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The Space In Between

Back in 1999 I contributed to a listserv[er] discussion curated by Future Sonic (now Future Everything) entitled SenseSonic. We explored notions and perceptions of sonic space. In my provocation to initiate the week 6 discussion, I described my work in networked performance using teleconferencing and other technologies between 1995 and 1999. I’m reposting it here as a reference as I embark, in 2017/18, on new adventures in the space in between.

Session 6 of the SenseSonic digest will take us into new territory as Derek Richards from multimedia outfit HyperJAM explores the implications of virtual space for music and club events, and the ways in which people’s experience of sound and vision is disrupted when virtual and ‘real’ spaces are brought together. Music on the net has given rise to much excitement and celebration amongst digital artisans and an equal amount of paranoia amongst music industry execs. With his Club 21st Century Derek has experimented in taking the virtual domain beyond the interface of mouse and keyboard and connecting it with live performance and club environments, creating a cohesive event out of the intersection of fragmentary spaces and distant places. – Dr. Drew Hemmet, Curator SenseSonic 1999; Artistic Director, FutureSonic/FutureEverything

I will be dealing with the area commonly referred to as “on-line jamming”. Previous projects undertaken in this area include The Digital Slam – Digital Diaspora/ICA; Samhain [so.w.ann] (featuring the Afro Celt Sound System, Project 23 and Talvin Singh) – Club 21st Century/5th Province, and a live collaboration between Carl Craig in Detroit and 4 Hero in Nottingham – NOW98/HyperJAM.

The starting point for this work, with The Digital Slam in 1995, was an investigation into the role telematics and digital technology play in accelerating cultural syncretism through electronic migration. In reality the event was more spectacle than anything else, with very little real time collaboration involved – apart from an impressive duel between Cutmaster Swift and DJ Spooky and the “MIDI Jam” between Marque Gilmore in New York and Tony Remi in London with the audience examining the delayed video images from New York as evidence of it all being ‘real’.

Samhain was a modern celebration of an ancient Irish festival echoed in other cultures. According to pre-Celtic tradition, the festival was one of four “Quarter Day” festivals celebrated at the intersection of the four Irish provinces where, during the festival, the participants are in neither one place or another, but in the 5th Province – a conceptual, spiritual space. We chose to use teleconferencing technology for our celebration which raised new issues that I would like to discuss here.

Our ongoing experimentation in this area is concerned with the creation of a single virtual space out of the convergence of two (or more) distantly located physical spaces. When musicians perform together on a single stage, the space the work occupies is obvious and visible. The space the work occupies when the parts of the whole performance are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles of land and sea is not so apparent but can be heard.

  • What is the audience’s perception of this space?
  • Can they occupy it (through their engagement with the music)?
  • How do the artists relate to the work and therefore the space?
  • Res Rocket Surfer’s “DRGN” MIDI/IP software is based on MUD technology.

Virtual Reality: MUDs are the original text based virtual spaces of the Internet. Are networked collaborative sound environments to rendered 3D environments what radio plays are to television – allowing the audience/occupants to imagine the space?

In Sensesonic 3 Drew wrote (about monaural club sound): “… it [the Sub.merge club night at Cream during ISEA99] raises the question of whether we are dealing with two radically opposed experiences of sound, one which exploits sculptural effects, directed and positioned sound, and the other which works precisely because it is everywhere at once – the immersive, collective experience of dancing to a common beat.”

But if sound defines a space how do we locate that space or orient ourselves within it when the sound is “everywhere at once”. Ultimately visually. From the rock concert to the club with the DJ and MC, we locate the space and determine trajectory with the position of a performer. I know many of us like to talk about the (aspired to) democracy of a club space, but next time you’re out, check out which way the majority of the audience is facing.

This raises an interesting point about the role of visuals. Something which I have found both disconcerting and flattering at the same time, is when a significant proportion of the audience focuses on the visuals I am mixing to the extent that their bodies communicate their fixation. Often, when dancing, their pace slows, sometimes to a halt as they gaze up at the screen and become less (self)conscious of their moves [I don’t know about the visuals but some of the resulting movements make for great visual entertainment for me!]. I always use video (tape, computer generated and live camera) so that I can mix and manipulate live, working with the music, and this amount of attention often makes it difficult to just slap on a long tape to take a break at the bar!

More seriously, however, this experience informed my thinking when Andrew Chetti asked me to produce an event for the NOW98 festival in Nottingham which had Carl Craig performing from Detroit with 4 Hero at The Bomb in Nottingham. Andrew was interested in involving a group artists and research scientists from KTH in Stockholm, Sweden and from the University of Nottingham. Some of their research into collaborative virtual environments had led to the development of a system which allowed musicians to use MIDI information from electronic instruments to navigate a computer generated virtual world and manipulate objects within that world.

At previous events, the audience was able to see both (groups of) performers – one in the flesh as it were and the other a moving image on a video screen. If the positioning of the screen is thoughtfully designed – in relation to the performers and both in relation to the audience – then it is dislocation, the knowledge of some significant distance in between the performers, the sense of being caught between two spaces that disrupts the conventional approach to orientating oneself in a club and creates the “atmosphere” that James Flint described in Mute magazine. The hype (yes let’s face it) surrounding the technology and rarity of such an event places this sensation in the context of the excitement of the spectacle. (Why bother to consume any illegal substances!) For some the sensation affirms many popular, pseudo mystical notions of virtual space.

With the event in Nottingham, I wanted to investigate the idea of locating the space by creating a visual representation under the control of the mixed sound.

In Nottingham, for the most mundane of reasons – a removed plug(!), we failed to get the connection between the electronic music and the projected 3D visuals working. I think we would have encountered problems anyway with the nature of the images. With the Club 21st Century project “The Space In between”, I plan to revisit this project moving the UK physical venue to London, the birth place of 4 Hero’s genre – as Detroit is to Techno. This time we are commissioning a visual artist to think about the issues relating to the physical environments from which these musical genres emerged in creating 3D models for the VR system.

This is a genuine experiment as has been all of our previous work in this area. It could all just be another entertaining spectacle with some impressive visuals accompanying some storming music. Or we could succeed in disrupting the audience’s perception of the club space. With three months still to go before the event in October, this digest could provide some useful food for thought (and, hopefully, some practical suggestions) in preparation.

– Derek Richards, 1999.

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