Basic Programming

OP_ERA: Beginning to see the light

OP_ERA hangs a set of digital strings around three edges of a giant black box; it looks like a white-light cage, with one wall open so you can walk inside—the kind of thing you'd use to zap extras for dramatic effect on the original StarTrek.But OP_ERA isn't dangerous so much as frustrating, succeeding modestly as novel concept and spectacularly as implied but unrealized potential. As an OP_ERA user, you can tug those blocky digital strings to produce blocky digital tones, and then, as you wander back into the outside light, you can think about what other wonders the future of music must hold. Bleep-bloop-bleep.

Brazilian creators Daniela Kutschat and Rejane Cantoni call it a "confrontation that is not a confrontation," an attempt to capture and represent the philosophical and physical intersection of all sorts of important nerdy things: art and science and music, man and machine, sound and vision, light and dark, and on through lots of the meatiest intellectual dichotomies out there. Which is pretty ambitious, actually: one installation to do the work of ten, a neat nod to technological efficiency. The idea is to visually model a very complex and flexible set of data, to turn a set of numbers into something recognizable the same way that thunderstorms show up as scary red blobs on the TV weather maps or that heavy reggae songs show up as fractaled pulses on Windows Media Player. Except OP_ERA integrates the user's actions into the data, offering an interactivity most scientific visualization processes—which tend to be designed simply to aid passive monitoring—don't. And OP_ERA doesn't just make light but sound too.

But OP_ERA isn't much for synaesthetic glory: turns out these visualized sounds stop at the same place TRON started and PONG left off; they're as square and black-and-white as the keys on a piano. And OP_ERA performs more like a virtual harp than a piano: digitized strings on a screen, linked to electric-eye sensors in the floor or ceiling that—if you're close enough—sense when something passes over them. Wave a hand close enough and the strings on screen will vibrate into each other, and the speakers hanging from the ceiling will bleep you out a tone. Or just stand back and make a tone of your own—blow a harmonica, slide a bow over a violin, clap your hands; all tricks visitors have tried—and OP_ERA will wobble the string that's the closest fit (it does better with lower tones, explained the OP_ERA keeper on duty; a bass as opposed to a piccolo). And thus can you conduct your own 8-bit symphony, depending on how much dignity you're prepared to drop and what sort of calisthenics you're ready to commit to: the OP_ERA scale mirrors in the middle, so hopping between low notes and high without awkward interruption is gonna take a partner or a confident 8-foot pirouette. So bleep-bloop-bleep and . . . uh, is that it?

Well, yeah, admitted a Beall staffer. The OP_ERA installations back in Brazil are the firecrackers, colliding pixeled waves of sound into more and more sophisticated hybrid forms—circle to square to dodecahedron—and finally to what the artists call the "fourth dimension," where the user fully enters the system as a particle, an apparently immersive experience that launches OP_ERA into an orgasm of spirals and lines. That climaxes as a visual and sonic feedback loop with the user at the core, and that particular incarnation of OP_ERA is not the one at Beall. Instead, since this is the first time the exhibit has traveled, Kutschat and Cantoni kept it simple—for logistic reasons? Don't know, but . . . black box. Bleep-bloop-bleep. That's it.

The ideas behind OP_ERA aren't necessarily new—an Irish team unveiled a similar interactive dance floor called LiteFoot in 1999—but this is still the Marianas Trench of art and science, a relatively unexplored field that could develop into an entirely new way to create and interpret music. OP_ERA presages an evolution of dance that changes human movement from accompaniment or interpretation of sound to the instrument itself, the body as a thing to be played. How futuristic: dance and music made one, a performance that changes as it is performed, movement that creates new music that demands new movement and on and on inside that loop. Imagine: a performer whose every action connects to a sound, a sound that demands a new action, which makes a new sound, and so on—what a new discipline that would be, a music that would change improvisation into structure and back in the same echo-response fashion. In 100 years, the principles of OP_ERA will make for free jazz in outer space. But that's a long way off. Right now, you can try it yourself in Irvine: strum a string, move as the tone moves you, strike a new string, and so on. But it gets boring kind of fast. Bleep-bloop-bleep; the future is now. So far.


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