody knows each other. That's very different.

Golan: Let me introduce my colleague Zachary Lieberman, Zach and I produced the concert you saw together. Zach, we're in the hot seat, I didn't know that.

Zach: Yeah, I had no idea! I apologise for being late, I think it took me an extra day to recover from the concert on Sunday, but I'm glad to be here.

Scott: This is an informal breakfast so… I wondered the extent to which…I mean happenings were around forever until they became a historical chronicle of interesting performance events. I wonder if the actual phenomena… I mean I think something will emerge.

Golan: Well, it seems very trendy to talk about it right now but I actually do think that it's a new kind of performance. In terms of controversy I mean you were talking about the stage and I was thinking, "Fuck the stage", the Flash Mob is exactly the rejoinder to the stage.

Madeline: Well then why did you do, I mean this is your latest production, why did you use the stage? There must have been something which…

Golan: I had other questions, I think Zach did too, but…

Madeline: What were those questions?

Golan: Zach and I had made some exhibitions, maybe you saw one or two of them downstairs in the Ars Electronica Centre? We had made these as sort of sound visualisation toys for children to have fun with and present the fiction that speech is visible, which was the main theme of those works. Well, Jaap Blonk has been a hero of mine for a long time and I think Zach and I had both had a long interest independently in painting with speech. So we thought, what if we gave this to people who make their living making strange sounds with their mouth and really make it something that was up to the calibre of a professional? Something that was malleable and flexible and mutable and plastic enough to let someone of that calibre not get bored, I think that was the interesting question for us when we began the project a year ago.

Zach: And it was that challenge of how to expand the software. In one case we made two exhibits that we thought were perfect for museum-goers. But then we had Jaap Blonk come and visit us in January to try out the iinstallations we had made, and immediately we saw all our deficiencies in terms of his enormous dynamic range and our ability to make that visible.

Golan: Here's a guy that's recorded an etude involving fifty perceptually distinct variations of the letter "R"! Or the letter "S". He's studied phonetics and so forth, and suddenly he stands in front of it and goes [makes two different noises] and it reacts the same way, when it should be able to visualize the difference.

Zach: And it's a total embarrassment because he's so talented and versatile, so the challenge of making something that would be responsive for somebody like that was the first question that brought Golan and me into the project.

Golan: Because, although Flash Mobs are very interesting as a future for performance, I think there is this other end of people who dedicate their lives to making sound very well, or making movement very well with their bodies. I think those are really important people and that is why we did our concert as well.

Madeline: And how did the collaboration work for the final result?

Golan: Really hard for them I think because in a nutshell, we didn't have a computer vision system until the night before the concert so they were going on trust. Joan [La Barbara] is a very experienced vocal artist, she's married to Morton Subotnick, So she's been in close proximity to electronic music performance for thirty years and she said she knew we'd get it together. But it was her experience, her age, her level of voice training and so on — others would have no understanding of this and would never cut us this much slack, or have this kind of trust so say, OK, you're telling me we just have to pretend that there's a computer vision system until a night before the show?! I'm sure it really stressed them out, I lost a year of stress just due to this, and it was terrible you know, it was really down to the wire.

Prue: Why did you choose the context of the stage as opposed to a gallery or media space? Why stage?

Golan: It seems very conventional to put something in a concert hall and have a stage and a screen, but there is something to be said that if you have a performer who has dedicated their lives to becoming extremely good at making sound or movement or whatever it is, then there's something they can create which would be otherwise impossible. In a situation where its interesting see them do that, then you need something like a stage in order to do that, right? I mean you could do it in a much smaller space but then if there's enough interest then you need to go to a larger space, and that's why we, I mean there's something very natural about the idea of the one-to-many situation. Of course not every situation is one-to-many, or should be, and then there are different kinds of one-to-many, there's one-to-ten, one-to-one hundred, one-to-one thousand and you have to create different spaces for these kinds of relationships. But it's natural when you've got somebody who has got something interesting to do that you have to have the ability for lots of people to see them. I don't think the stage is going to go away, even with very interesting new stageless forms of performance like Flash Mobs.

Scott: My sense of the challenge is that you thought you had a system that would recognise…

Golan: We speculated that we would have a system!

Scott: What I remember about when we talked last year is that you were hopeful about creating a system that had a virtuosity or sophistication that could presumably match, to an extent…

Golan: — In limited ways, yes —

Scott: In limited ways. I mean, interactive systems on stage range from the very simplistic one-to-one to more sophisticated systems and I guess people speculate that the more sophisticated they are, the more appropriate they might be to match, say, the level of sophistication that a body or performer of that calibre has. Presumably that was in there?

