When tech meets art
When UNC Charlotte Professor of Architecture Eric Sauda and the research team at the school’s Digital Arts Center (a.k.a. d-Arts) started to play around with how space and technology impact each other, there was no way of telling where it would lead.
Sauda did know one thing, though.
“We knew that we wanted to push the boundaries about how space and data and connection interact,” he says.
And push the boundaries they did.
In August, d-Arts premiered a multi-faceted performance that was two years in the making: “User Agreement,” done in collaboration with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.
It was one of a series of design research projects, collaborative and experiential events championed by d-Arts, and drew UNCC students and staff, but also supporters of Charlotte’s ever-growing arts scene. Plans call for it to go on to California, and perhaps elsewhere.
Let’s explain its complexities.
Audience members were asked before the performance to download a free app called CagedSpace to their mobile devices. CagedSpace employs Bluetooth beacons and streaming, pre-recorded music. Then audience members were told to open the app and put on their headphones or earbuds.
The magic is in the way CagedSpace’s Bluetooth beacons communicate with each user’s device and respective location. As audience members moved through the space at the Bechtler, they heard augmented pieces of the composition. Scored by composer Ian Dicke, “User Agreement” featured not only the pre-recorded music, but also live performances by soprano Lindsay Kesselman and a chamber ensemble that included Scott Christian, Jenny Topilow, Jessica Lindsey and Mira Frisch.
The composition was broken down into five unique movements. Present in each section were lyrics sung by Kesselman – lyrics that were actually text from Twitter’s 2017 Terms of Service or, as we know it, the User Agreement. It was a strategic move on Dicke’s part, as well as commentary on how social media has transformed our experience with not only personal space, but digital space.
If it reads as if there were a lot going on at once in this experience, you’re right.
With earbuds in, I moved through the fourth-floor gallery’s exhibition, listening to not only the music streaming through my earbuds, but also the live performances. Music shifted and changed, roared or calmed down, as I moved through the space – but it was personal to me and my movement. It was as though I had my very own soundtrack pumping through my earbuds as I experienced the art. I found myself moving differently, and secretly intrigued by how the sensory experience would shift from room to room. It was both interactive and intimate.
“It seems like interactivity is becoming increasingly important in performance art, so I liked that they tried something new,” said Charlotte resident Hollie Martin. “I liked the exploration of how technology and music can work together to create these new, sensory experiences.”
What was even more unusual was the idea that everyone there was also in the midst of their very own, personal experience based on their respective movements.
As is often the case when you have headphones on, you often find yourself in your own world. When you’re in your own world in a gallery that features work by Andy Warhol and Niki de Saint Phalle, it feels like a dream – until you remember you’re in a gallery with hundreds of people. That changes how you connect with not only the art, but also each other.
UNCC architecture student Amir Naeem picked up on that interaction piece.
“This exhibit was the first attempt by architects to combine spatial qualities with music and art,” he said. “And it ended up creating something different between people, too. You ended up watching people watch the art, too, because you’re wondering what they’re experiencing, too.”
“There’s really no wrong way to experience this,” said composer Dicke. “I do a lot of composition with multimedia and technology, but nothing to this level. I don’t have other pieces that have this mobile app component.”
Sauda said his team started with how they wanted the CagedSpace app to work, then presented that idea to two computer science classes at UNCC. The classes did early work on it, then IT pros finished it, and did all the final development for the performances. Sauda said the app will continue to be developed and improved, working with an advanced app design class at UNCC, and they plan to make it available to other composers to use.
There’s no doubt that “User Agreement” was doing something complex. But, at the same time, it proved a simple point: There’s always been and always will be a relationship between where we listen to music and how we listen to music. And each user’s experience is unique in an interactive and intimate way.
And proof of the artistic merit of “User Agreement”: Through the experience, I didn’t check my phone once.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.