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September 1, 2006

A&E: Tech-ing, tech-ing, 1-2-3 - High tech or low, the meaning still trumps the medium

“All Is Full of Love,”: a 1999 DVD video projection by Chris Cunningham, is a high-tech art piece that Julien Robson, curator of contemporary art at The Speed Art Museum, included in the museum’s Presence exhibition in 2004. Photo courtesy The Speed MuseumAs story ideas for this Arts Guide began to take shape, and as I read over comments from some of the people featured in the arts spotlights sprinkled throughout this guide, the idea of technology in the arts came up again and again.In some sense, performing arts have probably always invoked technology, even if it involved low-tech gadgets that tapped the imagination to create wonderful illusions.But in the 21st century, technology tends to mean “high-technology,” which often translates to “expensive.” For example, as Louisville Ballet’s Bruce Simpson notes, “When ‘The Lion King’ came to “All Is Full of Love,”: a 1999 DVD video projection by Chris Cunningham, is a high-tech art piece that Julien Robson, curator of contemporary art at The Speed Art Museum, included in the museum’s Presence exhibition in 2004. Photo courtesy The Speed Museum in 2003, they brought with them probably $2 million worth of lighting equipment. And even though our budget is nowhere near that, we’re still expected to have that kind of magic on the stage. So we have to be far more inventive and clever and try our best to keep abreast of technology.”In other words, “expensive” isn’t a word that typically finds its way into the lexicon of performing arts groups that struggle for mindshare and ticket sales in a world of infinite consumer choice fueled by, you guessed it, high technology.Needless to say, not everyone is funded like Disney, and organizations like the Louisville Ballet and the University of Louisville, to name just a couple, churn out their art at a different pace and on a different scale. They must tread the lines between technology and practicality very carefully.This is a large topic, obviously, one more suitable for a doctoral thesis. But I’m just finished with undergrad work, thank you, and I’m about to start waiting tables.However, I did get busy chatting about the topic with some people who currently work in the Louisville arts community. What I generally found is that A) the people involved are more than aware of the challenges of competing against blockbuster entertainment events that, even when performed live, are employing lots of expensive and impressive gadgetry; B) technology alone won’t substitute for ideas, nor does a lack of technology prevent groups from pulling off great stuff.Here’s a summary of thoughts from some folks who are on the front lines.BRUCE SIMPSONBruce Simpson: Photo by Dan DryArtistic director, Louisville Ballet“In 10-15 years,” Simpson says, “we’re going to have to be far more interactive with our audiences.” His solution to this growing demand might look something like this: You step into a concert hall with 10,000 seats — facing toward two different stages. You purchased a ticket to “Madame Butterfly,” but as you sit in your seat you start feeling a bit Christmassy and begin wishing you’d bought a ticket to “The Nutcracker,” which is being performed directly behind you. As the opening strains of the opera begin, you press “English” on a computer touch screen situated on the back of the seat directly in front of you. English dubbing scrolls across the screen. As the two performances begin simultaneously, a state-of-the-art speaker system pipes in two distinct songs, but only one is heard on each side of the room.Simpson refers to this as “columns of sound,” where a person could hear a song in one spot, then take a step backward and hear nothing. It sounds futuristic, and it’s hard to fathom a day when it’s in use, but then again, who’s to say?“We will have to explore technologies that are cutting edge today, because in another decade those things will be the norm,” he said. “But ballet has survived for 400 years because it has always moved with social change.”He notes that The Kentucky Center, home to many Ballet productions, recently installed a far more sophisticated sound system, because music has changed, and “the way we hear it has changed so much in the past 15 years.” Simpson described some of the societal shifts that have facilitated these changes. The ascent of the iPod is proof enough that we have become increasingly more passive listeners.“Music has become more of a background instead of a foreground,” Simpson said. “And it’s harder to getMarc Masterson: Photo by Angela Shoemaker music to the front of people’s minds today, especially young people.” As a result, he said, ballet must experiment with new ways of catching their viewers’ attention.MARC MASTERSONArtistic director, Actors Theatre of LouisvillePAUL WERNERLighting supervisor, ATLAs the adage goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t spend $45,000 to fix it. That’s not to say that in many cases, a new gadget can’t open up a whole new realm of artistic options and truly improve on the old design standard in the art form.Marc Masterson of ATL said, “I was really fed up with using slide projectors. They never really looked good, they weren’t bright enough, they would fail and burn out. I did some experiments with multimedia projectors and realized