Golan: Well, no, I mean, like I said Jaap had been a hero of mine for a long time and I'd studied Joan's music when I was in college and I never expected or even dreamed that I'd be able to work with her. I thought I could potentially get in contact with Jaap because we had some connections through a record label, but I expected Joan to be unreachable. Speaking for myself, though, one of the happiest moments for me in the project, when I thought we'd accomplished what we set out to do was actually not the night of the performance but a few weeks earlier when we had presented one of the different software modules to the performers and Joan said, "Thank you, this is fun!" That to me was success because she then played with it for half an hour and didn't get bored. That to me was the measure. I mean it takes some experience I think to design systems that don't reveal their flaws in the first few seconds. Joan had described how in the 1970s she was doing electronic music and interactive performances where she would have to sing a certain specific pitch and then it would trigger some other musical sequence or something like this. That's a classic bad idea, in terms of a design idea for an interactive system: don't try to use continuous phenomena to control discrete things.

Scott: One of the debates that pops into this area of overlap is one of the performer as instrument/player for example; system as instrument, performer as instrument/player. To a certain extent you are quite clear with an instrument of the parameters: you need to precisely hit this string here.

Golan: You see that's the problem, you shouldn't have to.

Scott: With a violin…

Golan: That's called 'brittleness'. That's called a brittle instrument and that I think has been one of the main problems in the design of interactive systems for performance is that they have this kind of brittle quality. If you don't do exactly such-and-such then the computer didn't recognise that you intended to move it forward toward the next movement, so suddenly it's behind in the score or something like that.

Scott: So how do you get around brittleness?

Zach: I think you try to design systems that are continuous and systems that are really malleable in terms of the performers being able to use them in a variety of different ways. So what we tried to do is create systems that have very few rules, not to create systems where we say to the performers they have to make this sound or that sound. But to really try to free them up and see what kind of things came out of it.

Golan: And tell them which dimensions they had to control, which variables. You know, I'm a big fan of the German group Palindrome but even looking at their body of work, they do a lot of work with dance and I think they're extremely good, but to look at their work critically for a moment… is there anyone here from Palindrome? Ha ha — Being familiar with their work and enjoying it very much, I think sometimes they really, really, really succeed, and sometimes they really, really fail. This is just my opinion, but when they have a dancer mapping some continuous property of sound to some continuous movement or a derivative of these kinds of things it works extremely well. Their performer goes like this (moves arm) and you hear a creaking sound. But when their performer has to put their hand in a certain precise location as a switch to trigger something, then switches really become a problem in interactive…

Klaus: They're boring too…

Golan: They are boring. Even if you get it, this is a metaphor that comes right off the desktop. On the desktop you can click on this button and it moves you through the slide show, and this is a disaster if you're on stage, because the stage environment is much more raw than a desktop where you can neatly click on a button.

Media arts curator: So did the Messa di Voce performers improvise on the stage, did they have an element of freedom where they could decide what to do?

Golan: More than improvise I would say! We didn't really have time to even give them a proper rehearsal, so they improvised the whole time and sometimes with modules they had never even experienced before, ever.

Zach: So they passed with flying colors.

Madeline: But I think for them this is quite a difficult situation besides that they're very good at what they're doing, because at one time they're in the system they play with, or work. At the same time they have to perform in front of an audience. So they can't stand all the time just looking at it, they had to turn around, and in that it was always quite visible there was always a moment where they were seeking contact with the audience but at the same time…

Golan: This is something I think would have come about if they had more trust in the system, just because we hardly showed it to them, and also if they had more experience so that they seemed to know what it would do. We tried to solve that with plasma screens at the foot of the stage so that they could see themselves, but they ended up reporting to us that this was just not as useful as seeing it in the real space.

Media arts curator: Did you work together with the performers in choosing the sequences? I think you maybe had a lot of sequences that would be possible to make in the show or to present, and then at a certain time you have to choose which one should be in there.

Golan: Yeah, 7:30pm!

Zach: We worked quite closely in terms of coming up with initial ideas, choreographing those ideas, then developing and showing some unfinished stage and seeing what the reaction is and taking them further or not taking them further. So really developing a wider range of contents and from the beginning we had an overall arc, we felt that we had an overall arc and then we worked within the arc of the concert to think about where to position these scenes. So we worked with the performers in doing it.

Golan: Some of the scenes came directly out of improvisation scenes with them that we videotaped. Just total free improv. An example of that would be the scene where Joan is a sort of space-chicken, and this just came from her doing her thing and Jaap was doing his thing.

Zach: It was genius…

Golan: We were like, "Whoa, how can we use this?!" There were other cases where Zach and I had specific ideas about, you know, we want to see this and how can we make that? Then there were other places that were more technologically driven where we thought we could achieve some effect and wondered if it would it be interesting aesthetically. In some cases it worked and in some cases we dropped it as well.

