Marianne Weems has a penchant for technology. As artistic director of The Builders Association, a New York City-based performance and media company, Weems was an early advocate of the use of video and live camera input of actors on stage. In her latest multimedia production, Super Vision, Weems collaborated with dbox, a visual design company, to create a piece that tackles today's preoccupation with data and technology, both literally and figuratively.
Super Vision premiered last October at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, then set out on a 12-stop tour that included the 2005 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in NYC. After engagements in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, Super Vision will continue touring in the US through the end of 2006.
By interweaving three stories, Super Vision illustrates the large volumes of data that surround each one of us — what Weems refers to as a “datasphere,” and how this cloud of data can be manipulated, used as a surveillance tool, and even be stolen from us. The characters caught in this maelstrom of data range from a father who steals his son's identity and overloads him with debt, to a woman in New York who uses video conferencing to collect digital data from her grandmother in Sri Lanka, and a solitary traveler who reveals more of his identity each time he crosses a border, until all there is to know about him is filed in the databank.
To tell these stories using both a steady stream of video images and live actors, Weems turned to her creative collaborators at dbox for the virtual design, as well as a quartet of visual designers, including set and costume designer Stewart Laing, lighting designers Allen Hahn and Jennifer Tipton, and video designer Peter Flaherty. The three founding partners of dbox, Matthew Bannister, Charles D'Autremont, and James Gibbs, studied architecture together but found that they were as interested in representation as they were in physical buildings themselves. They started dbox in 1996 to create a lab of investigation for visual design and thinking in all media. From the beginning, they have also shared what Gibbs calls, “a curiosity about narrative in architecture.”
This curiosity led them to the creation of some of the computer images for Jet Lag, a prior production produced by The Builders Association, in collaboration with the architectural firm Diller + Scofidio. “We hit it off,” says James Gibbs of dbox, about the initial encounter with Weems, who then called upon dbox once again to create some digital imagery for Alladeen, another recent production. “After one or two martinis at the opening of Alladeen in Chicago, we decided we'd like to create a piece together,” recalls Gibbs. “Super Vision was a very collaborative process with Marianne and a real group effort with the designers.”
As for the technology used in Super Vision, Gibbs explains, “it is inherent to the process, not added after the script was completed. It was a very organic interaction.” Gibbs and the crew from dbox, plus Flaherty and Laing, worked on the physical production throughout a series of workshops for Super Vision, giving them the opportunity to flesh things out in an actual space rather than just with models, digital, or otherwise. “Some of the important elements were choreographing the motion of the screens and embedding the actors in the digital environment,” notes Gibbs. “Getting the screens to do what we wanted in concert with the projected media and the performers was like solving a puzzle.”
The video used in Super Vision ranges from rendered images cued to respond to the performers (the length of any given scene can change from performance to performance), to special effects created on the MAX/MSP/Jitter Cycling 74 platform from Cycling ‘74, an object-based programming language, to live camera shots. “In the story about the identity theft, we created the 3D architectural modeling for the naturalistic digital environment of their home, which is different from the abstract space where the father manipulates the computer data, and where we eventually see just a large close up of his face from the live video camera on stage,” explains Gibbs. “There is interaction of the spaces as we create the sense of illusion.”
The entire creative team for Super Vision had been discussing the idea of “integrating fields of video and flattening the scope of the images in order to enmesh the actors,” notes Flaherty. They were able to attain this tightly knit interface of actors and images. All of the live action and video in the production is seen through a letterbox style portal that measures 10'×30' and has rounded corners.
From the letterbox, moving upstage, there are multiple layers of projectors and screens: Front of house are two Sanyo XP-46 LCD projectors (hung on the balcony rail in most of the tour venues); behind the letterbox aperture are five moving panels, 10'×6', skinned with Textaline (a heavy-gauge vinyl material from DuPont normally used on garden furniture) and hung from a motorized track, with custom motion control by technical director Joe Silovsky. Behind these front projection screens there is a 6' stage area, then a Gerriets Optitrans RP screen, 12'×40'. The furthest elements upstage are three BenQ 7230 DLP projectors, used for rear projection. “All of the projectors tour with the show,” adds Flaherty.
To manage the playback of several layers of video content, Flaherty uses a Dataton Watchout system as the principal playback control, using five computers with direct output to the projectors for all the prerecorded media and live camera integration, plus one additional computer for the special effects generated on the MAX/MSP/Jitter platform. Feeding into the Watchout system is the live feed from four cameras used during the performance: two of the cameras are on stage in front of the letterbox opening; one camera is mounted on the edge of the set, stage right, and used for the scenes with the traveler as he approaches the various immigration officials (played by one actor who changes his appearance between scenes).