that these would actually be really good replacements for those projectors. I started using them as follow spots, shooting them into mirrors, bending the image, projecting them onto smoke, just a variety of things that I got intrigued with. And around 2001, that technology had just gotten to the point where a theater like ours could afford them.”These projectors run from $1,000 to $10,000 for the high-end professional models, so budgeting for them can be difficult for smaller-scale theaters like ATL.Other advances include “intelligent lighting” — that is, lights controlled by a computer that can move and change settings on their own. Paul Werner, lighting supervisor for ATL, said the theater has certainly benefited as these lighting systems have improved and become more affordable (about $200 each). But he noted that not all of the lights there are intelligent, and that it’s not even necessary or practical to have only intelligent lights. The old tried and true “on and off” lights still have a role to fill.Werner also discussed a new computer-aided drafting program — often referred to as WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) — that lets designers produce a digital rendering of the stage and the lighting effects upon it.This saves many hours in setting up and tweaking lights. Instead of crew members running along catwalks and yelling back and forth — “How’s that look?” — Werner can just point and click his way through the process. Imagine what Shakespeare or Sophocles could have done if they had more than candles and guesswork. “This way,” Werner said, “we can prevent mistakes before we make them in real life.”    MITCH ECKERTMitch Eckert: Photo by Angela ShoemakerAssociate professor of art, University of LouisvilleWhen he’s shooting for himself, photographer Mitch Eckert uses both digital (high-tech) and analog (low-tech) cameras. The same goes for his photography students. While digital cameras are nearly ubiquitous these days, and thus more alluring to students, they’re also expensive, Eckert notes, and film cameras are still up to the task of taking beautiful pictures. Film cameras are also easier to maintain, he said.“You need the traditional kinds of Mitch Eckert: Photo by Angela Shoemaker to see where the newer technologies have emerged from, and where it will go,” Eckert said. “It’s beyond our means to get 15 or 20 new digital cameras for our students.”He added: “It still hasn’t reached the zenith where people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s not digital, so it must be too simple.’ And I think there’s a lot of fallacy with that sentiment, just because you have to take on so much knowledge. As a producer, you have to understand the software you’re using, how to make something so it’s archivable, and so forth. There’s a tremendous learning curve with digital technology and the constant education with what’s out there.”BLAKE HARRISDirector of audio, AXXIS Inc.Blake Harris is often hired to run sound for the Louisville Orchestra, and his favorite toy these days is a revolutionary speaker and enclosure system called a line array. While it makes it easier on the sound programmer, the aim of this speaker system is to create a better listening experience for the audience.With line array technology, he said, “you can take measurements of the venue, then tell the computer the parameters of the room and the space, and you can set the angle of the loudspeakers so that you get it as close as possible to even coverage throughout the audience area without having any ‘hot spots’ where you’re closer to the loudspeakers. That’s been one of the biggest breakthroughs in the past five years.”At the Louisville Orchestra’s June-July “Roarchestra” performance at the Louisville Zoo, these speakers delivered an even sound distribution for the audience even in an outdoor setting.Like much of the cutting edge gear, however, it comes at a high price. According to Harris, it’s $10,000 for each loudspeaker and its accompanying gaggle of microphones, cables and consoles. But when renting out its equipment, AXXIS understands what the small arts groups face.“As a long-time friend and supporter of the Louisville Orchestra,” Harris said, “suffice it to say that the orchestra is never expected to pay full fare. AXXIS, like many other civic-minded Louisville companies, organizations and citizens, believes strongly that the orchestra and all of the arts are critical to the quality of life of our community.”    JASON CZAJAJason Czaja: Photo by Angela ShoemakerAudio supervisor, Actors Theatre of LouisvilleOne of the biggest changes in sound technology over recent years has been the shift from analog to digital recording and mixing equipment. One obvious and huge advantage is that many devices can fit into one unit.“The attempt is to make things as similar to the old analog equipment as possible, while still incorporating all the advantages of the flexible digital structure,” said Jason Czaja of ATL. “We’re incorporating racks full of old equipment into one place: equalization, compressors, reverb units, delay, all of that is going into a single digital console, and it’s really just programs.”For more than a decade, Czaja utilized a bevy of programs for sound creation. Digital sound editing allows for pinpoint sound calibration for each instrument and voice, he said, which changes the entire editing and mixing processes that go into making sounds. After sound technicians round the learning curve for digital mixing programs, they command a much more controlled, infinitely more versatile tool.JULIEN ROBSONJulien Robson: Photo by Angela ShoemakerCurator of contemporary art, Speed MuseumWhat would it have been like if Leonardo da Vinci’s first gallery of paintings featured audio companions that described the (then short) history of his paintings, plus commentary from the master himself? Gallery patrons probably would have muttered Latin incantations and tossed holy water at the bedeviled talking wall panel and fled in terror.