Cindy: So you mean, when you were doing this improvisation with Joan, you came up with the visuals after you saw the improvisation?

Golan: Yes — she crouched down and started making these sounds and afterwards we discussed it, we reviewed the video tape and we were like, "what is that?" and asked her what she was thinking of, and she said she was thinking of being some kind of animal and somehow we just came up with the idea of changing her boundary to express that.

Zach: As well the way the performers interacted with each other changed when we started to use some of the software, even in a primitive, unfinished state. Because we had seen them, they had met and we had recorded them without anything to show them, we had a series of days of just improvising and talking about improvisation techniques, really cataloguing a whole spectrum of ideas.

Golan: We were saying to Jaap, "Jaap, can you just make every sound you could possibly make?" So one hour later we have a very weird video of every sound he could possibly make.

Zach: We started to develop the software and some of the concepts and see how they used it we really learned a great deal and it actually really changed the way they communicated with each other. It was actually really surprising, we had experienced the first time working with them, without any software, just how different as performers they were. Jaap is this really outgoing, loud, totally unbounded kind of improviser, and Joan is very methodical and controlled and so on. So when they're improvising you really saw those two kinds of behaviours, and sometimes that just didn't gel. But then as soon as we got the software up and running in some kind of primitive format, we began to see how they could really communicate, through the medium the things that we were making. It really changed their relationship to each other and also the ways they were improvising with each other.

Angelika: Did you ever work together before?

Golan: Zach and I have worked together for a year and a half.

Angelika: No I mean Joan and Jaap?

Golan: No, Jaap, of course was familiar with Joan's music but Joan was not familiar with Jaap except by name, even though they actually had common friends. I think they are just coming from very different directions in music, I mean modern music and sound poetry. They get along but they're very different, one thing that they do share is a level of professionalism that comes from being in their early fifties; that was something that was completely outside of my experience. I mean these guys have been doing what they are doing for thirty years or so, I've been doing what I do for two or three years, so it's very different, a very different set of expectations.

Angelika: What is so beautiful about Jaap is his skills, he can do whatever but he can be very calm about that. I've witnessed his earlier performances, he's the fastest person when I think of it. But he doesn't have to prove anything any more and that's kind of beautiful.

Zach: The other thing that makes Joan and Jaap really special is that they're really open to new ideas and they're open to new ways of performing and really experimenting, whereas if we'd worked with people who are just not open to the challenge of learning the software or open to the challenge of trying to throw this performance together on a really limited time scale, it would have been a much different scenario.

Golan: They were really trusting us and that was another great motivation, there was no choice but to get it to work. But then I've done a few performances now, actually in the same hall, and all of them come together the night before, and it's terribly stressful, through I suppose I must thrive on this…

Angelika: Well I think if you would have had more time now, after you've done the first one, you can then take them and they will be more relaxed with the software.

Golan: Oh, they can rehearse with it yes.

Angelika: They can rehearse with it so they begin this relationship with the visuals, and that could help a little bit more to communicate.

Golan: Oh of course, we were running a bit behind all summer.

Zach: Yes, we are continuing with this, and this is something that's really important to all four of us, we're going to be in England in November and we're going to be doing two series of concerts in London and in Huddersfield. November is a perfect time away because it gives us two months, I mean I think we need a couple of weeks to recover, then six weeks to really push the software and push the narrative elements and fix some of the bugs. Really to go over it with a new sense of appreciation for what does and doesn't work. It also gives the performers a chance to go back and revisit it, and I think that process of iterating it through the work, developing the work over time is…

Golan: It's crucial. I mean the conclusion of our group after the show, as artists of course we all had plenty of problems with what happened, but I think the conclusion of everyone in the group was just really nice to have. That no one is mad at anything and the conclusion of the group was that the performance was a promising beginning. In a way I think this is ideal for an Ars Electronica premiere, since Ars Elecronica is a kind of cultural laboratory. You don't premiere at Carnegie Hall like that.

Anne: I think you just bought something up that I'm really curious about. You invite two professional people to participate in your experiment, and I'm actually really curious if you figured out what the kind of challenge or goal, or their interest is to take this risk and end up with not completely functioning software, why do you think they did it?

Zach: That's a great question. I think that the central idea of the concert, which is coming up with a visual metaphor for speech and for singing and for song, is something that really struck a nerve with both of them.

Golan: They had in their own careers a lot of related ideas. Jaap had done a lot of work around writing and scoring systems where he'd developed his own notation languages, and Joan had an album called 'Sound Paintings' which she conceived very visually.

Zach: Yes she had a really interesting conception of this visual metaphor for the kind of layering she was doing with her singing so I think both of them had this really fundamental interest in this idea of seeing this visual relationship to sound.

