Food for thought from the Gray Area Art Festival

The Gray Area Foundation for the Arts has been promoting projects at the intersection of art & technology for the past 10 years, including groundbreaking performances like Rhizomatiks + Elevenplay, an Algorithmic Art Festival, and others.

Every year, the Gray Area Festival for the Arts features new works, presentations and workshops. We attended some of the events, and there are two in particular that stood out, that really made us think long after the performance was over. These were “Inferno” by Bill Vorn and Louise-Philippe Demeres, and “Spawn Training Ceremony 1: Deep Belief” by Holly Herndon and Matthew Dryhurst.

Given the focus on combining art & technology for social impact, Gray Area’s events have generally had an optimistic tone. What was striking about these pieces is that they have a markedly dystopian tone, and sound a more cautious note about embracing technology. Both pieces achieve a deep visceral impact by directly involving the audience in the performance of the piece.

Inferno by Bill Vorn & Louis-Phillipe Demers

This work is an industrial/techno dance performance, where some members of the audience are strapped into hydraulically powered exo-skeletons that move their upper limbs for them. These exo-skeletons are controlled centrally by a computer, or by a miniature model, a “voodoo puppet”.

The tone is very dark and dystopian, with a harsh rhythmic soundtrack, and jarring sound/light effects. (I should point out that I quite like this kind of thing).

Selected members of the audience that have purchased a special ticket are dressed in jumpsuits and strapped into the exoskeletons, in a process that is very much part of the performance:

One remarkable aspect of the performance is how the people in the exoskeleton change over the course of the event. The emotional progression from curiosity, to fear and rejection, and then to acceptance is very visible.

A friend of mine remarked that “Inferno” is demonstrating how you can “control minds by controlling their body” and this is certainly an accurate assessment. Simply by controlling the movement of their bodies, the audience/performers are taken on a powerful emotional journey.

In overall tone & aesthetic, “Inferno” reminded me of early performances by the Catalan group, La Fura Dels Baus. The combination of a harsh techno-industrial environment and physically challenging audience involvement also produced a powerful impact:

Friends who participated in the event by wearing the exoskeletons confirmed just what an intense experience it was. They described how they instinctively pushed back against having their limbs manipulated, and eventually gave up and relaxed into it.

The performance raises questions on how we can adapt to technology when we are completely overpowered by it, and the emotional journey that this involves.

“SPAWN TRAINING CEREMONY I: DEEP BELIEF” by Holly Herndon & Matthew Dryhurst

A significant part of the programming for the Gray Area Festival took place at Pier 70, using the Hexadome. This is a 6 screen, 52 channel audio performance environment from ISM in Berlin. It is intended to act as a platform for innovative artworks combining sound and image. The Gray Area Festival had programming every night at the Hexadome, in two consecutive sessions. 

“SPAWN TRAINING CEREMONY I: DEEP BELIEF” by Holly Herndon and Matthew Dryhurst is based on a core idea, that of an artificial neural network that has been designed to learn from its parent’s voices (in this case, the audience). The piece is framed as a “training ceremony”, where the audience is guided in training the neural network.

This is not Herndon’s only performance with Spawn, she has used it as a collaborator on a recent album: Here’s What a Collaboration Between a Musician and an “AI Baby” Sounds Like

Over the course of the performance, the audience is coached to make sounds or sing songs in order to train Spawn. Initially it is quiet, but as it learns, it starts to mimic what it hears in a kind of inchoate roar.

Each of the screens represents a different viewpoint or character, and it is not clear until later what role each of them plays. At first, a friendly scientist or therapist asks the audience to make simple sounds, like playing with a baby. Later, a nun guides the audience in a call-response choir. Throughout all this, one of the screens is showing a possible participant that is clearly confused and distressed, though later we see them gain some understanding of the situation. An emissary for the future speaks, to warn against the eventual evolution of the Spawn.

The performance at Pier 70 relied on pre-recorded video of a previous “training ceremony”, yet the audience still participated enthusiastically during the event.

In this case, the piece explicitly (in the person of the future messenger) called out how by participating, we are helping to manifest a dystopian future.

In context

It is difficult to separate a work from its context, and in this case these works take place in the slightly surreal world of San Francisco in 2019, where people are seriously working on projects that would have been considered fantastical only a few years ago.

Right next to the Hexadome was a cabin mockup of Uber’s flying car project. Not far from that was a self-driving car with it’s LIDAR spinning and laptop plugged in showing the rainbow-hued robot’s eye view.

By placing the works in a context completely different from a typical art/theater space, and having them adjacent to a futuristic technology project, their impact was substantially enhanced. You came out thinking that the depictions of human machine interactions in “Inferno” and “Spawn” were not that far-fetched, that they could be something that was being brought to life not far away.

Closing thoughts

In contrast to previous performances from Gray Area (and other art/technology festivals), I was struck that the tone of these pieces in particular was much more cautionary. While the pieces were aesthetically enjoyable in their own right, they did force the audience (literally, in “Inferno”) to deal with issues of how technological evolution could lead to dystopian outcomes.



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