I’d like to introduce to you a new project I’ve had the pleasure to work on, an artwork concept for the 2012 Vivid Sydney lighting show, called Screaming Rapture. It’s a new artwork that Liam Ryan, Frank Maguire and I have cooked up and submitted as part of the light art walk competition for the Vivid festival, which will kick off midway through this year. This concept is still in those lovely early days, when so much is still so possible, in that I hit submit late last week and won’t know for sure (yay or nay) until the end of the month. Still, it’s real in our eyes.
The artwork is essentially a light-sound experiment, which was inspired by our experience of Vivid last year. You may recall the three of us created an artwork call Social Firefly, which was essentially a small community of artificial robots that could talk to each other using light. They each had a small amount of personality, but over time the whole community tended to develop communal or shared behaviour. It was emergent & beautiful to watch. Now, we’d intended on the artwork itself being emergent, and possibly sparking emergent behaviour through direct interaction (you could influence the artwork if you had a bright enough torch or source of light), but what we got was something completely far beyond our wildest expectation. What we found, was that despite the festival being primarily a festival of light, many people seemed to take it on board that this artwork was an artwork of sound. So what? you might say? People didn’t get understand your artwork, maybe your artwork didn’t communicate properly to it’s audience.
Well, maybe. But I’m not interested in thinking critically about why the thing didn’t work — I’m interested in thinking about the truly unpredictable behaviour that did emerge during the festival. Night after night, wave after wave of people descended on the large fig tree on Circular Quay, to shout, wave and scream really really loud noises at the fireflies. They made a real ruckus, dancing and shouting at what were, effectively, small deaf robots.
I’ll let you think about that for a moment.
Now what was the cause of this bizarre and unpredictable behaviour? Well I think I know the answer, and I’d better have it right (because we pretty much based our new artwork on this interesting dynamic). The reason I think this happened, was this;
On a dark night, amongst a large crowd of people, amongst many dispersed but bright lighting artworks, it can be rather hard to see the next artwork until you’re right in front of it. Furthermore, at night sound travels exceptionally well, even when absorbed by the large throng you’re moving in. It really travels. People walking around 100m away from your artwork hear people making noise, and naturally assume that it works with sound.
So when you add these two simple effects together, you find that when people can only really see your artwork from up close, but can hear your artwork from 100m away, they arrive with fairly developed ideas about how it works. And no matter how much text you put on illuminated billboards, about how the thing is an “interplay of light”, people will still think it’s all about sound. The idea propagates, becomes the new norm and each new night that comes the phenomenon reoccurs. It’s beautiful. Here’s a video of this phenomenon in action.
Remember: the artwork doesn’t respond at all to sound. These people are performing for both themselves, and for the others around them. I should also mention, that was a fairly quiet example of this interaction, other times the sound was quite a great deal louder than that.
So, how does this relate to Screaming Rapture? It’s quite simple really, the concept we came to, is around connecting these two sensory impulses (light and sound) in a new feedback loop. The feedback loop is quite tight, in that the light will only shine if sound is present, and vice versa. We see it as a change to experiment in creating a truly awesome (in the proper use of the word) whole body sensory experience, building on the wonderfully effective positive feedback loop we discovered with social firefly. In this case, the artwork rewards the viewers acoustic presence by bathing them in one glorious show of attention. I think our liner notes describe the experience pretty well;
Attracted by the lights someone turns and shouts, the radiant luster is once again revealed from the corners of the eye, spreading light rapidly across the face. The pulsating patterns set off a murmer in the crowd, they speak quietly, amongst themselves. The fluttering grows, resulting in more shouts and noise until wave upon wave of light splashes out across the audience. They raise their voices, they call out for more.
The eyelids respond to the sound, opening further, each lid working to reveal the brilliance of the rapture’s gaze. The audience clap, they shout and they cheer until the darkened lids are flung wide open. They scream and shout at the rapture, staring at the resplendence sea of endless white. An ever-moving throng of bodies bathing in mutual attention.
I for one, can’t wait to see this thing in action. You, my dear readers, will be the first to know when it happens.