Golan: And both of them were working with experimental electronics.

Klaus: It's a natural thing for people to want to see that. For an artist in this kind of scene it's not only singing it is also performance, so I think they are used to other things and this is an interesting point to get to for every artist in the scene, interactive media and as you say visualisation of sound.

Angelika: I think there's another point that is really interesting now you say you had a premiere and now you can continue and keep on moulding this process. This is the thing with live performance and the difference with film and I think that really is part of live performance. You have a premiere and also then if you have the opportunity to keep on changing, keep on sharpening then it's just a birth and it starts growing. It can still grow after the premiere, and I think with interactive installations I don't know if you have that opportunity for example in a museum, do you continue shaping it?

Golan: Yeah, you work at night!

Golan: It's actually much easier because you see with a concert like what we did, this is the horrible thing — and Klaus I know you know this — you only get one shot. You get one shot and it has to work, your whole life for a year is dedicated to forty minutes, and it has to work. That time it has to not crash. Klaus, I mean I'm happy to see you here because in a way your stuff is in a way diametrically opposite, you put the burden on the human, and we put the burden on the software and there has to be a better way.

Klaus: I use the more sophisticated interface!

Golan: For us what could go wrong is that suddenly you see a blue screen of death everywhere. For you what can go wrong is that suddenly the performer realises they're out of step and they can correct this.

Klaus: Of course, this is the big challenge of interactive media. As soon as you have it, I mean that's what our whole discussion is about.

Golan: That is the brittleness right? Because even if our stuff seems really flexible to you, you enjoyed our concert and everything seemed really fluid, there's that one brittle moment where the computer decides… "nah!"

Klaus: Yes, say in my project DAVE, if the camera decides not to play any more or the projector and Chris would stand there and move and there is nothing on his back and he doesn't know it, that would be quite silly too. Of course with an interactive thing so many things can go wrong.

Scott: But technical things have always had the possibility that the power goes off. When you used the term 'brittleness' earlier I thought it was in a more subtle way in reference to this processural, (procedural?) way…

Golan: Design logic. That the brittleness is a design choice, or design oversight.

Scott: Yeah, which referred to needing to hit a note at a certain pitch to make the computer change and that to me seems a really subtle notion of the 'brittle'. Trying to avoid that I think is fundamental, and so keeping the power going and the hardware running sort of seems different… to make a distinction between these two.

Golan: Yes, of course, but even so, computers are much more brittle.

Madeline: That's why you like Flash Mobs?! Because it's a simple phone call or SMS…

Golan: Well, as a cellular system it doesn't depend on anyone, there's no bottleneck. In a cellular system, if fifty people show up or one hundred people show up it's ok. It's just contingent on the message propagating in time.

Madeline: But then you need bigger challenges. Obviously you were looking for this challenge with what you just did.

Klaus: But I think as soon as computers are used in a performance it gets really tricky because always something can happen and usually always something happens. But in your show was there something happening during the show? I mean did it run well during the show? Was the computer…

Golan: Do you want us to list what went wrong?! I promise you there are fifteen parallel universes in which we couldn't even be showing our faces here this morning.

Zach: Writing software is hard! And two people writing software is like, really hard! So both Golan and I are pretty good programmers, we know the limits of our own logic and the limits of our abilities to make software that's like uber-dependable. But we had some faith and I think both Golan and I had a huge sigh of relief about four minutes into the performance when we saw that it was operating fine, that it was running, that the performers were operating and I think it was just a general relief. If it's in motion and there hasn't been any huge problems yet, it's probably gonna stay in motion.

Golan: I'll tell you actually one thing that dawned on me, after the performance in conversations with people I realised there's a fundamental thing that we do with computers every day that is an essential aspect of computing that I've never seen in a performance, and this is "undo". This occurred to me in a discussion about someone who shouted during the show and it was at a point where any sounds that were caught by the microphone were entering into a loop whose duration Joan was setting. This happened with the guy who whistled, and … this was not planned, the first guy who whistled did so in a kind of anarchistic but philosophical way. He was testing the system, it turns out.

Francois: He was testing the system? It was interesting in a way.

Golan: Actually Joan didn't like it!

Francois: It was disturbing but that was strange.

Madeline: And the other guy that said a sentence? He shouted something ..?

Golan: This was the thing, the first person who whistled was basically challenging the system to see if it was live: you know, is there something contingent here, is there something at stake? If I do this, what happens?

Zach: And I think both Golan and I felt a sort of sense of pride that the system kind of swallowed this whistle up and turned it into a beautiful thing. Although Joan was upset because she was creating a precise composition and really working hard to create a sort of thing that was her own. And I think she felt that it was extremely inappropriate. I think both Golan and I thought the system survived that task.