“Julien Robson: Photo by Angela Shoemaker is kind of like moving from black and white to color TV,” said Julian Robson. The University of Louisville’s Speed Museum is one of several art purveyors to take advantage of this technology, with its own series of audio guides called “Passport to the Speed.” The audio guide discusses more than 40 works of art and offers quality sound, with artist and curator interviews, music and effects. It tends to be more flexible and interactive than cassette-based guides.Robson also discussed Web-based art consumption, and the dialogue that it spurs.“The thing with the Web is that you’re inviting the public to address how to interpret the work and make them active in it,” he said. “In the blogosphere, there are people discussing art, and I think that augments the information base.”The Internet lets people access high-resolution images of paintings and sculpture from galleries the world over, which allows people who will never make it to the gallery where the work is housed a close look at the artwork. And the discussions that take place in the blogosphere, or even via e-mail, likewise enrich viewers’ experiences.“The possibilities of interactivity are really interesting,” Robson said. “It makes demands upon the viewer that they really have to respond to. I feel very optimistic about Julien Robson: Photo by Angela Shoemaker.  It can change the landscape of how we think about art.”JOHN LA BARBERAJohn La Barbera: Photo by Angela ShoemakerAssociate professor of music, University of LouisvilleAnother sound guru who sings the praises of music editing technology is John La Barbera, professor, Grammy-winning composer and trumpet player with real jazz chops (formerly of the Buddy Rich Orchestra, mind you). La Barbera has been using computers to make and edit music since the advent of the Commodore 64 in the early 1980s. Today, naturally, he uses high-tech equipment like Pro Tools, which he called “the de facto, worldwide standard hard drive recording system.”“John La Barbera: Photo by Angela Shoemaker you can make someone who is out of tune sound in tune, you can put someone out of beat in beat; it’s completely non-destructive editing and very versatile. It’s scary that someone with very little talent can use this software and make themselves sound great. And that happens a lot, though I won’t mention any specific names,” he said, laughing. “When considering the alternative of splicing tape, an arduous and imperfect science, digital sound editing is a godsend.”When teaching music students, La Barbera also uses notation technology, computer programs like Finale and Sibelius that he said are “invaluable” as teaching tools. This software runs from $200 to $500 per computer, and allows for comprehensive, note-by-note study of musical compositions, plus a full array of audio and video components for music editing.La Barbera also has started implementing FreeHand, a new music notation system, in his jazz sessions. Performers, ideally with a laptop computer, can buy FreeHand technology for about $1,000, and it lets them see a digital readout of pages and pages of sheet music. As they play, they can make the pages turn by pressing a foot pedal (a tongue-based pedal is being created for drummers ... not really. Psyche.).THE DOWNSIDE?Clearly, high technology can enhance arts endeavors, but expecting it to solve all of the problems and inconsistencies therein is folly. There’s a world of creative possibilities open to artists and designers, but technology is no substitute for imagination and ingenuity.Although enthusiastic about future advances, Werner said technology is not always a positive influence.“Sometimes people get so bogged down with these new toys that (they) don’t really know what they want to do with them, and they actually have too many options and can waste a lot of time and money that way,” he said.Paradoxically, as today’s music listeners come to expect more from their live music and performing arts experiences, technological advances may have actually shortened attention spans. Technology’s cutting edge, then, may be double-edged, one that may dice up the pocket book or cut a rift in between the original artistic expression and the viewer.“We’ve learned to use these tools with restraint,” Masterson said. “It’s easy for that technology to pull your focus and make you look at that, so we’ve been very judicious about how and when we use it. I think what really matters in a live performance is the actor on the stage, live and in person in front of an audience, and the communication that occurs between those people.”Robson said: “Whether it’s a traditional or technological medium, at the end of the day what’s important is how substantial the ideas are. The meaning rather than the medium, if you like.” Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com