By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A dancer lifts her leg and an electronic symphony pours out. At a certain point, the floor sings with every footstep. Later, the audience wanders through a Coney Islandesque installation replete with video games and shooting galleries while a conductor stands onstage and orchestrates the noise.
A celebration of restless media, this week's free, four-day Interactive Arts Festival sponsored by Columbia University isn't easy to pin down. That's because almost all of the performances are giant acts of translation: bodies rigged with sensors feed data into samplers that score soundtracks that are interpreted, on the fly, into images. Then back again, for kicks. You might try to call the shows "dance," "theater" or "multimedia chamber opera," as one bills itself. (Well, maybe not that.) But no term quite captures their search for improvisational grace in spite of all the technology. They're more like experiments in an art all their own: software jazz.
The festival, organized by Columbia's Computer Music Center, is three evening "concerts" and a day of demos and seminars on the hardware. The first program, which runs Tuesday and Wednesday nights, explores the body as musical instrument. Thursday night's show, the boldest of the three, features a "networked performance" called "Lemma 2" (created by mixing sound and images in real time from Columbia's Miller Theatre and an Intel Conference Center in Hillsboro, Oregon) and the previously mentioned "Coney Island," a gaming environment developed by researchers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at Urbana-Champaign. The festival concludes Friday with a jazz-rock-and-shoe- heel concert at the Kitchen.
"The festival represents a big new thrust toward dealing with new interfaces," says Brad Garton, the head of the Computer Music Center. Garton sees these artists as beta-testers of more seamless connections to the technology. For him, that future interface is in sound. "Just as computer graphics became the big research field in the '80s, we're seeing the potential for music and auditory tech as the next big thing," he says. Robin Bargar, one of the creators of "Coney Island," concurs: "One of the most important projects for the next century is to find sounds that correspond to the integrity of the human body, so that we can live with these machines."
Columbia has its own project for the next century: to reinvent itself as a hotbed for multimedia. "Columbia has a bit of a nasty reputation [because of] that whole Uptown/Downtown thing," says Garton. "And my sympathies lie Downtown. I used to play with John Zorn a bit. We want to show that Uptown is changing. And we want to open our arms to the cool stuff going on Downtown."
Like Troika Ranch, one of the city's most professional "dance/music/theater/interactive technology" companies. In addition to Columbia's confab, Troika Ranch debuts its own show, "Vera's Body," this week at the Joyce SoHo. The group calls its work "slash arts" "a search for the chaotic area where these four forms mix." Coming off a monthlong residency at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, Troika has produced a work much more technologically transparent than the troupe's usual fare (and Columbia's festival). "We wanted to get back to an emotional storytelling," says Dawn Stoppiello, the troupe's choreographer. But the effects should be, as usual, impressive: a dancer passes through an invisible beam of laser light, generating musical phrases every time. "She plays it like a guitar string," says Troika's tech guru and composer, Mark Coniglio. "She plays it like air."
Columbia University Interactive Arts Festival, April 6 to 9, www.music.columbia.edu/fest99/ or 212-854-9267. Troika Ranch (art.net/Studios/Performance/Dance/Troika_Ranch/) at the Joyce SoHo, April 9 to 11; call 334-7479 for tickets.