Golan: And actually it was exactly as much as the audience could ask of the system and then receive a response. I mean if the audience as a cellular entity said, "is this live?", then they did so with that whistle, and they received the answer and that should have been enough. But unfortunately as Joan pointed out, it opened the gateway for another guy, some drunk guy, to say some shit, at which point I realised there was no "undo" and the only choice was to move on or we were going to hear some horrible shit in the soundscape.

Zach: Which was extremely unfortunate because it meant that we just had to cut Joan's solo short. We didn't give her a chance really, and I think that was the most unfortunate part of the whole thing was that they opened the door for other audience sounds and then we had to control that. We had no "undo".

Cindy: But I think that's the nature too of what you're showing people because what we're talking about here is the boundary between interactive theatre and installation. Once you see something like this you actually want to use it yourself so in a way it's quite hard for people to have that distinction between theatre where you're supposed to sit and be quiet and then you have this thing that you can usually use in a gallery.

Prue: And interact with…

Golan: I think Joan and the rest of us were all counting on the fact that if you put something in the Brucknerhaus we sort of suggest contextually what the appropriate behaviour was.

Klaus: Did you say that the loop was controlled by Joan herself, it was not controlled by you?

Golan: That's right, she would start a sound and when she was finished it would loop. Klaus: So she had a button to press?

Golan: No, her voice was the button.

Klaus: Her voice was the button, so when she stopped it looped? I just wanted to know, I thought you were controlling it.

Golan: No, she defined the loop periods herself. We had a maximum loop period that was defined by a RAM limitation, but she never touched it.

Zach: So for Joan and her solo specifically, this was an example of a module coming together last minute, made in one day. It was one of the last things we did and she really had a lot of faith, we sort of explained the idea but we just didn't have time to build it. So we built it and we showed it to her and she understood it immediately because it really gelled with some of her own background as a composer and interest in layering and texturing.

Golan: She understood it within a second.

Zach: And the first time she used it when she got up on stage and started to play with it, seriously Golan and I were going to cry it was so beautiful. I think it was one of the best things we had seen in the performance.

Francois: Tell me is there a sound tracking mainly? And a video tracking to track the position?

Zach: Yes

Klaus: Did you use infrared light for that?

Golan: Yes

Klaus: So the infrared cameras are behind the screen to see the shadows?

Golan: In front, did you see the gap in the mid centre area? We had a bunch of cameras there.

Zach: Three cameras.

Klaus: So you pushed light on the screens, infrared light?

Golan: Not on the screens, just below it, on the performers.

Zach: And the costumes they were wearing were very white…

Golan: Actually, how many people here are involved in dance? Most of you? As a piece of useful technical information which would never have been obvious to me, a piece of knowledge I can pass along and share with you, which I can't take credit for because I learned it from Joachim Sauter of Art Com… Infrared tracking is really nice first of all because you can only look at the infrared light so it doesn't get any distractions from the visible light of the screen. When you track with infrared it's helpful if you have a good distinction or threshold between the brightness of your performers and the brightness of your background. Therefore if you want to give them costumes that appear, say, bright in the infrared, then this is where it becomes very, very important to experiment with different materials and to really do the homework because it is not at all obvious.

Bodo: Even black is white sometimes.

Golan: Yes, this is exactly the case! What we did was we actually sent a friend out to the fabric district in New York City which is, as you might imagine, a good fabric district, and she came back with fifty different samples of black fabric.

Zach: Some were black and some where white in the infrared, and that is always just a matter of finding the most comfortable and most white material and building a costume with it.

Media arts curator: And did Joan work in the meantime from her first experience of interactive pieces or installations in the 70s until now also with technological systems or interactive stage systems?

Golan: A lot, yes. She's worked with everyone in the New York contemporary music scene, you know, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Morton Subotnick, Morton Feldman.

Zach: And she's also been at Ars, she's performed at Ars Electronica in the past.

Media arts curator: But was that the kind of interactive performance that you did now with her?

Golan: You know something? Thirteen years ago when she was last at Ars Electronica, she was performing with interactive technologies that I'm sure were considered the state of the art for their time. It's a continually evolving thing so you say, "oh, not as interactive as your stuff", but this is more of a factor of time changing our understanding of what interactive means.

Media arts curator: I'm following since ten years or thirteen years the whole development of interactive installations and also stage performances and I haven't seen such a beautiful performance like you did. And I think that it's not only for technical reasons, because I think that technically it would have been possible also years ago, but I think they have to be the right people who come together at the right time to develop such a thing.

Zach: Thank you.

Golan: Yes thank you. Some of the things we did I would say were really only made possible with recent technical developments. But then it depends on your point of view. Myron Krueger did computer vision in the late 60s and pretty well too.