The fourth camera is in the playing area behind the letterbox, used for close ups of the father's face as he works at his computer, and on a rolling desk that the woman in New York uses when talking to her grandmother in Sri Lanka via video conferencing. “The woman, who herself is dependent on technology, is trying to save her grandmother from disappearing by creating an imagistic data bank about her,” Flaherty explains. The image of the grandmother's face gets more and more abstract as she begins to “fade,” and eventually, the image breaks apart as her memory goes, until it disengages from itself completely and flies away in all directions like the clouds of data that dance on the screen.
There is also a complex system that manages the live images, including custom software based on the MAX/MSP and Jitter platforms, as well as the Isadora software developed by Troika Ranch. “You can build your own custom patches in both platforms,” notes Flaherty, who, working with video operators Hal Eager and Jeff Morey, was responsible for all video programming and live effects. Eager and Morey sit on stage and run the show from a table downstage of the letterbox opening.
“The cueing of all the media is very precise,” says Flaherty, who notes that it is like following a musical score in that the live action can speed up or slow down from performance to performance, and the video needs to follow suit for a smooth integration of the two. “The script is tightly specified, but Hal and Jeff have the freedom to decide when to bring elements into a certain scene and decide how long they linger based on the tempo and energy of the performance on a given night and reacting to it, like a musical score with narrow pockets of improvisation,” Flaherty notes.
“This is a show about how technology affects culture and vice versa,” he continues. “Today you need sophisticated theatre and video technology in order to tell the stories about technology in people's lives. In this case, the technology is not foisted upon the storytelling: it seems very natural.” For Flaherty, Weems has successfully tapped into today's fascination with technology. “She is very aware of the impact that these images have on the audience,” he explains.
Lighting The Vision
Allen Hahn designed the lighting for Super Vision, in collaboration with LD Jennifer Tipton. Hahn has worked on several projects for The Builders Association and is aware of what he calls their “thematic relationship to technology and how it enhances us, how we negotiate it and deal with it.” He considers Super Vision to be “the most fully integrated physical manifestation of that idea. Video is an ever more present visual element of the company's work, especially in Super Vision where the performers are surrounded by projected data and information,” he notes.
Hahn's challenge as lighting designer was to deal with the constricted nature of the space and the screens without boundaries, as it were. “With just 6' of playing space between the screen upstage and the scrim panels downstage, there are a lot of places the light can't come from and a lot of things it can't do,” he says. As a result, there is virtually no angle other than sidelight. “Its focus is controlled carefully because of the video. In the story about the traveler, there's very little movement by the actor, so the light is cut much tighter. As his story progresses, his physical presence is reduced by diminishing the intensity of the light. The information projected around him becomes more present, and he disappears into a sea of data,” Hahn continues. “In the family scenes, where there is more movement by the actors on stage, there are more lights on at a time, and a broader portion of the stage is lit.”
The sidelight, coming from both sides of the stage, is used in various ways in the various tour venues. “We use their in-house equipment and try not to work against the nature of the space,” he notes. While he finds that overhead side positions are preferable (the further the light is from the screens, the cleaner the look, he adds), side ladders have also been employed. One of the only colors he uses is GAM 888 (Blue Belle, a ¾ CTB), a neutral blue, and to date, all of the venues have provided ETC Source Four fixtures. “The tech rider calls for the fixtures to preferably be Source Fours but at least fixtures of recent vintage and in top form, as well as bench-focused before they were hung and sharp on the shutter,” Hahn explains. “I realize this is a lot to ask,” he admits, “but I need to insist or half the tech time would be spent trying to contain the spill.”
The tour does not travel with a lighting console either, requesting one with at least 120 channels and two universes of DMX, as there are a few DMX devices such as color scrollers used to douse the video projectors when they are not in use.
The lighting elements that travel with the show are Color Kinetics IntelliWhite™ iW Profile fixtures (low-profile linear units). “These are used as fill for the actors' faces when they are shown in video close ups,” says Hahn. “The camera sees them from the front, but because I can only light them from the sides, I need these fixtures to keep the shadow down the middle of their faces at a level that works for the camera and allows us to see the expressions on their faces.” As things begin to get a bit creepy in the scene about identity theft, Hahn pulls down that fill light and allows the shadow from the sidelight to emerge on the father's face.
As there is very little color and few angles in the light plot, Hahn uses movement in the light to create transitions from scene to scene, yet there are slight color variations for each story to create a different look for each one. He uses a deeper blue (Roscolux 80, Primary Blue) in the traveler scenes, “to reinforce the impersonal nature of the situation,” he points out. “The grandmother scenes have a little pink (Lee 126 Mauve) under the white light and lower sidelight to help pop her forward, while in the family scenes, the intensity is pulled back more so that they fit more evenly into the realistic video backdrop. In this story, we push the actors back, while in other scenes, we pull them out. There is not a general uniformity throughout,” Hahn explains. “It is a delicate balance between the video and lighting the live actors.
“The exciting thing about this company is that the designers are not just in the loop, but in the room, at all times,” Hahn continues. “You can't make work like this from a script, then tech it. The process is one in which the script and the visual language are developed in tandem.”