There is something of the mad scientist about Jimmy Miklavcic, multimedia specialist at the University of Utah’s Center for High Performance Computing. But then his performing art group Another Language’s upcoming show, Loose Minds in a Box, pushes the envelope not just of audience expectations, but of the capabilities of today’s computer networks as well.
This rainy day in early April, however, it is network issues that frustrate Miklavcic’s attempts to coordinate a rehearsal. You see, Loose Minds is an attempt to answer a question the Firesign Theatre once posed: “How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?” Performers from six sites in four different time zones will interact through the magic of state-of-the-art computer technology, appearing together on a screen in the theater of the CHPC building. Remember that 1990s buzzword, “virtual reality?” Well, it’s still around, and its virtues are useful for more than just shoot-’em-up video games. An artist in Alaska can project paper-doll clothes onto actors onstage here in Utah. A guy in a “motion suit” at Purdue University in Indiana controls music emanating from Missoula, Mont. The group’s rehearsals and meetings are all online, too, and that’s what hung things up this afternoon.
Collaborators from as far away as College Park, Md., and Fairbanks, Alaska, will send video and sound via webcams and microphones to the CHPC’s central control room, where Miklavcic will mix it all together to create a spontaneous “interplay” both on screen and streaming live at AnotherLanguage.org/interplay. The results can’t be predicted, but he says that if the network doesn’t behave, there are still live actors on site. Miklavcic found collaborators through an online art group he founded, Artgrid. Artgrid in turn was an offshoot of Accessgrid.org, a site dedicated to uniting collaborators in scientific research rooted in these Ferraris of the computer world, with processors up to a tire-screeching 2 GHZ.
The tech can easily take over. “We want to keep going in the direction of honing the balance between technology and live performance,” Miklavcic says. The network is a young, tenuous, fragile technology, he reminds. “If we don’t start working on ways to stabilize it now, it will just get more difficult later.”
Why the box? For a performance like this, the concept has to be simple because the technology is so complex, he explains. It deals with constraints we put on ourselves and others, from the technology of the computer box to purely conceptual cages to the box that has traditionally been the space of the theatrical venue. As Miklavcic puts it, “We wanted to take our ideas of what art is, and what a venue is, explore them, and blow them wide open.” Performance can now take place across the space of the web, and Miklavcic intriguingly calls this a kind of “earthwork.” Different variations of the theme will be explored, he says, culminating in a vision of what might happen when minds are really “let loose.”
It’s interactive for the audience members as well, who are faced with the choice of five directions to aim their eyes. They can watch the videos projected on the wall in front of them, or observe Jimmy’s wife—Another Language Artistic Director Beth Miklavcic—in the closet behind them acting out the effect of sartorial options on identity. Jimmy’s dizzying choreography in the control room as he directs all this will also be open to view. Outside in the hallway, two computers can be used by audience members to move avatars—animated figures with boxes for heads—around the screen in the theater. And upstairs will find guest performer Eric Brown building a wall around himself, creating another metaphor of containment, also videoed down to the theater.
This performance is the third and most fully realized attempt at Another Language’s concept of “interplay.” “We want to establish this art form as an entity easily recognized,” Jimmy Miklavcic explains, adding that he hopes they can some day codify it into its own language—like screenplays or teleplays—complete with their own gestures and stage directions.
But for now they are just cutting loose, letting this new creature out of its box. It’s a fitting conclusion to the group’s 20-year anniversary. “We always wanted to be involved in technology, but our ideas were beyond our capabilities then,” he recalls. “We finally achieved what we set out to do.”
ANOTHER LANGUAGE: LOOSE MINDS IN A BOX University of Utah Intermountain Network & Scientific Computation Center, April 15-17. 585-9335