Zach: Extremely well… better than practitioners now.

Heike: How did you decide how to use the stage? How to perform it, how many rehearsals did you have on stage?

Golan: Unfortunately they had half a rehearsal.

Heike: Or the movement they are doing, who is choosing this?

Zach: Something we decided early on was that we knew we had to do front projection. We were pushing for rear projection but the Brucknerhaus just can't support it and with front projection it's just the distinction that you're in the light and with rear projection you're not. Amazingly with the projectors we're using it's a little bit cleaner than with some projectors, because the black the projectors we were using made was really kind of a true black.

Golan: And the screen we're using is really a dark black screen.

Zach: It actually didn't look as bad as we thought it was going to look. Because we had practiced with them before with projectors and as soon as they got in a line of projection, doing something with their body looked just haphazard. So I think in designing the score, we thought a lot about being in and out of the line of projection and what that meant as…

Golan: Semantic meaning.

Zach: Yes, ranging from being in a kind of cartoon panel type setting where the graphics and the performer are combined, to more of a performance surface, when the artist steps away and I think that those kind of distinctions make different metaphors spatially.

Golan: We blocked it out together and I think there were cases where it sort of emerged from the modules themselves. There were some cases where we knew we wanted to make the graphics appear to come out of their mouths, and this could only happen really in the case with very little parallax, so they were up there on the screen and this makes a sort of cartoon space or very flat space. Then there were other things that were very volumetric.

Heike: So then the performer decides what he or she is doing on stage in the moment of the performance?

Klaus: Not only, as you said, perhaps the decision was that they had to be near the screen…

Golan: Of course if they really wanted to they could step away from it but this would break an illusion that we were trying to create for that module.

Heike: But the movement that they are doing, it's their decision? All the ways, backward, forward, left, right…

Golan: Left, right was up to them, kind of.

Zach: There were computer vision issues where they couldn't cross, we haven't developed a logic to allow them to cross on stage. You may have noticed we didn't have time to develop that logic but I don't think it detracted from the performance.

Klaus: I don't think that this was a problem.

Golan: What it meant practically was that we kind of glued Jaap to the left half of the screen and Joan to the right half of the screen, or at least Jaap would always be to the left of Joan. There are some very sophisticated ways of dealing with that and actually our friend Joachim Sauter did a piece in Frankfurt that did deal with this. I don't know the name of it, "The Jew of Malta" I think? With the Frankfurt opera.

Zach: Where the performers were projected upon.

Golan: And could cross each other

Zach: They could deal with intersecting performers including each other.

Golan: Yes, and he was tracking three dimensions and using what is called a voxel model.

Heike: But actually the movement is not interesting for you?

Golan: This wasn't a dance performance...

Heike: No I'm not talking about dance, I'm talking about the movement of the performers, there is space they are using, I'm asking…

Zach: I think one part of the concept is to give them the freedom of movement, and I think that was really important to us.

Golan: Yes, in this sense, two really important things we learned were, for example, in-ear monitoring…I mean, wow! What this does for them to be able to know, to get instructions or to know where they are and those kinds of things. But also, yes, to have the flexibility to improvise without feeling glued to a spot and with the simple rule that they don't cross each other, this was enough. I mean it would be great to do an… I'm imagining the kind of person who can sing like they do and also dance! Then of course you can really use the computer vision in more interesting ways and so on and achieve a sort of graphical movement unity that's very different.

Heike: No I'm just asking because I'm interested in the structure of the images and the structure of the movement.

Golan: But this is also about designing a system that doesn't depend on them doing anything specific in terms of movement. I think one case where we really did a lot with movement in a way was the place where Joan becomes this kind of insect. And her boundary is exaggerated in a kind of playful way and the boundary, the form you see is very much an augmentation of her form and she can move however she wants. So she devised ten or fifteen ways of moving that looked good and worked for this kind of concept. But we left them up to her, at one point during her time as this insect I did say to her over the in-ear monitors, "maybe use your arms." I mean in some rehearsals she was just staying put, and I said to her over the monitors, "you can stay put if you like but if you do you're more of a cactus!" We really left it up to her, but we told her she could walk around, and we sometimes had to remind her.

Zach: It was also really fun rehearsing this module because she would really communicate, if we were taking too long to do something she would give this sort of upset kind of pose, upset space-chicken! But I think one of the reasons why that was successful comes back to an early problem that Golan and I were thinking about which, is how do you not upstage or overshadow the performers with the projection? With a huge, three screen wide and incredibly bright projection, how do you not lose the performers? I think that the concept that we came up with was, let's get their outline and let's bring them into the projection. I think that idea struck a nerve with the performers, I think it really made them feel at home with the projection and I think it really solved that part of the problem.

Media arts curator: Do you think that it would also be possible to leave out the stereographic effect?

Golan: Hopefully, yes… easily! In fact… definitely! Ok, this is kind of a sensitive topic but… how do we say this?

Zach: Yes, how do we say this? We proposed this concert last year and…

Golan: We were told how great it would be if it were 3D, and this helped materialize interest in backing the project. I think it's just a kind of reality, we're artists, we want to make this thing and how do we get it made? If we have to make it 3D… ok! But actually it complicated the development.

Zach: It complicated the development and we learned that it wasn't exactly in line with our aesthetic in the end.

Golan: We're 2D

Zach: We're pretty much 2D and we had done this kind of crazy, augmented reality 3D thing the summer before, and that's why. We just wanted to be graphical and wanted to be flat.

Media arts curator: But it was nice in the end with these kinds of paintings, these graphical paintings in 3D in fact was very, very nice. But I think there were only two times that you really needed it from the visual point of view.

Zach: It was the first thing to go, it was the last thing we had to work on. Because we really needed the two projectors, we only got the last two projectors, I mean the 3D projection on Sunday itself and that's when we finally developed the 3D content because we couldn't see it before that, so that was the least of our concerns on Sunday.

Cindy: Do you work with designers on what the visual representation is?

Golan: We are designers. Both Zach and I have backgrounds originally in fine art and painting.

Zach: So the aesthetic decisions are ours, we do work with other people in terms of software development, but in terms of…

Golan: Although that didn't succeed this time..

Zach: No, that was a failure.

Golan: You know what, we had a really isolatable sub system that we just figured we wouldn't have time to do ourselves, that we could do ourselves if we absolutely had to…

Zach: And in the end we did.

Golan: And in the end we did, which was the computer vision. We hired someone who looked like a real expert to do the computer vision for our project, paid him in full and ended up with a code that was buggy and unreadable and incomplete.

Klaus: I think that's a real problem, there are so many guys running around doing this stuff.

Golan: Well this person really looked reliable and had made some systems that worked pretty well so we hired him and we really depended on him and unfortunately the code he gave us was unreadable, buggy and incomplete, without the features we asked for, and then he disappeared. Wouldn't return our phone calls and so on even though we paid him in full, so it ended up being something that Zach and I had to make the night before.

Zach: And it really unfortunately took a lot of, not only just time but also emotional energy, feeling sort of upset by this, what seemed like a really good prospect and really good opportunity to have somebody else involved.

Golan: And relieve us of a piece we could do if we really had to but…

Zach: But now we know how much we trust each other so it's strengthened our own bond. So now we feel very comfortable about our own coding styles.

Klaus: What is interesting again that Golan, you pointed out before, is how to make a system, an interactive system that is flexible. One that doesn't always look for a certain thing you have to do, you know, if you don't or if you fail, the whole thing doesn't work any more. I think that's the biggest challenge, to find systems that are open so the performer is quite free and still has his space. Always performers have limitations, they're used to it, that's not the problem. But if the limitations are that small, like we said before…

Golan: Sometimes they succeed.

Klaus: Of course, but if it's so bound to certain events, then it becomes very tricky.

Golan: And boring sometimes.

Klaus: Yes, because it's too obvious.

Madeline: It becomes pedagogic, it becomes about explaining.…

Klaus: It is too bound to a single event, so if the dancer or performer does something special, then you see it exactly transformed into a different media seeing or hearing the same, this is boring. This is a problem, you have to find more things that are coming up in your mind.

Golan: The pedagogic aspect of media performances is, I think, a very interesting one. Personally, this isn't something we've discussed very much so I'd be curious to hear Zach's point of view. I think it's essential to have some part of the performance which is didactic, so the audience can learn what the expectations are a little bit. To work this into a composition is then a challenge artistically, but I feel it's necessary to first show some basic formal aspects of what the interaction is. So the audience can see that when they do this, something happens.

Klaus: But couldn't there be another way if you don't think, "if I do that, that happens", but something happens because of your movement…

Golan: The alternative, at the other end of the spectrum is randomness right?

Klaus: No, no, that's really an outcome of that, you know what I mean? Still in interactivity it's like, "if I do that, then another thing has to happen"…

Golan: No I'm not talking about sequences as discrete events though, I'm talking about continuous relationships or something.

Klaus: And this is the much more interesting point, and I think if it's that continuous, people are going to realise it by themselves.

Media arts curator: But I think what they mean is you need this sequence at the beginning with the shadows so that the audience understands that there is a certain reaction and there is a relationship between the performance and the video image. Because I asked myself why they did this silhouette piece at the beginning because I didn't find it that beautiful, but then came the very, very beautiful sequences after that. And I think if they didn't have that sequence at the beginning, maybe the audience would not have understood that there really is a relationship between image and sound.

Madeline: No, I don't think so, it's an hour concert, there's time, it's not that you have to get it in the first minute, and I think that's the nice part about putting it in a performance situation, because the audience will sit there for an hour. So it's not like an installation where if they don't get it right away they walk out and have no experience at all, but they sit there and there's time to get in. there might be a point where you never get in, as with any performance.

Golan: I think this is a great point about why to go to stage actually, which is exactly this. Both of us have made installations and the death of an installation happens after five seconds. Either someone gets it and they play some more, or they go, "click click click …oh, I don't get it, bye" and it's like they're gone, and that is the end right there. So I think there needs to be some didactic element to these things but then, it's important to move way beyond that.

Prue: And did you ever consider to work with dramaturgs, or work in a way that's not so didactic? Because I also felt it was like a music concert, the next song, the next song, the next song, and I was wondering if you have an idea to…

Zach: Yes, this is a sort of unfortunate outcome of the way the software works and the way we had to develop software is that really the scenes were very discrete, and we had to make transitions between them.

Golan: We didn't get a chance to really shape the performance at all, though of course we would have loved to.

Zach: I think our desire would be to have something that was in some sense more continuous. Where the performers could paint with a line or apply a color field.

Golan: Or bring back an earlier theme.

Madeline: Yes, really sort of weave for themselves.

Zach: It's a chief desire but in the time scale of development it was just not possible, but I do understand.

Prue: But do you think in the future you will continue on stage? Are you going to continue to develop the work onstage?

Golan: Yeah, I mean we will be performing it again in England in November and I think the piece deserves to be perfected more than it is. There's a lot more there than what you saw, that had to get cut and there's a lot there that could be more refined and developed. I think the piece as an artwork has its own kind of live quality and deserves to be continued in some way.

Media arts curator: Are you interested in telling a little kind of narrative or something?

Golan: No, this is the thing that fell out from not having time to rehearse and also we had some modules whose function in the overall piece was actually much more as a narrative function. Those unfortunately either had to get cut at the last minute or actually would have only taken a day to build, but because of the problems with computer vision we didn't have a day to build them.

Zach: There were gaps in the narrative.

Golan: Serious gaps in the narrative that, if we'd had a week or two weeks they would have been resolved.

Anne: I was wondering, now that we unfortunately find ourselves now and then in the same situation that we think things should be finished, but actually when we're honest, they're not. Not completely or you miss the testing and your performance or premiere is actually the test. Did you consider to put that in the cataogue as well? Because it's now a big announcement, "Premiere"…

Golan: That's the fire under the pot!

Anne: That made you nice and nervous?! That's the deadline you needed.

Klaus: I think this decision is made so long before you don't even know whether you have the two weeks or…

Golan: They say, "can you give us photographs or screenshots"…

Madeline: And then you say, "can you postpone the festival?!"

Zach: And every year [Ars Electronica artistic director] Gerfried Stocker, to his credit, has the same message, which is, "Don't fuck up the festival".

Golan: This is true, this is actually verbatim! For "Telesymphony 2001" it rained for the first time in twenty-two years during the "Klang Park" and as a result it was cancelled and the screen had been torn down by the wind. So our concert ended up being the first event of the festival. So Gerfried came up to me with this smile and said, "Don't spoil the festival".

Madeline: He wasn't laughing about what he was saying?

Golan: Well, he had the smile but it wasn't a nice smile!

Zach: And the same thing happened, the night before our new concert, Gerfried came up to the balcony at midnight and, he's been saying this to Golan and me the whole time we've been developing this concert, "There are two things you should never trust, computer vision and speech recognition".

Madeline: And how did you answer?

Golan: "Get the fuck outta here!"

Zach: "Come back tomorrow, we're still testing!"

Madeline: Se we are at the end of the session, but before we end do you have any more projects in development, other than performing this again?

Golan: Sleep.

Cindy: Are you going to London in November?

Golan: Yes, the shows are going to be, I think, much smaller in scale. In a way that's good, it will be much more intimate and you'll get to see the performers' faces, which is a nice thing for everyone.

Cindy: It's good to work with projection on a different scale as well.

Zach: Yes it's going to change the overall piece in terms of the relationship between projected image and performer, it's going to be much more intimate.

Golan: I would say that our budget for the shows in England are substantially less than the kind of support we had here. One of them is at the I.C.A which is an organisation with a great reputation, but also a reputation for being a bit disorganised on the production end. So we're already expecting some difficulties there. So we're performing at I.C.A, London on November 7th and 8th and at the Huddersfield Media Festival called UltraSound on November 29th.

Madeline: Thank you very much.